Urban Rocks: Why Blasting Shouldn’t Be The First Option

Rock outcrops are the primal foundations on which Yellowknife has grown, playing a major role in how we live and move across the landscape. Yes, there are plenty of rock outcrops starting just outside the city, but we’d be wise to value our remaining neighbourhood rocks, for historical, architectural, geological, spiritual, and community reasons.

Since the arrival of the mines, dynamite has played a major part in shaping the city’s growth. From early days, we blasted holes and tunnels in rock to extract gold. But after a lull once the mines petered out, the sounds of blast horns and ground-shaking, wall-rattling explosions were back in a big way this summer and fall. Whether we blast through the rock or build upon and around it, we’re always changing the landscape in which we live. Here’s some thoughts about our local rocks, and why we should think twice before we blow them all away:

Architecture that’s with, not against

Your best friend comes up for a visit and wants to explore the city by car and by foot. Where do you take him first? Chances are you’ll visit Old Town, perhaps climb Pilot’s Monument. “Check out those houses built into the rock!” your friend exclaims as you drive up to the base of the monument. You scale the wooden steps to the top and take in your surroundings; the homes across Back Bay at Niven Lake, the colourful houseboats clustering along the rocky shores of Yellowknife Bay’s islands, the Old Town houses jutting up along the outcrops. What is it about these places that pulls at our imagination? What is it about those structures that makes us pause for a good look?

“To me, architecture is about working with the landscape rather than against it. The North has a beautiful, distinct, and recognizable landscape full of unique rock outcrops, so why shouldn’t we celebrate it? I like the idea of design and building that works with the local ecology and fosters biodiversity.” Deborah Montgomery, Intern Architect at Stantec

“Appreciate what you have to start with and work with it rather than destroying it. Why should we look like every other city when we have something really good up here?” – Gino Pin, Architect at Pin/Taylor Architects.

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An Old Town Gino Pin-designed house that’s a fine example of how to build with our rock and topography, rather than against it | Photo by Jennifer Broadbridge

A history of rock

Yellowknife’s past is deeply entwined with rocks, from the people who lived among and around them in pre-colonial times to the first prospectors through to our complicated and troublesome modern mining history, culminating in Giant Mine. After over 70 years of mining, resource extraction continues to be a mainstay of the city’s economy. Our rocks tell us a long and beautiful story about our past;  preserving it for future generations means preserving intact tracts of rock outcrops in the city for them to enjoy.

“There was no blasting back in the old days. Before the 1970s, the only blasting came from the mines, and that rock was used as fill in the road. Homes were built with the topography which gave them a unique charm, even some of the buildings at Giant Mine. These days with all the blasting in the city, Yellowknife is looking more like a mine site. However in this case, we are not getting anything out of it of value like we did the mines. We blast these beautiful outcrops, and then turn them into waste heaps of broken rock. The city should identify and protect intact areas that represent the variety of different geological features that have an interesting history.” – Walt Humphries, President of NWT Mining Heritage Society

Yellowknife’s rocky landscape is dominated by ancient rocks of the Yellowknife Greenstone Belt like this basalt outcrop at the base of School Draw Ave | Photo by Jennifer Broadbridge

A geological story

“The rocks of shield country record a fascinating landscape history that began almost four billion years ago, a mere six hundred million years after the dawning of earthly time. Here is the story of the main actors on this stage — from volcanoes to glaciers, dinosaurs to caribou, spearthrowers to golddiggers” – ( Jamie Bastedo, 1994).

Living on the Precambrian Shield is kind of a big deal. We’re standing on rocks around 2.6 billion years old, made up of many different types, often composed of different minerals. There are two main rock types: basalts (often called greenstones),  a volcanic rock formed by lava rich in magnesium and iron; and granite; a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock consisting of quartz, fieldspar, and mica. You can find good examples of granite rock around Frame Lake Trail behind the hospital, which has lots of pink and white granite. Gold is often found in concentrated amounts in shear zones formed by hydrothermal fluid creating during those shearing events, such as at Con Mine.

Around 14,000 years ago, the rocks sat under glaciers. These glaciers carved the landscape and left us with striations on the rock outcrops, till, erratic boulders, eskers, and valleys. The story of our rocks and all of their layers is worth celebrating and keeping intact. Once we blast it, that story is lost forever.

Take a stroll behind the hospital to find a field of beautiful pink granite and quartz veins | Photo by Jennifer Broadbridge

Community service

“The city is surrounded by green space,” people will point out, not incorrectly. “There’s no need to save more green space!”  But an excursion out of the city becomes another event to schedule, another task; whereas a shortcut through the random neighbourhood green spaces — most often the bedrock ridges too expensive to build on — can be enjoyed en route to other, everyday activities.  And not everyone has a car.  The neighbourhood bits of green space are where kids can access nature close to home.  They can’t drive out of town.  We need backyard access to rock ridges, and trails of back alleys that provide the territory for play and exploration, for quiet contemplation, and even for learning responsibility: walking the family dog.  

“One of my neighbourhood ridges is the Sliding Hill — that lovely smooth slope that becomes the launchpad for winter fun.  The City’s management of that hill is one of the best examples of positive community-minded thinking that we have. It proved impossible to stop kids from sliding on the hill, which schusses toboggans directly onto the street — creating a serious risk of car-child collision — so the City instead gave the sledders the right-of-way and closed the street to vehicle traffic during the sliding season.  Bravo!  The resulting free recreational “facility” provides a hub for community coming-togetherness  and healthy outdoor activity during the worst months of the year!”– Tasha Stephenson, downtown resident

An undeveloped tract of rocky outcrop in downtown Yellowknife provides a public space for all, including this young explorer | Photo by Jennifer Broadbridge

Wilderness = happiness 

Although challenging to quantify, the effects of urban green space on overall happiness should not be underestimated. According to Kuo et al. (1998), having access to green spaces is not about quantity, but regular exposure: daily doses of nature. The key is to find ways to have the complexity of nature in denser urban places that are easily accessible.

“It’s great that studies have been done to document the scientifically measurable therapeutic value of being outside in Nature, but I don’t need that validation to know, by my own direct experience, that even a short walk over natural ground amongst wild trees, birds, plants and animals has a restorative health effect that can’t be purchased in a pill.  I often choose my route home from work to cut through, over and across the unblasted rock ridges in order to relax, reorder my thoughts, look outside of myself for a few moments. “– Tasha Stephenson

We are lucky to have such an abundance of urban green space right here in Yellowknife, but we must pave the way carefully with urban development, lest it encroach on our urban green spaces. Once we blast it, we can’t get it back.


Further Reading

Bastedo, Jamie. (1994). Shield Country: life and times of the oldest place on the planet. Calgary, Alberta: The Arctic Insititute of North America of the University of Calgary.

Kuo, F.E., Sullivan, W.C., Coley, R.L., and Brunson, L. (1998). Fertile Ground for Community: Inner-City Neighbourhood Common Spaces. American Journal of Community Psychology, 823-51.



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