ZeroWaste Edmonton

To support this ambitious goal Edmonton became the first major Canadian municipality to offer curbside recycling and home to the largest municipal composting facility in North America. Investments in ‘waste-to-energy’ systems and other cutting edge technologies helped Edmonton’s integrated waste management system extend the life of the city’s only landfill by up to 20 years and put the city on track to be “the first metropolitan area to eliminate landfilling of municipal solid waste on a basis that is both economically and environmentally sound.”

In 2018, an internal city audit revealed that waste services was a dumpster fire: waste diversion rates had peaked at just under 50% in 2013 and were trending downwards. Poor asset management led to the unexpected closing of the composter due to structural issues, failure of the groundwater diversion system and the waste-to-energy biofuels plant was 8 years behind schedule. The old system did not even require multi-family residences to provide facilities for recycling. The audit concluded that spending in the waste branch was not aligned with the most basic and commonly accepted principles of waste reduction: prevention and reuse.

City Council responded to the audit with a request to administration for a new waste strategy and a stern warning for taxpayers that ‘the more ambitious the plan, the higher the cost’ as well as a promise of ‘more responsibility at the curb’ if citizens wanted to maintain the old ‘Cadillac’ system of waste management. Less than a year later ‘The Future of Waste’ strategy was adopted and reaffirmed the commitment to a 90% diversion rate but proposes a ‘zero- waste’ approach to achieving it.

Zero-waste systems focus on waste prevention rather than waste management. Prevention seems like an ideal strategy for a city that generates 1,000,000 kg of solid waste per year and needs a budget of $200M to collect, process and dispose of all of it. Due to lack of a landfill, out-of-service composter, and China shutting down nearly all imports of plastic and paper scrap all of Edmonton’s solid waste has to be stored on-site or shipped off-site for disposal.

As promised there is ‘more responsibility at the curb’ in the new strategy, residents will soon be required to separate recyclable and organic waste before setting it out along with fees for the collection of excess residential waste at the curb. The new strategy also plans to address single-use plastics through restrictions or an outright ban and implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which charges companies for the waste they create, instead of allowing it to become the burden of taxpayers.

Edmonton’s strategy may seem very forward looking but we already know that the Federal Government plans to ban single-use plastics, including plastic bags, forks and straws, across Canada by the end of 2021. British Columbia has has EPR in place since the 1970s. France just passed a broad anti-waste law banning luxury goods companies from destroying unsold or returned items. In 2016, France also mandated that supermarkets donate usable expired food instead of disposing of it. The entire European Union is proposing a single standard for mobile chargers and is implementing ‘right-to-repair’ legislation which requires appliances are manufactured to be repaired and that spare parts will be made available for up to 10 years.

It is quite easy to live a modern urban life while creating very little waste. The ‘zero-waste lifestyle’ movement popularized by Bea Johnson’s Zero-Waste Home blog offers a blueprint for achieving what Johnson’s family did – fitting an entire year of household waste in a single mason jar. This ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle is predicated on the same principle as Edmonton’s municipal waste strategy: prevention. It starts with simple actions, carrying reusable bags for shopping, bringing your own containers for bulk foods, and carrying silverware for takeout meals. Once the zero-waste mentality takes hold perspectives begin to change. The choice to buy less, consume less, and create less waste become second nature.

What if every person in Edmonton adopted a ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle? Would that solve our waste woes? Unlikely. Of the million tonnes of solid waste our city generates only about one-third is residential, the remaining 660,000 kg is from the institutional, commercial, and industrial sector. If we are meant to take ‘personal responsibility’ for our waste it will be through our places of work, our institutions, and our political power. We need to support robust policies which eliminate single-use plastics, not just a few select bits, we need to support EPR which pushes producers to bear the full cost of production, including the waste which is left behind.

There will always be a cost to dealing with waste but if there were less waste altogether?

Dwayne’s Home

Perched on the edge of the river valley, surrounded by historic century-old and mid-century buildings, a tired mid-century era motel turned backpacker’s hostel and now shelter for those on the edge of homelessness, is about to undergo another transformation.

Known as Dwayne’s House, the unconventional shelter, founded by Dave Martyshuk in 2013 and run as a for-profit entity, has been controversial. It has drawn criticism not for its concept but for the reality of its tenure in the old motel. It receives people discharged from hospitals or released from prison on referral, and provides room and board. It claims to serve three meals a day and has access to some classic 12-step style addictions-support services. While these folks may otherwise have been on the street, neighbouring residents and businesses have been concerned about the quality of housing and care and a lack of actual supportive services for the tenants.

There have been a series of fires, disorder, deaths and the unsolved disappearance of tenant Amber Wilson two years ago. Wilson was 31 when she vanished. She needed medications to deal with seizures and has not filled her prescriptions. And there was a suspicious death in late October of a 54- year-old resident. Homicide detectives were investigating.

Started by Martyshuk, Dwayne’s Home had been operated by Brad Kamal and has since been taken over by Homeward Trust, a not-for-profit outfit that targets homelessness. CEO Susan McGee said her main aim is to ensure residents are taken care of. She said Homeward Trust will work with existing staff to transition residents out of the facility. Kamal says Homeward Trust has been amazing to work with as they’re prioritizing the tenants above all else.

After news of the possible sale broke in the summer, downtown Councillor Scott McKeen reiterated concerns about the conditions for residents but also worried that the sudden transition for the 150 residents would turn into a housing crisis. It’s not clear what will become of the facility once the building is sold.

And although neighbours say the tenants need a place to live, many will not be sorry to see an end to the mayhem that has surrounded the facility.

Wheel sharing – scooters and bikes

Edmonton’s extreme caution in jumping on the two-wheeled micro-mobility bandwagon doesn’t look so laughable as the trend shakes out in other cities.

Based on shifts to escooters and away from ebikes, we may have missed the bike-share boat altogether. While Edmonton was deliberating, Drop Bike executed a successful bike share launch in the summer of 2018 in Kelowna, and Lime Bike brought ebikes to Calgary in October 2018 and operated through the winter. 

But by May, Drop Bike had pulled out early from Kelowna’s pilot. In June, not a single ebike company had stepped into the Kelowna market and several scooter companies rolled into the gap. In February with winter still underway, Lime started pulling its bikes out of U.S. cities and dropped “Bike” from its name, even as they reassured Calgarians they’d keep their ebikes to the end of the pilot. Yet in early summer Lime scooters replaced the distinctive Lime-coloured ebikes virtually overnight. Bird scooters followed shortly after and Calgarians scooted through summer.

Within weeks over 60 Emergency Room visits were recorded for broken bones and head injuries. OGO, a company with Edmonton roots, provides a helmet for each escooter in Kelowna. In June OGO encouraged Edmonton to proceed slowly. Our city’s planned rollout doesn’t come with any special requirements for helmet use. 

Other cities are facing a rash of deaths and head injuries. Atlanta suspended night scooting  after four deaths between May and mid-August. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is weighing in, noting almost half of escooter injuries involve head trauma. Councillor Scott McKeen voted against the move and says ebikes are legitimate, but, “There are more problems than answers with e-scooters.”

“Atlanta suspended night scooting after four deaths between May and mid-August. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is weighing in, noting almost half of escooter injuries involve head trauma.”

The market is driving the nature of our micromobility choices and cities are embracing market-driven initiatives as inexpensive ways of replacing short vehicle trips. (Although a study published in August found about half of all escooter trips would have resulted a walk or bike ride instead.) Kelowna’s bike pilot resulted in 33,000 trips over four months, and 28 per cent would have been by vehicle had the bikes not been available. As we race to reinvent our cities to combat climate change, the stakes are high, and ebikes and escooters are both reducing vehicle trips, although it’s not clear if escooter users will replace the same number of vehicle trips that ebike users were logging. And – to coin a phrase – winter is coming. 

Escooters haven’t been tested in many winter cities. When Calgary’s ebike service rolled out last winter, some wondered if the weather would keep people off the bikes, but 50,000 trips were logged by May. Calgary’s escooter pilot will suspend operations over the winter season, but Edmonton’s standard license has an expiry date of Dec. 31, 2019 with an option for an extension.

The overall trend last winter in northern cities was for the big scooter/bike operators to redeploy fleets to warmer centres. Coming in late into the micromobility market might provide an advantage for Edmonton. The bike network and the 102 Avenue protected bike lanes that connect the core through Oliver to Glenora are kept clear on most winter days and they could offer the perfect testing grounds for companies wanting to see how ebikes and escooters work in a real winter city.

Libraries build better communities

Every Sunday, I leave Oliver to find a workspace that checks two boxes: a hum of conversation and an empty table for my laptop. A library would check those boxes, but most areas in Oliver are at least a half-hour walk from the closest libraries— Enterprise Square and Strathcona. If you’re walking from west Oliver, that time almost doubles.

On the weekend, a coffee house is the only local workspace outside my apartment. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Sunday trips to the coffee house, but I’m expected to drop four dollars on a coffee and there are no research resources. An Oliver library would address both concerns.

My neighbourhood has zero non-athletic public facilities for its 19,000 residents, outside of MacEwan University on our northern boundary. We no longer have a community hall. We’re isolated in our condominium towers and developers threaten our limited green spaces. More than ever, we need public facilities that spark human connection, encourage new friendships and support people in need.

At the Alberta Library Conference this year, councillors from Edmonton and Calgary who serve on their library boards spoke about public libraries. Among them was Councilor Ben Henderson. “One of the things that libraries do really well is create a safe space for people,” he said.

In Oliver, we are missing the indoor, safe space Henderson talked about. The situation is particularly difficult for elderly residents who may not have social connections in their own homes, and for lower income families who cannot afford a trip to the movies every weekend. Libraries matter for people with disabilities, for new immigrants, for students, for parents, and for everyone in between.

Libraries also nourish neighbouring businesses. The Oliver Community League’s recent community survey found that the number one service residents leave the neighbourhood for is a library. When you leave your neighbourhood for the day, your wallet leaves with you.

On Valentine’s Day 2020, Edmonton’s rejuvenated Stanley A. Milner Library is slated to open. The Milner will be a massive facility serving all of Edmonton, Oliver included. But Oliver is not your typical neighbourhood. It’s unique. It’s not downtown, but pulses with a population density of a downtown. And it’s growing. By 2050, the city expects Oliver’s population to approach 30,000.

The EPL considers developing a library when an area’s population reaches 20,000 residents, is expected to grow to 30,000 within the next five years and when there is no other library within five kilometres.

In 2019, an Oliver library would serve 19,000 of our own as well as some of the 7,000 Queen Mary Park residents. In 10 years, the time it takes most branches to transform from concept to opening, Oliver’s population is expected to have grown further. The statistics suggest Oliver will need a library by EPL’s current policies, but they don’t account for our uniquely-dense population. By some measures, Oliver is Edmonton’s most dense neighbourhood, a far cry from the urban sprawl around the edges of the city.

Edmonton Public Library has a thoughtful, strategic plan for library expansion. EPL leadership reviews their branch and service point development policies every three years, recognizing that the needs must be re-assessed regularly. I encourage EPL to review these policies and understand that Oliver can no longer follow EPL’s traditional assessment of library service needs. Our neighbourhood is dense, diverse and lacks public facilities.

In Oliver’s future, a small branch library might co-locate with a new community hall. Or a storefront library could slide into a commercial strip on Jasper Avenue. Either way, now is the time to begin planning.

Let’s hope our booming neighbourhood will one day have its own library—for our children, our elderly, people with disabilities, those looking for human connection, and those who would love to walk to the library on a Sunday afternoon.

Open Streets

It’s a question some cities have pondered, only to arrive at a similar answer: streets are open when they’re for people, and closed when they’re exclusively for moving vehicles. While many European cities now aim to open their streets by closing their downtowns to private vehicles in the near future, we aren’t even close to that here in the car-crazed Americas. But Edmonton could still learn a thing or two from other cities in our own backyard.

CITY Bogota APPROACH Cyclovia

Imagine 1.7-million people showing up for anything. Next, imagine this happening every Sunday. That’s the success of Cyclovia, the world’s most popular public recreation event. It all started in 1974, when Bogota did that most basic of things and opened streets to people and closed them to automobiles. Today, 122 kilometres of streets are returned each Sunday to a staggering 1.7-million (a quarter of the city population) walkers, cyclists, joggers, strollers, crawlers, rollerbladers, dancers … well, you get the point.

CITY Ottawa APPROACH Bike days

Ottawa’s Sunday Bikedays see Colonel By Drive—which meanders its way to the footsteps of Parliament Hill—closed to anyone who isn’t using active transportation. And this has been happening since 1970. Today, each Sunday, more than 50 kilometres of roadway in Ottawa is opened to anyone but those in automobiles. And it’s become a centrepiece of the city. “The Sunday Bikeday program is the National Capital Commission’s longest standing program, a staple in the quality of life for local residents,” says Jean Wolff, a spokesperson with the NCC.

CITY Montreal APPROACH Pedestrian only

Montreal has a staggering 56 streets that are pedestrian only during the summer months to increase its already mesmerizing street vibrancy. Streets and businesses are competing to be added to the tally. The latest are in The Plateau, Saint-Laurent and La Petite-Patrie. One of the originals, on Saint Catherine in the Gay Village, has helped revitalize the area and has become iconic, with the Rainbow Ball art installation that hangs above it becoming known internationally as “Montreal.”

 

Family Trees

What makes a heritage plant? And who decides it’s a heritage plant in the first place?

Before I answer that, allow me to tell a few stories.

In the early 1920s, Walter Holowash fell in love with Vienna’s chestnut trees. He was in the Austrian city studying violin. Walter then smuggled at least one seed in his luggage when he returned home to Edmonton. His father, Sam, planted it in their backyard.

While the Holowash family home is now long gone, Walter’s chestnut seedling stands 40 feet tall and wide, in an alley just off of Jasper Avenue and 106 Street. Its chestnuts are not edible. Still, the Holowash chestnut is an uncommon sight in Edmonton — especially placed between downtown office towers.

East of the Holowash chestnut, at the funicular, you can see another tree that came from elsewhere: wild goji berries. These trees cover the north slopes of the valley. Edmonton’s wild goji berries are
believed to be the holdouts of at least one of 15 Chinese market gardens that dotted the river valley in the early twentieth century. Goji, a Chinese culinary plant, whose berries and leaves often end up in soups, were brought to Edmonton by early Chinese immigrants wanting to grow familiar fruit and vegetables.

The plants now cover large portions of the core — the funicular, Hotel MacDonald, the Shaw Conference Centre, Louise McKinney Park and Riverdale all have goji patches.

But while Holowash’s chestnut is a recognized heritage tree, there is there little recognition of the historical and cultural value of the city’s wild goji.

So back to the question: what makes one a heritage plant and the other not?

From what I can tell, four things give a plant heritage status and protection in Edmonton. Novelty. Historical reference. Time. And, as cliché as it sounds, love.

Most importantly, somebody needs to care enough about a plant to advocate on its behalf. Somebody needs to say, “I think this is worth acknowledging, preserving, and knowing about.”

The Holowash chestnut had that. To quote Heritage Trees of Alberta, a 2008 book published by the Heritage Tree Foundation of Canada: “A developer proposed to clear all the trees for a parking lot, but agreed to save the chestnut when Earl Andrusiak, a bank official, authorized a purchase loan contingent on the tree’s survival.”

Andrusiak cared. Developers, city planners, citizens — and in this case, bankers — won’t preserve what they don’t care about. But why care at all? Are plants that important to downtown Edmonton?

I think they are.

According to estimates by OpenTreeMaps.org, each year, Edmonton’s downtown trees save half a million kilowatt-hours of energy needed for heating and cooling. They suck up 1.7 million gallons of water, remove 12,000 pounds of air pollution, and remove half a million pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. Trees moderate temperature extremes, calm the wind and make urban streets welcoming for humans.

Trees are living monuments whose lives span human generations. Heritage trees, offer a simultaneous connection to our past and future. Heritage plants nod to the people and cultures that planted them.

Twenty feet down from a goji patch, sandwiched between the Shaw and the Courtyard Hotel, stands a mature native balsam poplar tree, dated 1932. While it is old by Edmonton standards and undeniably beautiful, I know nothing of its backstory. Other than that someone cared about it.

I recently contacted the City’s Historic Resource department who primarily deal with the built environment. While they confirmed that heritage trees are in the City’s heritage inventory there doesn’t presently exist a clear path forward for nominating new plants.

I would love to see this change. And I would like to work with the community to identify tomorrow’s heritage plants. So, if you love a tree and think that it’s worth acknowledging and preserving, be in touch.

Dustin Bajer is passionate about integrating nature into cities. He is an educator, beekeeper and urban tree farmer. Send him an email at history@forestcityplants.com

Creative Awareness

ON THE STREET, MEN HAVE YELLED AT me, touched me, trapped me to talk to me and tried to get me into their cars. My stories are upsetting but common. Street harassment is the reality for women, non-binary, Trans, and queer people in the core.

Indeed, downtown Edmonton has a street-harassment problem. I live here, and it’s impossible to go through a summer week without someone yelling at me or invading my personal space to try to force an interaction. And while this isn’t a new phenomenon, the way downtown is being developed means it’s growing. New developments are drawing more people downtown, and shifting some of the party culture away from Strathcona and into the core.

What we need to do now is to get creative to find ways to increase awareness around how common this all is. Thankfully, we are starting to do just that.

Locally, small efforts have been made, like the Transit safety campaign, which displays ads encouraging riders to look out for one another. But my favourite project so far is the This is What it Feels Like exhibit, at MacEwan University, which invited participants to step inside a dimly-lit booth while comments women hear yelled at them are played back to them.

Sitting in the booth, you’ll hear: “You’re pretty — for a native girl,” and “You’re beautiful — smile for me.”

And every once in a while, on some downtown construction board or a light post, I spot a stencil from artist Tatyana Fazlalizadah, wheat-pasted to a street light or construction barrier. It will feature a woman of colour looking regal and serious above the words, “Stop telling women to smile” or “Respect women.”

These kinds of projects give me hope. They let people know about the issue. Art is uniquely able to help us experience what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.

Still, moments experiencing street-harassment can limit a woman’s life. They can dictate what we wear, where we go. It used to be that you had to expect this: Men are awful, we’re told, and it’s our responsibility as women to deal with that. Cover up. Don’t go out at night. Be a good girl.

We have to do better than that for future generations. We have to because street harassment is more than just words, and it will take more than the government to solve our problems.

When I tell men my stories of street harassment, the common refrain is that they have never seen anyone being harassed. Sometimes they have their own stories of dealing with drunk and boorish men and women. Sometimes, they say, they wish people would also yell ‘compliments’ at them the way I apparently get them. Sometimes, they ask what I was wearing.

It is tough to have your experiences dismissed. That needs to change. It’s up to people to change their culture. Women are speaking out in historic numbers about sexual violence. It is up to all of us to listen.

Baby Bumps

Many years ago, when my youngest niece was a baby, I took her out and about to give her mom — my sister — a break. It was then I learned how difficult it is to move around Edmonton with a young child.

We had the contraption where you strap the baby to your front torso and step out into the world as though you are a kookum out hunting moose (mine’s never hunted moose, by the way). But when my back couldn’t take it anymore I would bundle my niece up in a stroller. And then came the lessons.

Have you ever tried to take a baby in a stroller on an ETS bus? It is awful. People roll their eyes before (or if) they make room. Even worse, just getting to the bus stop can be difficult because you have to navigate puddles, people and deteriorating sidewalks.

So, between the clunky stroller barely fitting our often narrow, often poorly-lit sidewalks, the bus challenges and the cat calls — yes even while pushing a baby stroller — I came to realize that Edmonton is not designed with all women, mothers or caregivers in mind.

But who are cities like ours made for, then? It helps to look at who it works best for.

Mo Bot, an urbanist who works as a planner for the City of Edmonton, is passionate about the concept of universal design. Bot says different groups use city infrastructure differently. Take the bus, for example. “Studies [have] found that men tend to take the bus twice a day — to and from work,” she says.

Women, on the other hand, tend to use public transit with far more variance, and tend to make more trips on foot, too. Bot says they do something called “trip chaining,” which essentially means they often make multiple stops while riding the bus between home and work. You know, to pick up the dry cleaning, then the kids from school or the doctor, and then the groceries.

What matters here is whose life you make harder if you design, say, a transit system that works only for your city’s purely work commuters (a majority of whom, in this case, are men) and not its many other users.

I can already hear the “But-what-about-the-men?!” cries. Yes, parenting can be done by any gender, and there are more than two binaries to consider when discussing universal design. But the point is if you make a city accessible to everyone you’ll make it better for everyone.

The question is how. And this was Kalen Anderson’s point for her recent Pecha Kucha presentation on urban design.

Anderson is director of planning coordination for the City of Edmonton. She started her presentation with a quote from urbanist Gil Penalosa, that the best way to evaluate a city is to ask how well it treats the most vulnerable people — “The children, the older adults and the poor.”

She says core neighborhoods are the most important places in the city. “They need to provide holistic opportunities for people to live.” But, Anderson says, Edmonton’s core is not doing that well enough at the moment. “If you want to see how a community works look no further than the way it welcomes children,” she says — noting the core could well improve on that front.

My trips with my niece taught me about the importance of bus seating, wide sidewalks in good repair, better lighting. City design should serve those caring for children, or those with different abilities or of different ages, just as equally as everyone else.

Why Kids Belong Downtown

Anti-child discrimination in housing comes into focus as group forms to fight it

 

Should our downtown and core neighbourhoods welcome kids and families? It’s a question that’s about to get messier than a playpen in Alberta.

As you may have read or experienced, in Alberta a landlord can still refuse to rent to tenants with children, and a condominium board can still evict an owner (yes, an owner) or resident who contravenes an adult-only building bylaw by having the audacity to get pregnant.

Ouch, right? Well, it depends who you ask.

Many Albertans opine that kids disrupt what’s apparently guaranteed to be a placid condo lifestyle — or so social media commentary suggests. And as these commenters often add, what parent would choose to raise their child in a downtown apartment or condo, when we have perfectly nice suburbs, exurbs and bedroom communities for that?

The conversation about where kids and families belong in Edmonton became heated this spring when, in April, the Child Friendly Housing Coalition of Alberta (CFHCA) launched a campaign to end age based discrimination in housing. The group had its eye firmly on areas like Oliver and downtown, which see large amounts of multi-unit apartment and condominium housing and often, child-blocking age restrictions applied to that housing.

The group has been spurred to act by a January 2017 high court decision that, by next year, will see Alberta become the last Canadian province to add age as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The province also has until next year to decide which age discriminations it will uphold (think needing to be 16 to drive, 18 to drink, and so on).

Some developers and industry advocates are hoping the government keeps adult-only housing as one form of legal age discrimination.

Aside from the laws, however, what many seem unable to grasp is the choice bit. Some of us choose to live downtown or in Oliver because we prefer that to other options. We’re not just saving up for the ‘burbs, and we might also want to have children while living here.

Imagine!

But when it comes to choice, there’s often little of it in downtown and Oliver for housing that’s usable for a family (three bedroom apartments, condos or townhomes) in Edmonton.

Why?

Raj Dhunna, CEO of Regency Developments, told the National Post in April that the cost to build townhouse units—for example, three bedroom, multi-unit housing—puts their price uncomfortably close to what a buyer can find a single-detached home selling for in a greenfield suburb. Dhunna said that made these units hard to sell, and that’s why he and other developers don’t really build them.

As a 30-something millennial who’s lived in an apartment her entire adult life, I’m always perplexed by arguments like Dhunna’s. They assume all consumers make housing choices based solely on economic factors, rather than a web of social, economic, transportation and lifestyle preferences.

They also assume we will always choose the suburbs in lieu of the urban life that we love, if they’re cheaper. Such comments also plunge me into selfdoubt. By still living in an apartment, am I pathetically trying to extend my youth? Do I lack the gene that allows other adults to enjoy lawn care?

Hard to say, but I don’t seem to be an outlier.

The City of Edmonton’s 2015 Growth Monitoring Report states that, “vibrant and attractive urban cores have begun to change the way in which we plan. Millennials’ […] movement into urban centres has helped shift investment from the suburbs, and developers and businesses have begun to follow, by building condominiums and locating businesses in these urban areas in an attempt to capitalize on this generation’s desired lifestyle.”

A shift to investment in urban areas like downtown and Oliver can only work if people of all ages are welcome. That must include parents, kids and families.

If you agree and want to end discrimination against children in housing, there’s now a group you can add your voice to.

Chelsey Jersak lives in one of downtown’s kid-friendly condos. She’s the founder and principal of Situate, a municipal planning and placemaking firm, and a founding member of CFHCA. For more information, see cfhca.ca.

Will the City of Edmonton Get Real on Sidewalk Hoarding?

At times, as you walk along those wooden pathways reminiscent of old-timey boardwalks, downtown Edmonton feels like Fort Edmonton. Construction hoarding—especially those dead ends with bright orange “Sidewalk Closed” barriers—permeate the core. The list of downtown sidewalks that have become adventures in detouring is too long to name, but a few stand out: the 7th Street Annex, whose glacial construction on 104 Ave. has frustrated MacEwan students from junior year to graduation; or the City of Edmonton’s own new office tower which hogged the sidewalk for most of its construction, forcing pedestrians to criss-cross through the Ice District or (illegally) walk with traffic. But with more people living downtown—and intent on using their feet—the City is finally ready for change. A proposed policy in 2015 could force builders to keep sidewalks open or relocate them in the streets, whenever possible. It’s the first attempt to balance pedestrian needs with traffic flow and construction work.

hoardingPrior to the proposal, and amidst the downtown construction boom and residential resurgence, hoarding became a major issue. The Fox Towers on 104 St. were the breaking point for residents. Construction consumed one of two laneways, but also made it impossible for people to walk along what’s supposed to be a key downtown attraction. “When you see a sidewalk that you use all the time disappear, you’re more likely to raise a fuss about it,” says Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen. In the summer of 2014, McKeen, on request of his constituents, asked administration to investigate a better way.

Up to that point the city had no policy on how sidewalk hoarding affected pedestrians—only on how it affected traffic. “It’s a symptom of regulations that don’t fully consider people,” Max Amerongen from Paths for People, an advocacy group for active transportation, explains of the policy currently on the books. The closed sidewalks aren’t just an inconvenience but evidence of a disconnect between the pursuit of walkability and the reality on the ground. Instead of squeezing a lane of trafc to open a pedestrian path, it’s been easier for the city to shut down the sidewalk. “[The policy] was a fairly small decision to say we have to look at ways to ensure there are still safe sidewalk areas for people,” says McKeen. The investigation into practices revealed an internal communications failure. Project approvals require numerous departments in the process. Building permits in sustainable development evaluate the developer’s need for space and ensures the permit works with Alberta Safety Codes standards, while transportation evaluates access for pedestrians and vehicles. Yet the two didn’t communicate effectively, so as construction plans were approved by sustainable development, there was little opportunity for other departments to include pedestrian and transit access. Hoarding would obstruct sidewalks and bus stops. The main result of the 2015 policy proposal is that it would make departments aware they had to talk to one another and, hopefully, do better.

“We recognized that we need to circulate [information] to a lot of areas—parks and rec, overhead power lines, transit,” says Roger Clemens, who oversees building  permits in sustainable development. Previously, his department would overlook how construction affected a bus stop or alternate walking routes. Now there is some advance communication to prevent some of these oversights.

It’s still hard to detect real change because many of the construction boom’s developments were approved before 2015. Soon, however, we’ll see much more consideration given to the pedestrian experience, as builders are now encouraged to consider pedestrians more. It’s the best the City can do until policy approval, but the proposed laws could go further. In cities such as Toronto, developers are required to use vertical space, building space up instead of out, to hold construction equipment and worker space. Edmonton’s future doesn’t encourage this option, nor does it charge a fee structure that would penalize contractors using sidewalk space, a major incentive to overlook pedestrians. There is also no way to measure if a balance between pedestrian needs and traffic is being met.

Brad Vanderhoek, with traffic control, says that as the City emphasizes walkability in more planning processes, the solutions to sidewalk obstruction could become easier. Initiatives such as the recently passed minimum grid for bike lanes and Vision Zero (a pedestrian safety initiative) will begin to integrate pedestrian and cyclist access everyday, he says.

But for hoarding specifically, design requirements could set minimum standards for pedestrian-friendly detours and could lessen the amount of public space that’s hoarded. Perhaps most effectively, a fee structure that charges companies more for using sidewalk space as much as it does roads would help to keep companies accountable. One suggestion made in the early stages of the development of the 2015 policy was to discount fees for companies who created visually appealing hoarding.

McKeen is skeptical that the fee structure in place is adequate. The problem, he argues, is largely an issue of cars being prioritized for so long. “As a community we’ve put cars, in a hierarchy, [to be] much more important than the pedestrian. We’re at a stage of maturation that other cities probably went through far earlier.”