Kamloops is growing at an exponential rate. With a population growth rate around 8.4 percent over the past five years – well above both the B.C. and National averages - Kamloops is rapidly attracting new residents. Yet, businesses are struggling to remain viable along our commercial corridors, and there is a persistent discussion of safety in the most central parts of our city. Our city is in a precarious situation–one where growing pains could see the city fragmented by a relentless drive for development if we lack a vision for a future that includes us all.
When I first moved to Kamloops I was struck by a common observation among many people who move here – everyone is so friendly here! Lately I feel that Kamloops is losing a bit of that magic. The City deciding to mute Facebook comments on their page tells you something about the state of civic discourse right now; many of us have become defensive and combative towards anyone and anything we don’t understand. If the comments on social media are any indication of how we might discuss the very real, complex issues we need to face together - where is our future heading?.
This is where our public spaces come into play. Anyone who has been lucky enough to enjoy a warm evening in Riverside Park, sprawled out near the bandshell to enjoy some free live music with your fellow city dwellers, has experienced the value of great public spaces. Anyone who has spent a Saturday morning perusing our farmer’s market, or a leisurely ride around Mac Island when it seems like every person on the North Shore has come out for a stroll, or a ride, or to pause for a moment and catch a bit of a baseball game, has felt the joyous sense of enjoying our city together.
Our public spaces don’t mean anything on their own. A plaza is granted its significance and power by people gathering in it, a park is granted its beauty and serenity by people enjoying it, just as a city street gains its excitement and ambiance when people use it. Public spaces flatten the divides we put up between ourselves. They belong to us all, and they call each of us to a higher common responsibility to make our city a great, vibrant, and accepting place to be.
Thriving public spaces have also been proven to benefit business, improve quality of life, and increase safety in cities.
We’ve already seen what can happen when we think about public spaces creatively here in Kamloops. KCBIA Executive Director Howie Reimer remarked to the City Council that the activation of public spaces through events such as Hoops in the Loops and the Santa Claus parade were a boost to local businesses, helping with many issues local owners had been struggling with. The patios that began popping up on Victoria Street during the past few years are now bustling, the best seats in the house for most restaurants and cafes. The Chamber of Commerce reclaimed a single parking space in front of their offices for a parklet, and now the space is used every day by folks taking the time to stop and enjoy a serene place to sit in the middle of downtown. We’ve seen what great public space can look and feel like, and we’ve seen what it can do.
Later this summer, the Kamloops Food Policy Council will open a public parklet in front of our new local food hub, The Stir, on the North Shore, right off the Tranquille corridor. This space will be for anyone and everyone– featuring a community pantry, seating, planters filled with native species, and wheelchair accessible garden beds. We believe everyone deserves great public space, and we want to show our commitment to making that a reality for our community. Our hope is to join other leaders in our community in advocating for more public space, and in doing so encourage a city that is better for business, more compassionate and diverse, and safer for everyone who lives here. We know when we invest in public spaces, we give the opportunity for community members to use those spaces to help others, and hold space for culture to shine through.
So our challenge as a city is this– let’s support initiatives to make our public spaces better, let’s support new, bold ideas that might seem outlandish at first. Let’s practice compassion and understanding, and use our public spaces to advocate for better lives for every single person in Kamloops. We can continue to be a friendly place for those new to our community. Kamloops is growing, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of what it means to be a great community– and if we lead with great public spaces, we won’t.