Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge in BC are up at the 55th parallel. That sounds high, although it’s about Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Riga and Moscow’s latitude. However, the first few of those Europeans must benefit from a Gulf Stream or other effect, and even the coldest of the Europeans hang around -5ºC on average and don’t get nearly as much snow. Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge get typical winter days of -10ºC and 40 inches of snow per month.
I’m interested in cold, northern urbanism because there’s a bit of a commodity boom on in northern BC and I’d like the new instatowns to survive it well. Specifically I’d like the towns that are left over when the boom ends to be like little Swiss hiking and skiing villages, or even like northern mid-sized Scandinavian towns and cities. I’d like them to have well-built and well-arranged buildings that the young pioneer creatives, as well as old retirees, can move into.
My starting assumption is that a diverse economy needs a diverse population and a diverse building stock, but even more crudely it needs a lot of T4 and T5 mixed-use sharing walls and on thin streets connected to pleasant squares.
To put an image in your mind, the model city design I’d be going for would be a ski resort. You’d deal with snowfall the way these towns do, by putting the main entrance up a few steps, compacting the fallen snow and walking on top of it.
As a rule, you build tight and cosy and close together, sharing walls for warmth. You have skinny (10-20ft wide) short (max 200ft of view) nicely-lit streets for cosiness and wind shelter, and a few open squares for eating and drinking in direct summer sun - for those who aren’t out hiking the surrounding natural beauty.
Keen to learn more about current and past town-building practice, I read a book called “Building Community in an Instant Town: A Social Geography of Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia" by Greg Halseth and Lana Sullivan. They’re academics, and the book is published by the University of Northern BC (UNBC) so the structure is stilted and repetitive, not a Gladwellian populist read.
The book was published in 2002, which is 6 years after the Charter of the New Urbanism was signed, 41 years after Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life and 99 years after the death of Camillo Sitte, whose 1889 book on planning pointed out that the urban room is absolutely central to city planning.
Let’s dive in!
“The planning of resource-based instant towns has, since 1950, become a sophisticated and costly undertaking,” the authors write. It is cheering to hear that funding is not an issue, although as Chuck Marohn points out regularly, funding should never be a barrier to good urbanism.
“Lessons from past company towns had shown the need to create a stable and viable community.” Also encouraging. As above, my starting assumption is that such a community is built on a diversity of building forms arranged close together to encourage mingling of people from all walks of life, of all ages. “It was intended that the town and the houses in it should be of a standard which would attract competent people to come and to stay.” So a real emphasis on placemaking. Great!
“The townsite was built using new town planning principles. The first of these principles involved the separation of the industrial complex from the residential and commercial areas.” So far, so obvious: industrial in a Special District (SD), distinct from the T3-to-T5 town. One red flag for the use-based definition of areas.
Unfortunately, we then meet this plan. Blobs of single-use zoning pods, with little indication of outdoor room creation.
Single family housing separated from multifamily, and both separated from services. Little indication of outdoor-room creation, or clustering of buildings and uses around thin streets and enclosed squares.
The text below this oddity reads: “A second design principle in Mackenzie involved the creation of distinct residential neighbourhoods around a central town plaza.”
Since a ‘neighborhood’ is by definition mixed in uses and built forms, I suppose a residential neighbourhood might be one that is residentially dominated, but is nevertheless around a smaller commercial street or square. A central town plaza sounds nice, if a little grand for a village centre. I’m picturing this:
"Distinctive residential neighbourhoods surround the central commercial core. These include clusters of mobile home sites and three-story apartments, interspersed among suburban style neighbourhoods of single detached houses.”
"There were some problems, however, in transplanting a suburban, southern Canadian residential landscape design into a northern location. Long driveways, low density housing, and large distances between homes and stores or services proved less than well suited to the heavy snowfalls experienced in Mackenzie.”
This image is captioned “Mackenzie Essentials”.
On the bottom is the Commercial Core, which appears to be a single-story mall with acres of parking out front, no attempt at street enclosure and not much sign of a plaza. The top image, with the appealingly windowless walls and chain-link fence, is not a prison but a “neighbourhood” elementary school.
"The first Official Community Plan for Mackenzie resembles a more condensed version of most contemporary community plan documents in BC. The overall intent of the plan was clearly to create a livable town.” Remember this is being written in 2002 with all the benefits of hindsight, and abundant examples of liveable towns globally. Sounds promising, eh?
"The plan map shows the boundaries of the town [ooh, an urban growth boundary: very progressive] as well as the proposed location of different types of land uses. For example, areas are designated for residential, commercial, services, trades, institutional and government, industrial and green space zones.” Hmm. Incompatible uses should separated, but outlawing corner stores ain’t gonna fly.
"The plan specified that the town would be compact and oriented to a strong central core area.” I’m not sure how ‘compact’ is defined exactly.
Here’s a compact mountain village:
(That second one’s Whistler, by the way, so the street is a bit too wide.)
"Like Mackenzie, Tumbler Ridge is an instant town created by the provincial government. The goal was to achieve as soon as possible, a politically functioning, financially viable, well-planned community with a high level of services.”
Good stuff. Again, to meet those goals, I’m hoping to turn the page and see enclosed outdoor rooms formed by durable, loveable, adaptable buildings offering space for a mix of uses per block with an infrastructure-to-tax-base (asphalt-to-buildings, most visibly) ratio that is financially viable and resilient, i.e. thin streets.
"Provincial government planners sought to create a resilient community that would be adaptable to changing conditions." Good plan: that again means buildings that can be repurposed depending on market needs, and it means short frontages close together, where entrepreneurs can cheaply experiment and try out new businesses.
"Tumbler Ridge was also built using new town planning principles.” Goody! As long as by new, you mean really old. “This included the separation of the industrial development from the residential and commercial areas." Yawn, yes, of course.
"As in Mackenzie, the town plan called for distinct residential neighbourhoods around a central town plaza.” Uh oh. “The difference is that Tumbler Ridge’s town centre is very much concentrated and amenable to pedestrian access.” Ooh, this sounds interesting!
Here’s the picture:
I guess I can see the attempt made, but really: zero enclosure, car dominated. I certainly wouldn’t want to walk that sidewalk on sub-zero windy days.
"Immediately adjacent to the town centre are a number of three or four story apartments." This tells us that there’s no precise aversion or technical reason not to build height. Frankly I’d be sticking at two or three stories for a town this size, but I’d be sticking the buildings together, sharing walls and creating thin streets with active ground floors.
"Around these are large tracts of suburban style single-family housing neighbourhoods." Aw, man.
"The Tumbler Ridge planning team sought to create a functioning economic, civic and civil society. The emphasis upon a stable workforce is linked to the observation that population instability in resource towns is a major factor producing lower quality healthcare and education, fewer service facilities and barriers to the formation of social ties.”
Yes! Spot on with your diagnosis! And yet.. and yet they’re building the dispersed city - what gives?!
"The planners had the idea that people should relocate to Tumbler Ridge for more than just economic reasons. Efforts were made to provide a range of goods, services and housing options to increase residential satisfaction. Choice extended to employment as well, including pro-active efforts by the mining companies to hire women into traditional male occupations.”
"Neighbourhoods should be designed for their households. For example, a single-family neighbourhood of detached houses should be ready, easy and safe access to elementary schools so that young children would not have to cross busy streets. Where possible, residential areas should be within walking distance to shopping.”
Gaargh! A neighbourhood is defined as an area within a five minute walk: that’s a walking distance. Of course there shouldn’t be stroads of fast cars scything through neighborhoods: avenues define an edge! And how on earth have you got the traffic for an avenue anyway?
And a single-family neighbourhood is practically an oxymoron! Sure have streets of T3, but connect each of them to a T4 street please! Heck, the T4 could be ‘single-family’ rowhouses, but apparently that’s not even in the toolkit: it’s detached bungalow or four-storey apartment.
And that phrase: “where possible”. What an extraordinary phrase in a town that’s being 100% built from scratch.
Now, fine, these towns were built in the ’70s when gas was cheap and freeway motordom was flavour of the month. I get that the period 1950-1990 was a bit of a crazy anti-community funk, urban design wise. But this book, the commentary, is written in 2002! The new millennium! How can anyone talk about walkability, plazas, a complete mixed community with a straight face, let alone scholars whose life work is apparently dedicated to the study of community and built forms that support it!
Imagine if small town northern BC aped Swiss or Japanese villages that have survived millennia. Imagine if they provided lots of little storefronts for lots of little businesses to try out, with the owners living above them. Imagine if people came up to ski at Powder King but actually enjoyed drinking and eating the village square so much that they clocked off early most days, just to get the atmosphere. Imagine if you could get off the overnight bus from Vancouver, safe in the knowledge you’d be perfectly happy to walk around the little narrow, protected, streets of cute and warm Mackenzie village. From your chalet apartment, to the choice of restaurants and bars, to the tourist shops and the locals shops and bars hidden around the corner that they don’t tell you about.
January in Japan from Scott Gold on Vimeo.