— Feature —

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

To what extent should community leagues and citizens participate 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.”