Wilderness and Exodus: the Production of a National Landscape


Since the 1950’s, the weekend drive 1-3 hours away from cities is a democratic automobile-driven North American custom involving the ritualistic exodus of urban populations from metropolitan centres to sacred landscapes, to worship natural monuments and recreate. This phenomenon is integral to the role that landscape plays in shaping Canadian Identity.


The national parks are a popular destination acting as living repositories of images of wilderness, with a mandate to represent each Canadian ecozone with a park. However, settlements, agricultural/productive landscapes, and resource landscapes are anthropogenic biomes – anthromes – which constitute a more accurate representation of national landscapes not currently recognized by any protected system.


National parks are nature anthromes themselves, bound by water, landform, or political boundaries. At a detailed design scale, the current landscape viewing experience in national parks reinforces a binary nature-as-other mentality. Bringing the national park relevance in the anthropocene demands a more holistic view of nature through the designation of anthromes as ecologically significant, and design of spatial experiences which implicate and involve human ecological processes.


The Trans-Canada Highway is a unique and nationally significant example of a vector in wilderness exodus which transects several major cities, all Canadian provinces, and a representative sampling of anthromes and ecological zones. The project site is a section of the TCH that connects Calgary and Banff, transecting five representative anthromes.


Using Henri Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” as a framework for analysis, space is understood or produced in a combination of three ways:
The conceived space of designers delineates what is a city, park, or significant landform; the perceived space of imagination contains perceptions of pristine wilderness or idyllic agricultural settings; and the lived or experienced space of users operates at the scale and speed of the highway. These spaces are drawn respectively as layers of measured line drawings, postcards, and aerial/experiential imagery.
Currently, the three types of space produce distinct readings, suggesting landscape architects can better mediate the problematic disparity between postcard nature and real nature by creating spaces that communicate more nuanced understandings of nature and wilderness concepts.


The master plan is a provisional trail map delineating multiple curated experiences along a continually changing border. The edge of the park refuses to prioritize a single species or land claim approach, instead involving visitors in contemporary integrated ecological management. Visitors crowdsource the boundary, populating the most desirable experiences, while simultaneously demarcating the boundary of the park.
This method succeeds traditional preservation/conservation approaches by recognizing that borders change with ecological flows and priorities of the people who use them.


Five roadside viewing platforms for visitors to experience anthromes constitute the program for detailed design.



Peters’ Park-In
is a parking lot and picnic park for a historic drive thru that celebrates a decades-old burger joint popular with both locals and tourists, as a place for continued connections between people, the primary species in an urban ecology.
A local vernacular of hardy urban species, such as Green Ashes blown over from Calgarian backyards, germinate in swales. Curbs and drains direct and store neighbourhood stormwater runoff to maintain three different types of grass in the park to correspond with usage intensity – empty lot germinators, sodded lawn, and artificial turf.


Median Farm
divides the area of a 1 in 4 year planting cycle agricultural area into four linear productive median fields to support the cultivation of Canadian-invented cash crop Canola. The farm extends the length of the arable agricultural zone on the site, fed by highway runoff, acting as a federally managed productive buffer between GMO and non GMO farms to investigate the phenomenon of seeds blowing into neighbours’ fields. A border trail at the edge curates a muddy hike in a ha-ha ditch to view cultivated cattle in their natural environs. Cattle eat the dried canola stems, forming a complete food chain of Alberta farms.


Archaeological Drumlin Field
depresses the highway up to 3m lower in the earth, removing it from the sight lines of first nations reserve citizens, while creating a compressed space for reflection by exposing the glacial till of the surrounding drumlin field. Constantly eroding steep gravel slopes are regularly stabilized with native and colonial flowers in a new poetic ritual of healing in a place with turbulent native and colonial history.
Viewing areas of corrugated steel and reflective glass at interchanges reframe the highway as a scar cutting violently through the already marginalized reserve, acting as gateways to services that directly and respectfully support the local economy.


Sediment Springs
foreground a lake formed by alluvial deposits and a historic cement plant. The geometries of an automobile pullout and linear concrete walls combine to frame views of cement and power plants. Between each wall, materials demonstrate the processes of deliberate erosion and ongoing sedimentation in a set of geologic beaches and pools. A succession of materials from stages of cement and concrete production meet accumulating Bow River sediment against cement jetties, all succeeded by hardy, self-seeding riverside plantings.


Germination Gates
are anchored by a washing lot graded lower than the highway, freeing undercarriages and tyres of visiting vehicles from non-native species that might violate the protected park’s strict planting policy. Grooved asphalt impregnated with native seeds in the toll booth area supplant newly wetted tyres, where passing animals further their distribution. Instead of a threat, the car becomes a participatory vector in beauty strip management.
Like the canola field and gravel slopes, this new conceived space collapses the perceptions of idyllic canola fields and lush forests with the lived experiences of the site, implicating and involving visitors in its production.


Altogether, the five roadside viewing areas highlight integration of human process in nature to opportunistically produce new national landscapes. They intentionally reorganize views to frame postcard photographic moments of unique anthropomorphic biomes, to generate more multivalent understandings of identity and nature.


The reimagined Trans-Canada Highway demonstrates the emergence of a formidable new national park system, reframing the human migration network across North America as a place for operative roadside landscapes to affect positive ecological change, in practice, perception, and experience.


Trans-Canada Highway National Park
Location | Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Banff

Student | Shelley Long, Graduate Project – University of Toronto
Consultants | Alissa North, Primary Advisor. Fionn Byrne & Martin Hogue, Secondary Advisors.

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About Damian Holmes 5670 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/damianholmes/