British Columbia

This winter light display is so popular, it's causing pedestrian traffic jams

Pedestrian traffic jams, parking woes — both oft-heard complaints during the holidays. But they're not usually due to a free light display.

'During the peak in the evening ... it gets pretty crowded,' says Coquitlam's parks manager

The caterpillar tunnel is one of the many lighted decorations adorning a walking circuit at Lafarge Lake in Coquitlam's Town Centre Park. (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

Pedestrian traffic jams, parking woes — both oft-heard complaints during the holidays. But they're not usually due to a free light display. 

Enter — Lights at Lafarge.

"I won't say it caught us by surprise, but ... we've been kind of trying to keep up with the popularity of it," said Kathleen Reinheimer, the parks manager for the City of Coquitlam. 

With approximately 400,000 bulbs and a variety of displays that can be viewed as part of a 1.2-kilometre circuit through Coquitlam's Town Centre Park and around little Lafarge Lake, the event has become the largest free outdoor light display in the Lower Mainland.

And something about all the multi-coloured lights in a dark park has led to a popularity boom. 

Many of the lanterns in Coquitlam's winter lights display have been built by community members. (City of Coquitlam)

Not that the city is complaining, of course. But it also wasn't part of any plan. 

'Huge appetite' in the community

Coquitlam began putting up a few lights in the park five years ago after a previous light display — run by an outside organization as a charitable fundraiser — ended. 

"They came to the end of that and council thought, 'Okay, that's too bad, we don't want that to stop.' So that was replaced by a city event that in the first couple years happened at city hall," said Reinheimer. 

"Along with that we put a few lights in trees where there was already power."

Reinheimer says those initial displays drew a positive community response, and the event grew organically from there.

"I think what makes this a little different than other Christmas light displays is that it's intentionally a winter light experience encouraging people to get outside and walk," said Reinheimer.

"It was very clear that there was a huge appetite in the community for this."

Five years on, and Lights at Lafarge now costs about $80,000.

The city keeps the lights burning seven nights a week for eight weeks — this year they're running from Nov. 25 to Jan. 21, 2018.

There are now roughly 400,000 lights that make up the display in Coquitlam's Town Centre Park. (City of Coquitlam)

City staff are diverted from their regular jobs for an intense two-week set up period, and many of the displays have been enthusiastically created by community members out of recycled water bottles, something Reinheimer says has been a bit surprising. 

"People will line up in the cold, like last year in the snow people were lining up for 20 minutes to make a lantern to then put in the display," she said.

"We seem to have tapped into kind of a low-effort way for people to feel like they're involved and that builds that sense of community."

'Anywhere people stop becomes a bottleneck'

So many people now come out to see the lights every night and walk through the park that it can become a bit overwhelming. 

"Our biggest concern is that right now, during the peak in the evening which is usually between about 6 and 9, it gets pretty crowded," said Reinheimer.

"And so at some point, you know, anywhere people stop becomes a bottleneck," she said. 

Coquitlam's parks manager says the display has been so popular this year that when people stop for a photo, it can result in a pedestrian traffic jam. (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

Reinheimer says they're bringing in more portable washrooms and stepping up parking control, which she describes as a bit of a novelty in a place like Coquitlam, where space hasn't been much of a challenge before. 

She insists, though, there are plenty of times when the park isn't as busy, particularly after 9 p.m. PT on weeknights. 

The Lights at Lafarge has now grown to be the largest free outdoor winter light display in the Lower Mainland. (City of Coquitlam)

And the city is embracing the crowds and its newfound popularity.

"It's fantastic," she said. "I think what it does is show us we're on the mark, we're delivering the kind of experience that people are appreciating."