Designed for Touring: Niagara Falls, Canada

Posted Aug 26th, 2020 in Niagara Architecture

Originally published in, disP -The Planning Review. Vol 51, No 3. 2015.

Ian Ellingham and Helen Mulligan

Ian Ellingham is a faculty associate of the School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank, Niagara-on-the-Lake, an associate of Cambridge Architectural Research Limited, and active in Canadian real estate.

Helen Mulligan is a director of Cambridge Architectural Research Limited.

Cambridge Architectural Research Limited, 25 Gwydir Street, #6, Cambridge, CB1 2LG, United Kingdom

The Niagara area of Canada has been a tourist destination for over two hundred years, and has successfully evolved to address changing expectations, by adding additional attractions to the fundamental resource of the Falls themselves. In contrast to its American neighbour, its population continues to grow, due to an ability to attract new residents and create new business opportunities. Today Niagara offers opportunities for almost every type of visitor: including the most enthusiastic ecotourist, the historian, thrill-seeking teens and families simply looking to entertain or divert their small children. As a destination it has survived ongoing change, in part due to government initiatives and stewardship of some of the fundamental resources, combined with the ability of the private sector to exploit them. A short explanatory tour given by a long-term resident will take the visitor to just a few of the many attractions, and will help to demonstrate why Niagara retains its appeal as a place that everyone has to visit - at least once.

Any resident of the Niagara area is familiar with the need to show a visitor, often someone from thousands of kilometres away, the sights. Everyone needs to see the Falls at least once - they are a truly impressive spectacle. But beyond the Falls, there are multiple possibilities of things to see and do, so one tailors the tour to the visitor - in what is often a rushed visit it is sometimes difficult to pick out where best to go and what to see.

The Niagara region is one of the world’s tourist ‘hot-spots’, the Canadian side recording over 16 million visitors a year, who spend over $Can 1.7 billion (Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, 2015). Yet Niagara offers more than just a geographical feature - over the years, the area has developed a surprising diversity.

The key element in the ongoing success of Niagara as a tourist destination has been the creation of tiers of attractions - something for everyone, thereby giving people a reason to stay just another few hours, perhaps buying another restaurant meal or staying overnight in a hotel. As tastes in tourism have changed, both government and entrepreneurs have managed to find new things to attract and engage people, while maintaining the more traditional diversions.

The Falls

Any tour has to start with the Falls. The view is better from the Canadian side, and there is a much more developed tourist area. The parklands and buildings around the Falls make up Queen Victoria Park, with an area of 62.2 hectares. Surprisingly, from the Canadian side, one can view the remaining chemical factories on the American side. This is the first indication that a major national border runs down the Niagara river, and that the two sides have diverged considerably. Politically, the overall Niagara area is quite complex. The Canadian side consists of the Regional Municipality of Niagara (population 431,346 - 2011 census), which combines twelve smaller elements of local government, one of which is the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario (population 82,997 - 2011 census), whose population has exhibited steady growth through the 20th century and into the 21st. In contrast, the City of Niagara Falls, New York, had a peak population of 102,394 in 1960, but has suffered the decline typical of American ‘rust-belt’ cities, losing half its population over the past fifty years. Traditional manufacturing has declined in both cities, but the Canadian Niagara has managed to diversify, and continue to grow - with tourism being an essential component. Today’s City of Niagara Falls is the result of the amalgamation of what originally were a set of scattered settlements. In many ways the Canadian Niagara Region functions as one community: it is not unusual to live in one town, work in another and shop in yet another. Yet for the short-term visitor from outside of North America, the American side is usually viewed at a distance, as the border crossing has become increasingly difficult, sometimes involving a protracted wait and probing questions about one’s motives. While there are some worthwhile things to see on the American side, including the parklands near the Falls landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1800s, the depth, intensity and variety of attractions has not developed on the American side, in part due to a number of unfortunate decisions by government Byrnes, 2001, Businessweek, 2010).

Clifton Hill: The next stop

Tourism has been a part of Niagara since the French era. Early descriptions describe it variously as a curiosity, and as a sublime natural wonder. Visitor numbers increased as a result of better access - canals and railways in the 19th century, and cars in the 20th. Through the 19th century, on both sides of the border, the areas around the Falls filled with the expected Victorian tourist emporiums - including those offering views of freaks and oddities (shrunken heads, miniature violins, assorted Egyptian mummies, five legged calves,...). Some of these, in particular the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Museum, survived into the latter part of the 20th century.

A tourist, no matter how discerning, should not miss Clifton Hill, a riot of souvenir shops, wax museums, restaurants, dinosaurs and other diversions - the successor to tightrope walkers, people going over the Falls in barrels, and other spectacles. Over the generations, Clifton Hill has reinvented itself, in keeping with changing trends. Few of the facades existed two decades ago. Some fascinating examples of architecture have appeared, notably the wax museum contained in an Empire State Building on its side, with a large gorilla hanging from the end. Monsters and their castles abound. One is able to buy any of a large assortment of souvenirs, including soft-toy ‘Mounties’ (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), based on any number of precedents, which seem to include Paddington Bear Mounties, Cookie Monster Mounties, and the ever-popular moose Mountie. Just off Clifton Hill is the Fallsview Indoor Waterpark. While some visitors may be appalled at this melee, it is only necessary to observe the pleasure of a young family with children squealing with delight, or of the teens bravely walking into a haunted castle, to appreciate Clifton Hill as an integral part of the Niagara experience.

Casinos: Something more adult

Near Clifton Hill, two casinos have been built, and now photographs of the Canadian side of Niagara show the casino-oriented developments - overwhelming the three observation towers built in the 1960s. The tallest building is the Hilton Niagara Falls, with over 50 floors. Belford (2004) discussed the importance of casino development on the Canadian side, as a major boost to tourism: "Then in 1996, the Ontario government came to the rescue. Niagara Falls would get a casino on the site of what had been Maple Leaf Village, an amusement and hotel property overlooking the Rainbow Bridge. Legalized gambling became a hard-driving economic engine, lifting the city from economic depression. Eight years later, Niagara Falls is coming off the end of a $3-billion development boom." "Hotels sprang up like mushrooms. The city says there have been 40 new projects or expansions of properties since 1998." The casinos are more than just gambling - they contain significant entertainment and shopping opportunities, and have expanded the conference and convention business.

The Niagara Parks Commission: The custodian

Leaving the Falls, an obvious route is along the river, and the visitor soon discovers that the riverside in either direction consists primarily of parkland embedding a variety of tourist destinations. These lands, consisting of 1,325 hectares, are owned and managed by the Niagara Parks Commission, a self-financed agency of the Province of Ontario. It was created in 1885 on the recommendations of eminent Russian-Polish-American-Canadian railway engineer and property developer, Sir Casimir Gzowski (1813-1898), in order to preserve and enhance the lands along the Niagara River and develop them as a public resource. While its early efforts were to ensure the immediate Falls area remained clear of low-grade tourist traps, the Commission now runs a large set of tourist attractions of its own, including the tunnels behind the Falls, the century-old Spanish Aero Car traversing the whirlpool, the floral clock, the Niagara Botanical Gardens, golf courses, restaurants, a butterfly conservatory and, inevitably, the associated gift shops.

The Niagara Parks Commission activities have been instrumental in supporting tourism. Industry has been kept away from the river. As well, the Commission addresses what Healy (2006, p.525) identified as a common problem for the management of 'tourism destination resources': that they are subject " both overuse and underinvestment." For example, the NPC illuminates the Falls, something no individual entrepreneur would be likely to undertake.

One example of their stewardship relates to the older power stations near the Falls, built on land the Niagara Parks Commission leased to the generating companies, but retained design control. Carr (1981, p.27) noted of the Canadian Niagara Power Company's Rankine Power Station building completed in 1905: "It is a very large building, but its overhanging pitched roof and a terrace running the full length of its front make it appear long and low. It is built of rough-cut limestone with a roof of green-glazed Mediterranean-style clay tiles." The neo-classic Toronto Power Generating Station, opened in 1906, was designed by E.J. Lennox, then one of Canada's foremost architects. These buildings are now out of service, have reverted to the Niagara Parks Commission, and are expected to be converted to new uses.

Niagara’s Historical Background:

While many visitors know little about the area, Niagara has a remarkable history. The area has been inhabited since the end of the last ice age, but the first Europeans visited Niagara Falls in the 1670s. The area was part of the French Empire until the fall of Fort Niagara (now on the American Side) in 1759, and a transfer to the British, in 1763, following the end of the Seven Years War. With the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, a border appeared, dividing British North America from the United States.

Little European settlement of the area occurred until the American Revolution, when ‘United Empire Loyalists’, fleeing the United States, arrived, and were given land grants. The first census was undertaken in 1782, and found that there were 84 people living in the Niagara area. By 1786, the first mills had been built next to the Niagara River, and were using it as a power source. The Loyalists played a significant role in the development of Canada. Among other things, they ensured that the Canadian accent resembles that of the United States, as well as endowing Canada with a complex, sometimes wary, relationship with the United States, and a greater acceptance of interventions by government.

Government involvement in Niagara lands came with settlement. After the creation of ‘Upper Canada’, now Ontario, in 1791, a governor was appointed, and a capital established at the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. As this was within cannon shot range of the American side, the capital was moved to Toronto in 1797. Niagara-on-the-Lake lay dormant for a couple of centuries, but its charming houses and city centre are now on the tourist trail.

These events led to attractions for the historian - battlefields. Numerous small battles were vigorously fought in Niagara in the War of 1812-14, and websites are now available to guide visitors to and around them. Two main locations are Queenston Heights, where local hero Sir Isaac Brock fell in battle (and is now buried), and Fort George, where summer students relive life as it was during the war, and re-enactors periodically appear to stage battles. A lucky visitor, upon entering a nearby pub, might find it full of exhausted red-coated soldiers, hoisting their pints, with their Brown Bess muskets leaning against a nearby wall.

After the War of 1812, immigration from the United States diminished (Black, 2014, p.195), and the population was augmented by succeeding waves of Scottish and Irish immigrants through the 19th century; ex-slaves; the English in the decades before the First War; and ongoing immigration from various European countries.

Amidst the tourists who dominate the view of the visitor, the resident population of Niagara is difficult to perceive. Yet the local population is a key element in why Niagara has continued to grow. Niagara has one of the most benign climates in Canada, so attracts retirees. It also has a complex ethnic composition. Niagara has been a place of diversity since the late 1700s: the Loyalists were a very mixed group, and included people of various European descents (over a quarter of them had roots in Germany), blacks and aboriginals. This diversity of immigration has continued. In the wake of the World Wars, people notably from Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands, appeared in Niagara. Long-term, ongoing immigration from the Balkans, has made Serbian the third most frequently spoken language at home, after English and Italian. The result is that in 2011, 20.5 percent of the population of Niagara Falls, Ontario was born outside of Canada. In contrast, 5.3 percent of the population of Niagara Falls, New York, was born outside of the United States - the number in New York state as a whole is 22.6 percent. Both Ontario and New York State have fertility rates well below replacement, with Ontario at 1.52 and New York State at 1.814, so it is necessary for a city or region to attract people - or the population will naturally decline. One significant difference between the two sides of the border, is that the Canadian side has succeeded in attracting people.

The Other Side of Niagara: Industry and Power

The Falls has always had two dimensions - one as a natural spectacle, the other, as a source of energy, and these have periodically clashed. Physicist Lord Kelvin, heading an international commission, suggested that the Falls itself might ultimately be turned off in order to fully exploit its energy potential (The St.John’s Evening Telegram, 30 August, 1897).

Initially, waterpower was used directly in mills, with commercial hydropower arriving in the Canadian Niagara area in 1896, with the first installations at Niagara Falls and nearby St.Catharines. The early distribution systems were such that industries were best to locate near the source of power, hence Niagara became a favoured location for energy-intensive industries. Electrification allowed industry to move away from the immediate area of the Falls, and on the American side this led to substantial development along the upper river. Today, electricity generation is concentrated at Queenston, on the lower gorge. From the Canadian side the visitor can view the impressive Robert Moses power plant on the American side, and peer over the gorge edge at the Sir Adam Beck generating stations. Three tunnels under the City of Niagara Falls and one canal divert water from above the falls, feeding the Canadian generating stations. The gigantic scale of these installations is best gauged from one of the jet boats that roar up the river into the fringes of the whirlpool - something for the more adventurous tourist - or their teen-aged children.

In both Canada and the US, development was spurred by the construction of canals and railways, beginning with the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, connecting the Hudson River and New York with Lake Erie at Buffalo. The first transit of the Welland Canal, linking Lakes Ontario and Erie, occurred in 1829. The Welland Canal has been repeatedly rebuilt, and now allows access by ships of up to 225 metres into the upper lakes. In the 19th century the canals enhanced the growth of the Niagara area, however, increasingly, with larger canals and larger ships "... commerce tended to pass through the Peninsula on its way to the Atlantic or Great Lakes cities rather than creating canal ports as such" (Young, 1981, p.82). The completion of the St.Lawrence Seaway in 1959, enabled large ocean-going ships to enter Lake Ontario. Many visitors seem to be mesmerised by a visit to the Welland Canal, in particular by the triple locks at Thorold, where ocean-going ships climb the escarpment.

Many visitors arrive via the 138 km long Queen Elizabeth Way linking Niagara to Toronto. This was built through the 1930s as a make-work provincial initiative and opened in 1939. Based on the design of the German autobahns, it was the first major divided highway in North America.

Looking beyond the tourist areas

Few tourists are likely to encounter Niagara Falls’ city centre, as it was created near the railway station, some distance from the Falls and the primary tourist attractions. For certain curious visitors, it is worth driving through. Visually, it is not unattractive, but has failed to retain its vitality following the opening of large shopping malls, something affecting many Ontario town centres. ‘Pen Centre’ the regional mall, has been repeatedly expanded and upgraded since its opening in 1958, and now has a retail area of over 96,000 square metres. While the Pen Centre is located in the nearby City of St.Catharines, it is only a 14 minute drive from the affluent north-west suburbs of Niagara Falls: only two or three minutes longer than it takes to get to the Niagara Falls city centre. The result is that, in spite of various government and private-sector initiatives, vacant shops abound in Niagara Falls’ city centre, as do secondary uses, such as tattoo parlours and charity shops. However, the area has been beautified, with hard and soft landscaping, and special features at intersections. This ensures that it does not visually blight the city, but, as with similar areas in other Niagara cities and towns, one does have to question its longer-term destiny.

Quieter diversions: Nature and the Wineries

For many tourists, a visit to one or more wineries is essential. The wine industry has helped to diversify the tourist experience, as by 1968, Niagara was seen as having become a "low-brow tourist trap" (Wurst, 2011).

Geographically, the northern part of Niagara, facing Lake Ontario, is protected by the 725 kilometre long Niagara Escarpment, which runs across the province of Ontario and into New York State - it is the geological formation over which Niagara Falls flows. The escarpment is designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and in Canada is protected by the Niagara Escarpment Commission, a provincial agency, which makes it accessible for appropriate ecotourism uses.

With a vertical height of up to 100 metres in the Niagara area, the escarpment, together with the moderating lakes abutting Niagara, creates a sheltered zone of excellent agricultural land. In the earliest days this was used for general farming, but through the 20th century the area came to be dominated by soft fruit orchards and vineyards - for which the climatic and soil conditions were found to be ideal - with the accompanying processing activities.

Grapes are indigenous to the Niagara area, and the earlier settlers developed vineyards based on varieties that could withstand cold winters. Unfortunately, these were used for juice and wines of dubious quality. Gaylor (2010, p.196) discussed the industry and its no-frills product, "...delivered in metal-capped gallon jugs. For almost 100 years it was an industry going nowhere." The wine industry was handicapped with respect to domestic sales by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario - a provincial monopoly on the sales of wines and liquors. The policies of the LCBO were to make wine purchase and consumption as unappealing as possible. This remained the situation until 1975, when Inniskillen Wines was created by Donald Ziraldo and his partners, with the intent of creating quality wines. Since then there has been a rapid growth of competitive estate and boutique wineries.

This has been aided by significant action on the part of government, acting through a number of programmes. The Federal-Provincial Grape Acreage Reduction Program, initiated in 1989, funded grape growers with $Can 50 million to remove old 'traditional' labrusca vines. This effectively eliminated the use of low-grade grapes in commercial wines. Another provincial initiative was the creation of ‘VQA Ontario’ (Vintners Quality Alliance) in 2000, "…a regulatory agency responsible for maintaining the integrity of local wine appellations and enforcing winemaking and labelling standards" (, 2015). By establishing frameworks for the creation and designation of VQA wines it has promoted better quality Ontario wines. A significant step in the preservation of Niagara's agricultural resources was in 2005, when the province, in co-operation with the Regional Municipality of Niagara, created a greenbelt system (Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal, 2006). The intent is to preserve Niagara's agricultural lands "…from urban development in perpetuity." (Gayler, 2010, p.195). While such protection remains controversial, it is a step in safeguarding agricultural resources and the derivative businesses.

Around this agricultural initiative has been created yet another tier of the tourist industry, with many wineries offering tours, tastings, and in some cases excellent restaurants and conference facilities. Ancillary events are conducted at wineries, including Shakespeare performances, concerts, and car shows. During the summer tourist season and on pleasant weekends, it is not unusual for the major wineries and their shops to be crammed with tourists - over half a million people visit Niagara's wineries each year. Excursions to wineries are popular with people from the Toronto area.

One of the delights of the wineries is the diversity of architecture it has engendered. Some have emphasised the traditional experience: these include Konzelmann Estate Winery, Peller Estates, and the new neo-Italian village created by Niagara architect Emilio Raimondo for Colaneri Estate Winery. Others have seen the image of wine as more contemporary, so have matching facilities - Stratus Vinyards, major producer Jackson-Triggs, and Aure Wines, one of the numerous niche players. Of course, some wineries remain in less elegant industrial space.

Further regional benefits have been associated with this industry. Funding and formal recognition of new programmes have come through the Ministry of Colleges and Universities of Ontario. Brock University in St.Catharines founded its Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in 1996 offering degrees and certificates. The Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College runs a two-year diploma programme educating Winery and Viticulture Technicians. A federal-provincial initiative re-established the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in 2007, with a mandate to address agricultural issues and ensure the industry’s ongoing viability.


Excitement about Niagara has been documented since the first Europeans saw the Falls. The 19th century visitors saw it as both a curiosity and as something sublime, and so it remains today. It contains endless stories and myths. Yet there are lessons to be learned. Over the decades, using its fundamental resource, the Falls, as a base, the Canadian Niagara Region has evolved to offer something for almost everyone, for retirees, for the most enthusiastic ecotourist and the historian, and to families simply looking to entertain their children - sometimes in some particularly ridiculous way. Higher levels of government have created the frameworks into which entrepreneurs of all sizes can fit. Major hotel chains created new projects based on the approval of the casinos, but the assorted souvenir vendors and restaurants on and near Clifton Hill also benefitted.  The agricultural and greenbelt policies have allowed the creation of new wineries ranging from the large corporate to tiny family-run operations.  The Niagara Parks Commission has protected the fundamental resource, provided shared infrastructure, and helped to create additional diversity. This ongoing process demonstrates how government and the private sector can each contribute to sustainably maintaining and exploiting the advantages inherent in a geographical region. As an attraction Niagara has survived ongoing change, and even in today’s era of inexpensive global travel, continues to demonstrate an appeal as a place that everyone has to visit - at least once in their life.


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