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$100 Million for Downtown Edmonton

Much has been made in recent days about Premier Stelmach’s statement that provincial Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funds could potentially be used to cover the $100 million missing in the arena funding puzzle. Many prominent Edmontonians, notably Edmonton Journal Urban Affairs columnist David Staples, have been vocal champions of the downtown arena project. Last Friday, David promoted the #GoDowntown hashtag on Twitter, encouraging people to use it and tweet their support for the project.

In response, I posted the following two things:

Fortunately, as you can see, David agrees with my statement in the second post.

I work downtown, and live downtown-ish (three blocks west of its technical boundary). I live here by choice. I enjoy the proximity to amenities (like the river valley trails for running and biking), the ability to walk to restaurants, pubs, and shopping, and the diverse, interesting neighbourhood that surrounds me. I’d like to see our downtown area continue to flourish, but I recognize there’s lots of good things going on, and it has made tremendous strides over the last decade or two. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and downtown Edmonton is heading in the right direction.

Getting back to my statement about the best use of $100 million, my issue with this funding going to the arena is not that project in and of itself. Rather, it is my belief that $100 million could do so much more for our downtown spent in other ways. I spent a few hours last night brainstorming how that could happen. As a caveat, some of the costs are estimates, but this gives you an idea of what $100 million could go towards.

Housing
– 1500 New Housing Unit Grants at $10,000/unit ($15 million)
– 400 New Family Housing Unit Grants at $25,000/unit ($10 million)
– 150 New Live-Work Spaces Grants at $25,000/unit ($3.75 million)

In the Capital City Downtown Plan, one of the strategies set out is a $10,000 per unit housing incentive grant in the Warehouse District. This could be expanded to the whole downtown, and help kickstart proposed projects. The Aurora project has long been on hold, and recent Edmonton Journal articles mention a proposed development in Chinatown, and interest in 40 and 50 story towers on 104th St.

Additionally, this grant could be used to encourage development of different types of units. Family units (2 or more bedrooms) are scarce, and a higher level of subsidy could encourage more family-oriented housing to be developed. Similar, live-work space is identified in the downtown plan for artists, but it could just as easily be used by any number of professions. Both would compliment and diversify the housing options available downtown. Most importantly, I estimate more than 3500 residents move in to those units (based on 1.5 per regular unit, 3 per family unit). That’s 3500 people living downtown, shopping and using amenities every day.

Preservation and Conversion
– BMO’63 Building and Odeon Theatre ($12 million)
– CKUA Building ($5 million)

While it was lamentable that City Council chose not to pursue any action in trying to save BMO’63, it’s not too late. While “demolition” may begin shortly, it’s unlikely to affect the structure for a while, as the asbestos must be removed first. So suffice to say, MSI funding could be used to compensate the owner, or purchase the building outright if action was taken quickly.

What could be done with these properties? Well, Magic Lantern Theatres, which until recently operated the Garneau, contacted GE Capital about taking over the Odeon Theatre. And with BMO’63, you could probably fit around 200 FTEs into renovated office space (similar to the Empire Building), and a restaurant/lounge on the main floor. In conversation, Martin suggested a ‘Corso64‘, which I think is a brilliant idea.

What about other ways to increase employment downtown and activity on Jasper Ave? Well, the CKUA Building is for sale, with its current tenants set to move shortly. Having been in that building, I recognize that it may be problematic to renovate for some purposes, but it does have a decent stock of office space already. There is also the space to renovate the main floor and put a restaurant/shop of some sort in. The property lists for $3.2 million, so an additional investment from the City and other investors could turn it into some form of office space for small companies or startups, or studio space for artists, to name two possible outcomes. You could probably fit another 200 or so employees in there.

Capacity Building
– Start-Up/Tech Space ($500K)
– Non-Profit Centre ($5 million)

The Edmonton Champions project calls for:

establishing physical creative and entrepreneurial hubs where the collision between great ideas and people can happen. Places where startups grow, events happen, and community gathers.

A grant to secure and convert space in the downtown core would help accomplish this. The DIY attitude of entrepreneurs would likely lead to them raising additional funds or completing additional work themselves. This space is key to growing our tech economy.

In terms of additional capacity-building, space for non-profits can be hard to come by. Providing affordable office space where they can be housed, and can learn from one another is a strategy that can strengthen Edmonton’s non-profit centre. There is an existing model too, with the Percy Page Centre, which houses many of Alberta’s sporting organizations.

Public Spaces
– Signature Art Piece for 105th St Park ($5 million)
– Renovation of Churchill Square ($10 million)
– Indoor Market and Community Centre ($7.5 million)

The downtown plan calls for a new park in the Warehouse District, and I’m told it will be going in by early next year at 105th St and 102 Ave. Commissioning signature art and attractions is a way to generate interest and activity. There’s a lot of synergy with the growing residential population, and attractions like the City Centre Market and MacEwan nearby. In terms of art and attractions, I’m thinking something unique like Avnish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Millennium Park in Chicago.

The renovations to Churchill Square could take many forms, but would be designed to increase activity and make it a year-round space. And if nothing else, the concrete would go.

Riding By

The City Centre Market, which operates on 104th St from May-October, has been looking for winter space. With the Ford dealership vacating its old space on 106th St and 103 Ave, there is a possibility to convert its old showroom into a market and community centre. I’m imaging a development like Reading Terminal in Philadelphia. The Saturday Market could remain the focus, but it could also feature a series of permanent vendors open every day, with the market space being used for different purposes outside of Saturdays in the winter.

Streetfront Initiatives
– 25 Storefront Conversion Grants at $50,000 each ($1.25 million)

An identified challenge is that many street level spaces are not pedestrian-friendly, or not being used at all. These grants would encourage development of streetfront retail space, converting shops in places like City Centre Mall outwards, and filling in empty ground-level space in many highrises along Jasper Avenue. This is another priority outlined in the downtown plan.

Green Energy
– 50 Green Energy Grants at $50,000 each ($2.5 million)

These grants would be used to encourage residential and commercial buildings to invest in green energy – solar panels, geo-thermal (if possible), green roofs, etc.

Infrastructure and Transportation
– 3 Pedestrian Bridges over 104 Ave ($15 million)
– SmartCard system for parking and services ($5 million)
– Bike Lanes, including North-South and East-West main arterials ($1.5 million)
– Bixi Program for City Centre ($1 million)

I do agree with David Staples that connectivity over 104 Ave is a problem. I don’t think we need a winter garden to be the focal point, and to draw activity away from the street, but strategically placed bridges could help connect the North Edge to downtown, increase pedestrian safety, and add a nice architectural touch to 104 Ave. Think one around 102 Ave, 105 Ave, and 107 Ave (near the future LRT stop in front of MacEwan). In terms of design, the three could all be linked, or similar, like a pedestrian version of the Three Sisters bridges in Pittsburgh.

An additional amenity for residents and visitors alike would be a Smartcard system. This could replace parking meters and also be used at other city facilities. Philadelphia has largely done away with metered parking. The Smartcard system is similar to Impark, you have one terminal on each block, and you pay with your card and print a ticket.

I find Edmonton has pretty good bike paths, but outside of the Railtown path, is missing dedicated lanes. A need for dedicated North-South and East-West axis was outlined in the downtown plan, and this would improve commuter cycling within the downtown core.

Additionally, for those who live in the downtown core, or spend time there, a Bixi system would be beneficial. It would encourage short-term trips, providing an alternative to car transportation for meetings and errands.

Next post: I attempt to quantify the impact of $100 million for an arena vs the $100 million investment I laid out above.

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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.

Photo Essay: Homeless Connect IV

In October, I volunteered at the third Homeless Connect event in Edmonton, and wrote about my thoughts.

The fourth Homeless Connect event was held today. Through my work, I was involved in the organizing of the event. I won’t rehash my thoughts in print, but will reiterate that it’s a tremendously rewarding event. Also, during the quieter moments of today, I took photos. Here are some highlights from Homeless Connect:

Service Providers
Volunteers and service providers set up before the event.

Jasper Place Mural
Hazel, one of the volunteers who contributed to this mural, with Scotti Coles, Executive Director of the Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre.

Volunteers
Volunteers get an orientation at the start of the day.

Elders
Aboriginal Elders performed an honour song for the people who are homeless in Edmonton.

Broaches
Sharol Penner of the House of Refuge made 600 broaches by hand for all the mothers who attended.

Guests
This couple moved to Edmonton from Vancouver in the fall, and are still getting settled.

Haircut

The free haircuts was rivaled in popularity only by the foot care.

Foot Care

Getting a Lift
The volunteers work hard all day, but also like to have fun.

The next Homeless Connect Edmonton will be held on Sunday, October 17th. I encourage you to think about getting involved.

You can see all my photos from the event here.

Richfolk, Poorfolk, and the Housing In Between

Today’s St. Albert Gazette featured a letter that would be hilarious were it not for the fact that, by all accounts, its authors are dead serious.

A proposed new development in St. Albert would see Habitat for Humanity build 15 units in a 58 unit complex. This has, predictably, led to complaints from residents. But today’s letter took things to a whole new level.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the thoughts of only two people. But the letter points to several stereotypes that exist about suburban vs. inner-city environments, in particular the desirability of each area. This matters to all of us, particularly those of us interested in seeing more diverse (even mixed-income) neighbourhoods, more families living in our city centres, and those interested in maintaining public schools in the city centre and mature neighbourhoods as well.

So with that in mind, I want to address some of the misconceptions in the letter.

Habitat for Humanity bucket

“What we want is for St. Albert to remain as it is with very few low-income households, a place for families that work hard to live here”

The emphasis in the header is mine.

I have no doubt that the authors of this letter work hard and want what’s best for their family. Almost everyone does. What’s dangerous is the assumption that low-income families don’t work hard. To repeat, almost everyone works hard. It wasn’t that long ago that I was working low-end jobs occupied by many of our lowest-income neighbours. In University, I worked for a time in retail and in a call centre. I wouldn’t want to work those jobs again, and a big reason is that they are really hard work, and don’t offer the same sort of satisfaction or intellectual stimulation you find in other jobs. Nonetheless, it’s honest, decent work. I’d suggest that people who truly believe low-income earners don’t work hard should try doing their jobs for a little while; they’ll probably come away with a new found respect for what they do.

“Our cost of living will increase as we will have to pay for low-income subsidies due to higher school fees or other taxes.”

I’m not sure this is substantiated anywhere. I’d also be interested to see if they – or anyone who agrees with this sentiment – acknowledge the ways in which taxpayers have helped them. For example, almost all of us have benefited from a subsidized education system – particularly if we went to post-secondary. Specific to the authors, they note that they are business owners. I assume then that as business owners, they benefit from tax concessions not available to the regular working person. Why is one tax subsidy okay and not another? This is a topic for another post, but I’d be interested to see someone defend the header, without using the “business creates job” truism.

We all benefit from tax breaks/subsidies of others at one time or in one form. In my opinion, we all then have a commensurate responsibility to give back when we can.

“Current residents will have to deal with the likeliness of children influenced by crime in our schools and adults in our community.”

Having grown up in south(west) Edmonton, and gone to schools populated primarily with middle class and upper-middle class kids (Greenfield Elementary, Avalon Junior High, Strathcona Composite HIgh), I feel like I have the background to comment on this. What the Perrys are really getting at is that they see the low-income kids being a bad influence on their own.

In my experience, and that of those I’ve conferred with, there is no correlation between family income level and good behaviour. Many of the kids in my high school who smoked, drank excessively, and did or sold drugs were from the better off families. In fact, Scona was a hotspot for dealing drugs precisely because we didn’t have a community police officer back in the late 1990s. I also knew of at least two well-off kids who ended up in rehab or addictions counseling. And it sure as hell wasn’t because of kids from the projects who were a bad influence on them.

The point, to reiterate, is that bad (and good) apples come from all sorts of backgrounds. The children of these 15 families aren’t going to corrupt the good people of St. Albert.


“there is no level of pre-screening that will prevent some form of crime from infiltrating the proposed development. It will happen, guaranteed.”

Really? I would love to see statistics that back this up. For what it’s worth, the screening process for Habitat for Humanity looks fairly vigorous. It would be hard to argue that people who meet all of the criteria aren’t good citizens.

“Like it or not, the children of St. Albert are high-standard children and have no place for low-income classmates.”…”our teen had a hard time fitting in because of money and it was hard on him”

Besides making all St. Albert teens sound like the Plastics, this is also probably false. Kids will exclude and label other kids for all sorts of reasons. I doubt that living in a nice house and having nice things automatically buys anyone acceptance, unless said person lets other take advantage of their family’s wealth. In which case, I have to ask, why do you want those kids as friends?

“I am all for low-income housing in Edmonton. I believe more independent living housing is required in St. Albert and would be better suited than this proposal.”

I hate to break the news, but there are already homeless people in St. Albert. Look, here’s a story about one.

St. Albert hasn’t gone to hell in a hand basket while some of its residents don’t have a place to call home. Also, as the story points out, there are already 4 Habitat for Humanity homes in St. Albert. Yet, life has gone on for the hard-working residents of the city. Maybe mixing in a bit of non-market housing won’t be the apocalypse. It might even help some people appreciate everything they have.

Mixed-income communities work well across the world. Yet, the stereotypes about “safe” suburbs and “dangerous” inner-city and low income neighbourhoods persist. The sooner we get beyond this, the better off we will all be.

Inside the Art Gallery of Alberta

Art Gallery of Alberta

In less than a week’s time, the new Art Gallery of Alberta building opens to the public. Interest is running high. According to Executive Director Gilles Hebert, they were selling around 25-30 memberships online per day last week, and memberships overall are up several-fold (somewhere around 400%). And the 10,000 tickets for free admission on the opening days were snapped up so quickly a third day was added.

This afternoon, the AGA offered an advance tour to local bloggers. A good crowd turned out – I’d guess somewhere around 30 people. With cameras, notepads, and iPhones in hand, we set out on an hour long tour of the facility (minus the exhibit halls), and Q&A with AGA staff.

I won’t comment much on the technical specifications of the new facility, for two reasons. First, they will no doubt be covered at length elsewhere, and second, I left my notepad with all this information at work.

Exhibits
The group is assembled outside the exhibit hall that will be showing the new Goya exhibit.

On my way home, I thought about what I’d like to see out of the new gallery, or really, any facility of this nature (especially in the downtown/city core). My interest falls into three categories:

1. Architecture and Design
2. Programming and Activities
3. Effect on the Urban Form

Examining it according to these three categories, here is my first impression of the new gallery:

1. Architecture and Design

Overall, I enjoy the look of Randall Stout‘s building. Working at City Hall until recently, I saw the work in progress almost every day. I had concerns about it. I’m not a huge fan of Gehry-style architecture. I saw the artist renderings of the final product, and didn’t know what to think. At most stages of construction, what I saw of the building was certainly not encouraging. Approaching the building today, I was impressed by the way it stands out. Elegant, distinct, and certainly not garish. To put it mildly, it’s a huge improvement over the previous “brutish” (to use Gilles Hebert’s word) structure, and stands out in contrast to the adjacent courthouse, a truly unremarkable building.

Second Floor
Looking up at the second floor gallery space.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the interior. There is a lot of open space, but it’s doesn’t induce vertigo, nor compromise functional space the way many open-space designs do. As for materials, the contrast of Douglas fir, glass, steel, and zinc produces an interesting feel as well.

2. Programming and Activities
The new gallery more than doubles the exhibit space of the previous one. It also offers increased space for public and educational purposes. In the lower level of the building, you will find a theatre, in addition to four classrooms (conveniently colour-coded: the blue, yellow, green, and orange rooms).

Theatre, from the Front
A view from the front of the theatre.

The extra space in the gallery, particularly the exhibit space, is important because of what it affords the AGA the opportunity to do. The critical thing is what they do with it.

When thinking about the gallery, I considered a quote from David Byrne‘s blog post, “Art Funding or Arts Funding“, which a friend passed on to me last month:

Simultaneously, a number of museums around the world have scuttled their plans for new buildings or expansions, some of them designed by starchitects. Part of these austerity measures are of course due to the economic downturn, but my guess is that most of these projects were underway well before the crash, and were going to result in a mess anyway — as these insitutions simply thought that, like Bilbao, if they built a wildly impressive new museum in, for example, Milwaukee (Calatrava did the new entranceway and the car garage — the car garage!) or in Indianapolis, that folks from all over the world would come to visit. I was in Indianapolis recently, and would have gone to the art museum, but as we only had one afternoon, we went to the Indy 500 museum instead. Never was there ever any mention of what amazing and innovative shows would go into these future spaces, which were regularly featured in magazine articles with lovely renderings attached — that didn’t seem to be a priority.

Byrne is, of course, spot on. There are encouraging signs from the AGA. The Capital Powered Art partnership, which will bring ten national and international exhibits to the AGA over the next three years, is a good start, and precisely the kind of initiative we need to help realize the Gallery’s potential.

3. Effect on the Urban Form
This is the point I am most concerned with.

I believe the points mentioned in the first two categories will aid in creating a positive effect on the urban form. The building improves the landscape in Churchill Square immensely. More programming and activity options increases the likelihood that more people will visit the gallery.

What I look for in galleries and museum is not something that’s world-renowned, or will be a magnet for tourists (there will always only be a handful of these worldwide). Rather, I think our gallery should always be an interesting outing for locals, and it should be something that we can bring guests from out of town to, or that visitors can add on to their itinerary, and always find to be a worthwhile use of time. I’m optimistic this will happen.

There are other positive things I see. The building’s design creates greater interaction with the surrounding areas at street level. The glass exterior is a nice touch, and a restaurant overlooks Rue Hull (99th St), the road that runs between the Gallery and Churchill Square. One of the (many) things missing from Churchill Square is buildings that interact well with the street (which is all of them except Three Bananas Cafe). The presence of a street-level restaurant will make the area feel more personable.

Zinc
The restaurant, Zinc, offers a view of Churchill Square and City Hall.

One of my major concerns with the business district downtown, and in particular Churchill Square, is how early everything closes. It’s tough to do anything after 6pm, since most everything closes right after work. In the Square, the library and adjacent Second Cup are open through the evening. Three Bananas is open until 7pm Monday-Saturday (and 5 on Sunday), but L’Espresso closes at 5 on weekdays, and isn’t open at all on weekends. Factor in City Centre Mall (which closes early) on the west side of the Square, and you’re not left with a whole lot going on. Barring the nights when there are festival events going on, Churchill Square is dead after work hours, especially at the street level.

So what will the AGA do to address this? It will be open until 7pm Tuesday-Friday (it’s closed all day Monday). This at least affords people the opportunity to stop by after work. The restaurant, Zinc, will be open until 11pm most night. Hopefully this will help attract some after-work activity to the Square, especially during the summer time. Every little bit helps; in aggregate, enough activities will keep the area busy after-work hours.

Though it will operate seasonally, and according to gallery hours, I should note that the Terrace Cafe looks really promising as well. I’m anticipating it will be a popular lunchtime and after-work spot during the summer hours. Look how much fun we’re having when it’s -10 and covered with snow; just imagine it come summertime!

Terrace Cafe
We braved the cold to experience the future home of the Terrace Cafe.

Closing Thoughts
My first impressions are almost all positive. In many ways, though, the work hasn’t begun. It will be an on-going effort to keep people coming back to the Gallery, both as patrons for the exhibits, and for other community events. The AGA can only do so much programming; if they’re going to keep bringing in top-level exhibits, they’re going to need paying customers to support them; if we want a downtown that’s vibrant after-hours, we have to be willing to organize events and outings that happen there.

If we want Edmonton to be a city with amenities like this, we have to be willing to make use of them as well. The AGA presents a great opportunity; let’s all make the best of it.

My photos from the tour can be seen here

Thanks to Mack Male, and to Sarah Hoyles and everyone at the Art Gallery of Alberta for the invitation and for arranging the tour.

Reboot Alberta: The Argument

I’ve had some time to reflect on Reboot Alberta after posting my initial thoughts Saturday night and participating in the Sunday morning session. On the drive home Sunday afternoon, I felt good. I thought about the many smart, talented people who are passionate about our province that I had the privilege of connecting with – some are old friends, many are new ones. I thought about what I had wanted to get out of the weekend, and what had transpired over the previous 36 hours. I thought about the sense of community I felt in the room all weekend. The respect for people and for different ideas that was constant. The pride in Alberta and the desire to make our home even better – whether one lives in a condo in downtown Edmonton or on a ranch by Picture Butte.

I thought about what might come next from this movement, where it might go one month, one year, or one decade in the future. I thought about how I might play a role. But most of all, I thought about The Argument.

Now, I don’t capitalize “The Argument” to convey a universal truth. Far from it. As some readers might know, either because I’ve linked to them on the web or cited them in conversation, there are two pieces I look to for inspiration in progressive politics. On a more micro level, the revival of progressive politics and the Democratic Party in Texas over the past few years. The second is the more macro level progressive movement in the United States this decade. The story of this is told in many books and articles I’ve read, but best of all in the book by journalist Matt Bai, titled The Argument.

The book’s subtitle is “Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics”. Focusing on the period between the 2004 re-election of President Bush, and the 2006 mid-term election when the Democrats gained control of both houses of congress, Bai tells the story of wealthy donors, previously unheralded bloggers, and regular citizens from across the country who were united in cause, and spurred to action by common ideas and sentiments. First and foremost was a profound worry about the direction of their country. They also, by and large, shared a dislike for the centrism that the Democratic Party had come to embrace since the ascendancy of Bill Clinton in 1992. You could see it in 2003, when previously dispirited activists embraced the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean for his party’s nomination for President. They embraced his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq, his support for universal health care, and, as Bai recounts, they roared when he delivered the line “I’m Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!” (he borrowed this line from the late progressive Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellestone). Following the Dean campaign, they pushed for a stronger progressive agenda, forming new organizations, taking to blogs and the web to connect with like-minded citizens, and supporting challenges to the establishment in the form of candidates such as Ned Lamont, who took on incumbent Connecticut Senator Joe Liebermann. Bai’s central point, though, was about the paradigm-shifting efforts of progressives, especially the effort to develop a new “argument” for a changing America. It strikes a chord with me, and in particular what I talked about in my pre-Reboot Alberta post.

So what does this have to do with Alberta? First and foremost, the need, which we engaged in to some extent, to agree on and articulate “the argument” for our future. Second, I saw signs of both models I mentioned above. I connected with “progressives” of all backgrounds. Just like the American activists, who were stereotyped as urban, young, and liberal, this weekend showed there are Albertans of all ages, locations, and backgrounds who care about progressive issues. They were brought together through some connection to the organizers of the event, and many had initially connected, or gained in stature, through their participation in mediums such as Twitter, or through blogs. In this, I was reminded of a story from “The Argument” that I have often cited in the 20 months since I first read it. In this passage (pages 73-74 of the hardcover edition), Bai tells the story of a Moveon.org house party in suburban Virginia. He is talking to a politically frustrated, liberal in her mid-forties, which he follows with this passage:

Everyone at the party was roughly Linda’s age. This illustrates one of the great misconceptions about MoveOn’s membership. Establishment Democrats and hostile Republicans assumed that any online forum – whether it was MoveOn or the blogs or the Howard Dean supporters who connected through Meetup.com – had to consist of tech-savvy kids who would do anything to avoid studying for exams, nost of them concentrated on the coasts or in college towns with lots of storefront salons offering body art. It was a fundamental misunderstanding of the new progressive movement. In fact, about half of MoveOn’s members were over fifty, and many of them lived in the most ordinary, conservative suburbs you could conjure up, just like this one. The point was that they had been so isolated for too long, entirely disconnected from one another and despondent over the rise of Republican extremism and the drift of Washington Democrats toward a kind of mushy middle. If college kids wanted to commiserate with someone over the fear and misery of life under Bush, all they had to do was walk across the hall. For affluent boomers, there was MoveOn.
What MoveOn had done, along with popular lefitst blogs like DailyKos and MyDD, was to establish a virtual clubhouse for like-minded liberals clustered in hostile places. They spent their days at corporate jobs with co-workers who probably voted Republican or who would rather talk about the upcoming football game or their kids’ soccer league than about Iraq. They came home to colonial houses with neatly trimmed lawns and alarm systems and oversized refrigerators, to neighbours they barely knew expect to wave to now and then. They put their kids to bed – and then, under the halogen lamp of a home office, they flipped on the computer and spent a few minutes in a welcoming place, among faraway friends who felt as culturally and politically destitute as they did. It was where they belonged.

Never before or since have I read the power of web-based social networks so well articulated. As I mentioned above, much of these same characteristics – the isolation, the frustration, were present among some attendees. Now obviously it’s not a perfect analogy – I’m not comparing our government to the Bush administration; they are light years better, to put it mildly, and continue to advance progressive policies on some fronts, as they have since the days of Premier Lougheed. This passage is really about the power of community. Similarly, Reboot Alberta was, to my mind, not so much an expression of frustration or opposition to a single person or entity, but an expression of collective frustration – that we can all do better, whether it’s as citizens or organizations, political or not.

The myth of a conservative Alberta is well-entrenched, but the truth is that our province has a long, proud history of being progressive on many fronts. It was in Alberta that, in 1917, Louise McKinney became the first women elected to a legislature anywhere in the British Empire; she was also one of Alberta’s Famous Five who pushed for the advancement of Women’s Rights and legal recognition. In 1951, William Hawrelak, son of Ukrainian immigrants – was elected as Mayor of Edmonton – the first Mayor of a major Canadian city not of Anglo or Franco heritage. On the policy front, Edmonton and Calgary were ahead of the curve on light rail development in the 1970s, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Edmonton’s recycling program put it on the cutting edge of cities. Also, if you’re interested in electoral reform, Alberta first employed multi-member districts in 1921 (in Edmonton, Calgary, and Medicine Hat), and continued that practice until the 1950s. What I sensed from people was a desire to embrace that tradition. How this happens is a challenge. There was talk about new movements, individual actions, reinvigorating parties, or starting new political parties.

It is within this context that DJ Kelly made what was, for me, the most profound comment of the weekend:

But it was during the discussion result presentations that it dawned on me: what would happen if we took all four of these ways forward AT THE SAME TIME?

Any one of these ways forward could effect change. However taking all four paths at the same time could all but guarantee the desired change.

So this brings us to the key questions. Where do we go from here, and where do we all fit in? The latter question, in particular, is one I’ve been struggling both before and after the conference. But I have come to three realizations.

First, I am far less concerned with who is in power than I am with ensuring we have good government and that good policies and laws enacted. I’m not blindly for or against any party. Frankly, I think all of them have good points (and have advanced good policies), but from time to time they do things I disagree with. That will be the case with anyone or any organization; the key is whether the good outweighs the bad.

Second, what I am concerned with is spending my time and energy effectively. I am more than willing to devote my efforts to any initiative that aligns with my values, that enjoys the support and involvement of people I respect, and that shows a good probability that my time will be well-spent and I will be able to help make a difference.

Third, I am open to any option – new or existing – that meets the criteria outlined in the previous point.

I look forward to continuing what we started in Red Deer this past weekend – in whatever shape and direction it takes on. We Albertans have an exciting future ahead of us, if we’re willing to put in the work to build it.

Rebooting Alberta: Instant Reaction

The afternoon at Reboot Alberta is drawing to a close. So far, I have had some fascinating conversations – both inside and outside of the formal sessions – with a number of old friends and new acquaintances.

We began this morning by choosing topics for discussion during three consecutive time slots. After breaking for lunch, we moved into a session with four breakout groups – one around each of the major themes for action identified (phrasing largely mine): “reinvigorating the existing political system (including parties)”, “a new political party if necessary, but not necessarily a new political party”, “creating new movements and initiatives for change (outside of formal political structures)”, and “working through existing initiatives for social change”.

This morning, I participated in sessions titled “What Exactly is a Progressive”, “Defining a Progressive Vision for Alberta”, and “How Do Progressives Bridge the Gap Between Rural and Urban?” All three sessions were very engaging, and thought-provoking. In particular, I enjoyed sitting back and listening during the “rural/urban gap” session; it was informative to listen to the perspectives of Albertans from rural areas and small towns.

This afternoon, I sat in on the “new political party if necessary, but not necessarily a new political party”. Most of the discussion ended up around the Renew Alberta initiative. The group, some of whose organizers are present, is collecting signatures in order to register as a political party. I’ve expressed reservations about the merits of starting a new party (here and here), but I will say that there a number of insightful comments – some in support of the idea, some raising questions or offering caution. What is evident is that almost everyone in the room is unsatisfied with the status quo, and looking for solutions.

With the play-by-play out of the way, I’ll comment on three themes – values, social change, and political parties. I’ll write more about Reboot Alberta a few days from now, when I have had time to further reflect.

On Values
I feel like there is general consensus in the room on values. There has been a lot of discussion in my sessions about values, and about what defines a progressive, and a progressive vision. I’m very pleased with this; values must be the foundation of everything we pursue, and want to see accomplished. Some of the major themes that have emerged are around the necessity of conversation between political parties and citizens, of valuing diversity – in the economy, in our culture, and of being open to new ideas, new practices, and new institutions.

On Social Change
Successful social change is the result of a number of different converging efforts. It’s not the sole initiative of a political party, or a handful of concerned citizens or social groups. To achieve lasting, meaningful change, many different people and groups need to converge and work in concert. I hope this gathering has helped foster connections that will help make that happen.

On Political Parties
The question I feel many people are asking (including myself) is ‘what is the best avenue for achieving our change?’ Is it a new political party (or parties?) Is it redoubling efforts with an existing party or parties? Is it affecting public opinion that guides political decisions? There is interest in the Renew Alberta concept; I haven’t fleshed out my thoughts on it, but I will be watching efforts towards change both outside and inside the current system as this weekend progresses and comes to a close.

Also Worth Reading:
Chris LaBossiere: Pushing Ropes and Herding Cats; I Just Rebooted Myself…and It Feels Good
Daveberta: Rebooting Alberta 2:11pm
Reboot Alberta on Twitter
DJ Kelly: Look Out Alberta, You’re About to Get “Rebooted”
Atypical Albertan: Progressives Gather to Reboot Alberta

Alberta 3.0: Thoughts on the Way Forward, Reboot Alberta, and the Next Ten Words

I’ll be attending Reboot Alberta this weekend. When approached about attending, I didn’t know what to make of the idea; in some manner I still don’t. A number of the blog posts thus far have been thought-provoking and insightful (particularly those by Rick Schneider and Jason Morris). So that’s encouraging. But most importantly for me, I trust the word of the organizers I know, and I believe it will be a good forum for those like myself who are concerned about the challenges, and excited about the opportunities, facing our province.

Ken asked me if I would share my thoughts on Reboot Alberta. As I said, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Nonetheless, I shall do my best to explain.

Without getting into semantics too much, I don’t believe Alberta needs a reboot; it needs an upgrade. A reboot implies that problems exist, but the current system will suffice to handle them. I respectfully disagree. I believe the system, and most importantly, the paradigm around which we’ve based it, need to evolve. The world is changing, and what worked for us in the past is no guarantee for future success. So let’s examine where we’ve come from, and where we need to go.

Albertan Democracy Has Failed
A scribbling at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton. July 2009.

Our history since 1905 can be, in an overly simplistic manner, divided into two broad periods:

Alberta 1.0 (1905-1947): A largely agrarian, rural-based province built around traditional values.
Alberta 2.0 (1947-present): Leduc 1 ushers in the age of oil that continues today in this province. The province is increasingly urbanized, with no signs of that trend abating.

The Future: Alberta 3.0
At some point, through design, necessity, or some combination thereof, Alberta 3.0 will emerge. It will be based around a new paradigm. We have the ability to set that shift in motion. I’m going to talk about the principles I see as being important to the next paradigm, because they dictate what kind of province we want to build, and how we will to do it.

What will Alberta 3.0 look like? First, that the key word in every facet is diversity. In the economy, this means that we are noted for success in a multitude of different industries, not just one or two. Socially and culturally, this reflects the differences and strengths amongst our citizens. Politically, it speaks to greater competition and options, as well as a larger number of players who take on meaningful leadership roles. The dangers of relying on one dominant industry are well-known. The dangers of embracing one dominant political group are similar; stagnation and cronyism set in, but there’s no logical place for people to turn if they are frustrated with the status quo. Empowering a greater number of decision-makers can help address this.

Second, Alberta 3.0 will be built around the belief that “we are all in this together“. This is both paramount and essential. Alberta 3.0 isn’t about one person getting ahead, it’s about everyone getting ahead. It’s about valuing community, and about using what we have been given to help those of us who are less fortunate. Homelessness, poverty, and addiction – to name three – are problems all of us must help address, not something we can ignore in good times or especially in bad times. In Street Fight, Cory Booker, on the campaign trail, says “to he who much is given, much is expected”. With that, I would agree. We should be judged as much by what we give back as by what we earn.

This may seem like a fundamental shift, but it’s not. While the myth of the individual in Alberta may currently prevail, the truth of community has a long, proud history. The value we place on small towns and communities is in large part due to the neighbourliness and mutual support they offer. Our history is shaped in large part by the resilience of minority and immigrant groups, from our Aboriginal groups emerging now from centuries of hardship, to successive waves of immigrants – from Ukranians a century ago to Africans today, who supported each other and became integral parts of Alberta’s history and of our present day culture.

The idea of community has roots in Henry Marshall Tory’s convocation address at the University of Alberta in 1906, 13 months after we became a province:

The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal.

The idea that we are all in this together does not just apply to those of us who are here now. It’s about recognizing the responsibility we have to future generations as well.

Which brings me to the next key point – we must value sustainability. Sustainability for me encompasses three areas – social, economic, and environmental. Ensuring our communities and social fabric are strong, our economy is diversified and resilient, and our environment is well-preserved and maintained.

Calgary Tower
What kind of future do we build for downtown Calgary, and a time that oil may go bust for good?

I talked about the value of community already. On the economy, are we prepared for an instance where oil and gas go bust for good? What have we done with our good fortune and our success? Have many profited, or just a few? And regardless of how many profited, what have the many benefited from it?

Mildred Lake Mine
How long will the oil age last, and what will we have done with its spoils?

Over the past couple of years, the plight of former manufacturing centres, notably Detroit and its auto industry, have been front and centre in the news. The decline of manufacturing in the “rust belt” states has been on-going for a few decades, as outsourcing, foreign competition, and depletion of resources combined to pose a serious threat to their existing economic model. Detroit, with its hollowed out city core, and failing flagship companies, is in dire straits. We look at them and think, ‘this could never happen to us’. I’m sure the same thing was said there during the ‘what’s good for GM is good for America’ hey-day of the auto industry.

I spent time last week in a couple of other “rust belt” cities. I’ll focus on one of them – Pittsburgh. Long associated with the steel industry, Pittsburgh is finally starting to get its due as a center that has transitioned to the modern economy, while holding onto remnants of the old economy as well. The excellent report “Pittsburgh: The Rest of the Story” details the city’s comeback. The full report deserves a read, but in summary, there are three key points. First, despite the fact that its old industries were shrinking, it didn’t abandon them; instead, it modernized them to the greatest extent possible. Second, the recovery effort was well-coordinated, and involved government, the community, and business. Third, intentionally or not, business and community leaders of the past had put into place many pieces that would contribute to Pittsburgh’s comeback. The old business elite, led by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, built great buildings, endowed foundations, as well as cultural and arts groups, and helped build leading universities. Pittsburgh’s emergence as a health services and biomedical research hub is in great part due to grants from foundations and the universities created during the good times.

Pittsburgh built a legacy during its golden age. What have we built in Alberta? Our Heritage Savings Fund is relatively small, and may be drawn down shortly. We have strong universities, but we are cutting funding to them when times get tough. Do we have anything approaching the legacy of other golden ages?

At home, we’re starting to get this. People such as Edmonton writer Satya Das, through his recently-released book “Green Oil”, have argued for using the oil sands to build a future base of wealth (while simultaneously making them as green as possible). This represents a fundamental shift from the past, and is incredibly encouraging. One day, perhaps, we will be judged not just by how we ourselves profited, but also by how we set up the next generation to succeed.

This brings us to the environment. On October 15, I wrote this for Blog Action Day:

So if the modern world is an age of abundance, what is the post-modern world? Is it a world of scarcity? Not necessarily. It is, however, a world of limits. We must recognize that we can’t continue to grow and consume without regard for the resources we are consuming.

Fundamentally, post-modernism will be about doing more with less. It’s about responsibility – the responsible stewardship of natural resources and land, the responsible use of public resources.

Astotin Lake
Elk Island National Park. One of the many great natural places in Alberta.

I believe this applies to Alberta 3.0. Efficiency, stewardship, and responsibility are key. How we manage our resources needs to be the new benchmark, not how fast and in what quantity we bring them to the marketplace. We must prioritize protection of the environment and wilderness, because this affects our quality of life, and because it’s often irrecoverable. Our environment shapes us, as much if not more than we shape it. We must respect it, because major changes to the environment can create major unforeseen problems.

Finally, I want to cover politics. The first, and most important principle, is that politics must be taken seriously. This applies to government, public officials, and citizens alike. I believe we get the government we deserve, for better or worse. If we drop out and don’t participate, there’s a good chance we won’t like the government we get. If we get engaged, that’s a different story. It takes time to understand the issues, to discuss them, and to advocate on them. It takes a seriousness from officials to treat each other, the institutions, and citizens with respect. It takes work to govern well, and to hold our government accountable. Politics must be treated as a serious, necessary, and ultimately worthwhile endeavour for everyone from the senior levels of government, to the citizen who tunes in simply to cast a(n informed) vote on election day, and everyone in between.

Morning Session
Citizens coming together to address the issues is a good first step.

Further on politics, I worry that for some, a new political party, and/or a change in parties in power, is all we need to fix our problem. For me, it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. History is littered with challengers who railed against the status quo and achieved power, at which point they realized the status quo works pretty good for those in charge. To achieve true change, we need a bi-partisan effort to focus on the characteristics of the system; fixing that will in time resolve any problems with the players inside of it.

Note that I said “bi-partisan”, not “non-partisan”. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing. Our parliamentary system, with a “government” and an “opposition”, is based on the concept. Partisanship can ensure different opinions are heard, a fundamental characteristic of democracy. In short, partisanship on values is a good thing, as long as it’s rooted in respect for different views; partisanship based on parties, individuals, or institutions – and independent of values – is a bad thing.

The system dictates who is in charge, and how decisions are made. If we want less partisanship, we need a bi-partisan effort, because we will only accomplish this when people on all sides of the debate, and in all parties, are demanding the same high standards.

What are the Next Ten Words?
For me, all of the above is a framework. It outlines the principles for a way forward. But it’s not even close to what we need. If we never get beyond buzzwords like “sustainability” and “engagement”, we won’t get anywhere. What we need is the next ten words.

I couldn’t think of a good real-world example to use here, so instead I turn to The West Wing.

Episode 6 of Season 4, titled “Game On” focuses on the Presidential debate between incumbent President Jed Bartlet, and his challenger, Governor Ritchie. Here is the key scene from the episode:


MODERATOR
Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?

RITCHIE
You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason– the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

MODERATOR
Mr. President, your rebutal.

BARTLET
There it is.

That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost
always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.

(Update: you can watch the clip here)

What I’m looking for is to move beyond the short answers, and to have serious, nuanced conversations about the challenges and opportunities ahead. I have some ideas to start with, and I’m hoping to connect with others who do as well. “Sustainability”, “engagement”, “green energy” are all nice words on paper, but ultimately meaningless if not understood within a specific context, and even dangerous if approached dogmatically. Conversations such as those at Reboot Alberta can be a starting point. That’s what I hope to accomplish this weekend.

Thoughts On the Great LRT Debate

I’ve been thinking a lot about urban development. Not just because it’s one of my main interests (and has been for a good decade and a half), as well as a key function of my day job, but because of the debate surrounding one of the biggest issues facing Edmonton – LRT routes.

On Friday, City Council is slated to make a decision on alignments for the Southeast and West legs of the LRT network, complementing the existing and planned lines to reach other parts of the city. The Southeast leg appears to be heading for approval with little dissent; the west, on the other hand, elicits strong feelings from many parties.

The route following Stony Plain Road is the recommended one, but previously considered routes along 107th Ave or 87th Ave could be brought back for consideration. There are points in favour and against all three options, and their projected ridership is all in the same range. In the end, it comes down to which of the three options is most amenable to your goals for the city. The planners did their job on the issue; it’s now up to the public officials to make the ultimate decision.

That being said, the debate amongst the public has missed some key issues, in my mind. Leaving aside the hyperbole on both sides, I’ve been surprised by how many people treat as self-evident some notions – particularly the idea that light rail will automatically spur a lot of redevelopment, and that it is an economic driver (the fact that the land development opportunities evaluated for this process is based largely on projects already approved or going through the application process also isn’t well understood). I’m going to give that idea a cursory examination.

The O-Train
The O-Train at the Bayview station near downtown Ottawa.

I am a strong proponent of light rail and of a well-designed urban form, but as with every issue, I think the most important thing is that it’s done properly, and that an informed as possible decision is made. This is especially true with light rail, since it’s a pretty much irreversible decision. It’s not easy to pick up the tracks and move them 5 or 10 blocks if you realize you made the wrong decision.

Here follows my contribution to the debate.

Does LRT Contribute to Redevelopment?
There are many instances where light rail has contributed to redevelopment; it certainly appears to be a better use of public funds than sports arenas or any number of other mega-projects. But there are also cases where the investment hasn’t followed, leading one to believe that light rail is not a sufficient condition.

For example, this forthcoming study on light rail in the Phoenix area shows that that region saw property values around light rail stations increase when the areas were rezoned to allow for greater density. Property around stations that saw no rezoning didn’t increase – around one station property values actually decreased.

Second, and most importantly, looking purely at the impact of light rail ignores the fact that some development likely would have occurred even in the absence of light rail. For example, in Dallas, property values for commercial property around light rail stations have risen 24%; for residential properties the increase is 32% this decade. However, city-wide, property values went up 11% and 19%, respectively, in areas not served by light rail. Minneapolis constructed a new light rail line at the beginning of this decade. Between 2000 and 2004 (when it opened), property values around the new stops rose 83%; the city-wide average for that time frame was 61% (stats from the report found here). Now, there could be other factors driving the difference as well. For example, it’s possible that light rail was built in areas that are desirable for other reasons, or that other desirable amenities (good schools, appealing public spaces, etc.) are also now present. But light rail is certainly a factor.

What I wonder is whether development spurred by light rail would have largely occurred anyways, perhaps in other areas of the region. This becomes germane when we consider Edmonton’s situation. There are already revitalization efforts underway in The Quarters, Alberta Avenue, and the Fort Road area, to name three. Is Transit-Oriented Development in the west going to attract development that would not have happened otherwise in Edmonton, or is it simply attracting development that would likely occur elsewhere in the city (and making it on average 20% more valuable than it would otherwise be)? When looking at the economics, let’s also remember that light rail comes at a significant capital cost as well; the operating costs, however, can be lower if it’s popular and widely-used.

What is undeniable is that light rail is a city shaper. Done properly, it can affect where development dollars flow and alter the built form.

Transit Mall
The MAX Light Rail stops by Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.


What Gets Built Matters

This ties in to my penultimate point from the previous section. The development that comes with light rail has to be the type of development there is a market for. Ideally, to my mind, it would be an under-served market. As I alluded to before, there are several areas making a push in the multi-unit market targeting empty nesters. In addition to Fort Road and the Quarters, downtown still has a good amount of vacant and underutilized land, Century Park is still being built, and there are an assortment of condo and high-rise projects in the works throughout the city.

I think supply has shaped Edmonton’s development patterns as much as anything, but I also think there’s a limited demand for 1-2 bedroom condos. Most people, if they have a family, want a space amenable to children. Many empty-nesters want single-family homes as well. Unfortunately, we tend to build the former in older neighbourhoods and in redevelopment projects. If we continue to, families are going to either look elsewhere to live, or suck it up and live in a low-density, outlying area where they can actually get family-friendly housing. Family-friendly housing would also be in concord with the goals of many of the communities that will be served by LRT – west end communities along Stony Plain Road are concerned with preserving their schools, and in attracting families. Development in this area should largely respect this.

Other Factors Matter
Travel time on transit obviously matters a lot, and affects the success of a station and any related project. This report makes a compelling argument for the importance of linking destinations in planning light rail. Zoning and the development permit process are also critical. I mentioned the example of Phoenix, where zoning affected the change in land values. The development process also matters a lot. What can be built, and how easily it can be accomplished, drives what ends up being built. As do other amenities in the area. Expecting that running a light rail line through an area will automatically produce benefits is a mistake.

Thoughts On West Jasper and Stony Plain Road

About a month and a half ago, Dave and I went out to Stony Plain Road to take a look at the area prime for revitalization. There are already plans and actions in the works. The area has been designated a business revitalization zone, and a full revitalization strategy has been developed. You can see some progress already – the block between 150th-151st St is improving. The south side features a noted Portugese bakery and Revolution Cycle. The north side features new tenants such as Derks Formal Menswear, The Haven Social Club, and the United Way. There is also a cluster of sex shops, but progress doesn’t happen overnight. As you move west from there, you start to see more pawn shops and payday loans stores.

Stony Plain Road
New tenants such as the United Way have moved in on Stony Plain Road between 150th-151st St.

You can see my photos from the trip here. Walking around the area, it struck me that transit service was one of the smaller concerns. The revitalization strategy seems to back this up. Residents are more concerned with safety, businesses appropriate for the community vision, and

My impressions are pretty straightforward:

– The most crucial challenge is developing an identity for West Jasper/Stony Plain Road. Successful areas have an identity, whether it’s through their design and architecture, residents, activities, or some combination thereof. The identity of the West Jasper area doesn’t really come through. As an example, Alberta Avenue is making strides by tying in with the arts community. Where is Stony Plain’s story going to come from?

– There are some design challenges that aren’t easily fixed. For example, 100th Ave effectively cuts off the neighbourhoods south of the area from the main commercial strip. The communities north of the strip lack connectivity, both with Stony Plain Road (the two areas feel disconnected), and internally, you continually run into dead ends trying to navigate it.

– There is little brownfield space. We’re not talking about redeveloping empty space (ie. Century Park). Most of the area is already occupied. Some of it is underused, and some of it is used by businesses the residents would rather drive out. The piecemeal ownership of the area makes it more challenging to coordinate development and to execute an overarching strategy.

That being said, there is progress being made, and any critiques I make are not intended to slight the efforts of residents and businesses to improve their community. But I still believe that LRT won’t be a magic elixir, nor is transit service the biggest challenge for the area.

Gentrification, or Uplifting of the Whole?
With all the talk of LRT (or anything) as a redevelopment tool, what gets lost sometimes is what happens to the residents if redevelopment is successful? Do they benefit from rising property values, or are they pushed out of the neighbourhood? And what happens if they don’t gain? It’s unlikely that redevelopment will help address the root causes that drive crime – addiction, poverty, to name two. What’s more likely is that these residents are going to be displaced to another area in the city. If West Jasper revitalization is successful, if it doesn’t help give the current at-risk residents a hand up, they’re going to be the at-risk residents at the centre of another area’s revitalization effort 10 years later. Revitalization is good, but it doesn’t necessarily decrease our obligation to address social problems and provide services.

In the End, the Economy Matters
Many of the land development opportunities identified for Edmonton’s proposed LRT corridors are projects where zoning has already been approved (the Strathearn Heights project for the SE, and the Vision for the Corner for the West, to name two). It’s thought that LRT development will spur projects like this to go ahead. That may be true, but something else will – an economic upturn. Both of these projects were approved in 2008, around the time the economy slowed down. Suddenly, the market for housing (especially condos) wasn’t what it was a couple of years earlier when they started working their way through the development process.

And this gets to the heart of the biggest issue for driving and sustaining development. We need to increase productivity and grow our economy. If we can attract and develop business, that will drive the need for more commercial/office space, and therefore more residential space to house new workers and residents. The goal of attracting business also ties into our development plans. What kind of businesses and residents we (want to) attract affects what we need to build. If we intend to have a young work force (or be a city of retirees), we might want to focus more on multi-unit housing. If we want to attract more families, we need to make sure we’re building housing suitable for their needs (be it single-family or multi-family). Similarly, industrial and oil field service companies, for example, are going to want different types of space (and in different locations) than a bank or law firm, and a start-up tech company may very well want something different than the aforementioned four groups.

As James Carville famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid“.

It’s not as simple as building, and waiting for them to come. We need to make sure we’re building to attract and retain people and businesses, and to continue to grow into the city we want Edmonton to be. Light rail should be a big part of this, and can help shape a city, if not deliver the growth some advocates feel it does. But done right, it will get a city closer to its broader goals and ambitions.

Change Camp Edmonton: Evolution, Not Revolution

I attended the first ever Change Camp Edmonton yesterday.

I wrote about Change Camp on Friday, ahead of the event. What follows is my post-event reaction and thoughts.

Justin Archer
Justin Archer introduces Change Camp and provides an overview at the start of the day.

The day got started around 9am, with an overview of the event concept, process, and “rules of engagement”. I was impressed with the level of turnout at the very start – there appeared to be 100 people or so there by the start, and people trickled in throughout the day. I’d say around 150 people participated throughout the day, but I haven’t seen an official count. There was a pretty good balance in gender, and good mix of ages, which I was pleasantly surprised to see. There wasn’t, however, much ethnic diversity. That’s nobody’s fault, but this is something we’d ideally see more of at future events, especially given that Edmonton is a city with growing immigrant and visible minority (especially aboriginal) populations.

Following the introduction, the floor was opened up to participants to suggest topics for the day. You can see the result of that in the Grid that was developed. This is one of the things that I enjoyed about Change Camp. In many situations, people like to use the expression “you get out of it what you put in”. This expression is, in fact, true at Change Camp. The agenda for the day is completely up to the participants to set. I was impressed by the number of participants willing to put forward topics for discussion. As you can see from the Grid, the schedule for the day filled up.

Wendy Andrews
Wendy Andrews leads a session titled “Depolarizing Community Conversation”.

There were three morning sessions, followed by a lunch break and two more afternoon sessions, then a wrap-up session and a short opportunity to talk about action items. This was all followed by an excellent after-party at Original Joe’s.

There were a number of interesting topics, I was disappointed I was unable to participate in some of them, particularly the sessions on “Using Technology to Elect More Women“, “Cultivating Albertans’ Ingenuity“, and “How to Encourage Power Sharing“. I did participate in the sessions on “De-polarizing Community Conversation“, “Urban Design“, “How to Create More Engagement” (which I had the privilege of facilitating), and “Preserving Accountability Journalism“.

Creating Engagement
Participants discuss ideas at a session titled “How to Create More Engagement”.

In Friday’s post, I said the following in anticipation of the event:

I’m not sure what to expect in terms of outcomes, but I see the process itself as being valuable. It’s the kind of get-together I suggested here (in paragraphs 6-7) needs to happen more often; citizens coming together to discuss, learn, and collaborate. One event or idea likely won’t change the world, but many in aggregate may bring about large-scale change, or plant the seeds for future changes.

After the event, I feel that this statement accurately sums up my feelings. I found the whole day to be very beneficial. Towards the end of the day, one of the event organizers used the term “political revolution” to describe the event. This is, in my opinion, an exaggeration. The event was hardly revolutionary, rather it was an important event in a series of other events or avenues for dialogue and participation that will improve the civic and political situation in Alberta. I don’t say this to diminish the event’s value. Change is largely incremental; every event or action that makes up a part of it is immensely important.

Afternoon Session
Change Camp organizers Alain Saffel and Jason Darrah drop in on the “Accountability Trust” session about a new model for journalism.

I hope the event happens again in the future, for a couple of reasons. First, because of the value of the event in and of itself in encouraging dialogue, participation, and thought. Second, because I think the event would be even more productive now that the concept is better understood, and many people have been through it once already. Done a second time, Change Camp will be more effective.

The best thing from the event was seeing the willingness from people to participate, and the quality, and thoughtfulness of the comments that people contributed. This is even more impressive when you consider that the format was new to most participants. Three weeks from now, there will be a follow-up event, and I hope to see as many people in attendance as possible. The follow-up event has the potential to lead to more engagement, and to action.

Talking about Open Data
Change Camp organizer Mack Male leads a discuss about next steps for pursuing open data in Edmonton.

To be fair, there was a session at the end to discuss ideas participants had for actions coming out of the day. Three such ideas were proposed – one dealing with open data, and two others that I can’t remember.

The challenge with seeking out action items immediately following the session was articulate well by Raffaella at the after-party. She made the case that there was a lot of ideas and information to take in throughout the day, and people need time to think about it, absorb it, and make sense of it. I agree with this. I hope the follow-up event can provide structure for this; if it doesn’t, some mechanism for doing so should be addressed for future Change Camps. I also believe that focusing on “action items” is a narrow definition of actions stemming from Change Camp. For many, the impetus for change may lead them to get (more) involved in community organizations, government, etc. In other words, to become more active citizens, rather than pursuing a single specific initiative.

In summary, I see this event contributing to many other positive trends that will increase civic participation and engagement in Edmonton. I’m happy I was able to participate in Change Camp, and I send my thanks to the organizers and participants for making this a good event. I look forward to doing it again.

More on Change Camp:
My Flickr Set from the Event
Change Camp Edmonton Flickr Pool
Chris LaBossiere: A Great Day for Future Democracy. A Sad Reflection on the Current One
Sirthinks: The Empires of the Future Are the Empires of the Mind – Change Camp Edmonton
Daveberta: 5 Items from Changecamp Edmonton
Global TV Edmonton