Recently I rode the train from Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I embarked on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief at 3:00 pm; from there it’s a 24 hour journey of glorious ever-changing scenery. After the train chugged through the scruffy back-end of the American midwest, I got to watch the sun rise over the endless horizon of the Kansas prairie, and yes, I saw antelope playing. The mountains began to appear in the distance as we hit the badlands and gulleys of Colorado where some of the western world’s most heart-breaking battles took place. Mile after mile of undeveloped land was dotted with traces of ghost towns and I reveled in some of the most striking landscapes I have ever seen. The soil turned red and adobe architecture predominated as we pulled into the station, surrounded by the snow-dusted pink and purple Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the mesas and arroyos, piñon trees and brilliant yellow cottonwoods of Santa Fe.
Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Peterborough. Well, surprisingly quite a lot. You’ve heard of Santa Fe, a town well-known for its photogenic landscape, heritage architecture and vital art scene, but the average American has probably not heard of Peterborough. Yet considerable parallels can be drawn between these 2 cities. Peterborough has a slightly larger population than Santa Fe – 75,000 compared to 69,000. Like Santa Fe it was colonized on indigenous land and continues to be encircled by and share land belonging to a number of native tribes; it is surrounded by natural beauty that makes tourism an essential part of its economy. Like Peterborough, Santa Fe is associated with some famous cultural figures who lived or worked in the region: Santa Fe has Georgia O’Keefe and D. H Lawrence; Peterborough has Margaret Lawrence, Robertson Davies and David Bierk. But unlike Peterborough, Santa Fe supports 250 galleries. Peterborough has the Canadian Canoe Museum, the , and ArchivesLang Pioneer Village, and Hutchison House; Santa Fe has the advantage with 10 public museums. Both cities boast Pride parades and other colourful festivals; both cities have extensive hiking and biking trails and a farmer’s market, as well as a remarkably spry older population. In 2008 Santa Fe residents approved a $2.3 million bond issue, earmarked for improvements to the Santa Fe River Park and the quality of the watershed. Peterborough similarly straddles the Otonabee River with trails and parks along its shores. There are summer and winter attractions in both regions. I’m guessing Peterborough has a more dynamic music scene. Santa Fe has a world famous opera house; Peterborough’s Bradburn Opera House was torn down in 1973 to make room for the regrettable Peterborough Square. Peterborough’s former YWCA, built in the 1890’s, stands empty and derelict since 2007; Santa Fe’s classic downtown plaza is full of activity. There is a noticeable lack of big box stores in its city centre and a careful preservation of the historic architecture. Both are rural towns with a dependence on cars to commute to jobs in larger nearby cities – however, Santa Fe has resisted the urge to run an arterial highway through the heart of its greenspace. Santa Fe has a rail link intact; Peterborough’s was abandoned in the ’80s. Santa Fe has the reputation of a being a spiritual centre; Peterborough’s nearby Petroglyphs have a similar allure. An arts community figures prominently in both locations.
So why is Santa Fe internationally known, designated as a UNESCO Creative City, while Peterborough is not? Granted, Santa Fe is an older city with a more temperate climate. Perhaps Peterborough lacks its mystique. But the natives and settlers who built these towns faced and overcame any number of analagous hardships, from extreme weather conditions, to cultural clashes, to changing economies. However, Santa Fe managed to preserve and build on its reputation as a cultural mecca, and according to Wikipedia, here’s why:
“In 1912, when the town had only 5,000 people, the city’s civic leaders designed and enacted a sophisticated city plan that incorporated elements of the City Beautiful movement, the city planning movement, and the German historic preservation movement. It anticipated limited future growth, considered the scarcity of water, and recognized the future prospects of suburban development on the outskirts. The planners foresaw conflicts between preservationists and scientific planners. They set forth the principle that historic streets and structures be preserved and that new development must be harmonious with the city’s character.“
Could these ideas not have as easily been applied to Peterborough and if they had, what would our city look like today?
As I wandered through the narrow winding streets with their adobe walls, blue Spanish doors, and eclectic landscaping, I dreamed of spending more time in the idyllic locale, rich in art and history, and I’m sure thousands feel as I do, precisely because of this forward thinking a century ago.
An inner city casino, a 4 lane highway dissecting an urban park, a big box store in the downtown core are not in keeping with the principles of contemporary urban design. In Peterborough we think because we are surrounded by tracts of undeveloped land that urban parkland is nothing special, when in fact it should become a focal point around which a city is built. We think that our economy can stay the course according to unchanged objectives, even as global economies teeter on the verge of collapse. According to the international scientific community, our climate is changing rapidly and dramatically, and yet we continue our urban planning as if this were impossible.
One constant remains – the human impulse to be creative. To me, cultural assets are like plants that need feeding and nurturing to reach their full potential and reward us with sustenance, innovation and soul-sustaining beauty. Their value is indispensable, though not always quantifiable.
The more I think about it the more I wonder what does Santa Fe have that Peterborough does not? Not much except a public awareness of the immense value of our cultural and natural assets and the political mandate to preserve and cultivate them.