lethbridge, alberta travel notes: some stories of a city

Many of Canada’s smaller cities possess unique cultural features and a sense of civic design that rival – and sometimes exceed, in quality and originality - those of our metropolises. The verdant city of Lethbridge, Alberta is a striking example of this. During my first visit to Lethbridge in June 2002 I was fascinated by the city’s outstanding sites, its relationship to the natural setting and its overall urban landscape, and – last but not least – by its paradoxical street-numbering system.

lethbridge, alberta travel notes: some stories of a city

by Ron Williams

A green city

Lethbridge (population approaching 100,000) is situated on a very flat plain along both sides of the Oldman River valley, some 230 kilometres (145 miles) south of Calgary. Driving into town from the east was like passing by a parade of giant grain elevators. The city is home to several outstanding landscape features. The Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden - Lethbridge’s 1967 Centennial project in vast Henderson Lake Park - along with Arthur Erickson’s stunning University of Lethbridge and the mile-long High Level Bridge, would be credits to any city.

The pond and teahouse in Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden
University Hall, the main building of the University of Lethbridge, designed by architect Arthur Erickson of Vancouver in 1971
The mile-long High Level Bridge across the Oldman river valley, 1907-1909; this elegant trestle viaduct helped inspire Erickson’s university building.
The valley of the Oldman River as it passes through Lethbridge

According to my hosts Joan and Bruce Haig of Heritage House Bed and Breakfast, there was not a single tree on this arid prairie, outside of the river valley, at the time of first settlement by Europeans. Everything had to be planted to create what has become a splendid system of street trees, planted in “boulevards" or “buffer strips” – continuous bands of grass between curbs and sidewalks. The whole southeast sector of the city (twenty blocks by ten blocks more or less) follows this “boulevard” pattern. The tree planting would have taken place in 1900-1914 and during the 1930s, according to my hosts.

Many of these trees are American Elms (Ulmus americana), like most places in the Canadian Prairies. People here are concerned by this since the beetle for Dutch Elm disease has shown up in Lethbridge, apparently brought by people who drive from one place to another carrying firewood.

The Dr. Arthur Haig residence on 11 Ave. South, a historical landmark previously known for some three decades as the Heritage House Bed and Breakfast. Designed by architects Fordyce and Stevenson of Calgary, the “Streamline Moderne / Art Déco” house was built in 1937.
Tree planting in “boulevard” buffer strips in South Lethbridge

Urban layout

The streets of the oldest part of the city, east of the river valley, are laid out in a grid pattern roughly following the cardinal directions, similar to most Western Canadian cities and many in the East. Lethbridge’s grid was no doubt influenced by the Dominion Land Survey of the late 19th century, which planned out much of the Prairie Provinces and part of British Columbia, dividing the land into a vast square grid system as new colonists streamed west.

Lethbridge has a quirky numbering system for these streets, almost unique in North America (Salt Lake City is somewhat similar, the only other current example I have found). It’s very confusing if you don’t know the trick: “Avenues” go east and west, but they are called "North’ and "South" according to the part of the city they are in, with the CPR train tracks and the adjoining Crowsnest Highway forming the dividing line between the two sections; “Streets” run north-south, named in standard fashion – their nomenclature changes from North to South at the same dividing line. So neither streets nor avenues are called "East" or “West". An example: “3 Avenue South” is the third east-west thoroughfare to the south of the dividing line (see plan).

Urban layout of Lethbridge. Beige colour indicates wooded slopes that enclose the valley floor, along which the Oldman River meanders.

All streets in the central part of the city have numbers now, but they used to have names. Some names are incised on sidewalks (literally “cast in stone”) or printed on street signs in small letters in the old section of town. The change was made in 1910, for reasons of efficiency. It works well with the "century" house-numbering system that is used, as in Chicago, to help people get around (i.e. all civic numbers between 11th and 12th Streets are in the 1100 series). Other cities made the same change from names to numbers, including New Westminster, B.C., and Edmonton, with a different street-naming system from Lethbridge; and Winnipeg adopted the exact same system as Lethbridge in 1891, but rescinded it a few years later. So Lethbridge remains unique in Canada, to the best of my knowledge.

I’ve been fascinated by street numbering systems ever since my MLA (Master of Landscape Architecture) studies at Berkeley in the early 1970s, when I had the good fortune to take John Brinckerhoff (J.B.) Jackson’s famous course on American vernacular landscapes. One of Jackson’s lectures – I think he called it “Second Street” after the most popular street name in the United States – examined in detail the rich history of how Americans laid out their cities and named their streets, from Philadelphia in 1684 to modern times.

Downtown area of Lethbridge in June 2002

Downtown decline and recovery

At the time of my first visit, I noted that downtown Lethbridge was practically deserted – few pedestrians, few cars, and few restaurants on the streets and sidewalks. Almost all business seemed to be taking place on the city’s southern outskirts at malls, big box stores, and fast food outlets ranged along Mayor Magrath Drive, out as far as the airport.

Eaton’s, once the city’s downtown anchor, was gone, as was Woodward’s, which was a "wonderful store" according to Joan Haig. Apparently the Lethbridge store always made a profit, but the parent company went under. The Woodward’s site was taken over by  the Hudson’s Bay Co. (“the Bay”), while most other stores were replaced by American-based operations. A downtown mall, built on the former site of the city’s rail yard and round-house after the decline, was “not doing too well” at the time of my first visit.

Entrance to Galt Gardens
Galt Gardens, interior of park

Right beside the downtown mall is the old city square, "Galt Gardens", named for Sir Alexander Galt (a Father of Confederation) and his son Elliott, who exploited coal and other resources in the area, contributing to the establishment of the city in 1885. This four-block area had long been a beautiful park, featuring trees and flowerbeds, its civic importance underlined by the fact that the city’s World War I cenotaph was originally located there. This war memorial was composed of a granite podium supporting a bronze statue of a Canadian soldier at "Reversed Arms", comparable to that in Regina’s Victoria Park. New stones were added on each side of the monument in honour of those who served in World War II, the Korean War, and subsequent Peacekeeping operations.

Lethbridge War Memorial, formerly in Galt Gardens

By 2002, Galt Gardens had become Lethbridge’s "derelict park", sheltering a number of homeless people. There were used clothing stores and an emergency shelter around the square, and two security people were in the park when I visited. But it was still a beautiful park, and some recent efforts had been made to spruce it up – an entrance gate, arcade and amphitheatre - and there was some use by children and people biking through. But many considered it a place to avoid. In the year 2000, the cenotaph was moved to a new location beside the modern City Hall on 4 Avenue South, a relocation ascribed by a security officer to vandalism. "Parks tell the story of a city".

I revisited Lethbridge just a few years later, in 2005, to participate in the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (SSAC). I was giving a talk about French-Canadian influences on the landscapes and city planning of Western Canada (explored in depth in Chapter 6 of my book Landscape Architecture in Canada). While our lectures and slide sessions took place at the magnificent University of Lethbridge on the west side of the river, we also visited a number of sites around town, and one of these was Galt Gardens.

It was extremely gratifying to see the revival of Lethbridge’s downtown by that time. Quite a few families were enjoying the square, which had gained a new lease on life as a focus of revived downtown activities. A once-abandoned Carnegie Library building in the park had become the home of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, featuring well-attended exhibits, and formerly empty storefronts opposite the park on 3rd Avenue South now harboured a number of busy commercial establishments. Much of the credit for this revitalization should go to the Lethbridge Main Street Project, established in 2000 as a partnership between the City, the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone, and the Government of Alberta. Thus our cities continue to evolve, and, thanks to long-term civic and business strategies, they can come back from hard times.