Deadly Crosswalks and Other Things the Postwoman Knows


Janet Heikel, Canada Post worker for 28 years.

You come to know a place very well once you’ve walked its every road, five days a week, for the last four years.

For instance, Janet Heikel, the postwoman in charge of a small but densely populated Oliver route, knows the next buildings to be supplanted by towers. She also knows which property’s residents are miffed that said towers will shade their pool. She knows which notable people go to which hair salon and she’s pretty sure she knows who’s addicted to online shopping. She knows the owner of the new izakaya is related to the owner of the new dental lab, and thanks to them, she now knows the best sushi and best dentists city-wide. And she knows that four times a year a certain community newsmagazine will add several pounds and hours to her shift, which she’s not too happy about.

She also knows to begin every day on the north side of her route, where seniors apartments Ansgar Villa and Kiwanis Place are. “They have a certain time that the mail has to come,” said the Canada Post worker of 28 years during a walkabout in July. “And let me tell you, they know everything.” Not just seniors, but construction workers and secretaries alike have made Heikel an authority on these nine-square blocks, but she needn’t their expertise to know that two Jasper Avenue crosswalks along her route—119th and 120 streets—are unsafe.

In four years she’s seen the aftermath of two serious pedestrian accidents and has heard of countless more. “Police used to park here and tag people who don’t stop,” said Heikel, pointing to the 119 St. crosswalk controlled by little more than a sign and some white lines. “But after they’re gone it’s back to the same thing.”

That’s starting to change. Last June, transportation engineers caved under immense pressure from city council and the Oliver Community League, which has raised concerns for years, and deemed those crosswalks—plus two more along the west side of Jasper Ave.—worthy of some traffic lights. Some were installed in August, but lights alone won’t tame the seven-lane, 50-kilometre-an-hour road. That’s why Jasper Ave. is about to undergo a makeover along 109 St. to 124 St.

Public consultations begin this fall and everything is on the table—wider sidewalks, fewer lanes, bike paths, trees, street furniture. Beginning in 2018, it could be the most transformative construction projecton the west side of Edmonton’s main street in a generation, and set the tone for future road projects across the Capital.

But only if the public asks for it; otherwise, the future avenue will resemble the current one, with fresher pavement. The potential redesign was decided after a rather awkward public chiding of the Transportation branch from City Council last December. It was presented in the Capital Budget debates as an $8.8 million road reconstruction, because, unlike the Jasper Ave. redesign east of 109 St., the Oliver portion falls out of the downtown master plan. It’s now been refashioned the “Jasper Avenue Street-scape Concept” plan. What’s the difference?

Imagine you had to renovate your house. Imagine the foundation was so cracked and the floors so pocked and the grass so weeded that the whole thing just needed to be razed and rebuilt. Would you reconstruct it verbatim? Maybe, it if was the perfect house and it suited your needs for the next 40 years.

But west Jasper Ave. is far from perfect. Unlike its Downtown side, there are no trees and few benches, and in addition to risky crosswalks, the sidewalks are narrow and the lanes wider for fast traffic flow. There are other problems too: Businesses hollow the public realm with lifestyle posters and barred and blackened windows, while others abut the side-walks with their parking lots. But those are not your property. Those are your neighbours’. Maybe once they see your spectacular new house they’ll step up in the way that buildings along Whyte Avenue have since its 1980s transformation.

Maybe. Until then, it’s just you, your lot and $8.8 million. What are you going to build?

“During the rush hours of the afternoon, Jasper avenue, the finest and broadest thoroughfare of the whole of the golden west, is frequently so crowded that a heedless farmer or truckman coming down the wrong side of the street will throw the whole system traffic into confusion and frequently causes runaways. … Ye horsemen beware.” – Edmonton Bulletin, 1907

Jasper Avenue is not a house. It’s a main street. In fact, it was originally called Main Street. It crosses through Downtown and into Edmonton’s most populated neighbourhood, one currently undergoing redevelopment and demographic change unprecedented since the 1960s. While surrounding core neighbourhoods shrink, stagnate or see incremental growth, Oliver (as well as Downtown) is growing at the rate of new suburbs. And though 60 per cent of Edmontonians drive to work, the same percentage of Oliver residents don’t, meaning they interact with the sidewalks more as they walk (14 per cent) or bus (21 per cent) to work.

The second mention of Jasper Ave. existing in city archive files is, in fact, about its footpaths. (The first record is its renaming from “Main Street” on Feb. 18, 1882). “The need for sidewalks is greatly felt,” reads the 1883 municipal document urging landowners to invest in them. “There is nothing that gives more City-like appearance to a place than good sidewalks.” It then lays out the benefits: convenient mobility, enhanced property values and the chance to “show to parties that may come here this summer that we do not lack faith in the place ourselves and have some little enterprise in us.”

Deeper into the archives, one sees when road congestion becomes problematic. “During the rush hours of the afternoon,” reads a 1907 Edmonton Bulletin article, “Jasper avenue, the finest and broadest thoroughfare of the whole of the golden west, is frequently so crowded that a heedless farmer or truckman coming down the wrong side of the street will throw the whole system traffic into confusion and frequently causes runaways. … Ye horsemen beware.”

Whyte Ave. and Jasper’s seven-lane widths originated from the need for horsemen to freely turn their carriages, so it’s not until the postwar boom that Ye Carmen and Ye Carwomen must beware. In 1961, four of the ten most accident-prone intersections for cars dotted Jasper, between 100th to 109th street. It would take the city’s best traffic engineers to find solutions with tow-zones and underground parking, so people wouldn’t disrupt traffic by parking until they were beneath it.

Today, not a single Jasper or Whyte crossing makes the top 10 list of vehicle collisions. Not even the top 20.

But year after year, they dominate in pedestrian accidents, according to data acquired through a freedom of information and privacy request by #RebootWhyte, a grassroots campaign to improve Strathcona’s main street. The two worst Jasper Ave. intersections were 113 St. and 109 St., with 13 and 20 pedestrian and bike accidents each since 2005.

There are two ways to look at this: that it’s only natural places with the highest pedestrian volumes would see the most injuries, or that we’ve failed to adequately protect pedestrians in places where they’re most at risk.

Jasper Avenue in 1913, before the automobile revolution.

Jasper Avenue in 1913, before the automobile revolution.

It was a scorching July morning, so Janet Heikel didn’t mind if the sprinklers on Beth Shalom’s lawn spritzed her grey uniform. The flowers were in full bloom. Street-sweepers dabbed their perspiring foreheads. And construction workers hammered away at a nearly finished Jewish seniors residence on the corner of 119th and Jasper, where, 12 months ago to that day, an Earls employee crossing the road was, according to a witness, “tossed like a rag doll,” because a car didn’t stop for her. She was 19 and may never live independently again, yet she may not be alive today if she were one of the seniors living up the block or who’ll soon move into the residential tower.

According to city statistics, they’re five times more likely to die in pedestrian collisions. In 2015’s first four months, five of six pedestrian deaths were seniors. “You should see them standing on the corner with their walkers and canes,” said Heikel. “If they’re not aggressive—and they’re not—no one stops. You have to make a point of stepping out. …There’s been so many times I’ve just said, ‘Come with me, come with me.’”

And it’s not just the elderly she worries about. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind has an office nearby staffed with visually impaired people like Bruce, the custodian on a first-name basis with Heikel. “There’s an audible signal on that,” he said, pointing his broom down the road to 121 St. He turned to the uncontrolled intersection at 120 St. “So I guess you’re taking your chances on that one.” Is that enough for him to walk a block? “No. I’m, like, whatever.”

And therein lies the problem. People don’t like detours, especially if they’re on foot. A traffic engineer might stand on the corner with a clipboard and counter and conclude that traffic lights are unnecessary because there’s a controlled crosswalk 100 metres away. But a pedestrian is, like, whatever. And so he puts one foot in front of the other, assured that a crosswalk wouldn’t exist if it weren’t safe.

In defence of the traffic engineer, Jasper Ave. isn’t a pedestrian plaza. It’s always been and will remain a thoroughfare dutifully transferring the passengers of 30,000 cars, busses and motorcycles to their destinations daily. Whatever comes of the new streetscape, it will need to balance Jasper’s dual identities as main street and thoroughfare, but realizing that one of those identities has long outperformed the other is important to restoring the balance.

“If you’re coming in from an 80-kilometre road and you see these bloody seven-lanes here,” said historian Shirley Lowe, co-author of The Life of a Neighbourhood: A History of Edmonton’s Oliver District 1870–1950. “You think, ‘It’s a car street’—and it is.”

Lowe grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, shortly after the “West End” was renamed Oliver, and just as the car craze transformed it into what it is today. “I was six years old when I would walk up to Jasper Avenue, get on the number five, go downtown to the school of dance, get off on 106th Street, have my dance lesson, cross Jasper Avenue, get on the bus and get home. By. My. Self.” Would she dare let a child cross it alone today? “No, because of the culture of the road. They’re not looking for pedestrians. I bet if you parked a kid on that corner [119 St.] hell would freeze over before a car would stop.”

For Gil Penalosa, founder of Toronto’s 8–80 Cities and Bogota, Colombia’s former parks commissioner, whether public spaces are safe for children and seniors is the very metric with which he consults municipalities. “If everything we did in our cities was great for an eight-year-old and great for an 80-year-old,” he explained, “then it would be great for everybody.”

It’s a fresh take on a city that saw eight per cent more pedestrian accidents last year, despite dramatic declines in car collisions overall. But it’s ever more urgent as baby boomers age into retirement. By 2031, a million Albertans will be 65 or older. Many will retire in central neighbourhoods to maintain their independence, to walk to the grocer, medi-clinic and bus stop. To keep social ties. “Their number one issue is isolation,” said Penalosa. “They’re terrified of the day they lose their drivers licence, not because they love their cars, but because they want mobility.”


Meanwhile, Millennials—the second largest generation and biggest cohort of the Canadian workforce—are pouring into downtowns and more often choosing not to drive. In 50 years, their children and grandchildren will contribute to Metro Edmonton’s 2.1 million population. What are these generations inheriting? “This isn’t something trivial,” he says. “Being able to walk and bike safely in Edmonton should be a human right.”

Looking at pictures of Jasper Ave., old and new, Penalosa said true walkability can never flourish for as long as there are seven lanes of traffic moving at 50-km an hour and pedestrians must push buttons to cross it. “That’s a clear symptom of their priorities.” But above all, he said, it will take “vision and guts.”

No doubt the 2009 transportation master plan, The Way We Move shows vision. But when it came time for city administrators to deliver on that vision the only guts in sight were those left on the floor last December after councillors tore Transportation a new one. That’s because the downtown bike corridor, complete streets (a policy to serve all road users safely) and active transportation (a policy for walking and cycling) were effectively defunded in the proposed Capital Budget that would direct Edmonton’s growth for the next four years.

“I’m concerned that we still haven’t figured out that people on their feet, on the street, and some-
times on bikes, is a sign of a great and healthy and interactive and integrated city,” an exasperated Mayor Don Iveson said to Transportation head Dorian Wandzura. “And I’m frustrated that after seven years … that still hasn’t gotten through.”

After a brief intermission to welcome George H. Luck School students eager to see city hall’s inner workings, councillors continued to grill Wandzura’s team for its disappointing Jasper Ave. improvement plan, as if they were the sixth graders present. “Can you explain to me how [this] fell off the table?” rebuked Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen. “Why we didn’t look at this as an opportunity to do a new urban design, why it’s just a like-for-like rehab—why’d that happen?” Coun. Henderson, who represents neighbourhoods along Whyte Ave., called it “nonsense” and “absolutely crazy.”

The tone was more positive in June as Transportation planners unveiled a new approach to crosswalks, taking pedestrians’ safety, rather than just the national traffic guidelines, into consideration. Ten Jasper, Whyte and 104th avenue intersections would soon have manual controls, at a cost of $100,000 each. However, upgrading the other 190 crosswalks identified as inadequate will take 20 years, while others that probably should have been on the list were disregarded. “I still feel that pedestrian safety is taking second place to concerns about traffic flow,” Coun. Henderson said via email.

A senior administrator who’s asked not to be identified said the message to promote walkability doesn’t resonate for the majority of their colleagues in Transportation. “There’s a lot of will in the planning area, but when we hit operations, people who actually run busses, ETS and LRT are very rigid about how they want things to work.”

The City employee worried that planners working on the Jasper Avenue Streetscape Concept will turn to the rules—guidelines on road width, for instance—and “over-engineer” it just as they did Scona Road.

The 2012 arterial road rehab resulted in ticked-off and ticketed drivers speeding in lanes clearly designed for efficiency, as well as residents of the Mill Creek neighbourhood appalled by its hostile design.

Scona Road is also known as 99 St. But in the Transportation department, it has another nickname: “The Beginning of the End.”

On the afternoon of another summer scorcher, Dorian Wandzura boarded the no. 7 bus, enthusiastically greeted the driver and flashed his ETS staff pass clipped to his slacks. He left the suit jacket at home and wore an “Edmonton Elections 2013” T-shirt, one of his first local keepsakes after arriving in the middle of the political race from the City of Regina. He spent his first months as the new Transportation GM listening more than leading, observing his staff’s prevailing outlook while allowing the refreshed council to find its own. Then he moved on his ambitious plan to align all 3,400 staff with the same four goals around accessible and sustainable transportation.

Employees describe the GM as a strategist. One of his favourite stories to tell happened at NASA happened before he was born, and it’s about John F. Kennedy. While touring the space centre in 1962, the President asked a janitor what he does there. Legend has it the janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

“That’s the quintessential story of alignment,” explained Wandzura, as the bus climbed Scona Rd. “The janitor plays as equal a roll to getting a man on the moon as the eggheads in the lab. It’s really about making sure the experts understand their role in active transportation and creating vibrant spaces.”

“If I were to close my eyes and fast forward, I could easily see [Jasper Ave. as] a vibrant people-place—lots of activity, lots of vitality, where for 16 hours of the day it has life to it. Where pedestrians and vehicles share this lively place.” –Dorian Wandzura, City of Edmonton’s general manager of transportation

Then why were several of those tenants—not just on Jasper, but city-wide—ignored in the last budget proposal on his watch? “We dropped the ball,” he admitted; Transportation made an error in “not connecting” the street’s necessary renewals with Oliver’s growth. But, he said, funding a complete redo of Jasper in the budget could have displaced a firehall or the Milner’s makeover, hence the $8.8 million won’t be nearly enough to cover the entire 15-blocks and council will need to find money elsewhere in 2019. (As one senior planner put it: “It’s chump change.”)

But that hasn’t discouraged Wandzura. “If I were to close my eyes and fast forward,” he said, “I could easily see [Jasper Ave. as] a vibrant people-place—lots of activity, lots of vitality, where for 16 hours of the day it has life to it. Where pedestrians and vehicles share this lively place.”

He knows a new streetscape won’t achieve it alone, but it’s the first step. To get there, the city—administrators, politicians and residents alike—must view it as a community project rather than just a road project, he said, which is why meaningful public consultation, absent on Scona Rd., is imperative. Wandzura thinks it could be a watershed moment determining how all “premier streets” are upgraded from now on.

One of them, Whyte Ave., was right outside the no. 7’s window. Wandzura pointed to extended street patios, rainbow crosswalks and a polka-dotted alley closed to cars, as evidence of his department’s cultural change. Getting there during a period of rapid growth is like “changing a tire while the car is in motion,” he said. But he insisted they’re getting there.

The unnamed City employee, however, was unconvinced and worried any public consultations could turn to a “bait and switch,” resulting in rigid compromises. The Oliver community will need to “push” if they want serious change, said the administrator.

But push for what? Asked what would make the west side of Jasper friendlier, Janet Heikel didn’t have a clear idea beyond more controlled cross-walks. All she had was a hunch: “For some reason, it’s like a drag race here.” At that point, she ceased being the the sage postwoman and became the common pedestrian.

But if enough pedestrians show up this fall, then maybe together they can help identify those reasons and make it a main street again.

The Oliver Community League has played a critical role in moving Jasper Ave.’s makeover from a rudimentary road project to a full-scale redesign. This timeline shows you how persistent advocacy and engagement makes a tangible difference.

Pre-2010–today: OCL fields residents’ complaints that Jasper Ave. is unpleasant, noisy, and, above all, unsafe. League minutes suggest it’s also car-centric, in disrepair and that it literally divides our community in two.

2011–today: OCL meets numerous times with your councillors Jane Batty (2011–2014) and Scott McKeen (2014–present) to discuss these concerns.

Fall 2014: City administration proposed that Jasper Ave. be repaved in the 2015–2018 Capital budget cycle.

Nov. 2014: OCL members Lisa Brown and Erin Toop present to the full City Council at the budget public hearing. They asked for a safe and welcoming Jasper Avenue, a place for Oliver residents to gather and connect, a street that brings our community together rather than divides it.

Dec. 2014: City Council agrees, voting unanimously to redirect the administration to run a public consultation process that would re-envision the ave.

Fall 2015: City of Edmonton-led consultations begin. The OCL’s message to you? “It’s important that community members participate. We encourage everyone to attend the public meetings or to provide feedback online.”

For information on the meetings or to learn how you can advocate with the OCL, visit or email

The Next Campus: How Universities Will Shape Our Neighbourhoods

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It was the best decision of my life.

After three uncomfortable years in the trades I enrolled in school with visions of the post-secondary life that was to follow: crossing manicured lawns with books tucked under my arms during that perpetual autumn that exists on campus grounds, according to every movie ever made about college. Then I arrived at MacEwan University, first at its bright orange Centre for Arts and Communication building on the west side, then its central campus after my program was moved there the following year. Needless to say, neither had the sprawling quads and the centuries-old trees that shaded Matt Damon and Robin Williams.

Having spent my entire life on an acreage north of Edmonton, I hated going downtown as a kid and I especially hated commuting there as a student—too many people, too many cars. But a strange thing happened not long after clutching my first pair of apartment keys: I started growing attached to the city centre—and the city itself.

Universities of old act like pseudo-cities. They’re self-contained, not just with their own roads but their own housing and commerce, so students can live comfortably on campus 24/7. That’s a far cry from the student life experienced by me and 30,000 others commuting to downtown’s 10 post-secondaries. But as these colleges expand and their student populations explode, could it soon be the standard model for higher learning? And how might that reshape central Edmonton and students like me?

According to the Downtown Business Association, 50,000 students will call downtown home by 2020. It’s easy to see what that prediction is based on. MacEwan University’s new art campus, opening in 2017, will complete the years-long unification of its three fractured schools. Norquest College is also consolidating its five campuses, into two side-by-side towers, while hoping to expand its student body by 2,000 annually. And a decade after it saved the Hudson’s Bay building from demolition, the University of Alberta is trying to build a new home for the Department of Music and Department of Art & Design attached to the ambitious Galleria proposal. Naturally, their tuition-payers will want to live nearby.

It seems that all post-secondaries today want to be city-builders as much as citizen-builders, a trend playing out in cities across the continent. Ryerson University has completely reshaped—and continues to reshape—major sections of downtown Toronto.

It’s a similar story at the University of Winnipeg, Capilano in Vancouver, Concordia in Montreal, New York University in Manhattan and Brooklyn. After centuries of isolating themselves from cities, post-secondaries are becoming one with them.

Early this summer, MacEwan president David Atkinson was at Oxford University for professional development. As he walked down its streets, lined with 12th Century trees and venerable architecture, he took notice of the tall walls fortressing the alma mater of Oscar Wilde and Margaret Thatcher. “Inevitably they have a very tiny entrance and there are two signs,” recalls Atkinson. “One is ‘Visitors Not Welcome,’ and the second, ‘Stay Off the Grass.’” He shakes his head. “That model of higher education is dead. It’s truly dead.”

Atkinson explains that the model of locking away educational facilities is going extinct. More frequently universities, for reasons of development or financing, for instance, are becoming entwined into the communities surrounding them. If done well, it can bolster both the school and the community.

In 1991, when MacEwan broke ground on the old CN Rail yards (artifices of which are still being uncovered during the latest excavation east of Oliver Square), many wondered aloud if it was a sensible thing to do, says Atkinson, who became president in 2011. “And who would have thought that now it’s actually in the epicentre of all this activity?” he asks. “We couldn’t be better located.”

No doubt, student life will be different after the estimated $4 billion downtown makeover is complete and many thousands more students come for higher education. But a major issue arises when addressing the problem of where these students will be housed. After all, how can you create campus life if the majority of your students live in scattered pockets across the city?

After building a 13-floor, 800-plus unit residence in 2005, MacEwan has taken the unusual step of letting private developers offer the solution. The Horizon, a four-storey off-campus building just behind of the university, houses 311 students in 114 very affordable dorm-style suites. Meanwhile the vintage Healy Ford building between MacEwan and Norquest will soon be transformed into a trio of towers, each with a few floors mimicking standard residencies that centre a two- or three-room pod with common kitchens and washrooms.

Atkinson says it’s a godsend for landlocked postsecondary institutions. “We’re not going to use the valuable land to build residences. We’re going to use that for core activity, which is our academic programming.”

A rich campus life can’t just be measured in housing and academia. Students will want places in between their classrooms and dorms to mobilize their social lives, whether they be cafes, quick-service restaurants or large-capacity bars, all of which are emerging in spades in an area that Norquest College has self-designating the “Education District.”

Gord Rajewski, director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, believes the sudden influx of youth will be a huge driving force in making downtown a destination spot for entertainment and hospitality.

For decades, businesses have catered to the office crowd, but, says Rajewski, “The impact of three educational institutions expanding in the downtown core is that we have more people, more opportunity for retail, more opportunity to expose young people to the benefits of being downtown.”

But isn’t there something to miss about the traditional campus model that Atkinson declared dead?

A constant cross-pollination of learners and professors sows an environment rich with intellectual discourse and discovery, all of it largely governed around youthful idealism. However, “the benefits of being downtown,” as Rajewski calls it, can’t be overlooked either. As a student, you’re smack dab in the heartbeat of the city, getting a sense of the local conditions you’ll graduate into, while milling about with people in the midst of a career that you might be pining for. The career that you dedicated four years of your life to. And being amongst them helps foster professional relationships, according to Jodi Abbott, the president of Norquest College.

These commuter campuses, she says, avail her students work opportunities beyond what instructors and administration can facilitate. “[Students] are part of the community, rather than in the box doing their education,” explains Abbott. “What it allows them is a transition into work that is a little more natural because they are already in the community.”

These institutions are also trying to integrate their students with what Abbott calls “community-engaged learning,” wherein schools partnerwith specific employers supplying internships. In this scenario, downtown isn’t just a backdrop, but an incubator for students. This could be the thread that ties a student to Edmonton, what keeps him or her here, degree in hand, instead of returning home or job-hunting elsewhere.

But the relationship between school and city, student and community, are symbiotic. Post-secondaries wishing to integrate themselves within urban areas must also contribute amenities, services and infrastructure to the others around them. We see that in MacEwan’s funding of a community rink abutting the new arena, as well as the forthcoming arts centre’s three theatres, art gallery and studio spaces that will be accessible to the public. Norquest’s contribution is a planned park with an expansive lawn punctuated by benches; it will be owned by the college but open to the public.

And then there’s the Galleria project. Although it’s not without its controversies over public financing and whether a 1,000-seat opera house is even sustainable, one can’t ignore the obvious: the University of Alberta, once a model of secluded campus life, wants to place an iconic structure 500 metres from city hall. “Having a university presence in the downtown really contributes to city-building,” says U of A president David Turpin. “It brings people downtown, it supports mixed-use development where you have an increase in the number of people living downtown, working downtown and studying downtown.”

Turpin, who’s been on the job since July, acknowledges that students at the Galleria would have a different experience than those lounging in quad across the river. “They would be closely aligned with the arts community, they would be interacting with theater companies and productions that would be happening in the city.”

But, I ask him, will these music and theatre undergrads miss out on something their engineering, sciences and law counterparts won’t—that romantic campus life, the trees, the student elections, the protests, the rowdy parties? Will they just become just another face in the downtown crowds?

He chuckles and reminds me that the new LRT and planned pedway will in essence keep the campuses linked—all of them, MacEwan, Norquest, NAIT, the University of Alberta—and, thus, link the students as well. Besides, he adds, “It takes less time to get downtown from the U of A main campus than it takes to walk across the campus of many major Canadian universities.”


Student Survival Guide

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Are you one of the many migratory students getting settled in Oliver and Downtown this fall? We’ve got your back. Follow these tips for cheap eats, rides and stress-reliefs.

Apps to Live By

POGO CARSHARE: Tuition cutting into your prospects of car ownership? One of the perks of living in Edmonton’s inner cities is this car-share. It’s insanely simple. Sign up, add a credit card, use your phone to find the nearest car, walk there and boom—you got yourself some wheels.

STREET FOOD EDMONTON: If the spice of life is variety, then the spice of downtown Edmonton is affordable quality food. This app is like a divining rod for the city’s rich mobile food scene, peddling whatever you like—vegan, greasy spoon or something in between—just a short walk from where you’re standing.

TRANSIT APP: It makes public transit easy by automatically pinpointing where you are and guiding you to the nearest bus stop or train station. The arrival times are accurate nearly to the second, so you can gauge whether to walk, jog or sprint for dear life. It works on both Android and Apple.

Your Next Beer Run

BREWSTERS: Do you know what a growler is? It’s a big ol’ jug of beer. Now who doesn’t want a jug of craft beer? Refill it anytime for as little as $14, or just $11 on Saturdays before 5pm.

OLIVER SQUARE LIQUOR DEPOT: You’ll be happy to know it’s open late—till 2am most nights—when you need that 1:53am nightcap after putting the finishing touches on the essay due in seven hours.

THE COMMON: One wouldn’t think of this sleek place known for gourmet food and craft cocktails is also known for cheap beers. That’s because a magical thing happens on Thursday: $4 pints, even on beers you normally couldn’t afford.

Quick, Easy & Nonviolent Stress Relief

FOOD WISH DISHES: Sometimes you need the strong stuff—we’re talking kittens. When school gets too real, head in the direction of 124th street and go cuddle a purr monster at this doggy food bakery and pet shop.

DENIZEN HALL: Sometimes violence is the answer—so long as it’s simulated. Shoot down zombies or rough up ninjas at this arcade bar with the tokens that came with your drinks.

THE (OTHER) LIBRARY: Don’t worry—we know more books are the last things you need. Juice up on mindless binge-watching at Edmonton Public Library’s flagship, the Stanley Milner. It has a dizzying array of DVD box-sets. But if you’d rather not put on pants, punch in the number on your (free) library card online for access to online streaming services like Hoopla and Indieflix.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that MacEwan University Residence opened in 2004; that it has 14 floors; and that MacEwan contracted the Horizon to develop the Horizon, a private residence that isn’t affiliated with the university in any way. We regret the errors.

Student Survival Guide


Courtesy IQRemix/Flickr

Are you one of the many migratory students getting settled in Oliver and Downtown this fall? We’ve got your back. Follow these tips for cheap eats, rides and stress-reliefs.

Apps to Live By

POGO CARSHARE: Tuition cutting into your prospects of car ownership? One of the perks of living in Edmonton’s inner cities is this car-share. It’s insanely simple. Sign up, add a credit card, use your phone to find the nearest car, walk there and boom—you got yourself some wheels.

STREET FOOD EDMONTON: If the spice of life is variety, then the spice of downtown Edmonton is affordable quality food. This app is like a divining rod for the city’s rich mobile food scene, peddling whatever you like—vegan, greasy spoon or something in between—just a short walk from where you’re standing.

TRANSIT APP: It makes public transit easy by automatically pinpointing where you are and guiding you to the nearest bus stop or train station. The arrival times are accurate nearly to the second, so you can gauge whether to walk, jog or sprint for dear life. It works on both Android and Apple.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 1.18.06 AMYour Next Beer Run

BREWSTERS: Do you know what a growler is? It’s a big ol’ jug of beer. Now who doesn’t want a jug of craft beer? Refill it anytime for as little as $14, or just $11 on Saturdays before 5pm.

OLIVER SQUARE LIQUOR DEPOT: You’ll be happy to know it’s open late—till 2am most nights—when you need that 1:53am nightcap after putting the finishing touches on the essay due in seven hours.

THE COMMON: One wouldn’t think of this sleek place known for gourmet food and craft cocktails is also known for cheap beers. That’s because a magical thing happens on Thursday: $4 pints, even on beers you normally couldn’t afford.Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 1.18.06 AM

Quick, Easy & Nonviolent Stress Relief

FOOD WISH DISHES: Sometimes you need the strong stuff—we’re talking kittens. When school gets too real, head in the direction of 124th street and go cuddle a purr monster at this doggy food bakery and pet shop.

DENIZEN HALL: Sometimes violence is the answer—so long as it’s simulated. Shoot down zombies or rough up ninjas at this arcade bar with the tokens that came with your drinks.

THE (OTHER) LIBRARY: Don’t worry—we know more books are the last things you need. Juice up on mindless binge-watching at Edmonton Public Library’s flagship, the Stanley Milner. It has a dizzying array of DVD box-sets. But if you’d rather not put on pants, punch in the number on your (free) library card online for access to online streaming services like Hoopla and Indieflix.

Cycles of Change: Mapping Change Along the Core’s Future Bike Track


Westmount resident and downtown worker Tamsin Shute // photo by Ian Scott

Tamsin Shute began riding her bike to work, at the Stanley Milner Library, from her Westmount home about five years ago. Originally from Vancouver, the children’s librarian and mother of two finds the ride along 102 Ave. relaxing and therapeutic, especially after a long day working with energetic kids. “No matter what’s happened during the day,” says Shute, 35, “just getting on the bike to ride home, I feel so much better.”

On all but a few blocks, where she has to navigate busy downtown traffic, Shute feels comfortable commuting on two wheels. But getting to the point where moderate cyclists like her are comfortable on Edmonton streets hasn’t come easily—and the work is far from done.

Edmonton cyclists have long been an under-serviced minority in a city that loves its trucks. For their part, drivers are often faced with navigating around vulnerable and sometimes unpredictable cyclists. For cyclists, the streets can be hostile with crumbling curb lanes, confusing traffic signage, disconnected networks and, at times, tonnes of speeding metal piloted by drivers who just don’t give a damn. Potholes might be the only thing they can unite on. It’s festered discontent on both sides—discontent that’s not unique to modern Canadian cities trying to promote active transportation. But while Vancouver, Toronto and even downtown Calgary have taken huge steps toward peaceful traffic co-existence, Edmonton has been mired in a slow process of incremental construction, conciliation and occasional back steps.

With the planned redevelopment of 102 Ave. putting new focus on cycling infrastructure in the downtown core, policy makers, municipal planners and cyclists in Edmonton are hoping that will change. At completion, cyclists will be able to pop by the Downtown farmers’ market for some carrots and berries, maybe a latte, visit a boutique or two, check out the action on Churchill Square, attend art galleries, a play, the symphony, and return home—all on one continuous glide from 96th to from there will be a matter of both public and political will.

“That was one of the big losses for Edmonton. These were reasonable ideas that were good for the environment, good for the economy, and they just weren’t embraced.” —Angela Bischoff, activist and partner of late councillor Tooker Gomberg

Biking has become a fashionable expression of environmental, health and urbanist consciousness, especially among under-40s. Inspired by these ideals, and by rising fuel costs, parking rates and commute times, more people are getting back on the saddle for the first time since childhood. But it’s not all Jane Jacobs disciples and downtown hipsters spurring the charge, nor is it a new idea— not even for Edmonton.

Back in the late 1980s, when the late educator, activist and politician Tooker Gomberg arrived on the scene, political support was lean for bicycle and eco-friendly initiatives. Gomberg quickly got involved with the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society, through which he met his life partner Angela Bischoff.

Together they lobbied hard for cycling initiatives. It was an exciting time, Bischoff recalls, but frustrating too. One failed campaign, Rails to Trails, aimed to convert old, downtown railway lines into a network of dedicated bike trails—a completely car-free corridor. “That was one of the big losses for Edmonton,” laments Bischoff. “These were reasonable ideas that were good for the environment, good for the economy, and they just weren’t embraced.”

Tired of battling an entrenched administration, Gomberg ran for city council in 1992 and won. That year, Council approved the city’s first Bicycle Transportation Plan and began expanding and paving multi-use trails in the river valley. Eventually, work began on urban streets, widening curb lanes, adding sharrows (painted markings indicating shared paths for drivers and cyclists) and extending suburban bike lanes. Combined, this system of trails skirted the periphery of downtown occasionally infiltrating the city centre but never quite coalescing into a fully integrated bike network.

Sharrows, introduced in 2010, were especially confusing and frustrating to cyclists and drivers alike. In 2013, then mayor Stephen Mandel lamented that bike infrastructure development was turning into “a nightmare,” after Ritchie residents complained about the prospect of losing parking along neighbourhood streets. It was a major setback for those in government and advocacy who’d dedicated themselves to quelling the growing cultural war.


Photo Courtesy of YEG Bike Coalition

In October 2014, the bike community learned that funding for cycling infrastructure, including another bike lane north of Whyte Ave., might be axed from the 2015 budget. To rally support, the Edmonton Bike Coalition quickly launched a campaign inviting cyclists to share images of themselves on bikes, holding signs reading “I bike,” “We bike,” and “I would bike.” A video mosaic of over 1,000 of these distinct images played on a loop in city hall. In December, City Council unanimously passed an $8.8 million budget for active transportation in the downtown core, with the 102 Ave corridor as a centrepiece.

The decision to approve the plan, which also calls for a dedicated cycling path along 105 Ave., north of the Edmonton Arena District, was heralded as a sign of renewed support for bicycle transportation in urban Edmonton. Under Don Iveson, Edmonton’s notably pro-cycling mayor, municipal support for bicycle initiatives is at an unprecedented high. But what does the city have to gain from that?

Few riders have logged as many kilometres on Edmonton streets as CJSR bicycle traffic reporter Karly Coleman. Every day, Coleman rides through a cross-section of downtown, across the High Level Bridge and to the University of Alberta, where the human ecology student is also writing her master’s thesis on how cyclists define themselves and construct identity on two wheels. “Riding not only gives you a sense of your immediate physical environment,” says the former MEC sustainability coordinator and Bikeology director, “it gives you a sense of your immediate social environment as well.”

On a larger scale, that question of identity can also be extended to cities. What happens when a city defines itself by its transportation mode?

For far too long, downtown Edmonton was defined by the car, says Tyler Golly, general supervisor of the City’s Sustainable Transportation department. “The design philosophy was to move as many cars and to get them in and out of downtown as fast as possible,” he explains. “We were trying to achieve extremely high levels of service for the automobile, which deprived the environment for people living or working here.”

Cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam have been redefined by cycling and active transportation, and how it gives life to public space, reduces vehicle congestion and pollution, and, generally speaking, contributes to better quality of life. Places like Portland, Melbourne and, notably, Minneapolis—which has a climate akin to ours—are successfully following suit. These cities are reshaping their urban infrastructure towards bicycles and pedestrians not because it’s easy, but because it makes sense. But does it make sense for Edmonton?

The number one thing you need to make it work isn’t infrastructure, but bikes. And there are many of them in the core. According to the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, 80 per cent of Oliver households have at least one. How many of them get used is another matter. Three per cent of Edmontonians ride their bikes daily, according to a 2013 Bannister poll, while 35 per cent ride every week. Those numbers suggest that the potential is there, but what will it take to convert more of them into regular or even occasional cyclists?

“The design philosophy was to move as many cars and to get them in and out of downtown as fast as possible. We were trying to achieve extremely high levels of service for the automobile, which deprived the environment for people living or working here.” —Tyler Golly, City of Edmonton’s Sustainable Transportation

Generally, cyclists fall into one of four categories, as identified by Portland transportation engineer Roger Geller. “Strong and fearless” riders, like Coleman, are undeterred by traffic or weather conditions. You might find them charging through stale yellow lights or merging across lanes at the speed of traffic. “Enthused and confident” riders are a little more conservative, keeping to the curb and waiting until all is clear to switch lanes. Combined, these groups account for less than 10 per cent of cyclists.

But then there’s “interested but concerned” riders, which comprise the largest population segment, 54 per cent according to a 2013 City survey. These Edmontonians ride a bike now and then, though not on a regular basis nor solely for commuting. They may get out on the occasional leisurely ride on river valley trails but they’re hesitant to engage with traffic. (The remaining 30 per cent is the “no way no how” group for whom riding is out of the question.) Tamsin Shute is somewhere in the middle.

“I’m definitely a fairweather biker,” says Shute, who commutes by bike half the year from April through September. “When I first started riding downtown I was really scared. Just the way the roads work, I have to go into the middle lane and there’s a lot of buses and taxis weaving in and out. So that’s where I have to keep my eyes open and be really cautious.”

Since the fearless and the confident will ride anyway, the City is focused on creating infrastructure for the middle categories, to put them at ease and build their confidence in hopes that they will take up cycling in greater numbers and frequency. According to an independent review by engineering consultant Urban Systems, one of the key things that would make more Edmonton cyclists feel safe is proper, dedicated infrastructure.

That’s where the 102 Ave. bike corridor comes in. The current design concept prioritizes active travel over vehicular traffic, with bike lanes physically separated from the street by a curb or structural divider. “Cars will still be able to use it as an access road, but it’s going to completely change,” explains Golly. “The priority users are going to be bicycles and pedestrians.”

Although Golly’s been working with a renewed and robust guiding document for bike infrastructure development since 2009, the last six years were marred by false starts. On top of the culture war, public resistance and limited funding has prevented planners from realizing the full potential. “It was like you’re a student backpacking through Europe on a shoestring budget,” Golly analogizes. “That’s what we did—we tried to provide as much bicycle infrastructure as we could with the limited funds we had.”


Hornby Separated Bike Lane

What a separated bike lane looks line in downtown Vancouver // photo by Paul Krueger (Flickr)

“The result of that was some people not being happy,” he says. “Change is never easy for a city.” Big change is certainly ahead, but there’s no guarantee on what the end result will look like, yet. The 102nd and 83rd avenue designs are still in consultation, and public input could sway the designs before shovels hit the ground next year. “You can have policies galore,” says Natalie Lazurko, Golly’s colleague in the financial and capital planning department, “but unless you have people advocating for this and willing to put their neck on the line to support it…politically, you don’t have a hope of actually getting there.”

That support wasn’t always there when it was needed in past, from council or administration, she says. “It’s a large corporation with many different years of experience. Some have been working under the old approach for years and years, and so just like we have to change people’s minds in public, it’s the same internally.”

But what if that political will shifts again? Frustrated, vehicle-bound ratepayers could still pressure the City into cutting funding and scaling back plans. It’s happened before. With so many other major capital projects, as well as growing infrastructure maintenance costs, budget priorities can change dramatically year over year, resulting in watered-down versions of grander plans.

As the population swells over the next few years, a legacy of auto-centric urban design will continue to accentuate downtown congestion problems. It will take a consistent, concerted effort by drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, planners and politicians— but the bicycle could be a part of the solution.

“Whatever the result, it will be better than it is now,” says Shute. “If it were a bit more safe, I would definitely opt to take the bike more often when we go out [as a family]. I want my kids to feel comfortable on bikes.”

Community By Design: The Citizen’s Role in Urban Planning


Amanda Henry, Oliver Community League membership director and Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues assistant executive director.

Since the first drawings of the Molson Brewery redevelopment were unveiled in early 2013, the Oliver Community League tried to stop it. Not because it didn’t want development on the troubled district. Far from it. But because a pending rezoning of the land would allow more of the same car-oriented power centres like Oliver Square to the east of it. And that, they argued, would undermine the community and City’s plans for a sustainable core.

The OCL initially engaged the developers, Sunlife and First Capital, directly. It held a charrette for residents of Oliver, Westmount, Queen Mary Park and other surrounding neighbourhoods. It organized them to demand a pedestrian and transit-friendly development at City Hall’s hearings. It filed a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request to retrieve internal City of Edmonton files that revealed dissenting views from planners whose opinions were in line with the league. Finally, the league hired a lawyer and went to court at a cost of almost $24,000, asserting that councillors were misled by one of their top city planners. The judge disagreed.

On Dec. 8, after 21 months of negotiation and debate, the OCL’s fight came to an end. The case was rejected.

Few community leagues would go to these lengths for matters of urban design and, surely, few Edmontonians would join one to get entangled in law. When we think of community leagues it’s usually sports clubs, pancake breakfasts, hockey rinks and Christmas parties that come to mind. “That’s where you get the good vibes,” explains Bev Zubot, planning advisor for the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, which provides advisory support to all 157 leagues. But she’s noticed a change. “There’s a movement of people expecting to have more control over their immediate environments.”

And community leagues are often the means through which they mobilize. But what is their role in planning matters, and should they have one at all? It calls into question the value of expertise, egalitarianism and fair representation.

At worst, the league itself could serve as a sounding board for a vocal minority opposing anything that threatens the existing state of affairs, perhaps social housing or LRT, or limply serve as a token box for the city to tick on consulting the community.

“We’re not really in the business of blocking things. The fact that you want to build here is great. Welcome to the neighbourhood, but here’s our handbook for how you can be a good neighbour.’” —Amanda Henry

But, at best, a league that busies itself with planning and urbanism issues, while actively recruiting diverse membership, plans for a future most residents want.

It’s easy to think of examples of the former (just picture the last screaming match you witnessed at an open house). In fact, not long ago Oliver’s league opposed high-density infill, like The Pearl tower. “They were trying to preserve and un-preservable reality,” says Amanda Henry, “an Oliver that looks like Aspen Gardens.”

Henry joined the OCL in 2012 during an especially drawn out and infuriating AGM. Her first AGM, in fact. After speaking out against its dysfunction, she excused herself for the washroom but couldn’t get far without other members begging her to volunteer as secretary. Now, not only is she the league’s membership director but she’s become an assistant executive director for the EFCL. All she knew about leagues three years ago was that most had a hall. Now she says, “They offer a really unique opportunity for immediate and tangible community-building. ”

In the case of the Molson Brewery redevelopment (opening late 2015 as the Edmonton Brewery District) engaged residents and, evidentially, some silenced city planners pressed for a walkable mix of stores and residences interacting with the streets and future West LRT Line. “We’re not really in the business of blocking things,” says Henry. “The fact that you want to build here is great. Welcome to the neighbourhood, but here’s our handbook for how you can be a good neighbour.’”


Ian O’Donnell, Downtown Edmonton Community League vice-president and development committee chair

Last year saw other examples of other leagues also attempting a more collaborative than combative approach: Queen Alexandra Community League took to social media with its “Cross-roads” initiative hoping to guide its inevitable neighbourhood renewal project to be more “walkable, bikeable, liveable;” a conglomerate of the Oliver, Westmount, Downtown Edmonton and Glenora leagues organized a pop-up bike lane on 102 Ave. to prove it wouldn’t be the boogeyman some feared; and when Daryl Katz made a major arena announcement at City Hall last year, he was joined by Downtown Edmonton Community League’s vice-president and development committee chair, Ian O’Donnell.

“It was nice to be recognized for the amount of work the community league did to help shape the new design,” says O’Donnell, who works for an architectural firm. He wouldn’t have expected it four years ago when the Katz Group showed DECL its preliminary designs. It was too inward-focused, he says, standing as a monolith rather than integrating with the present urban fabric. “We told them we were a little disappointed,” he says. “At that point, we became even more involved with the city and the Katz Group.”

“There’s been a lot more attention towards urbanism and there’s a lot of interesting people in the city bringing new ideas,” says Erik Backstrom, a senior city planner on transit-oriented development. Like Zubot of the EFCL, he’s witnessed an awakening of urban planning interests within the public sphere. But unlike them, few armchair urbanists have professional civic experience—especially not Backstrom’s nine years of education and 15 years with the City. Still, he welcomes it and finds it invigorating.

Other cities’ versions of community leagues don’t have as many privileges. Toronto, for example, has “ad hoc” neighbourhood associations, says Sandeep Agrawal, inaugural director of the University of Alberta’s planning program. “Here, it’s more organized and recognized.”

Edmonton has a rich history of community organized activism. In 1917, residents of the Crestwood neighbourhood had grown tired of their infrastructure needs being ignored. At a time when municipal power lie more with developers than governments, the neighbours banded and formed Canada’s first community league. By 1921 there were nine. It kept growing.

But somewhere around the mid-20th century, explains Zubot of the EFCL, leagues started diverting from the planning needs of their neighbourhoods and started focusing more on recreational and social initiatives. “[They] got away from the basics.”

Worldwide, but especially in booming Edmonton, a post-modern school of thought shifted control to city hall. There, new neighbourhoods were drawn up and executed with developers based on a modern vision centred around personal vehicles. This method of “urban renewal” meant clearing large swaths of areas for redevelopment, usually resulting in pristine yet sprawling and car-reliant communities. “We all believed this was progress,” says Zubot. “Only after cities lost their human scale, became less ‘liveable,’ was there a backlash.”

BEVZUBOT-YARDSPRING2015 Bev Zubot, Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues planning advisor

The backlash has a word: advocacy planning. Whereas urban renewal was “a top-down approach from those in charge, commissioners or planners, leading the way with no input from the public,” Agrawal says, advocacy planning meant “planners should be able to advocate everybody’s point of view.” It put our community leagues, emboldened by decades of experience, in a powerful position, which the EFCL recognized quickly. In 1977 , then-president Don Eascott challenged City Hall to give leagues more power. “There is a popular trend in the city for citizen participation and citizen involvement,” he wrote in a municipal report, “and it is naive to think the community leagues should exist only for hockey programs.”

Locally, this movement saw the formation of Area Redevelopment Plans in the 1980s. Mature neighbourhoods like Oliver started forming these neighbourhood blueprints with city administration, leagues and any interested parties. These collaborative plans were a tool for leagues to dictate what could be or couldn’t be built in each neighbourhood. But, mostly, it leaned toward the latter, putting public servants in a tight spot, especially as Edmonton climbed out of a recession and development picked up again in the late 1990s. Suddenly ARPs weren’t so easy to honour.

“There was feeling on council like, ‘Why are we doing these ARPs if, when a development proposal comes up, they’re not relevant?’” explains Backstrom. “And it left the community wondering, ‘Well what was the point of all this work we put into it for the past two years, if council is just going to ignore it?” After a reorganization of the planning branch, the ARP department was effectively shut down. Today, they exist more for corridors than communities, such as that for 104 Ave., and are amendable as ever.

“The advice and recommendations of planners are frequently overridden by neighbourhood residents who know very little about the range of topics that underline the profession, but feel they know better because they have lived in a community for so many years.” —Michael Geller, architect (Vancouver Courier)

Henry believes that neighbourhood ARPs were ineffective tools, often abused to maintain status quo. “It would be reckless to try to constrain the natural progression of development as an LRT goes through it.” She much prefers that her league be agile, educated and active conduits between developers and planners.

O’Donnell of DECL echoes this. “We want to have a win-win, and not be adversarial in how we approach it,” he says. “It’s not about how much or little input people have, but the quality of input, review and feedback that is provided.”

Whether you’re interested in urbanism, crime-prevention or just grilling smokies—now’s the perfect time to get involved.
Oliver Community League AGM: Apr. 29 at 7pm, OCL Hall (10326 118 St.)
Downtown Edmonton Community League AGM: May 12 at 7 pm, DECL Community Space (10042 103 St.)

To that end, DECL and OCL allow for some interested members to attend the City of Edmonton’s Planning Academy, one and two-day courses for the public to brush up on issues like urban design and land use. Others educate themselves online or by travelling.

But without education, decentralized planning can be detrimental. In a provocative Vancouver Courier op-ed last year titled “Is it time to say goodbye to the experts?” architect Michael Geller wrote: “…the advice and recommendations of planners are frequently overridden by neighbourhood residents who know very little about the range of topics that underline the profession, but feel they know better because they have lived in a community for so many years.”

Further, it can burn people out, especially in neighbourhoods like Downtown Edmonton and Oliver, home to 13,000 and 20,000 people, respectively, and growing faster than anyone 20 years ago would have imagined. Being an active participant in so many developments at once is tiring and could potentially drive away people from joining leagues for noble neighbourly affairs they’re better known for. “As a volunteer, trying to keep on top of all that can be draining,” says Judy Allan, the City’s revitalization coordinator who helped facilitate 118 Ave.’s renewal plan. “Especially as the city is really booming right now.”

Equally important as large volunteer bases are varied ones, with many roles, goals and active volunteers representing the spectrum of interests. Otherwise, it’s easy for decision-makers to dismiss leagues as lacking representation.

“The community league is the most barrier-free entry to organize citizen action in the city,” says Henry. “It’s dead easy. … And then you go forth and make that thing happen.”

Lusty Young Giant: A Biography of Our Neigbourhood

Lusty Giant
Shortly after the CN Tower was completed in 1966, the City of Edmonton’s planning department produced a fact sheet with an illustrated timeline depicting all a developer needed to know about the Gateway to the North. The final milestone included a utopic drawing of Edmonton’s downtown skyline—with what was, for a brief time, Western Canada’s tallest skyscraper at its centre. Below it, this caption: “Modern Edmonton, a lusty young giant and the key metropolis in Canada’s next 100 years.”

Ironically, it was around this time that Downtown started becoming anything but vigorous. A giant, maybe, but a lethargic one that slept for 16 hours a day. By the 1970s, it was in bad health, sick from suburban flight, uni-functionalism, insular buildings and pedways that robbed the streets of life and history. Its nervous system flowed with cars and its heart beat ever slower. How did this happen during Edmonton’s most prosperous time?

The image of a lifeless city centre is unrecognizable to many who live there today. The core is in recovery mode, largely thanks to a reverse exodus of people who’ve made Downtown and neighbouring Oliver two of Edmonton’s fastest growing neighbourhoods. Many, if not most of them, are too young to remember the dark days, or are new to the city. Had they been here 50 years ago, there is something they’d recognize right away: a mind-boggling construction boom.

Once again there are more cranes in the Downtown skyline than you can count in one gaze. What will the end result be? The changes are happening so fast that it’s hard to predict, but if we understand the past we can help shape the future.

‘Nowhere a More Buoyant People’

One-hundred and twenty years ago, Edmonton’s most prominent feature wasn’t buildings, cars or people. It was trees. The governor general’s wife described the city after her 1894 visit as “Pretty scenery with plenty of timber, very different from the dreary prairies.” Three years later the Klondike rush arrived and Downtown’s quaint character gave way to a real estate boom.

The rail yards and station built by Canadian Northern Railway, along what’s now 104 Avenue, opened in 1905 and accelerated development. While the province’s first newspaper owned by politician Frank Oliver (namesake for the Oliver neighbourhood) called for expelling the Cree, Eastern Canadian and European families arrived to Jasper Avenue with freights of livestock and  heads full of dreams. “There could be nowhere a more hopeful or buoyant people than the Edmontonese,” wrote The National Monthly of Canada. “They look upon themselves as being the makers of a city that will surpass Winnipeg in time.”

Others insisted it was the next Chicago, but Downtown was still a playful infant. “On Saturdays,” writes Tony Cashman in When Edmonton Was Young, “a popular form of relaxation was jumping fully-dressed into the horse trough at Jasper Avenue and 95 Street … a grand spectator sport for kids of the neighbourhood.”

Soon Downtown had six theatres, the dome-topped Alberta Legislature dwarfed the riverbank’s old fort and the McLeod and Tegler towers cast shadows on the surrounding shops. Those who’d spent a few hundred dollars on Jasper Avenue properties flipped them for hundreds of thousands.

But it was pure luck. The First World War stoppered immigration, the bubble burst and Downtown’s dreams were put on hold.

‘Marred By That Unsightly Block’

Despite the Great Depression, Downtown was determined to become something befitting of the city’s capital status. There was little money, just ideas. The local government bought up cheap land surrounding CN’s new station, slated for completion in 1928, hoping to construct an attractive civic centre that would impress newcomers the moment they stepped off the train.

Complete with a natural history museum and standalone art gallery, you could call it Downtown’s first revitalization project. Like the forthcoming arena district, it dragged on for years—decades even—due to its costs and lack of government support.

In 1943, JW Sherwin, an academic and writer, explained his impatience in a letter to the mayor, recounting King George VI and his Royal Family’s recent visit: “I was one of the thousands who stood or was crowded in front of the Macdonald Hotel on that memorable and now almost historical night. … I have often tried to visualize since, what their impression was when they smilingly looked down and waved their hands to that enthusiastic audience, almost one of their last appearances, and the whole scene marred in its background by that unsightly block of antiquated frame shack stores and their backyards.”

Then, in February 1947, Leduc No. 1 filled 41 barrels of oil in its first 60 minutes. Three months later, Edmonton’s planning commission presented a renewed civic centre plan even grander than the first. A plebiscite for the plan was held in 1950. But the public rejected it.

Perhaps Edmontonians were busy cashing in on a modern dream. As Linda Goyette put it in Edmonton: In Our Own Words, “Young developers became millionaires because they supplied a treasure more valuable to families than all the black gold in Alberta: an affordable home.”

Downtown hardly needed a boost from the public coffers anyway. Modernist masterpieces, such as the AGT Building, Toronto Dominion Bank and Centennial Plaza, blossomed from those former shacks and yards. In time, a new city hall, library and art gallery would bring the civic centre to near completion, while CN planned a new station inside its striped marble-clad tower. Also in the works was North America first light-rail transit system, intended to connect the city’s growing extremities—suburbs and subdivisions—to its heart. Out went the ground, up went the cranes.

There were few critics of Downtown’s “new look,” as it was called, perhaps because fewer lived there. It became less a neighbourhood than a public works project, and those who spoke out were laughed down by boosters, such as in this 1965 Edmonton Journal editorial: “A modest stroll through the business section of the infant city just before the 1914-18 war would have been enough to send the architectural purists to the sidewalk of that latest wonder, the High Level Bridge—with thoughts of jumping off.”

Going Big

In July 1972, as throngs of people in dapper hats, corsets and furs crowded Jasper Avenue for the Klondike Day Parade, a wrecking ball smashed through the neo-classical courthouse a block away. Parts of its exterior went to the provincial museum for exhibition. That was the boomtown mentality. Sixty-year-old sandstone: artifact.

The iconic courthouse, Victorian post office and King Edward Hotel—all razed for glassy and concrete offices of an inhuman scale and parking lots to support them. The few planned social spaces were insular and threatened to vacuum what little street life remained, culminating in the half-baked Omniplex proposal—an all-in-one football stadium, hockey rink and convention centre.

“Going big” had serious consequences to the feeling of being in Downtown. For one, it resulted in a rush of the hideous concrete residential and office towers that still define it today. Meanwhile, the commercial buildings, connected by pedways, turned their backs to the streets, repelling rather than encouraging life in public spaces. As well, zoning changes that attempted to increase density increased land values, so property owners were more inclined to sit on their parking lots waiting for investment that never came.

It wasn’t just the residential potential that was grim. The Hotel Macdonald was falling into disrepair and other surrounding businesses were shuttering or moving to malls in droves. More would follow when West Edmonton Mall opened in 1983, awakening residents to the core’s undeniable lameness. Until then nothing could crush the boosterism.

Leading up to the 1978 Commonwealth Games, Mayor Cec Purves announced, “We won’t be mistaken for a dot on the map any longer.”

Throwing Things at a Wall

For a while it felt that way. The games, the Oilers, SCTV and the planet’s largest mall attracted unlikely attention to Edmonton and its core.

On assignment with the New York Times magazine in 1985, Mordecai Richler observed about Wayne Gretzky’s home: “There is hardly a tree to be seen downtown, nothing to delight the eye on Jasper Avenue. On 30-below-zero nights, grim religious zealots loom on street corners, speaking in tongues, and intrepid hookers in miniskirts rap on the windows of cars that have stopped for traffic.”

It wasn’t without warning. In a 1979 civic report, architect R.L. Wilkin said that Downtown had become uni-functional as an area devoted to the service sector. “The future of downtown Edmonton as a substantial residential area does not at this point look bright.”

Despite his sobering words, attempts to revitalize it focused on megaprojects, including a $100 million plan that included a “world-class” concert hall, a renovated Chinatown, an outdoor mall dubbed the “Towne Market,” a theme park and fantasy fair. Indeed, it was a fantasy, one quickly halted by economic recession, high mortgage rates and austerity programs. However one was realized, the mall now known as City Centre. The private-public partnership cost nearly the same as the new arena and was contracted to the billionaire family behind West Edmonton Mall. It was supposed to help Downtown recover from their very creation. The proposal was repeatedly watered down and never met expectations.

Despite the addition of beautifying new streetlights and meridian globes few would walk the area after work. “Have you ever gone for a walk in downtown Edmonton at night?” asked Olive Elliot in a Journal column. “The city is transformed by shadows and light and takes on a new, moody beauty that is never suggested by day. Unfortunately, many Edmontonians know nothing of such experiences because they have grown to fear the streets at night. Stories of robbery and rape, assault and harassment seem to fill the news pages and the impression of mean streets sinks deeper into public consciousness.” But more than anything, there just wasn’t much there to do.

That was less true in nearby Oliver, which saw a budding community of students, gays and seniors, drawn by cheap rent, who patronized what few bars and cafes existed. It seems obvious now that the difference between east and west Downtown was residences, but it would take another decade to draw that conclusion.

An opportunity to correct mistakes arose after CN finished dismantling the rail yards in the 1990s. The city planned a dense community of walkups and townhouses that would essentially extend Oliver northward. Instead, “market forces” overturned the idea and 104 Avenue took on a suburban form with traffic planning so pedestrian-unfriendly that one city councillor even argued for buffers keeping unwanted pedestrians from slowing her commute. None were needed; the strip malls  were barriers enough, further dividing residents of Downtown and Oliver from surrounding neighbourhoods.

Downtown is for People

And then, in 1997, an epiphany: Instead of trying to attract people to Downtown, what if people lived there?

At the moment there were about 5,100 residents in Downtown proper—fewer than there were five years earlier. City Council approved a $30 million Capital City Plan that focused not on commerce, but on homes. There were some beautification ideas to attract residential developers, first on the 104th Street Promenade, but the golden ticket was a generous grant program that the city hoped would nearly double Downtown dwellers to 10,000.

It’s since exceeded that by over 3,000. Oliver’s population also ballooned, and now counts 20,000 residents. With the number of Downtown residential condos and apartments under development, it’s safe to say the two regions will be home to nearly 40,000 Edmontonians by 2020. Surrounding Central Edmonton neighbourhoods—McCauley, Boyle, Central McDougall and Queen Mary Park—haven’t seen as much growth but are on their way with various infill. And only 20 years later, the City has acknowledged its mistakes with the former rail yards and is attempting to undo the barrier by re-imagining 104 Avenue as a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use corridor.

Yet when we talk about Downtown’s revival, the focus tends to be on the new cafes and boutiques, the megaprojects, the hotels, the cranes, the holes—instead of the people. Certainly, the commercial upswing has made Downtown noteworthy again, but without those thousands of urban pioneers none of it would have happened.

According to the 2014 census, about 40 per cent of new Oliver and Downtown dwellers arrived from outside Edmonton. They’ve helped renew the optimism, projecting upon Downtown their idea of what a capital city should look and feel like. But a city with our in-migration—one of the fastest in Canada—grapples with a lacking sense of history. In its third quest to becoming “world-class,” Downtown must learn from its mistakes.

As far as it has come, Downtown still lacks the vitality of most other cities of 1 million. Will the current boom spread its successes—the reinvigorated Warehouse District, Jasper Avenue and 124 Street—to the rest of the core and Edmonton’s other straggling promenades? Or might it do the opposite, drive people out who can’t bear the construction or afford to live there anymore?

The focuses on infill, higher density, appealing architecture, entertainment and walkability are a step in the right direction—though they shouldn’t come at the risk of historic erasure, class exclusion or street life. And we must acknowledge the obvious: The second oil boom enabled Downtown’s renaissance as much as the urban pioneers have. It’s offered us the chance to build it right this time, but we can’t know for how long it will last. If and when the well runs dry, what will keep up Downtown’s momentum?