New vision needed for Waterton
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.