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Defining a capital city

Yellowknife wants to re-write the rules

Dave Sullivan
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 29/01) -

Capital cities take the capital part seriously -- with imposing legislatures and public buildings that send an unmistakable vibe: the government is boss over everything.

NWT's legislature building from the air.

Keep in mind, most of Canada's capitals were designed at least a century ago.

But in the NWT, where colonialism can still be a sensitive issue, a landscape architect charged with fine-tuning a vision for the capital is thinking snooty intimidation themes won't fly here.

The territory's legislature building hardly dominates the landscape, because it was designed that way, to blend with natural surroundings.

True Northerners know that nature is the real boss in this part of the country.

Our unique legislature, built in the 1990s, set a tone and prompted the idea for a special capital zone, says Yellowknife city planner Dave Jones.

"If it weren't for that building we may not have done this," Jones says. He's talking about a beefed-up plan to make Yellowknife seem more like a capital city.

The legislature's MLA offices overlook Frame Lake as a reminder about nature while the politicians ponder weighty environmental matters. But even visionary architect Gino Pin could not part with all remnants of paternalistic thinking. The speaker's office faces Yellowknife's skyline, "to watch over the city," as one legislature tour guide used to tell visitors.

Landscape architect, Karen LeGresley Hamre, says "in the old buildings, the power resides inside the building. But here the power is more in the people and in the landscape."

How then, does the host city of a government project power and status, if it's not even allowed to be boss over nature?

Hamre reaches toward Mahatma Ghandi philosophy for an answer:

"The true way to get power is by giving it up."

In other words, Yellowknife is trying to re-write capital city rules. So what should the capital look like?

Hamre believes the North's capital should be different from others. She hopes that some day Yellowknife can be showcased better by polishing up what many agree is the North's biggest asset -- an unlimited, pristine backyard.

Hamre and others say the first thing visitors often notice is the pristine backdrop is not as advertised in Yellowknife, because of an ongoing litter problem.

Yellowknife's excellent trails

A proposed border drawn around the Lake includes trails and public buildings like the legislature and Prince of Wales Heritage Centre, but not monoliths like Stanton Regional Hospital, the RCMP or the Department of National Defence headquarters.

The trails "should be an area people are proud of, but people don't even know it's there so how can you be proud," Hamre says.

Residents may not think the trails are unknown, but Hamre's point is that people visiting the city may not know these trails are out there, yet they deserve to experience the solitude as much as city-dwellers.

That's another thing, Yellowknifers are going to have to learn to share their city with others.

As the capital, it's supposed to belong to each Northerner. Opened up to all, and designed to reflect the whole North while oozing status.

"If more people end up going (on trails), sure people get annoyed but in the long run it will be better for Yellowknifers. Hopefully there will be more pride in the area, it'll be cleaner."

The trail system's "skinny little access points" are hard to find and "there's no sense that you're entering a capital area park," Hamre says.

Independent control important

To move the plan from concept drawings to actual changes, Hamre says a new and independent political body is needed. Similar to a capital commission that wields clout in Ottawa.

She's recommending such a commission here, with its own bylaws and high-profile executive director to define and take charge of downtown Yellowknife's best part.

The territory made an attempt to break out Yellowknife's core as a capital area in 1996, but "it never captured the imagination of the public," Hamre says.

A committee was created then, intent on making Yellowknife seem more capital-like. But on it sits civil servants who are tied to whatever government level they work for.

"There's not been any movement on ideas," says Hamre.

Politicians to decide on endorsing ideas

By next month she'll write a report based on a $32,000 study, which will go to the city and then to the territorial government.

In the meantime she'd like to get momentum going with some small projects, like a time capsule buried in a permafrost bog near the legislature.

The city isn't worried about giving up control over part of the city for the greater cause, according to planner Dave Jones. He points out that the earmarked land is already owned by the territorial government.