Space for Place: Placemaking in Edmonton

Today I had the opportunity to speak about place and placemaking at City Hall along with Jeff Chase, a Senior Planner at the City of Edmonton working on CITYlab. You may also know him as co-organizer of #yegsnowfight!

The City of Edmonton’s Sustainable Development department has organized a few lunch & learn events for Edmonton’s Business Revitalization Zones (BRZs) and for the April event they wanted to talk about ways to increase vibrancy and create social space. They asked Jeff and I to speak about that.

This was the description for our talk:

“What is placemaking? Placemaking is about animating and using spaces in our cities to connect people. From art installations, to public events and activities, placemaking affords opportunities for people to engage in their cities in new ways.

Join us to learn about placemaking from two passionate Edmontonians who are actively transforming public spaces in our City, and take home lessons you can use to bring life to the shared spaces in your own districts and communities.”

I like the way that Jeff put it: “Space is an empty container. We fill it with memory and time, with feelings and emotions, and with connections. The outcome, on a variety of scales, is place.” Here’s one of the ways we illustrated that:

space vs place

It’s not just about filling a space with people, of course. It’s about connecting people with one another. That’s what turns space into place.

So placemaking is a way to do that, it’s a way to connect people with one another. We considered a spectrum of different placemaking approaches:

placemaking spectrum

Tactical Urbanism refers to the simple, often temporary things that can be done to create a sense of place. Things like temporary art or adding seating to an empty sidewalk. Events & Activities are a little more involved and tend to be larger initiatives but again are often temporary. Things like What the Truck?! or #yegsnowfight are good examples. Urban Planning is the most permanent form of placemaking, encompassing everything from streetscaping to neighbourhood development. And of course there can be combinations of these things.

Place matters for a variety of reasons. We all crave community and that doesn’t come from space alone. Placemaking can be a useful tool to connect us with our neighbours. It can also help us respond to context, such as crime or weather. Would you rather walk down a dark alley or a well-lit, busy one? In the shoulder season, are you willing to brave the patio on your own or would a blanket and a heater help? These are some examples of the impact that placemaking can have. Another impact of course is on the bottom line – we like to linger and spend time in places that fill us with emotion and connection, and the businesses in those places usually benefit as a result.

Here are some of the examples we showed during the presentation.

What the Truck?! is a series of food truck events that is a good example of the “Events & Activities” approach to placemaking. The events only last 4-5 hours, but they happen in different locations and get people out on the street experiencing their city from a different perspective.

place example

The #yegsnowfight that took place at Kinsmen is a great example of an event that brought people together and got them to experience a space in a completely different way than they would normally. And as a winter city, how fitting is a snowball fight?!

place example

OpenPianoYEG is an awesome example of a public art project. Anyone can sit down at one of the colorful pianos and start playing.

place example

This tire seat was setup near the downtown streetcar station. The note attached to it reads: “Take a seat and enjoy the view. Put your headphones on to drown out the real world and enter the one your mind has sculpted, or take your headphones off and let the world surround you. Either one gets you to a pretty rad place.”

place example

The Winter Market that was held in Churchill Square is another good example of an event approach to placemaking. We talked a bit about some of the other things WinterCity has done too.

place example

Have you seen the construction hoarding art along the Mayfair Village development at Jasper and 109 Street? BGCBigs worked with the developer to make this happen. It turns what could be an unfriendly and even scary space into a welcoming one.

place example

I love the Alley of Light example because over the years it has used all of the placemaking approaches. Tactical projects like painting the roadway got people talking and resulted in more people using the alley. Events brought people into the alley and enlivened the pocket park. And most recently, the pocket park was redeveloped with new surfacing, landscaping, and amenities.

place example

And that’s just a small handful! Jeff and I had a lot of fun putting the presentation together, and we enjoyed hearing about the audience’s favorite places too.

We know there are lots of Edmontonians with ideas about place and we hope that by highlighting even just a few examples we can inspire them to become placemakers. There are lots of organizations and resources out there to help too, like Make Something Edmonton, CITYlab, and many more.

Thanks to Jodi and Stuart for organizing the event today and for having Jeff and I as speakers and thanks to everyone who attended!

What’s your favorite place? Have a placemaking idea of your own? I’d love to hear it!

Chasing the Northern Lights in Edmonton

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Inuvik, NT where the northern lights are relatively easy to see. I remember heading to the east channel of the Mackenzie River (a short ten minute walk from where we lived) and venturing out onto the frozen ice to gaze up at the incredible dancing aurora above. Even in Yellowknife where my parents now live, you can see the northern lights relatively frequently. Here’s an incredible shot my Dad took back in September:

Aurora Borealis at km 13 of the Ingraham Trail, Yellowknife, NT, by Martin Male

Take a few minutes and check out some of the other aurora he has captured. The lights just don’t look real!

Here in Edmonton the northern lights aren’t exactly uncommon, but you do need to work a little harder to see them than they do up north. Or at least I thought you did, until I discovered the AuroraWatch service a couple years ago!

Auroral forecast from

The award-winning AuroraWatch service was created and is operated by a team at the University of Alberta. The service monitors geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area and can email you for free if the northern lights might be visible. At any given time, you can visit the website to see the estimated probability of witnessing the aurora borealis in the evening (their live widget is embedded to the right). There are two alert levels – yellow when the probability is above 50%, and red when the probability is above 70%.

Since it launched back in October 2007, AuroraWatch has had more than 1.2 million visitors and currently has more than 26,000 email subscribers. Since 2009, they have issued more than 175 alerts.

So how can you ensure you get a good view? Well once you’ve received your red alert, get to a better viewing location:

The best advice for viewing aurora is to look north, after dark. Just around or before midnight is an especially good time, but the northern lights can be seen in Edmonton from early evening onwards on some very active days. Inside the city, the light pollution makes dimmer auroras harder to see – so you will get a much better view if you go to a location with darker skies outside the city.

That makes sense, right? Head outside the city and you just might get an amazing photo like this one taken by local photographer Mike Isaak back in November:

Northern Lights over Elk Island
Elk Island Aurora by Mike Isaak (purchase prints here)

He posted the photo on Twitter and received more than 330 retweets and more than 280 favorites. You can see why! Mike is also a finalist in the 2014 VISTEK Emerging Photographer competition – go vote for him!

Of course, if you know when to look and how to capture it, you don’t have to go very far at all. On the same weekend in November, photographer Kevin Tuong captured this incredible shot of the northern lights over downtown:

Northern Lights over Downtown
Northern Lights over Downtown by Kevin Tuong

I didn’t think you could see them like that within the city limits, but you can! Kevin’s photo was also popular on social media, with lots of upvotes on Reddit.

The AuroraWatch site often hosts images that photographers have sent in. It sure looks like that Remembrance Day long weekend in November was a sure-thing for aurora-viewing.

AuroraWatch won the ASTech 2013 Public Awareness Award for the unique service it provides:

“We are delighted and honoured that the impact of in promoting space science and technology was recognized with this ASTech Award to the Aurora Watch team,” said principal researcher Ian Mann, noting that space weather can also have more damaging consequences on the satellite, GPS and power grid infrastructure we increasingly rely on in the 21st century.

According to Environment Canada, there’s an average of about 90 nights per year when the northern lights are visible in Edmonton, and the best month is probably September. The good thing about AuroraWatch is that you no longer need to guess which nights those are!

If you love gazing up at the aurora borealis as much as I do, go sign up for the AuroraWatch Alerts. You won’t be disappointed. Also check out @aurorawatch on Twitter.

Many thanks to Mike Isaak, Kevin Tuong, and Martin Male for letting me use their excellent work to help illustrate this story.

Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope

wwtelescope If you spend any time in the blogosphere, you probably heard about Robert Scoble’s sob session on Valentine’s Day. He said that he was shown a project at Microsoft Research that was so world-changing it brought tears to his eyes. Scoble said he couldn’t tell anyone what it was until February 27th, and he kept that promise. Today he explained:

Lots of people are asking me questions about what made me cry at Microsoft a few weeks ago.

If I told you “a telescope” you’d make fun of me, right? Tell me I’m lame and that I don’t deserve to be a geek and that I should run away and join the circus, right?

Well, that’s what I saw.

The project is called the WorldWide Telescope. Here’s how it is described on the official website:

The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is a rich visualization environment that functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from the best ground- and space telescopes to enable seamless, guided explorations of the universe. WorldWide Telescope, created with Microsoft®’s high-performance Visual Experience Engine™, enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky blending terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the Internet into a media-rich, immersive experience.

It does sound like a pretty cool project for astronomy, and like Scoble says, it could have a really huge impact on education and the way we view and understand our place in the universe. Scoble will have a video up on Monday showing it off, and it should be officially available sometime this spring.

Read: Scobleizer

Hubble Space Telescope in trouble?

Post ImageMany photographs of outer space have been taken over the years, but the really impressive ones have for the most part been taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. I have learned quite a bit about the telescope thanks to the two astronomy courses I have taken this year – it is a pretty amazing piece of engineering. Needless to say, I was a little worried when I read the headline “Hubble humbled by power failure” today. Fortunately, the news isn’t that bad (and it’s a few days old too):

The main camera aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has stopped functioning due to a short circuit, NASA announced Monday.

A previously planned service mission on the Hubble to install a completely new camera was already scheduled for September 2008. The new camera, currently called the Wide Field Camera 3, will replace the downed WFPC2 and prove more powerful than the ACS was in most ways…

So it’s not really in trouble. Though I suppose the scientists won’t be happy about having to wait until next year to use the main camera. As a mere bystander I’m just happy that it is mostly operational and that it will continue to be able to bring us amazing photos and information.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24th, 1990 and will be replaced in 2013 by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Read: CNET

Pluto: A Planet Again in 2009?

Post ImageAs I have said before, I think the demotion of Pluto is a good thing. I see nothing wrong in recognizing that assumptions of decades past (there are no more objects like Pluto) have been rendered false (there are in fact lots of objects like Pluto). However, as an article in The Economist points out, a lot of people seem to think Pluto should remain a planet:

Members of the public are also wielding the web. Sites such as and have been launched. Sales of “Pluto is a Planet” T-shirts are high. And a band called Jimmy and the Keyz has written a song called “They demoted Pluto”.

Okay, people are entitled their opinions. And I realize that humans can be quite sentimental. I had to laugh at how The Economist ended the article though:

Whether listening to public opinion is really the best way to arrive at scientific definitions is questionable. But there is a suspicion that the IAU’s leaders may cave in to the pressure and find an excuse to reinstate Pluto at the next general meeting, in 2009.

I find it really hard to believe that anyone will still care in three years time. I suspect most will have accepted the new system and forgotten all about the controversy.

Read: The Economist

Google and NASA

Post ImageWhen I first came across this story a couple days ago, I didn’t give it much thought. As soon as I saw NASA and Google in a story about them supposedly collaborating on various technology projects, I figured it was a joke. Turns out, it’s not. From the September 28th NASA press release:

NASA Ames Research Center, located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, and Mountain View-based Google Inc. today announced plans to collaborate on a number of technology-focused research-and-development activities that will couple some of Earth’s most powerful technology resources.

NASA and Google have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that outlines plans for cooperation on a variety of areas, including large-scale data management, massively distributed computing, bio-info-nano convergence, and encouragement of the entrepreneurial space industry. The MOU also highlights plans for Google to develop up to 1 million square feet within the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me wonder how Google scored such a deal. And it makes me wonder why. What the heck does search have to do with space travel?

Read: NASA

Want to build a satellite?

Post ImageWhat would you do if you could launch your very own satellite? What would you design your satellite to do? I don’t think I know enough about the possibilities to even hazard a suggestion! Check this out:

An ambitious program called CubeSat, developed at Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, is giving students and companies the opportunity to build and launch functional satellites into low Earth orbit, or about 240 to 360 miles above the planet.

The satellites are tiny–they weigh a kilogram and generally measure about 10 centimeters on each side–but they cost far less than conventional commercial satellites. A CubeSat unit costs roughly $40,000 to build and only $40,000 to launch. As part of the program, Cal Poly takes care of the bureaucratic and logistical hurdles.

By contrast, a conventional satellite can run between $150 million and $250 million to build and $100 million to launch.

Think of this like the start of computing. Computers were finally “inexpensive enough” for an individual to buy (though far more expensive than they are today), and so they did. And look what happened! Is the information age going to have to make way for the true space age, where it’s not governments exploring the galaxy but you and me?

Read: CNET

Return to Flight…Delayed

Post ImageJust hours before the space shuttle Discovery was to take off, the launch was postponed. The NASA word for this is “scrubbed”:

In a telephone conversation, a NASA spokeswoman at the Kennedy Space Center confirmed that no launch would happen Wednesday. “It has been scrubbed,” the spokeswoman said.

Apparently there was a problem with a sensor in one of the fuel tanks. I was talking to Andrew about this kind of thing last night. If we could land on the moon seventeen times (and with inferior technology), how can we have so many problems launching the shuttle?

And isn’t NASA planning to launch a new vehicle anyway? I understand that they need to honor commitments made regarding the International Space Station, but surely they could have come to some sort of an agreement that would allow them to scrap the shuttles altogether.

Read: Return to Flight