Whitehorse could be beautiful

Culture Watch Let’s face it, Whitehorse is an ugly little town. Many of us might not admit it, but it’s obvious to anyone with the…

Culture Watch

Let’s face it, Whitehorse is an ugly little town.

Many of us might not admit it, but it’s obvious to anyone with the courage to look.

Perhaps the start of a new year is a good time to ask why.

How could a community spend more than 100 years lodged in one of the most historical locations in the Yukon, on a beautiful bow in a great river, and manage to become such an unsightly mess?

I started thinking about this after the popular CBC radio host, Shelagh Rogers, let the truth slip in her recent Whitehorse special when she discretely said, “The city isn’t exactly beautiful.”

Sheesh, how would we describe the look of this town? Industrial warehouse with a soupcon of Wild West and faux gold rush tacked onto some building fronts?

Apart from a few blocks of comfortable, small-town shops, and a scattering of interesting but not inspired government buildings, what’s the rest?

A dash of ugly malls spreading around the core of the town … a few brutal bars to feed the narcotics industry … elegant metal siding with vinyl variations?

Here’s a town that needs a good design panel with some teeth.

Taking out a mortgage does not give anyone the right to uglify their community. If you live in a community you should respect it.

If you believe in total freedom, then you should go naked into the bush and show everyone what true freedom means.

Whitehorse isn’t alone in its unsightliness.

The majority of North American towns have become victims of sprawl and urban blight, a kind of collective madness spreading across the continent.

I was talking to a friend the other day about Courtenay, a once lovely coastal town now spoiled by malls and ring roads.

She replied that at least all of her friends were working. What surprised me was her automatic response that the ruin of your hometown is the only way to earn an income.

This made me think of Boise, Idaho, where the elegant, historic town centre has become a ghost town, like a cell surrounded by a cancer, hollow and ruined inside.

What if we came up with the surprising notion that a beautiful, well-designed town could also provide a good living for its inhabitants?

Maybe we could educate town councils that unchecked real-estate development is not the greatest goal of civilization.

What happened? Where did we go wrong?

Interestingly, many of the pre-contact tribal villages of the West Coast had a simple classiness, with thriving communities to back them up, but let’s start with modern times.

In the early years of the 20th century, the great architect Le Corbusier decided a house was merely “a machine for living,” ignoring the fact that human beings are not machines.

He went on to develop the equally mechanistic concept of the radiant city.

Simplistically put that’s a central, dense hub surrounded by less dense living areas and finally green space, which met up with the outer fringes of the next hub city.

These hub cities became the holy grail of urban planners.

One of the direct results were those gulag-type apartment structures of affordable living erected in large cities.

As everybody knows, these turned into terrifying urban ghettoes and crime centres.

Then came the rapid expansion of car culture and the invention of suburbia.

This fit right into the radiant city, except they led directly to mega malls and strip malls, ugly blights dependent on a car civilization.

I’ll bet there are fewer than a couple of hundred houses in Whitehorse without a car in the driveway.

In the ‘60s, a genius of a journalist, Jane Jacobs, with no training as a planner, took a look at our cities and wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a brilliant book that turned contemporary planning on its head.

Her major argument was that people should live in neighbourhoods where they work and where they shop. A community and its income and its culture naturally thrive within walk-able proximity.

As you may imagine, Jacobs was vilified and laughed at.

Forty years later she’s an icon.

But meanwhile, cities keep being designed for cars and not citizens — something we’re all going to regret soon, when oil reaches a $100 a barrel.

Fortunately, town planners are beginning to realize town planning doesn’t just mean strip malls and suburbs.

Whitehorse’s latest community plan is a step forward, but alas, while there remain lots of platitudes and trail systems, the viral, single storey malls are still expanding.

Most surprising is its ignoring of culture.

Now I’ve always assumed that, along with the ability to earn a decent living, culture, in all its ramifications, is the most important part of a human being’s life.

Yet, when I searched the 134-page community plan, I found 12 mentions of culture, and seven of those were agriculture.

Most insultingly, the plan appears to believe that ‘culture’ is merely the providing of open space in parks for festivals and craft fairs.

Culture is a hell of lot more than that.

It’s artists and professors, scriptwriters and poets, film-makers, sculptors, musicians, musical instrument makers, architects, filmographers, actors, photographers, designers, software writers, etc..

The list is enormous.

Richard Florida, in his groundbreaking The Rise of The Creative Class rightly points out that towns, which provide both opportunity and neighbourhoods for culture workers are the richest and greatest in the world.

Culture workers naturally gravitate to good design, fine buildings, good food, good entertainment. They naturally make their environment beautiful.

Until a community understands what culture is, it can never be a community, just a collection of dreary buildings, splattered inconveniently all over the map — a city like Whitehorse

In the end, it’s easy to abuse planners and councillors. Designing a city is mighty tough work in these tough times of globalization and innovation.

But one thing is clear: walking the streets of Whitehorse  — a city that neglects community and culture is an ugly city indeed.

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