Tomorrow's Towns

November 9, 2001

By Michael Jessen

What will our communities look like in the future? Now is the time to ask. While development may not be a pressing issue in all communities, anyone who keeps an eye on the headlines in Nelson knows that the matter of civic planning is the Heritage City's favourite bone of contention.

Even though you may not currently be concerned with the direction your community planning is headed, you could be, possibly sooner than you think.

Here's a few statistics and trends to consider: The West Kootenay population is expected to grow by a third within the next 25 years. The nation's wave of city-living baby boomers are beginning to look for rural retirement properties, places to spend their savings and RRSPs. The demographic in the United States most likely to travel -- 45 to 60 age group -- is going to increase by 10 million people in the next ten years.

In this week's column, I report on a public community planning conference held in Nelson last weekend. While it focused on that city in particular, the concepts and ideas shared at the conference relate to concerned citizens and community planning everywhere.

Housing on the airstrip; an art gallery in the diesel shop; a salmon hatchery on Cottonwood Creek; and a streetcar line along the entire waterfront and looping through downtown. Gone are the transfer station, the city works yard, and the cement plant.

Those were just some of the visions of Nelson's future invoked by 30 residents Saturday during an all-day charrette to design development of the city's waterfront. Although split into five teams, the focus groups produced remarkably similar plans.

Acting like a think tank, the citizen planners came to a consensus about what Nelson should look like in 50 or 100 years. They also agreed on many unique qualities of Nelson that should be reflected in any future development.

The population has increased to 30,000 and a lot of those people are living in a variety of housing on the city's waterfront lands. But it is also a place to work and play. There are parks, walkways, pubs, and restaurants. Retail stores are on the ground level with housing above. An eco-industrial park provides many new jobs. There is a waterfront environmental interpretation centre.

An audience of 160 assembled Saturday night to see the results of the visioning exercise. They also heard presentations from developer Harold Kalke and architect Joost Bakker.

The event was part of the Designing Communities Lecture Series organized by Jack Anderson and sponsored by Selkirk College and the Nelson District Community Resources Society. Kalke, who gave an inspiring talk during a visit last year, began by praising the beauty of Nelson.

"I am just amazed at the uniqueness of the streets, the houses," he said. "The place is gently fitted into the environment." He stressed the need to establish design principles, a mission and a vision to guide strategies for waterfront development.

Saying he had looked at Nelson's Official Community Plan, Kalke added that someone is not paying attention to it with regard to existing and proposed waterfront development.

Bakker also praised Nelson, saying he was particularly impressed with the vitality and diversity of Baker Street.

Both Kalke and Bakker emphasized the importance of guiding the inevitable future waterfront growth. "Focus on the occupants," said Kalke. "Design the built environment for the occupants."

"Build for residents, not tourists," said Bakker. "The tourists will come if it works for the residents."

They each also accented the need for public involvement. "Make sure you have enormous community participation," said Bakker. "This is a long term enterprise."

"Infect the maximum number of people that have anything to do with the future of the community," said Kalke. "Talk about the future of Nelson at your dinner table."

One of the focus groups had an area at the western end of the waterfront set aside for "big box" stores where they would be closer to major highways. "We need to anticipate alternate locations for stuff that comes by default," said one of the team members.

Bakker said it is possible to accommodate a big box store in a manner conducive to the community.

"Don't underestimate your negotiating power with big box developers," Bakker added. "You have more strength and clout with them than you may realize."

Members of the city's Advisory Planning Commission and chair Ted Ryan said he learned a lot from the visioning exercise. The commission is to report to city council next March what principles should guide waterfront development.

In the meantime, the commission will conduct additional public consultation to gain further input. Kalke said this was just the starting day. "Don't lose the momentum."

"Growth -- get ready for it and it will come, especially since post-September 11," concluded Kalke. "Good growth will come, you just haven't embraced it yet."

ONE SMALL STEP - Think about what is important about your community. Be precise about what you want to preserve. Image the kind of growth and development that you want. Communicate all this the local planning commission and city council. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

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