With an increased need for housing, Alberta’s gateway to the Rocky Mountains has big development decisions ahead

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Canmore is in need of some soul-searching.

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The town, just about 100 kilometres west of Calgary, is the gateway to the Rocky Mountains.

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Some in the municipality are seeking to hang onto its bucolic past.

This is pitted against the reality of Canmore being at once a distant satellite of Alberta’s metropolis but also something of a bedroom community for Banff.

The result is small-town Alberta saddled with a big-city problem: faced with a growing population and a need for more housing, where do you build? And how much of it?

Those questions have taken up the better part of the last decade, with a years-long battle between developers and town council over the proposed construction of Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek.

The dispute slowly dragged its way through a tribunal and the courts but a recent legal decision forced town council’s hand, giving it no choice but to finally approve the projects last week.

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“The town has not established a basis upon which we can interfere with the tribunal’s decisions,” said a decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal released in early October in rejecting Canmore’s legal manoeuvres.

The judges said planning and development issues underlying the appeal have divided the community, according to a report first published by The Canadian Press.

“There are strongly held and divergent views about what development should or should not occur,” said the decision. “It is not the role of this court to decide whose view is right.”

Indeed — it is for the town and its people to decide what they want and to accept the consequences of their choices.

If there are concerns about Canmore gobbling up precious natural spaces to build more homes, then perhaps residents will have to consider making better use of its existing urban spaces.

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Lest the oft-dreaded D-word — density — raise any alarms, allow me to assuage some fears by directing your attention to a city some 7,000 kilometres to the east.

Bath, in southwestern England, is partly a tourism-driven place, just like Canmore: There are historic Roman baths at the centre of town, with the ruins and the museum around them drawing many visitors.

As of 2021, Bath’s population was some 94,000, much larger than Canmore’s 16,000.

And yet for Bath being such a big community, it doesn’t actually feel that big — at least not from what I remember from a personal trip there five years ago.

Bath Somerset U.K.
Traffic moves around The Royal Crescent and other streets in the centre of Bath on July 16 2008 in Bath, Somerset, England. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The place is built amid rolling hills. This doesn’t compare to the majestic Rocky Mountains but the landscape around there is quite pretty. Within the municipality itself, there are also abundant green spaces to enjoy.

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And then there’s the fact Bath isn’t actually very big, geographically speaking. While Bath has more than six times the population of Canmore, its built-up area is perhaps only larger by a factor of three or four — very roughly estimated from eyeballing maps of each place set to identical scales.

The difference is more density and more building height … and Bath pulls it off without having many tall structures at all. There are a few pushing 10 storeys but most are much shorter, only two to five stories high.

Despite how developed Bath is, it’s still a cool place to visit and walk around in. Bath demonstrates it’s possible to build more and build higher without sacrificing charm.

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If Canmore doesn’t want to keep putting up homes in new greenfield developments, it will have to start thinking about how to best reuse its existing urban footprint — building more where development already exists, and building higher if necessary.

The mere suggestion of this will surely raise more hackles.

But if Canmore intends to make more room for more people, the town will have to allow more construction — and whatever the choice, it’s almost certain someone’s going to wind up unhappy.


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