Kalen Anderson, RPP/MCIP
Director of Planning Coordination, Sustainable Development, City of Edmonton
CanU Board Member
How does the city tell its stories and are we telling them well?
As we gear up for our next CanU Summit next fall (our 9th!) now is the perfect time to reflect on our last gathering, which was held in Edmonton, Alberta in September 2016. Each year the Council for Canadian Urbanism expands its reach, deepens its thinking and broadens its engagement with urbanists from coast-to-coast who are passionate about city-making. The CanU Summit is deliberately national in scope, but the conversations that emerge are also deeply local and, ideally, impactful. While our cities are growing and changing within a context of larger national trends and global forces we do well to remember that “place” is ultimately personal. #CanU8 proactively propelled this discussion forward under the theme “Urban Shift: People-Centered Design,” and what a Summit we had!
As one of the local hosts for #CanU8, I wanted to reflect on one particularly poignant conversation that anchored our dialogue and informed our collective thinking over the course of the Summit. This discussion left a huge impression for all participants, created and strengthened connections, and advanced a nationally significant dialogue in a new way. It was about the transformation of the city, its many peoples, and how we can work together to create better outcomes for ourselves now and for our future.
“Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission we have much more truth and knowledge… the story we have told ourselves, and the world, about the kind of country we are actually isn’t true.” (Mayor Don Iveson, City of Edmonton)
Canadians are all treaty people. #CanU8’s host city Edmonton, and the Enoch Cree Nation have neighbouring boundaries within Treaty 6 territory. Local urbanism conversations set within the context of relationship building and reconciliation have not previously been at the forefront of city building conversations between the two communities. Recognizing this gap and opportunity, Chief Billy Morin of Enoch Cree Nation and Mayor Don Iveson of Edmonton led the way for Canada at the #CanU8 Summit with an intimate, thoughtful and honest conversation about what it means to build our communities together, in the wake of damaging colonial legacies, rapidly changing demographics, historic and current-day injustices, and some incredibly hopeful, optimistic and youthful outlooks for – and from – the many diverse peoples of this region. This was a conversation about “building places for people” at its finest, and it pushed forward a much needed Canadian dialogue about reconciling the city.
“Reconciliation always starts within. It starts with forgiving yourself. In terms of the act of reconciliation and how to champion that within a city, and how to move that forward…. I really believe that the City of Edmonton, through this leadership, is taking a step at a legacy… Being an Edmontonian I always knew that I loved this place and this city. What is Edmonton’s identity? Is it a big city? Is it a small city?…. Right now Edmonton has such an opportunity to champion reconciliation like no other city can do….” (Chief Billy Morin, Enoch Cree Nation)
It really doesn’t take anything too fancy to help make a little magic happen. Here was the set-up: two authentically engaged leaders, one moderator (Beth Sanders) to ask some questions, and a room full of people with open minds and hearts to listen, learn and respond. What emerged was a dynamic conversation about city-building like no other. The local legacy that the Summit left for the City of Edmonton and the Enoch Cree Nation was a powerful one and, moving beyond this context, this commitment to ongoing conversation and collaboration presents a broader model for cities across Canada. The full video of the panel discussion can be found to the left of this post. For a sneak-peek, though, here are a few snippets that certainly captured my imagination and, I’d expect, the imagination of many others as well.
“Advice on how to build better cities? One idea that resonated with me from the media panel yesterday was: ‘you are really not good at telling your stories.’ In order to build a better city….. You have to be a bit controversial in your approach…. Take a stab at fostering dialogue. This creates an environment where more ideas sprout where they weren’t before.” (Chief Billy Morin, Enoch Cree Nation)
“Any great city is about thousands of amazing things, which is why slogans for cities do not work anymore. A city is, by definition, the confluence of many roads…. The trails in this city have been here for thousands of years – trade routes that all come together in this spot.” (Mayor Don Iveson, City of Edmonton)
“The role of spirituality in city-making is at the forefront. There are things in life that you can measure and others that you cannot… head and heart. The role of spirituality and First Nation’s culture should be found within projects across the whole city…. We need to go back to what we know… Older people educating us.” (Chief Billy Morin, Enoch Cree Nation)
“You would think that living in a bustling city would be great and that you would feel connection, but if you’re in a vertical suburb… or if you don’t have a sense of connectivity to your neighbourhood, to your community, to your grocer, to your librarian…. Then there’s nothing worse than that. There’s a huge sense – call it whatever you want – of communion and feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself and that you can contribute to making something better. That’s what cities are designed to do, that’s why people come to them, and that’s why people get excited. There’s is something kind of spiritual about loving a place. Design can inspire that or it can impede that.” (Mayor Don Iveson, City of Edmonton)
“A city can embody reconciliation…. Edmonton’s identity can be built around reconciliation.” (Chief Billy Morin, Enoch Cree Nation)
“We still have room to grow to identify our place in Canada and in the world. This particular idea will be a pillar of our identity. When new immigrants come here they are always welcomed through First Nations culture. [This is] not just an Aboriginal identity but the core of the city.” (Chief Billy Morin, Enoch Cree Nation)
“We need to design cities for everybody – how do we make sure there’s inclusion? We need a lot more tools than we have today as municipalities but we also need more partnerships with senior orders of government.” (Mayor Don Iveson, City of Edmonton)
“This is our eighth annual CanU Summit… I certainly feel that this has probably been the most important and powerful morning that we have had over eight Summits. I wish to thank both the Mayor and the Chief for providing us with a remarkable moment that has certainly changed my perspective on reconciliation.” (Brent Toderian, CanU President)
The quality of the conversations we have with each other – and the degree to which we engage meaningfully, emotionally and thoughtfully about highly complex and interconnected issues in our beautifully diverse cities – has never been more important nor imperative. The things we talk about, and how we chose to do so, signals the intention of our collective energy and frames our attention to make real change happen. Diversity in cities is not just about the quality of the built form in our public and private spaces, but how the habitats we create for ourselves ultimately serve our integration, connection and humanity. It is clear that as we serve our cities well, by working together, they can in turn serve us. This is one of the reasons why design matters.
As we work to assemble an equally exciting and provocative summit in Winnipeg this fall – “City-Making Math: the Art and Science of Urban Design” – #CanU9 will once again seek to create space for the important city-building conversations that will inform both our evolving discourse and the physical shape of our communities. One measure of a successful Summit, from my perspective, is the dialogue that is left behind in its wake – like a reverberating echo. Ideally, this echo helps to spark a passionate commitment to changing how we build our cities and, fundamentally, invites us to think differently about the opportunities we co-create for the people who live in them every day.
Is this city-making journey an inherently messy one? Will reconciling the city be hard? Certainly, but it’s also full of possibility and promise. This is the challenge that fuels us. On what it’s going to take to work together differently despite complexity, the final words of wisdom come from Chief Billy Morin: “It’s just going to take a relationship and the meeting of the minds and willing partners to come together.”