Why Small is Big When it Comes to Urban Design


Susan Forsey has two babies, and like any good mother, she pretends she doesn’t have a favourite. But she does. “You’re supposed to love all your kids equally, but this is my baby and I would have been happy with this,” she says, voice hushed, finger pointed at a reclaimed wood table in the corner of Cask & Barrel.

She and Wayne Jones, her partner in life and business, opened the 1,300-sq.-ft. bar in 2012 with the intent of providing good beer, wine and scotch to an older and refined crowd. When it first opened in the Confederation Building on 104 St., Forsey was there every day, open to close. But nowadays, Cask’s bigger sister Rocky Mountain Icehouse gets most of her attention.
  Nearly three times Cask’s size, the restaurant
 in the Jasper Block building one street northwest opened in July 2015 and Forsey calls it the colicky one of the two. “It’s way easier to open up a smaller place, and make sure it’s successful, than a bigger one,” says Forsey, who, like Jones, has 20-plus years in hospitality behind her. “This place could do the same amount of sales that [Icehouse] could do with half the staff.”

In Edmonton’s core, where bigger appears to be better—bigger arena, bigger museum, bigger university—smaller isn’t just surviving; it’s thriving. Yet our streets don’t provide enough of these fine-grain, hole-in-the-wall businesses that let people like Forsey and Jones take a risk, succeed, then grow. Anyone who’s walked Toronto, Montreal or a great number of cities’ downtown streets knows the sight of a trail of sandwich boards—each one indicating another small business. On one side of one block you could enter and exit a dozen doors. The store bays are long and narrow. Their owners, usually behind a counter.
 “You need to have a lot of really great small retail bays to have small business,” says Ian O’Don
nell, vice president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League. “That’s something we’ve been challenged by, because we’ve moved or redeveloped a lot of the older sites that Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal have retained.”

There is, however, a movement afoot to rewrite this in the core, and Lisa Baroldi, co-founder of the urban networking vehicle Designing Downtown, can point to the cause: “You’ve got really creative entrepreneurs pushing developers in different directions and making demands to do different things,” says the Oliver resident.

The Icon Towers on 104 St., developed by Langham Developments Ltd., are good examples
 of that push, what with those residential towers’ podiums playing host to a variety of small retailers and restaurants. Soon Langham’s Fox Towers will repeat this exactly one block north. More offices and towers along 124 St. and Jasper Ave. are being built or retrofitted with small storefronts, but our core still lags behind most other cities’, to say nothing of the small bays available on Whyte Ave. just across the river. But if the dozens of cranes reaching over the skyline mean anything, it’s that big change is possible.

Developers have their reasons for going “big.” Big tenants usually bring with them an established clientele and financial stability, plus having one large tenant instead of many small tenants is easier to manage. “It’s more difficult for mom and pop shops to provide a background and history and demonstrated financials than, say, a 7/11 or an Earl’s,” says O’Donnell. “So landlords will typically prefer to have a brand name.”


Eric Slatter is a leasing agent with Colliers International who’s worked on tenant agreements for commercial bays both small and big, new and old. Although the tendency for developers is to try securing large companies with predictable profits, he says carving out smaller retail makes financial sense for them. “If it’s a 3,000-sq.-ft. space, it limits how many tenants can use [it],” he says. “If you can divide that into three 1,000 sq.-ft. units, you would be able to charge a premium on each one of those square feet.”

But tripling the tenants could also triple the headaches, which is why many developers continue to develop sizeable spaces to attract tenants with sizeable reputations. Even then, it doesn’t always work out. Slatter points to the still vacant Sobeys on 104 St., kitty-corner to Cask & Barrel, which closed in the summer of 2014, seven years into a 10-year lease. “All your eggs are in one basket in that sense,” says Slatter, who represents the landowner.

Inside Coffee Bureau, one of several tiny retailers emerging in the core.

Coffee Bureau is one of several tiny retailers emerging in the core. (Mack Male/Flickr)

At nearly 20,000 sq. ft., the former Sobeys 
could fit 14 pubs the size of Cask. And while Cask is comparatively small, seating 77, when placed on the “small scale” it’s a monster. You could fit two TziN Wine & Tapas into Cask. And at least three Coffee Bureaus. It just depends on how you define small. Small can mean a farmers’ market stall or a food truck. In fact the city’s thriving food truck scene might have as much to do with a lack of appropriately sized commercial spaces as it does with the Food Network. As urbanist and The Happy City author Charles Montgomery said on a recent visit to Edmonton, “Food trucks are great, but they’re like an indicator species that says, ‘Yeah, you screwed that up’.” His point is that Edmonton has failed to offer small-scale restaurants space in the first place.

And that’s unfortunate because the smaller an entrepreneur starts the more room they have to grow. “And people who get that right,” says Baroldi, “they’re going to be incredibly successful.”

Annie Parent's cozy gift shop recently knocked down a wall to grow.

Annie Parent’s cozy gift shop Habitat Etc.

Just ask Annie Parent. She started out selling handmade terrariums at the City Market Downtown. When it was time to leave her work
in the pharmaceuticals industry and set up her dream gift shop, Habitat Etc., the 34-year-old chose a 550-sq.-ft. former office in 104 St.’s McKenny building, not just because it was close to the market but because of its size. She could have rented some- thing larger for the same price on a different street but, she says, “the challenge is finding a small space to start. The hardest thing in retail is having such large overhead in the beginning.”

Now a year into business, she has opened up the walled-off storage room to accommodate the growing number of customers interested
in craft workshops.

“It’s market-driven. So,
 at the very least, we need the City
 of Edmonton to minimize other barriers to establishing small businesses, such as parking minimums.” — Lisa Brown, Oliver Community League president

Starting a business, even one the size of a closet, isn’t easy. There are macro-hoops that micro-entrepreneurs have to jump through.

First, you need to find a space,
 which isn’t as easy as it looks. Nate
Box, for instance, searched for
two years before opening his first of 
five businesses, Elm Cafe, on 195 sq. ft. inside the base of an Oliver apartment. And then there’s the bureaucratic process 
of meeting building code and zoning regulations. Coffee Bureau, for 
example, was expected to have 
a barrier-free bathroom, even 
though it would take up one-fifth 
of the cafe. That’s because Bureau
 seats 10 people. If, in the future,
 owners wanted to add more seats,
 they’d have to also add another 
bathroom, a physical impossibility.

“We’re always asking developers to install small bays in new buildings when we’re discussing their rezoning applications, but there’s no guarantee that’ll happen,” says Oliver Community League president Lisa Brown. “It’s market-driven. So,
 at the very least, we need the City
 of Edmonton to minimize other barriers to establishing small businesses, such as parking minimums.”

Zoning bylaws regulating the
number of parking stalls a business
must have in order to open have caused many well-publicized delays for businesses, especially outside of Downtown proper, which has reduced parking requirements. The well-intentioned rule is supposed to accommodate commuter customers, but as public transit use grows and the inner city becomes more of a place to live (or a “lifestyle,” as Baroldi calls it), they’re becoming irrelevant. A pilot project will relax the rules in Oliver, on 124 St. and on Whyte Ave., but some would-be business owners would prefer none at all. Slatter, who worked on the 109 St. deal with the owners of the Common, says the fact that the restaurant and club had no parking stalls wasn’t a deterrent. The owners said they didn’t even need any—and if the line-ups outside the bar on a Friday night are any indication, they were right.

The City of Edmonton is open to relaxing rules to encourage more small business in our neighbourhoods. But, says Peter Ohm, branch manager of urban planning and sustainable development, fundamental to these potential changes is population density. “That’s key in having a foundation that gets people to support smaller businesses,” he says. “Smaller businesses aren’t going to come to an area if there aren’t people there to shop.”

In 2010, city council adopted a plan to revitalize the core through a series of catalyst projects and public investment, including attracting more residential development. According to the 2014 census, the combined population in Downtown and Oliver was sitting around 32,000 people. That’s up about 5,000 from 2008. With about a dozen residential towers proposed or in development, the population will only swell, which, in turn, could drive developers to carve out small spaces for the basic amenities their tenants will come to expect.

And that’s what makes Cask & Barrel successful, says Forsey. With its bar that easily takes up one-third of the entire square footage, Cask offers something big can’t: friendly familiarity. “I have customers that have been coming here for three years, and they’re my friends,” says Forsey, just moments after Ian O’Donnell enters and is greeted by name. “It’s almost like Cheers, right?”

Growing Up and Out

the commonThe Bar: The Common
Neighbourhood: Oliver
First Opened: 2009
Initial Size: 1,400 sq. ft.
New Size: 4,500 sq. ft., grew to 8,000 with basement addition
“The challenge was that it was just too small right from the get go.” —Kyla Kazeil, co-owner


Duchess-Bake-Shop-Edmonton-2-1024x682The Bakery: Duchess Bakeshop
Neighbourhood: Westmount
First Opened: 2009 Initial Size: 1,600 sq. ft.
New Size: grew to 4,500 sq. ft. with neighbouring bays, later added an additional 14,000 sq. ft. location in Queen Mary Park
“We wanted a space we could actually grow into, not grow out of.” —Garner Beggs, co-owner


barber ha

Photo: Grempz/Flickr

The Barber: Barber Ha
Neighbourhood: Strathcona
First Opened: 2011
Initial Size: 500 sq. ft.
New Size: 1,800 sq. ft.
“Initially we were really sad to have to move because we loved how intimate that space was, but in the end, it worked out for the best.” —Linda Ha, owner

Little Free Libraries on the Move

Photo 2016-01-06, 6 06 43 AM

Two years ago, former Oliver resident Annalise Klingbeil was enamoured by street-side newspaper boxes filled with free books cropping up in her hometown of Calgary, and she sought to bring the global movement to Oliver under the name Oliver Little Free Libraries.

With the help of the OCL, Klingbeil wrangled 10 boxes, got local artists or community members to give them eye-catching makeovers, filled them with donated books and watched it take off—beyond Oliver.

Ritchie resident Debbie Forsyth was inspired by the Oliver movement and has since channelled her lifelong love of reading into setting up eight boxes in her south-side neighbourhood.

Likewise, St. Albert’s self-diagnosed “community-development book junkie,” Angie Dedrick sourced 12 news-boxes from the Edmonton Sun in spring 2014 to spread across the suburb. Says Dedrick, “The Little Libraries wake us up to community and remind us of our desire for connection, and maybe even give us permission to open up to it.”

Klingbeil, who’s since returned to Calgary, says, “At its core, the project is a chance for Oliver’s residents to get to know each other and build community.” (Find a library near you.)

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Klingbeil introduced the concept to Edmonton. That’s incorrect; Strathearn launched a bilingual little library in 2012.

Five Fascinating Facts About Oliver

LifeofaNeighbour (1) (2)

In a city bound by startling growth, it’s easy to forget the history right beneath our feet. Luckily for Oliver residents there’s The Life of a Neighbourhood: A History of Edmonton’s Oliver District 1870–1950, writers Lawrence Herzog and Shirley Lowe’s 2002 biography of the community’s first post-Colonial 80 years. The softcover, perfectly bound book makes a gorgeous gift to yourself or friends. Pick it up for just $10 at any official OCL event at the community hall.

Here’s a sample of the countless surprises within its 167 pages:

1. Edmonton General Hospital was Canada’s first to have a fully operable X-ray machine.

2. A man who was killed while working on the High Level Bridge was actually entombed in its northern-most pier.

3. Oliver School used to house a miniature rifle range in its basement so that the attending boys could get target practice at playtime.

4. The gold ceramic used in some of the mural illustrations in St. Joseph’s Basilica was originally meant to decorate lampposts in Nuremburg during one of Adolf Hitler’s many rallies.

5. Witnesses have confirmed that almost 900 swimmers would squeeze around Oliver Pool (originally “West End Pool”) at once to beat the heat.

The Renter’s Revival

A vision of J22, one of several forthcoming rental apartments, atop Planet Organic's new home. (Image: DIOLG)

A vision of J22, one of several forthcoming rental apartments, atop Planet Organic’s new home. (Image: DIALOG)

Apartment-hunting in Downtown used to feel like job-hunting. You had to pound the pavement, make repeat calls and offer up references
 to make the cut. Over the last decade, a large influx of migrants has driven vacancy rates down and rental fees way up, so with limited options rental costs across Edmonton have nearly doubled since 2005, to $1,259 for
 a two-bedroom. But the tables are finally turning in the renter’s favour.

In the last year, vacancy rates have risen from 1.7 per cent to 4.2 per cent and landlords are now offering all kinds of incentives to anyone willing to sign a one-year lease, including a free month’s rent. Developers have finally responded with new apartment buildings. Not only has this freshened up the outmoded existing stock, predominantly built in the 1960s and ’70s, but according to City of Edmonton chief economist John Rose, it’s resulting in a soft decline of rental fees.

“We are near record levels,” he says, pointing to the most recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation rental market report showing that more than 2,500 city-wide apartment units were under construction last year—double 2014’s already promising construction numbers. Many of these new residences are in the core: Mayfair Village North on 109 St., the Hendrix tower and row-houses in Oliver or the 10 storeys atop Planet Organic’s new home. Even more are proposed around MacEwan and the Ice District. “The important thing here is that a lot of it is dedicated rental. They tend to be less expensive than [repurposed rental] condos,” he notes. “Dedicated rental is a factor in preserving affordable housing.”

The waning economy is also a
 help to renters; new workers tend to ease into cities through rentals first before homeownership, but with job growth slowing in Edmonton, so too is demand. This slope might give some apartment developers cold feet, says Jandip Deol, Colliers International Canada’s associate vice-president
of multifamily. Towers that up until now were likely to open as apartments may, in the end, revert to condos. As well, buildings built in the last decade have the most vacancies, according to the CMHC. Unsurprisingly, they’re also about $450 more per month.

But Deol thinks the Downtown apartment market will grow because of its burgeoning amenities and appeal to young professionals willing to pay more for something they’ll never own—so long as the finishes are good as new. “A lot of people my age understand the value of renting—cash flow is king,” says the 31-year-old. “Living Downtown and walking to work, to the corner store for groceries, is appealing. But you can still get up and leave if you’re sick of the place, as opposed to being forced to hold onto your place because it’s not feasible to sell today.”

From the Wreckage

Photo 2015-10-19, 9 22 28 AM

Many were shocked by the sudden fiery demise of Oliver’s Leamington Mansions in October. Built during the First World War, the brick walk-up fell dormant in 2004, but
 was set for a resurgence when one of Canada’s biggest apartment managers recently bought it and had almost completed renovations.

Sadly, it’s gone forever. At least most of it. On the morning following the blaze, Dan Rose—a member of the OCL’s Civics Committee and founding member of Heritage Forward—worked diligently alongside the demo crew to save its stone entrance and name-plate from the wrecking ball.

“Keeping those remnants around is pretty much all we can do to preserve the memories that shaped where we are today,” he says. Rose is hopeful that the artifact will be preserved by the City and landowner, and eventually reused on another building site.

Spreading the Peace

Photo 2016-01-06, 6 09 33 AM (2)

As black dirt peeps through melting ice and dormant branches stretch upwards toward
 the sun, gardeners are beginning to envision what their flowerbeds and vegetable patches might look like come summer. But not all of those gardeners will get to make their vision a reality, as the limited garden space in Oliver’s Peace Garden Park can only provide plots to 87 residents.

But what is spring without hope? Motivated by the success of Peace Garden Park, Oliver’s most popular community green-space, the OCL’s garden director Justin Keats and other members of the league are
 on the lookout for a second garden location in the neighbourhood’s Grandin area. “The ideal space would be a field or undeveloped lot, bordered with trees, and with a slice of sky that is generally untouched by the shade of highrises,” says Keats. “It’s a chance to naturalize a concrete lot.”

The current waiting time for a plot is two years. Another site, says Keats, “would serve more individuals who otherwise lack the space to garden.”

Cliff Balog, who’s planted in Peace Garden from the start, in 2009, agrees. “Having another garden in the Oliver community will bring people out of their condos and highrises and develop a sense of belonging,” he says. “Even those who don’t have plots already come to talk to gardeners.”

A second garden space won’t come easy: There are the issues of finding
a site, of purchasing the land and of submitting a proposal to the City for redevelopment. “A new space would have to be facilitated by a new group of volunteers who would step forward to lead with the garden’s development,” adds Keats, who’s currently trying to source committed volunteers.

But for Hilda Sucre, all that work is worth the effort of building beautiful neighbourhoods. “When you close your eyes, it’s warm, peaceful, you can hear the birds chirping, smell
the earth’s aroma, near the rose
beds you can smell their fragrance,” says the avid Oliver gardener. “The community really needs more garden spaces, as there is always a waiting list.”

Are you interested in helping start another much-needed garden? Join other community members on April 10 (details above) to see how you can help.

Where’s my nearest community garden?

  • Peace Garden Park (10259 120 St.)
  • Our Urban Eden Garden (9910 Bellamy Hill Rd.)
  • COMING SOON: Alex Decoteau Park (105 St. & 102 Ave.; if you’re interested in joining the garden committee email info@decl.org)

Soft Landings for New Canadians

Imagine you are a newcomer to Canada (perhaps you are) and have found an apartment in Oliver. It’s not the least expensive you could find, but it’s in a nice building surrounded by big trees, shopping, transit and a nearby park for your children. You’re settling into life in Canada and are finding your way to nearby shops, but you require more support to really feel comfortable. Where do you go?

LogoRecently, a couple from India found themselves at our community hall in search of help with settling into their new Canadian lives. Residing in Oliver, they were at a loss with finding a library. And the settlement services seemed to be bus rides away.

Right now, anyone in Oliver who wants these kinds of social supports will likely need to leave Oliver to find them. The nearest library is Stanley Milner. Many settlement services are located in the Downtown, Boyle Street and Alberta Avenue areas. Oliver is home to some 19,000 people—new-comers to Canada, students, seniors, families, lower-income persons, wealthy persons, homeless persons, etc. We are a small city within a city. Yet, we have very few social services located within the neighbourhood.

Oliver Community League is committed to seeing this improve in the coming years. As we look for a second garden space, we are also looking at the entire community of Oliver and the needs of its residents. Is Oliver Park an ideal location for a new hall/library/meeting space? Will the Oliver Park arena remain as is or become a modern facility with social resources housed within, like a library, performing arts space, a social worker, etc.? There’s lots to look at, examine, question and plan in the coming few years.

If social advocacy is of interest to you, consider running for a position on the board of directors of OCL. The Annual General Meeting is Wed., April 20 at 7 pm. Nominations are ongoing and there are a number of open positions. Anyone who is interested can inquire further at info@olivercommunity.com.

Knowing that garden spaces in Oliver are so limited, our Peace Garden Park director, Justin Keats, is hosting two balcony gardening sessions on April 10, starting at 3 pm at the hall. Come learn how to turn your balcony into an oasis.

As always, the Oliver Community League encourages residents to get an OCL membership, get involved and help shape our community. Happy Spring, everyone!

OCL board of directors: Lisa Brown (President); Danny Hoyt (VP); Simon Yackuli (Secretary); Leah Hilsenteger (Treasurer); Curtis Boehm; Jarrett Campbell; James Eastham; Justin Keats; Luwam Kiflemariam; Rowan Kunitz; Dustin Martin; Marija Petrovic; Erin Wright; Hossein Zahiri.

Email OCL or visit its website for more information.

Volunteer of the Season: Sharon Yeo

Photo 2015-12-28, 2 02 49 PM

Lifelong Edmontonian Sharon Yeo has been a volunteer for almost as long as she’s called the city home. But after years of managing myriad community projects, this social worker, food blogger and serial volunteer is ready to take a step back from some of her extracurricular responsibilities, including the Downtown Edmonton Community League board, to take some old ideas off the back burner.

She reflects to The Yards on the initiatives she’s helped create and build.

What was the best part of volunteering with DECL?

I helped with the events we put on, such as the pancake breakfast and Corn Fest in the fall, which was a great way to connect with others who felt passionately about where they lived. It definitely helped me feel like a part of the community.

Many know you as co-founder of the wildly popular food festival What the Truck?!. How’d it get started?

About five years ago my now-husband Mack [Male] and I went to San Francisco to attend a food truck festival. I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t we have something like this in Edmonton?’ So we took a leap and tried to make it happen here at home.

Our first event in 2011 had only seven trucks. Last year, during our biggest event yet at Telus Field, we had about 30 trucks around the diamond, while thousands of people played catch or picnicked in the outfield. So many have supported it that I’m able to step away and watch the event flourish.

Who helped you along the way?

Honestly, I was not prepared for how the people of Edmonton would open their arms to my idea. I reached out to the community leagues, which were incredibly helpful in terms of attaining space and licensing and other things I was then unfamiliar with. They were the reason I was able to make my vision a successful reality.

Now that you have fewer existing commitments, what are you hoping to do with your extra time?

I still want to work on my blog, Only Here for the Food. And I’m thinking of revisiting my idea of managing a Night Market in Chinatown, or updating a website Mack and I put together a couple of years ago called Blink.com, which is a place where we’re trying to re-imagine some of Edmonton’s empty spaces. But mostly, I’m planning all kinds of peaceful summer walks!

Growing Together

I’ll never forget the bitterly cold November night in 2008 when I traipsed off to city hall to a public hearing of an early version of the 30-year municipal development plan, The Way We Grow. Despite a broad grassroots lobby, there was neither mention of a food policy nor a food security agenda for Edmonton. A speaker that night cautioned that it was like a home renovation plan that did away with the kitchen.Photo 2016-01-07, 7 49 50 AM I was just one of the 550 people who crowded the council chambers and overflow rooms that evening. I was in my late 30s, and this was my first citizen act of activism.

At first, my interest in urban agriculture was focused on how much and what types of food could grow in cities. I soon learned, however, that urban farms, backyard chickens, rooftop beehives and community gardens are about so much more than the food they produce. Streets come back to life. Families emerge from their homes. Strangers become friends while discussing tomatoes and basil. What begins as an impulse to get our hands in the dirt and grow a few strawberries ends up as an accessible and effective tool for citizens to change the look, feel and smell of our neighbourhoods.

When you build a city on rich, deep soil—as we did and are still doing in Edmonton—it’s no surprise that gardens spring up. Urban gardening is just so (pardon the pun) shovel ready that it seems
 to constantly reinvent itself based on the needs 
of the community. Early settling Chinese market gardeners grew crops in the rich alluvial soil of
the river valley, as did Scottish-born Donald Ross even before Edmonton was a city. Wartime food shortages led to a flourishing of some 4,000 “vacant lot” plots rented out to locals each year—let alone the food gardens being grown in private yards in the city of 100,000 people. Community gardening roared back to existence in the 2000s when our global supply-chain food seemed starved of flavour, freshness and nutrition. There are now some 90 community gardens in the Capital Region, and plots are still in demand.

So what’s the current need in our city that growing green beans and rosemary can help fix?

Right now, I’m particularly interested in how community gardens can help with newcomers.

if Edmonton also created community gardens that were not just accessible, but had places reserved for our newest citizens—a type of “companion gardening,” if you will?

Existing services outfit them with winter-
ready apparel and aide with the transition to a
 new country, new cultural mix and new careers. Yet studies show it can take up to 10 years before Canadian immigrants feel truly “at home” and able to participate socially and contribute economically. Even then, it is often the Canadian-born generation that has the agency and confidence for the kinds of intercultural exchanges that we pride ourselves on.

This is often true of community gardens. The coveted spots are snapped up by citizens who feel entitled and sure of their place here. Yet, we all know the power of food to help us express our identity, and perhaps soothe the aches of adjustment from missing home to making our way in a new one.

There’s a community garden project in Vancouver’s downtown peninsula called the Downtown Intercultural Gardeners Society, or DIGS. It reserves 40 percent of its plots for gardeners 
born outside Canada, a statistic that reflects the demographics of the inner city neighbourhoods around it. Sign-up sheets and gardeners guides are printed in Mandarin, Spanish, Russian and Farsi. The garden’s rules also require each gardener to take in sessions on intercultural communications, diversity and antiracism training. Similarly, Toronto has a community food nonprofit called The Stop. One of its gardens has eight plots planted with foods from the city’s eight most populous ethnicities. Elders from these cultural communities do
 the teaching and directing; youth do the digging, weeding and heavy lifting. These intergenerational teams garden, socialize and cook together.

There’s a gardening technique known as “companion planting.” If you plant thyme near strawberries, they get plumper and grow more quickly. Beans fix nitrogen in dirt, which corn 
then greedily takes up, making it more robust and productive. It’s a savvy gardener’s way of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. What 
if Edmonton also created community gardens that were not just accessible, but had places reserved for our newest citizens—a type of companion gardening, if you will? Not only might it help them feel at home sooner, but we’d get to know one another over conversations around the global unifier that is food. I for one am looking forward to a few more flavours added to our city’s culinary smorgasbord.

Where’s my nearest community garden?

  • Peace Garden Park (10259 120 St.)
  • Our Urban Eden Garden (9910 Bellamy Hill Rd.)
  • COMING SOON: Alex Decoteau Park (105 St. & 102 Ave.; if you’re interested in joining the garden committee email info@decl.org)

Chief Concerns: Edmonton Hasn’t Had a Chief Planner for 50 Years

Toronto's chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Courtesy: Toronto Centre for Active Transportation/Flickr)

Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Courtesy: Toronto Centre for Active Transportation/Flickr)

(Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, Peter Ohm was officially named Edmonton’s Chief Planner.)

Edmonton has a lot of plans. Big ones. Blatchford, the Ice District, the Quarters—to say nothing of the constant outward growth,
 the inward growth alone means the city will look very different in less than a generation. Other major urban centres that’ve implemented projects far smaller in scale have relied on urban advocates in the form of a “chief planner” to communicate and maintain overall vision. The city’s been without one since Noel Dant in the 1950s and ’60s. Recent changes within Edmonton’s civil service structure may include creating a position of this type, but will it be an advocate for good urban form?

Like a chief medical officer is to our provincial leaders, explains Bill Freeman, author of The New Urban Agenda, “[a chief planner] has a responsibility to give their best professional advice to the public and the politicians.”

“Many politicians don’t want this because they think it’s a competition for the attention of the public.” —Brent Toderian, former City of Vancouver chief planner

Municipal planners overly consider developers’ plans, says Freeman, often leading to poor alignment with larger neighbourhood plans or affordable housing needs. A chief urban planner, however, considers the broadest view with all the components of city-making, from how people move to how neighbourhoods form. A chief planner’s primarily accountable to the expertise and ethics of their field, rather than the politics of an environment.

“Many politicians don’t want this because they think it’s a competition for the attention of the public,” says Brent Toderian, the City of Vancouver’s former chief planner. Now a national consultant, he says the position is critical to overcoming the fractured thinking of individual departments within a city governance structure. For instance, sustainable development and transportation are, obviously, intertwined, yet until a recent shakeup in Edmonton these departments were overseen separately.

Calgary’s chief urban planner Rollin Stanley, Toronto’s Jennifer Keesmaat and Toderian himself are often held up as Canadian examples of what 
a strong chief planner can accomplish. Toderian took on the task of defining and implementing
an “EcoDensity” plan, which, after hundreds of meetings, created a dramatic change to Vancouver’s planning process by prioritizing the environmental benefits of densification. This achievement is not viewed favourably by all, and many believe 
it contributed to Toderian being fired when the political climate changed. Toderian’s adherence to the planning philosophy behind EcoDensity over political climate is an example of what can make a chief planner controversial.

Or take Keesmaat. Her social media following is massive and she regularly blogs or pens op-eds because she has public outreach responsibilities. But her adherence to urban form over political expediency created conflict with Toronto mayor John Tory over the Gardiner Expressway. While he advocated an expansion of the expressway, Keesmaat advocated demolishing it. Her position wasn’t popular with Torontonians, but that is often the case with chief planners; they exist to shoulder the blame for tough but necessary decisions.

The expressway fallout was so great it led to speculation Tory would replace her. “Keesmaat has been more cautious since,” says Freeman. “That
 is unfortunate.” Freeman believes that despite controversy, Keesmaat’s interpretation of the
 role as an advocate is the correct one. “She speaks directly to the public. … This is a welcome development that has helped the public understand the issues before them.”

Considering the natural resistance the general public has to change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Keesmaat and her counterparts have all been labelled troublemakers. But imagine a similar apolitical advocate for Edmonton. Would 104 Ave. comprise so many suburban power centres? Would the Metro LRT have been better planned?

“The success of a chief planner depends less
 on the position and more on the person,” says Toderian. While he’s often asked to describe the best city structure to support a chief planner, he says it’s more about that person’s ability to navigate the internal structure and collate the various departments’ ideas into action.

Who will advocate best planning practices to the public or our elected officials? Klassen, Ohm or the top urban designer?

Their positions as defined on an organizational chart are not markedly different from the position of top planners in other municipalities. Peter Ohm, who as branch manager of urban planning and environment, is Edmonton’s most senior planner. However, Ohm reports not to the city manager but to Gary Klassen, the GM of Sustainable Development, where issues of zoning, housing, land-use and environment are managed, who in turn is hiring a new “lead urban designer” that will report to Ohm. Who will advocate best planning practices to the public or our elected officials? Klassen, Ohm or the top urban designer?

Klassen says Ohm is in a position similar to 
the chief urban planner and “[the designer] will translate the policy and frameworks into what we see on the street.” Ohm has had a low public profile up to this point, with no social media presence and a quiet voice in the news, but stronger internal and public communication is part of his re-envisioned job. With this renewed focus and all of the major upcoming projects, Ohm’s public profile and accountability will have to strengthen in order to achieve the clout of his counterparts. It’s not just about having another senior manager; someone should be the face of urbanism, infill, density and walkability across Edmonton. But most of all, says Toderian, “the follow through is the key.”

(Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, Peter Ohm was officially named Edmonton’s Chief Planner.)