Alberta's Utopian Experiment, Mountain, Early Winter 2015

BanffHousingUnlike many mountain destinations, which succumb to high-dollar sprawl, unique restrictions keep Banff, Alberta, livable and affordable. Here’s how to emulate that ideal.

Take an evening stroll beyond the shops lining Banff’s mountain-framed main street, and you’ll see something unusual in Western resort towns: All the neighborhood lights are on. Everybody—or nearly everybody—is home.

You won’t see that just 17 miles away in Canmore. There, as in so many resort communities, darkened windows are common thanks to absentee owners that only occupy their vacation dwellings for a few weeks a year. But in Banff, population 9,386, there are no second homes. The “need-to-reside” restriction requires every renter and property owner to live and either work or have worked in the mountain community.

It’s one of three key restrictions imposed by Parks Canada, the governmental agency that manages Banff National Park (in which the town is located). Additional limitations include set boundaries—Banff can’t expand beyond its 1.6 square miles—and a cap on the amount of square footage available for business.

“Because of the restrictions, we have a great community of people who live here full-time,” says Donna White, an independent sales rep and resident since 1976. White also points to neighboring Canmore—and its suburban sprawl and strip malls—as an example of what could happen without federal oversight.

Not that stateside towns can point fingers at Canmore. It’s hard to imagine Jackson, Vail, or even Lake Placid imposing a commercial cap, let alone a need-to-reside requirement. The degree of social engineering that rules Banff is unmatched in the U.S. Still, as U.S. mountain towns run out of space, even free market proponents are conceding the need for some restrictions on growth.

Banff’s limit on physical growth is likely the easiest to replicate. Ouray, and Ridgway, Colorado, formed a joint agreement that limits urban zones in order to preserve their rural surroundings. Other towns operate under a de facto growth boundary created by natural box canyons, aggressive open space departments, or federally managed public lands. When trying to balance its need to grow with the goal of maintaining its architectural heritage, Telluride chose not to blight its historic downtown with sprawl, but opted instead to create a satellite, on-mountain bedroom community in Mountain Village, which is linked to Telluride via a free gondola.

The downside? Highly attractive mountain communities that can’t grow physically tend to quickly price locals out of the home ownership market. As ski bum housing gets converted into second homes, the dynamic of small towns can begin to change: Witness the ensuing darkened windows of hollowed-out towns and a commuter workforce jammed in traffic.

Without a Banff style need-to-reside clause, other resort towns have to get crafty about creating affordable, owner-occupied housing. Government subsidies and deed restrictions can help. So can tinkering with zoning codes to let developers squeeze more people into a limited space. Such cost-saving strategies include reducing minimum setbacks, which expands developable land by allowing buildings to encroach closer to sidewalks, and reducing off-street parking requirements since developers don’t profit from parked cars. “You need to reduce the cost of building where you want building to happen,” explains Jeremy Nelson, a revitalization and redevelopment specialist who divides his time between San Francisco, California, and Durango, Colorado. “Living in a community is like life itself. You can’t have everything you want, so you have to prioritize.”

In addition to less off-street parking, such tradeoffs might include living above an outdoor gear shop or a yoga studio. Mixed-use developments that combine street-level businesses with upper-level apartments are vital to city planning. “In essence, the commercial spaces subsidize the reasonably-priced residences,” says Bob Delves, another Telluride-based planning consultant who points to the success of the Santana Row mixed use neighborhood in Santa Clara, California, as a prime example. “It feels a little weird at first, people living in a shopping mall,” admits Delves. “But it’s actually fun and vibrant. The businesses draw the people who live there,” he says.

Still another model, says Delves, is the “agrihood,” which places high-density housing around a communal farm plot. South Village in South Burlington, Vermont, and Hidden Springs in Boise, Idaho, are among the agrihoods that have already debuted in mountain communities. The single-family homes feature tiny yards (residents enjoy the shared open space instead) and the houses sit close enough to let neighbors chat from their porches. “Agrihoods are ideally suited to the upcoming millennial generation, which isn’t looking to build big things and isn’t wedded to their cars,” says Delves.

Still, to some, houses without yards and densely packed apartment buildings seem like tenements. Which might be in part why residents of Telluride’s Mountain Village recently rejected a proposal for a 91-unit affordable housing complex in favor of a 45-unit development. But if resort towns truly want to combat sprawl and keep the lights on in owner-occupied homes, they’ll have to make peace with increasing density. That, too, comes with perks, says Darren Enns, Senior Planner for the town of Banff, where more than 50 percent of Banff residents walk or bike to work and there’s less staff turnover because employees feel part of the larger Banff community. Plus, says Enns, who credits Parks Canada for making sure that Banff’s environmental and social value isn’t swept aside by economic urgency: “Banff is a community, and our quality of life is so much better for it.”