Being Urban (and Feeling Guilty About it) in Banff National Park

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Cities are not the first things that usually come to mind when asked to think about national parks, but participating in the 2009 NiCHE Field School in Banff made me think about them a lot.

There is, of course, the obvious fact that the name “Banff” applies to both Banff the city/town and Banff the park. The many museums we visited – the Whyte Museum and Archives, Eleanor Luxton House, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum – and several of the articles we read to inspire discussion all underlined the fact that since the park’s inception Banff has included an urban space.

William Van Horne’s 1885 observation that people needed to be imported to Banff since its scenery could not be exported has remained a primary reason for the park’s existence, and the urban part of Banff has flourished as a result of CPR and highway-delivered tourism ever since. In fact, from early twentieth century Indian Days and Winter Festivals, to the fancy hotels, and spas built up around the hot springs, and its golf course, ski hills, restaurants, and tourist shops, it could be argued that the bulk of the tens of millions of tourists who have visited Banff over the course of the park’s history have gone there for the urban in Banff rather than the nature in it. Furthermore, when asked to describe the non-human parts of Banff, most would probably refer to its incredible mountain scenery – a view that is experienced predominantly from within town or on the highway.

One result of having so much urban development within Banff is that it can lead to feelings of guilt. Although I enjoyed strolling through town and experiencing some of its pubs and eateries, I couldn’t help but observe that most of the stores and restaurants aren’t really there to enhance the park experience, but exist to make the urban visitor feel more at home. Feelings of guilt inevitably crop up in these moments, especially when one thinks of the many people, flora, and fauna that have been displaced and/or destroyed so that visiting city residents can be comfortable when trying to escape being urban. It is thus easy to become cynical, to feel like the “essence” of Banff – its wild beauty – is compromised or erased by urban development in the park.

Residents of Banff who are interested in preserving its non-human nature perhaps experience this sense of guilt to an even greater degree. Banff residents Mike McIvor, head of the Bow Valley Naturalist Society, and Chic Scott, a mountaineering and ski historian, both related to us their sense of regret over their generation’s legacy of intense development in the park. Even though both clearly enjoyed living in Banff, they struggled with whether different rules should apply to those who live within National Parks and even whether a city “belonged” in Banff at all.

But these feelings of guilt about the town of Banff mask the fact that the urban imprint in the park goes much deeper. It could be argued that the entire park, from the highest peak to the tiniest endangered hot springs snail, is part of the urban in Banff. This is something that Banff has in common with all parks. Meant to provide a place of respite from busy city life, modern parks bear a direct relationship with the rise of the modern city. Indeed, park visitation is tied to urban affluence. In both twentieth century post-war booms the numbers of visitors to Banff skyrocketed, mostly as a result of the increasing wealth of urban places, both within Canada and around the world. These spiking visitation numbers, and the urban developments that went with them, are what have made Banff one of the most well known, and some would argue successful, parks in the world.

Furthermore, even the parts of Banff where humans do not live or spend a significant amount of time bear the heavy hand of an urban-derived planning process. As retired Parks Canada biologist Cliff White informed us, the entire park is heavily managed and meticulously planned, from the use of fire to effect a certain landscape, to importing predators, culling elk herds, and providing highway underpasses and overpasses so that the “right” numbers and variety of wildlife flourish. In many ways, this type of planning is analogous to its urban counterpart. Professionals use a university-derived education to plan the park’s landscape and how each part works together much the same way that urban planners decide where highways, residential areas, and green spaces should be located in any given city.

What, then, should one make about being urban and feeling guilty about it in a national park? Some would argue that the role of Banff is to preserve its non-human nature and thus the solution to feeling guilty about urban development in the park is to do away with forms of tourism that don’t seem to belong, like skiing and golfing, or, at the most extreme, to do away with the city of Banff altogether. Such solutions, however, ignore the fact that the entire park is and always has been an urban space: its landscape is the result of urban-derived planning, it owes its existence to the increase of urban populations in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is visited primarily by residents of other urban centres from around the world.

Rather than trying to do away with feeling guilty about the urban in Banff, then, perhaps it would be better to acknowledge how such feelings have helped Banff better negotiate human and non-human relationships – and how this can serve as an example for other cities.

Non-human nature in Banff, though planned and controlled by human actions, makes up a much larger area than human settlement within the park, and how humans interact with it is constantly under the microscope, debated, and planned for. In most cities the opposite is true, which, oddly enough, makes it easier to not feel guilty about being urban in a large city but to feel guilty about it in Banff. If every urban centre were treated as though it existed within a national park, then perhaps we’d all feel a little guiltier about how we live with non-human nature at home and a little less guilty about it in places like Banff National Park.

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Philip Van Huizen

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