Bentley in Alberta: Edmonton Does Not Suck!

Editor’s note: This past fall Spacing Ottawa contributor Adam Bentley moved to Edmonton to take up a position with the provincial government. Adam was well-known in Spacing Ottawa circles as the creative mind behind concepts such as Ottawa’s Transit Map Of The Future and the inter-city Urban Gondola.

Adam has had several months to form some impressions of his new home, and he recently posted the following piece to The Charette, Edmonton’s planning and design blog. It is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

 
I remember one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Edmonton this past fall was a local interpretation written on a bench of the Van Morrison quote that said “Edmonton. Don’t like it? Get the fuck out”. That comment encapsulated the initial conversations I had with Edmontonians of various political and cultural stripes about urban planning in the city. Edmonton is what it is. Edmonton is not meant to look good or sound exciting. Its purpose is to provide the basic necessities for the individual to prosper—at least financially. However as I learned more about my new home city, I realized Edmonton is a breeding ground for progressive ideas about ecologically sustainable living. As a new resident and urban planner, I would like to share with you my initial observations and suggestions about Edmonton’s land use patterns, built form, and transportation infrastructure. These observations are not based on much background research. I apologize in advance if I pass judgment without knowing the context.

As much as I’m impressed that Edmonton is a world leader in waste management, sadly, this efficient use of resources does not extend to land. Even though the City is about to proceed with its seemingly-radical redevelopment of the City Centre airport, relative to other Canadian cities I’ve visited, most of Edmonton’s lots are BIG and WIDE and very SPREAD OUT! The front and back yards are HUGE! City politicians approve new subdivisions light years away from downtown! I hope that as progressive planning practices become more common here, Edmonton’s lots will become narrower and shallower, and front-yard setbacks will be all but eliminated. The reductions in private green space would be replaced with high quality public parks and gathering spaces. I also hope that legislation similar to Ontario’s Places to Grow Act is implemented in Alberta to stop Edmonton’s sprawl no further than Anthony Henday Drive (though expensive gasoline may do to urban sprawl what a government might not be able to do).

While Edmonton’s built form seems to be generally limited to stucco bungalows and low-rise apartments, I see potential for new infill projects along back lanes. These humble corridors form a complete, alternative street network right in the city and will be the new frontier of residential and commercial intensification. I can imagine hundreds of thousands of people living in laneway housing and apartments as demand increases for small-scale living in urban areas and former streetcar suburbs. Other types of housing I’d like to see more of in Edmonton are row and semi-detached housing in both urban and suburban areas. As much as Edmonton’s roads are incredibly wide (lots of space to add bike and bus lanes), I also like the fact that all your streets are lined with a row of trees and a sidewalk on both sides forming a shaded canopy in the summer and letting through what little light exists in winter.

I am not impressed with Edmontonians’ insane addiction to their cars but am very impressed with the City’s commitment to correct this problem. I noticed the contra-flow bike lanes and plans for creating an accessible LRT network with low-floor boarding and frequent stops. I hope to see a bike-sharing network, a car-sharing network, and separated urban bike routes within a few years from now because active transportation (public transit, by bike, on foot, in a wheelchair) is an essential, efficient, and affordable transport philosophy for the 21st Century. I also hope to see the vast parking lots of the nightmare that is South Edmonton Common replaced with pedestrian-oriented, dense residential development. Finally, why is there a massive interchange in the middle of the fantastic river valley (next to the Muttart Conservatory)? That thing should go too!

From my initial observations, Edmonton has made some very bad planning mistakes but also some good decisions too. The city seems to be in the early stages of embracing the ecologically sustainable, resource-efficient lifestyle becoming popular worldwide that helps residents prosper with limited personal resources. Based on Toronto’s experience, this trend will accelerate as the suburbs are vacated by both young and old people fleeing the high cost of driving and home maintenance costs in favour of the city centre. I think that bench should read “Edmonton: Good things are coming. Stay the fuck here!”

photo by Darren Kirby

2 comments

  1. Very interesting read! I lived in Edmonton for 5 years and am currently in Montreal. Obviously, there are huge contrasts between those two cities. When I lived in Edmonton it was as a student, so I didn’t often leave the area near the  University and Whyte ave (hip/cool street). My most recent trip to Edmonton, a month ago, was about 3 years since I’d last been there last, and I got a much more “objective” view of the city.

    I’d agree that Edmonton “does not suck”. I noticed many changes for the better. Light rail transit (LRT) extensions, lots of new building on/near campus (several new biomedical/health research complexes), and more. Lots to love, but lots that needs work of course.

    However, I think you’re out of luck with your “hope that legislation similar to Ontario’s Places to Grow Act is implemented in Alberta to stop Edmonton’s sprawl no further than Anthony Henday Drive” – There are already new subdivisions on the other side of the Henday, and I’ve heard from a reliable source (city planning worker) that over FORTY additional subdivisions on the far southern side of the city have already been approved. But, there are long-term plans to extend the existing river valley system (already the largest urban green space in North America) to smaller towns/cities both directions outside the city, creating a nearly 100km long park system!

    I think the best thing will be, in the years (many years?) to come when the LRT extensions see life – some are under construction now, some not yet, but multiple lines reaching many parts of the city are planned.

  2. The good thing about Edmonton’s built environment is that much of the city, even the low-density parts (read: most of it) are built in a fundamentally urban street grid, rather than the loopy, windy, cul-de-sac-y modern suburbs. (Which still exist, obviously, as you get closer to the edge of town.) So there’s a huge opportunity for infill. The built form isn’t the problem, so much as NIMBYism.

Comments are closed.