My comments at the Food & Agriculture Strategy public hearing

Good morning Mr. Mayor, members of Council,

My name is Mack Male and I’m here today on behalf of myself, in the capacity of a citizen who loves both food and Edmonton.

There are very few things in this world that impact us on a daily basis as much as food. I firmly believe that food should be an important part of our city’s long-term planning, so I am very pleased that we’re discussing a Food & Agriculture Strategy in Edmonton. Unfortunately, I cannot endorse the document as it currently exists.

After reading the strategy, it was abundantly clear to me that it was not created with a goal of transforming Edmonton into a leading food city. Should we aim that high? Absolutely yes. We have an extremely vibrant and growing food community in Edmonton, and a long history of urban food production. Unfortunately the strategy is not only for the most part vague and non-committal, its almost unfathomably uninformed, or at best, incomplete. There is no mention of Operation Fruit Rescue, the River City Chickens Collective, Eat Alberta, or perhaps most shocking of all, Edmonton’s Food Bank, the first in Canada and a key supporter of food security in Edmonton for more than three decades. These and other omissions reflect the highly compressed timeframe in which the strategy was created, and the failure to include key stakeholders from the food community.

This should be a strategy about food, not about land in the northeast, but citizens have no other opportunity to comment on that development. I’ve heard the argument that at this point, the land is too valuable to be used for agricultural purposes. If that is true, it’s a direct result of the actions of City Council. You approved the Edmonton Energy & Technology Park directly across from the land in question in June 2010, thereby setting the stage for a large centre of employment that will require nearby residential areas. At no point in recent memory has there been any indication from Council that development in the northeast was anything but a foregone conclusion. I regularly and publicly praise your efforts and leadership on our city’s vision and strategic plan, but I think this issue illustrates that you need to do more when it comes to the issue of growing strategically and sustainably.

On Tuesday, the Community Services Committee recommended that Council approve the WinterCity Strategy and that Administration report back with a status update. Today it has been suggested that you endorse the Food & Agriculture Strategy in principle and that Administration first come back with options and costs before starting any implementation. I think that recommendation is another indication that this strategy has been rushed and is not ready to be endorsed by Council.

If we’re going to endorse a Food & Agriculture Strategy, let’s make sure it is one that we’re proud of and one that provides a solid foundation on which we can build.

I will leave you with three requests:

  1. First, reject the draft Food & Agriculture Strategy
  2. Second, schedule a public hearing on the Growth Coordination Strategy so that citizens can provide input into that very important document and the discussion about land use can move to a more appropriate place
  3. Third, establish the Edmonton Food Council as an official Council Committee and task it with the creation of a new Food & Agriculture Strategy that reflects the vibrancy and creativity found in Edmonton’s food community

Thank you very much.

The non-statutory public hearing continues this afternoon. For background, read these links. To follow along, use the #yegfoodag hashtag on Twitter.

We all have skin in the game

I’m registered to speak during tomorrow’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with Executive Committee (though I expect we’ll see more than just the five standing members in attendance). I’m yet to hear anyone on Council say they are looking forward to it, however.

“If you own the land and you want to grow berries, go ahead. If you don’t own the land, I would say the same thing, get the heck out of the way. You have no interest. We’re going to have everybody with no interest, financially or otherwise, coming forward supporting something that they really have no skin in the game about, and those that do, are going to suffer the consequences.”

That was what Councillor Caterina said at the September 5 meeting of Executive Committee, voicing his opposition to the public hearing (ultimately he did vote for it along with the rest of the Committee).

No interest? No skin in the game? Councillor Caterina could not be more wrong, and let me tell you why.

First of all, we’re talking about the Food & Agriculture Strategy, not the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.” Food is something that touches all of us, and if we’re going to take a position as a City on the importance of food to our community, I want a say in that.

I think we screwed up by attaching the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the specific land issue in the northeast. I want a WinterCity Strategy-like approach to food. There is so much that was left unexplored, and so many people that were not involved that have important, valuable contributions to make, and that’s largely because the discussion was dominated by the northeast.

Secondly, Council is largely responsible for turning this into the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.”

I have not seen any concrete evidence to suggest that we can sustain our outward growth, nor have I seen any concrete evidence to suggest we can’t. There’s lots of anecdotal information, and certainly there are dozens of other places we can point to that clearly demonstrate the unsustainability of sprawl, but we need facts and figures for Edmonton. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into new areas, what that costs the city. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into existing areas, what that costs the city. Then we can start to determine whether or not we can afford to move ahead with more sprawl. My educated guess is that we can’t.

We should have had those numbers from the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan (IIMP) and the Growth Coordination Strategy (GCS), but that’s not going to happen. In September, Administration asked for the IIMP to be treated as a “framework” rather than a plan, then provided a meaningless two-page document to serve as the framework. Council let them get away with it.

The GCS is slated to go to Council on November 19. A draft was released in May, but it has been rewritten and was distributed to select stakeholders at the end of the day on Tuesday. The deadline for comments? Tomorrow. And beyond that select group, there has been zero public consultation, and there’s no indication that a public hearing will be held for the GCS. The purpose of the GCS is to “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” so can you guess what was removed from the latest draft? Anything related to mature areas, transit oriented development, and infill. So much for the “coordination” part of our growth strategy.

As our elected representatives, Council should be the ones asking why. Why do we still lack the information we need to make smart decisions? Why have we rushed these documents? Why haven’t we included the public in their creation?

In short, Council has not provided citizens with confidence that we can grow sustainably, nor have they provided opportunities for citizens to have a say on the plans that will affect where and how we grow. The only opportunity we have is the Food & Agriculture Strategy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I pay taxes like everyone else. It costs money to provide services to an ever-expanding list of neighbourhoods, and that means there is upward pressure on my taxes. Police stations, libraries, and parks do not build themselves. There are no magic fairies that remove snow in the winter or fix potholes in the summer. Taxes pay for those civic services.

I have an interest in ensuring Edmonton’s food security because food is central to my everyday life. I have an interest in what happens in the northeast because I have an interest in living in a sustainable city. I have “skin in the game” because I pay taxes like everyone else. And above all, I as a citizen of Edmonton, have a right to be involved in decisions that affect me.

Why hasn’t there been any public involvement for the Growth Coordination Strategy?

One of the most important sections in The Way We Grow, Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan, is the one that deals with the Growth Coordination Strategy. It is section 3.1 that earned the document the nickname “The Way We Sprawl” for specifying that just 25% of housing growth should happen in mature neighbourhoods. That shortcoming aside, the section is important because it aims to make land development in Edmonton more sustainable, predictable, and strategic. Section explains the purpose of the Growth Coordination Strategy:

Develop a growth coordination strategy to address timing and phasing of new residential growth in developing and planned neighbourhoods. The strategy will relate to the City’s strategic goals, current and future public infrastructure investment, long term financial sustainability and the amount, location and pace of population and employment growth; and will establish:

  • Expectations for completing developing neighbourhoods
  • Expectations for initiating new Neighbourhood Structure Plans

Another important point is found in section

The Growth Coordination Strategy will address demand for land, housing units, and housing choice at the regional, city-wide and sector level.

You might find the topic kind of dry but make no mistake, ensuring Edmonton can “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” is of great importance to our city.

Edmonton from Above
Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Despite the importance of the Growth Coordination Strategy, there are just two full-time employees at the City working on it and thus far there has been no official opportunity for public involvement. The first public draft (version 6) of the strategy (PDF) was released in May, but I understand based on conversations with City employees that that is not the same document slated to go to Council in November. A new draft is currently under development that reduces the scope of the strategy, primarily by stripping it of any objective related to infill development. A similar document focused on mature and developing areas would be left to an as yet unplanned and unfunded follow-up project. That means that Council will be considering a document that no citizen has had the opportunity to provide input on, not to mention one that does not seem to meet the requirements specified in the MDP.

No one I talked to knows (or refused to say) why the timeline for this strategy was set so aggressively. There is no doubt in my mind that powerful, well-funded behind-the-scenes lobbying has taken place. After all, without the Growth Coordination Strategy, Food & Ag Strategy, and Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan, new development in Edmonton’s urban growth areas cannot take place. Furthermore, we know from the January 26, 2011 Executive Committee meeting (see this report) that the “discussions began between Administration and Industry on the content of the Growth Coordination Strategy” as early as July 2010.  I think that pressure from “Industry” partially explains why there hasn’t been any public involvement, but it doesn’t explain why the City has put so little funding into the development of this important document.

The Calgary Approach

Calgary has a number of similar documents and initiatives underway. One is called Geodemographics but the big one appears to be the Corporate Framework for Growth and Change:

The Corporate Framework for Growth and Change will guide the future sequencing of growth in Calgary to ensure investments in infrastructure and services are within the financial capacity of The City. The Corporate Framework for Growth and Change is an integral part of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and growth management.

Note both the timeline and frequency of public involvement for the development of that document. It began in February 2011 and the first public involvement opportunities – a series of stakeholder meetings, plus a blog post open to public input – took place in September and October of that year. A series of stakeholder meetings and forums have been hosted throughout 2012. To be fair, Calgary took a different approach, with Council approving a set of principles early on and the rest of the project unfolding in four phases, but the fact remains that a significant amount of public involvement has taken and continues to take place.

Another thing to note about Calgary’s project – there are at least ten individuals working on it:

A team from across City Departments called the Corporate Growth Management Project (CGMP) team, has been assembled to create the Framework for Growth and Change.

Edmonton and Calgary both pay lip service to managing growth, but only Calgary seems willing to back that up with the necessary funding.

Designing New Neighbourhoods

In contrast to the Growth Coordination Strategy, the Designing New Neighbourhoods project has unfolded much more predictably with multiple opportunities for public input. The outcome of that project is a set of guidelines for Edmonton’s new neighbourhoods. Section 4.1 of the MDP directed the creation of these guidelines, but unlike the Growth Coordination Strategy, technically nothing depends on their existence.

The draft guidelines are slated to go to Council “in early 2013” and already a number of public involvement opportunities have taken place. In May, there was a series of blog posts and an IdeaScale site was created to harvest ideas from citizens. The project team also encouraged the use of Twitter to suggest ideas, a positive step for public involvement at the City!

Importantly, the project also has a Design Team that is “made up of a diverse group of about 30 people from the local development, urban design, and home building industries, as well as members of the City’s Administration, the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, Edmonton’s Schools Boards, and the University of Alberta’s City-Region Studies Centre.” That same post talks about the inclusion of external consultants too.

The City of Edmonton’s page on Public Involvement states:

The City of Edmonton is committed to involving the people affected by the decisions it makes. We seek diverse opinions, experiences and information so that a wide spectrum of information is available to decision makers.

Designing New Neighbourhoods seems to meet that commitment, but unfortunately, the Growth Coordination Strategy does not.

The Ongoing Abatement of Section 3.1 of the MDP

I’m very concerned that the potential impact of Section 3.1 of the MDP has been continually eroded over the last two years. In February 2011, City Council passed a motion (item 6.16) that redefined eight Neighbourhood Structure Plans from “new” to “existing” which means they are no longer subject to the completion of the Growth Coordination Strategy and other documents. Futhermore, it authorized the preparation of six other Neighbourhood Structure Plans.

Only Councillors Henderson, Iveson, and Sloan opposed the motion. In his remarks on the motion, Councillor Henderson said “I really do think this is an undermining of what we passed in the MDP” and that “our tools to deal with how we grow and when we grow in this city – we’re giving them away.”

Why did this happen? It’s not as though Edmonton is running out of places for people to live. Prior to the motion in February 2011, there were 41 Neighbourhood Structure Plans approved (between 1984 and 2010) and at various stages of development. Together, those plans have a planned capacity of 116,000 resident units yet just 19,000 units have been developed. That means 84% of the development in those areas is still outstanding. There should not be such a rush to develop new land.

Again, I think politics are at play. Our current City Council has been good to the development industry, but with a new Mayor and Council slated to take office next fall, there’s no guarantee that will continue. Better to get as much approved now as possible, if you’re in the land development industry. Unfortunately for citizens this means our city continues to sprawl, more or less free of any restrictions. Sooner or later the cost of that sprawl is going to catch up with us.

Rethinking Public Involvement #1

How can we get more Edmontonians involved in municipal issues? How can the City improve the way it informs and involves the public? This is the first in a series of posts on that topic.

I have been thinking extensively about Public Involvement lately (the City’s official term for public consultation, community engagement, stakeholder participation, etc). I try to keep on top of the various public involvement opportunities that are running at any given time, and have completed my share of surveys, feedback forms, and have attended many open houses and other events. It’s important to me to remain informed, but also to be able to provide input on issues that I care about. I feel a responsibility as a citizen to take some initiative and to get involved.

In the past I have been critical of the City’s public involvement efforts, and I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. The Public Involvement Handbook (PDF) could do with an update – it was last modified in 2008. Improved consistency with vocabulary would make a huge difference – right now “open house”, “public consultation”, “information session”, and other terms are used interchangeably. A new or improved online consultation manager would also be positive – it lacks many of the features that would make public involvement easier to follow, such as iCal or email subscriptions/notifications. Those are all minor suggestions though, and I think the City needs to make more fundamental changes to really move the needle on this issue.

“What’s the purpose?”

I don’t think the answer to this should be “to inform citizens” nor do I think it should be “to gather input”. I think the purpose should really be tied to the project outcome. Are we building a bridge? Then the purpose of the public involvement is to build the best bridge possible. Informing citizens about the project and gathering input are two of the ways we’re going to achieve that.

I think this approach to defining the purpose scales up to the City level too. Why does the City conduct public involvement? To make Edmonton the best place to live, work, learn, and play.

“What’s the context?”

In my experience, this is missing from nearly every single public involvement opportunity the City conducts. Take a public involvement event focused on the Downtown LRT Connector, for instance. It will have all sorts of information about the Connector itself, and maybe even a little about the larger LRT Network Plan, but very little if anything about other projects related to or happening around the Connector. Nor will it include any history about projects that have happened in the past. There’s no context! I know that focusing the public involvement activity is important, but citizens need to be able to understand where the project fits into the grand scheme of things and why it matters.

“What have I missed?”

For most projects, public involvement activities take place over months or years. That means that citizens may be coming into them at different points and with varying levels of knowledge/experience. Despite this, I find that most public involvement activities make it difficult for citizens to get involved later in the process because there are a lot of assumptions made about what has already happened. Some work has been done recently to address this – I like the timeline graphic the Transportation folks use:

Project Lifecycle

This makes it easy to think about the status, where are we in the timeline, but it still doesn’t help a citizen who wants to get involved at the Design phase understand what has already happened and how they can best dive in. In addition to clearly identifying “where we are” there needs to be a way for citizens to quickly find out “what you missed”.

While there are many improvements that could be made to the way the City conducts its public involvement activities, I think addressing these three fundamental questions would make a big difference. I don’t think we should throw out what already exists either, because there’s a lot of solid foundational work there, but I do think we can and should work to make it better.

Upcoming public involvement opportunities!

It really feels like this is an unprecedented time for the City of Edmonton – there are so many projects and plans underway that it’s hard to keep track of them all! But that’s a post for another day. For now, here are some upcoming public involvement opportunities you should know about.

Help Create a Vision for Queen Elizabeth Park

“Queen Elizabeth Park has been a well-loved destination park for Edmontonians for almost a century. Given all the planned improvements in the area, including the new Walterdale Bridge and the repurposing of the Rossdale Power Plant, in addition to the demolition of the old Queen Elizabeth Pool, the time is ripe to re-imagine what this park means to us and to explore options for its future.”

There’s an idea gathering workshop scheduled for April 18 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm at the Old Timers’ Cabin. See full details at ShareEdmonton.

Complete Streets: Give us your feedback!

“Complete Streets is a concept. It’s a City of Edmonton initiative that acknowledges a simple truth: when it comes to roads, one size doesn’t fit all.”

This is an online opportunity. Share your thoughts here by April 16.

Survey on Sanitary Utility Rate structure

“The City of Edmonton’s Drainage Services is considering changes to the Sanitary Utility Rate structure. Edmontonians are encouraged to share their thoughts and opinions by completing an on-line survey by April 9, 2012.”

This is an online opportunity. Share your thoughts here by April 9.

Survey on the Urban Traffic Noise Policy (UTNP)

“Since the UTNP was last updated in 2004, it’s time to review the policy and assess the public’s perceptions and opinions on the impact of traffic noise. Public feedback will be included in a revised policy, which will go before City Council in June 2012.”

This is an online opportunity. The survey will be available here soon and will be open until April 20.

Northwest LRT Open House

“The public is invited to participate in the kickoff open house for the Northwest LRT project. City staff will outline the project scope and process for evaluation of the Northwest LRT corridor. Participants will be asked to identify issues and opportunities for the project going forward.”

There’s an open house coming up on April 10 from 4pm to 8pm at the Calder Community Hall. See full details at ShareEdmonton.

Southeast to West LRT Community Conversations

“Public Involvement for this phase will include all 27 km of the line. As this is a large area and stakeholders will have specific interests and concerns, the study area has been broken into six consultation areas. Though information sharing and consultation on the entire 27 km will be a part of every meeting in every area, each meeting will be tailored to the specific area it’s in.”

There are three events still to take place. Strathearn to City Centre West will be discussed on April 11, City Centre West to 149 Street will be discussed on April 24, and 149 Street to Lewis Farms Transit Centre will be discussed on April 26.

The Way We Green Speaker Series 2012

“The Way We Green project is the City’s consultation with Edmontonians to develop a long-term environmental strategy for a sustainable community.”

The next event is scheduled for April 11 during the lunch hour at the Art Gallery of Alberta. See full details at ShareEdmonton. Additional events are scheduled for May 9 and June 5.

The Way We Prosper

“The City of Edmonton is preparing The Way We Prosper, a comprehensive economic development strategy for the city. The strategy is one of the six “Ways” – the 10-year strategic goals identified in the City’s strategic plan The Way Ahead that will help to set direction, guide decisions and align the priorities for transforming Edmonton’s future.”

There’s an economic development workshop scheduled for April 30 from 1pm to 4:30pm at the Shaw Conference Centre. See full details at ShareEdmonton. The City has already been holding focus groups on this plan, and I’m sure additional events will be held in the future.


You might also want to read about the plans for the 2012 construction season. More than $122 million is being invested in projects to enhance Edmonton’s transportation infrastructure. In particular, take note of detours on Jasper Avenue related to the Central Station LRT Rehabilitation.

Oh, and don’t forget that census workers are hitting the streets for the 2012 Municipal Census. Legitimate census workers will have proper identification, they will not ask you for your name or phone number, and they most definitely will not ask to use your computer.

To keep up-to-date on public involvement events, check out the public involvement tag at ShareEdmonton.

The Downtown LRT Connector should run along 102 Avenue

Today City Council is scheduled to vote on the recommendation from the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee to shift the route of the Downtown LRT Connector from 102 Avenue up to 102A/103 Avenue. I’m opposed to this change for a variety of reasons. Here’s what the Journal’s Editorial Board wrote on February 2:

Responsive government is indeed a positive thing, but Edmonton’s city council has done far too much listening at the expense of decisive action on the LRT file. Councillors approved the current east/west downtown leg along 102nd Avenue in 2010 – yes, two years ago – but on Tuesday the smaller transportation committee voted to recommend a route shift and other changes that could increase the project’s cost by $115 million and delay construction by at least a year to entertain more discussion and allow for further planning.

We know that LRT is our top priority, we know that LRT is vital for our city’s future as an enabling technology for our urban centre, and we know it will only get more expensive to construct over time. Further delaying this important infrastructure is not the correct course of action.

I am certainly not a fan of the way the City does public involvement (though there have been some more positive signs lately) but they did do a lot of consultation on this project. It is disappointing to see that if one group screams loud enough, they can render the rest of the consultation process irrelevant. It sets a dangerous precedent for future LRT construction too.

downtown lrt connector

The route that Transportation officials recommended back in 2010 makes the most sense to me. Here are some of the reasons you can find in the report:

  • 102 Avenue is already more developed than 102A Avenue, which means ridership potential is greater along 102 Avenue.
  • Related to that – all of the destinations are along 102 Avenue! The City notes there are 10 activity centres along 102 versus just 3 along 102A. Churchill Square, the Stanley Milner Library, the Citadel, the Winspear Centre, City Centre, the YMCA, Norquest College, the City Market in the summer, the Edmonton Chinatown Multicultural Centre, etc., are all along 102 Avenue.
  • 102 Avenue is closer to Jasper Avenue, and therefore closer for riders to make connections to other routes. 102 Avenue can connect directly to Churchill Station. I also like that 102 Avenue is half-way between 104 Avenue and Jasper Avenue, which will aid connections to MacEwan, the Arena & Entertainment District, etc.
  • Any option other than 102 Avenue will require an amendment to the Transportation System Bylaw and an amendment to the Capital City Downtown Plan. This would further delay any construction on LRT.

There are three key reasons that Council should vote against changing the route from 102 Avenue:

  1. 102 Avenue is more developed, has more people living and working along it, supports connections to existing transit best, and supports the Capital City Downtown Plan best.
  2. The 102A/103 Avenue route would add significant cost and further delays to the construction of this route.
  3. Changing course now sets a dangerous precedent that could negatively impact further LRT construction.

I strongly urge City Council to vote against the recommendation to change the route from 102 Avenue to 102A/103 Avenue.

UPDATE: Well that was a quick meeting! Council voted to keep the route along 102 Avenue as originally proposed. Excellent news!