15 Steps to a Better Edmonton

In March 2009, I gave a talk at an event called IdeaFest (well covered by Daveberta and Chris LaBossiere). At Andy’s suggestion, I did a session called “15 Steps to a Better Edmonton”. The title is fairly expository.

It was well received enough that a few people asked me to send them a copy of my presentation. After looking at the PowerPoint again, I realized it didn’t really provide much information; aside from a few bullet points, most of what made it into the presentation was my speaking extemporaneously. A few months later, I began turning it into a blog post. I’d write some, then get sidetracked by more timely things. Then I stopped blogging regularly, and it sat in limbo. Chris would constantly remind me about this, and after seeing him last weekend for the first time in months, I felt compelled to finally finish it.

With the recent civic election having passed, and the new City Council settling in for the start of its three-year term, it’s as timely as ever. This post is light on specific policies, focusing more on high-level goals and strategies. But these are all steps we – both individually as citizens, and collectively as a city – can take to make Edmonton an even greter place to live.

It should be noted that my thinking has, of course, changed some over the past 18 months. The details of this post reflect this to a degree, though for consistency the 15 steps have stayed the same.

So without further ado, here are one Edmontonian’s thoughts on how to make our city even better. It’s broken up into three parts – ‘Getting Started’, ‘Mastering the Basics’, and ‘Making the Leap’.

Downtown Edmonton Skyline

Getting Started
Before we get into direct actions, there are some broader contextual and high-level issues that must be discussed and understood. Together, they provide the framework for identifying and achieving ways to make Edmonton even better.

1. Understand Our Challenges
Let me start by saying that I love Edmonton. I’ve spent most of my life here, and I’d be very happy to live here for the rest of it. The city has many strong points (I’ll cover some of them later), but to become the city I believe it can be, there are some challenges that need to be conquered.

There are more than just these one at play, but I’ve picked three to focus on. The broad challenges I see are:

Identity Crisis – What kind of city is Edmonton? What kind of city do we want it to be? If we don’t understand this, and have a clear vision citizens can buy into, it’s that much harder to move forward.

Decreasing Faith in Traditional Institutions – Esteem for government and politicians has been consistently falling across the country. How do we address this, and adjust our institutions or methods of engagement accordingly?

Planning and Sustainability – Is our city and communities sustainable – ecologically, socially, and financially? If not, how do we get there?

2. Understand Why People Stay or Go
We often lament that people, especially young people, prefer to move to Toronto, Calgary, or Vancouver, rather than staying in Edmonton. But how much do we really know about why people come, stay, or go. Asking these questions will help us understand:

What brings people to Edmonton?
What makes them stay?
What makes them leave?
What can be done about people leaving?

The last question is particularly important, as developing a strong identity will depend on our ability to successfully attract and keep people that help us achieve our vision of Edmonton.

3. Accept That Our Challenges Aren’t Just About Policy and Legislation

Government can take some steps, but the biggest challenges stem from culture and from people’s attitudes. In some instances, Edmonton is doing well. Our level of volunteering and community involvement is relatively high; our voter turnout, on the other hand, is nothing to brag about. We also have a challenge in that Edmontonians often get down on their city, and feel a need to have a perception that it stacks up to certain others. We tend to dwell on the negatives, and don’t promote our city the way we should. Initiatives like edmontonstories.ca help, and I believe a cultural shift is happening in some circles, but we still get trapped in this.

We have to stop worrying about comparing ourselves to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. We’re different types (and sizes) of cities. Of course a region of 3-5 million people will offer amenities and attractions our million-large region can’t. But a city and region of our size offers a different vibe, and can still offer many things that will appeal to people. The cities in Canada we are most comparable to are Ottawa, Calgary, and Winnipeg – medium-large cities that offer a high quality of life, a lot of amenities, but also a pace and feel that many find more amenable than that of the biggest cities.

We need to focus on building a city we are comfortable with and proud of, critiques or pejoratives from outside critics be damned.

4. Take Ownership of Our City
This is the corollary to point 3. Success depends upon an engaged, informed citizen body. For Edmonton to continue moving forward, we need citizens to become informed, participate in government and the community, and to hold their representatives accountable. We need people to understand the facts, and to make and support informed decisions based on them. I believe that in most situations, people get the government they deserve, either through our action or inaction; taking Edmonton to the next level requires more than a few legislative actions. It requires the regular engagement and participation of Edmontonians.

The Basics
There are basic expectations and functions that any city needs to meet. They matter a lot. They represent people’s most common interactions with government. We use roads, sidewalks, and transit on a daily basis.

It also says something about our city; a well-kept, clean city shows to residents and outsiders alike that we care about our city, and that we are serious about keeping it up.

5. Take Care of the Fundamentals
As mentioned above, these basic activities represent the most regular interaction of citizens with the services their government provides. Most people are going to experience the snow removal, street cleaning, and transit service provided more than they will any output of a public art levy or a publicly sponsored cultural program, for example. This isn’t meant to diminish the importance of the latter two – they are integral parts of a successful city, but rather to emphasize that basic services and infrastructure are as well. Debate often devolves into a false dichotomy about whether to support arts and culture, or to support basic infrastructure and services. The former matters because what make cities great goes beyond the basics; the latter matters because the term ‘basics’ is fairly expository – they’re the things you’re expected to do well before moving on to more advanced objectives.

Most importantly, in order to successfully pursue grander projects, citizens must buy into them. They won’t buy into them if they don’t have confidence in government. Doing the little things well earns governments the political capital, and most importantly, the trust, to pursue larger-scale goals. For the lack of a better term, customer service, in this respect, matters a lot. If you hired a company to paint your fence and they screwed it up, would you hire them to paint your house? Would you promote someone within your office if they didn’t deliver on basic responsibilities, or would you hire someone who proved themselves at another organization? You can’t shop around with government, but the same principle applies. Why trust someone to deliver on a big project if they can’t take care of the basics.

6. Build On Our Strengths
Edmonton has a lot going for it. We need to always remember that, and celebrate it. A first step, then, should be to identify our strengths, and think about how we can build on them. Here are a few of Edmonton’s biggest strengths.

Public Sector: Universities and Colleges; Government
We are home to two Universities, a large technical institution, and many smaller University Colleges. As thinkers such as Richard Florida have pointed out, universities are drivers of the new economy. There is also evidence they provide more economic stability – they are less prone to fluctuation than other industries (a big plus in a province where natural resources make up a big part of the economy). Post-secondary institutions provide a number of stable, largely professional jobs, they bring in a steady stream of young people, and the ideas and products developed in the classrooms and labs can lead to spinoff and related industries (just look at Waterloo and UW’s synergy, or the creativity at schools such as Stanford that helped fuel Silicon Valley’s rise, or the companies that have been incubated at the University of Texas in Austin).

We also have a large government work force. We are the seat of the provincial government, the City of Edmonton is a large employer, and we have a large presence of federal government employees as well, both in the civil service and the military. Like post-secondary institutions, government tends to provide good jobs, and more stability.

Outdoor Recreation and Amenities
Owing in large part to our well-preserved river valley system, the capital region offers a lot of opportunities for outdoor activity and recreation. Go an hour or two outside Edmonton, and you find many more. Drive west for a little over three hours, and you find yourself in Jasper National Park. Drive south and west for 4 hours, and you’re in Banff National Park.

Snow on the Valley

Lifestyle and amenities are important in attracting and retaining workers. The number of high-quality outdoor amenities in and around Edmonton is hard to match.

Festivals: Arts and Culture
In 2007, Edmonton was designated one of Cultural Capitals. Now, these titles are given out on a nearly annual basis, and most cities probably get their turn at some point, but the title seemed appropriate. For a city of our size, Edmonton has a lot of cultural amenities. We attract a steady stream of concert acts, and Rexall Place and Commonwealth Stadium continue to attract the biggest touring acts. The former has ranked among the world’s top concert venues over the past few years.

Our culture scene especially manifests itself in our festivals, which run pretty much non-stop through the summer months. Ask any Edmontonian, and they can surely name their favourite – probably Folk Fest (which is mine), the Fringe (one of the largest in the world), or Heritage Days. This doesn’t include the two dozen or so other smaller festivals; plus events throughout the year such as the Edmonton International Film Festival and the emerging Winter Light Festival. Suffice to say, there is a lot going on.

Hosting Major Events
This is another area where we punch above our weight class. Edmonton has an enviable track record of hosting major events; in recent years, we did an exempliary job of hosting the World University Games and the World Masters Games.

While I’m not usually a proponent of mega-projects or mega-events, when chosen strategically and executed well, they can add a lot to our city.

Our Public School System
Our public school system is world class. As much as I hate that term, in this situation, it’s warranted and well-deserved. School quality is a major consideration for families, and our strong system is a huge advantage for our city. First, it is a huge attraction for families; while I haven’t found Canadian data, Anthony Flint covers at length the data from the US that shows that school quality is the top determinant of where people live. There’s no reason to think it’s isn’t a major driver here. Second, quality education benefits us all; society reaps the benefits of well-educated and trained workers and citizens.

The Mall
Using the definition of world class, West Edmonton Mall definitely fits the bill.

The People
A common refrain I hear from friends and family who have moved away is that they miss the people more than anything. I can empathize with this, having lived elsewhere for a time. It’s hard to quantify, but the people here are great.

7. Better and More Diverse Design
One of the things I’ve noticed about Edmonton is that, leaving aside the very oldest ones, all of our communities tend to look the same. We have roughly three types of communities. Going outward from the core, you see them no matter whether you go east, west, north, or south.

The closest circle consists of the post-war communities: sprawling lots with a smaller single-story (or sometimes a two-story) house on it, and a detached garage connecting to an alleyway behind the house, almost uniformly on number streets found on a grid system. Commercial activity is separated, but still intertwined with the community. Houses and businesses face the major arterial roads.

Next, we find communities of the late 60s-early 80s vintage. They have slightly smaller lots that hold bigger two-story (and some one-story) houses. Streets are still numbered, and generally on something resembling a grid, but you start to see more cul-de-sacs and winding roads. Commercial activity is adjacent to, but separate from the community. Instead of housing facing major arterial roads, you’ll get the parking lot of a commercial centre, or more commonly, tall fences and backyards that create a feeling of isolation as you pass by.

Then we get to the communities built since the 1990s. They have bigger houses on even smaller lots. The streets aren’t on a grid, and they have names that are interchangeable, similar, and utterly confusing. Commercial activity is separate, and a passerby on arterial roads gets a nice view of tall fences that isolate the community from the road. Now, there are a few exceptions in each case, but in general, our communities fit one of these three archetypes.

Art Gallery of Alberta

Now, this is a problem in that it doesn’t offer much choice for residents. Only a handful of communities are truly walkable (as in, you can go about your daily business on foot), and distinguishable in design. A key to success is diversity, being able to offer different options to people at different stages in their lives (often all within the same community), and to appeal to different types of people. Our focus on segregated uses of land is a challenge.

Not only are the communities laid out in three types, but most of our buildings tend to look generic at best, mundane at worst. Good design is inspiring; we need more of it in our city – decision-makers, architects/developers, and citizens alike have to demand better.

Preserving our history is important. It adds character, diversity, and is a reminder of where our city comes from. I see a shift happening (through preservation of buildings such as the Garneau Theatre), but we are still too quick to discard aging buildings or neighbourhoods in favour of the next big things.

8. Make Public Places Interesting
Following up on the previous point, many areas suffer from a lack of activity. There is an onus, of course, on citizens and civic leaders to create activity in the public space, but design of spaces will also affect this, for better or worse.

When people talk about their favourite places, these places are either bustling with activity, or dead quiet. The latter isn’t really compatible with most of a city – except for a quiet spot in our river valley system or a park. Rather, the city is designed to be full of activity. Whether it be gatherings in major public spaces, or simple, informal interaction at the street level, activity is what makes a city tick. Activity also breeds interest, which will then breed more activity (and so on). Places also should be designed to promote a mix of compatible activities, so that they’re being used throughout the day, not bustling for periods and dead for others.

Design is important, but it’s also up to people to bring activity to the public sphere. We’re all guilty of spending time on our balconies, not in parks, or in our backyards, not our front yards. If we’re committed to interesting public spaces, it’s incumbent on citizens to take initiative and use them.

9. Diversify Our Transportation Options
Despite the advances we’re making with LRT expansion, Edmonton is still designed to be a car-centric city. While there will continue to be a role for automobile travel, it’s imperative to build our infrastructure in all areas of transportation.

Other forms of transportation – public transit, walking, cycling, etc need to be treated as legitimate means, not alternatives for eccentrics and people with no other choice. It’s not enough just to build it, but it needs to be high quality, and desirable.

Public transit, in particular, is an undercapitalized area. The emphasis needs to be on making it competitive with car travel, time-wise and amenity-wise. The more we pamper transit users – through perks like comfortable, well-maintained transit centres, and amenities such as Wi-Fi, the more uptake we’ll see. If we treat the transit experience like an afterthought, that’s how people will experience the system.

There also needs to be a culture shift towards sharing a transportation system. Drivers need to respect the speed and nature of buses, and always be accommodating of cyclists and pedestrians. Cyclists, however, also need to be well versed in the rules if they’re sharing the road. We all need to recognize that there are several legitimate forms of transportation, and we have a duty as citizens to respect and accommodate that.

Making the Leap
Beyond the basics, I see 6 steps – strategies, really – that will help make Edmonton an even greater city.

10. Grow Up, and Say No to Growing Out
I live a very urban lifestyle right now. I work downtown, live just west of there, and spend most of my time in the downtown/Oliver/Garneau/Old Strathcona area. While I strongly support a more compact urban form, where I live is as much based on where I am in my life, and my general dislike of commuting, as anything else. I see the appeal a more suburban environment has for people, and having grown up in that environment, I can attest that it has many positives.

Stony Plain Road

That said, there is mounting evidence that continued, unfettered growth outwards is unsustainable – both environmentally and economically. The cost of servicing low-density areas is much greater to the municipality than the cost of servicing a high-density core.

Continued, unfettered growth outwards creates a drain on our resources. This is not to say we should never convert green space to living space, but that our focus should be on optimizing existing infrastructure and developed areas. Edmonton is taking steps in this direction, with the new Municipal Development Plan setting a target of 25% of population growth occurring within the existing footprint. The Capital Region Board is establishing limits to growth, but until this is tested, we don’t know if there is the will to enforce it.

We still have a culture where growth outwards and abundant single-family homes are seen as a right. There needs to be the will from both the public and government to say no when the situation calls for it. Right now, we’re not even having the conversation.

11. Embrace What Makes Us Different
Seen one way, where you live is a consumer choice. Most people have some options, and they will compare and choose the one they like best, be it within a city (comparing homes and/or neighbourhoods), or by choosing between different cities to live in.

We’re competing nationally and internationally for people, and we have to be aware of what our advantages over other cities are. More importantly, we need to stand out in some way. What makes Edmonton different from Calgary, Saskatoon, or Vancouver? Or Toronto or Montreal? Or Seattle, Portland, or Austin?

Good transportation, urban design, and basic services have all been covered, but great cities also have attractions that make them unique. Whether it’s restaurants, businesses and shops, or entertainment options that aren’t replicated or available elsewhere, the best cities are known for these things. We have some aspects of this in Edmonton; we need to nurture them, and continue to build a unique local culture in these three spheres.

12. Build Our Social Infrastructure
In hindsight, this should have been listed as a basic. There is an aspect that overlaps with basic services, in that I view social services as something a city needs to offer well. With this point, I’m getting at something else.

Earlier, I mentioned the decreasing faith in traditional institutions and government as a challenge for Edmonton. This doesn’t mean that people are apathetic, but it means that we require different methods and avenues for citizen engagement, and government and other institutions need to be responsive to this.

Morning Session

People might not attend a public meeting on a proposed development in their neighbourhood, but they might discuss urban design at ChangeCamp. They might not volunteer for their community league, but they may use the web to connect with neighbours and mobilize around a common concern. Citizens, institutions, and government alike need to be committed to fostering a culture of engagement. Essential to this is being flexible and open to new and different ways of engaging people and groups. Sometimes it’s not that people don’t want to be involved, it’s that you’re not reaching them where they are, or where they’ll be comfortable participating.

13. Embrace the Region and Mega-Region
In recent years, we’ve taken great strides regionally, with the establishment of the Capital Region Board, and a corresponding move towards collaboration, not competition between Edmonton and its neighbours. This is a good thing, and essential to future growth. Economic cooperation is important, and there is also an economy of scale to some services. Furthermore, a well-coordinated region can offer different living options and neighbourhoods, important in attracting and retaining people with different interests.

Beyond regional cooperation, economies are being organized more about what are referred to as “mega-regions”. These clusters of regions/municipalities are economically linked, and can work to benefit each other. The Edmonton-Calgary corridor has the potential to develop as a strong mega-region in the future, and we should be taking all steps we can to encourage that. Infrastructure investments like high-speed rail to move citizens would be big steps forward.

14. Plan for a Post-Carbon Economy
I’m not going to touch peak oil here, except to say much of what follows in this point is exacerbated if/when oil supplies noticeably decrease, then run out.

Our economy is very much natural resource-driven, and so is our infrastructure – our transportation relies heavily on cars and trucks, buses, and other fossil-fuel powered machinery. Renewable energy use is growing, but still just a small share of production.

No one can predict how our energy production – by design, innovation, or necessity – will change in the next 20-30 years, but Edmonton needs to be well poised to respond to any changes. Key steps include diversifying our transportation system, encouraging research and economic development in energy – especially renewable energy – systems, and implementing policies that will encourage lower energy use.

15. Self-Determination
One of the biggest challenges for cities across Canada is the limited power they actually exert. They’re creatures of the provinces, have no status or recognition beyond that, and could conceivably lose their taxation, or even be amalgamated/dissolved through an act of the legislature. If that happened, it would be an extreme case (and is unlikely), but for the role they play, cities do have a shocking lack of authority.

In order for cities to fulfill their potential, they need more freedom and authority, to raise revenue in different ways than just property taxes, to bargain with the other orders of government, and to have secure, longer-term funding in place.

While some on City Council, notably Don Iveson, raise this issue regularly, it hasn’t caught on in the public. We all want, and expect, great services from our city, but we don’t appreciate the limitations it faces in trying to deliver that. Greater authority for cities must be a cause everyone takes on.

I’ll stop at the original 15. Were I starting this from scratch today, I would probably add a few more. There are a lot of good things happening in Edmonton, and I see the potential for a lot more. I’d also love to hear from readers about what you see as strengths, challenges, and where we need to go next. Building a better Edmonton is a collaborative effort, and I hope this post can help move it along a little bit.

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6 Responses

  1. Edmonton is a great mid-size city that does not see any reason for the boosterism that overtakes the leadership and culture of so many other cities. We also tend to go the other direction and fail to appreciate what we have and who we are as a community.

    Alex – your post here is an agenda for engagement and awareness. We need people like you to keep sharing your thoughts as a way to enable and enhance more civic-level citizenship.

    I will have to read this post a few times and with time for reflection on what you are saying and the implications for the future direction of Edmonton…even Alberta. Thx for sharing your thoughts.

  2. The first thing we need for a greater Edmonton is to stop the closure of the City Centre Airport. It must stay open.

  3. Alex, positively ADMIRABLE post. “Building a better Edmonton is a collaborative effort, and I hope this post can help move it along a little bit.” I agree with the vast majority of things you say, especially the above-pasted quote. I feel inspired. You’ve succeeded with me, at least.

  4. Hi Alex,

    An interesting post. I Have a few comments:

    I’m not sure you can apply how U.S. school quality drives where people live to Canada. There are a few particular critical differences in the U.S.:

    1. The U.S. school system is much less regulated than in Canada, so the difference between a “good” school and a “bad” school is much bigger than in Alberta.

    2. In the U.S. they publish SAT scores for schools or at least school districts. This makes it very obvious where the best schools are, or at least the best schools for maximizing your child’s chances of getting into university/college. We don’t have a real equivalent in Canada that’s well accepted.

    3. My understanding is that the U.S. school data is about families relocating within a city or nearby cities. I don’t think it really would be predictive of moving to or away from Edmonton since we’re pretty isolated geographically.

    I’m a big fan of your wi-fi on transit idea. With public transit, your commute to work becomes longer, but you make up for it by doing other things. I think nowadays, internet access is almost a prerequisite to getting work done.

    As someone who’d like to live in the suburbs (I grew up there), I’m not sure I like your rejection of the “right” of people to keep building single family homes. You’re right about growing outward being a drain on resources and that more growth internally would have many advantages. However, I think you need to make living closer to the core appealing so people choose to live there rather than on the periphery. Forcing people into living where they don’t want to live will make them more likely to move to another city since Edmonton won’t be providing them with the lifestyle they want.

    Thanks for sharing your detailed thoughts.

    – Mustafa Hirji

  5. […] Very thoughtful post from Alex: 15 Steps to a Better Edmonton. […]

  6. Hi, Alex

    Thank you for the article. I have a couple of comments:

    In regards to point 4, taking ownership of the city requires a city council willing to listen to the people. The refusal of city council to seek an explicit mandate from the people on things such as the sale of EPCOR, the closure of the ECCA, a new downtown arena, an Expo 2017 bid, etc. actively discourages public participation in municipal government.

    I agree completely with point 11, that we should embrace what makes us different. Unfortunately, many people (primarily those who want the ECCA closed) want Edmonton to be a cardboard cut-out of other cities.

    Anyway, thanks again for a good article.

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