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Urban Life

Town Life: Main Street and the Evolution of Small Town Alberta Bryan P. Melnyk in Calgary Builds: The Emergence of an Urban Landscape captures the "boomtown" atmosphere as he describes Calgary's population growth in the period between the province's founding in 1905 to the beginning of World War I. He notes that the population grew from about 12,500 to nearly 80,000:

Along with this great torrent of immigrants came immense changes to the local economy, society and physical environment. In one short decade, Calgary was dramatically transformed from a small community on the frontier of an immature region into a progressive, fast-moving metropolis, the centre of a vast agricultural and natural resource hinterland. Rapid growth strained the capability of existing facilities to meet the needs of the expanding population it soon became apparent that more substantial architecture was needed to keep pace with this development, and to create a new image for the city that was commensurate with its changed status.

He notes that more than 10,000 buildings were erected in Calgary between 1905 and 1914. While ranching, railway construction and coal mining fuelled this growth in southern Alberta, a parallel development process was also happening further north with Edmonton, the new provincial capital, at the centre of it. Thus, Alberta had two major cities on a parallel and competitive track of development, which differentiated it from other Canadian provinces. One city became the centre of government and also a manufacturing and processing hub and the other a business centre noted for its entrepreneurial spirit. This is reflected in the buildings and streetscapes of each city lending each that "sense of place" that determines their identity and community spirit.


Don Wetherell and Irene Kmet, in their book Town Life, expand the notion of urban growth to nine Alberta towns that have participated in the Alberta Main Street Programme. The concept of using building rehabilitation and adaptive re-use to stimulate urban revitalization was brought to Canada by the Heritage Canada Foundation. The Exchange District in Winnipeg is an example of how federal funding was used strategically to do this. The concept was taken on and expanded by the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation to create the Alberta Main Street Programme. Communities that have benefited from it include: Cardston, Fort Macleod, Clareholm, Crowsnest Pass, Blairmore, Coleman and Lacombe. They examine not only the architectural heritage of these communities and the revitalization movement but also acknowledge that whether booming or stagnant, Alberta's towns are worthy of serious study and consideration. They note:

Before World War II, Alberta towns experienced two major phases: a period of high growth and expectations, which had generally dissipated by the conclusion of World War I, and the years until the end of the next war, throughout which most towns struggled to hold their population and wealth. Yet, while the end of World War I marked the end of a period of economic growth and exaggerated expectations associated with the expansionary settlement period, there were strong elements of continuity throughout these two periods. In both historical phases, a central concern in Alberta towns was growth of population and trade. Because towns existed for trade, this objective had often been significant in determining their location and it remained a force in knitting together a patchwork of local concerns and policies.

Restorations rub shoulders with new construction. The issue of regional collaboration is still a hot issue for Alberta's towns and cities and is forcing city and town councils to consider concepts that attempt to bridge urban/rural concerns. The shift of population from rural to urban centres left many rural towns with abandoned main streets. It is generally acknowledged that the Alberta Main Street Programme has been instrumental in revitalizing the town core of the designated communities and has given them a grace and beauty lacking in towns without significant building stock from the early part of the 20th century. These buildings lend themselves to "fringe" and "leisure-based" businesses that are not reliant on primary industry. Other communities have been influenced by the Main Street Programme and these include Ponoka.

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