Chief Concerns: Edmonton Hasn’t Had a Chief Planner for 50 Years

Toronto's chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Courtesy: Toronto Centre for Active Transportation/Flickr)

Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Courtesy: Toronto Centre for Active Transportation/Flickr)

(Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, Peter Ohm was officially named Edmonton’s Chief Planner.)

Edmonton has a lot of plans. Big ones. Blatchford, the Ice District, the Quarters—to say nothing of the constant outward growth,
 the inward growth alone means the city will look very different in less than a generation. Other major urban centres that’ve implemented projects far smaller in scale have relied on urban advocates in the form of a “chief planner” to communicate and maintain overall vision. The city’s been without one since Noel Dant in the 1950s and ’60s. Recent changes within Edmonton’s civil service structure may include creating a position of this type, but will it be an advocate for good urban form?

Like a chief medical officer is to our provincial leaders, explains Bill Freeman, author of The New Urban Agenda, “[a chief planner] has a responsibility to give their best professional advice to the public and the politicians.”

“Many politicians don’t want this because they think it’s a competition for the attention of the public.” —Brent Toderian, former City of Vancouver chief planner

Municipal planners overly consider developers’ plans, says Freeman, often leading to poor alignment with larger neighbourhood plans or affordable housing needs. A chief urban planner, however, considers the broadest view with all the components of city-making, from how people move to how neighbourhoods form. A chief planner’s primarily accountable to the expertise and ethics of their field, rather than the politics of an environment.

“Many politicians don’t want this because they think it’s a competition for the attention of the public,” says Brent Toderian, the City of Vancouver’s former chief planner. Now a national consultant, he says the position is critical to overcoming the fractured thinking of individual departments within a city governance structure. For instance, sustainable development and transportation are, obviously, intertwined, yet until a recent shakeup in Edmonton these departments were overseen separately.

Calgary’s chief urban planner Rollin Stanley, Toronto’s Jennifer Keesmaat and Toderian himself are often held up as Canadian examples of what 
a strong chief planner can accomplish. Toderian took on the task of defining and implementing
an “EcoDensity” plan, which, after hundreds of meetings, created a dramatic change to Vancouver’s planning process by prioritizing the environmental benefits of densification. This achievement is not viewed favourably by all, and many believe 
it contributed to Toderian being fired when the political climate changed. Toderian’s adherence to the planning philosophy behind EcoDensity over political climate is an example of what can make a chief planner controversial.

Or take Keesmaat. Her social media following is massive and she regularly blogs or pens op-eds because she has public outreach responsibilities. But her adherence to urban form over political expediency created conflict with Toronto mayor John Tory over the Gardiner Expressway. While he advocated an expansion of the expressway, Keesmaat advocated demolishing it. Her position wasn’t popular with Torontonians, but that is often the case with chief planners; they exist to shoulder the blame for tough but necessary decisions.

The expressway fallout was so great it led to speculation Tory would replace her. “Keesmaat has been more cautious since,” says Freeman. “That
 is unfortunate.” Freeman believes that despite controversy, Keesmaat’s interpretation of the
 role as an advocate is the correct one. “She speaks directly to the public. … This is a welcome development that has helped the public understand the issues before them.”

Considering the natural resistance the general public has to change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Keesmaat and her counterparts have all been labelled troublemakers. But imagine a similar apolitical advocate for Edmonton. Would 104 Ave. comprise so many suburban power centres? Would the Metro LRT have been better planned?

“The success of a chief planner depends less
 on the position and more on the person,” says Toderian. While he’s often asked to describe the best city structure to support a chief planner, he says it’s more about that person’s ability to navigate the internal structure and collate the various departments’ ideas into action.

Who will advocate best planning practices to the public or our elected officials? Klassen, Ohm or the top urban designer?

Their positions as defined on an organizational chart are not markedly different from the position of top planners in other municipalities. Peter Ohm, who as branch manager of urban planning and environment, is Edmonton’s most senior planner. However, Ohm reports not to the city manager but to Gary Klassen, the GM of Sustainable Development, where issues of zoning, housing, land-use and environment are managed, who in turn is hiring a new “lead urban designer” that will report to Ohm. Who will advocate best planning practices to the public or our elected officials? Klassen, Ohm or the top urban designer?

Klassen says Ohm is in a position similar to 
the chief urban planner and “[the designer] will translate the policy and frameworks into what we see on the street.” Ohm has had a low public profile up to this point, with no social media presence and a quiet voice in the news, but stronger internal and public communication is part of his re-envisioned job. With this renewed focus and all of the major upcoming projects, Ohm’s public profile and accountability will have to strengthen in order to achieve the clout of his counterparts. It’s not just about having another senior manager; someone should be the face of urbanism, infill, density and walkability across Edmonton. But most of all, says Toderian, “the follow through is the key.”

(Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, Peter Ohm was officially named Edmonton’s Chief Planner.)

4 Reasons to Bring Your Kids to the Core

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SATURDAYS
Saturday Open Studio
The Art Gallery of Alberta’s weekly drop-in sessions invite children to paint, sculpt, draw and design. Children 6–12 are welcome. Admission is $15 and includes all material costs. (1 pm, AGA, youraga.ca)

WEDNESDAYS
Baby Playgroup
Free up your arms while you relax with friends and neighbours. (11am, Christ Church, 12116 102 Ave., christchurchedmonton.org)

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Courtesy: Flickr

MAR 26
Easter Egg Hunt
Get cracking with this fun, free, non-denominational egg hunt. Warm-up begins at 10 am with children’s activities, followed by a quick snack, before under-12 kids can ambush the area for painted eggs and cool prizes. (Christ Church, 12116 102 Ave., christchurchedmonton.org)

MAR 29–APR 1
Spring Break Starts Here
Until they’re old enough to pay their way to Cancun, take your kids to the Stanley Milner Library for a spring break staycation. Families learn and perform songs together, make crafts, draw and hear stories inside the children’s library. (Stanley Milner Library, epl.ca)

 

5 Places to Channel Your Creativity

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THURSDAYS
Studio Y Drop-in Workshops
These weekly after-school drop-ins give teenagers the chance to hang out and make art without adults breathing over their shoulders. Every week there’s a different theme. Admission is $5. (4pm, Art Gallery of Alberta, youraga.ca)

MAR 18–JUL 31
John Thomson Photo Exhibit
History buffs will appreciate John Thomson’s photographs displayed at the University of Alberta’s Museum Gallery downtown. In the first-ever exhibit dedicated to the late Scottish pioneer and geographer’s works, the images depict the monuments and unfamiliar landscapes of 19th century China. Admission by donation. (Enterprise Square, 10230 Jasper Ave., museums.ualberta.ca)

APR 13, APR 21
Public Talks with Connor Buchanan
Local artists are invited to the Creative Practices Institute’s two-day presentation, where art curator Connor Buchanan shares knowledge on curation, arts administration and how artists can make the best of their talents in Edmonton’s creative sector. (6pm, Creative Practices Institute, 10149 122 St., creativepracticesinstitute.com)

MAR 29–APR 1
MaKey MaKey Fun
Release your inner inventor with a gizmo called a MaKey MaKey. This electronic “invention kit” lets you hack computers with everyday objects. Turn a banana into a piano and playdough into game controllers—or whatever else you might dream up. The workshop is free. (2pm, Stanley Milner Library, epl.ca)

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APR 7
Margaret Atwood

Who better for the Canadian Literature Centre to invite for its 10th annual Kreisel Lecture than the country’s best-known author? Tickets for Atwood’s lecture on the 1960s CanLit golden era start at $20. (7:30pm, Winspear Centre, abclc.ca)

3 Spring Shows You Don’t Want to Miss

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MAR 17–19
Bust ’Em Up Burlesque
Edmonton’s own Send in the Girls Burlesque company presents this little known story of the Forty Elephants, a jazz-dazed girl gang in 1920s London. It’s true crime meets striptease. Tickets start at $22. (The Club at Citadel Theatre, 9828 101A Ave., citadeltheatre.com)

SUNDAYS
Free Weekly Ballroom Dance Lessons
Join “Mr. Dam” in the Boyle Street Community Centre’s Willow Room for an afternoon of ballroom dancing. It’s free, so what’ve you got to lose? (1pm, Boyle Street Community Centre, 9538 103A Ave., boylestreet.org)

MAR 29
Wintersleep
Shake off the snow with this Juno-winning indie rock group. They’re sure to zap your winter blues into oblivion, so come for the thaw. Tickets are $20. (8pm, Starlite Room, 10030 102 St., starliteroom.ca)

5 Fresh Ways to Have Fun in the Breeze

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MAR 12
Parka Patio
Latitude 53’s fifth annual winter soiree features installation art, local DJs and a silent auction. With a winning bid, you can take home a piece of contemporary art for your own walls. Where does the “parka” come in handy? On the heated patio, of course. This year the gallery has added youth-friendly programming before the party starts. Tickets are $15. (5–7pm for minors, 8pm for 18+, Latitude 53, 10242 106 St., latitude53.org)

MAR 26
Downtown Defrost
Embrace the cold—and the dance floor—when things start heating up during this outdoor electronic music concert headlined by DJ Soup from British Columbia. The free event is presented by Night Vision, Wheelhouse Productions and Winter City Edmonton. (Churchill Square, downtowndefrost.com)

APR 1–3
Farewell to Winter Patio Party
Cozy up with your friends outside at participating restaurants, pubs, coffee shops and bars all across Edmonton. Call it an early start to the summer patio season or one last hurrah for winter. Venues will celebrate with toasty drink specials served under an open sky and fleece blankets in case they’re not toasty enough. (Locations listed at exploreedmonton.com)

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SATURDAYS STARTING MAY 21
City Market Downtown
Find out why one National Geographic writer called this outdoor farmers market the best in the world when it returns to the 4th Street Promenade. (104 St. and Jasper Ave., city-market.ca)

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Courtesy: Paula Kirman/Flickr

MAY 21
Hip Hop in the Park
Break down and find your inner emcee at this ninth annual free outdoor festival for all things hip hop—from graffiti writing to DJing, rapping to beatboxing. The party don’t stop till the sun drops. (12pm, Boyle Street Community Centre, 9538 103A Ave., boylestreet.org)

Here’s How We Can Make Downtown More Liveable

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Strides have been made to turn Edmonton into a terrific, people-friendly city year-round, like Nuit Blanche, the Winter City strategy and guidelines, and in just a few years a segregated bike network will transform Downtown transportation. There’s so much happening right now to make our neighbourhood more livable than ever. Here are just a few:

1. Spring is always primetime for shaking off the winter grit, so if you want to help DECL “clean slate” be a part of our Annual Spring Cleanup on May 1. However, shouldn’t year-round cleanliness be a priority? That’s why we’re insisting the City provide street cleaning around Downtown and on main arteries during winters, too. Businesses, building-owners and residents can do their part by keeping the exteriors of their spaces as attractive as their interiors.

2. Green spaces are great for gathering. They’re also a bit of an oasis for us urban folk—our “living room,” if you will. This summer will see the long-anticipated construction of Alex Decotea Park begin in the Warehouse Campus Area. It’ll be a much-needed respite and socializing space for this historic part of our Downtown.

3. The current jay walking restrictions penalize pedestrians for walking. This needs to change if we want to encourage residents to adopt active lifestyles. Allowing walkers to cross when it’s safe to do so is already allowed on Rice Howard Way, but we’re advocating for it to be expanded to other spaces like 104 St., or Downtown as a whole.

4. This month’s feature story embraces the notion that “small is big” when it comes to encouraging independent and diverse retail on our streets. BuzzFeed Canada and The Walrus contributor Nikki Wiart examines the cross-section of good urban design and healthy local economies.

5. Encouraging families to live Downtown means having residences that permit all ages. If you’ve had issues finding a home because you’re too young or have children, we want to hear from you! Be part of our initiative to encourage Alberta to change the rules allowing adult-only buildings.

6. DECL is doing its part to create a sense of community for young families. In addition to our regular Urban Kids Board Game Night, Our Urban Kids Playgroup for parents and tots ages 0–5 launches on March 7 at our community space. Drop by to meet other families living Downtown (click here for more information).

7. Meet your neighbours and create community by joining your Downtown Edmonton Community League. Our Annual General Meeting will be held on May 10. It’s the perfect time to learn more about what we do, how you can get involved and how you can help decide the future of our neighbourhood (click here for more information).

DECL board of directors: Chris Buyze (President); Ian O’Donnell (VP); Milap Petigara (Treasurer); Jillian Gamez (Secretary); Erin Duebel; Laurissa Kalinowsky; Christie Lutsiak; Jarrett Mykytiuk; Lindsey Trufyn; and Chris Wudarck.

Email DECL or visit its website for more information.

12 Ways to Meet Your Oliver Neighbours

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Abundant Communities Hot Chocolate Social
MAR 6, MAR 20, APR 3, APR 17: In true Canadian spirit, with a fire and steaming hot chocolate to keep you warm, these outdoor socials happen bi-weekly every month all winter long. (7pm, Kitchener Park, 114 St. and103 Ave.)

Civics Committee
MAR 14, APR 11, MAY 9: This fully engaged committee meets on the second Monday of the month to discuss developments in Oliver. (7pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Events and Programs Committee
MAR 16, MAR 18: If you like event planning, this is the committee for you. (6:30pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Walking Pub Crawl of Oliver
MAR 18, APR 15, MAY 20: Meet with new and old friends at the hall on every third Friday of each month, before walking to pre-determined locations to enjoy the Oliver nightlife. (8pm, starts at OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Spring Potluck Saturday
MAR 19: Bring the whole family and favourite dish and join league members for a feast. (5 pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Ollie’s Treehouse Inclusive Playgroup
MAR 20, APR 17, MAY 15: Every third Sunday, come to the hall to let your little ones run wild and play with friends. Ollie’s is a great place for parents to make friends of their own. (4pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Drop-In BYOB(oard) Games Night
MAR 30, APR 27, MAY 25: Looking for friendly board game competition? On the last Wednesday of the month the OCL hall is the place to be for board game aficionados and novices alike. Bring your board game or try one of ours. n 7pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.

Drop-In Basketball
THURSDAYS: Everyone is invited to drop in to Grace Lutheran’s gym and play basketball on Thursdays. All skills and levels welcome. (7pm, Grace Lutheran Church, 9907 114 St)

Grandin Garden Meeting
APR 10: Help us found another much needed garden. (12pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Balcony Gardening Workshop
APR 10: Join the league’s garden director in an introduction to the basics of balcony gardening. Entry is $5 and funds go to Peace Garden Community Garden. (Two sessions at 3–3:30pm or 3:45– 4:15pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Make Something Oliver Grant Application Deadline
APR 15: Have a great idea to make Oliver great? Apply for our MSO grant at olivercommunity.com.

Annual General Meeting
APR 20: Your chance to see what the league has been up to over the past year, review the 2015 financials and vote for the 2016– 2017 board of directors. (7pm, OCL Hall, 10326 118 St.)

Snapshots from Winter’s Community Gatherings

Well over 100 packed Christ Church for the City of Edmonton’s Imagine Jasper workshop to help reshape the thoroughfare into a main street (Nov. 25/15)

Well over 100 packed Christ Church for the City of Edmonton’s Imagine Jasper workshop to help reshape the thoroughfare into a main street (Nov. 25/15; Photo courtesy of DIALOG)

Douglas “Dollars” and Vedran Skopac at The Yards Best in the Core party (Dec. 2/15)

Douglas “Dollars” and Vedran Skopac at The Yards Best in the Core party (Dec. 2/15)

 

The Yards marketer and event planner Sona Chavda and North 53 owner Kevin Cam at Best in the Core (Dec. 2/15)

The Yards marketer and event planner Sona Chavda and North 53 owner Kevin Cam at Best in the Core (Dec. 2/15)

Steamwhistle ambassador “Sheriff” Ben Taylor at The Yards Best in the Core (Dec. 2/15)

Steamwhistle ambassador “Sheriff” Ben Taylor at The Yards Best in the Core (Dec. 2/15)

Credo Coffee co-owner Geoff Linden, Ayaki Shiga and Ikki Izakaya owner Ayumi Ishikawa at The Yards Best in the Core (Dec.2/15)

Credo Coffee co-owner Geoff Linden, Ayaki Shiga and Ikki Izakaya owner Ayumi Yuda at The Yards Best in the Core (Dec.2/15)

Oliver residents Eric Domond and Shereen Zink (Dec. 2/15)

Oliver residents Eric Domond and Shereen Zink (Dec. 2/15)

Richard Hung and Valerie Dovell take advan- tage of Edmonton Ski Club’s free equipment rentals for OCL members (Jan. 20/16)

Richard Hung and Valerie Dovell take advan- tage of Edmonton Ski Club’s free equipment rentals for OCL members (Jan. 20/16)

Danny Hoyt and Brandon Campbell at the Oliver Pub Crawl (Feb. 18/16)

Danny Hoyt and Brandon Campbell at the Oliver Pub Crawl (Feb. 18/16)

From Left: Pia Ravi, Jenna Lee Williams and Andrea Raylor at the Oliver Pub Crawl (Feb. 18/16)

From Left: Pia Ravi, Jenna Lee Williams and Andrea Raylor at the Oliver Pub Crawl (Feb. 18/16)

Tim Querengesser and Andrew Williams at the Oliver Pub Crawl (Feb. 18/16)

Tim Querengesser and Andrew Williams at the Oliver Pub Crawl (Feb. 18/16)

Four Spring Events From the Downtown Community League

DECLlogoUrban Kids Board Game Night
MAR 18, APR 15, MAY 20:
Our monthly children’s board game night is where kids can play, explore and make friends in their neighbourhood. (6–9pm, DECL Community Space, 10042 103 St.)

Urban Kids Playgroup
MAR 7, MAR 28, APR 4, APR 18, MAY 2, MAY 16, MAY 30:
It’s where downtown children (0–5) play together and their caregivers meet. (10:30am, DECL Community Space, 10042 103 St.)

Spring Clean-Up
MAY 1:
Our annual tidying, part of the Capital City Clean-Up and River Valley Clean-Up programs, is a great way to help beautify the neighbourhood and enjoy the outdoors! Bring your “get dirty” clothes and gloves; we’ll provide cleaning supplies. (10am, Meet at DECL Space, 10042 103 St.)

Annual General Meeting
MAY 10:
We’ll discuss downtown issues and the business of the league, and hear updates from some of our committees and partners, with special presentations. DECL memberships will be available at the door for $5.  (6:45pm registration/7pm start, DECL Community Space, 10042 103 St.)

Leder of the Pack

James Leder by Leroy Schulz-7180

Photo courtesy of Leroy Schulz / leroyschulz.com

Before it closed in 2013, Stony Plain Road’s the Haven Social Club was known for playing host to eclectic local and international music. Now the owner/operator James Leder’s hopes to bring a similar concept downtown with the Needle Vinyl Tavern, opening on March 10 with The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer. With few mid-sized venues in Edmonton, let alone downtown, the pressure is on for the Needle to fill some big shoes.

Some people have already started comparing the Needle to the old Sidetrack Cafe, possibly because of the atmosphere you created at the Haven. What do you make of that?

[Laughs] People are going to say what they want to say. Everyone has mad respect for the Sidetrack. Getting mentioned in the same sentence isn’t a bad thing, but I don’t want to compare the two because I don’t want to give anybody a false impression of what we are. We hope that we have all the great elements the Sidetrack had, but we’re going to have our own identity.

What’s going to be different about the Needle? 

What we’ve planned on doing is having happy hour shows to encourage the after-work crowd of downtown to come over for beers seven days a week. We want to make it so people will come not knowing who is playing. The idea is to give bands the opportunity to play to people who aren’t familiar with them.

When you were traveling, researching music venues in other cities, why did you want to continue doing this in Edmonton?  

What I took from it was the overlook of the music industry in general, the history of it, the whole machine, and thinking that there’s no reason Edmonton can’t have a renowned music scene. I think it has all the potential—we have great festivals and lots of things happening. And this is the perfect time for The Needle because of [the revitalization] going on downtown.

The Yards’ Guide to Live Music: Stages, People and Issues