🕔Aug 04, 2010

I grew up in Kitimat, and didn’t think anything of navigating the town according to the alphabetically arranged street names. I thought themed neighbourhoods was the norm, too. There were bird neighbourhoods with streets like Finch, Egret and Eagle, and fish neighbourhoods with Chinook, Char, Coho. Then there were river neighbourhoods—Skeena, Stikine, Yukon—and my childhood neighbourhood with ‘last name’ streets like Stein, Swannell and Whittlesey.

I walked my dog on the lit and paved sidewalks that looped through town, under and over the roads. I learned to ride a bike on a smooth sidewalk with miles of mowed green grass on either side. Imagine my surprise when I moved to a city and was sprayed by road slush while I stood on the supposed sanctuary of the sidewalk. “Who the heck planned this city?” I would think. Certainly not Clarence Stein.

The Planners
It was September 6, 1951, when Clarence B. Stein first landed in the Douglas Channel with a seaplane full of fellow planners. Stein was a 69-year-old architect from New York City, and he flew to northern BC to see the of muddy, rocky wilderness site where the new community of Kitimat was to be built.

Stein, along with town planners Mayer and Whittlesey were hired by The Aluminum Company of Canada (or Alcan, and now called Rio Tinto Alcan) to design a master plan for the future townsite. In the early 1950s, Alcan was constructing a massive dam in the Nechako Valley, a 16-kilometre tunnel, a powerhouse, an 82-kilometre transmission line, an ocean terminal and an aluminum smelter. The company knew that the smelter required men and permanent housing in an attractive town and spared no expense in securing Clarence Stein and team to plan a world-class community out of the 250 square kilometres of allotted wilderness.

At the time of Stein’s 1951 arrival on the shores of northern BC there was no metropolis. For generations the Haisla First Nation had a settlement (Kitimaat) where the Kitimat River flows into the Pacific, and there were once a few stalwart pioneer families scattered throughout the wide valley.

The Growth
In the spring of 1951 the first construction crews arrived at the site of the future aluminum smelter. They cleared the land for bunkhouses and tents, built toolsheds, cookhouses and a recreation hall. The building of a large aluminum smelter in northern BC was a mega-project and in every town and city people were talking about the industrial boomtown, the planned community of Kitimat. Hearing of the large-scale project, hundreds of men arrived by amphibious aircraft and later by the shipload.

These men built the smelter and the terminal as Stein and his team in New York planned every neighbourhood, street, home, school, shop, hydrant and even the cemetery. While the planners worked out the placement of schools and the size of the hospital, thousands of people from all over the world lived in temporary housing at the smelter site. Hundreds of men lived on the Delta King, a former California river boat beached on the shore. “Married quarters” were established at the smelter site and a school was opened there in 1952. The school taught the workers’ children in the day and taught English classes to the workers at night. One teacher, Mr Bower, recalled that in one of his evening English classes of 24 students, 15 European countries were represented.

Hundreds and soon thousands of men, women and children awaited the implementation of Stein’s plan. They waited years for the design, construction and opening of the permanent schools, the large modern hospital, the shopping mall and for their brand-new, 1950s homes.

The Plan
Stein was the founder of the Regional Planning Association of America and an advocate of the ‘Garden City’ concept. He planned pedestrian-friendly communities with looped streets, green spaces, low-density housing and room for expansion. For Kitimat, Stein planned a community where industry would be separated from the town centre and residential areas. Stein and his team also masterminded over 45 km of walkways including pedestrian overpasses and underpasses, enabling connection to and from all areas of the community. Houses faced a common greenbelt and the designers took into account the needs of the town’s residents. For example, they knew Kitimat would have a high proportion of shift workers, and laid out the houses with the master bedrooms away from the backyards where children would likely be making noise.

For each major neighbourhood the planners accounted for pedestrian safety. Residents could walk to the nearest store and school by crossing a maximum of one road. The planners even purposely left ‘wild spaces’ of untouched forest or open streams for the town children to play and learn in.

Maclean’s Magazine featured Kitimat in their May 1, 1954 issue. They noted that, “Most cities have been half smothered by the ailment of growing too big too fast, by narrow un-planned streets, traffic bottlenecks and widely sprawling housing developments without provisions for parks or playgrounds. Kitimat will be an exception. Alcan…spent close to a quarter of a million dollars designing the city on paper before the first nail was driven.”

In the summer of 1954 the first permanent residential neighbourhood, called Nechako, was taking shape. There were approximately 450 houses ready by winter. There was a sense of permanence to the town as it left the temporary housing of the company town and became an independently run modern community.

Kitimat grew as retail outlets moved into the mall and other industries followed Alcan to the deep-sea port. The newly formed District of Kitimat supported the construction of a golf club, a rod and gun club, a YMCA, a movie theatre and a library. There were competitive soccer leagues, soap-box derbies, seasonal pageants, plays and even a pipe band. A railway was built between Kitimat and Terrace, and later a highway.

The planners imagined Kitimat would grow and allowed for a potential population of up to 50,000. The mall, hospital and schools were built to serve this predicted large population.

Kitimat today
Kitimat was Stein’s eighth and final planned community in the world, and the only one in Canada. He died in 1975 at the age of 93.

There have been adjustments made to Stein’s vision. Houses have been renovated against design intentions and residents have fenced their patch of the greenbelt that Stein had pictured residents sharing as a common area. Due to the lower-than-predicted population, which peaked in 1982 at 13,482, schools have had to close and the hospital was demolished in favour of a new and smaller facility.

Stein’s principal design features, those elements that are common in most garden cities, are still present and valuable today; the attractive community with frequent parks and open green spaces; the 45 kilometres of lit and paved sidewalks; the separation of industry from residential areas.

Stein wrote in the July 1954 publication of Architectural Digest that he “...planned Kitimat with the intention that the physical plan would encourage interaction and foster the development of social cohesion and the capacity for the community to work together towards effective goals and remain resilient over time”.

In recent times Kitimat has suffered economic hardship, yet the community continues and, as Stein hoped, has remained resilient over time.