Written by:

Kalen Anderson, RPP/MCIP, CanU Board Member (Edmonton)

Urbanism across Canada takes many shapes and forms, but the basic principles to build great people-places that set the stage for how we move, live and thrive ties our diverse city-making efforts together from coast-to-coast.  Our evolving, northern, prairie-urban cities are particularly interesting living laboratories for design innovation and creativity.  As Edmonton (2016) hands the CanU Summit baton over to Winnipeg (2017) we have a great opportunity to expand and deepen our thinking about how investing in excellent urbanism outcomes will shape our future success.

Cities that were urbanized largely in the age of the automobile reflect a certain built form that privileges dispersed development, separated land uses, and some pretty fundamental built-in assumptions that the mobility needs of the community are best served by private cars (no matter the context). Among other considerations and issues associated with this paradigm, this dominant design approach left behind some physical gaps and broken links in our urban fabric and has contributed to physical and social disconnection in our cities. These breaks in the landscape are often most obvious in our central cores where population density is high, access to open space is at a premium, and where people naturally want to gather and enjoy their city together.

People expect much more from these critical spaces, as they should, and they are often left wanting. One of the key tasks for urbanists today is to help seamlessly weave the landscape back together and imagine how we can ensure our cities respond to 21st century challenges at a macro scale while creating special local spaces that animate our cities and help tell the story of our unique identities. As redevelopment occurs in our communities, either quickly or slowly, and as proactive interventions are advanced to spur positive changes along we have an opportunity to re-think how we design our spaces to bring things closer together, to create “sticky” and attractive places where people feel at home, and to support the economies of the future. This is one of the areas we will tackle when we meet in Winnipeg for the #CanU9 summit this September when we explore the “Art and Science of Urban Design.” Building great places isn’t just a “nice to have” but in fact a “need to have” and the math of city-making bears that out empirically.

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Bringing Fine Minds Together: Design Charrette  

One of the hallmark events at the #CanU8 Summit in Edmonton was an enormous design charrette, which tapped into the wisdom, experience and enthusiasm of leading urbanists across our country to look at how a key, but neglected, piece of the downtown could be transformed.

The case study was a small parcel of land at the edge of the downtown that interfaces quite poorly with both the bustling urban environment and the transition it provides into the natural system of the North Saskatchewan River Valley, which is North America’s largest connected park. The site has one of the best views of the city’s river valley that remains publicly accessible in the downtown area.  This, in theory, should be one of Edmonton’s prime ‘water fronts’.  What was missing though was a greater vision of what the space and place could be to help elevate it to get political and financial investment to transform it into potentially one of the city’s premier downtown destinations. To the City of Edmonton’s credit an interpretive trail called Heritage Trail was put in along the edge, but it did not really address the greater potential of the site and has generally remained under-utilized and unleveraged.

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There are occasionally a few opportunities that have sat under ones noses for decades and no one noticed or felt there may be too many obstacles to realize. One such opportunity is Edmonton’s MacDonald Drive, the case study for the #CanU8 design charrette.  Ironically, 100 years ago there was a plan to make the terrace “rival the famous Dufferin Terrace” in Quebec City, but this never materialized and over time the car-oriented road became the main functional characteristic for the street. The #CanU8 Summit offered a rare opportunity to radically and proactively re-think the space.  An interactive format was designed to capture the knowledge and insights of the delegates. The charrette was run over a couple hours and the delegates were asked what they felt were the key opportunities and how they may be achieved.  After a quick site visit, a terrific collection of leading urban thinkers from a diversity of backgrounds provided their thoughts on what opportunities existed and what key activities should be taken to achieve them. While there were some differing final visions in terms of styles and details, the following core visions and principles were collectively agreed upon:

* Close MacDonald Drive to all traffic

* Move or remove parking garage access (restrict access to parking from one direction).

* Pedestrianize the full length of MacDonald Drive

* Emphasize connections through the alley to Rice Howard Way

* Reinforce the connections to the existing heritage trial and new funicular

* Open up or expand the building edges to animate the space with commercial frontages

* Fill the sunken plazas

* Expand the opportunities on or within the terrace

* Provide short term activation to draw people in.

These ideas were sketched out in a basic form and will hopefully now provide the building blocks to develop a greater vision for the site.  The given principles and directions will enable a more focused design and strategy to be developed to allow interested stakeholders to advance a greater vision. The bones are in place and all that needs to be done is refine the vision, get political and stakeholder interest and hopefully, one day sooner than later, Edmonton’s MacDonald Drive will be its own smaller version of Dufferin Terrace.

Looking ahead to Winnipeg

It’s sometimes hard to see our own cities as well as others can see them, and this is one of the beautiful opportunities to move our Council for Canadian Urbanism across our country for discussion and engagement. Edmonton greatly appreciated and benefited from the CanU Summit experience. As the conversation moves to Winnipeg we are able to build off this thinking and further unpack how evidence-based decisions support our urbanism and resilience.

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