Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bancroft - The Death & Life of Great Canadian Small Towns

I had a bit of a go at Oshawa and Whitby recently, and having just returned from my hometown of Bancroft, Ontario, I thought I'd muse about the homeland as well.
Bancroft has a few claims to fame - historically it has called itself the "Mineral Capital of Canada," because around 90% of all the minerals that can be found in Canada can be found around Bancroft. People FLOCK to Bancroft during the August long weekend for the Rockhound Gemboree.
In 2004, TVO's Studio 2 named Bancroft as the Most Talented Town in Ontario. There is indeed a lot of talent in Bancroft. Going on the fall Studio Tour will allow you to visit some truly gifted artists, and the Village Playhouse has hosted great local theatre for about 15 years.
As well, there are some people doing very interesting things in the region. At least two people in town are "off the grid," using solar and wind power to run their homes, and then you have Chuck & Pat Potter's House. Along the lines of the Earth Ship homes, the Potters have built a home in the side of a hill, using tires, concrete, and pop cans. The building has solar power, recycles its water, and uses the earth's constant temperature to retain a fairly comfortable temperature year-round.
Just recently Bancroft has been in the news because of the major storm that swept through central Ontario recently, knocking the power out for thousands of people. These photos are of downed trees in the hiking trails behind my parents' house.

But, there is much cause for concern regarding Bancroft.
When I was growing up, Bancroft basically consisted of main street, which had all the shops, and the surrounding residential streets. At that time you could drive into town, park in the IGA parking lot, and then walk everywhere you needed to go to do your shopping.
Things started to go wrong when the McDonald's arrived in town (previously we'd depended on two fried chicken places for our fast food). The McDonald's is still basically in town, but it was placed to the north, and kick-started the current northern sprawl of Bancroft. As you drive out towards the original golf course that's to the north of town (there's now a 2nd golf course in town as well), you pass a Tim Horton's, a few unleased and mini-sized strip malls, a massive Home Hardware, an enormous Price Chopper, and a gigantic Canadian Tire (p.s., I didn't even use a thesaurus for those adjectives!). As well, the long running IGA and Valu-Mart supermarkets recently gave way to the low-cost No Frills and Price Chopper.

In 1961, in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued for closely packed communities where you met and mingled with your neighbour every time you took out the garbage. She argued for a concentration of people and shops in one place, the idea being that the two would support each other, and that a vibrancy would arise from the constant interplay of people meeting on the streets as they went about their daily lives.
Bancroft once had something close to that. At the best of times, the number of people who actually lived "in" town, and could walk to the bank and the IGA, was always small. Everyone else lived on lakes and country roads anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half outside of town. But, they could still drive into town, park, and walk to all the shops etc that they needed to visit that day. With the sprawl to the north, with the "Hey! Wal Mart and Burlington and Sprawlurbia Rocks!" attidude that is happening up there, all this is changing.
Bancroft has become a town totally dependant upon the automobile. You now have to drive to the No Frills, then the Canadian Tire, then into town to visit the bank and maybe the pharmacy, and then back out of town to get your Tim Horton's, and then drive however long it takes to get back to your house. Main street is suffering, the sprawl to the north is disgusting, and as Jacob's would have said, there's only so much "vibrancy" which can be achieved when you wave from your truck to a golfing buddy who's driving the other way in his truck.

And what about, as I'm wont to do these days, Bancroft's sustainability in a post peak-oil future? Well, it's screwed.
Bancroft is heavily dependant on the cottaging industry (and come to think of it, on snowmobiling tourism in the winter). When gas hits $1.45 (Canadian) in five years, how many people from the U.S. and from the GTA are going to drive for hours to get to a cottage that they may not be able to afford because the economic recession caused them to lose their jobs? Even if they're working, can they afford the gas? And what about the honest to Betsy "locals?" How much is it going to hurt them to pay for the gas to drive into town, and then have to drive to the five stops they need to make north of town?
Here's the future - peak oil hits causing a recession. Americans and Torontonians sell their cottages and stop making trips up north. The snowmobilers stop paying for the gas for their machines and stop touring through town. The Price Chopper and the No Frills both suffer, and one closes. The Canadian Tire and the Home Hardware both suffer, and one closes. The locals who are lucky enough to keep their jobs get nailed by the high gas prices and by the fact that they have to make 6 car stops to do their errands.

And blah, blah, blah. I should shut up. The last thing I'll say is that I hope to God the people on the town council read some books, open their eyes, and start thinking about the future. Let there be a "downtown," design things so that people can be pedestrians again, and hey, build a bike lane somewhere!

P.S., I still love going home. I love sitting on the back patio, looking at the barn and the forest, reading quietly (though pictured here is my brother), and wondering why I live and work in the GTA.





Adam said...

I have seen the effects of the growing suburban sprawl more and more in our hometown. We live about an hour from the nearest city. More and more people have been moving out that way to get away from the city creating longer and longer commutes for themselves and, causing home builders to throw up houses in mass in the town and inflating home prices. As the housing market starts to take a dive, we're seeing more and more homes sitting vacant for sale, and overpriced. I think we'll see people moving closer to their jobs and back closer to the cities, and the small town is going to be hit hard as people vacate. I agree with you that there is very poor planning in the towns as businesses, people, and town governments grab for the quick buck.

cyclingdave said...

looks idylic. sorry to heat what the automobile is doing to bancroft.

i've always wondered how cyclists cope with gta. here i am living in the centre of the city on a rare cyclist/runner's artery [make no mistake winnipeg is still not a cycling city] that takes me out of town quickly and pleasently.

great links on your blog!

thanks for popping in to mine.

Laura said...

Love the shots of your "real" home. Your words, though, make my head hurt and my pulse race every time I read them. Stop scaring me! I know how strongly you feel about the issues of peak oil and urban sprawl... but some of us (okay, maybe it's just me, I dunno) would appreciate more positive injections into your blog. I don't like thinking about you almost getting mashed by trucks! But, y'know... just my thoughts... :) ~ Laura

CityGirl said...

Hey Tuco

Yeah! I did the Mud Run last year.. how did you know? I read through your blog a bit.. you still riding through TO- Oshawa?

Susanne said...

You're welcome! You have a very nice blog! Unfortunately you can not read mine (I assume you don't speak Dutch), but it's mostly about biking (and being carfree) and just some things happening in my life.

I put a link to your blog on my blog.



Michelle said...

Great photos!

Rgscarter said...

Hey Chris,
Just came across your blog from Mark's. Great stuff. Makes me wish i wasn't such a sissy hop on the bike leaving my gasguzzler at home.

Heh. I used to go to the Gemboree every year, but I haven't been to bancroft in ages. From your description it sounds i wouldn't even recognize the place.

Anyway, just thought i'd drop you a comment and say "hey".

ps. have you seen the bike arch thingy? I saw a pic in the newspaper and it was pretty a scrapyard sort of way, if you know what i mean.

Timon said...

Hi Tuco, I just read this today. I grew up in Newmarket. That town is a good example of what Bancroft might end up looking like. When I was younger, I'd cycle the roads outside of town - gorgeous country roads, no traffic lights for miles, moderate traffic (but all the main routes had decent shoulders to cycle on if you had to). Now it's a nightmare. If I ever go cycling anywhere in York region now, I am always struck by the danger, difficulty and obstacles. The car and suburban sprawl are evil.