More Than Just Dinosaur Bones
The Town of Drumheller is located about an hour and a half Northeast of Calgary and is probably best known as the location of the Royal Tyrell Museum and their famous dinosaur fossil exhibits. The Town itself, however, is home to 8,000 residents, and Urban Systems has been working with the community for over fifteen years. In more recent years, this has included exploring the possibilities for Drumheller’s downtown, a project Lee Giddens and Lisa Konopski, a Landscape Consultant and Environmental Designer respectively, have been excited to see come to life over time.
“A lot of the planning has come full circle. With the new mayor and council there are new ideas and a reinvigoration of exploring possibilities for their downtown,” says Lee. The revitalization process has been moving forward, with some tangible outcomes like the pedestrian wayfinding signs installed in 2017. In 2018, the Town is moving forward with some experimental and pilot project scenarios, that will allow them to reflect and collect feedback prior to permanent installations.
Finding Funding Through Collaboration
Making space in municipal budgets for larger scale changes to the streetscape can be challenging, so when the Town approached Urban for support in applying for the Community and Regional Economic Support (C.A.R.E.S.) Grant, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to access much needed funding without putting strain on the Town’s financial commitments. Intended for funding initiatives that improve the local business environment and spur collaboration, the C.A.R.E.S. Grant would help promote economic development in the downtown. “We partnered with the Town to provide them with ideas and graphics for potential projects that helped to complete their application and they were ultimately awarded the grant funding,” Lisa explains.
Working with the Town not only helped them gain access to financial support that didn’t exist before, but it also helped reinforce Urban Systems’ commitment to the community. Lisa and Lee reveal that often there is a perception in smaller communities that big firms come in with grand ideas better suited to large cities, only to have them not work out because the context doesn’t work for their specific community. Throughout the process, the team reaffirmed they were there to see through the ideas, but only within a scope that made sense for Drumheller. As Lisa points out, “Through pilot projects and alignment with planned infrastructure improvements, we are working towards an overall plan and long-term vision the Town can ultimately achieve in a financially sustainable way.”
Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Methods to Gain Consensus
Within the timelines of capital improvements, the team developed a plan that was phased and portable, so the Town could start working on the project right away. “Understanding the awareness and sensitivities to public perceptions, we wanted to try and give the Town some options for ‘quick wins’” Lisa notes. Using tactical urbanism principles, they came up with options that would allow the Town to experiment with different uses for the space beyond the traditional street parking model. “Some examples were a parklet or an extended patio for a restaurant or market space during the farmers market,” says Lee. Essentially, the concepts could show the dramatic shift in how people use the space with little upfront cost and no permanent commitment.
Part of building that trust around potential changes to the downtown meant sitting down with stakeholders and listening to what they had to say. In November of 2017, Lee and Lisa organized engagement sessions with two different groups. The first was comprised of members of the Economic Advisory Council which included the Mayor and one Councillor, as well as citizens with a stake in the economic impacts to the Town. The second group was made up of property and business owners in the downtown area. Each group was presented with the same information, but Lee and Lisa soon discovered that priorities may be entirely different from one group to the other.
“It was extremely valuable because we could make sure all the voices were heard,” Lisa explains, “then it was up to us as the designers to take that information and develop a plan. It was a neat approach to hear both sides and actually be able to work in our professional capacity to come up with the best option for both groups.”
“Drumheller wants to see a living downtown”
Following the engagement process, Lee concedes that while dramatic changes may be challenging to find consensus on, the community as a whole recognizes the need to try something new. “I think overall Drumheller is at a point where there is a fairly common consensus about their downtown. There’s a lot of empty storefronts and they see the pop-ups as that injection of life, especially because it’s temporary; it may create that buzz that they’re after.”
There is an acknowledgement in Drumheller that visitors to the nearby Royal Tyrell Museum need to be drawn into town to spend time and money in the community instead of just passing by on the highway. But it’s also about the residents in the community, who want to feel that sense of community with their hometown. “Both the business group and the general public want to see a living downtown, a place where they can come with their family for an ice cream, actually stay a while and interact with others on a lively street.”
Part of the intent of demonstrating possibilities through tactical urbanism is to build capacity within the Town of Drumheller to implement some of these ideas without needing a Consultant driving the project. “It’s important that the Town be able to take these ideas and implement them themselves,” Lisa stresses. “We want to work WITH the Town, not FOR the Town, and believe that true success comes from the residents’ and employees’ input and ownership over these improvements.”
Closing the Loop
Now that warm, Spring weather has returned to Alberta, plans are underway to begin implementing some of these pop-up trials throughout the Spring and Summer of 2018. Designed as kits-of-parts sized to fit within three angled parking spaces, the pop-ups can be moved throughout the downtown core as needed and wanted to provide example of the vibrancy that can be created in Drumheller. It will be up to the Town and its residents to decide what works best for them, and Lee, Lisa and Urban Systems will be along for the journey to support them in these exciting pilot projects.
Adding to the excitement around this project, the Town of Drumheller received the Alex Metcalf Award from the Economic Development Association of Alberta (EDA) for the Best Community Economic Development Program and Marketing Project, something both Lisa and Lee are proud to have contributed to. As Lisa excitedly shares, “It was a nice closing of the loop that the Town has been recognized and that we were able to accompany them on the journey.”