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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

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.


Jasper Ave Blues: Downtown’s Heart is Already Alive and Beating

Edmontonians were abuzz earlier this week when new images of the proposed downtown arena were first released, leaked by Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples, then officially posted by the City of Edmonton.

Overhead shot of proposed new arena and adjacent office tower to the south (City of Edmonton)

Initial reaction to the design was largely positive; I include myself in that group. If nothing else, it exceeded my expectations. Writing about it in the Journal the next day, David Staples called it ‘a sleek, futuristic heart transplant to pump some life into our downtown.’ A critic might call this hyperbole, but at the very least I believe we owe David the right to take some poetic license with his words. Nonetheless, the message behind it points to the thinking and motivation of many arena advocates, and why many – including myself – have been critical. It highlights two different visions – if not inherently opposed, then often conflicting – of how to build a vibrant downtown. One is a big-scale, big-project, top-down approach. The other is grassroots, supporting a series of small, incremental steps that – together – create a large cumulative impact.

“the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like”.

– Jane Jacobs, ‘Downtown is for People

If we examine downtown Edmonton through this lens, we see that the most successful endeavors are coming not from the top down, but from the ground up. Churchill Square struggles to create vibrancy; City Centre Mall turns it back to the community. Meanwhile, new condos are in high demand, 4th Street is booming, and you can’t get a table at Corso32.

Jacobs’ article points to the value of people – both as intuitive judges of what makes a downtown work, and – in my mind – the ones who truly bring value to downtown. I believe the heartbeat of any successful community is its people. People drive business growth, they drive good government and civic institutions. They drive activity, and create places other people want to be. By this metric, downtown Edmonton’s heart is alive and beating.

This is evident in downtown residents like Mack Male and Sharon Yeo, who are bringing activity to the area with events like What the Truck? and Blink Edmonton. In entrepreneurs like the Start Up Edmonton group and my friend Justin Archer (and the rest of Unit B) who are creating vibrant new work spaces in older buildings, and the many other business owners bringing life to downtown with new restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, and retail locations. It’s evident in the hard work of the Downtown Edmonton Community League and the 4th Street Promenade Steering Committee. It’s demonstrated by the commitment of civic institutions like the Edmonton Public Library, who are building a downtown more inclusive of the most marginalized citizens through its new outreach office, and Edmonton Police Services, with its efforts to assist vulnerable persons through its downtown division.

To use the heart transplant metaphor, both sides of this debate can agree that the patient – downtown – needs rehabilitation. One side would argue that only a major transplant – a dramatic gesture in spite of all other courses of action – can bring it back to health. The other would point out that incremental steps and changes over time have already made a difference. The transplant is an option, but it’s by no means a guarantee for success, and the process comes with inherent risks (including failure). The incremental approach will take longer, but is ultimately the more prudent course.

I’m firmly on the side of an incremental approach. I believe people are already voting with their feet for what kind of downtown they want.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, life is a series of successful gestures, so too is a vibrant community. We don’t need a transplant. We need to recognize, celebrate, and support the things that are making a difference. The sooner we recognize that downtown’s heart is alive and beating in the citizens investing in making it a better and better place, and start focusing on supporting and scaling up the things that are giving it more and more life, the sooner we’ll achieve the downtown we all want for our city.

An Urbanist for School Closures

Today, the Edmonton Public School Board will discuss two motion that will aim to provide long-term direction for the board, and its schools, once the moratorium on school closures expires in November. Trustee (and, full disclosure, my good friend) Michael Janz wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, explaining the motions coming forward March 13.

Earlier this year, the board accepted a series of recommendations from its school closure moratorium committee. They ranged from common sense solutions around problems caused by the funding formula for schools, to forays into city planning, such as providing housing for seniors to “free up” housing for families in mature neighbourhoods. Now, I tend to take a community-oriented, collective view towards most issues, rather than an individualistic one, but that last one is far too down the path of social engineering for my liking, practicalities (or lack thereof) aside.

I consider myself a committed urbanist, and am very supportive of a more dense urban footprint – particularly one that supports mature neighbourhoods, and ensures they are amenable to a diversity of people – especially families. But the idea that schools won’t close, or shouldn’t close, is ludicrous. Consider the following when evaluating whether or not closures are a good idea.

A Shift in Mindset Alone is a Victory
The modus operandi that governed the board in its 2007-10 term needed an overhaul. As an outside observer, it struck me as being, crassly, akin to that of a retail chain – aggressively closing under-performing locations and focusing exclusively on opening new ones in growing areas. Location is a part of providing schools amenable to its users, but this seemed to be done with very little second thought, or consideration to how it affected the users of existing schools.

Should the moratorium end, but have the effect of shifting the mindset of the board, it will be a victory in my mind. The new mindset and approach of the board should not be a knee-jerk approach to closing undercapacity schools, rather it should focus proactively on sustaining schools where it makes sense. Indicators may be a growing number of families, and Area Revitalization Plan or other measures in place that are likely to increase family-friendly housing, or specific characteristics of the school and student body that make it valuable to retain. Examples of that would be a school that serves an identifiable cultural or linguistic group, or one serving a marginalized, at-risk population, one where students would benefit from extra investment and support. An example of this is McCauley School, which was closed in 2010.

Education, Not Merely Location, is What Matters
I’ll admit a bias here in that I did not go to my community school. In fact, from Kindergarten on, I never attended the public school closest to me. The initial reason for this is that my parents placed me in a French Immersion program, which was not offered at the two closest elementary schools. We have no regrets about this. Whatever value being able to walk to and from school may have provided to me is, in my mind, far outweighed by the benefit of being bilingual. Additionally, attending a school and program with a larger catchment area meant I interacted with a larger number of kids. I played on sports teams with the kids from my neighbourhood, but was exposed to a different group throughout the day through my school.

In some cases, the community school may be best for a student, but I don’t see it as a hard and fast rule. The education of the child should always be the first and foremost duty of the school system. You can’t offer every program at every school, and for this reason magnet schools and specialized programs which will draw kids away from their “community school” are important.

Complete, Healthy Communities Go Way Beyond Schools
I understand the argument for a community school from a planning perspective, that many parents will follow schools and other amenities. But a complete, healthy community goes way beyond having a school, and many community-level institutions are struggling. Independent businesses, particularly grocery stores, have given way to larger chains with drawing from several neighbourhoods. Community-based recreation and social activities are giving way to events that draw a crowd from the macro-scale. Even neighbourhood pubs are fading away. There are larger trends happening in most cities to draw activity to a more macro level. Schools alone cannot, and should not, treat it as their job to stop this trend.

Demographics are Destiny
One of the most salient points about population and demographics I heard recently was this – it’s that the key indicator is not a head count, but a household count. This reflects the fact that overall, family and household size is decreasing (this chart traces fertility rate and immigration. Household/family size numbers are more complex). As a hypothetical example, let’s say a school’s catchment are had 100 families in both 1972 and 2012. If the average family in ’72 had 2.5 children and today has 1.7, there would be 250 school age-ish children then,
but only 170 now, even if the household count hasn’t changed.

Of course, this hypothetical example isn’t the truth. Mature neighbourhoods in most cases also have fewer families today than they did then. If demand is going down, it’s going to mean that not every location can be saved.

Given all this, I think the school board will land in the right direction. It will have to go back to closing schools, but will employ a more measured approach. Initiatives underway such as the schools as community hubs effort, and explorations into space sharing, can ensure relevance and value from the schools even if the educational space is decreased.

It should just start and end from the point of what’s best for students. In Edmonton, we like to throw around the term ‘world class’ for, well, every mega-project we want to build. But our public school system is one of the truly, indisputable world class features of our city (I would argue the River Valley system and the Mall are two others). This should continue to be the primary focus of our school system; it’s a contributor to city-building, but not by any means the only party, or the driver of it.

That’s why this urbanist will be happy to support a school board that takes a cautious and measured, yet responsible approach to managing school supply. Even when it has to close some buildings.

Winter City Dreaming

Last week, Edmonton held a kickoff event for its Winter City Strategy. This has been in the works for a couple of years, with representatives conducting research, and visiting Scandinavian cities, amongst other activities.

I’m not a big fan of cold weather (-15 is my threshold – which may beg the question of why I live here, but I digress). However, to build a great city, you need to take advantage of your strengths. And Edmonton’s winter can be a strength, and a selling point to many people (residents and visitors alike). With that in mind, here are some preliminary thoughts on winter, Edmonton, and what a successful winter strategy might include. Some of these thoughts are my own, and some stem from conversations with fellow Edmontonians in recent days:

Winter doesn’t slow some Edmontonians down.

Recognize and Celebrate That There’s a Lot Going on Already.

Edmonton is hardly wanting for winter/outdoor activities. Festivals such as Deep Freeze, Ice on Whyte, and Silver Skate all have following, and in some cases, established histories. The Birkebeiner is a popular event in the Cross-Country Skiing community. I’m sure I’m missing other established, popular events.

In addition to that, the River Valley hosts miles of cross-country ski trails, and most communities have amenities such as tobogganing hills and outdoor skating rinks (you can also skate at public places like the Legislature, City Hall, and Hawrelak Park).

What may be true is that Edmonton is missing a big, signature, universal winter event. Whether that’s desirable or not is debatable. Maybe we should celebrate that our winter schedule offers a number of events that, while individually may each have a niche, cumulatively offer a lot to different people.

Winter Light: Build it as a Unifier and Hub for Winter Events
Launched in 2009, Winter Light coordinates a series of existing winter activities, and served to launch a handful more to flesh out Edmonton’s schedule from January to March. One of the promising things I see in Winter Light is the ability to be the hub for winter activities, perhaps even an umbrella group for the festivals and activities that happen through the winter month. Instead of a new, big, universal event, maybe the Winter Light banner (and all the activities that happen from January to March) can serve that purpose.

Metropolis: Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
Just launched this year, Metropolis provides programming in heated tents found in Churchill Square over 6 weekends in January and February. It’s come under scrutiny, some of which is to be expected as a new event works out the kinks, and some of it well-founded. While there are ways to improve it, a (perceived) unsuccessful event may spur wholesale changes, or a cancellation of the event entirely.

I see a lot of potential, but would suggest the following changes based on my visits, and feedback from others:

1. Improve on-site signage and branding. There aren’t any banners (unless they’ve gone up in the last week or so) in Churchill Square explaining what event is happening, or what it is. The mere presence of white tents isn’t going to entice people to stop by.
2. Scale back the number of tents, and increase the outdoor activities. I see an opportunity to have outdoor features and activities connecting the space between tents. Like much of our downtown, the Metropolis activities seem to be inward-facing.
3. Focus on a couple of things, perhaps just the community tent and a beer garden/restaurant. To increase return visits, perhaps invite a different chef/restaurant to run the restaurant each weekend, like how a different group programs the community tent every time.

Avoid the Temptation of the Magic Bullet
Edmonton has often been susceptible to thinking that a single, major project can turn everything around (the latest being a downtown hockey arena). Certainly, someone will suggest a major event or activity (which will no doubt cost a ton of money) as the answer to Edmonton’s winter blues. When this happens, it’s probably best to run like hell.

Ask Ourselves, ‘What’s Missing?’
Honest question: when thinking about what programming/activities may be missing as we develop a winter strategy, the first and simplest question should be “what would I like to be able to do in Edmonton during winter that I can’t right now?” Everything else should follow from that.

Be Creative with What are Current ‘Dead Spaces’ in Winter

In particular, I’m thinking of park space and athletic fields. A couple of examples I’ve seen recently – Cleveland is finding ways to program its ballpark in the winter months; Harvard constructs a bubble dome over its football field, allowing many of its varsity sports teams to practice year-round. If that’s feasible for a handful of Edmonton fields, I (and many others, I suspect) would pay fistfuls of money to play soccer on a proper pitch year-round.

Encourage Design that Better Reflects our Reality as a Winter City
This is true for both exterior and interior building design. In his book Reflections of a Siamese Twin, John Ralston Saul describes Canada’s refusal to build for and accomodate winter as “a curious form of self-denial”. He compares public facilities (such as theatres) in Scandinavia, where you find massive coat and boot storage spaces, to those in our country, which are largely non-existent. Small touches like this will better accomodate people’s needs during the winter months.

Embrace the Idea of ‘A More Livable Winter’

A strategy should consider initiatives that encourage a better quality of life throughout the winter months. Better care of sidewalks and trails, heaters in public locations, and other amenities that will encourage more outdoor activity on cold days are better (and much cheaper) bets than investing a lot in 1-2 major projects. We should focus first and foremost on ensuring the day-to-day aspects of experiencing winter are as enjoyable as possible.

Support a Change in Mindset
You can’t legislate or program your way into being a great city. Instead of rejecting or fighting against winter, citizens (myself included) need to embrace the best aspects of winter, and celebrate it.

Market, Market, Market
As I noted at the beginning, there’s a lot going on already. Perhaps the focus needs to be first on selling what’s already here, and doing it aggressively. There’s no reason Edmonton can’t become one of Canada’s premier destinations for winter-inclined tourists in a hurry. It’s just a matter of enhancing, and selling what we’ve already got.

Jasper Ave Blues: The Pedway Trap

You take the skyway, high above the busy little one-way
In my stupid hat and gloves, at night I lie awake
Wonderin’ if I’ll sleep
Wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street

Skyway, by The Replacements

The other night, I saw a story about the skyways in the winter city of Minneapolis, once hailed as a saviour for downtown, and now posing problems as the city attempts to create more street-level activity in the area. This seems to mirror the on-going debate in Edmonton, where it’s many pedways, connecting buildings through above or below ground indoor tunnels, are a god-send on -30 days like last week, but also serve to divert pedestrian traffic indoors.

I’m far from the first person to flag this. Scott McKeen, when he was a columnist at the Edmonton Journal, wrote a handful of columns arguing that they have a detrimental effect on downtown activity.

View from Pedestrian Overpass
Photo by mjb84, using a CC BY 2.0 license.

Scott’s points, and those of the critics in the article, are well found. Pedways/skyways/plus 15s (for Calgary readers) turn downtowns inward, keeping activity inside, away from the streets. Sometimes, you’re thankful for this (on -30 days, I love being able to use the pedways), but the ultimate cost to downtown activity has to be weighed against the days when using the pedways is more than just a simple convenience. The number of days it’s uncomfortably cold (even in Edmonton) are small, and designing an urban environment around extenuating circumstances can yield poor results (think of how parking minimums are designed for peak periods of use, which happen very rarely throughout the year).

Ultimately, one of the advantages of a downtown is the way it brings people together, in formal and informal ways. There’s a serendipity that happens when people conglomerate in dense, highly used spaces. Connections are made and nurtured, leading to greater intellectual, social, and business activity. Life is centred around activity, particularly on the street. Anything that competes with that makes it harder for a downtown to realize its potential.

Coming back to Skyway, how does the song end? With a paean to a missed connection, and the segmentation caused by the pedway/skyway system:

Oh, then one day, I saw you walkin’ down that little one-way
Where, the place I’d catch my ride most everyday
There wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway

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.

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.

Jasper Ave Blues: A Preamble


Over the next…indeterminate period of time, I’ll be undertaking a series of posts about Downtown Edmonton. Readers will have surely noticed my interest in cities and urban environments. The urban core – in particular its downtown – is at the heart of any successful city/region.

I spend most of my time right now downtown and nearby. I work downtown, and live three blocks west of its technical boundary. When I’m home, I’m downtown at least 6 days of the week – every work day, plus at least one day on the weekend, whether it’s working out at the Y, going to a concert at Starlite or the Winspear, having dinner or drinks with friends, or of course, the market on Saturday mornings in the summer.

On the bright side, interest in downtown’s future and well-being is the highest in the decade I’ve closely followed Edmonton civic affairs. On the media front, CBC AM is in the middle of a series called Downtown at a Crossroads, and several Edmonton Journal writers (particularly David Staples) have focused heavily on downtown. City Council, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and the Chamber of Commerce are all active champions. The Downtown Community League is doing excellent work, and I see a real pride among many citizens in what’s happening. On the downside, interest doesn’t automatically lead to progress. Done poorly, it could end up having an adverse effect, and there’s also a danger that boosterism and the desire to see something – anything – happen, may override due process and judgement on what is truly beneficial. This series will be my contribution to the discussion, analyzing downtown’s current state, proposals for new ideas that come forward, and putting forward my own ideas about what can make our downtown even better. I hope others will respond, engage, and contribute.

The title of this series might imply a strictly negative view of downtown in its current state. Nothing could be further from the truth (I just liked the title, thought it was catchy, and don’t have any better ideas right now). While our downtown isn’t the best, or maybe even in the top 10 downtowns I’ve visited in the past few years (to be fair to Edmonton, I’ve been to a lot of cities in that time), there are a lot of positive things happening. Edmonton’s downtown has made tremendous strides in the 15 years or so that my memory extends back. New residences are popping up, ranging from the higher-end Icon Towers to the Mayfair Village affordable housing development. 104th Street has exploded, boasting a roster of coffee shops, wine bars, restaurants, and shops that rivals High Street or Whyte Ave – in quality if not in quantity. Nothing beats spending a Saturday morning during the summer at the outdoor market on 104th. A couple of years ago, none of Moriarty’s, Tres Carnales, Corso32, or Pampa existed. Now, we have a strong restaurant scene downtown. Our downtown would be virtually unrecognizable (in a good way) to someone who left two decades ago and had yet to come back.

Anecdotally, the strongest point for downtown I can say is this. When I moved back to Edmonton 6 years ago and for a while afterwards, I couldn’t imagine I would choose to live downtown over other areas in the city. When I last moved just under 2 years ago, the downtown area was by far my preferred area to end up. That’s somewhat due to having worked downtown for the past 5 1/2 years, and having gotten to know the area better. But mostly it’s because of the improvement I’ve seen in that time. But our downtown can still be so much more. This series is one way I’m aiming to help make that a reality.