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A brief history of settlement

Humans have been living together in settlements for over 7,000 years, and during that time have arranged their communities according to the values of their society and the specific challenges they face. In that regard, people in Alberta today are no different than those in ancient civilizations thousands of years ago. The leaders of Babylon in ancient times were concerned with issues very similar ones we face today, including access to water and ease of transportation. Moreover, some elements of ancient cities are still being implemented today. For example, the gridiron street pattern favoured by the ancient Greeks and Romans is evident in many contemporary cities across the globe.

Of course, much has changed since the ancient Greeks navigated their cities. The world has changed considerably throughout the ages, and our communities have changed with them. Whereas many ancient cities were planned for defense against invaders, other issues took the forefront in later times. Key periods in history such as the industrial revolution dramatically changed the way we think about the places we live. As settlements grew and new issues became apparent, community leaders turned their attention to accommodating booming populations, addressing health and safety concerns, and transforming increasingly squalid cities into places of beauty and comfort. Technological changes such as the invention of the railroad and personal vehicles introduced new opportunities and challenges that forever changed the fabric of our society.

Planners have the responsibility of dealing with the issues these changes create, and preparing for upcoming changes in the future. In order to do so effectively, it is vitally important to learn from the lessons of the past.

Indigenous Peoples

Prior to European colonization, there were few permanent settlements in what we now call Canada. There were some, however, including the Huron and Iroquois settlements in what is now southern Ontario and numerous Nations that founded fishing villages on the Pacific coast. On the lands that now comprise Alberta, Indigenous people were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers that transported portable shelters to different locations from season to season.

Indigenous history in this province stretches back over 11,000 years. In that time, First Nations peoples developed an intimate understanding of the land, and the plants and animals that call it home. Early European settlers sought to benefit from this knowledge, often establishing forts on traditional gathering sites, or other locations where they could easily trade with Indigenous peoples.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, the Crown signed treaties with First Nations peoples that enabled the Canadian Government to further pursue agriculture, settlement, and resource development. These are known as the “numbered treaties”, and they are foundational documents for the negotiation of land uses between European settlers and First Nations peoples. Treaty 6, Treaty 7, and Treaty 8 cover lands in Alberta. Given that these and other treaties include clauses on the shared use of land and the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, it is very important for municipalities to be familiar with the treaties when engaging and working with Indigenous peoples.

Today, Alberta is home to over 220,000 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Planning practices need to take this into account, giving consideration to the historical and current issues Indigenous peoples face, and undertaking in meaningful engagement when decisions have the potential to impact them.

Click here for more information about the history of Indigenous peoples in Alberta.

Click here for a list of First Nations in Alberta including their treaty affiliation and location.

Click here for information and resources on Indigenous Peoples planning and community development.

Early Canadian communities

Settlements and the municipalities that grew out of them initially took very different forms in different parts of Canada. In French Canada, major settlements were laid out in a “planted town” style that French settlers used around much of the world. Major settlements like Ville de Quebec (Quebec City) and Montreal reflected the character seen in European cities of the time, with winding “organic” streets within walls. Although Montreal’s walls are now gone, the City along with Quebec still reflect this design, offering a radically different urban form than seen in the rest of Canada in their old central districts.

The British planned out their settlements very differently, most often following neatly laid out gridiron patterns. In Atlantic Canada, the gridiron patterns were usually laid out around key developments such as military barracks, churches, or governors’ residences. Later settlements in Upper Canada mostly followed similar gridiron streets in a functional manner.

Communities in western Canada were different again from French and British colonial settlements. Rather than being established to exert European colonial dominance, western settlements followed a newly expanding railroad, taking advantage of natural resources and agricultural potential. These railway towns almost always followed gridiron patterns like the British settlements in the East, but were centered on the railway rather than other key developments. Many settlements were constructed by rail corporations or resource extraction businesses such as mines.

The expansion of the railway into the West is a key example of the importance of technology in defining the urban landscape. The building of the railway resulted in a proliferation of new communities and resulted in a population boom in western Canada. Without the railway, only minor trading forts situated along major rivers were capable of delivering people and goods so far from the populated east.

Click here to learn more about how Alberta’s municipalities grew around the rail lines.

The Canadian Pacific Railway built a rail line through the Crowsnest Pass between 1897 and 1898 to access coal and mineral deposits, and assert Canadian sovereignty. (Photo source: Oldman River Regional Service Commission).

Urban growth

Prior to the 1800s, Canada’s population was extremely small. Throughout the 19th century, this changed dramatically. Rapidly increasing demand for resources in other markets drove massive economic and population growth. Between 1810 and 1865, the country’s population grew from under half a million people to over 3.5 million. This explosive growth continued in the 20th and 21st centuries, increasing to 14 million in 1951 and almost 35 million in 2012. In the Prairies, this growth involved a massive influx of people into new urban centres that previously did not exist.

Gunton, T. (1981). The Evolution of Urban and Regional Planning in Canada: 1900-1960. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from the University of British Colombia Retrospective Theses and Dissertations, 1919-2007 Collection.

This rapid growth had a profound impact on our communities. At first, crushing demand began to outweigh the ability to maintain hygienic and safe communities. Slums developed to house the ever increasing working population. A lack of clean water and wastewater systems, poor strategies for dealing with waste, and absent building standards made Canada’s growing settlements difficult places to live. Disease was rampant, and fires routinely spread through neighbourhoods to disastrous effect. For example In the year of 1886, a large portion of both Calgary and Vancouver burned to the ground).

The year 1886 saw large sections of both Calgary (depicted above) and Vancouver destroyed by fire. (Photo source: Glenbow Museum).

Emergence of contemporary planning

Concerns around disease, fire, garbage and unsightly properties were the impetus for the first modern-style organized urban planning in Canada, and in that regard were also the impetus for the creation of modern-style municipalities. One of the first major tasks that early municipal governments tackled was the subdivision of land to accommodate housing for rapidly increasing local populations and skyrocketing land values.  In the early 1900s, municipalities across the country subdivided huge amounts of land, stretching municipal services such as water and sewage disposal far beyond existing development in anticipation of future demand. At the same time, these early municipalities began utilizing new planning and building standards to mitigate the threat of fires, and worked to deliver new services to residents such as electricity and garbage collection.

The planning that municipalities actually undertook in this era was highly varied, and influenced greatly by trends occurring around the world such as the “City Beautiful” movement that sought to beautify communities through grand and monumental design. Some communities in Alberta drafted grand future plans reflecting these trends, such as Calgary’s 1913 “Mawson Report”. Nicknamed “Vienna on the Bow”, the plan would have seen Calgary rebuilt in a European fashion with grand arcade-style roads, monumental buildings, and ornate bridges. However, the massive cost involved in this proposition, ongoing financial strains, and the onset of World War I prevented it from being implemented.

Mawson, T. (1913). The Civic Centre of Calgary as It May Appear Many Years Hence. Archives Society of Alberta. Accessible at

The Great Depression and World War II were major setbacks – by the end of the war the only city in Canada with a formal planning department was Toronto.

The end of the war marked the beginning of a massive transformation for Canada and for municipal planning. The onset of the baby boom generation in the post-war period introduced unprecedented growth pressures with birth rates rising by up to 70 per cent. Communities were simply not capable of absorbing this growth in their current state.

To meet the new massive demand for housing, municipal planning turned to expansion into greenfield areas. What enabled this turn was the advent of another major technological transformation in Canadian society: the automobile. Whereas previously new neighbourhoods were established along streetcar routes close to the urban core, the personal automobile allowed expansion into suburban environments that would have previously been completely isolated from the community.

Municipal planning at this time was faced with a sudden demand for new roads from the millions of new vehicle owners. To accommodate the demand, great swaths of existing neighbourhoods were cleared in cities across North America to construct highways and interchanges, and new neighbourhoods were increasingly built around the car with wide streets and homes oriented around the personal garage.

Unfortunately, this style of planning had unexpected consequences. In the 1960s, theorists and advocates for neighbourhood design began to recognize increasing environmental and social ills that car-dependence and sprawl deliver. In response, municipal plans now address a wide range of influences including environmental, social, cultural, economic, and governmental considerations. Contemporary plans utilize a range of tools to promote density and make neighbourhoods sustainable, revitalize areas in need of help, improve the health of residents, and ensure housing is readily available.  Information on these tools is provided in the section on How we plan