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Urban Compass Calgary

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High River shows how any city can reduce car dependency

After the Alberta town was devastated by a flood, a rare opportunity to re-invent itself emerged.

After the 2013 floods, High River designed its downtown around pedestrians.

Jeremy Klaszus / For Metro

After the 2013 floods, High River designed its downtown around pedestrians.

In High River, as in every city and town, change is hard.

Exhibit A: On 4 Ave downtown, recently rebuilt as a woonerf—a Dutch-style shared street that prioritizes people over cars—an SUV pulls into a new curbside flowerbed while parallel parking.

Mayor Craig Snodgrass looks on, shaking his head.

Exhibit B: Snodgrass himself, who once doubted that High River could ever have a walkable downtown like this.

Snodgrass is perhaps Alberta’s most unlikely urbanist. Elected in 2013 after a flood devastated the town, the fourth-generation High River resident and funeral director was unconvinced when he first saw plans for the new downtown.

4 Avenue in downtown High River, built in a Dutch-style woonerf.

Jeremy Klaszus / for Metro

4 Avenue in downtown High River, built in a Dutch-style woonerf.

Gone were the car-centric wide roads, narrow sidewalks and angle parking everyone was used to. The plans showed the opposite: narrow streets, wide sidewalks and limited parallel parking. New lots will be built adjacent to downtown, so people walk in.

“I went, ‘You can’t do that,’” he recalls.

Since then, he’s done a 180. “It’s absolute BS,” he says of his original misgivings. “You can do it, and I don’t care if you’re High River, Calgary, or Cayley, Alberta. You can do it—and it’s the right thing to do.”

I met Snodgrass outside Colossi's Coffee House, where you can still see a faded line on the wall from the floodwaters.

Around us, a transformation is underway with construction in its final stages. Trees, sidewalk patios, laneways between buildings: The new High River is built for people on foot.

A busker picked a blues lick beside us. Moms with strollers went by. Vendors set up for an on-street farmer’s market.

What changed for Snodgrass? “I needed to get educated,” he says. “And the more I read, it was just a no-brainer. Every community is looking at these changes that we’ve done.”

4 Avenue in downtown High River - the new concept is designed to be regularly closed to cars for markets, festivals and other events.

Jeremy Klaszus / for Metro

4 Avenue in downtown High River - the new concept is designed to be regularly closed to cars for markets, festivals and other events.

The flood gave High River a rare opportunity. The town had two things most municipalities don’t: a blank slate and cash. Streets had to be ripped up to replace infrastructure ruined by the flood. And the province footed the rebuild bill.

“At the end of the day, I want to look back and say, ‘You know what? That flood was the best thing for the future of this town,’” says Snodgrass. “And I think that’s where we’re at.”

The new streetscapes have been a culture shift for locals. Some business owners, frustrated with construction and loss of parking stalls out front, have moved elsewhere. Emotions have gotten heated. Town council has been accused of being anti-car.

“It’s been a long grind,” Snodgrass says. “You’re never going to convince everybody. But you need to have that vision of what the end product’s going to look like and you’ve got to be disciplined and committed enough to see it through.”

“It’s not about ‘anti-vehicle.’ It’s not that. It’s just, you want people in your downtown? You better make it comfortable for people.”

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