Seamus: My name is Seamus McConville. I was born and raised here in Prince Rupert and currently I’m doing a Masters in Community Planning at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. I’m very passionate about complete streets and active transportation because it provides a better way for for citizens to get around their cities. It’s not only healthier and better on the planet, but also a better way to build community.
CS4PR: Now that you’re living in Nanaimo, can you tell us some of the similarities and differences of living in Nanaimo compared to Prince Rupert?
Seamus: Prince Rupert is blessed with a multitude of sidewalks. There’s only a few streets in town that I can think of where there are no sidewalks to walk on to get where you need to go. Nanaimo, on the other hand, does not have this same level of infrastructure. Where I live there’s a sidewalk that’ll go downtown, but if you need to go anywhere else in the neighborhood, you’re using a shared lane that’s just painted onto the road, which is definitely far from safe. The other part that Prince Rupert is doing pretty well is public transport. Prince Rupert also has an excellent public transport system with 30 minute service on four routes which basically touch on every portion of the city. From what I understand, it was one of the most used transit systems for a community this size in the province a few years ago.
CS4PR: What from your studies have you learned that might apply to Prince Rupert?
Seamus: In the Master of Community Planning Program, one of the things we focus on is small community planning and revitalization. One of the things that we look at is how to make spaces livable and convert them into places for people, especially in cities that may be facing a new reality, such as a transition from industry-based economies to more service- and tourism-based economies. Knowing the change that the city has undergone in the past 20 years, we can apply many of the case studies we utilize in the program to our own local contexts. We also focus a lot of Indigenous engagement, as we believe urban design is at its best when indigenous nations have a say in the spaces that they participate in.
CS4PR: What do you think Prince Rupert could do for people to get around on foot, bicycle, car or bus?
Seamus: I think one of the big things Prince Rupert has going for it is its already existing infrastructure such as sidewalks. We have the recently reopened Rushbrook trail which is an excellent active transport corridor. We have a developed Cow Bay district which is spanned out into the rest of the city, providing a district to eat, drink and socialize. Pieces such as the Rushbrook trail and our existing pedestrian networks build upon these districts, as they provide ways for us to get to the area without a car. The big challenge however is connectivity. Take the Rushbrook trail for example, which does provide an excellent connection. However, you end up traversing a parking lot to get to the trail head, which might not be ideal and disconnects it from the rest of the pedestrian network. And once you get to the end of the Rushbrook trail in Seal Cove, you’re just kind of dumped out in an industrial area, not allowing the trail to live up to its full potential. Through Cow Bay you have a similar scenario when you’re trying to continue to the waterfront. Here, what you see is you’ve got a great trail and great seawall, probably one of the best in BC. It stops at Kwinitsa and boom - you’re now dumped in a pseudo-industrial site and cannot continue your journey much like at Seal Cove. One of the things we do need to see moving forward is how to re-engage these lands. One of the big questions we focus on in the Masters of Community Planning Program is how to convert communities that are primarily resource-based and convert them into more walkable and livable places and somehow find a way for industry to play and interact with the average person’s life.
CS4PR: So it sounds like you’re interested urban planning as not just a tool for transportation and livability, but also as a tool for economic revitalization. Could you tell us more about that?
Seamus: Absolutely. One of the ideas I’m playing with right now as my thesis is how do communities such as Prince Rupert convert from more industrial and resource-based economies to more tourism-based? One of the great examples that prompted this question in my mind is when I went to Tofino earlier this year. I found myself surfing and it kind of just hit me, like the many waves that knocked me off my board, how is it that Tofino is now known more for its surf community and its ecotourism rather than the logging town that it originally started as? So what was so successful in Tofino’s experience as opposed to what could have been done better in other communities all along the coast? While it’s easy to say “Hey! We can convert to a tourism-based economy!” but how do you do it in a sense that will actually take hold like in the Tofino-Ucluelet experience? One of the pieces I felt in Tofino’s experience was that it was not only rather walkable, but it also had options for public transportation that helped connect the beaches. This way you were able to hop off with your surfboard and go surfing or simply hike. Another thing is I actually saw a guy on a bike carrying a surfboard between the beaches, which was really cool. The only reason he was able to undertake that was because the infrastructure for cycling was there.
This is one of the big things that Prince Rupert’s got going for it. We have excellent nature and we have water access; however, access that is underutilized and inaccessible. So how do we take this land that industry has been holding for almost all of the city’s existence, and convert these spaces into places which we can use?
CS4PR: So we’ve got a lot of natural assets. One of our challenges is to create the infrastructure so that the populace can access them. Is that what you’re saying?
Seamus: Absolutely. Today, the placement of our industry has shifted dramatically to the seaport developments over at Fairview and Ridley Island, which remove the industries that previously made up our foreshore. However, what do we do about the lands on the waterfront where the railroad has the beach? Why can’t that be remediated to be a more public space? Why can’t those rail yards be more integrated into the cityscape of Prince Rupert, barring the obvious environmental and safety concerns? There was a reason that the Kwinitsa beach was so popular despite being officially out of bounds - it was the only place in the city limits you could physically touch the ocean.
CS4PR: What do you think Prince Rupert could do to be a shining example of active transport in a small community context?
Seamus: I think when it comes to accessibility and active transport, we need to embrace those kind of trails and build upon them and make our connections between all of our infrastructure. Whether it’s the road we walk along, our waterfront, the Rushbrook trail, or the pathways that take us up to downtown, we need to find a way to integrate them so that it’s a seamless transfer from network to network. I feel with a win such as with our Rushbrook trail, we’re definitely on the right track; we just need to find a way to connect it with the rest of the city. We have the idea of connection to nature right with this, as the trail connects us with nature of the city. It’s almost like you can forget you’re within the boundaries of the city. I think that’s one thing that we’re definitely getting right - embracing this nature which is all around us. This natural space is something that many other cities just don’t have.
(Seamus’s interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.)