There’s been a lot of attention paid to Canada’s cities over the last few years. In 2007, Canada’s cities are the engines of eco- nomic growth; politicians have come to understand that well-managed, functional and vibrant cities are essen- tial. And at the heart of every city is one piece of the puzzle that urban planners and policy-makers must get right: The downtown core.
Edmonton is a city in a very inter- esting transition. Its economy is boom- ing, lifted by the oil sands and their role as the energy sector’s major service hub. Alberta is awash in cash, and a provin- cial city has finally gotten its groove back, having shaken off the doldrums of government cutbacks in the 1990s.
The most obvious outward signs of Edmonton’s boom have so far been felt mostly in the suburbs. Shiny new freeways and big box retailers greet vis- itors coming in from the south. Oil upgraders and refineries stretch almost as far as the eye can see to the east. Sprawling suburbs spread like dande- lions in all directions.
Nearly forgotten in the rush, though, is Edmonton’s downtown core. Unlike Calgary, which is in the middle of a commercial real estate boom almost unparalleled in the history of Canada, Edmonton has had no major office development in more than a decade. Other than the 18-year-old city hall, one of the city’s most appealing pieces of architecture, there has been very little new office tower construction.
Walking through the east end of downtown Edmonton between 98th and 95th streets, one really questions the ”œeconomic boom.” It’s not as bad as Vancouver’s East Hastings area, but you get the idea. Blocks of boarded-up buildings and weed-filled parking lots define urban blight. Needles and condoms litter the sidewalks. The most active businesses in the area are the 25- cent X-rated peep shows.
There have been some brave attempts to turn the neighbourhood around. A high-end restaurant has moved into one of the neighbour- hood’s storied historic buildings and is doing a thriving business. Some urban condos are also sprouting up.
But back in the core of downtown Edmonton, a quiet transformation has taken place. Perhaps for citizens of Edmonton, the transformation has not been that quiet at all. But for a visitor who has visited downtown Edmonton only occasionally over the past decade, the change is notable.
Anchoring the city centre is Sir Winston Churchill Square Park. Back in the 1960s, this park used to be an attempt at a lawn and garden. While offering some tranquil green space, the park did not yield itself to high vol- umes of foot-traffic.
But here is where smart policy around urban planning took root. Quite wisely, the lawns and park were converted into a large public square taking up a full city block. Gracefully tiered steps offer seating around the perimeter. The plaza is framed to the north by the arched fountains of city hall, to the west by shopping and the CBC studio, and to the south by a renovated public library.
The best amenities are to the east of the square, a troika of cultural amenities: The Citadel Theatre, the Winspear music hall and the Art Gallery of Alberta. The latter of these is undergoing a dramatic remake. The old gallery, an uninviting brutalist- style piece of architecture, was recent- ly demolished. The new gallery, with its metallic swish inspired by the curves of the northern lights, promises to be one of the most striking public buildings in the country.
The result of the renewal of Churchill Square Park is that Edmontonians are coming back to their downtown. The city is well- known for its many festivals " one for street performers, one for children, one dedicated just to food, it goes on and on " and the plaza is perfectly designed to accommodate the thou- sands of people who take part.
The other major transformation of the city’s core lies a few blocks west of Churchill Square Park, in what is called Railtown. The old CN yards were removed several years ago, and in their place arose the downtown campus of Grant MacEwan College. Old, empty warehouses are gradually being convert- ed into condos, and student housing has brought some pedestrian life back to the urban core. Trendy eateries and cof- fee shops sprout up on the corners.
Downtown Edmonton is still not what most people would describe as ”œbeautiful.” It’s not Barcelona or Florence or Paris, nor is it trying to be. The main traffic artery downtown, Jasper Avenue, can best be described as ”œedgy.” Calgary’s downtown buildings shout out, ”œWe’ve got money!” Edmonton’s buildings mur- mur, ”œWe’ve got government offices and troubled youth drop-in centres.”
But edgy and dusty and rough as it can be, downtown Edmonton possess- es a charm lacking in other similar sized cities. Warts and all, the down- town core invites people to come and be part of an urban environment. When Canadian cities are trying hard to attract newcomers and create livable cities, there are lessons to be learned from Edmonton.