A look at the rich history of B.C.'s community welcome signs and how they're evolving

·4 min read
Welcome signs in B.C. are as unique as the cities and towns they represent. (Justin McElroy/CBC News - image credit)
Welcome signs in B.C. are as unique as the cities and towns they represent. (Justin McElroy/CBC News - image credit)

After two decades of wear and tear, the City of Nelson decided it needed a new welcome sign.

Over the course of a year, it had a design competition, selected four finalists and had a public vote where nearly 4,000 residents (about a third of the city's population) cast ballots.

And in the end, it chose a sign that will be pretty similar to the one that's been there in different forms since 1968: three large wooden panels that say, "The City of Nelson Welcomes You," with distinctive spacing between the planks and the words.

"The city has a pretty strong heritage culture here. There's a lot of heritage buildings. And I think people like to keep that. They don't want to mess around with that," said Sebastien Arcand, Nelson's director of development services.

The new sign will have new light fixtures that pay homage to the city's former waterfront railway, lettering more reflective of the 1968 sign and will include an Indigenous arts piece.

But designer Max Vos Coupal knows people have strong attachments to what's already there.

"People convey to me how much they love and cherish them and wanted to see something that continues to represent the place," he said.

"It's kind of a unique quirkiness coming through … that you just don't see everywhere. So I think that's why people hold them so dear."

Google Street View
Google Street View

'Designed by committe'?

No two welcome signs in British Columbia are alike, and each says something about the town that they're in.

UNBC history professor Ben Bradley, author of British Columbia by the Road: Car Culture and the Making of a Modern Landscape, said in many B.C. communities they originally got their start next to railway stations.

"Travelers got on and off the trains, would have some sort of message, or see display cases of local achievements but also local investment opportunities properties that were for sale. So it was kind of a multi-purpose welcoming."

As the province developed an extensive road system, the welcome sign moved to the highway, where towns would often try to give people a sense of local culture.

"Sometimes, they would reference industry, lots of timber-themed entrances … animals is another example or a distinctive natural feature in your community, like a peak or a waterfall," said Braldey.

In recent decades, much of that has been replaced in B.C. welcome signs. Newer ones often have great graphic design, but often look similar to signs in other municipalities.

"They're sort of designed by committee ... two or three colours, some boilerplate font rather than anything whimsical," said Bradley.

"It's becoming a uniform way of trying to stand out and be distinctive."

Information for tourists, pride for locals

Much of this could be due to the committee and consensus requirements of getting things passed at city hall.

In Kelowna, the town has been without a main welcome sign since 2018: the old sign on HIghway 97 was taken down, but council rejected a new one that had "Kelowna" in gold lettering surrounded by sculptures — which some criticized as being too abstract — and no progress has been made on a new one.

At the same time, not all trends in welcome signs are veering toward the homogenized.

Many municipalities are now incorporating local Indigenous themes into their designs, either with artwork or the language on the sign.

And communities realize that a welcome sign not only offers both a first impression for visitors — but a lasting symbol for the people who live there everyday.

"We have heard a lot from residents over the years that there is a real desire to focus on community, placemaking and aesthetic improvements," said Ceilidh Marlow, executive director of Tourism Prince Rupert.

The town has just approved a new welcome sign that has a bolder colour scheme and more interesting lettering than the current concrete one that "has no aesthetic qualities that are representative of our community," according to Marlow.

"I think it's going to be really important purely from a logistical perspective for visitors and also … really shift that narrative and show a pride of place in our community."

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