The 180

After flood, a truck-loving Alberta town goes walkable

In 2013, flooding in Alberta hit the town of High River particularly hard. But the devastation of the flood gave the town, and its mayor Craig Snodgrass, a chance to re-think its design.
Flooding in the High River area of Hampton Hills. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
Listen9:56

The downtown of High River now looks more like a European square than a small Alberta town.

Flooding in the summer of 2013 devastated the town, but also provided an opportunity: a blank slate and some funds to rebuild.

Now, the design of the town is less focused on cars. There is less street parking, the sidewalks are wider and lined with benches and flowers.

Craig Snodgrass, the mayor of High River, says that it was a much needed change.

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

What did the downtown of High River look like before the floods?

Very, very vehicle centred environment. Angle parking everywhere, one-way streets...catered to vehicles primarily — which in turn provided us with a thriving service industry with your banks and doctors and dentists etc — but a failing retail and restaurant environment.

So pretty much like every small town in Alberta?

Half-tons and duallys everywhere, you bet. And it's not uncommon. This is Alberta, it's a province that's oil and gas centred and therefore we center our lives around vehicles. And that's just something that has to change. To note, for downtown High River this wasn't anti-vehicle or anything like that ...it's just re-allocating them off of your street. 

Your downtown should not be your parking lot.

How did you feel about these plans when you first heard about them?

I thought I was going to lose my head from the people around here that I grew up with if I tried to pull this off. Yeah, when I first heard about it, I didn't that we'd be able to do this and that was short lived after I started looking at the plans a bit more and started talking to our consultants. ..It's a no-brainer when you actually open your mind to change and looking at better ways at doing things.

Where did the inspiration for this come from?

I think a lot of the inspiration for these streetscapes do come from what they've done in Europe. 

I know when this was tried about 15-20 years ago in High River, the big sentiment was, 'You can't do that in Canada,  you can't do it in Alberta and you can't do that in High River because that's European ideas and it just won't work here' — and that attitude has held us back for far too long.

This is the environment that most communities in North America are starting to look at this because we are starting to see the failures of urban planning and design that were developed in the 50s and 60s where everybody got all excited because everybody now owned a vehicle. I'm not going to hash back and say they did it wrong, but I think we always have to look back and question the way things were done previously and assess whether they worked or not and will they work for the next fifty years?

How are the small-town, big truck residents of High River reacting?

It's been a long journey to bring them with us and it hasn't been without it's very very hard times going through this, but now that it's done and people are seeing the trees and they're able to actually experience the finished product, the tide has completely shifted to a much more positive attitude towards this change and everyone's really excited to see the final leg of construction done this summer.

You're never going to satisfy everybody. Do the right things and don't cater to the negative minority.

What are you saying to the people who still won't accept these changes?

We had to look at this as a community thing and if you get mired, like many politicians do, in catering to the negative minority, you will end up doing nothing. That is just the way it rolls because there are always people who are going to be against everything you do.

It doesn't matter, even when we built the berms and dikes in this town to save this town, there was people who didn't like it. Shocking and astonishing to me, but that's the reality of life. There's always people that aren't in favour of what you're doing. So you have to look at it in a whole community, what's the best for your community and make those decisions and don't let five people rule the roost.

Click the play button above to hear the full interview with Craig Snodgrass

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