What kind of festival does Metropolis want to be?

After eight weekends in Churchill Square, Metropolis has come to an end. Featuring four large shrink-wrapped structures, the new festival took a different approach to staging a winter event. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was successful. Sharon has already done a very thorough job of discussing some of the highs and lows of the festival as we experienced it over the past two months, so please make sure you read her post. She concluded:

“It’ll be interesting to see what organizers decide to do next, and what Metropolis might look like should the festival return again. Although I am glad Events Edmonton took a risk, I hope they are able to learn from this initial run and improve in the future.”

I’ll be a little stronger and say that I would be disappointed to see Metropolis return next year only slightly improved. If it is going to continue, I feel a major overhaul is needed. Originally envisioned as a showcase of cold weather construction techniques but sold as a festival to help Edmontonians embrace winter, Metropolis did neither.

Metropolis & Fireworks
The structures were nicely lit on New Years Eve, but were plain and white most of the rest of the time.

I think it’s clear the “build it and they will come” approach that Metropolis took was a failure. I know it’s a lot of work to get something like Metropolis off the ground, so it’s no surprise that the idea was scaled back numerous times (from nine structures down to six and eventually down to just four). Programming an event over a single weekend takes a lot of effort, let alone over eight weekends, even when you leave the programming to others as Events Edmonton did. As a result, there was little to draw people to the festival, and the attendance reflected that. As recently as December, Events Edmonton was estimating attendance of about 13,500 people per day or 300,000 total for the festival. I would be absolutely shocked if they achieved anything even remotely close to that. As Sharon noted in her post, we walked through Metropolis most weekends while it was on and it never seemed busy.

Maybe it was the warm weather or maybe it was the lack of marketing (remember the atrocious website they launched with?). Maybe it was that Events Edmonton put too much faith in the community stepping forward to do something with the structures. Maybe it was poor communication or maybe it was broken promises to partners. Realistically, it was probably the combination of these and other factors that ultimately prevented Metropolis from achieving success. That said, I think there are two fundamental issues facing the festival:

  1. Metropolis was born out of the idea that we should celebrate the cold weather construction techniques that have made Edmonton and other northern cities possible, yet the festival did very little of that.
  2. Metropolis took place in January and February and was therefore considered a “winter” festival, but embracing winter is about much more than picking the right dates on the calendar.

Cold Weather Construction

A little over a year ago, I sat down with Giuseppe Albi to talk about Metropolis. At the time he was still trying to build support for the new festival, so his pitch was well-rehearsed by the time we met for coffee. He talked about the idea itself, but also were it came from. Events Edmonton had been considering ways to mitigate the extreme cold that we often get on New Years Eve, and hit on the idea of some sort of temporary heated dome. That didn’t happen of course, but it provided the seed for Metropolis.

Giuseppe told me about his interest in architecture, something he has loved ever since high school. He remembered cutting articles out of the newspaper when they wrote about a new building going up. One in particular that he talked about was the Professional Building, the first building in Canada built using cold weather construction technology. As he told Elise Stolte in December:

“We pioneered working in cold climates, and 1961 was crucial. That basically ushered in an era of cold-climate construction technology. For 50 years now, we’ve used it all over and we’ve built most of Western Canada and the North with that technology.”

We talked about many other aspects of the festival that day, but what I took away from the conversation was Giuseppe’s passion for showcasing our history of cold weather construction techniques. It really struck me as an important aspect of how Edmonton came to be – imagine how little we’d be able to construct if we needed it to be warm all the time! Apparently we are one of the few cities with a scaffolding training program too. Finding a way to extend the construction season to make the most of our climate is a great story, and I one that I think is worth showcasing.

Metropolis

To be fair, Giuseppe did at least bring some awareness to this story. Metropolis was on the program at the Cold Climate Construction Conference that took place here in Edmonton last May, for example. I certainly have a heightened awareness about cold weather construction, and am interested to learn more.

The real opportunity was at the festival itself however, and that opportunity was missed entirely. Sure the structures themselves were built using scaffolding, but I don’t know much more about them than that. There was no information on site, no presentations about cold weather construction. In the program (which originally cost $5 but was given away by the end of the festival) there are a few features on construction companies, but very little in the way of education.

I wish Metropolis had been more focused on cold weather construction. It would have resulted in a less pedestrian event, and would probably have been of interest to a smaller number of Edmontonians, but I think the chances of success would have been much greater.

Embracing Winter

A few hours after that conversation with Giuseppe, I met with Pamela Anthony, the Artistic Director of Winter Light. I had been very critical of Winter Light and the significant funding it received from the City, but I felt it was finally starting to develop something unique. Last year’s Illuminations featuring Circus Orange was simply amazing. It was freezing cold outside, but the Square was packed with people enjoying themselves. “You need motivation to go somewhere when its cold,” Pamela told me. “It’s exciting how hungry people were for that.”

We of course talked about Metropolis. Aside from a lack of communication (neither Metropolis nor Winter Light reached out to one another) Pamela sounded happy that someone else was also putting energy into building the winter festival scene. She wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the plan for Metropolis itself, however. “It shouldn’t be about denying winter or sheltering people from winter,” she said. “It’s not a commitment to the winter experience.”

I have thought a lot about that conversation over the last year, and I’m convinced now that Pamela was absolutely right. Just because a festival takes place in January doesn’t mean it’s a “winter” festival. There is nothing about Metropolis that celebrated winter. Bringing people indoors is most certainly not a commitment to the winter experience. Especially when the food and programing offered is the same as anywhere else.

To some extent, I think Metropolis was able to take advantage of the momentum behind “downtown revitalization” to gain support. It was said that Metropolis would bring some focus to downtown during the winter months, and that was certainly the message Giuseppe brought to the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force in October. I remember hearing then and many times after, that “when it is colder than minus 15, people don’t want to be outside”. Kind of like the argument made for the pedways that connect the downtown core. Thing is, we have lots of proof that people will happily spend time outside!

Winter Light Illuminations 2011
People! Outside! In the cold! At Illuminations 2011.

I have already mentioned last year’s Illuminations. The square was full of people enjoying winter that night, even though the temperature was minus 20 with a wind chill of minus 26. How about Deep Freeze? Both last year and this year, Deep Freeze demonstrated that people enjoy doing things outdoors. How about the Mill Creek Adventure Walk? I was blown away by how many people participated this year, it was incredible. And then there’s the annual favorite, Ice on Whyte. Thousands of people attend that outdoor event every year!

Want more proof? Look at the most popular ideas on the WinterCity Strategy’s IdeaScale site. Skating trails, snow hills, safer sidewalks, an outdoor pool, street hockey, an outdoor ice bar festival, an outdoor Christmas market, winter camping, etc. None of those ideas are for things that take place indoors. I think the WinterCity Strategy page is spot on:

This strategy is about changing how many of us feel about winter – from enduring to embracing it. It’s about how we can create a city where people want to be outside on sunny winter days because there are inviting, vibrant public spaces with activities and comfortable places to gather. It’s about using light to create warmth and luminescence during long winter days and using snow as a resource, for things like wind barriers and ongoing public sculpture activities.

Does that sound like Metropolis to you? It sure doesn’t to me.

What kind of festival does Metropolis want to be?

I think Events Edmonton needs to decide if Metropolis is going to be a festival about cold weather construction, or if it is going to be a festival for the masses that truly embraces winter.

I would love to see an event focused on cold weather construction – our history, where are we now, and what’s coming in the future. That would be truly interesting. Reading through Giuseppe’s “Vision for Metropolis” in the program guide, I am once again reminded of his love for this topic. “Winter construction fascinates me,” he wrote. A festival that focused on that fascination would indeed be worth staging.

I would also love to see a downtown event focused on winter.  But on embracing winter, not enduring it. With lots of activities and opportunities for Edmontonians to see that winter doesn’t have to suck. Pulling that kind of festival off means being outside, however. I don’t get the impression that Events Edmonton is willing to commit to the outdoors.

If Metropolis returns next year, I hope it does so with a renewed sense of purpose and a clear mission.

4 thoughts on “What kind of festival does Metropolis want to be?

  1. Mack: Thanks so much for your continued coverage of events and activities – I agree with much of your insight on this article. I was struck that if we are to embrace winter, we also need to not just build structures that only protect us from the cold, and more so the wind, we also need to help motivate Edmontonians to help move their attitudes. Perhaps it is not about the large spectacles alone, but also about cultivating opportunities for people to bundle up and go outside within a 5 minute walk so that things become habit forming, fun and then we can begin to shift our paradigms.

    todd

  2. My problem with Metropolis — I could never figure out when it was open. Every single time I tried going — pavillions were closed or closing down… and sometimes in the early afternoon. 

  3. Still completely amazed that the city doesn’t truck in a pile of snow and build a small terrain park to let the adventurous practice low-speed tricks on their board/skis in the middle of downtown. Throw in an outdoor bar and have a stage where local acts can perform for free to get their name out. Now THAT’s an environment that would draw people, and keep them there all day. Light it up at night and you could run that puppy till 2am on weekends. Bet it would pull a profit too…

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