by Renate Schmidt
Whitehorse was always a beautiful city, but it has come a long way in the past decade. Although like all old-timers I’m a bit nostalgic for the “old days” when it felt less urban, I also think recent development projects like the Millennium Trail, Shipyards Park and the Canada Games Centre have been excellent additions.
Whitehorse’s slogan is the “The Wilderness City.” We’ve always had a beautiful wilderness, but such projects have gone a long way to upping our merits as a city. And I think we should promote our urban attributes just as we do our natural ones.
City council is responsible for our urban development. They recently announced a plan to tackle vacant lots, which I think is a great idea, but instead of one-off plans, I’d like to see council establish a broader vision for Whitehorse, and a strategy for its achievement.
Let’s start at the global level. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we have many examples of cities not only in Canada but from all over the world upon which to draw. People who live in Whitehorse are well-travelled and I assume have experienced many cities they would consider great.
So what makes a city great?
Encouraging creative architecture and expanding designated public green space are general ideas we should incorporate into our municipal vision for the future. One such green space could be a pedestrian zone in downtown Whitehorse.
In many ways, architecture sets the tone of a city. Buildings should be inspiring, designed by architects that have a vision and create spaces that are not only functional but also pleasing to look at. I challenge our contractors to try follow Gaudi’s lead – a great Spanish architect around 1900 who designed remarkable buildings. Unfortunately, I find that several of our recently-built downtown buildings are no more than cubic blocks.
Next let’s consider our public green spaces. It seems we are doing OK – Whitehorse is quite green and has a lovely waterfront. However, within the inner city core there’s not a lot of green space. We allow condo and office buildings to be built without any set backs and no room for trees. I hope we can change this soon.
But there is one specific idea that would remarkably improve the city: the creation of a pedestrian zone. Such zones are great attributes in any city not only because of their convenience but because of the social, interactive culture they promote. I suspect many other Yukoners have travelled to Europe and enjoyed strolling these areas filled with shoppers, street cafes , markets and street performers.
I have written letters in the past to suggest change; my Porter Creek Secondary School Grade 8 students interviewed people on the streets one year to see if they could envision Main Street becoming a pedestrian zone. Many responded favourably, so I contacted previous mayors to discuss this idea, but there was a general lack of interest.
Perhaps at the time – a decade ago – we weren’t quite ready. But I think an outdoor, urban culture has organically grown in the Whitehorse core already. Just about every downtown cafe boasts a patio, and I always see people enjoying the sun at Rotary and Lepage parks at lunch time.
Unfortunately we still experience Main Street primarily as a glorified parking lane. People will drive three times around the block until they find a parking spot right in front of the bank or bookstore.
I propose that we close Main Street from Fourth Avenue all the way to Front Street, keeping Second Avenue a throughway for traffic. I suggest that we should build a bridge as a walkway across Second Avenue to accommodate pedestrians and also improve the flow of traffic on Second Avenue. Eliminating traffic lights also have another beneficial effect because cars would no longer idle and thus the air quality would improve.
Just imagine: a fountain standing in the middle of Main between Front and Second; patios or open seating from surrounding restaurants and cafes would extend further into the street, almost like a mini-piazza, with kids running around; down the street, boutique stores would open their doors to passers-by, lining racks along the street so you could check out their wares as you went by. Wouldn’t strolling a pedestrian Main Street be a lovely way to spend an afternoon?
In conjunction with this – since we’d lose the glorified parking lane – the city could assign one of the many vacant lots to a parkade. It might be especially useful for business people and workers in the city core, as well as for shoppers who need to keep their vehicles warm during the winter months.
Not only would investing in Whitehorse’s downtown core make the city more enjoyable for its residents; it would improve our draw to tourists. We call ourselves “The Wilderness City” largely as a tourism gimmick, but in reality, the tourism we are selling lies outside city limits.
I’d love to see us introduce tourists to Whitehorse itself: its people, its culture, its recreational facilities, its shops, its restaurants. I’d love to see us surprise some unknowing visitors, showing them that we’re not just base camp for their Teslin canoe trip. We’re a vibrant, modern and liveable city, and they should have a blast exploring for five days.
We could develop Whitehorse into an exceptional city. And I think that a great first step towards this goal would be the creation of a pedestrian zone on Main Street and more emphasis on forcing contractors to come up with more creative building designs. I’d like to see a Whitehorse that lures tourists and future residents with its own attributes, not just those in its surrounding. All we need is some vision and some political will.
Renate Schmidt has been a Whitehorse resident since 1978.