As an urban designer who frequently travels, I am tickled by how Saskatoon dances back and forth in my mind, showcasing the best characteristics of a small city and a large town. Nicknamed the Paris of the Prairies, Saskatoon is a pocket of Saskatchewan's culture, vitality, and welcoming prairie spirit.
These days the city's streets buzz with an infusion of new restaurants and residents, and breweries and bars. With nine river crossings and a well-developed river trail system, the city’s relationship with the South Saskatchewan River remains the envy of many prairie cities. The stream of water flows through the middle of town, making river life "integral to the heart of the city," says Patti McGillivray, vice president of the Saskatoon Heritage Society. "Almost half of the city is on each side of the river, so crossing east and west over the bridges, seeing the river, and walking the riverbank trails all are part of daily life here."
I love Saskatoon’s downtown. It’s a booming district full of professionals, bustling during the day, and casual adventurers, taking in the city’s entertainment at night. As Chris Kirkland, an editor of Planet S Magazine, wrote, “[Saskatoon's] Downtown has gone from a pretty lazy place most evenings to a place where you can’t find a parking spot."
In 2016, the City of Saskatoon revealed its final Growth to Half a Million plan. The plan detailed the direction of how the city will grow over the next 30 years. Coming on the heels of seven years of unprecedented growth, city officials observed the increasing pressures on existing transportation networks within Saskatoon and anticipated that sweeping new measures would need to be implemented to improve how people move around the city to avoid future challenges. The original Growth plan called for half of all new growth to happen in already-existing neighbourhoods, and the rest to occur in newly-created neighbourhoods.
After an extensive community engagement process, the city created a 10-year action plan to advance many core initiatives in the Growth plan, including a bus rapid transit (BRT) system and changes to existing Saskatoon Transit services. The 2018 update to the Growth plan went into more depth to guarantee accessibility for people of all ages and abilities, creating communities that support a higher quality of life for everyone and ensuring that the growth is smart and sustainable for future generations.
In some of my previous articles, I discussed the increasingly global nature of human migration, and why development needs to consider the needs and expectations of an increasingly sophisticated, mobile and demanding market. I also pointed out that the most crucial question communities big and small need to ask when contemplating growth in a global world is “Who are we? What are the genius loci or unique proposition?” Urban designers and environmentalists have, for many years, sought the intrinsic value of the genius loci or the specific, authentic and unique attributes of each place. It’s the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, etc.) that artists, writers and locals celebrate, along with a place’s unique physical aspects (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, natural resources, architectural style(s), rural crafts styles, pathways, views and multiple generations of human artefact) that form the genius loci. It’s clear that to create unique and memorable places, everything (natural, cultural and architectural) that makes each place unique, distinct and precious should be identified, preserved, celebrated and enhanced.
Given that Canada’s population is expected to grow by seven million people by 2050, and the City of Saskatoon expects to almost double its population in the same time frame, what exactly will draw those 250,000 new residents to the city?
We already discussed some of today’s desirable traits within the Paris of the Prairies: It’s an important commercial and educational centre in the province of Saskatchewan. It is central Saskatchewan’s great crossroads; a hub for water, rail, and highway crossings east and west, north and south. Geographically, it lies along a bend of the South Saskatchewan River, 346 kilometres north of the Canada-US border, 224 kilometres from Alberta and 344 kilometres from Manitoba.
Geography aside, Saskatoon’s popularity and ability to attract new Canadians to its city, will rely heavily on its genius loci. Historically, Indigenous populations have inhabited the Saskatoon area for at least 8,000 years with visible buffalo kill sites, teepee rings and medicine wheels forming vital links with the past. In 1881 a group of Ontario temperance activists formed the Temperance Colonization Society (TCS), with the idea of creating an agricultural colony on the prairies, dedicated to the ideals of the TCS movement—a philosophy which blamed alcohol for most of the ills that beset society. Take away the alcohol, the reasoning went, and you took away the troubles. Between 1885 and 1890 early Saskatoon grew very slowly, and the TCS fell on hard times and folded in 1891. However, social remnants of this old Temperance philosophy, such as viewing Broadway and Main Street as the focal point for the city and reframing it as a gathering place and commercial area, have made today’s Saskatoon one of the Canadian prairie’s most inclusive, diverse, and family-oriented places.
While Saskatoon's early pioneers mostly came from Ontario or Great Britain, the city is now home to people from around the world (in addition to the large First Nation populations that have called Saskatoon home for millennia). This ethnic diversity is another dynamic component of the rich culture that makes Saskatoon a particularly exciting place to live.
It's so critically important that every aspect of Saskatoon’s future growth strategy respects its myths, culture and history, and builds upon its foundationally unique traits. If Saskatoon’s growth plans only consider infrastructural capacity coefficients and urban infill algorithms, it will create a generic city competing with other Canadian (and global) cities. A city that places importance on its genius loci will forever come out ahead. People are drawn to cities where they can dream, where they can live, work and play. Saskatoon’s Growth plan was never about buildings or rapid transit—as stated, it was always about the people. People are emotionally interconnected to a place’s genius loci, and the most successful and bustling cities of the 21st century will continue to build on this principle. Every great city knows that creating spaces for people will always provide a return on investment.