Mountain towns look to strike balance between residents and tourists

Mountain and Resort Town Planners Summit ran Nov. 28 through Dec. 1. Topics included affordable housing, managing growth, living with wildlife and planning across boundaries.

Planners talked affordable housing, living with wildlife, among other topics at summit in Canmore

Town planners met in Canmore, Alta., this week to discuss how to help tourists and locals live symbiotically. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

City planners, designers, conservationists, academics and community activists met in Canmore this week to talk how to strike a balance between the millions of tourists that pass through mountain towns and the thousands of residents that live and work in them.

The Mountain and Resort Town Planners Summit ran Nov. 28 through Dec. 1. Topics included affordable housing, managing growth, living with wildlife and planning across boundaries.

"The influx of tourists is probably the most defining characteristics of mountain and resort towns," said Zachariah Levine, a community and economic development director in Utah and a PhD student in regional planning. 

Levine said the positive and negative impacts that show how tourism impacts town growth over the years are fascinating to students, especially when it comes to impacts people might not even consider, like advertising.

Doug Leighton, who was hired to establish the Town of Banff's planning department when it was incorporated in 1990, has watched the town deal with a growing influx of tourists over the years.

"I've seen Banff go from a small summer resort to a major international year-round resort, and it reinforces to me the power of good planning and design to accommodate that influx and also maintain the quality," he said.

How do you make it available for everybody while preserving that small-town feel, while still making it affordable for people to live there?- Christine Colbert, journalist and former mountain town resident

Layton said he thinks Banff is doing the right thing by being proactive, like building a visitor database to track how much time visitors spend in the town and how often they return during the year, or monitoring traffic so they can adjust signals before backups happen.

He also said the town tries to offset the high housing costs by sinking funding into programs for locals like childcare or art programs.

More than 2.5 million people visited Banff National Park last year. Just around 14,000 people live in Canmore and only 7,800 in Banff.

Journalist Christine Colbert said she spent years living in resort towns in Idaho, but she had to leave when visitor influx became too much to handle.

"How do you make it available for everybody while preserving that small-town feel, while still making it affordable for people to live there?" she asked.

"Most people try to hang on as long as they can, especially when they love a town and try to make it work … it has to do with gumption, luck, hard work and what you're willing to put yourself through."

Banff National Park saw 2.5 million visitors in 2017, while around 14,000 people live in Canmore, pictured, and about 7,800 call Banff home. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

One strategy for residents feeling overwhelmed by tourism is to find ways to keep little pieces of their town to themselves.

"There's a group in Whistler, I know of a guerrilla group of mountain bikers who go and create their own trails in the woods and they're not on any maps," Layton said.

"And from having worked in New Zealand I know there are a number of semi-secret bars and restaurants on the back alleys of Queenstown, which have very small signs and are kind of secret to locals … I think it happens spontaneously and I think it's great."

About the Author

Sarah Rieger

Reporter

Sarah Rieger joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at sarah.rieger@cbc.ca, or securely via the Signal messaging app at 403.542.1458.

With files from Helen Pike