Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: A Northern City

There were three concurrent panel sessions this morning, which means we had to choose. I ended up going to the one called A Northern City. The panelists included: Rod Macleod, retired professor of History & Classics at the University of Alberta; Mark Nuttall, professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta; and Heather Zwicker, associate professor of English at the University of Alberta.

Tagged as the “Gateway to the North”, Edmonton has also been described as “a northern city of art and ideas”. Yet its northernness is often overlooked in understanding the city and region, as well as its connection to the “south” and other northern places.

As someone who grew up primarily in Inuvik, NT, this panel caught my eye. I was quite familiar with the idea of Edmonton as “a northern gateway to the south” – something the panelists talked about. Here are my notes:

  • Rod started by highlighting the two things that we think about as a northern city. The first, climate, gets a lot of attention. The second, isolation, is something we think about far less. Rod says to draw a 500km circle around northern cities. With the exception of Edmonton and Moscow, you’ll find lots of other places in those circles.
  • Despite the creation of the rival city of Strathcona, the construction of the railroad from Calgary had surprisingly little effect on our northern orientation, according to Rod.
  • He talked at length about our history as a transportation hub more than a trading post, noting that the air freight industry was practically invented here. He talked about the arrival of the airplane, and how it replicated the region’s previous economy: bringing furs south, taking supplies north.
  • Something to look up: the Aerosmith map of 1832, which has great detail north of Edmonton but not much south.
  • Rod suggested that while “facing north” has made us culturally self-sufficient, being a part of the northern frontier has ingrained in Edmonton a reluctance to plan and build for the long-term.
  • Mark picked up here, nothing that although there are lots of places further north than us on the globe, northernness actually has very little to do with latitude.
  • He noted that in Canada, the term “north” has often been synonymous with “marginalized”. That’s not the case in other places. He also observed that as places develop, “north” seems to move further north. When a Walmart arrives in Whitehorse, is still the north?
  • Mark finished by discussing the Arctic Council and how the north is becoming centre stage, thanks to climate change and other global issues. Canada assumes the chair of the council in three years, which provides an opportunity for Edmonton.
  • Heather discussed the literature surrounding Edmonton as a northern city, starting with Alice Major’s Contemplating the City, and Erin Knight’s Bribing the Boundary God.
  • She said the river plays a key role in most of the literature, either positively or negatively – is the river an obstacle, or a way in and out of the city?
  • I thought the notion of Edmonton as “the cosmopolitan north” was quite interesting. Heather said the notion of “cosmopolitan” is up for grabs, saying that “Brooklyn is the new Manhattan”.

Another interesting concept came up in the questions. Mark had said that before moving to Edmonton, he had never lived away from the sea. And while Edmonton doesn’t have a traditional port, we are something of a “port city” thanks to Fort McMurray and other northern communities. I immediately thought of the Port Alberta initiative as well.

What I took away from the session is that being a northern city is much more a mindset than anything else. There are physical elements of course, but it’s the intangible part of being in “the north” that has probably had the biggest impact on Edmonton’s development.