Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: Edmonton’s (Lost) Spaces, Places, & Neighbourhoods

This session sounded interesting and I was hoping it would provide me a neat list of places to check out. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, but I still learned quite a few things. The panelists included: Tyler Dixon, intern architect with ziola newstudio architects; David Holdsworth, one of the two heritage planners at the City of Edmonton; and Ken Tingley, Edmonton’s first historian laureate.

Edmonton could be described as a city in the habit of remaking itself. As a result, historic spaces, places and events are obscured, lost or ignored. Panelists will discuss this heritage of “remaking” and what has been ignored, overlooked or misunderstood and how it might be reclaimed.

Here are my notes:

  • Ken started by showing pictures of early Edmonton and describing the disappearance of First Nations people from the urban setting.
  • He described an effort in 1911 to eliminate First Nations as an attraction from western exhibitions, something Edmonton complied with the following year.
  • Ken also talked about some of racial incidents from our past, such as when local hotel and restaurants banded together to get rid of non-white labour.
  • David spent most of his time talking about heritage areas. The City of Edmonton has just three official heritage areas: Westmount, 104 Street, and Whyte Avenue.
  • Heritage areas must have regulations and guidelines for development, must allow new or alternative uses, and must have community support.
  • David described the Edmonton trend of breaking from the past – tearing down the old to make way for the new.
  • He showed one slide with photos of what looked like the same house, except that each photo was from a different city, all around the world. David say that both now and 100 years ago, there’s not much architecture unique to Edmonton.
  • Much of his discussion centered around “theming” and whether that is a good thing or not. Think of the warehouse buildings on 104 Street for instance, and how the new Icon towers were built to mimic that design.
  • David said he never asks for duplication, but wants to prevent building another “anywhere place”.
  • The Edmonton Design Committee will be considering the 81 Avenue area as another potential heritage area (most of the buildings there have false facades).
  • Tyler talked about aging and the stories that aging buildings can tell.
  • He also touched on urban sprawl, saying Edmonton is filled with holes (parking lots), and that the boom-bust cycle has nudged us toward certain building materials and styles.
  • Tyler was much less enthusiastic about the theming David talked about, saying he fears it leads to “just-add-water” instant heritage.
  • Ken had said during his talk that Edmonton is caught between progress and nostalgia. Tyler picked up on that, and said that both can be beautiful.

I thought David’s introduction to heritage areas was really good, and that’s a topic I’ll likely try to follow-up on. Another thing that was discussed that I didn’t mention in my notes was the importance of intangible heritage. After all, out of sight, out of mind.