Today I was happy to welcome attendees of the Canadian Urbanism Planning Summit (CanU8) to Edmonton and share the City’s agenda for Urban Shift.
Edmonton is undergoing significant physical and cultural changes as we shift from being a “big small town” to one of Canada’s leading big cities. With our population closing in on a million people – and we are on track, as a region, to go from from 1.3 million today to over 2 million people over the next 30 years. We are building a city region for all of those people, and the decisions we make will reverberate in the lives of citizens who will be born into, or migrate to, a very different place decades from now. But just as we are going through a physical change, our city is also going through a transformation in perspective. The way we think about growing and moving, how we are working and living, and the ways in which we’re responding to social, environmental and economic changes are shifting.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this journey: building the buildings is the easy part. Rewiring 50 years of thinking is a much… more… difficult task.
Building Edmonton with an ‘Urban Shift’ in mind requires meshing a number of interconnected, yet distinct elements. For starters, we exist within a complex regional dynamic that has long hamstrung our ability to drive both employment and residential density in our core. As a result, our planning decisions were driven for decades by fear of lowest common denominator planning from our neighbouring communities. Thankfully, this is finally changing. I’ve worked hard with our regional board to establish substantially higher density and infill targets for growth. With recent decisions on higher density targets across the region, and pending a final vote on our Metropolitan Growth Plan next month, Edmonton can now more aggressively build up across our city knowing that our efforts won’t be undercut by a race to the bottom around us. Within our boundaries, our Council has made significant changes to encourage greater density in our mature neighbourhoods.
We will also achieve even greater intensification results by concentrating more growth on the so-called ‘nodes and corridors’ – the places that already have, for many decades, been the places we gather. Along these corridors and in our nodes… the streets, pipes, paths, parks and land became the tethers for our homes, businesses, schools, and playgrounds. In fact, many of these corridors were established along streetcar lines as high streets in ‘streetcar suburbs’ so some of this is back to the future. Even after buildings have come and gone, the systems and patterns persist that allow the city to continually rejuvenate itself.
We need to seize opportunities to include all households in our growth, with diverse forms of housing for families with all range of incomes. That includes new units of safe, affordable rental and home-ownership for the working class, as well as the rejuvenation and expansion of existing social housing projects as mixed-income community hubs. All big Canadian cities urgently need the new Federal Housing Strategy to enable more market and non-market affordable units with new funding, favorable financing and new policy support. And as communities, we need to get creative, as we intend to with our pending Community Development Corporation, to support new affordable developments in neighbourhoods that the market isn’t transforming, but that need those jobs and investment the most.
While driving our density numbers higher is critical to our urban shift, as is including households of mixed incomes, so too is building a better transportation system for everyone. Shortly after I took office, we secured funding to build a $1.8 billion LRT line that will connect southeast Edmonton to downtown. And through my role as chair of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, we were able to land a new deal with the federal government that will see a transformative $20B federal investment in public transit across the country over the next decade. Council has prioritized Phase Two of the Valley Line westward from Downtown and further extension of the existing line into Blatchford for investment. These new tracks will allow us to really activate many of the nodes and corridors I touched on earlier.
I also worked with Council to initiate a significant transit review that will evolve our thinking about how we deliver better transit service to Edmontonians – and give them a service that more people will actually want to use. Today, we are running a somewhat inefficient transit system that has two critical flaws – it is both expensive to run and sometimes unreliable to use. My hope is that this review – which will come back to Council next Spring – moves us to a ‘main line’ model of transit offering frequent, more direct service, thus giving many more Edmontonians options to leave their cars at home. Without transforming our transit system, a true urban shift will remain just out of our reach.
While we’re making strides in reallocating our transit resources, we do have a lot more work to do on active transportation in particular. Council will be discussing a new downtown bike grid next week, and with some of our larger planning efforts aligned, the timing is finally right to talk about building better bike lanes to bring more riders, just as we’ve seen in Calgary. In this vein, one of the first things I noticed when I came into office was the disconnect between the planning, design and construction functions in our city. We had transportation planners and urban planners not only working in separate buildings, but rarely talking together about what a better city could actually look like. As a result, we had a transit system that was operations-heavy but didn’t put enough emphasis on people. We designed roadways to move cars and pedestrians and cyclists were too often left in the dust.
Thanks to a some changes in policy, structure and personnel, our municipality is recognizing that the Edmonton of tomorrow isn’t the Edmonton of 1950. And so we are in a better position than we’ve ever been to answer the most important question: how do we build a city for people?
Edmontonians expect more of their City Council than ever before and want to see us move quickly to get it done, so that’s emboldening. But without all the decisions and conditions in place – the ones I’ve just spoken about – the Edmonton we all imagine will not come to be.
Thankfully, there is a wonderful convergence of demographic, political and economic factors in front of us. We are one of the youngest cities in Canada with a diverse population, an entrepreneurial spirit, and an engaged public. It’s fair to keep asking more of your City Council, and I’ll keep doing the same.
Together our efforts are creating a real urban shift in Edmonton.