Big Idea 2011: History In The Waking

Big Idea 2011: History In The Waking Could current problems in our city have been avoided if we followed past advice? Urban planner Myron Belej on what we can learn from Edmonton’s first city planners. by Myron Belej Illustration by Graham Roumieu Imagine an Edmonton with fast light rail transit…

Big Idea 2011: History In The Waking

Could current problems in our city have been avoided if we followed past advice? Urban planner Myron Belej on what we can learn from Edmonton’s first city planners.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Imagine an Edmonton with fast light rail transit extending to every corner of the city, a more
beautiful and commercially lively civic centre and limited urban sprawl.

Now imagine that these ideas were first proposed 50 to 100 years ago, at a time when both Edmonton’s population and land area were just a third of what they are today.

Well, it’s true.

Take, for example, a 1963 rapid transit plan for six lines of light rail extending from the downtown core.

New LRT lines are again being proposed and approved, but at far greater costs to retrofit the city with rails, not to mention the added challenge of changing public behaviour after five decades of increasing car dependency. According to Statistics Canada, 77 per cent of adults in the Capital region rely on automobiles for their commutes – the highest in the country for medium and large census metropolitan areas. Our citizens are also travelling farther and getting stuck in more traffic.

We had been warned.

In a 1930 City of Edmonton report on major streets, town planner John Tanqueray wrote: “… in every growing city the ever increasing volume of high-speed automobile traffic is year after year causing the inadequacies of the existing street systems to become more and more apparent.”

Before this shift, landscape architects emphasized walkability and accessibility. Frederick Todd, in 1907, envisioned a system of connected pathways throughout the river valley. (This vision reappears today in the River Valley Alliance‘s 2007 plan, and, like Todd’s proposal, funding will make or break it.) Five years later, Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols expanded upon Todd’s report, proposing a system of parkways and boulevards to better connect parks throughout the entire city and, in turn,
better connect communities.

There’s a lot we can learn from these aged plans, so it’s no surprise these ideas keep arising. For example, people have applauded the grand plans for turning 108th Street into Capital Boulevard, a pedestrian-friendly street with the Alberta Legislature as a terminal vista, but this idea belongs to Morell and Nichols, too. Shortly after the Edmonton-Strathcona amalgamation, they even envisioned a large, formal civic square in front of city hall, located where the Winspear Centre is now. Today, this is still a work in progress following the 2009 closure of 102A Avenue between the current city hall and Sir Winston Churchill Square.

Their recommendation, like many others, was sidetracked by the First World War. As in other Canadian cities, planning efforts were also limited by the Great Depression and the Second World War. In a 1949 report on the state of development in Edmonton, planner-architects John Bland and Harold Spence-Sales wrote: “… the exercising of planning function over the last 20 years cannot be regarded as other than inadequate.”

At 1950s planning conferences in and around Edmonton, suburban development and growth management were hot topics. At one, architect and planning consultant Warnett Kennedy spoke about subdivisions “being tacked on planlessly around the perimeters of existing cities, forming a patchwork quilt, and increasingly we have miles and miles of sub-subdivisions.” Decades later, a provincial task force in 1972 proposed the creation of an urban growth boundary.

Nevertheless, Edmonton continued to spread outward, and now has a land area larger than the City of Toronto. In 1955, provincial government documents showed steeply rising capital and maintenance costs, primarily due to suburban development, up 10 times over the previous decade.

But good plans don’t become reality without strong champions, and enough funding to see them through. Outside consultants like Todd, Morell and Nichols gave their recommendations to local planners, politicians and decision makers to implement; the next steps were out of their hands.

Community members need to find, demand and create more opportunities to get engaged in the direct physical improvement of their neighbourhoods and city. Our role is to keep those who set priorities and assign budgets accountable to the public interest. Doing so will result in a healthier population stronger community ties and a more efficient government.

The status quo alternative is more urban sprawl as more of us become stuck in traffic, and short on patience, health, time and money.

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