New vi­sion needed for Water­ton

GUEST COL­UMN

Lethbridge Herald - - READER’S FORUM - Al Lubkowski

As a for­mer town­site plan­ner for Parks Canada, I dis­agree with Parks Canada’s cur­rent plans to build an in­ter­pre­tive build­ing in the Water­town town­site. I would be more sup­port­ive if traf­fic and park­ing is­sues were first solved. And even more sup­port­ive if this build­ing were to be lo­cated out­side the town­site in con­junc­tion with an in­for­ma­tion cen­tre and re­lated ser­vices.

In the 40 years since I wrote the first of­fi­cial plan for the town­site, I have ob­served that traf­fic has be­come much worse, and even more dis­ap­point­ing, that much more of the town­site (in­clud­ing the wa­ter­front) has be­come cov­ered over with as­phalt and parked ve­hi­cles. In­stead of be­com­ing more of a walk­ing and pedes­trian-friendly com­mu­nity, as was ad­vo­cated in the 1974 plan, the town­site has be­come more of a park­ing lot, one that would make any shop­ping cen­tre, much less a national park in North Amer­ica, proud. Propos­ing an in­ter­pre­tive build­ing which would fur­ther add to this con­ges­tion, rather than lessen it, and re­moves valu­able open space in the cen­tre of town, makes no sense.

What I be­lieve is needed now — es­pe­cially in view of the fires that have oc­curred — is a new vi­sion for the park and town­site, which features an imag­i­na­tive long-term strat­egy for han­dling the ever grow­ing traf­fic and con­ges­tion which can be ex­pected. Un­less this is done, and done soon, Parks Canada’s man­date for pro­tect­ing this park’s valu­able and unique nat­u­ral features will be im­per­illed.

The re­cent con­tro­versy gen­er­ated by towns­peo­ple and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups over lo­cat­ing this “land­mark” in­ter­pre­tive/ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing in the town cen­tre might, in con­junc­tion with the re­cent de­struc­tion of the in­for­ma­tion cen­tre by fire, be a bless­ing in dis­guise. Why not use this as an op­por­tu­nity to come up with a plan for lo­cat­ing both the in­ter­pre­tive/in­for­ma­tion build­ing/s in a lo­ca­tion out­side the town­site where these would not only serve vis­i­tors bet­ter, but pro­vide for a more imag­i­na­tive and cre­ative long-term solution?

To this end, I would rec­om­mend up­dat­ing the 2000 Of­fi­cial Town­site Plan for Water­town, with special em­pha­sis given to solv­ing the traf­fic and park­ing prob­lems af­fect­ing the park and en­hanc­ing park in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Chief among these so­lu­tions would be to ex­plore op­tions not only for lo­cat­ing a new vis­i­tor in­for­ma­tion and in­ter­pre­tive cen­tre out­side the town­site, but pos­si­bly also for in­tro­duc­ing a vis­i­tor bus shut­tle from this satel­lite cen­tre to the town­site and to the rest of the park. The vis­i­tor shut­tle ser­vice con­cept has been in­tro­duced suc­cess­fully in many North Amer­i­can parks, in­clud­ing Canada, and Water­ton’s unique town­site and dead-end lo­ca­tion could es­pe­cially ben­e­fit from this con­cept.

Imag­ine the ben­e­fits if this in­for­ma­tion and in­ter­pre­tive build­ing were lo­cated at the park gates on the bound­ary of the park and vis­i­tors were to park their ve­hi­cles here and be shut­tled by bus into the park. For starters, more of the park and town­site could be left in a more nat­u­ral state and the park in­ter­pre­tive ex­pe­ri­ence could in­clude the short grass prairie ecosys­tem. Such a move to a satel­lite lo­ca­tion for these vis­i­tor ser­vices might even add an el­e­ment of safety from fu­ture haz­ards such as fire, re­quir­ing quick evac­u­a­tion. In any event, by dra­mat­i­cally less­en­ing the traf­fic and con­ges­tion through­out the park, such a shut­tle sys­tem could in­tro­duce a fresh air of tran­quil­ity to this park, pro­vid­ing vis­i­tors with a more nat­u­ral ex­pe­ri­ence over­all. Not only would a re­duc­tion in traf­fic and de­pen­dence on the au­to­mo­bile min­i­mize speed­ing and road kill, and in­crease park in­ter­pre­ta­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties, but most im­por­tantly, help re­deem much of the nat­u­ral open space, flora and fauna , which slowly but in­creas­ingly is be­ing dis­placed from the town­site.

The de­vel­op­ment of park in­for­ma­tion as well as in­ter­pre­tive fa­cil­i­ties at a satel­lite lo­ca­tion near the park bound­aries could lead to other ben­e­fits not yet imag­ined. So might re­lo­cat­ing some if not all of the RV camp­ing in the town­site to this lo­ca­tion do the same: Such a strat­egy would open up a large area of land for day use, and more im­por­tantly, take the pres­sure off the town­site, whose man­date ap­pears to be to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery body and ev­ery ve­hi­cle at any cost. And as we have seen, shut­ting down a park at peak pe­ri­ods is not a good solution.

The de­graded camp­ing en­vi­ron­ment in the RV section of the town­site is one re­sult of try­ing to cater to trends for ac­com­mo­dat­ing ever larger such ve­hi­cles and trail­ers. If fa­cil­i­ties for these campers were to be built out­side park bound­aries, but still ad­ja­cent to this satel­lite cen­tre pro­posed, the re­sources of the pri­vate sec­tor and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment might well be tapped, and the park camp­ing op­por­tu­nity and ex­pe­ri­ence for all campers im­proved, and at least “cost” to the park to boot.

It is ap­par­ent that ve­hic­u­lar ac­cess for cot­tage res­i­dents, for those rent­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion in the town­site, and es­pe­cially for those pro­vid­ing nec­es­sary ser­vices will con­tinue to be re­quired and need to be pro­vided for. The tech­nol­ogy now ex­ists to do this con­ve­niently but the big­gest chal­lenge for lim­it­ing ve­hic­u­lar ac­cess will be to con­vince vis­i­tors there are ben­e­fits to be gained by leav­ing their ve­hi­cles be­hind, and to de­sign fa­cil­i­ties and park ser­vices at a qual­ity and price which demon­strates that.

As for present non-mo­tor­ized trans­porta­tion, it should not only thrive if ve­hi­cles are lim­ited, and be ex­pected to ex­pand far be­yond the bikes and pedi­cabs now en­joyed. But think about how con­ve­nient and pop­u­lar these trans­porta­tion op­tions might be­come and how more peace­ful and at­trac­tive the town­site could be as a re­sult? And fi­nally, get­ting more peo­ple out of their cars when in the park and hav­ing them ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the park while us­ing their legs in­stead of their cars, might a ma­jor un­der­ly­ing ben­e­fit of this shut­tle con­cept.

I hope this let­ter of mine “jump starts” some fresh new think­ing on how we can en­sure a bet­ter fu­ture for Water­ton Lakes National Park. Re­turn­ing to the con­cept of fos­ter­ing a “walk­ing life pace” to the town­site, which was the ba­sic theme of my orig­i­nal of­fi­cial plan should be re­vis­ited with vigour and imag­i­na­tion!

Al Lubkowski is a for­mer town­site plan­ner for Water­ton Lakes National Park who now re­sides in Vic­to­ria, B.C.

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