History Repeats: An Edmonton Case Study

That history repeats itself is a well-worn truism. Born by both anecdotes and theory, most students of history or society see trends and activities re-emerge and repeat over time.

I’ve been thinking about this as I follow debates on downtown revitalization and other issues in Edmonton. My thinking in recent months has been heavily influenced by Colin Woodward’s book American Nations, which relies heavily on the idea that the founding culture remains constant and dominant over time. That is to say, rather than forcing it to change to their own norms, outsiders tend to conform to the culture instead. Other ideas like Howe and Strauss’ generational theory lend credence to the idea that things stay constant, and tend to repeat themselves in cycles.

I’ve spend some time looking through Google Archive at Edmonton’s old news coverage, and this seems to hold true. Similar themes, ideas, and approaches reoccur. In particular, this comes into play with civic arenas and downtown revitalization. The Omniplex, which dominated Edmonton discourse for close to a decade in the ’60s and ’70s. Last year, Mack wrote a great post that touched on some of the arguments used then that are similar to ones used now.

The Omniplex was touted as a unique project for Edmonton, and its defeat, of course, hurt its chances of landing an NHL team.

Like now, proponents toured what were considered the model sites across North America at the time.

Business and citizen groups treated it as imperative for Edmonton, saying it “would put Edmonton on the map as THE outstanding city in Western Canada” (we have since raised our ambitions to be iconic and world-class, not just best in the west).

Of course, while City Hall touted downtown, the Edmonton Exhibition (Northlands) played coy, noting its support for the project, but constantly reminding people that the Northlands grounds could be a home for it as well.

Eventually, when Omniplex plans fell apart, the Exhibition swept in with a sensible, real plan, which is what will probably happen if the downtown arena doesn’t go ahead this time.

Just like now, pro-arena columnists then were also prone to hyperbole. Of course, Wayne Overland went further, when touting the city’s support for the Commonwealth Games long after the Omniplex defeat, writing:

Naturally in other cities they asked: “How could you good people vote down a good proposal like Omniplex?”

Sound like an argument that would be used against arena critics today?

The similarities continue. People were surprised when the Katz Group requested that the City agree to move into new office space in the arena district before it goes ahead. This, however, is not unprecedented. Construction of the CN Tower went ahead on the condition that the City lease space, and the developers of Eaton Centre made a similar request using this precedent (I don’t believe that tower went ahead). That this happened at the expense of existing buildings (probably the old Civic Block on old Market Square) seemed as inconsequential then as discussion about what would happen to Chancery Hall, Century Place, or whichever building(s) the city would vacate for its new space does now.

Of course, downtown revitalization plans are at least 50 years old. Back then, unique was the operative term, not ‘once in a generation‘:

Given that these stories pick up again in the 1980s, I’m going to assume the planned revitalization didn’t go as planned. Maybe the levy of new development didn’t have its intended effect:

Aside from the arena, recent years saw Edmonton’s civic leaders push for Expo 2017 as a way of boosting the city’s image. This wasn’t the first time either. Nordex 73, a World’s Fair specific to northern cities, was targeted for the early 1970s, and projected 11,000,000 visitors over 6 months. This fair also would have brought untold riches to the local economy:

Civic leaders also saw a way of tying together Omniplex and Expo support from the federal government:

This was far from the only ask. Back then, civic leaders pushed for more funding for rapid transit and infrastructure from other orders of government. 40 years later, the problem still remains unsolved.

One final thing. In August, EEDC and Travel Alberta teamed up to fly The Bachelorette to Edmonton for a weekend. It was justified under the auspices of the incredible value its earned media represents. Original, right?

In the 1980s, enterprising Edmontonians looked to promote the city through game shows (the reality TV shows of the time), using many of the same arguments

These are only a few examples, and of course, this cycle of repetition is not limited to Edmonton, but this does give us a window into the approach and mindset of the city, and what we might expect to come up again in the future.

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Football Cities: Where the Stars are Bred

This is the final look at the metro, state, and regional breakdown of the 2012 NFL player class.

Having looked at where all players come from, this one looks at where the best ones are bred. Using Pro Bowl appearances, All-Pro team recognition, and Offensive/Defensive player and rookie of the year awards, I calculated a point total for each of the 254 active players who have earned any (or all) of the above recognitions. Here’s how metro areas perform. In total, 81 metro areas have produced at least one active player with one of the accolades. 10 have produced 4 or more.

Miami, second to Los Angeles in overall players, jumps ahead in both stars and points accumulated. Established players like Steve Hutchinson (OG, Tennessee), Andre Johnson (WR, Houston) and Devin Hester (WR/KR, Chicago) lead the way, while emerging stars like Patrick Peterson (CB/KR, Arizona) and Jason Pierre-Paul (DE, New York Giants) figure to keep the metro’s reputation for success alive. Los Angeles similarly boasts a combination of veteran stars like Tony Gonzales (TE, Atlanta), Troy Polamalu (S, Pittsburgh) and Steve Smith (WR, Carolina) to go along with ones in their prime like Clay Matthews (LB, Green Bay) and DeSean Jackson (WR, Philadelphia).

The New York City metro boasts New Jersey-bred stars like Brian Cushing (LB, Houston) and Ray Rice (RB, Baltimore). Houston has produced young stars like Brian Orakpo (LB, Washington) and Andy Dalton (QB, Cincinnati). It’s also the home of this year’s first overall pick, Andrew Luck, who figures to join the list of stars soon.

New Orleans is home of Peyton (QB, Denver) and Eli (QB, New York Giants) Manning, along with veteran (Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis) and young (Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh) star receivers. Atlanta’s stars figure to dominate this list for a long time, led by Calvin Johnson (WR, Detroit), Cam Newton (QB, Carolina), and Eric Berry (S, Kansas City), and Philly is home to two quarterbacks named Matt (Ryan of Atlanta and Schaub of Houston).

Beyond the top 10, 9 metros produced 3 stars, 19 produced 2, and 42 produced 1 each.

Metro vs. Small Town
75% of all players are from a Metropolitan Statistical Area, and the proportion of stars is slightly higher at 77%.

However, the number drops below that to 71% when we count the share of points earned.

Notable stars from outside metro areas include Ed Reed, Brian Urlacher, Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers, and Champ Bailey.

Yet, the large metros (and a handful of football hotbeds such as New Orleans) are leading the way in both quantity and quality.

Finding Canada’s Greatest City

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper caused a stir this week with his words at the Calgary Stampede, where he called his hometown of Calgary “the greatest city in Canada”. This kind of civic boosterism is common-place amongst public officials such as backbench or lower profile MPs, or local Mayors, but not amongst national leaders.

What he said interests me less than whether or not there is merit to that claim. I decided to spend the evening trying to determine whether there is, in fact, justification to calling Calgary Canada’s greatest city. And if there isn’t, who can justifiably lay claim to that title?

Calgary Tower
Is Calgary really Canada’s greatest city?

My methods are admittedly unscientific, but I did my best to be fair with limited time and information at my disposal. I decided to rank the 20 largest cities (Census Metropolitan Areas, to be exact) according to 6 categories, and weighted the results to come up with a score out of 100. Their point total for a category was inverse to their ranking in it (ie. 1st in Quality of Life gets 20 points)

Quality of Life (20%) – A natural consideration in establishing great cities. I took the rankings from a recently released paper titled Quality of Life, Firm Productivity, and the Value of Amenities Across Canadian Cities.

Productivity (20%) – The rankings are taken from the same paper, and are the best economic metric I could find.

Smart City (10%) – For this, to evaluate a city’s commitment to education, and use of cultural and educational opportunities, I used the Canadian Council on Learning’s 2010 Composite Learning Index.

Political Leadership (10%) – Great cities produce great leaders, and contribute to public and civic life. I gave each city a point for each Prime Minister it produced who won a mandate (which only excludes the string of MacDonald successors, John Turner, and Kim Campbell), as well as any leader of a party in the House of Commons or Premier who served a minimum of 8 years in that role.

Civic Leadership (10%) – For this, I examined the number of Order of Canada recipients by city.

Travel Destination (10%) – Using TripAdvisor‘s Top 25 Canadian Destinations, I identified which cities are big draws. Hard numbers for visitors to cities and popular sites were hard to come by.

Culture (10%) – While not a fan of the MoneySense rankings (since it’s by incorporated city, not CMA), their Culture category was the best thing I could find.

You can see the full spreadsheet here. Now, the results.

1. Toronto (88)
2. Calgary (82.5)
3. Vancouver (80.25)
4. Ottawa (75.75)
5. Montreal (75)
6. Victoria (73.5)
7. Edmonton (57.75)
8. Halifax (52.75)
9. Quebec (52)
10. Hamilton (40.75)
11. Winnipeg (39.75)
12. Oshawa (39.5)
13. Kitchener-Waterloo (39.25)
14. Saskatoon (39)
15. Regina (37)
16. London (36.25)
17. Sherbrooke (33.5)
18. St. Catharines-Niagra (32)
19.(tie) Windsor (28.5)
19.(tie) St. John’s (28.5)

So. Maybe our Prime Minister isn’t far from the truth. Toronto is the undisputed winner on this list. While that isn’t a surprise, seeing Calgary finish that high, and comfortably ahead of Vancouver and Montreal, is for me. We should probably get used to it. It will continue to rival Canada’s biggest cities so long as it maintains its economic and political clout.

In terms of overall results, they follow the rankings of CMA population pretty closely, which is what I expected – with a few outliers. Victoria is the moneyball of Canadian cities, ranking 15th in CMA population but coming in 6th on this list. Halifax does well too, coming in 8th compared to 13th in population. What does this mean? I’ll explore it further another time.

In one sense, the argument about Canada’s greatest city is silly, and largely a hyper form of boosterism. In another, it can have meaning if we take it as an opportunity to consider what makes a city great, and how we can ensure we are a country of many great cities, not just one. I think we do have several great ones. Whether one is truly the greatest is, to me, probably a matter of one’s taste.

Edmonton on Parade: The Problem with Capital Ex

When I saw the story announcing the grand marshal for Edmonton’s Capital Ex Parade, I shook my head.

Later, I read this Gig City story details Edmonton’s long history with (unsuccessful and ill-conceived) name changes for various fixtures and events. In particular, its comments about Klondike Days, the long-time precursor to Capital Ex, ring true – “Hey, it was stupid, but it was all we had.”

Capital EX Parade
Flickr/Mastermaq

Now, Capital Ex is undergoing another name change. Gig City points out that six finalists – which I pray are better than this list of six – for the new name will be unveiled this week, and voted on by citizens.

So, our festival will undergo another name change and possibly wholesale brand changes along with it. In the meantime, this year’s festival will go on, celebrating Edmonton’s, uh, link to Motown and soul?

Confused? So am I in a way. In another way, I’m completely not. Now, I’m sure Jack Ashford is a nice and talented individual, but I don’t see what he has to do with Edmonton. While fairs have come a long way from their primarily agricultural, commercial, and/or religious roots, a local connection has and continues to be a cornerstone of these events. I just don’t see what the theme or parade marshal have to do with Edmonton. In fact, I find it plausible that this might be Jack Ashford’s first ever visit to Edmonton.

Yet, this also seems appropriate. Many civic institutions seem to have a permanent want for a newer and ‘better’ identity. What we are isn’t good enough. What we need is something “world class”, or something that will one-up Calgary (or whoever), or give us satisfaction over central Canadian straw men.

Almost paradoxically, the city has done an amazing job of cultivating grassroots, focused initiatives. The rest of the summer features festivals of everything from folk music to theater to Caribbean culture. And they’re all really good. Within this context of targeted festivals, I see an opening for Capital Ex to tell the story of Edmonton as a whole.

I think there’s room to be aspirational. Certainly, the best festivals of this type inherently rely to some extent on revisionist history. Yet, like all successful myths, they are based on some element of truth. If Capital Ex is going to succeed, it needs to identify what gives Edmonton its identity, and find a story worth telling within that.

Why I’m Betting on Halifax

The Halifax State of the Economy conference occured earlier this week. An initiative of the Greater Halifax Partnership, which leads the development of the region’s economic plan, the conference discussed the progress to date, and initiatives to grow the region, and its economy. Following along on Twitter, I was impressed by most of what I heard coming out of the conference, and what I read of the plan.

The HRM, particularly its downtown core, face many challenges regarding future growth, yet there are many positive signs – even beyond the massive shipbuilding contract it landed last year. As the regional hub for Nova Scotia, and in many ways Atlantic Canada as a whole, growth opportunities abound.

Downtown Halifax
Flickr/wdrwilson

Now, I have a fondness for Halifax, which to some degree skews my opinion. I enjoyed a great year living and working there in 2005-06, and it remains one of my favourite cities. Yet, I believe many of the factors I see working in its favour do hold up to scrutiny.

A Realistic Business Plan
I’m often a skeptic of economic plans, yet I found myself impressed with this one. In particular, the things that stood out for me are:

– The focus on clusters, which I see as one of the more reliable ways of growing a region’s economy.
– The importance of people and place, and how this can’t be separated from the economy.
– That it’s measurable. The Halifax Index provides a fair, region-specific way of tracking progress.

Owly Images

Best of all, I find it realistic. It assesses the region’s strengths and weaknesses, and has a cautious, incremental plan for growth. There’s no betting on the next big thing, or a magic solution to turn things around. Cautious, steady growth feels realistic and attainable to me.

Universities and an Educated Population
The HRM is home to a relatively large concentration of universities, which only grows when you consider schools such as Mt. Allison, Acadia, and St.FX are all within a few hours drive. The region has a highly educated population too, providing the basis for a growing creative economy. Right now, the region struggles to hold on to the large number of international students who attend its schools (as the report notes). There could also be greater integration between the schools and the economy, encouraging R&D and spin-offs.

Yet, the sheer number of students who come through the region – domestic and international – is a huge plus, and is an opportunity that can always be built on. It exposes a large number of people to the region – many of whom wouldn’t have come if not for school. While it won’t retain all of them (or maybe even most of them), it gets the city on their radar – as a place to live, or to do business regardless of where they settle. Of course, more can be done to retain students – and the other factors identified will help with that.

Appealing Urban Form
The local consensus is that the downtown needs work. Yet, a new report outlines many advantages of Halifax’s downtown. In particular, it cites the downtown’s density (at 42 residents/ha) as an asset. It’s also very compact and walkable, which is becoming more and more of a popular feature in any city – especially for younger residents, and a lovable (in my opinion) architectural style. Add to this great public places like the Public Gardens and the Commons, and the HRM boasts one of the most appealing city cores anywhere in the country.

I stayed overnight in Halifax earlier this month, my first time back in 6 years. I was impressed with the changes, in particular what seemed like an increase in popular international retailers and vendors (they now have Starbucks, and I did not expect to see a Lululemon on Spring Garden Road). Many of the successful independent shops remained as well (seeing Bookmark still there warmed my heart), and new ones had emerged. Regardless of one’s feelings on chain stores and restaurants/cafes, it’s a sign of confidence in the city’s downtown to see them moving in there, and not just in the Shopping Centre or one of the power centres in the suburbs.

Thriving Cultural Scene
Halifax is famous for its pub scene (who isn’t familiar with the Lower Deck?), and has boasted a strong independent music scene for the past 20 years (producing arguably the best indie-rock band of the ’90s – Sloan, and the ’00s – the Joel Plaskett Emergency, along with one of the best festivals – the Halifax Pop Explosion). These features and amenities will continue to make it a popular destination for tourists (and to host conferences and conventions), and for people and businesses to locate from a quality of life aspect.

Strong Culture and Sense of Identity
One of the things that has always stood out for me amongst Atlantic Canadians is the immense pride they have and express in where they come from. This is as true when you encounter ex-pats across the country as it is in their home region. It’s infectious, in the best possible way.

Out west, we’ve seen reverse migration to Saskatchewan as that province’s economy has picked up in the past decade. I foresee a similar trend to the Atlantic if the right economic circumstances presented themselves. Additionally, Halifax enjoys a positive reputation amongst most Canadians (at least, those who have experienced it). As quality of life becomes a greater consideration (especially for Gen Y), this factor will again play to its advantage.

Betting on Halifax
At the moment, Canada’s economic growth is being fueled by a resource boom. That will in time ebb (if not go bust), and the country will have to look to other industries for recovery and growth. The fundamentals are there for Halifax to keep growing its regional economy, and be one of the most successful centres in the country. With a little more success in retaining grads (and bringing back ex-pats), holding on to more students from other regions, and scaling up some of the economic diversification already going on, it will happen sooner than most of us think.

A Model City? Why My City (and Yours) Might Find Inspiration in Pittsburgh

In my hometown of Edmonton, one of the biggest issues of debate over the past few years has been that of whether to build (and how to fund) a new hockey arena on the north edge of downtown. Proponents have held up a few examples of what they consider successful arena districts, but in particular have focused on Columbus, Ohio.

With the announcement this week that a builder and (probably) an architect have been chosen, the project continues to move closer to reality (all that’s missing is $100 million in funds).

Though I’ve been critical of whether an arena is the best way to increase activity in the area – and I think the promised economic benefits are overblown – if it’s going ahead, I want to see it happen in the best way possible. Again, the Columbus model was cited as one Edmonton should follow. I have two questions, or reservations, about this:

1. An arena (district) is just one part of a downtown, never mind a city, so looking at that area in isolation is limiting.
2. A ‘Made in Edmonton’ (or insert name of your city) solution is cliche, but behind it is a truth that you can only draw ideas and inspiration from other cities, you can’t replicate and expect the same result.

6th Street Bridge

Cited as another possible model for the arena itself is the new Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, which got me thinking – I’ve never been to Columbus, but I have been to Pittsburgh. If I know anyone who’s been to Columbus, they have certainly never felt the need to tell me about it. Meanwhile, the handful of people I know who have been to Pittsburgh all left impressed. And it’s getting plenty of accolades from academics, advocacy groups, and major newspapers, to name three places. On Sunday, I called it a seriously underrated city, which experts with more knowledge than I have concur with.

And finally, it tops multiple different lists for most livable cities in America.

Next week, I’ll be introducing a concept around how I see cities becoming successful, particularly in respect to other, potentially competing, cities. A lot of it has to do with the size of a city. Comparing major metropolises to medium-sized cities is comparing apples and oranges. For Edmonton, with a metro population of over 1 million people, I’d pick Seattle (at 3.5 million) as the starting point, population-wise, for a city Edmonton might start to have legitimate comparisons with. Of American metro areas, I’d say the 15th (Seattle) to 51st (Rochester) – all anywhere from 3.5 to 1 million residents, could be considered in some way analogous.

The purpose of this, though, is to put forward the idea that when looking for inspiration, we need to look at a more macro level. Columbus’ arena district might work for that city, but there are different macro-level considerations for mine and yours. But while we don’t need to replicate everything Pittsburgh did, every medium-sized city can draw lessons and inspirations from some of the many things it has done well. If we’re going to take best practices from other cities, that’s the way to do it best.

Jasper Ave Blues: Bright Lights on 4th

For all the talk about the challenges facing downtown Edmonton, few would dispute that there are success stories. 104th St – being rechristened 4th Street Promenade – is my pick for the biggest one. With two announcements about new tenants in the past two days, things keep looking up.

Scaffold
Workers take a break from renovating the Jaffer Building on Jasper and 104th that will soon house a 7-11 and whiskey bar.

First, it was announced yesterday that the historic Mercer Building will be renovated. Reopening this spring, it will house a tavern, coffee bar, and high-end furniture rental company. A day later, the owners of an under renovation building announced that a 7-11 and to be announced whiskey bar will be moving in.

3 blocks apart, they bookend the revitalized stretch of 104th St (further to the south, the McKay School district feels like a separate entity). The Mercer Building is across the street from MacEwan University, and the proposed future home of Edmonton’s new hockey arena). The Square 104 apartments across the street, and the new Quest condo tower one block to the west should help provide a local consumer base. The Jasper Ave project promises to add another high-end bar to the blossoming pub/restaurant scene in the area.

Astute readers will note that both developers cite the downtown arena as a reason for going ahead. While I remain skeptical about the value proposition from a public investment perspective, and think it could yield more return on investment in other ways, I am thrilled that it’s prospect appears to be boosting investor confidence in downtown.

Oddly, though, I’m most encouraged by the 7-11. One of the risks inherent in revitalization is a theme park-ization of the urban core. That is to say, the development of attractions that draw visitors, but don’t build a permanent base of residents. Arenas, concert halls, restaurants, and bars can all contribute when done well, but if everyone leaves after the encore or last call, you’re not building a neighbourhood so much as a destination – and successful downtown have to be both.

Mundane as it sounds, I see a new 7-11 as a sign that there’s a permanent population that justifies its creation (many new residences have been created on or around 104th). We want our neighbourhoods to have fancy bars and restaurants, but if they’re to be truly livable, they also need convenience stores and dry cleaners.

This week’s announcements make me think that, at least along this stretch of downtown, we’re making progress on both fronts.