Save for the railway track that curves beside it, the downtown was destroyed – businesses levelled, municipal buildings gutted, nearby homes knocked off their foundations. Now, though, a vision for a rebuilt town – for a sense of normalcy in a community healing from a disaster that violently tore through the landscape as it claimed lives – is gathering steam. The main drag will be shifted to the east. A market, a nucleus for the town until development is completed elsewhere, will be the first major commercial building erected. Roads will be joined to funnel traffic downtown and bring communities together. Victims will be memorialized with green space.
This is the story of Cordova, an Alabama town in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where two tornadoes ripped through the downtown in 2011and left it a shambles until earlier this year, when the town received federal funding to clear the debris. It's also eerily similar to the story of Lac-Mégantic, the Quebec town reeling from a July 6 train derailment that incinerated much of the downtown and killed at least 47 people.
Emerging from both sets of ashes is a reminder not only of the enormous resilience it takes to imagine a way forward after a tragedy, but of the importance of cities in shaping the way we live. It matters where our roads meet, how wide the sidewalks are, how far away the supermarket is and whether we mix work with play or segregate home from the rest of our lives. Sometimes these elements emerge organically over time; sometimes the challenge is to engineer them and then let residents do the rest.
"You've got to recapture the whole sense of the city," says John van Nostrand, a Toronto architect and urban planner with international experience working in disaster-riddled communities. "It's partly about nostalgia, but it's partly the opportunity to change it. … You need good streets, you need public space, and you need a good layout – but you also need a place that allows people to remake it the way they'd like to see it."
Just as people don't suffer or recover from trauma the exact same way, no two towns emerge from disaster with the same scars or plans for renewal. But both Cordova and Lac-Mégantic are in the rare (if deeply unenviable) position to build their centres from scratch, to lay the groundwork for a "destination" rather than a cookie-cutter "non-place" lacking the natural energy that pulses from established communities but is so rarely found in overly built environments.
"The golden goose is an authentic place that's good for residents but also attractive to visitors," says Brent Toderian, a city planning consultant and president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.
Long before the disaster that changed it forever, Lac-Mégantic was already using its century-old roots as a blueprint for its future. To preserve its historic downtown, the town put up eye-pleasing street lamps, invested in sidewalk furniture so people could linger and beautified both the core and nearby parks.
"There was a fear that we were entering a phase of a long, slow march to the death of downtown," Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche says. "Over the past decade, we invested a lot of time, energy and money to make sure that didn't happen. It worked, and the town had a social life and an energy downtown."
Mr. Toderian suggests that many small towns, including Lac-Mégantic, have benefited from embracing "traditional" scale and values. By "traditional," of course, he means the type of streetscapes developed before the advent of the car – towns that are walkable, navigable and connected. He means towns that urban planners all over the world, in cities untouched by tragedy but fighting the disconnectedness and unsustainability of sprawl, are now looking to for inspiration.
Today, Lac-Mégantic likewise has to look back as it considers next steps. In the past few weeks, the town has held two consultations with business leaders, and on July 29 voted to award Quebec-based urban planning firm Groupe IBI-DAA a $20,000 contract to come up with a vision. Lac-Mégantic hopes to complete the first major undertaking along the new downtown strip – a 50,000-square-foot public market with stalls for vendors – by mid-October.
Time, it seems, is of the essence: the town gave the design firm mere days to work on a proposal before presenting it to local businesses last Thursday. "Neither the town nor the planner was ready to meet with businesses last Thursday, but we felt the worry," Lac-Mégantic spokesman Nicolas Carette says. "This is their futures – this is how these people earn their living."
That worry should not be underestimated. Several planners and mayors of towns rocked by disaster warn that while the emotional trauma of the disaster itself is obvious, there is also the psychological hurdle of reimagining the place where you live, eat, shop and sleep – the roller coaster of despair at what has been lost, hope for a new plan and then exasperation when it becomes clear that the journey to rebuild will be neither short nor simple.
Those emotions were felt in places like Pass Christian, Miss., which was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as Greensburg, Kan., which was mostly destroyed by a 2007 tornado, and, of course, Cordova.
In Pass Christian, residents were concerned their community would re-emerge lacking the character and walkability that brought it together. "The biggest danger – why we were called in – is they were worried that instead of coming back as a charming town, they'd be just another wide spot in the road," says Lois Fisher, a California-based urban planner involved in the rebuild.
By contrast, Greensburg saw its near-obliteration as a chance to completely reimagine itself – to turn itself "green" and rebuild as an environmentally sustainable hub of energy-efficient civic buildings, fuelled, in part, by wind turbines and solar panels.
"Sometimes the plan is, 'We want it just the way we had it because that's what we love and we had a great, vibrant community and we don't want to lose that,' " says Steve Hewitt, a former city administrator who helped to steer the revival. "But sometimes the plan is, 'We had some issues in some certain areas and here's an opportunity to resolve those issues. Here are some challenges we were facing and maybe we can do some things differently.' "
Although Lac-Mégantic's plan is in its infancy, there are glimpses of how rebuilding may not only recreate a vibrant downtown, but also bring positive change into Fatima, a working-class district that has been stagnant for the past three decades. The planned relocation of the downtown from the west to an area that is currently forest and mud, but already zoned commercially, will connect a new main artery with Fatima's sleepy Lévis Street.
In Cordova, a similar vision is in the works. The council there has approved plans to shift its Main Street to the east and better link it to a new highway interchange that Mayor Drew Gilbert hopes will bring additional visitors and businesspeople to the core. The first buildings will be civic staples, such as a newly built city hall and a badly needed supermarket, which will hopefully create a sense of momentum for other local businesses.
The idea: If you build it – and build it right – the proverbial "they" will come.
Already, at the southern edge of the proposed downtown in Lac-Mégantic, a realtor's sign in front of the Notre-Dame-de-Fatima Catholic Church is generating sudden interest after being on the market for months. "There isn't much to see here right now," says long-time resident Réal Grenier, gesturing at the deserted street. "I never thought that would change."
So far, only business leaders have been invited to a pair of public consultations in Lac-Mégantic. Although Pascale Halle, the president of the local chamber of commerce, said the plan was well received, but contains "lots of ifs" that need to be answered soon.
Just not too soon. As Mr. Toderian notes, there is an inherent danger in rushing ahead with plans that residents either haven't seen or had time to digest. "The town should be cautious about making long-term plans," he says, pointing to the market building as an example of a feature that could bring unforeseen consequences. Large buildings require parking, he explains, and can overwhelm the traffic pattern and "do damage" to a more comprehensive urban design that should be carefully considered as a whole.
Still, Mr. Toderian says concerns and tensions are natural – in fact, a key part of the rebuilding process. Even if nobody is ready to have a technical discussion yet, this is the time for the community to reflect deeply.
After all, he says, it's Lac-Mégantic residents that have to turn inward and ask themselves: "What is our new vision?"
Reporting was contributed by Justin Giovannetti in Lac-Mégantic and Alex Bozikovic in Toronto.
Lac-Mégantic was built 1884. As its name suggests, it's situated on the edge of a lake. It is also surrounded by rugged mountains. But if the city has stunning vistas, at street level it has been devastated by this summer's train derailment. About half of downtown – 10 blocks long – was destroyed in fires and explosions. The buildings that remain may be so contaminated they will need to be demolished. Plans for rebuilding the town are already in motion. Among the challenges: Who will pay the cost of decontamination and reconstruction, whether local businesses stay where they are, and how true to history a New Mégantic will be. The timeline to rebuilding is tight, too, as Eastern Quebec has a ferocious winter and temperatures are already plunging to just above zero.
1. A new main street
Lac-Mégantic's main street, Frontenac, runs parallel to the lake two blocks east of the lake edge. Current plans would move the downtown two or three blocks east, between the town's recently completed sports centre and the rail yard that bordered the eastern edge of downtown. Papineau Street, which isn't a major thoroughfare right now, would be lengthened south from the sports centre.
2. Open for business
The Dollarama in downtown Lac-Mégantic was renovated and reopened only weeks before the derailment. It was one of the main anchors on the downtown strip, and the store's owners are anxious to rebuild. One possible location could be along the Chaudière River in the working-class Fatima district.
The Dollarama could also end up in the parking lot in front of the sports centre, where a 50,000-square-foot building (about the size of a football field) will be built by October, according to current plans. Officials hope to populate the building with businesses catering to Christmas shopping. Once major reconstruction starts in the spring, though, the building could become a permanent public market or find a tenant.
3. From trees to town centre
Between Lac-Mégantic's sports centre and the river is a clump of undeveloped forest. It is owned by the town and is zoned for commercial use. The hope is that Papineau Street will be pushed south through the area until it hits the river.
4. A bridge from then to now
A new bridge is proposed across the narrow Chaudière River. It would connect Papineau and Lévis Streets, creating the new thoroughfare for Lac-Mégantic.