Celebrating mediocrity: the new Centennial Plaza wins an Urban Design Award

Edmonton’s 2015 Urban Design Awards recognized “the memorable urban places that make up a great city” on Friday. Among the winners was the new Centennial Plaza1, the large open square that was built alongside the redeveloped Federal Building. The plaza was recognized for Excellence in the Civic Design Projects category.

Federal Building Centennial Plaza

You’ve probably spent some time visiting the plaza this year, perhaps to admire the colorfully lit fountains in person. I like the fountains as much as anyone, but there’s no way this project should be winning awards. Here’s why.

Over-promised, under-delivered

I’m sure you’re aware that the Province “saved” $10 million on the Federal Building renovations, a project which ballooned to $375 million anyway. They did that by quietly scrapping a number of planned features, including what was meant to be the primary attraction for the plaza – an outdoor skating rink. They also cancelled the planned Zamboni purchase, but decided to keep the garage as a storage facility. Also removed was planned landscaping, some of the fountains, and other features. This was all decided back in April 2013 without any public consultation or even communication.

As Dave wrote back in January:

“It is a shame the PC Government chose to, more than a year ago and in secret, axe the elements of the renovated Federal Building and the Legislature Grounds that could have become a destination for the general public and an important part of the revitalization that is happening in downtown Edmonton. Hopefully they will see the error of this short-sighted decision and re-introduce the public elements in future renovations. Our Legislature Grounds are beautiful and we should be striving to create new ways to make it a more vibrant gathering spot for Albertans.”

As it stands, the plaza is little more than an open space to walk through.

Not event friendly

Though I think Edmonton has more than enough large open squares as it is, with one more under construction at Rogers Place and another under consideration with the Galleria project, the Federal Building plaza could have been a great venue for events. We thought it could have been a great location for What the Truck?! but had to settle for the streets adjacent to the square instead. There are two reasons for that.

First, the Province has historically been extremely reluctant to open the Legislature grounds to outside events. You can show up to protest, but not to enjoy the grounds as part of another event. Unless of course the Province organizes it themselves, as with the Canada Day celebrations. There are signs this is changing and we did have some productive conversations this summer that make me optimistic that the rules will change, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Second, whether it’s true or not, I keep hearing repeatedly that the porous granite in the plaza is a problem that prevents vehicles, food trucks, and some other types of activities from taking place in the square. Churchill Square is going to be closed for the summer of 2017 (at least) due to LRT construction, so events like Taste of Edmonton are going to need to find a new home. The new Centennial Plaza seemed like a great location to fill the gap, and to keep those events downtown, but that may not be possible.

It’s like they intentionally designed the plaza so that it couldn’t be used for events. Issues like a surface that is too porous or difficult to clean should have been considered – the City has been dealing with similar issues in Churchill Square ever since it was redesigned into its current form. There’s a lot of experience and knowledge about squares locally that could have been tapped into for the design of the new Centennial Plaza.

On top of all that, the plaza is not even done! The public washrooms remain locked, taunting everyone who walks by.

Edmonton is a Winter City

But the biggest issue I have with the new Centennial Plaza winning an Urban Design Award in Edmonton is that it clearly was not designed with winter in mind. At least not since the skating rink was scrapped. That’s just inexcusable in a Winter City.

Federal Building Centennial Plaza

The fountains have long since been capped with metal covers, blocking not only the water but also the lights. The large open space offers little shelter from the wind or snow (and if they’re worried about vehicles damaging the surface, are they even going to keep it cleared?). And these are just the basics. Forget “experimentation with innovative, climate-oriented urban design” as Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy calls for. Here’s what the strategy outlines as a possible way to design a winter-friendly space:

wintercity design

Doesn’t that picture look suspiciously similar to the plaza in terms of layout? Yet it’s so different in every other way. There’s such potential in the plaza for some of those winter design elements! Instead, we get pylons.

“It’s as much about attitude as it is about latitude. Winter cities have found ways of embracing and falling in love with winter. They use winter as an inspiration for designing public spaces and buildings, as a motivation for recreation and celebrations; they’re cities that share the wonders of winter with the world.” – Carol Neuman

It’s a shame. Where’s the winter equivalent of the illuminated fountains that caused such a stir over the summer?

Urban Design Awards

The Urban Design Awards take place every two years. As mentioned, the new Centennial Plaza won in the Civic Design Projects category:

“This category of award will recognize a civic improvement project such as a park, a public space, civil engineering or environmental infrastructure, street furniture and lighting elements, etc., which have been implemented as the result of an urban design plan or initiative.”

The “primary criteria for assessing the merit of the plan” included:

  • Compatibility with the urban plan
  • Positive contribution to the public realm
  • Design excellence
  • Demonstration of the value of urban design by showing how the urban design plan/initiative directed and influenced the space or the objects

That’s it. Nothing about how it might be used or importantly, when it might be used. Should there be criteria for winter? In Edmonton, probably yes. Let’s hope this can be considered for 2017.

Better, but still room for improvement

It’s true that Edmonton’s urban design has made great strides in recent years. I’m thrilled that the Borden Park Pavilion and Vaulted Willow both won awards on Friday, for instance. But we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to winter. We shouldn’t be celebrating mediocrity along the way.

  1. Will the real Centennial Plaza please stand up? I guess it’s a small thing, but I’ve always been annoyed that they called the new square Centennial Plaza. We already have a Centennial Plaza – the small square between the Stanley Milner library and the Westin Edmonton. It’s far from perfect and suffers from some poor historical design decisions, but it could soon see a renovation of its own when the Stanley Milner library gets an overhaul. 

Recap: Premiere to the New Winter in Edmonton

It felt a little like spring out there today with wet roads, bright sun, and temperatures above zero. But it’s November and you know the snow will be here to stay soon enough (the little we’ve already had has mostly melted). To celebrate, WinterCity Edmonton hosted its Premiere to Winter event at the EPCOR Tower downtown tonight. It was a red-carpet affair with dozens of Edmontonians in attendance, all eager to learn more about what’s in store for us this winter.

Premiere to Winter

Susan Holdsworth, Project Manager of the WinterCity Strategy, welcomed everyone to the event and got the program underway. Our emcee for the evening was Linda Cochrane, the City of Edmonton’s GM of Community Services. I think Global was meant to provide the emcee, but it didn’t matter, Linda did a great job. After recognizing the members of City Council in attendance, Linda invited Mayor Iveson up to the podium to say a few words.

Premiere to Winter
The Flying Canoe Adventure

The first bit of entertainment came next, with a performance by The Flying Canoe Adventure. It’s one of the many outdoor events taking place in Edmonton this winter. The next speakers were representatives from the Silver Skate and Deep Freeze festivals, and each had a few minutes to show a video and talk about their festival.

We also had a reading by Mikey Maybe, one of the contributors to The 40 Below Project. It was highly entertaining and had the entire crowd laughing! Known as “Edmonton’s Winter Anthology”, you can buy the book for $20. It contains over 70 pieces by 50 Edmonton-area writers.

Other speakers included David Berger from Boyle Street Community Services and Carol Neuman, who introduced the Signature Drink Contest:

Do you fancy yourself a drink connoisseur? A master of mixology? Well then, get out your cocktail shaker, strainer, muddler and creative juices and start inventing your favourite drink for WinterCity Edmonton’s Signature Drink Contest. Your unique drink could land you some amazing prizes!

Premiere to Winter
Mix Something Edmonton!

We also heard from Maggie Davison, VP of Edmonton Tourism. She started by saying that they heard the call for an “edgy, fun, and creative” approach to winter. And then she spent the next 10 minutes going through her text-filled PowerPoint presentation about the marketing campaign they have coming up. The campaign centers around a new microsite, Winter in Edmonton. I’ll write more about that in a future post.

Premiere to Winter
This little guy loved the lady on stilts!

The main event came at the very end – the launch of the new WinterCity short film. It’s an effective video that highlights the many positive winter assets that Edmonton has and the opportunities that are available to us. All we need to do to realize them is embrace winter! It’s very similar to the Make Something Edmonton videos that have been released over the last few months, with great visuals and a variety of on-the-street interviews. The video should be uploaded soon so you can see for yourself.

Premiere to Winter
Put on your toque and enjoy winter!

The event probably went on a little too long, but it was great to see so many people keen to celebrate winter. I look forward to all the festivals and other upcoming outdoor events! You can see more photos of the event here.

What kind of festival does Metropolis want to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Weather Construction

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Embracing Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of festival does Metropolis want to be?

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

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

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

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

WinterCity Strategy: Let’s embrace winter in Edmonton

wintercity strategyTonight Edmonton took another bold step toward becoming a city that embraces winter rather than one that simply endures it. Dozens of Edmontonians filled City Hall for the WinterCity Strategy Kick-Off Party which featured a keynote address from John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee. His remarks were passionate and inspirational and left me feeling absolutely pumped about playing even a small role in helping to tackle the challenge before us.

As part of a move to encourage citizens to embrace and engage in winter, the City of Edmonton is leading the development of a new WinterCity Strategy to highlight Edmonton as a leading winter city.

This strategy is about changing how many of us feel about winter – from enduring to embracing it.

When John took his turn at the podium this evening, he did so wearing an Oilers jersey and joked that he hoped it would keep him safe if we didn’t like what he had to say. He started by recounting his experience of arriving in Canada from Ireland. He came to Edmonton and after being told to “help make Canada a better place” by the customs official became a nation builder, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. “I felt like they’d send me back if I didn’t do my part!”

John Furlong

For most of his speech, John took us through the ups and downs of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Building the team, preparing for the event, pulling it off, etc. He shared many stories, everything from being interviewed for the job to watching Crosby score the game winning goal in overtime. One of my favorites was about the snow, or lack of snow, when the games began. Based on the last 100 years of history, there had to be snow in January. But there wasn’t any. “It was as if God was looking down on us saying ‘anyone can pull off the Winter Olympics with snow, you have to do it without snow!’” John told us. They eventually trucked snow in from Manning Park, which put up a banner that read “Official Snow Supplier” for the games. Feeling that the task was impossible, John was at the park every day, encouraging the team to keep going. He called in the Premier, the Prime Minister, and others to help encourage the team. One day, the guy in charge of the site finally spoke up and said “John, stop coming here every day. We’re not going to fail.” The lesson was one John cited many times throughout his remarks this evening – you need to trust people.

Another story I quite enjoyed was about transportation during the games. Enabling people to get around the city safely and efficiently was a tall order, and John and his team realized that to do it, there would have to be less cars on the road. So they asked Vancouverites to find alternative modes of transport, to leave their cars at home. Unsurprisingly, people laughed at the idea. They mocked it. The team was looking for a reduction in traffic of 25% and nobody thought it was possible. To prepare, they held single day trials a few weeks in advance of the games. The results were discouraging – traffic volumes dropped just 1 or 2 percent. But on the day the games opened, the reduction was 37%, well above targets. “We asked people nicely,” John said, “and I think they realized this was their way to play a role in making the games a success.”

Here are a few of the things he said that really stood out for me:

  • “To be a champion, you have to have belief.”
  • “Visions can’t be about stuff, they must be about people. About humanity.”
  • “The legacy you want to leave behind is the human one.”

As motivational as John’s remarks were tonight, I’ll admit that applying the lessons of Vancouver 2010 to the City of Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy seems incredibly daunting. Someone in the audience was brave enough to ask John that very question – “how do we do that here?” He said we need two things: strong belief in the vision, and strong leadership.

WinterCity Strategy Kick-Off

Councillor Henderson has taken the lead on the WinterCity Strategy, and tomorrow morning will be sharing the results of his trip to Finland and Norway to identify best practices of winter cities. He’ll be joined by a committee of community leaders at the first symposium to explore the question, “what would make you fall in love with winter in Edmonton?” In his remarks tonight, Councillor Henderson said that “at some point, Edmonton sort of fell out of love with winter.” It’s time to get that back.

ideascaleI’ll be in and out of the symposium tomorrow, and I look forward to participating in future public involvement events related to the WinterCity Strategy as well. The goal is to draft the strategy this spring, with Council reviewing and hopefully approving in the fall. The timeline is relatively short, so don’t wait to get involved. The easiest way is to participate in the WinterCity IdeaScale site. There you can submit ideas and vote and comment on ideas from others.

Here’s my first bit of feedback to the team leading the WinterCity Strategy: get rid of all mentions of turning Edmonton into “a leading winter city” or making Edmonton “one of the best winter cities in the world.” Recognition is a by-product of doing something well, not the target we should be aiming for. Instead, let’s focus on making Edmonton a great winter city for Edmontonians. On embracing winter rather than enduring it. As John said tonight, “you almost always get the reward you deserve.” If we can succeed at making Edmonton a more winter-friendly city for the people who live here, global recognition will come.

Let’s embrace winter in Edmonton! You can learn more about the WinterCity Strategy here.