Last Friday’s census announcement — that we have grown by more than 60,000 people in just two years — is evidence that we are really growing up, and fast. As the City’s Chief Economist noted, Alberta is the fastest-growing province in the country, and these past two years Edmonton has grown at a rate even faster than Alberta. We’re 877,926 strong now. Plus we have an average age of 35, which is the youngest of any major Canadian City.
It’s clear from these numbers, and just by the feel of the city these days, that Edmonton is ascending rightfully to ‘big city’ status among Canadian cities.
However, in my mind, this kind of phenomenal growth raises two considerations:
The first is that we need to continue to plan responsibly for our long-term future both in the city and the Edmonton Region. Already this year we’ve moved forward on infill, advanced Blatchford, and secured Alberta’s largest-ever municipal infrastructure project — the Valley Line connecting Southeast Edmonton to Downtown. And we haven’t forgotten that we must continue to invest in basic infrastructure — with Council approving unprecedented investments in our roads.
The second point, beyond evolving the physical shape of the city, is evolving our relationship with the provincial government to a true partnership — the kind of partnership any major Canadian City needs to thrive.
We’re overdue for a grown-up conversation with our province about how we’re going to properly fund city-building. With only six to eight cents of every tax dollar while managing 60% of Canadian public infrastructure, big cities like Edmonton cannot continue to grow, thrive and prosper without some clarity about what we are responsible for and what is, or should be, the role of each order of government.
This doesn’t mean we’ll abdicate responsibility or that we are going to stop providing services. And it doesn’t mean we need to throw money at our problems either.
First, we need to talk. We need to have a grown-up conversation that acknowledges the complex and sophisticated work we are already doing as a local government, and then we need to be crystal clear about the work local governments do on behalf of the province and the country.
Edmonton manages many complex issues exceptionally well, like waste management and biodiversity in the river valley. And we clear snow, fill potholes, and facilitate soccer programs as you’d expect. But we also provide family violence prevention services and literacy programming, we support the troops, we work to combat racism, we promote international economic development, trade and major event attraction in our city (and region), we manage and maintain the largest urban park in North America, we maintain major goods movement corridors like the Yellowhead, we support active and healthy living, we reach out to newcomers to Canada living in our city, we build relationships with neighbouring First Nations Chiefs and their communities, we support the arts, we work to promote responsible land use planning and effective economic development in the entire Edmonton region … all while acting as one of the main hubs of northern Alberta and northern Canada.
In fairness, sometimes we do get help from the other orders of government. This past spring, announcements of funding for the LRT Valley Line were a signal that our provincial and federal representatives understand that we can be very good partners in working toward our common objectives. When we work together, in service of our same citizens, we can accomplish great results.
Here are some examples of where we can do better:
We all want to keep our economy moving and we want clean air. So, when it comes to public transit, particularly the full build-out of our LRT system, the Province’s $2 billion GreenTRIP program has been very helpful. It provided dedicated funds to give us a line-of-sight to the next leg of LRT. GreenTRIP (or something like it) must be renewed beyond the current 2019 end of funding. It ought to be ongoing, and clearly dedicated to alleviating pressure points on keeping our labour force moving (both by moving people rapidly and efficiently on transit and by reducing the number of cars on the road so that trade corridors can flow better). And, all the while, one of the requirements of GreentTRIP is delivering new transit capacity that reduces our transportation greenhouse gas emissions by reducing car reliance.
We want everyone who chooses to make Edmonton home to prosper. Housing choices that are affordable and accessible for all Edmontonians are an essential ingredient in any move to end homelessness and in supporting a much-needed healthy and more productive labour force. Working with our provincial government, we need the authority and tools to build complete communities.
We want to eliminate poverty in a generation. In the last election, the Progressive Conservatives committed in no uncertain terms to reduce adult poverty and eliminate child poverty in Alberta. My Task Force to Eliminate Poverty includes a cross-section of community members, including business leaders, developing Edmonton-specific approaches that will yield a healthier, more engaged, more productive, populace — which will lower our social costs while raising everyone’s prosperity. Poverty is costing at least $7 billion annually in Alberta, mostly in our health care system, but also in lost productivity and in crime. We will all be better off if poverty is eliminated. My point here is that big cities are the best partners to implement provincial poverty goals, because the best strategies are community initiatives, not top-down initiatives. The new administration at the province has the opportunity to work with Alberta’s big cities, where complex urban poverty is concentrated, to make real progress — so long as they remain committed to poverty elimination.
We want to feel safe and secure. Edmonton Police Service (EPS) addresses crime that crosses provincial and national borders, such as human trafficking, gang activity, and cybercrime. Also, the Edmonton Region has one of the highest number of inmate spaces, per capita, in the country. This means that parolees look for supports in Edmonton and if they are going to reoffend – 40% of the time they do — they are likely to commit these offences in Edmonton. You might also be surprised to learn that two in five traffic collisions in Edmonton involve at least one car not registered in Edmonton – yet Edmonton taxpayers bear 100% of the cost of responding to these calls. Meanwhile, communities with populations below 5,000 pay nothing for local policing. EPS does an incredible job given its resources, but this is simply not fair. The way policing is funded in Alberta needs to be overhauled for fairness and to match the scale and complexity of big-city policing — especially within the context of our tremendous growth — including crime prevention strategies.
We all know we can do better. There are many other opportunities where we can improve – including health and wellness, economic development, early childhood development, regional growth planning, protection of watersheds and wetlands, protection and preservation of productive agricultural lands, to name a few. In the interest of province-building, Edmonton stands ready and willing to partner.