Peter Newman in Edmonton discussing Resilient Cities

Author Peter Newman, in town this week for ICLEI World Congress 2009, gave a free talk tonight at the Shaw Conference Centre on some of the central ideas of the book he recently co-authored, Resilient Cities: Responding to the Crash, Climate Change, and Peak Oil. Presented by Edmonton on the Edge, the talk was hopeful in tone – a nice way to end ICLEI.

Here’s the handbill description:

A new approach to urban development needs to be forged that can, at the same time, enable cities to respond to the deep challenge of decarbonising cities and can use the transition to accelerate the development of what the UN calls the Global Green New Deal. Some hopeful directions will be outlined based on cities from around the world, including cities from down under.

Peter Newman in Edmonton

Peter is from Perth, Australia and he started by saying that Perth and Edmonton are similar in a number of ways (population, land distribution, etc). He next touched on Peak Oil (which Peter says happened in 2008) and the global recession. Peter positioned the Crash as an opportunity (his approach reminded me a lot of Ray Kurzweil). Peter showed a slide with five major economic downturns from the last 300 years or so, and pointed out the technological advances that were made after each. The rate of advance became faster over time, so that today we have exponential progress (this is essentially Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns).

My favorite part of the talk took the bulk of the remaining time – examples, complete with pictures, of cities around the world that have become Smart and Sustainable (together, the two characteristics of cities of the future, according to Peter). A couple of examples:

  • Phoenix, one of the worst cities in the world in terms of transportation by transit, recently replaced two lanes of traffic running through the centre of the city with light rail transit. Peter said if Phoenix can do it, anyone can!
  • Perth has completed significant rail developments in the last 15 years, with some lines going as far as 80km away from the core. During that time, ridership increased from 7 million passengers/year to 90 million/year. Amazing.

Peter introduced a number of acronyms during his talk:

  • IT: Information Technology
  • ET: Environmental Technology
  • TOD: Transit Oriented Development
  • POD: Pedestrian Oriented Development
  • GOD: Green Oriented Development

Naturally, IT and ET go together and TOD, POD, and GOD go together. You can’t have one without the others!

Peter Newman in Edmonton

Peter made reference to the concept of “place based cities” a few times, but unfortunately didn’t elaborate. The general idea is that you can make the local economy more viable by creating a stronger sense of place. Something about it really resonates with me.

The talk was followed by a reception, featuring music by Melissa Majeau. A number of other organizations helped Edmonton on the Edge make tonight’s talk possible, including the City-Region Studies Centre, University of Alberta Faculty of Extension, Edmonton Design Committee, ISL Engineering and Land Services, The City of Edmonton, and M.A.D.E. in Edmonton. Great event!

Foundations for an Open Edmonton

Today at BarCamp, I led a discussion around building an open Edmonton. Inspired by the great things happening in Vancouver, I wanted to stimulate the discussion here. I started with two fundamentals:

  1. The City of Edmonton must have the desire to be an open city.
  2. The primary audience is the Creative Class of Edmonton, the secondary audience is all citizens.

Next, I shared what I feel are the five basic foundations of an open city:

  1. Free – both financially and philosophically
  2. Permissive Licensing – things like Creative Commons, should be public domain
  3. Open Standards – formats that anyone can read and write
  4. Plentiful Data – make as much data available as possible
  5. Timely Access – eliminate delays and give everyone equal access

After my five slides (a photo for each of the above) we got into a great discussion about the idea. Here are some of the questions that came up:

  • Are citizens ready for so much data?
  • Why would City Council not want to be an open city?
  • What is the current state of progress on the idea in Edmonton?
  • How does privacy & security factor in?
  • What are some great examples of other cities doing this?

All things that we need to explore further. I’m not sure what the next step is, but eventually, I think it would be great to make a presentation on becoming an open city to Council.

In the meantime, Edmonton has already made some data available – a Google Transit data feed – and some other examples include London’s mySociety. Also, be sure to read Vancouver’s Open City Motion.

Edmonton’s State of the City Report 2008-2009

The City of Edmonton recently released it’s State of the City report for April 2008 – March 2009. It includes a summary of “civic programs and services delivered to meet the goals of City Council, representing the priorities of all Edmontonians.” Also included is a message from Mayor Mandel, information on the City Vision, the City’s Strategic Plan, and more.

Here’s a Wordle of the report with the words “Edmonton” and “city” removed:

You can see a larger version here, and a version with those two words included here.

State of the City Report 2008-2009

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).

Newspapers, cities, and the local web

Edmonton SkylineThe concept of “local” has never been more important – that’s something I firmly believe. Though I found the book somewhat wordy, Who’s Your City by Richard Florida presents this idea very effectively:

Globalization is not flattening the world; on the contrary, the world is spiky. Place is becoming more relevant to the global economy and our individual lives.

It’s definitely worth a read. So much of our lives is defined by place – by the people and things around us. I think this is especially true when you live in a city.

Cities are interesting because they encompass a range of place sizes. A specific block, neighborhood, area, quadrant, etc. right up to the entire city and greater metropolitan area. Some people identify most with a neighborhood or area, others with the entire city. Often their affiliation depends on the current situation (perhaps a neighborhood when it comes to family issues and the city when it comes to business). Consequently, the information individuals are interested in varies.

Newspapers try to cater to this range of interest. Here in Edmonton, the Examiner publishes stories for different regions of the city. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Edmonton Journal attempts to cover the entire city. Then there are all of the other publications in between. And some news simply isn’t covered by any publication.

There are many problems with this. A newspaper can’t get too specific, because advertisers won’t want to buy ad space if only a few dozen people are going to see their ad. As newspapers move toward a larger audience to attract better ad revenue, they inevitably end up with more general content. And of course, newspapers are not real-time.

Put simply, newspapers are not very good at representing places. For this reason, I find it incredibly bizarre that a number of recent articles focus on place as the reason why newspapers will not go away. For example, here’s an excerpt from a National Post story on Monday:

Newspapers retain their market relevance partly because flipping through a newspaper is one of the quickest and easiest ways to answer the question, "What’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live?"

The printed version of the newspaper is connected with a physical geography at a specific point in time that few, if any, online resources can be.

How can any of that be true? We know that to truly find out “what’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live”, we’d have to flip through a number of newspapers. And even then we’d be missing stuff. The second point is absolutely wrong also – there are many online resources that are intimately connected with a place and time. For instance, EveryBlock. Such online services are probably more connected with a specific place and time because they go down to the street level and often deal with real-time information.

Here’s another excerpt, from a Todd Babiak column in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal:

For its residents, a city must be more than a house, a car and a job. It’s a narrative, a living history, myths and conflicts, and for as long as Canada has been a country the newspaper is where the city has been inscribed.

If it is true that the city newspaper is dying, the city is dying with it.

Just because something has always been a certain way, doesn’t mean it’ll remain that way forever. Innovation is largely about challenging the status quo. Thus, the fact that newspapers are failing to innovate shouldn’t be a surprise. To suggest that cities are dying as a result is simply ridiculous, however.

I’m not falling for the myth that cities depend on newspapers. It’s true that a newspaper plays an important role in documenting the evolution of a city, but it’s not the only institution that does so. A newspaper is also not the only way to get information to citizens. Increasingly, citizens can get information directly.

I think we’re at the beginning of the “local” era on the web. As more and more people carry mobile devices that are location-aware, this trend will accelerate. Increasingly, online services will help answer the question, “what’s new and might be of interest to people who live where I live?” Eventually they’ll also provide context and background in a way that simply isn’t possible in the offline world.

Newspapers can play an important role in this local era. However, just as cities do not need newspapers to survive and flourish, neither will the local web.

Edmonton's New Downtown Plan

edmonton's new downtown plan The City of Edmonton unveiled a draft of its New Downtown Plan this week, an overhaul of the Downtown Redevelopment Plan that was first created back in 1997. There were information displays setup in various places downtown, including at the City Centre Farmer’s Market today.

I quite like the marketing for the plan. Dark, bold colors, and a clear message: “My Downtown Is…Sustainable. Dynamic. Well-designed. Liveable. Accessible. Moving Forward.”

The plan outlines seven strategic priorities:

  1. Spaces for People. More open spaces, including parks and plazas.
  2. Expand the Knowledge Base. Support the continued expansion of education institutions.
  3. Increase Cultural and Entertainment Options. New facilities and expansion of existing opportunities.
  4. Enrich Jasper Avenue. Restore the prominence of this street as Edmonton’s main street.
  5. Connect to the River Valley and Adjacent Neighbourhoods. Build walkable links and improve access to the Legislature and North Saskatchewan River.
  6. Pedestrians First. Connect downtown with richly landscaped, sustainable streets.
  7. More Amenities. Build a downtown that is rich in things for people to do and places to go.

According to the Edmonton Journal, 600 people have participated in the creation of the plan by filling out surveys, questionnaires, and attending public meetings over the last few years.

“Edmontonians have told us they envision a dynamic neighbourhood, with more amenities and cultural activities to attract, residents, businesses and students,” said Shafee Mohamed, senior planner for the Downtown Plan.

“We have tried to capture that vision in this plan.”

I live fairly close to downtown, on 122nd street and 104th avenue. For many years I had an office right in the core at 101st street and Jasper Avenue, and I continue to spend a lot of time downtown. Even though I think it has come a long way since 1998 when I moved back to Edmonton, I’m happy to see renewed interest in improving the downtown area. We still have a long way to go before we’re on par with cities elsewhere in Canada.

The city is collecting feedback on the plan now, and will make revisions before presenting it to council in November. You can help by filling out the survey, or by calling 780.496.6064 to leave your comments.

If you’d like more information, check out the Downtown Plan website, call 780.496.6225, or write to You can also check out a public Open House on Tuesday, September 9th at the Winspear Centre. There will be brief presentations at 5, 6, and 7pm in addition to information displays.

I took a few photos of the information that was on display at the Farmer’s Market today, which you can see here.

City-provided Wi-Fi project to continue in Edmonton

wireless This morning I attended an Edmonton City Council meeting along with Eric. I had never been to a council meeting before, so the whole process was rather interesting and at times even entertaining. That said, I wonder how they get anything done! Item E1 was titled “City-Wide Wireless Internet and Wi-Fi Service – Pilot Project Internal Evaluation” and was marked on the agenda as “time specific, first item at 9:30 AM”. They finally got around to it at 10:30 AM.

Two members of Next Gen Edmonton joined a representative from the city’s IT branch to provide council with an overview of the report on Wireless Edmonton that was published on May 15, 2008. I haven’t actually seen the report, but it outlines the following information:

  • The first eZones were established at City Hall, Churchill Square, Kinsmen Sports Centre, and Commonwealth Sports and Fitness Centre
  • Usage is increasing and currently averages 250 users per day with an average connection time of 30 minutes
  • Public feedback has been generally positive, and indicates a demand for expansion of the service
  • Marketing efforts have been largely word-of-mouth, supported by media coverage, signage, and brochures
  • Ongoing annual operating costs are estimated at $1000 per eZone
  • Setup costs for each new eZone are estimated at $20,000

The current service is built atop the City of Edmonton’s existing Internet infrastructure, which is how they can keep costs fairly low (Eric and I still think it’s too expensive though). That means that future eZones could quite easily be setup at any City-owned location that has Internet/wireless already for administration purposes. Other potential expansion sites include transit corridors (LRT and/or high priority bus routes) and mobile units that would travel to smaller festivals and events.

The council passed the following recommendation/motion:

  1. That the City continue to provide and promote publicly accessible Wi-Fi (Wireless Edmonton) service at Main Floor City Hall, Sir Winston Churchill Square, Kinsmen Sports Centre and Commonwealth Sports and Fitness Centre.
  2. That the City continue to explore opportunities to expand the Wireless Edmonton service where existing City network infrastructure is available and where there is a public interest, as outlined in the May 15, 2008, Corporate Services Department report 2008COT002.

There wasn’t too much discussion, but a few interesting questions were raised:

  • Councillor Ben Henderson asked about the quality of the service, noting that the current practice of filtering means that common services such as email do not work for many users.
  • Councillor Karen Leibovici questioned the business case, and wondered why the city should provide such a service when Telus, Rogers, and others already provide similar services for a fee.

I think Councillor Henderson’s question is extremely pertinent. What’s the point of offering the service if you’re just going to cripple it? I’m definitely in favor of getting rid of the filtering.

Councillor Leibovici’s question is responsible, but largely misses the point in my opinion. The city isn’t operating the wireless service to turn a profit, but rather to facilitate indirect returns. The productivity gains and everything else that comes along with having free wireless is what really matters.

The IT representative (didn’t catch his name…might have been Stephen Gordon, who is Manager of Operations) made a really great point. He said that offering the wireless service is important for Edmonton’s credibility. There’s an expectation that world class facilities have Wi-Fi available, and Edmonton needs to live up to that expectation if it wants to compete on the world stage.

The presentation today made it clear that the City of Edmonton doesn’t want to compete with commercial providers of wireless Internet access. Instead the city can serve a particular niche, offering service in public locations that commercial providers would probably ignore (such as the library). I think that makes sense.

I think more needs to be done to improve the state of wireless in Edmonton, but it doesn’t have to fall on the city. There’s definitely opportunity for the private sector to get involved. I’m glad the city is doing something though, and I look forward to the expansion of their eZones.