September 22, 2020

Urbanist in the Okanagan 4 – Two Kind of Towns: Bisected or Bypassed

There are two kinds of towns in the Okanagan (and most of BC).

It depends on the provincial roads that connect them.  Some, as in Osoyoos, have a highway that divides the centre-right through its heart.

Very often the highway, like Crowsnest, is literally Main Street – a ‘stroad’ that has looked essentially the same for more than half a century: broad, muscular, low-slung and unambiguous.  Mid-century motordom, which even today, despite attempts to make them more friendly for people not in cars (which is the way most of them got there), are still car dominant.

Main Street in 2009:

In 2018:

In the other kind, the main highway and arterials bypass the old downtown.  As in Penticton:

From what I could see in southern BC, Main Streets have held on even when not fed by a major highway.  Many of them look and feel better than ever.  And now, especially in the year of the pandemic, they appear to functioning well enough for people to gather, shop, do business and entertain themselves.  Independent entrepreneurs thrive.  There are still real hardware stores, small theatres, government services, and not a lot of vacancies.  The vitality of a pleasant, safe, diverse urban environment has become even more appealing, unlike in some of the bisected town where truckloads of timber still roar through or the surrounding blocks still remain for most of the day vast acreages of parking.

In the bypass town, there are still lots of vehicles, but the people in them are coming to stay, not pass by.

Alexander Street, Revelstoke

Every town I visited was one or the other: a town where the highway bisected it, or one where it bypassed.

What these towns were able to do depended on the health of their local economy, the will of their leaders, the support of their communities and the skills of their staff – but also whether they were prepared or able to make a serious attempt to tame motordom.

With towns that had bypasses, it was easier to redo downtown with the toolkit of interventions from the 1980s and 90s that engineering firms and urban designers all seemed to use when they had a contract for downtown revitalization: pink sidewalks of rose-coloured interlocking pavers, luminaires in antique black, hanging baskets, pedestrian bulges, dense rows of trees, abundant landscaping, benches, bike racks – all cosmetics, yes, but accompanied by real and regulatory changes in how the spaces could be used and developed.  Especially the commitment to sizable population increases.

The results are in; we can make a judgement looking back a half century.  Post-motordom urbanism has been successful.  Trends have changed and the quality of design and materials has improved (as in the Penticton example below), but the investments made from the 80s to today in good urbanism have paid off.

Now we’ll see how they survive the pandemic.  But this summer, with the additional presence of so many people like me from the coast and from Alberta, they look to have made the first economic hurdle.  Tourism, in particular, survived, with the prospect of a better year if word on the Okanagan’s appeal gets out.

Just like this.

Main Street in Penticton

Posted in


If you love this region and have a view to its future please subscribe, donate, or become a Patron.

Share on


  1. I’d love to know more of your thoughts about having highways being the main streets of small towns vs. having highways bypass them! I think this is really important to consider! I can give a very specific example of how bypassing small towns decimated countless communities in Wisconsin:

    Driving from Milwaukee to my grandparents’ old place in northern Wisconsin is an easy 3-hour-or-less trip today. But it used to be an all-day adventure–and one that I really enjoyed! The state highways hit EVERY town on the way, and I used to love the unique elements (and very proudly advertised summertime events!) that each historic main street showcased. I knew the population of every town along the way, every restaurant, every cool feature on every historic building, every place to get cheese curds (being from Wisconsin, naturally), every scenic little lakeside stop, you name it. Those towns thrived with all the traffic flowing slowly through their main streets as people headed to the North Woods.

    But I haven’t been to ANY of those towns in probably 30 years; every single one of them has a massive highway bypass that enables people to speed directly past these small towns and never support their Main Street businesses again. The beautiful buildings and historic facades likely all still exist, but the businesses are gone. I see what happened at the end of the line: my grandparents’ old home town of Antigo, Wisconsin. Traffic is now directed away from the historic core and out to the enormous string of big box stores at the city limits. Downtown Antigo is a GHOST TOWN. There’s no way to fully take in the difference without knowing it by heart in the 1960s and 70s (and, sure more dramatically, the early 1900s), versus what it is today.

    Today, I appreciate being able to drive super quickly from point A to a very distant point B on a road trip. But bypassing all these towns absolutely *destroyed* them, at least from what I’ve noticed.

    Eureka, California might provide the worst example of the alternative, however! Highway 101 goes direcly to–and VERY much directly through–downtown Eureka. It’s SIX LANES wide–in a small town! I’ve never been more disappointed by a town with so much potential as I was when visiting Eureka. Bozeman, Montana is like that, too: ramming a massive highway right through downtown. And obviously, we all know about the FIVE-LANE, ONE-WAY highways rammed through downtown Boise–yeeeesh!!

    However, in all those cases, there is SO much potential to reclaim space and put those stroads on a road diet! Downtown Salem and Beaverton, Oregon also provide *classic* cases in which wide one-way couplets have obliterated their downtowns. But all the bones and potential are there to create wonderful places for PEOPLE, instead of car sewers that enable people to completely skip downtown while rushing through them at highway speeds!

    I also wish that we had the European (and Mexican!) model: super dense cities, right up to the edge of the municipal boundaries, and then nature. Endless zone-separated suburbia that forces people to drive many hours per week for their basic needs is TOTALLY unsustainable on every possible level…

Subscribe to Viewpoint Vancouver

Get breaking news and fresh views, direct to your inbox.

Join 7,320 other subscribers

Show your Support

Check our Patreon page for stylish coffee mugs, private city tours, and more – or, make a one-time or recurring donation. Thank you for helping shape this place we love.

Popular Articles

See All

All Articles