“Give me one succinct reason you are running for city council? Just one!”
This was a question from a wise friend in early 2013. Fortunately I didn’t have to stumble around in a messy room of platitudes. I felt clear.
“I want to help change the way the city grows.”
Truthfully I cared about a lot of things. Namely ending homelessness. But that was not my driving issue even though I had spent many years of my life working with people who were homeless. As we’ve since confirmed, cities can’t do nearly enough about this alone.
It was our development patterns, our built environment and the loss of vibrancy in our mature neighbourhoods that was the fire in my belly.
I had spent some years previous to council working on a campaign to preserve agricultural land in Edmonton. It was one of the most successful things I’d worked on because of the massive public support for the idea. It would take 10 more years to arrive at the day where 12 out of 13 municipalities in our Edmonton Metro Region would support a Regional Agriculture Master Plan that actually works to preserve a significant majority of land being used for agriculture in the region today. This was really a consequential closing of a decade of unfinished business for me.
It was also a practical plan and a meaningful symbol that we in fact have begun to change the way the city AND the region are growing.
But let me begin this tale locally, in Ward 10. There were two local issues that represented progress on smarter growth and renewed neighbourhood vibrancy. Century Park and Petrolia Mall.
Century Park was an example of an unfilled promise. There was an LRT station there, next to a massive piece of land being used for surface parking and an unbuildable plan on the books. It needed to be rethought and rezoned and the owner/developer knew it. We had to get this replanned, rezoned and restarted.
It took three years and we did it. Since the rezoning occurred, close to 600 units have been built or are under construction.
As for Petrolia Mall, that was an exercise in community imagination, community engagement and politics. In 2013 and for many years prior, this mall was a sad mess. It was basically empty, completely run down and hopeless. It is true that a city councillor or any political leader has limited power to force renewal of a particular site, especially when the owner is delinquent. But that didn’t stop me. I politicized it. How could we stand for this? I organized the community to demand something better. I worked with neighbours, friends, business owners and urban planners from the University to reimagine it, to talk about it and show the wider community what it could be.
And then we got lucky. The wretched Safeway Restricted Covenant expired. No Frills moved in. Then a new owner bought the Mall. And the rest is history. I spent the remaining years helping new businesses navigate city processes to get started. Today it is fully leased and is a real asset for our neighbourhoods.
Now let me zoom out a little while attempting to be brief about two big growth challenges.
Mayor Iveson was deeply engaged at the Edmonton Metropolitan Regional Board (EMRB) table with me as an eager alternate on a new Regional Growth Plan which created the same set of rules for all municipalities in the region – mostly. In short this meant higher density targets for all new developments – less large sprawling single family lots and more duplex and town housing built around transit routes. This added up to less land required for the same number of people and billions less in infrastructure costs.
Simultaneously and what appeared to many to be contrary to smarter growth we were in the process of annexing ~8300 hectares of land from Leduc County. But it made perfect sense when you consider that not only is Edmonton the major population centre in the region, the new growth plan requires greater density in urban centres than it does in rural municipalities. I along with Mayor Iveson, and past Councillors Ed Gibbons and Bryan Anderson spent 32 Fridays of our lives negotiating this deal. The idea that that land would forever be farmland was a fairytale. Leduc County was planning to develop it and would have done so far less sustainably than the City of Edmonton will. I will get to how our new City Plan addresses this new land momentarily.
Now let me zoom back in. It was clear to me back in 2014 that our Council had the cojones to finally rip the bandaid on infill and densification. Previous councils had nibbled at the edges, mostly focused on downtown and old Strathcona. But we all knew the suburbs were still king and we couldn’t build amenities fast enough to keep up with growth. Mature neighbourhoods were beginning to falter. School closures and empty strip malls were the most visible symptoms.
Council approved the City’s first meaningful infill roadmap in 2015 which ventured into the heart of our neighbourhoods. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. No amount of public engagement, process improvements or communications was going to make it easier. We had to grit our teeth and do what so many forward thinking cities around the world are doing. We had to realize that it wasn’t 1965 anymore. People would be mad but we needed change and the long term plan to gradually repopulate our mature neighbourhoods was a non negotiable. I have scars. I’ve lost friends over it. My own neighbourhood doesn’t like me as much as they once did because I was a large voice on this issue. It was the right thing to do.
It is also true that our councils over the past 8 years approved some very controversial development applications that added significant density to areas across the city in the face of significant opposition and controversy. Even when my vote was 100% yes on the score card, in my heart I was often 51-49 because I knew change always looks better in theory than it could turn out to be in reality. Balancing courage to embrace change with a respect for people’s fears is an important tension to manage in this job. I know we got a lot right and I also know we made some mistakes.
This leads me to the large hole in my smarter growth story, or the two or three large holes. Blatchford is still basically a large empty field. West Rossdale is an exercise in perpetual planning but no construction activity exists and the Quarters is still largely untouched. These are areas the next Mayor and Council will have to lean into and get going for real.
At this point I have to find an exit ramp for this blog post. It’s getting too long. Let me try to summarize.
In 2017 we approved our new City Plan, the first ever combined municipal development plan and transportation master plan. For urban planning nerds and aspiring city councillors this document matters more than anything you will inherit. It is in fact a road map to an incredibly vibrant and livable city. It has its harsh critics but they are mostly people who refuse to understand the economies and real costs of modern cities.
We have to be denser and more livable in order to attract the next wave of talented young professionals who will bolster our future economic vitality. And we have to be denser and more efficient to keep tax rates reasonable. The City Plan, which guides development for 1 million more people in our current boundaries, is a smart plan in both regards.
The City Plan is also phased in to protect valuable agricultural land inside Edmonton boundaries for 40 more years. This creates investment opportunities in the agricultural sector because it comes with some long term soil certainty. Agriculture will be the key piece to real economic diversification in Alberta.
There is an old Dave Dudley song I heard a lot growing up called “Give me 40 acres and I’ll turn this rig around.” Most of our growth plans, regionally and here in Edmonton have 40 year outlooks. Long term planning is key to smarter growth.
Back to my opening question. Why did I run for council in 2013? To change the way Edmonton grows. Did we succeed? I guess we’ll know in 40 years for sure.
PS – This blog was about why I ran, but here’s a cool article that Edify published about why I’m not running again and what I think the disposition of the next council should be.