Danish Tourists say Canada needs parks, not parking lots, start media firestorm

mounties on guard
via Mounties on guard

People come to Canada expecting mountains and Mounties standing on guard for thee, but one Danish couple were so shocked by what they found that they wrote an open letter "to the people who hold power and responsibility in Canada." It was reprinted in the Ottawa Citizen and other papers:

Our overwhelming memory of Canada is one of cars, traffic, parking and the related obesity and unfulfilled communities. It is an impression that we have since shared with other tourists who have visited Canada....Upon arrival in Toronto we were horrified to see great oceans of car parks deserting the landscape and 12 lane high ways, rammed packed with huge SUVs, with people going no where. A greater shock came when we discovered that this kind of infrastructure is not reserved just for the sprawl surrounding towns and cities but that highways actually run through city centres too. As humans trying to enjoy Canada’s major cities (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Halifax) we were treated like second class citizens compared to cars. The air was dirty, and the constant noise from horns and engines was unpleasant.

They talk to a lot of Canadians, who tell them that they don't feel safe on bikes, who feel that they have to drive. They are appalled at the pathetic attempts at building bike infrastructure, " it felt like a token gesture rather than a genuine effort to make Canada a healthy, happy and sustainable country." Holly Chabowski concludes:

I write this letter to appeal to you to take radical steps to transform Canada into the healthy, happy and sustainable country we were expecting. You are a nation of the most fantastic people, we know because we met them everywhere! As citizens they deserve much, much better. Come on Canada! When tourists visit Canada make sure they remember it for for its parks rather than parking.

Tim Horton Lineup/CC BY 2.0

Go back to Copenhagen!

The response from Canadians was pretty consistently "Go back to Copenhagen." That Canada is too cold and too spread out to do anything but drive. That public transit doesn't work at such low densities. And "given our climate, stealing lanes from cars for bike lanes that can't be used for a significant portion of the year does not make sense." That they are tofu-eating treehugging eco-nuts. That they couldn't care less what these losers from Denmark think. And worse things that can't be repeated in a family friendly TreeHugger site.

Sprawl in Markham, Ontario/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

John Michael McGrath thinks that our Danish tourists are shocked to find Canada is so....American. He writes in Hazlitt:

There are three obvious reactions to a letter like this. The first is some variation of “Go back to Copenhagen!” The second is, “Maybe you need better tour guides if they’re showing European visitors the Costco parking lot.” But the third—and this is the one people are having a hard time with—is, “Well, they’ve got us dead to rights.”

He then nails the problem with those who say "there's no alternative to driving here."

Canada’s urban planning wasn’t shaped by the constraints of its winters or its population density. It was shaped by its abundance of land and capital, and the absence of our concern over turning that land into subdivisions and malls. That’s what distinguishes countries like us and the United States from densely packed countries like Denmark or Japan.... Given a menu of options other countries didn’t have, North Americans chose sprawl.

Mcgrath notes that people said the same things in Copenhagen in the sixties and seventies, that Danes are not Italians and that it is too cold to walk or bike all winter. But that with political will, it happened. He notes that Canadians are not special little snowflakes but have a choice in building the kinds of cities we want.

Until we’re willing to talk seriously about the primacy of the car in our cities, even if obnoxious tourists talk smack about us, it’s clear which choice we’ve made.

This article struck a nerve, and caused such an uproar across the country that Holly Chabowski had to follow up in the Ottawa Citizen with Why I wrote about Canada's car culture. She concludes:

Amid the responses to this discussion I genuinely hope that energies are directed towards those who can actually change policy. Hopefully less gridlock, safe and sustainable choices, green spaces and livable, vibrant, healthy communities are what people want all over the world. Sustainable transport is about giving people safe choices to travel, not banning cars.

Thanks to Holly for starting a really great discussion. This isn't about a war on the car, it's about giving people options.

Tags: Canada | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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