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Taking the City of Fernie to New Heights with Active Transportation

In this episode, we welcome Mark Rowlands, P.Eng., MA, EP to talk about how the City of Fernie is Taking Active Transportation to New Heights. Mark worked with the City of Fernie as the Acting Manager, Operations and Director of Major Projects on a 15-month contract. He spearheaded the City's Master Active Transportation Plan (Transportation Consultant: Bunt & Associates) and associated Implementation Plan, for which major initiatives are taking place because of that planning process.

About Mark:

With a career that reflects whole-systems-thinking, Mark has developed plans that reflect the complex changes needed within government & organizations that include planning, implementation, design, consultation, outreach, speaking, training, and operations – all to maximize the impact of a new system. He has worked locally, nationally, and internationally to evolve award-winning social innovation systems that involve policy, programs, infrastructure, personnel, finance, operations, and administration for over 30 years.


As a professional civil engineer, environmental professional, and educated in global leadership, Mark’s background in operations, planning, and engineering has afforded him the ability to see systems in their entirety, enabling creative approaches like no other to achieve the desired impact systems changers want. Mark has held numerous leadership positions in government, consulting, and internationally while holding senior NGO Directorships as President and Vice-Presidents.


Leanne Buck: So Mark, let's start off. Please tell me a little bit about Fernie and what makes the community a great place to live and to visit.

Mark Rowlands: It's got it all here. I used to live very close to Whistler, and I was amazed by the beauty and the skiing and that sense of community. When I came to Fernie, I saw the other part that maybe Whistler doesn't have such strength in, which was this beautiful history and people there that love the community. It created a sense of community geared towards families, raising kids, and participating in getting much more engaged as a community. So here in Fernie ... and as it's evolving, it's got both this beautiful ski hill, and it's got this core community. And so it's a great place to live in. It's evolving in such an area, and we're surrounded by just absolute stunning beauty with the Rocky Mountains here and the beautiful valleys and trails. And I can go on and on.

Leanne Buck: So when you first arrived, you got working on Fernie's active transportation plan and implementation plan, which was just recently adopted, and so can you just tell us a little bit about what the significance of that is for the residents and visitors to Fernie?

Mark Rowlands: Yes, and it was new to me as well. I was very involved in zero waste, so it was really interesting to see this new initiative by the senior governments to try to address climate change and improve people's ability to get to work in easier ways. So yeah, this particular topic of active transportation is growing in leaps and bounds in communities all over Canada and elsewhere. And yeah, really, there's a lot of community benefits, but one of the big ones is getting people out of their cars and exercising their way to work through nice prepared corridors that encourage that to happen.

And the other part of it is Fernie is a major tourism center. We want tourists to come and enjoy a full pathway that brings them to all of these incredible viewpoints and be part of this community but also get this incredible exercise that connects them from our community right up to the provincial park that takes them into the mountains. So yeah, we're very excited about that.

Leanne Buck: Well, yeah, I'm excited to see how that plan is implemented over the next coming years, for sure. So moving beyond the plan, I understand that you got creative, and you used an innovative approach with several major projects that led to a $500,000 BC provincial active transportation grant to expand the network in Fernie and help implement the plan. Can you tell us about this?

Mark Rowlands: It's just one of those fortunate times where a whole bunch of grants came together. One was a $1.8 million grant for the Fernie Valley pathway, which was a pathway that went from a provincial park into the mountains all the way to our Annex Dike. And then we also had an over $4 million grant that previous employees had won on behalf of the city for the Annex Dike, which is to bring this community's flood protection system up to the storm of record, which is a 1 to 500 level of storm event.

So basically, we had these two major projects, and then we came up with the ideas. Hey, we can connect an existing dike and pathway along this Annex Dike and right through to the Fernie Valley pathway in a way that would make it basically five kilometers of interesting pathway, viewing all of this incredible scenery, and so that we put a grant in for that to top the dike off with the pavement, with stopping points and viewpoints, tourist signs connecting up our tourism information center, and bring it all the way to our new Fernie Valley pathway as one complete project. So it's actually six projects in one.

Leanne Buck: Wow. I actually had a look at some of those conceptual designs that are there on the Fernie website, and I could see that this project provide paved trails and is university accessible design. There's a lot more. It's an exciting project. What are some of the key features about it?

Mark Rowlands: Well, yeah, I mean, obviously, we brought this together to get the economy of scale and good tendering practices to really get efficiency but also to attract the big companies that are really good on these kinds of projects. So yeah, you're quite right. As we went through all the design elements, we wanted to make it universally accessible, so we wanted this pavement to not just have a paved top on a dike but actually have access points that allow people from everything from a skateboard to a wheelchair to everybody to get on this pathway and use it on behalf of the community. So yeah, we wanted to attract visitors, but at the same time, as I mentioned, the type of community that Fernie is, we wanted to bring the whole community to this place and to increase usership. So yeah, we put all these different points together, and I'll talk, I guess, a little bit later, a little bit about some of the universal design features and some of the particular attractive elements that we wanted to enhance the experience.

Leanne Buck: Yeah. Well, I'm definitely interested in hearing about that, and I'm also interested to hear about how the community was involved to inform the design of this project and how you brought community members together for this project.

Mark Rowlands: Yeah, it was a challenging one and a very exciting one, essentially. We have a very engaged community in Fernie. There's a lot of nonprofits, and there's a lot of people my that want to get involved fully in the community. Yet they maybe just had early retirement or something like that. So there's this wealth of brain power, if you will, and excitement and innovation just waiting to be tapped into here. So yeah, the approach that we took, I said, I didn't want to start using my Vancouver lens on this small community. I wanted to actually engage these groups and so then recommended the council to do this. So we engaged a number of community leaders from a bunch of diverse nonprofits to try to capture everything from the community's history, our youth, First Nations, people with disabilities, senior citizens, tourism. We wanted to have something for everybody on this trail. And I know our mayor is very big on that universal accessibility, so she was pushing hard to make sure that we had those elements in there.

Leanne Buck: So how long has that process been from start to finish? When did you begin to ... When was the concept of this project first initiated through to getting community members involved, presumably through COVID as well? So you would've been meeting online and to now get the plans to where they are, and maybe you can talk about the design elements.

Mark Rowlands: Yeah. So in a nutshell, I arrived, and what we termed the master plan was essentially 90% complete. So it was the primary strategic plan for the transportation network for the next 20 years and all the pieces that go with that. So part of my job was to come in and work with Bunt & Associates, who had done most of the plan working with previous staff, and to just finish off the nuances that are specific to this community while capturing the greater level of understanding and advanced concepts of active transportation through Bunt's knowledge and experience.

So one of the things that I is a pet peeve for me is these wonderful plans to end up sitting on the shelf. And we had also had a very, very engaged council and staff. They're all bikers, and they really wanted something special here. So they felt like we needed to do something more for Fernie because it's a resort community, and really, biking is huge here. And we wanted to make this something special, so extra work went into it.

So we created our own implementation plan for this, where we really went out, engaged the community. We put all kinds of decision processes, measurement processes. We tried to bring global into the local, as you say, through using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Frameworks and Canada's commitment to them. So we actually use measurement criteria taken from that to align with those values and where Canada's going to work out how we're going to measure the progress of this system.

Leanne Buck: Sorry, Mark. Are you able to elaborate on that a little bit? Because that's really interesting. That's the first time that I've actually seen those UN sustainability goals tied to an act of transportation implementation plan. So I'm really curious to know which goals those were and how the city plans to measure and track the progress.

Mark Rowlands: Great question. And of course, there was about five goals, and they were very much related to wellbeing. It was economy and tourism. So there's an economic aspect, which was where the tourism component came in to ensure our businesses are doing well and people have access to them. And the United Nations sustainability goals are something that have been out there for a while now, and they've evolved through numbers of stages to reach what they are now. And it's a global initiative. So Canada has aligned with it. There's a 2030 a deadline to meeting many of these targets. So if you dig into that, it's more of a national commitment, but from my perspective, again, thinking glocally, as I use the term, local and global, it's an opportunity for us to build on that alignment and that movement. And it's all in our favor in terms of the communities we live in.

So I literally went into Canada's commitment and looked at the targets and looked at their measurement criteria, the numbers of users, what that looks like in terms of greenhouse gas emissions saved per user, wellness, accessibility, universality, good governance. These are all in there, and I used them as a method to bring this forward in terms of ensuring that those principles are maintained as we manage this right through. So those are very important, and council was very, very supportive of that. And I got a lot of staff internally, so it was unusual. I don't know where it's been done before, but I tell you that when you got a high-performing team ... I'll use that term ... at the city of Fernie, you can step out there and take these innovative approaches with more creativity than just the standard way of doing things.

Leanne Buck: Well, it is cool to see, and I think that it also helps educate not only the council but by extension staff at Fernie, by extension cities, residents of Fernie as well. And so it's neat to see this small city in BC take this strong direction in leadership in this, so it's something that I'm sure other smaller communities will be able to emulate. So with all of this, though, with developing an active transportation plan, with obtaining this kind of grant funding, it doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of hard work. I know that, and it takes a lot of time. And so can you just tell us some of what, first, the key challenges were from conceptual ideas through the grant funding, through to making this transportation project happen?

Mark Rowlands: Coming into that environment with record growth, with COVID, with capacity issues and staff ... We were very short staffed. It was overwhelming with so many aspects from development to this initiative to just running all the different infrastructure systems all at the same time and trying to bring something special out of all that rather than just maintain. It was very tricky to do that.

Leanne Buck: I can imagine.

Mark Rowlands: Yeah. But yeah, there's always challenges. So capacity was probably the single biggest challenge. I had incredible political support. Like I said, it was an amazing group to get that kind of support for the openness to these kinds of ideas. Wonderful.

When we engaged the communities, it was a little trickier. We did a dike walk, and we had all these wonderful people that lived along the edge of the dike. And they were going to have their lives disrupted this summer. And literally, we have equipment arriving on site. So they had a very clear sense of what they wanted in that park, and it didn't necessarily represent the whole community. They wanted to preserve its nature. They wanted to preserve lots of aspects, and it was great to hear them.

But one of the challenges was getting the rest of the community engaged. This is a place we want people to drive up to with their families to come out or to ride their bikes down ... did I say drive? I didn't say drive ... ride their bikes down to the-


Leanne Buck: In a public place. That's right.

Mark Rowlands: ... and enjoy it as an experience but also even for a destination for tourists to come and get involved. So there were many other parts that we needed to include, and it was a little bit tricky maneuvering those waters because people are extremely passionate about their community and their view of it. So it was trying to find ways through that.

So one of the ways we did was we created this committee, as I mentioned, the advisory committee, and then we had the diversity built into that. And then we started to say, "What is the definition of wellness?" So we started looking at the mental, the emotional, the spiritual, and physical. We ended up coming up with ... Well, actually, I don't jump too far ahead. We had to get people off this view that a park should have a bench here or a piece of equipment there and this. And we had to break that down and get it into, what are the users, and what would they like to see when they come to this park? So we formed groups based on people that were leads in those areas, and they formed their little work groups. And they've actually led the design of the wellness stations, the four wellness stations I mentioned.

Leanne Buck: I love that. So the wellness stations ... Again, I've not necessarily heard of wellness stations along an active transportation trail. And in fact, just coming back to myself, I was out for a walk not too long ago, and I was getting tired. My hips were sore. And I'm thinking, "Oh, I would love to have a yoga space here to stretch it out a little bit on this walk." And then I noticed your designs had just that.

Mark Rowlands: Essentially, we came up ... and it was actually so much fun. I mean, one of those challenges was to get people off the thinking about the things they want in this pathway to, what is the experience they want? And we literally roleplayed where people were a child. I had a vice principal on the committee that actually became a child, and she actually spoke on behalf of that child what she wanted to see, like a child's view. It was hilarious. I laughed so hard at that, but it really built empathy in the whole group for the other people that were going to be accessing this trail.

Leanne Buck: Wow. So as far as the team, the consulting team that you were working with on this, was it transportation planners and engineers with the city? Did you have a planning group working with you, architects on this? What was it? Landscape architects? What did this particular project as far as consultants consist of?

Mark Rowlands: Yeah. So our team at the city of Fernie, it was essentially leadership team, and they're all crazy bikers. And we have a director of parks and rec where this trail passes through that had lots of great insight into the park and the strategic plan of the park and how we can dovetail and work with that element. Of course, the flood protection was really important because we were going on to not just a brand new dike, but also [inaudible 00:17:40] dike, which is actually like a sacrificial dike. It's the place where you're on the edge of the river, and you can view all of this, which is that, too. We had a great CAO in terms of his energy and then his understanding of the tourism side of things a little more and what he's trying to create in terms of what the council wants for a community.

So we had all of those people involved, and then we worked with McElhanney on the flood protection side of it. And they had a landscape architect on staff, and she's got First Nations in her. And she's amazing artist, but she's also a professional landscape architect. So we plugged into ... Well, McElhanney made her the project manager for this part of it, this active transportation project. So she came along and created creativity walks with the committee where we all went out there to try to get a sense of where we should put these stations, engaged the land. We talked about the stories with the experiential journey we want to bring from a First Nations perspective. We even engaged the local First Nations people involved in this and what kind of stories might work.

But we also had the museum people and others that had a lot of the coal history and the people that created this community originally. So our signage along here so going to reflect that in time, and that's currently under design in conjunction with our tourist information centre.

Leanne Buck: Nice.

Mark Rowlands: It was quite a diverse team, and it was really interesting because we had essentially six weeks to pull this together into what we have now. So it took some pretty hard-nose pushing to get that, but we pulled it off.

Leanne Buck: Wow. That is extraordinary, actually. So if you have any takeaways that other communities can take from this particular project ... because I know it's a challenge for so many communities for the resourcing, like you mentioned. Resourcing is always a challenge with different municipalities or regions. Of course, funding budgets are a major challenge, and so if there are any takeaways on this that you could give to your fellow municipalities engineers, people working on these projects, what would it be?

Mark Rowlands: Well, this is a time for change, global change. It's coming at all levels in all communities at the same time. So this is a time to take some chances. Go forward with little courage. Try to avoid copying old ways of doing things because there's a lot of challenges now in communities that keep getting repeated. It's about opening and engaging the creative aspect, but probably the biggest thing in terms of leadership is to engage that community like never before. It is a wealth of brilliant people with energy willing to help government out rather than government always having to carry the full meal deal on things, right? So it's all of that. It's getting excited, and I tell you, it gives me energy to do my job when I get that kind of energy back. So [inaudible 00:21:02].

Leanne Buck: Wow. You're giving me energy. You're giving me energy, Mark, because engagement is what I love to do myself. So yeah, you might be talking to the converted there, but that's okay. People definitely need to hear that. Wow, Mark. I want to thank you so much. You have given us so much great information and insight about Fernie, about how you've moved the needle forward for this community, and you're continuing to move the needle forward for them. So I am looking forward to visiting Fernie. I've never been there. So I'm curious to know, when I go, what city trail or path do I need to go check out? Will the dike be open, say, within the next year?

Mark Rowlands: So I'm going to backtrack just for a brief ... because I didn't mention all the work that you guys did on this implementation plan. Uplift was ... I essentially retained you guys as a graphic artist, and all of a sudden, I had all this incredible advice that helped with the implementation plan. So that's another message, is to capture communications companies that have that side to them to bring this excitement out that engineers may be not so good at at times, right? But back to that, what can you expect? Our goal is to have this entire thing ... We literally have the contractor mobilizing to the site now. I actually have a construction meeting in 15, 20 minutes after you. They're arriving on site.

We want this to be done in November. We hope to have a ribbon cutting there. And what you can expect is when you arrive, if you jump off the Leo Nimsick Bridge, is probably a good spot. And you'll go down a very nice approach, a wheelchair friendly approach with your bike onto this trail where you can carry ongoing south, southwest, and you'll go five kilometers through the most beautiful scenery you've ever seen. And it'll be all done so in a professional active transportation mode, designed by Bunt & Associates to meet all of the requirements of what ministry of transportation expects in such a corridor.

Leanne Buck: Wow. Amazing. I can't wait. Okay, I'll definitely be going. I look forward to doing that. Mark, thank you again. It's been my pleasure to have you join us here today on the Uplift Community Podcast, and thank you to everybody for joining us today. Have an amazing day and an uplifting week ahead.

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