Recap: The Walrus Talks Aboriginal City in Edmonton

Tonight I joined close to 1,200 others at the Shaw Conference Centre for The Walrus Talks Aboriginal City, “eighty minutes of lively, thought-provoking ideas on Aboriginal life in Canadian cities – from culture, to business, to politics, and more.” I didn’t realize the event was going to be so large but I’m glad it was; some very important ideas and issues were discussed this evening. The event opened with a blessing by Elder Ida Bull, after which Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Grand Chief Bernice Martial and Mayor Don Iveson brought greetings.

The Walrus Talks Aboriginal City

After a brief introduction to the format from Shelley Ambrose, publisher of The Walrus, we got right into things. There were nine different speakers this evening (you can read their bios here) and each of them had seven minutes on stage. Here are some the highlights and takeaways from each presentation:

Ginger Gosnell-Myers

Ginger is the Aboriginal planner for Vancouver. She spoke about the misconceptions people have about urban Aboriginals. “Being urban just happens to be a choice about where we live.” She challenged the misconception that Aboriginal people are migratory. “The reality is the majority of Aboriginal people who move to cities end up staying for the long-term,” she said. “The city is our home.” Ginger also tackled the notion that cultural values disappear when Aboriginal people live in the city. “Every day I feel urban and cultural at the same time.”

Douglas Cardinal

Douglas is a renowned Canadian architect and is an officer of the Order of Canada. He spoke about his vision for the future of the city. “I see a thriving, organic, densely-populated metropolis that is a dynamic, living organism.” He took the analogy further and said that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the health of the organism as we are the nutrients for the city. “We must first change our mindset from a culture of exploitation to a culture that reflects the indigenous values of sharing.”

“We can shape our environment but in turn it shapes us.”

Lewis Cardinal

Lewis is well-known to Edmontonians of course, and I had heard some of what he had to say previously. But that did not diminish my enjoyment of his message and delivery. Lewis spoke about storytelling primarily. “A city cannot truly know itself or reach its full potential until it knows and cherishes its stories,” he told us. “All stories, the good, the bad, sometimes the unbelievable.” He also cautioned that “we are not telling the stories and paying the proper homage to the spirit of this place.” He noted that even the name “Edmonton” carries a story in that “monto” means the divine essence, the power of creation, or as he clarified for Star Wars fans, the force.

Lewis earned a few chuckles when he told us that the Aboriginal population of greater Edmonton is around 100,000. “Yes, you are surrounded by Indians,” he said. “But it’s all good!” He finished with a plea for more storytelling. “I beg all of you, leave no story untold.”

Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Patti is the director of research, training, and communication at the Native Counselling Services of Alberta. She spoke about the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the Canadian justice system. “This is indeed a crisis,” she declared. Patti noted that Aboriginal people make up 43% of admissions to custody in Alberta. The root cause? She says it can be traced to the inter-generational transmission of historic trauma, a topic discussed in the graphic novel The Outside Circle.

Ryan McMahon

Ryan is an Aboriginal comedian and though he took a mostly serious approach with this presentation, he couldn’t help but make people laugh a few times. “I come from a long line of moose hunters,” he told us. “I don’t know much about cities.” In contrast with the “we’re here” message that was repeated a few times throughout the evening, Ryan called upon non-Aboriginals to speak up. “So often we are burdened with the responsibility to talk, to explain, to teach,” he said. “I can’t wait for the time when I get to sit and listen, to learn, to understand what you see.”

He said he knows what he can’t do in the city. “I can’t hang my dead moose from an oak tree, apparently it brings down property values,” he said to laughter. But he also highlighted what he can do. “I can contribute to the conversation. I can listen and I can share. And I can be patient.” He said that Aboriginal people are sometimes “patient to a fault”. He finished by highlighting the importance of the city to him. “It was in a city where I met some of the most influential people in my life.”

Roberta Jamieson

Roberta Jamieson was the first Aboriginal woman to earn a law degree in Canada and she is an officer of the Order of Canada. She shared seven key messages (I have simplified them of course):

  1. Let’s create a two row wampum city
  2. Let’s make the city a home for human beings
  3. Indigenous values offer cities a very important vision
  4. Open spaces in cities so that indigenous peoples can thrive as indigenous peoples
  5. Educate our children to be human beings before anything else
  6. Build relationships, bring together all sectors, to make a better city
  7. All of these messages come in a bundle

She talked a lot about making space for indigenous people in cities. “Make space for us in the city and the city will be richer for it.” She also highlight the fact that many cities take their names from indigenous languages. “This is not a coincidence,” she said.

“The human city, the real city, is built of relationships, not of concrete and steel.”

Clayton Kootenay

Clayton is the MOU team lead of Treaty 6, 7, and 8. He shared a number of statistics about Aboriginal people in Alberta, such as the fact that there are 48 First Nations and 148 reserves in Alberta. Most of his presentation was focused on the importance of treaties and the need for improving education. “Treaties are about relationships and responsibility,” he said. He said Alberta has two systems of education – the provincial one and the band-operated one (there are 58 band-operated schools in Alberta). He spoke about the MOU and their efforts to improve education for Aboriginal youth. “All parties have a collective stake in improving First Nations success,” he said. “Let’s not lose another generation.”

Bob Rae

Bob is the former premier of Ontario and is an officer of the Order of Canada. He spoke about the misunderstanding that is at the heart of Canada. He said it is important to understand the context in which the treaties were signed – the Crown’s perspective was “to draw a line in the sand,” he said. It wasn’t a marriage, it was a divorce – it was about saying what isn’t allowed and about what is lost. “The only way to get to a better place is by understanding from whence we have all come,” he said. For Bob, that better place is a country “that is not based on some people thinking they are better than others.”

He also talked about the fast growing urban Aboriginal population in Canada. “As a country we now face a choice: do we celebrate this and make it work and make it happen or do we continue to see it as a problem, a difficulty, an inconvenience, a nuisance?”

Jessica Bolduc

Jessica is the national youth representative for the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. She spoke about “edgewalkers”, her term for Aboriginal youth who “have no patience for the status quo” and who have “a hunger to contribute to a better future.” She said that “indigenous issues are Canadian issues.” Jessica pulled no punches, saying “to hell with fitting our round peg in your square hole.”

She also addressed the potential of Aboriginal youth. “Aboriginal people are some of the most innovative leaders coming out of this generation,” she said. “They are the future of our cities.” She urged everyone to go find the edgewalkers in their city. “They are everywhere.”

Closing Remarks

CBC Edmonton’s Mark Connolly closed the evening with some final remarks. He was very open about how much he has learned in the last ten years or so, starting with Treaty 6. “I’m so pleased that now wherever I go, we speak of Treaty 6,” he said. Mark challenged everyone to think about how they could contribute to a broader understanding of the topics discussed during the evening. “It’s Edmonton that came forward here and I think we can make a difference.”

The Walrus Talks Aboriginal City

I really enjoyed the presentations. The Walrus promises that their Talks series “delivers fresh ideas and new ways of looking at big issues” and on that I think the event delivered. We’ve been hearing for years that Edmonton is going to have the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada soon, but why wait until we achieve that milestone to have a productive conversation about what it means for our city?

Every speaker tonight gave me something to think about. I learned quite a few things and came away with a better understanding of some of the challenges and opportunities. The question now, as always, is what the 1,200 people that heard those presentations will do with that information! Taking Mark’s advice, I will continue to learn and to share.

Before and after the presentations, guests were treated to an Aboriginal Art Exhibit in the Hall D lobby and around the edges of the hall itself. Produced by Dawn Marie Marchand and Dawn Saunders Dahl, the exhibit featured the work of ore than 30 Aboriginal artists from Western Canada. It was funded by the Walrus, EEDC, and the Edmonton Arts Council. You can learn about the presenting artists here.

The Walrus Talks Aboriginal City

I considered staying home tonight to watch the Leaders’ Debate but decided I’d miss more by skipping the Walrus event. I’m confident now that I made the right call. Kudos to Lisa Baroldi and her entire team at Enterprise Edmonton for putting on a fantastic event! You can see a few more photos here.

A vision for the future of transportation in Alberta

The Province is currently working on a new long-term transportation strategy for Alberta. Over the last two months, public discussions have been held throughout Alberta and in the spring, an online survey will be released.

“This Strategy – which will focus on all forms of transportation, connections and ways to move people and products – provide an overarching vision for Alberta’s transportation system over the next 50 years. It will also help guide government decisions on transportation investments, policies and programs.”

That’s a big challenge. But it’s exciting to consider!

Since I missed the meeting here in Edmonton, I took a look at the feedback form. It includes a number of questions that aim to capture what the public thinks about the strategy. One of the first deals with the proposed vision for the Transportation Strategy for Alberta:

“A world-class transportation system that is safe, sustainable and innovative, and that supports Alberta’s economy and quality of life.”

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but it just seems rather bland, doesn’t it? It’s very expected. And phrases like “world-class” are just meaningless. The proposed vision is also incredibly similar to others. For instance, here is Transport Canada’s vision:

“A transportation system in Canada that is recognized worldwide as safe and secure, efficient and environmentally responsible.”

Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the proposed vision. It doesn’t tell me anything about what transportation in Alberta will look like in the future, especially as you could credibly argue that it reflects the current state of Alberta’s transportation system.

welcome to alberta
Welcome to Alberta by Magalie

What could it be instead? Well let’s consider the context.

The shift from rural to urban has been dramatic in Alberta. According to the 2011 federal census, more than 56% of Albertans now live in population centres larger than 100,000 people in size, and 83% live in urban areas of any size (compared to 81% nationally). We’re an urban province now more than ever. The economic power of cities cannot be ignored.

We know that vehicles are dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, “road traffic injuries are the eighth leading cause of death globally, and the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29.” Here in Alberta, traffic fatalities have declined significantly from 2007 through 2011, but there are still too many of them. We also know that vehicles have a negative impact on the environment. They contribute to global warming, they contribute to smog, and they take up an incredible amount of land that could otherwise be used more productively.

There are lots of other factors to consider, but I think these are the two most important. Reducing our dependence on vehicles and recognizing the importance of cities should be central any vision of the future of transportation in our province. Unsurprisingly, the two biggest cities in Alberta have already recognized this.

Our neighbours to the south have the Calgary Transportation Plan, which says:

The decisions made today about where and what to build will affect Calgarians for 100 years or more – just as decisions made in the past affect us today. Going forward, the transportation system must perform a wide variety of roles and consider the context of surrounding land uses, be they natural or manufactured. It must provide more choice for Calgarians – realistic choices that are convenient, affordable and attractive. These choices include walking, cycling, transit, high occupancy vehicles (HOV or carpooling) and single-occupant vehicles (SOV).

Here in Edmonton, we have the Transportation Master Plan, The Way We Move. It is even more aggressive:

We are building a 21st century city, shaping an Edmonton that will meet the needs of our diverse and growing urban and regional population. Growing environmental concerns, acknowledgment of the ongoing investment needed to maintain our transportation infrastructure and the rapid growth of our city demand a shift in transportation priority setting. It is a shift from single passenger vehicle use to more public transit; from building outward to a compact urban form. From an auto oriented view of transportation to a more holistic view of an interconnected, multi-modal transportation system where citizens can walk, bike, bus and train efficiently and conveniently to their desired location.

I recognize that Calgary and Edmonton have a completely different context and set of challenges than the rest of the province does, but I think their transportation strategies are informative. Let me also say that I don’t think creating a vision statement is easy. I know a lot of hard work, thought, and difficult discussions are needed to come up with them. That said, I’ll take a stab at it.

Here’s my attempt at crafting a stronger vision for the future of transportation in Alberta:

An innovative and sustainable transportation system that emphasizes high occupancy vehicles and strengthens the global competitiveness of Alberta’s urban areas.

What do you think?

More power and money to cities in Alberta? I don’t believe you!

If you haven’t already done so you should check out Cities Matter, a website created by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. It features questions in ten categories related to municipalities that all five of the major provincial parties have answered. The Municipal Financing category asks what each party would do to provide long-range, sustainable, and predictable capital funding for large cities in Alberta. Here are some highlights from the responses:

Alberta Liberals:

Our view is that provincial funding for municipalities should be provided with little to no strings attached, and that local governments are best positioned to determine what their own priorities are and how money should be spent.

Alberta Party:

We are committed to ensuring municipalities have access to stable, adequate and predictable funding. The Alberta Party will shift from 3‐year budget cycles to 5‐year cycles to ensure more long‐term planning can happen. We will also explore alternative ways for cities to raise their own revenues, so that they are less dependent on provincial funding and are more able to accurately budget for their needs.

Alberta’s NDP:

An NDP government would support municipalities’ efforts to occupy the entire property tax and would be prepared to consider additional sources of revenue for municipalities which are appropriate to their responsibilities.

PC Alberta:

The PC Party also plans to help meet the fiscal needs of our cities with city charters and more local decision making through transfer of power. Municipalities are entitled to a greater say and accountability in their own governance and fiscal management.


Our Balanced Budget and Savings Pledge will lay the groundwork for growing surpluses in the short term; combined with rising income taxes this will ensure that municipal funding increases along with Alberta’s economy.  It also means that municipal leaders won’t need to curry favour with government ministers and align their ideas with the latest trendy notions among bureaucrats.  Wildrose trusts local communities to know what their short and long term priorities are, and with this formula will give them the autonomy to carry through in meeting them.

Sounds good right? More power and money to cities!

Thing is, I really don’t believe any of that.

Consider the proposed downtown arena. Our local leadership has determined (whether you agree or not) that a new arena is something the city needs, that it is something that would benefit Edmontonians. Yet none of the provincial parties seem to have acknowledged that decision. In fact, in many cases they have explicitly disagreed.

Here’s NDP Leader Brian Mason’s take:

“There are far bigger priorities for tax dollars in Edmonton than giving handouts to billionaire hockey owners. Instead, the New Democrats want to accelerate the construction of more light rail transit in Edmonton with more funding. We could use that $100 million to provide interest-free loans to 20,000 homeowners for energy efficient home renovations, or build 250 long-term care beds. New Democrats use public money for the public good.”

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was even more blunt:

“We would not provide funding to a new arena in Edmonton.”

PC Leader Alison Redford hasn’t been quite so direct, but her government has thus far avoided the issue and has been more than happy to move ahead with the new Royal Alberta Museum (which nobody was talking about until the announcement dropped out of the sky). And she too does not appear to agree with the need:

“I think that we have enough funding in our system right now to allow for projects that matter to communities to be built.”

I have not seen either the Alberta Party or the Alberta Liberals directly address the arena (if you can point me to something that would be appreciated).

You might argue that these leaders are just responding to what Edmontonians are saying – they don’t want public money going to the arena. Walk down the street and ask people what they think however, and you get a much different response. I think a lot of people feel that other levels of government need to come to the table to support this project.

Either way, we seem to have conflicting statements here. On the one hand, these provincial leaders are happy to suggest that they would grant more control to municipalities to determine what they should build and how they should spend their money. On the other hand, they’re opposed to providing funding to a new arena in Edmonton. So which is it? Or perhaps a better question, exactly what strings will be attached to the greater autonomy granted to municipalities? The arena is just one example. The City Centre Airport is another (and we know that at least the Wildrose would reopen that can of worms) and of course there’s LRT.

I find it really hard to believe that any of these parties would truly give more control over finances and decision making to municipalities. And that’s a shame, because cities really do matter.

Recap: Designing Downtown – Between Two Cities

Tonight Sharon and I attended a panel discussion at the Art Gallery of Alberta organized by M.A.D.E. in Edmonton called Designing Downtown: Between Two Cities. It was an interesting evening for the event to take place, because across the street at City Hall our City Council was discussing the proposed downtown arena project (they voted to move ahead with negotiations) and also because today was Vancouver’s 125th birthday. Ryan Jespersen was our host for the evening, and Todd Babiak was the moderator for the discussion. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time for that discussion to take place – the panelists used most of the time for their “introductions” (as is often the case).

Gene Dub, founder and principal at Dub Architects Ltd., kicked things off with a little show and tell. He talked about some of the projects he has worked on since establishing his firm in 1975, and highlighted four things that he has tried to focus on with his downtown development efforts: housing, heritage, infill, and commentary. Some of the interesting projects he showed pictures of included the City Market Affordable Housing, the Alberta Hotel, the McKay Avenue School Restoration, and City Hall.

Gene talked about the Seventh Street Lofts project as well, noting that it is a unique mix of a 1950s building, a 1929 brick building (the John Deere warehouse), and a new infill building in the middle. It turns out that when he purchased the northernmost building (1950s) he tried but failed to purchase the small parking lot right on 104 Avenue as well, which I have embedded above. Tonight he told the audience that he has since purchased that lot, and has plans to build an office tower there. He showed a rendering of a beautiful glass building!

107 Street Annex
107 Street Annex, courtesy of Dub Architects

Next up was Mathew Soules, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and the director of Matthew Soules Architecture in Vancouver. As much as I loved listening to Matthew’s very cerebral talk about Vancouver, it was his section of the evening that caused us to go completely off schedule. He had some really interesting things to say about Vancouverism, and I thought he did a great job of breaking it down and explaining it. The fact that the model can be broken down into building blocks is fascinating. One of the more interesting things he said about coming back to Edmonton was that it was refreshing compared to Vancouver. That is, the environment there is so “total” – completely planned, manicured, etc. – that it tends to lack the grittiness and messy vitality that Edmonton has.

Designing DowntownDesigning Downtown

Our third speaker was Shafraaz Kaba, an architect and planner at Manasc Issac Architects Ltd. right here in Edmonton. He spent some time talking about the firm’s interest in reskinning or “reimagining” existing buildings, a discussion which inevitably led to some more negativity directed toward the Associated Engineering building! He also talked about the Capital Modern Tour that Sharon and I went on back in 2008 (Shafraaz was our tour guide on that excursion) and made mention of the importance of preserving buildings such as the CN Tower. Shafraaz also had some of the most memorable statements of the evening, saying for example that “Edmonton has all kinds of plans, we’re good at making plans – what we’re not good at is implementation.” He also posed the very thought-provoking question, “why in the world do we have air conditioning in Edmonton?” Surely there must be a better way to heat and cool our buildings by making better use of our natural climate!

Our fourth and final speaker was Trevor Boddy, a graduate of the University of Alberta who is now a Vancouver-based architecture critic/curator urbanist. He has written books and articles, and is currently working on the TownShift: Suburb Into City ideas competition. He touched on Vancouverism as well, but showed it from a different perspective than Matthew. He also made some memorable statements, most notably: “Edmonton only gets one more chance to get downtown right.” I really liked some of the examples he showed (such as powering a water feature using the heat generated from a server farm located underneath) but I also thought he made some of the best points. He said you can’t fix downtown without also addressing some of the issues in the suburbs, that the arena project is a 1970s way of solving the problem, and that one of the most painful things Edmonton needs to overcome is the way our metropolitan governance model works (I really agree with the last point).

Designing DowntownDesigning Downtown

By the time we got through all of that, there wasn’t much time for questions, and to be honest my mind had started to drift toward the arena issue at City Council! One of the obvious questions that was asked was how the lack of an architecture school has harmed Edmonton, to which Trevor had a great response. He said that you get the school after you have the architecture, not the other way around, and pointed to organizations such as M.A.D.E. and Edmonton on the Edge as the foundation for what could eventually become an architecture school.

The key takeaway seemed to be that getting the discussion happening, with events such as tonight’s panel or the upcoming PKN X, is the key toward cracking the downtown nut. Thanks to all of the organizers for making the event happen! You can see a few more photos here.

UPDATE (4/18/2011): I added the 107 Street Annex rendering, courtesy of Dub Architects. It is labeled “Lot 162, Block 6, Plan B2”.

Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: A Heritage of Local Food

The final session at the Edmonton Heritage Council’s symposium was on the heritage of local food. I thought it was a great idea to include a topic like food, something we don’t always associate with heritage, though obviously it makes sense to do so. The session was moderated by Liane Faulder, and panelists included Kathryn Chase Merrett, Jessie Radies, and Patricia Myers.

How might the history of local food production and marketing in Edmonton relate to people’s contemporary interest in local food? This session will discuss how this history connects to current concerns and developments on sustainable food systems.

Here are my notes:

  • In addition to moderating, Liane was also a panelist. She started by sharing some recent local food stories. She talked about three local producers: Donna & Bohdan Borody (The Jam Lady), May Ellen & Andreas Grueneberg (Greens, Eggs & Ham), and Gordon Visser (Norbest Farms). She also mentioned the Culina family of restaurants.
  • Liane noted the recent desire that many people have to reconnect with their food producers. She also talked about the importance and popularity of farmers’ markets, saying “the farmers market is the new church”.
  • Kathryn, who has literally written the book on the history of the Edmonton City Market, talked a lot about her view that food is a big part of what makes a city livable.
  • It might be hard to visualize but from 1900 until 1965, market square was where the current Stanley Milner library sits.
  • She said the market has not always been seen as a positive thing in Edmonton, at least not by those in power. Old city councils viewed it negatively, and tried a number of times to displace it. Nothing has ever really worked though, because citizens and food producers have always loved the market.
  • Kathryn also touched on foods which used to be plentiful in Edmonton, such as strawberries. She read a passage from an 1894 Edmonton Bulletin article that described the “crimson trail” left behind as you walked, because there were so many strawberries.
  • To Kathryn, a livable city is one that can feed all of its people, but which also takes the time to enjoy and to share.
  • Jessie recounted her experiences of growing up on the farm, describing the various skills she learned, such as canning. It was a great story.
  • She also talked about her recent work with Original Fare and Live Local. She said that both the local and global food systems are necessary, and must be strong.
  • Patricia collects antique cookbooks and shared some of the reasons behind her hobby.
  • She said she doesn’t care so much about having particular editions, but she loves acquiring different books to see what she can learn from them.
  • Patricia said she views the cookbook as a repository of women’s history. Typically cookbooks are dismissed as historical works, and Patricia is trying to change that.
  • She said you can learn about the technology and cultural norms through the cookbooks. For example, she said books that contain lots of sandwich filling recipes were likely from a time when picnics, fundraisers, and other activities were quite common.

I was really intrigued by Patricia’s idea that you can trace technology through the cookbooks. It made me wonder what else is out there that we don’t typically think of as being important heritage pieces.

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.

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.

Social Media and the City

We’ve all heard the stat: more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities and towns. Wellington E. Webb, former mayor of Denver, is credited as saying “The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” Urban areas are extremely important, for the allocation of resources (such as education and health care) and the creation of social and economic opportunity, among other things. As the UNFPA says: “The challenge for the next few decades is learning how to exploit the possibilities urbanization offers. The future of humanity depends on it.”

I believe that technology is vital for this challenge. It was technology that made the city possible, after all, by enabling and encouraging increased population densities. Urban settlements expose incredible network efficiencies because of this density, whether for trade, communication, or service delivery. It is these network efficiencies that, as strategy consultant and fellow Canadian Jeb Brugmann said, “make cities the world’s strategic centres of social innovation.”

Technology will be used in an endless number of ways to exploit the possibilities and to address the challenges of urbanization, but I think creating a sense of place will be key. Resilient cities, those that are sustainable, eco-efficient, and place-based, are one of the four possible outcomes for cities in a world of significant challenges like climate change, according to Dr. Peter Newman (PDF). Telling the story of a place is necessary for a city to become resilient, because creating a stronger sense of place increases the viability of the local economy and facilitates innovation. Social media is driving transparency in cities and is enabling citizens to tell the story of their place like never before.

One definition for social media comes from JD Lasica and Chris Heuer, and it goes like this: “Any online technology or practice that lets us share (content, opinions, insights, experiences, media) and have a conversation about the ideas we care about.” Put another way, you could say that social media tools and technologies are strengthening democracy.

Social media is becoming the best amplifier of a city that we’ve ever seen. True, social media makes it easy to spread the word beyond a single city and there’s definitely value in that, but it’s at the local level where social media truly shines, by taking the network efficiencies created by cities to the next level. Social media is helping to facilitate a new relationship between government and citizens, is enabling creatives inside cities to better connect with one another, and is empowering citizens like never before. In short, it improves a city’s social capital.

Natural capital is made up of the natural environment, such as the river valley here in Edmonton. On top of that we build infrastructure capital – roads, houses, buildings, lights, etc. Human capital and organizational capital refer to the individuals and organizations that use the natural and infrastructure capital to start and grow families, to build companies, and to otherwise create economic value. Social capital represents trust, social engagement, civic participation, reciprocity, and networks.

Social capital is critical for enabling innovation, making it possible to tackle tough problems. Within a city, social capital is vitally important because as Cameron Sinclair pointed out in his TED Wish, “all problems are local and all solutions are local.” Or as you’ve probably heard in the past, “think global, act local.” I think that applies quite broadly; for instance, to climate change. It’s a global problem, but it’s one that we need to approach locally. If we don’t succeed at reducing our impact on the environment at the local level, there’s no hope for solving the problem globally.

For these reasons, I’m extremely passionate about social media and the city. I’ve written a lot in the past about the impact social media is having on Edmonton and other cities, and I’ll continue to do so. Cities are increasingly important, and social media is making them stronger. I think that’s very exciting!

Related links worth clicking:

Thanks to Ted Gartside for the Creative Commons-licensed globe photo of New York.

Open Data in Edmonton? Follow Vancouver’s lead

Last week Vancouver launched an open data portal, providing one-stop-shopping for open data provided by the city. David Eaves called the launch “a major milestone for Vancouver” and explained:

The Data Portal represents an opportunity for citizens, especially citizen coders, to help create a City that Thinks Like the Web: a city that enables citizens to create and access collective knowledge and information to create new services, suggest new ideas, and identify critical bugs in the infrastructure and services, among other a million other possibilities.

He was also quick to point out that getting access to the data is just the beginning. Citizens have to use it, or risk losing it. The next day he launched VanTrash, an application to make garbage collection sexier. Use it or lose it indeed!

I think it’s interesting that he started with garbage collection, because I too identified that as an area that could use some innovation. A couple months ago, I spent about an hour on the phone with a manger in the Waste Management department at the City of Edmonton, trying to get access to the data behind the garbage collection schedules. Currently you can enter your address here to download your collection schedule in PDF. But if you want to find the schedule for a different part of the city, you’re out of luck. And even if you manually tried enough addresses to find all the zones and collection schedules, they’d be in PDF, which means you can’t easily add them to a calendar.

By the end of the call, I think he finally understood what I was after, and he said he’d have to get back to me. He never did, unfortunately. I can only hope that my request had an impact and that it will eventually help to open the data floodgates in Edmonton.

Open Data doesn’t have to be difficult!

Take a look at the data available at Vancouver’s data portal. Most of the data there is simple and exists elsewhere, in a less “creative friendly” format. A good example is the list of libraries. You can download the data in CSV, XLS, or KML formats, but it really just comes from the Vancouver Public Library website. The CSV contains the library name, it’s latitude, longitude, and address. Simple stuff, but potentially really useful if combined with other data sets.

Here’s an example in Edmonton. Let’s say I want to know how the crime rate of neighbourhoods with libraries compares to those without. What data would I need for that?

  • A list of libraries, with their locations (see below)
  • A list of neighbourhoods, with their boundaries
  • Crime statistics by neighbourhood
  • Census data for neighbourhoods to find comparable ones without libraries

Could you find this today? Yes, but it’s definitely not easy! The EPL website lists the libraries with addresses, so you’d need to figure out the lat/long on your own. The City of Edmonton website lists the neighbourhoods, but you’d need to figure out the boundaries on your own. The EPS website provides reported crimes by neighbourhood. And finally, the City of Edmonton provides census data for neighbourhoods in PDF.

If I could get all the above data in CSV format, it would have taken a matter of minutes to find the answer (I should point out that not all of that data exists at Vancouver’s portal either). Instead, I had to do a lot more work. The very rough result (because I compared with a random sample of similarly populated neighbourhoods) is that neighbourhoods with libraries were 1.5 times more likely to have crime than neighbourhoods without libraries in 2008. Though if you don’t count Downtown, then the crime rate is about the same for neighbourhoods with libraries and those without.

Maybe you’re thinking “what a useless example” and that’s fine – it is one of just hundreds or thousands of possible uses for that data! Just imagine what would be created if software developers and other creatives in Edmonton had access to the data.

Libraries Data

All this talk of open data, why not give you some? I’ve created a CSV of the Edmonton Public Library locations in the exact same format as the Vancouver Public Library data (minus eplGO in the Cameron Library). Enjoy!

Download the Edmonton Public Library location data in CSV

Onward in Edmonton

I’ve heard rumblings that the City of Edmonton will be doing some stuff in the open data space in the next couple of months, but I’m not holding my breath. There haven’t been enough conversations taking place. I’m hopeful that the right people are envious of the progress that has been made in Vancouver, however. I sure am!

Jasper Avenue New Visions

Tonight I stopped by the first of two open houses for the Jasper Avenue New Visions initiative. Part of the Capital City Downtown Plan, the project aims to develop a vision to re-establish Jasper Avenue as the main street of Edmonton. I have worked on Jasper Avenue for over five years now, and while there have been some changes in that time, they haven’t been significant (though lately this has been changing). I was curious to see what the future might hold.

The consultants on the project are Toronto-based Urban Strategies, led by former Edmontonian Mark Reid. Other firms involved include Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg of Vancouver, and Edmonton-based ISL Engineering & Land Services, Armin A. Preiksaitis & Associates and HIP Architects.

Jasper Avenue New VisionsJasper Avenue New Visions

The open house took place in the main floor atrium of Enterprise Square. Along one wall was satellite imagery of the areas being considered by the project, and next to that were a bunch of flip chart sheets with lists of challenges and aspirations created by the team throughout the day. There was a projector and a bunch of seats setup, and not far from that was the 3D styrofoam model of Edmonton’s downtown. The remaining walls and separators were plastered with drawings, maps, and other designs.

Mark gave a brief presentation to the dozen or so in attendance, and then led everyone around the room to talk about some of the posters and drawings, finishing with the 3D model. Here are some observations from the event (and about the plan):

  • The project focuses on Jasper Avenue from 97th street to 111th street.
  • The heart of the project is the Central LRT Station, which is being planned for rehabilitation in 2013.
  • There’s a combination of infill development, large development areas, and open spaces in the concepts.
  • Edmonton’s estimated population for 2041 is 1,158,872. The goal is to attract 6% of the growth or 24,000 people to downtown. That translates into roughly 75 twenty storey apartment buildings.
  • Jasper Avenue is wide enough to support seven lanes of traffic. In comparison to other downtowns, the amount of pedestrian space on Jasper Avenue is incredibly small.
  • In fact, almost every feature of Jasper Avenue is geared toward vehicle traffic. Any redevelopment needs to shift the focus to pedestrian traffic. Think back to the Stanley Cup run of 2006, and this becomes crystal clear. I took video of both Whyte Avenue and Jasper Avenue – Whyte was full of people, Jasper was full of vehicles.
  • Height restrictions due to the City Centre Airport are a challenge, but not as big as you might think. The strictest height limitations are west of 109th street. However, Mark did admit that the airport is one of the main reasons our skyline lacks a recognizable, tall structure.

The timeline for the project is as follows:

  • Phase 1: Concepts – November 2008 to May 2009
  • Phase 2: Finalizing the Urban Design Concept – May 2009 to June 2009
  • Phase 3: Preparing the Public Realm Concept – June 2009 to September 2009
  • Phase 4: Preparing the Preliminary Design Drawings – September 2009 to November 2009

One of the more interesting displays was a timeline describing Jasper Avenue from the early 1900s up to now. It started as the commercial district for the city, centered between 96th and 99th streets. By the 1930s, Jasper Avenue had become a prestigious business address. Through the 1960s, higher scale development started, a number of historic buildings were demolished, and vehicles were more prominent. Suburbanization through the 1980s led to the decline of Jasper Avenue, and the launch of initiatives to help revitalize the street. Today, we’re starting to see renewal though continued outward growth poses major competition.

What will it be like in 2020?

You can see the rest of my photos from tonight here. The second open house is tomorrow from 2pm to 4pm in the main floor atrium of Enterprise Square (10230 Jasper Avenue).