Why I’m Supporting Don Iveson

In tomorrow’s civic election, Don Iveson is my pick for Mayor.

First, a disclosure and a couple of comments:

  • Don and his wife Sarah are friends, and I am a part of Don’s campaign team.
  • It’s worth reiterating that this is purely a personal opinion, not an endorsement on behalf of any organization I may be a part of.
  • This is an endorsement for Don, not against any other candidate.

The last comment bears repeating. Edmonton is fortunate to have a deep pool of candidates to chose from. Karen Leibovici offers many attributes that would serve her well as Mayor, and while I have a different outlook than Kerry Diotte, his small government vision is an important part of the public discourse. That said, Don is the best pick, for reasons I will outline below. And no matter who wins – for both Mayor and Council – I hope they will take my advance advice for city-building in the last two sections.

Don Iveson Rally
Photo via Mack Male.

The Role of the Mayor

The Mayor of Edmonton does not possess the executive powers that Mayors of some cities do. Thus, the key functions of the office are three-fold – put forward a positive vision for where the city needs to go, serve as the face and advocate for the city, build consensus and bring key individuals, groups, and stakeholders together – in both government and the community. On all three, Don excels.

He understands the need to think long-term, and take incremental steps in the short-term to get there. His policies outlines not just short-term steps, but a long-term vision – what we’re trying to achieve a generation from now.

Throughout this campaign, he has stressed the need for the Mayor to take a lead in selling Edmonton to potential residents, investors, and businesses across the globe. He is an articulate, enthusiastic pitchman for Edmonton.

In six years on Council, he has shown an ability to negotiate behind the scenes, and find consensus and common ground with his peers. He has brought together diverse groups of stakeholders through initiatives like City of Learners. Outside of City Hall, he has worked with counterparts across the region to make progress on transit issues.

Experience

When discussing this, I think it’s important to make a delineation. Experience, in pure form, is what you’ve done – for better or worse. It’s important, but what matters the most is relevant experience, and accomplishment. On the latter, Don’s record extends to well before his terms on Council. He took The Gateway from a campus newspaper reliant on student fees to one with a thriving business model. He brought student groups, university administrators, and municipalities together to successfully negotiate a Universal Bus Pass for students. As a Councillor, he has provided leadership in advancing the environmental strategic plan, City of Learners, and regional cooperation on transit – to name three. In everything he’s done, Don has been a leader and secured significant achievements. The skills he has used to do so – vision, strategic thinking, bringing stakeholders together – will transfer to the role of Mayor.

Cities in the 21st Century

If the past generation or two have been about fixing the provinces’ role in confederation, the next two have to be about addressing the appropriate roles for cities and metropolitan areas. As it stands, we are equipping cities with 19th century tools and systems to address 21st century problems. Don gets the need to change the rules of the game, and in particular to work with Calgary and the province to find solutions that work for big cities today.

The investment in quality of life amenities such as transit, active transportation, and infill housing is something every city needs to do to be competitive going forward. Cities across North America are doing this. In the American energy belt, cities like Houston and Oklahoma City are making investments to become more urban and offer better amenities. Same with the Mountain West cities of Denver and Salt Lake City. Cities are undergoing a transformation, and Don sees where Edmonton has to go to meet this demand. He speaks the same language that I hear from thought leaders online, and in forums such as the ICIC Summit and New Partners for Smart Growth.

Edmonton and the Next 5-10 Years

It has been implied, if not said outright, that Edmonton needs a manager, not a visionary, given the planning work that has been done recently. This is dangerous thinking. Certainly, the implementation of the downtown plan, Blatchford Development, and LRT network are crucial. Yet, those alone will not build the city we want. If we are serious about competing for people, investment, and jobs with cities across the country (never mind the continent or the globe), we have to keep pushing forward. With key approvals in place, we are not post-vision. We will never be. Sustainability of communities and infrastructure, economic diversification, poverty and inclusion – to name three – continue to be issues that need work.

Vision has, unfortunately, come to be synonymous with spending lots of money. The things touted as “visionary”, such as arenas and convention centres, come with hefty price tags. But significant change can occur through government actions that come with low costs. Don has a record of supporting these. Think of the Open Data initiative, relaxation of patio and food truck restrictions, and Start-Up Edmonton organization. All come with small price tags, but yield big results – particularly in the city’s core. Should it be successful, his recent inquiry into the caveats on former Safeway sites may have a similar catalyzing effect in mature neighbourhoods.

Should we rest on our laurels, Edmonton will fall behind. Other cities are also making investments in downtown, infill housing, and public transportation. Over the past 5 years, I’ve been to more than 20 cities across Canada and the United States – many of them several times. I see the same investments and changes happening everywhere – new housing and amenities in the core, cool independent restaurants and pubs, quality of life investments in trails and parks.

It’s critical that Edmonton continue to be aggressive. There may, frankly, never be a better time for Edmonton to make the leap and join the conversation of Canada’s leading cities. We can never assume continue economic prosperity is a guarantee, and this is especially true in a resource-driven economy. The stars are aligned for Edmonton. We’re a leading city for economic growth, and have low unemployment. Meanwhile, other cities face challenges. Toronto and Vancouver are increasingly unaffordable for many; Montreal continues to suffer because of regressive provincial battles over culture and identity. While the West does relatively well, the rest of Central Canada and much of the Atlantic is stuck in neutral. This will not always be the case.

If Edmonton is a city of ambition, now is the time to keep moving forward. On the region, economy, and quality of life, Don has shown that he gets where Edmonton has to go. As a Councillor, he has demonstrated the skills to help get us there.

Arenas and Civic Myopia

This afternoon, Edmonton City Council will consider the Master Agreement for the proposed downtown arena. It will almost certainly pass, with some contingency to cover the missing $100 million if provincial funds don’t materialize.

The purpose of this post isn’t to rehash the debate. The arguments on both sides are well known, and anyone who tells you the project is certain to succeed or fail is deceiving themselves (and you, if you believe them). Despite my concerns, which I’ve expressed over a number of posts on this site, I long ago resigned myself to the fact that this would almost certainly go ahead. I don’t wish ill upon my hometown, so I do hope this does becomes a success once built.

This post is about a different aspect of the debate. A few months ago, I realized what really bothered me about this debate. It’s not so much about the project itself (flawed as I may see it), it’s about the underlying approach and outlook which drives it.

I visit Portland, Oregon, about once a year. It’s one of my favourite cities, and one that is well-regarded as a model of civic development. It also follows very few of the rules and practices that are popular for urban development. Its downtown is devoid of mega-projects. It’s arena and convention center are across the Willamette River, removed from the city core, and really peripheral to what we think of as Portland. It has no signature building (the John Deere sign is the only image that comes close). I took the photo below while walking across the Hawthorne Bridge, facing west towards downtown. Unless you’re familiar with the city, you’d be hard pressed to name where this picture was from. The greenspace in the foreground is the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The city tore up a freeway and turned it into parkspace in the 1970s, when the auto-boom in cities was still going strong. It’s a great example of a forward-thinking action that most cities are just catching up to now.

Portland Skyline

While I was there in December, I read an article by baseball writer Jonah Keri, which talks about how the successful Tampa Bay Rays and the not-so-successful Kansas City Royals (who had just consummated a major trade) approach building a team differently. He writes:

It’s the rigid and binary ways that we — fans, media, even general managers — think about team-building. And how the most effective decision-makers rarely consider only two possibilities when making a move.

He critiques the Royals General Manager by adding:

He also, whether consciously or unconsciously, shut out other possible ways for the Royals to improve their team.

The same principle applies to city-building. In this context, Keri is commenting on how the Royals fixated on getting an “ace”, one of the generally accepted building blocks for a successful club. The Rays have been one of the most successful clubs by challenging many of these assumptions, and using a data-driven approach to how they assemble and manage their team differently than the status quo.

He finishes by saying:

The Royals didn’t necessarily make a terrible deal. They just showed a terrible lack of imagination. In the long run, that might be what hurts them the most.

I’ve sensed the same lack of imagination from many arena proponents. Certainly, not all of them (the Mayor, in particular, has shown tremendous imagination and leadership on countless other issues.) Yet, for many leading civic voices, it’s been a 6-year fixation, at the expense of considering other ways to build a better city. The short list of civic redevelopment projects currently in vogue would include things like an arena, convention center, entertainment district with restaurants/shops/condos/hotels, usually in some combination. Yet, successful cities think about creative, and less conventional ways of how to become more vibrant. A popular project like New York City’s High Line is a good example. It took years to overcome resistance, opened to huge acclaim, and will no doubt be replicated by cities across the continent in coming years. As I previously wrote, Edmonton has done so on several occasions, and conversely it has struggled when it’s chased the latest trends. Today it’s an arena, tomorrow a convention center or casino (as Toronto and Ottawa are dealing with right now.)

It will take years to determine if this project is successful or not. What citizens should be focusing on is the decision-making process behind it. If any city – not just decision-makers but its citizenry as a whole – focuses too narrowly on just one, or two, or three, possibilities, it’s closing itself off to what might be the best – if unconventional – outcome.

The Problem with “Best of” Cities Lists

Over the past week, my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, has been abuzz about the Quality of Life rankings released by Numbeo, which put Edmonton 3rd in the world, and provincial counterpart Calgary 5th. In a city where civic boosterism runs high, and a share of civic leadership (if not the general population) craves external recognition and ‘world-class’ status, this is like crack. There are level-headed exceptions, but if you’re plugged into the local social media scene, it’s been inescapable, despite the fact that nobody in Edmonton had probably heard of Numbeo two weeks ago (the Huffington Post story had been liked over 8,000 times as of posting this).

Downtown Edmonton Skyline
The 3rd best place in the world to live?

The problem with this, of course, is that these quality of life rankings are in a sense meaningless. Sharon Lerner wrote a good piece on this for Good last year, titled Why “Best Place to Live” Lists are Kind of the Worst. Key passage:

But the problem, or one of them, is that taste varies wildly. Another is that, because they attempt to incorporate an entire nation’s desires, these one-size-fits-all features tend to showcase a version of life as we’d like it to be, a version that glosses over the things that truly make a difference to most people: community, services, and policies that ease their daily life. Idealizing places means being ignorant of their inevitable flaws. Graduation rates and crime stats, on which many of these lists are based, are important to consider. But allowing them to define a place is like falling in love with someone’s online profile.

Now, before I’m accused of being critical of my hometown, I should note that I do believe Edmonton, in general, offers a high quality of life. So, however, does nearly every Canadian city. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can generalize and compare cities as apples to apples. To Lerner’s points, I’d add a few general problems:

Quality of Life Indicators Can Vary Throughout a City
Indicators such as pollution and crime often come up on lists (as they do on Numbeo’s). They are also, however, rarely uniform. Pollution may be a bigger problem closer to any industry or major traffic points. On crime, any city has both problem and safe areas.

Traffic Times Are Deceiving
Really, so is every metric that takes an average. Traffic is a relative non-factor if you work at home, or if you have the means and ability to live within walking distance of work and major amenities. Further, different modes mean a longer commute isn’t the worst thing. Access to effective public transit can also make longer commute times more attractive than spending a few less minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

People Have Different Interests and Circumstances
Many of the measurable aspects don’t apply equally to everyone. If you don’t have kids, you’re probably less concerned about the quality of schools. If you don’t run/bike/walk, access to trails probably isn’t a consideration. Depending on hobbies, you may either love or hate a long winter, such as that in Edmonton, where snow can cover the ground for 5-6 months. If you like sailing, a landlocked city is not for you.

Someone’s experience of a place will depend on availability of jobs in their field, relevant volunteer/recreational activities, and proximity of family and friends. A University of Alberta grad who is an avid skier and has family roots in Alberta might feel right at home in Edmonton. A person born and raised in the Lower Mainland who enjoys watersports and mild weather might not so much.

On What Makes a City “Best”
Lists can be useful for measuring many things about cities, but quality of life varies too much from individual to individual to sum up as a generalization. Cities are good and bad for different people. A person would be best served to find a good fit, and work on making it better, no matter what any list says.

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.

Edmonton’s Arena Will Likely Happen, But Would it be a Bad Thing if it Didn’t?

Edmonton Arena District Open House
Flickr/Mastermaq

The proposed downtown Edmonton hockey arena took a hit today. City Council discussed the matter in private, and its motion ex-camera reveals that Oilers owner Daryl Katz asked for more public funding. It’s unknown at this point whether that would have come in the form of an increase to the $450 million budget, a decrease of his $100 million contribution over 30 years, or both.
David Staples has details on the requested changes.

In any case, this is a setback to getting the project, which has dominated discourse about how to revitalize Edmonton for six years (except for the Expo 2017 diversion), completed. I still think it will go ahead. The money will be found either from the province (likely at the expense of other public works for Edmonton), a reduction in the overall budget (perhaps combined with a commensurate increase in ticket taxes or city contribution), or through some additional surcharge or levy should the proposed City Charter give Edmonton the authority to do so. If nothing else, should Calgary move ahead with plans for a new arena, I can envision enough combined pressure from the two municipalities to forge a deal for provincial support. So, while today’s news is a setback for arena advocates, it remains to be seen whether this affects timelines by six weeks, six months, or six years.

All of the above is irrespective of whether or not the arena would actually be a good move. I’m with the economists, who agree that there’s no net economic benefit. I worry about the inherent risks that The Atlantic and many others have written about. And I’m with Jane Jacobs on the idea that mega projects are not the way to revitalize neighborhoods. If one is to be built, it shouldn’t be done so under the auspices of revitalization.

Future Development
“Future Development” near Nationals Park in Washington, taken four years after the project broke ground.

Anyway, back to the present. Nearly six years after the idea was first raised, it’s never been less than $100 million short in funding, and is an unknown amount more at the moment.

What I will continue to give the arena credit for is boosting investor confidence in downtown, but this could be achieved in many ways. As for the economic claims, the next major boosts to downtown’s employment are likely come either from further growth in the energy sector (which will happen whether the arena is downtown, at Northlands, or in Spruce Grove) or from new companies and emerging industries being incubated at places like Startup Edmonton. Further increases in services and amenities are best supported by getting more people to live in the area, rather than visiting on occasion.

Finally, for all the talk about it being necessary for Edmonton’s quality of life, let’s remember that the initial exploratory phase came out of discussions between the City, the Oilers, and Northlands, not a citizens’ push. If it was essential, one might wonder why it didn’t come up in the early stages of the downtown plan’s development, or that the Next Gen report and initiative, launched in 2006, didn’t flag it as a key concern. While the report isn’t online, my recollection is that the cities it looked at as case studies were college towns like Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin – neither of which has a franchise in the big four sports leagues – as well as Phoenix, Arizona, whose hockey team in suburban Glendale…um…probably isn’t the example arena proponents want to use.

So, if the project got delayed, downtown would see its investor confidence shaken in the short term, but creative organizations and entrepreneurs would find a way to forge ahead. And as I said on Twitter, imagine if key decision-makers devoted even a fraction of their efforts that have gone into this project into supporting small-scale ventures that could yield big results (I put forward some ideas here).

Market
The City Centre Market, small-scale revitalization that works.

Finally, remember these two things. Edmonton has often suffered when it’s chased after the latest trend, and some of the best things Edmonton has to offer came about because of decisions that bucked prevailing trends. A few examples in each.

Where Edmonton Has Failed in Chasing the Latest Trend

– By embracing the trendy shopping power centres of the late 1990s and 2000s (while other cities were moving to more compact developments), the city accelerated it’s decentralization and car-orientation at a period of significant growth. It took years and several iterations of these developments to start to see even some elements of mixed-use incorporated.
– In its zeal to embrace latest trends, much of its built history has been erased. It happened to the Edwardian buildings that first dotted its city centre, and now its happening to post-war Modernist gems, which will probably be fashionable again and missed by the next generation. Just one example of the former. The Greyhound depot on 103 St, slated to be replaced in the arena district development, itself replaced a 1920s 8-storey warehouse 30 years ago. The demolished Marshall Wells building, of which Edmonton lost many contemporaries, is precisely the type of space that is coveted in Edmonton (think a larger Mercer Building), and has contributed to urban revitalization across Canada and the United States.
– No discussion about massive downtown Edmonton redevelopment projects would be complete without this story on the history of the Eaton Centre development.

Where Edmonton has Succeeded by Bucking the trend
– It is a global leader in waste management, having embraced curbside recycling and other measures years – if not decades – ahead of many similar municipalities.
– It’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) system is still advanced compared to many similarly-sized cities, in large part because it had the foresight to embrace the technology in the early 1970s, decades before others. It was the first metro of less than 1,000,000 residents to build a line.
– Finally, and most importantly, let’s remember how close Edmonton came to embracing the rampant freeway trend of the 1950s and ’60s. Had the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study been implemented, it would have paved over much of its treasured River Valley, including MacKinnon and Mill Creek Ravines.

As I said at the outset, I still believe the arena will go ahead. But with the evidence and history at our disposal, are we sure it would be a bad thing if it didn’t?

Jasper Ave Blues: What Does $5 Billion Get You These Days?

In Edmonton, the Downtown Business Association released a new report about potential downtown investment. It outlines 36 projects that are approved, proposed, or rumoured to be occurring downtown or in the adjacent Quarters area. Most readers will recognize that not all of these will go ahead – some will be shelved indefinitely, if not permanently and some will be scaled back. Yet, it paints a picture of what downtown might become, maybe not in 5 years (as the report suggests), but perhaps in 15-20.

I’ve grouped the probable, proposed, and rumoured projects into five categories: Commercial (office, retail, service), Residential, Major Facilities, Infrastructure, Public Space:

Commercial
This is the most problematic section. It proposes nearly 3.9 million square feet in commercial space (office, retail, and service), which seems…really high. For example, a City-commissioned report from 2009 anticipated that downtown would need an additional 3 million square feet in 2044, using baseline growth projections. In an alternative, and more positive, scenario, it projects demand to be about 4.5 million by 2044. All these projects going ahead would mean more than 85% of that would be available 5 years from now. This doesn’t add up, especially when – as our Mayor correctly points out – many businesses still don’t want to locate downtown.

(Update: DECL President Chris Buyze is more bullish on the commercial real estate market than I am. At this point, we have to agree to disagree, but he provided this Colliers report in support of greater growth).

Residential
In total, it proposes 2284 units, in addition to however many the Warehouse Incentive Program would contribute towards. Using the $10,000 per unit number from the Capital City Downtown Plan, that would mean an additional 1200 units for a total of 3484, which could translate to more than 5000 additional residents in five years (assuming roughly 1.5 residents per unit). Given that downtown grew roughly 130% in 15 years, growth of close to 40% in 5 years isn’t completely implausible. Note too that the region’s population grew by 124,924 residents from 2006 to 2011, and you can see demand for housing continuing to grow so long as the economy performs well.

Yet, the biggest threat to residential development downtown probably comes from its neighbours. Projects in Oliver continue to move ahead, drawing from much of the same pool of potential residents. Development on the City Centre Airport lands is also likely to start, providing further competition. For development in all three areas to go ahead as planned in the short term, Edmonton likely needs a huge economic boom, or a meaningful reversal of growth in the suburbs.

(Update: Buyze says the 10K grant isn’t happening. Not sure what the money will be spent on, but I can’t see this positively impacting my unit projections).

Major Facilities
The arena will go ahead, as will the Royal Alberta Museum. Based on estimated attendance, let’s say the arena will bring roughly 1,800,000 visitors; based on data from the early 2000s and accounting for growth, let’s give RAM 260,000 (if you think those are impressive, downtown Edmonton’s workforce would account for between 14,000,000 and 15,000,000 just by going to work regularly). In any case, all sorts of caveats apply when considering impact, such as that many attendees will go straight from the train or bus or their car to the venue and back, and many who do go out before or after an event already do so in the downtown area. The rest of the venues are still too much in the project phase to project well.

Infrastructure
The changes to Jasper Ave and completion of Capital Boulevard will help with beautification. The proposed enhancements are all welcome, though dependent on CRL revenue, which wouldn’t begin to be collected until at least 2015 – assuming the arena goes ahead that year and ancillary taxable development is build at the same time.

Public Space
What I said about the proposed infrastructure projects applies here as well.

What It Means for Downtown
All these projects added up provide a window into a possible future for downtown. Yet, it’s by no means assured, and not the only possibility. Many of these plans are just that – plans, with no money attached. Others are just ideas at this point. It’s likely that civic plans will once again be updated before all of these projects (or replacements) go ahead, meaning priorities may shift, if the market hasn’t led a shift already.

Citizens have to think about what kind of downtown they want, and whether what’s being proposed meets that vision. In particular, because it’s estimated that at least $2 billion of this investment (including $1.5 billion of what’s probable) will come from public funds.

For me, I see many projects I like in the report (additional residences, parks, cycling and walking infrastructure). But I also see things that are missing, such as no mention of the LRT (the downtown portion connecting the West and Southeast legs of the unfunded new line).

I will continue to hammer the point about opportunity cost, and it needs to be said again here. In particular when dealing with the public investment side, we need to consider what the money can best be spent on in order to achieve the social, financial, and development returns we hope for. I hope citizens keep that in mind when reading this report and others like it.

The Inclusive City: On Language and Culture

Last week, I wrote about the importance of urban design in promoting inclusiveness, and helping people change their circumstances for the better. This concept can be expanded to other characteristics as well, in terms of putting forward a message of cultural – and linguistic inclusion.

On one of my first visits to Portland, I was struck by the fact that MAX Rail announcements are made in both English and Spanish. Don’t believe me? You can hear an example here (at Pioneer Square, a flagship stop and destination downtown)

Portland, unlike cities in the southwest, isn’t known for a large hispanic community, and sure enough, the census data confirms that, with 9.4% of residents of Hispanic or Latino origin. MAX Rail is regional, so if any suburbs contain significantly higher numbers, that may boost the regional share to the state level of 11.4%, but it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the metro average does appear to be significantly lower than the national share of 16.7%.

The point, however, is not about at what share of the population does a linguistic group command service in its native language. I’m on the accommodation side (yes, I do support official bilingualism in Canada), and see a broader point behind the language issue. It speaks to how welcoming and open to diversity a city (or, at least, its decision makers) is.

Contrast this to the proposed approach of Quebec’s government in waiting. In a province where only one major city – Montreal – is really multingual, nevermind bilingual, it proposes to further restrict the use of English and other languages. Some stats on Montreal – 66% of Montrealais identify their mother tongue as French, 13% as English. Any arguments that other languages need restriction for French to thrive ought to be debunked as mere rhetoric. I covered the long-term threat this approach poses to Quebec’s cities in last week’s post.

Now, to end on a positive note. Edmonton has the fastest growing urban Aboriginal population in Canada, and may soon have the highest in total numbers (though not proportion). Zoe Todd has previously written about the Aboriginal marks on Edmonton’s urban landscape, how other cities like Winnipeg do, and how much more can be done to honour the area’s history.

I thought about this with the unveiling of Aboriginal art panels that will line the city’s South LRT line. It’s a small gesture, perhaps, but one that takes the city another step towards putting forward a more inclusive message. In today’s world, I think that matters a lot.


A photo of the panels, via Don Iveson on Twitter.

Canada’s Indie Music Hotspots

This is the first part in a series examining Canada’s music scene, with a focus on which cities have thriving scenes and where artists launch and sustain successful careers. This stems from my interest in music, particular Canadian (indie) work, and from many discussions with friends about which cities support good music scenes.

This also intersects with work I’m doing (and will write about) that identifies what makes a city amenable to young adults. A vibrant cultural scene is a key part of this, and the local music scene is a good bellwether for it. It’s more universal than theatre, more social than reading, and more local than television/film, which tends to be highly clustered. I believe it gives a good read of a city’s cultural scene more often than not. The focus on indie music does miss out on some genres (jazz, classical, country), but captures a vast array of different types of artists, with varying amounts of experience, repertoire, and popularity.

Canada’s Indie Music Hotspots
To start, I’m examining which cities are generating activity in their music scene. I used data from CBC Music (where you get everyone from Arcade Fire to A Tribe Called Red to Carly Rae Jepsen). It’s an open site that allows any artist to create a page and upload their music, so this captures everyone from well-known acts like Joel Plaskett (with over one million song plays on the site) to the artists just starting out who have yet to develop a following. It also captures artists creating and sharing original material, not ones just playing covers of Brown-Eyed Girl at local pubs.

Joel Plaskett
Joel Plaskett of Halifax at Edmonton Folk Fest in 2009.

This post focuses on Census Metropolitan Areas, using data on CMA population and municipalities from Statistics Canada. A subsequent focus will look at which – if any – smaller cities (defined as Census Agglomerations) are generating strong music scenes.

Metros with the Most Artists
This table shows the list of metros with most artists, in raw numbers.

Metros with the Most Artists Per 1000 Residents
This table shows the list of metros with most artists, measured per each 1000 residents.

HUGE Caveat
It’s apparent that Quebec artists are not signing up for CBC’s page in huge numbers, as you can see in the spreadsheet. Aside from Montreal (whose numbers I suspect are much higher), other CMAs in the province barely register. Anecdotally, and through research such as this Martin Prosperity Institute paper, we can be confident that this is not a fair representation of Quebec’s music scene. This is best looked at as an evaluation of Anglo Canada’s indie music scenes.

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Danny Michel of Kitchener-Waterloo at Wakefield (Ottawa-Gatineau)’s Black Sheep Inn.

The Results
You can see the full data for artists and artists per 1000 residents for Canada’s 33 CMAs here. I found a few trends:

Bigger Metros Have More Artists
This was expected. Toronto, by far the biggest metro, produced the most artists (and narrowly missed the top 10/1000 residents, ranking 11th). The rest of the top 10 followed the population rankings as well with slight variance. Only Halifax (7th vs. 13th in population) and Victoria (9th vs. 15th) stood out as outliers.

Matthew Barber
Matthew Barber, originally of Hamilton, residing in (and credited to) Toronto. Here he’s playing at Edmonton’s Haven Social Club.

The second tier in population (Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton) have near identical numbers. They’re all within 200 artists of each other, and 0.11 per capita. The ranking does go Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton – in that order – in both categories, though.

In the next group down, only Quebec City (as noted) and Kitchener-Waterloo – amongst the 10 biggest metros – miss the top 10 overall. However, of those 10, only Vancouver and Winnipeg – often noted for a strong arts scene – make the top 10 per capita.

The Atlantic and Pacific Reign
Vancouver and Victoria rank high both overall and per capita, and 3 of the 4 CMAs in the Atlantic provinces finish in the top 10 per capita. Given the prominence of live music in the latter’s culture, this shouldn’t be a big surprise, but it does confirm that local artists are generating original content, not just playing cover songs in pubs.

College Towns Often Have Thriving Scenes
College towns in the United States are often known for fostering thriving music scenes, and you see evidence of this in Canada as well. Halifax, of course, is well-known for its music scene, and the 6 colleges and universities in the city play a key part in supporting it. The smallest CMAs that showed up in the top 10 per capita all have a university that’s a prominent part of their community – University of Guelph, Université de Moncton, Trent University in Peterborough, and Queen’s University in Kingston. This will be elaborated on in the post on smaller cities, but two Atlantic Canadian cities outside of CMAs but with a strong college presence post a per capita score of over 1.6, better than all but 4 of the CMAs.

Halifax and Victoria Look Like They’re Punching Above their Weight
Related to an extent – they did well in these rankings, and noticeably outperformed their metro size in my ranking of Canadian cities as well. Halifax’s music scene has also been noted for outperforming its size by MPI, amongst others.

Musical Hotspots
What this post measures is activity, not success. Many of the metros that scored high are producing large numbers, but not necessarily large numbers of successful ones (though Victoria has produced artists like Nelly Furtado, it’s light on recognizable indie acts). A future post will look at where the most successful artists are coming from. In other words, there’s no reason for an artist to think that Toronto and Montreal are not two of their best options for launching a successful career.

Yet, this does identify cities that are producing – or attracting – large numbers and/or proportions of creative people. They’ve fostered a scene where someone gets to a point that they are not just creating music – they’re recording and sharing it. It’s a sign of creative and artist activity, and a music scene that contributes to a vibrant city.

Folk and the City: Promoting Music and Community in Western Canada

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Gallagher Park, home of Edmonton Folk Fest.

Thursday is the kickoff of Edmonton Folk Festival, a four-day event that counts itself among the most popular of the city’s many summer festivals. The event routinely sell-out, happening within mere hours this year.

Beloved by many ‘folkies’, it nonetheless has its detractors as well. Some will criticize the lineup for catering too much to baby boomers at the expense of younger audiences (a charge Edmonton’s producer basically admits to); others will note how surprisingly difficult to get to the site can be – despite being relatively centrally-located. Finally, anyone who has ever attended can attest to the fact that even so much as breathing within the vicinity of their hard-fought for tarp spot will upset some of the most dedicated patrons.

Yet, the festival – like folk fests across the world – is a borderline on religious experience for many. It’s a time to relax, revel, and feel re-energized. Festivals have grown to be major events for many cities, and their merits compared to each other are hotly debated amongst music fans. In Western Canada, five major festivals happen throughout the summer – in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg. I examine which ones live up to their reputation in terms of delivering big names and value for their audience.

Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers at Calgary Folk Fest in 2010.

The 2012 Festivals
Using data available from Pollstar on average ticket prices, then recent (or upcoming) ticket price information for acts not listed there, I assigned an average price for each artist, assuming it was an individual (or headlining) show. For (usually) overseas artists or special performances (like the Woody Guthrie tribute at Winnipeg) that had no data, I assigned a value of $38, which was consistent with what I could find for similar events.

Edmonton and Calgary are four-day festivals, Vancouver and Regina three, and Winnipeg five. For the price below, I’ve used the value of a full-weekend, regular price festival pass (note: in the first two charts, the value for Calgary goes up about 100% each if you bought an early-bird pass at $145).

Value of Headliners
Looking at just the headliners (main stage acts), here is the value you get:

More Than the Main Stage: Delivering Overall Value

Danny Michel
Danny Michel (and Jill Barber) at a workshop in Edmonton. Danny later joined Loudon Wainwright in singing ‘The Swimming Song’, the kind of moment you can’t get elsewhere.

Now, as any attendee knows, the headliners are just one portion. One of the best features is often the workshops during the day, where artists often collaborate, and/or you hear rarely heard material. However, you also get abridged versions of individual sets, or acts who may not qualify for the main stage. To capture this, I assigned a value of $26 (based on 70% of the rare session value of $38) to each hour of workshops at the festival.

Wondering about the asterisk? Regina offers free admission to the daytime Saturday and Sunday workshops, which attracted 10,000 patrons in 2011, compared to closer to 4000 for the paid evening events. If you count this, it raises the value to $831.74, for an astronomical value of 808%

In summary, Edmonton and Calgary are, by these standards, basically equal, with Vancouver and Winnipeg lagging behind the rest.

Value By Capacity

The Crowd
From the back of the seating area at Calgary Folk Fest.

Now, one last way of looking at things. Every venue is different, and can dramatically affect your viewing experience. This is particularly true at these five festivals, which are all general admission. From experience, I can say that there is a dramatic difference between having a good tarp (which requires lining up, or having a friend willing to do so for you) and a bad one at Edmonton. The difference between good and bad spots in Calgary is less pronounced. So, I want to look at this on a capacity basis, which is a way of looking at the likelihood that you’ll have a good seat for enjoying your experience. Capacity is a ballpark estimate based on reported capacity or attendance in the past (Edmonton was the hardest to ascertain, but has reported attendance of over 100,000 for five-day festivals in the past). The Value By Capacity number itself is by and large meaningful only as a comparison between the five festivals.

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit
About halfway up the hill at Edmonton. Still relatively not a bad seat.

Again with the asterisk on Regina. Assuming you buy a pass and attend the free workshops during the day, a weighted means formula (based on the vast discrepancy in workshop vs. main stage attendance) still gives it a value of $94.97.

With the larger capacity, it’s no surprise that Edmonton has a lower score. Your experience probably matters a lot on whether you have a good seat or not. The other three festivals deliver relatively close value for their size.

Making Sense of Folk Fests
There are a lot of externalities not captured, such as the social bonding aspect, the relative convenience of getting to and from a location, and the quality of food and beverage. And ultimately, the experience probably comes down to one’s musical preferences. If they like the acts, they’ll probably have a good time. What I’ve tried to do here is look at what entertainment value these festivals are bringing to their cities, and whose doing well at it relatively speaking.

What is without a doubt is that all five deliver value above and beyond their sticker price. By my calculation, some – like Regina – punch way above their weight. I plan to repeat this analysis in the future (and possibly for other festivals as well) to see what trends emerge.

Making Folk Fests Work for Cities
The key is to find ways to leverage these events and create additional value to the host city. Vancouver and Winnipeg’s festivals are tourist draws, but if they do not lead to return (non-folk fest) visits or additional days spent elsewhere in the city, it’s a missed opportunity. Edmonton and Calgary’s festivals now promote shows year-round, and Calgary has secured a concert hall that also hosts its offices and provides community space. I see opportunities for both to cultivate greater exposure for the local music scene in their respective cities. As locally-focused non-profits, delivering quality music at great value is important, but just a first steps. The more these festivals expand and contribute in other ways, the greater assets they’ll become.

Racing in the Streets: Does the Indy Do Anything for Edmonton?

The Edmonton Indy, one of 15 stops on the IndyCar Series tour, was held this past weekend. Before the temporary track and stands could be disassembled, calls had already begun for greater corporate and community support, in order to keep the race viable.

Edmontonians are no strangers to calls for subsidizing professional sports. Readers of this blog can infer my thoughts on subsidizing professional sports in general. In addition, I can’t profess to caring that much about auto racing. I’ve never gone to the Edmonton Indy, and wasn’t the least bit upset to be away again for this year’s event. Yet, I think the event – and any value it may bring to the region – merits further examination. Here are some things worth considering.

Honda Edmonton Indy
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

The Attendance Trap
Edmonton Journal columnist, and publicly-subsidized downtown arena booster, David Staples immediately zeroed in on the issue that IndyCar doesn’t release official attendance figures. Why he didn’t just google “IndyCar attendance” to find some estimates of other races, as a starting point, I don’t know. It strikes me as likely that that last link will produce estimates for Edmonton sooner rather than later.

In any case, attendance is a red herring. One of the biggest misconceptions in sports exists around paid attendance vs gate attendance. Any information Indy may divulge almost certainly won’t distinguish. Paid attendance can help give you an idea of economic activity (new or not), while gate gives you an idea of general interest (primarily among locals). The value to the region of paid heavily depends on who attends (addressed in the next section). If we just subsidized initiatives based on how many bodies show up, initiatives like the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market would have a good case.

The Nature of Who Attends
The Edmonton Indy is one of only 15 events on the circuit. It is one of only two Canadian stops (Toronto being the other), and there is no American stop in the Pacific Northwest or Mountain West. It looks, then, like the race’s catchment area for Indy fans is pretty big, at least geographically.

It seems to me that you could easily look at some crude measures for an indication of out of town support. Do hotels report higher attendance on that weekend than years prior to the Indy, or other weekends in July? Does it see higher attendance than the second weekend of Capital Ex? Does Edmonton Tourism see a boost in website traffic? These are very imperfect measures, but can serve as a starting point.

I’m not willing to say that the Indy draws a ton of fans from outside the region (who wouldn’t come here otherwise), but there’s enough here to think it could be the case, and deserves more investigation.

The PR Issue
Subsidy advocates will point to exposure Edmonton gets from being on TV, and the exposure to fans of the sport. People always say, for example, that the Edmonton Oilers give the city greater awareness, and this is true among hockey fans. It also, however, overlooks the fact that far more people in markets like the United States don’t follow hockey at all.

It’s hard to quantify the awareness of a sport; I could only find measures for a fan’s favorite sport (and note, in that, Indy is captured under ‘Auto Racing’ with the more popular NASCAR). One way to look at it is TV ratings. The 2011 Indy drew a 0.6, which works out to just under 700,000 households. This is one form of exposure, but begs two questions.

1) Is this the best use of resources to reach 700,000 households?
2) Are we able to portray the image and message about Edmonton that we want to through the Indy?

The Nature of Public Subsidies for Sports
I’m not opposed to subsidies in all forms. I object primarily to two things – first, the wildly exaggerated claims of economic benefit. Second, that most subsidies tend to be of the stadium/infrastructure variety, for facilities that get infrequent use (yes, arena advocates, ~100 nights a year is infrequent), and depreciate in value quickly (which is one of the reasons the Olympics is a bad investments).

The Edmonton Indy isn’t requesting a new facility. In fact, it acts as a temporary venue, converting a soon to be closed airport runway into a racetrack. It’s impact on street traffic is minimal to non-existent. If it is determined that it does bring new economic activity into the region, some form of subsidy that leverages any benefits Edmonton may get could be justified.

Do I think this is the case? There’s likely benefit, but I doubt it’s commensurate with the size of the subsidy the Indy would want/need to continue operating out of Edmonton. But, I think it would be a disservice to the event and to Edmonton to not examine this further, and in greater depth than looking just at who showed up on race day.