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Restoration of Banff's Bow Ave could be 'nature-positive' move

“You would never be permitted to build that road today because of endangered species like bull trout, but also the understanding of the value of riparian zones."

BANFF – Reviving and restoring the riverfront along Bow Avenue to a more natural state is being pitched as a nature-positive move for the Town of Banff.

Many communities around the world are transforming their riverfronts from blights to beauties, and one of Banff’s most prominent conservationists, Harvey Locke, is calling for the transformation and restoration of Bow Avenue along the Bow River into a car-free area.

“You would never be permitted to build that road today because of endangered species like bull trout, but also the understanding of the value of riparian zones,” he told Banff council on Jan. 18.

“I suggest a nature-positive vision for the Town of Banff would be a very good thing.”

The Bow Avenue project is on the capital books with design dollars of $100,000 in 2024 and $250,000 in 2025; however, there are no construction dollars yet.

Currently, there are three high level concepts for the 400-metre stretch of Bow Avenue, which currently is a one-way street with long-term free parking for about 100 vehicles right beside the river snaking through town.

Under the first concept, the elimination of cars would allow for restoration of a near-30-metre wide riparian zone, while still maintaining wide, separated, paved paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Access to the river would be maintained via secondary trails leading to viewpoints along the water’s edge.

A second option maintains separate paved trails for pedestrians and cyclists, but retains a northbound traffic lane adjacent to the cycling trail. A narrow and winding roadway design would aim to ensure very slow vehicle speeds. The last option would be two-way vehicle traffic without a dedicated cycling lane.

Locke said he prefers the first option for Bow Avenue, a car-free area and restoration of the riparian zone.

“That doesn’t mean people can’t access it; it just means they access it differently than they access it now,” Locke said.

“Instead of it being a parking space, being a feature of the town of Banff in Banff National Park would enhance the value to our community for local residents right through to visitors. I really think it’s a better way for us to be part of the park.”

At the COP15 United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal in December, the parties agreed on a historic global framework to safeguard nature and halt and reverse biodiversity destruction by 2030.

“The idea of nature positive is to make things better than they were from the 2020 baseline to 2030 and this is for all scales of government,” said Locke.

“This is a spectacular opportunity at the local scale to engage in ecological restoration using native species.”

Mayor Corrie DiManno, who loves walking, running, biking or simply sitting on a bench along the Bow Avenue river path, tried to move the project up during budget deliberations in order for community consultation and design work to begin sometime this year.

She said this project helps protect the flood plain as it involves moving the trail inland to higher, drier ground in a less environmentally sensitive area and then restoring critical habitat to the riparian areas.

“We’d also have an opportunity to discuss taking more cars off the road while expanding the multi-use, active transportation infrastructure to numerous places across town,” she said.

DiManno said lingering questions can begin to be answered through the design process.

“There are still many question marks regarding this project: where do the folks parking in the 94 stalls now go instead? How will this impact residents who live along Bow Avenue? How much will this cost?” she said.

“Basically, moving the design funding to 2023 and 2024 allows us to have this conversation with the community at a time while we are thinking through other solutions to our sustainable transportation network.”

For Locke, restoration of Bow Avenue is a tremendous opportunity for environmental leadership for the Town of Banff, noting the Bow River is the biggest gravel bed flood plain in Banff National Park and one of the most dynamic spaces ecologically.

“It’s actually one of the greatest gravel bed flood plains in the world so it’s a special resource,” he said.

“In the town, Bow Avenue is the place where we see that, so making it more part of the flood plain, making it more natural.”

Coun. Barb Pelham said she doesn’t believe using Bow Avenue for parking is its best use either aesthetically or ecologically, but on a pragmatic level questioned Locke on where he thought vehicles could park if not there.

“What are your ideas in terms of how do we deal with those cars and where do we put them and what do we do to offer a parking solution?” she said.

Locke said there is an opportunity for an underground parkade to expand the parking capacity of the townsite as part of the conversation on Parks Canada’s redevelopment on the 200 block of Banff Avenue into some form of visitor centre.

He suggested an underground parkade under the high school field connected to the 200 block of Banff Avenue, a concept he said is used in cities such as Calgary, including a multi-level parkade beneath the McDougall Centre.

“We could increase the parking capacity in the townsite substantially, reduce its visibility, improve the pedestrian friendliness and that’s something you can engage with Parks Canada on,” he said.

Although the overall trend since 2003 has been to increasingly use Bow Avenue for parking, several important drivers have emerged in recent years that are likely to affect the future evolution of the 400-metre corridor.

That includes the listing of bull trout as a threatened species under the federal Species At Risk Act in 2019. That means the Bow River and adjacent 30-metre riparian buffer are now legally protected bull trout critical habitat.

In addition, parts of the trail are prone to flooding and closures in spring and early summer during the runoff, while sinkholes develop on low-lying and unstable areas of the trail, causing public safety closures and ongoing repairs inside an environmentally sensitive area.

As well, the intercept lot at the Banff train station in 2018 added about 500 free long-term parking spaces, relieving some pressure on downtown parking, and in 2021, the Town of Banff introduced visitor pay parking in a bid to get people to park at the intercept lot and away from busy downtown streets.

While it could be completed in phases, Locke said he would love to see the Bow Avenue project completed sooner rather than later for environmental reasons.

“I am in a hurry for us to solve these problems,” he said.

“We actually live in a very dangerous time in relation to the environment, so I would be in a favour of a hurry, rather than a go-slow approach.”

Donna Livingstone, CEO of the Whyte Museum, called on council to consider bringing the project forward to fit in with the Whyte’s redevelopment plans for the property that backs onto Bow Avenue.

“This has a huge impact on us because we own a lot of the property facing the river and on Bow Avenue and in the last two years we’ve really changed the focus of some programs to connect people more closely with nature,” said Livingstone.

“This becomes a huge opportunity for everyone.”

Administration indicated to council another $50,000 would be needed to facilitate community consultation if the project were to be moved to 2023-24.

There are already many community engagements planned for 2023, including the Banff Community Plan, the downtown pedestrian zone, and potentially the area redevelopment plan for the train station. Banffites are also being asked for feedback on Parks Canada’s future plans for the 200 block of Banff Ave.

“Members of our community may experience consultation fatigue at a certain point,” said Jason Darrah, the director of communications and marketing for the Town of Banff.

“Because of the three options, it would have a very large impact on a large portion of our population, even some of our visitor agencies and partners.”

Coun. Hugh Pettigrew said he could not support the project for 2023, stating he believes the Town of Banff needs to set up capital projects for success.

“I think there’s other parts of this that need to be discussed at the community level before we go to the levels that we’re suggesting,” he said.

DiManno said she understands everyone’s plates are full, but an extra $50,000 suggested by administration to pay for a consultant to help with the workload would move this project along sooner rather than later.

“I see it in the bigger picture of trying to move more urgently when it comes to protecting these sensitive areas in our town,” she said. “I do believe this is working to that overall goal of nature positivity and trying to demonstrate that global leadership.”