Proudly waving the Make Something Edmonton banner

Why Edmonton? I’m often asked this question. As if I somehow need to justify why I spend so much of my time experiencing the city, thinking about it, writing about it. Or maybe people ask it because they can’t fathom why I would choose to live here, of all places. Why choose Edmonton over some other place?

Some people ask that question because they’ve already made up their minds about Edmonton, and they don’t like it. They ask the question because they want to compare their negative vision with someone who appears to have a much more positive one. Some people ask because they want to explain why they have chosen Edmonton, but they’re not sure how. Others ask the question from a neutral point of view. Some days they like Edmonton, other days they don’t. Maybe I can move them a little closer to the positive side with my response, but they won’t stay there for long. They like sitting on the fence.

I don’t like being asked this question, mostly because I don’t have a good answer for it. And yet it is a good question to ask. I want to respond with a well-rehearsed elevator pitch, but instead I usually spit out something about opportunity and how Edmonton is such a great place to live. Blech. I just can’t articulate what I feel, what I know to be true. I think a lot of Edmontonians struggle with that.

Why do I live here? I was born here. My siblings live here. Most of my extended family lives here. And now, my life is here. My friends, my work, my partner. But that’s the easy answer. I could find work elsewhere. I could keep in touch with friends and family from afar. So, why do I still live here?

It’s true that Edmonton is a great place to live, and I can rattle off all the statistics that help to illustrate why this is so. Per capita income is about $11,000 higher and unemployment is about 2% lower than the national average. There are more than 160 kilometers of trails in our river valley parks, the longest urban parkland system in North America. Three quarters of Edmontonians live within a 20-minute walk of a natural area. The Edmonton Public School system is regularly cited as the model for other jurisdictions in North America. About 60% of waste is diverted from landfill, and we’re on track to increase that number to 90% by 2015. Our water is some of the best in the world. Over the last three-year capital investment cycle, a record $3.3 billion was invested in capital infrastructure projects. We have more than 2200 hours of sunlight each year.

I could go on, but so what? Nearly every city has a similar list of positive features. How does any of that differentiate Edmonton? There are lots of cities that could be said to offer great quality of life. You don’t even have to go very far to find one.

There must be something more to Edmonton.

Maybe that something, in a word, is opportunity. Edmonton is a city in which it is possible to get things done. We’re big enough to be considered a large city and to have the affordances (and challenges) that go along with that, yet we’re small enough that the degree of separation between the average Edmontonian and the city’s power brokers is quite small. But it’s more than that. You don’t need permission here to take action, and people are always willing to lend a hand if you ask for it, even the so-called power brokers, in my experience.

Edmonton has always been a city of opportunity. In the early 19th century, Edmonton was an important fort in the North American fur trade. As the 20th century approached, thousands flocked to Edmonton on their way to the Last Great Gold Rush. Many stayed. Just after the second world war, oil was discovered near Leduc, and we quickly became known as the Oil Capital of Canada. A sense of opportunity seems to be ingrained in our civic culture.

But don’t other cities also have opportunity? Of course they do. The thing is that in Edmonton, you can have an impact. You can act on that opportunity and do something and make a difference.

Todd Babiak has been writing about this topic a lot lately. He too likes to ask the question, Why Edmonton? I’ve come to really like his answer. Here’s how he explains it:

People are growing things in every city in the world, but we’re doing it differently in Edmonton. Our economy and our culture, that spirit of openness and curiosity, of urban barn-building, is peculiar. People say it in different ways: this is the best place to build, to create, to get ‘er done. To make something. It always has been.

This is our past and our present. Edmontonians know this. They arrive at this truth, when you talk to them long enough. But we don’t say it to each other and we don’t say it to people in Toronto, in New York, in Beijing.

I think that’s the truth I was having trouble articulating. Todd calls this Make Something Edmonton, and in recent weeks many Edmontonians have embraced the idea by using the #MakeSomethingYeg hashtag on Twitter.

Make Something Edmonton is a call-to-action. It’s about building up rather than tearing down. It’s simple and powerful. It is broad enough to encompass the great diversity found in our city, yet it doesn’t fall into the trap of being vanilla. It encourages story rather than sound bites. But perhaps the most important thing about Make Something Edmonton is that it is participatory. Anyone and everyone can make something here, and that’s why it is meaningful.

Why Edmonton? Because if you have the courage to make something, Edmonton is your city.

Thanks to Todd, I now have some vocabulary to address why I love this city. Just like any of you, I can take the Make Something Edmonton banner and wave it proudly.

But saying that naturally leads to a question – what does the banner look like? What exactly is Make Something Edmonton? Does it fit into the various branding exercises we’ve undertaken over the years? Could it be the next one? Todd discussed the notion of a Make Something Edmonton campaign back in October:

If this is going to work, it has to be a call and an invitation to all Edmontonians — not just the creative class types. In Edmonton, you can make something beautiful. You can make something new, make something big, make something global, make something delicious, make something green, make something north, make something odd, make something unforgettable, make something true. We have anecdotes to prove all of these and more.

I like that Make Something Edmonton is inclusive and that all Edmontonians can participate. It doesn’t matter what you’re making, as long as you’re making something. Sure that makes it a little bit messy, and it certainly makes it more difficult to fit into a “traditional campaign”, but I think that’s one of the greatest things about Make Something Edmonton. It’s more than just a slogan or a logo, because Edmonton and Edmontonians should not be reduced to such things.

Clearly there’s tremendous upside to having three simple words like Make Something Edmonton to help articulate the complexity behind why Edmonton is different. The downside is that it’s all too easy to jump from those words straight to the notion of a brand or campaign. To ask what the banner looks like. I say, who cares? Just make something, and wave that banner proudly!

  • IdealisticPragmatist

    I chose Edmonton, which means I get asked that question probably even more often than natives do. I do think it’s an easier question to answer as a non-native Edmontonian than as a native one, though, at least without sounding defensive. If you can say that you’ve lived all over the world but have chosen Edmonton as your home, people listen when you say it’s a great place to live, and believe you. Along those lines, this was my take on “why Edmonton” back in 2005.

    Another option: sometimes I jokingly say: “You know how they say about New York that
    it’s a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there? Well, in Edmonton it’s the other way around.” To be honest, I don’t really believe that as it stands–my parents visit me here on a yearly basis and have come to love Edmonton as well, and I’ve had plenty of friends from Europe visit and like it, too. But it does tap into something about the quality of life here, and how you can’t quite wrap your mind around that that as a tourist.

    I like Babiak’s take on it, though, too. A whole lot.

    • Thanks for the comment and the link to you previous post. That’s an interesting way to look at it with the NYC comment, but I agree I’m not sure how truthful that is. I actually wouldn’t be against living in NYC!

  • Nadine

    Mack, this is a topic that seems to come up a lot these days in the circle of people I know and/or follow. I remember seeing you speak at a Pecha Kucha years ago where you advocated, rather than moving to a place that has more ‘culture’ or ‘happening’ or whatever, to stay here and create those things in Edmonton. That really resonated with me.

    Beyond that, however, I have to say that I’m getting tired of this line of thought. I’m here. I like it. I’m doing things and making things. I know lots of people who are doing the same. I’m tired of pondering the ‘why’. I don’t believe any amount of conversation about it will make this a more appealing place to live and work. I’m a bit confused as to why we seem so concerned about attracting outside attention, anyway.

    Can’t we curtail the navel gazing and just BE? What is the point of all of this? I don’t like being asked this question, either. I don’t care what the banner looks like, either. It’s the right place for some people. It’s not the right place for others. There’s cool stuff and not so cool stuff. The same can be said of most mid-sized North American cities, I’m sure. Whatever. I’ve got things to do. Why are we still talking about this, Edmonton blogosphere?

    • Good question, and I think it’s a complicated answer. One reason is that our civic leaders keep pouring millions of dollars into our “identity” and so that demands a certain level of discussion. Maybe another is that we know we have a good quality of life here and that fact has been validated externally numerous times, so we naturally turn our attention to things that are not so good and don’t have that validation – things like our reputation.

      But actually for me, thinking about these questions is all in support of that position I advocated at PKN7. I really do think we should focus on being great for Edmontonians, rather than being great in the eyes of others, because I believe the latter follows from the former. But how do you get people to build things here? To focus on Edmonton for Edmontonians? I think Make Something Edmonton is part of the answer.

  • unidentifiedobj

    I think most of the people making something in Edmonton are actually out doing it, and not getting too involved in the meta discussion around the process. I’m all for acknowledging that Edmonton is a great place to make things, but sometimes it borders on becoming “poor me”, but I say that with the best of intentions. 🙂

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  • canadaalive.wordpress.com

    Excellent post. My wife and I are thinking of moving from Victoria to Edmonton in the new year. Victoria and Vancouver are just not affordable for young families starting out. After much research and getting opinions from many people, we’ve settled on Edmonton. Thanks again for your positive outlook!

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