The Edmonton Collective: Community News Bridging Urban Sprawl

Posted: April 20, 2011 by braillebone in Uncategorized

Construction of the High Level Bridge, Edmonton, Alberta. Taken from "maybe edmonton" blog.

The City

Edmonton boasts many of the amenities of an ideal urban centre like Toronto or Montreal, but the majority of it is poorly designed. An steady flow of newcomers combined with availability of cheap farmland sold for residential development has resulted in major urban sprawl. I would argue that although Edmonton is smaller in size and population than Toronto and Montreal, it lacks accessibility and the essence of connectedness a city of its size should have. The overarching goal of my internet platform is to unite the city by giving it a vessel for the stories that matter most to its people.

Edmonton is often perceived as a “blue-collar” city because of its association with industry; at first glance, it’s not an artful place. While this is simply untrue – for example, Edmonton is home to a thriving theatre community and hosts North America’s oldest and largest Fringe Theatre festival – there is a stigma that brands the city as cold and lacking imagination. In my opinion, Edmonton’s arts community is incredibly vital to its appeal and sustenance as a city not only for its inherent value, but for its energy. Of course there is a place for industry – it creates jobs for a healthy economy and this keeps unemployment rates down – but the problem with it is it’s often a quick fix for newcomers who don’t stay to invest in the city. People move to Edmonton and stay for a few years to make a quick buck and don’t stay, so there is less of a forceful demand for investment in the things that make a city appetizing such as infrastructure and accessible transit. I would like to see a community forum filled with news about efficient and sustainable urban planning for new projects, preserving and recycling historic buildings instead of ripping them down without cause, and a focus on drawing more traffic through the cultural hubs of the city while putting money into a downtown face-lift.

Content

As mentioned, Edmonton’s strong arts community is what makes it go ’round, in many senses. If one were to be dropped in the middle of Whyte Avenue, a slew of independent restaurants, clothing stores, record shops and bars, it might seem as though he or she had been dropped on a slightly tamer street in Montreal. But even a 10-minute drive west is a vast difference, a jungle of “big box” stores and fast food joints, and the same lack of creativity exists in virtually every other direction in some form. Long stretches of gridded road that lead to spread-out identical subdivisions, each with its own Sobeys, drug store, Subway and even dental and medical offices. There has been too much energy put into building little self-sufficient communities on the outskirts, which only drive traffic away from the core. That means areas like downtown, a plethora of potential and much to offer but in need of urgent refurbishment, and Whyte Avenue and surrounding area which is full of local independent businesses that depend on local traffic.

Considering this online platform may exist some years in the future, I would hope that the dreamy articles I’ve read lately about changing Edmonton’s reputation as the “Canadian fiefdom of sprawl, power centres and built oppression looms even bigger than its brutal winters.” Those are Lisa Rochon’s words in her Globe and Mail article about updating city libraries and creating inventive new park pavilions. Another recent article about reworking Edmonton’s much-debated City Centre Airport into a more efficient living space utilizing renewable energy is supportive of the fact that Edmonton’s recent echoes of progress are starting to make some noise; it wouldn’t be far fetched to expect some follow-through in the next few years. Instead of hopeful articles outlining the blueprint version of big ideas for the city, the website would ideally feature articles covering the operational version of those progressive dreams realized.

In the midst of these articles’ surfacing, there has been much debate and discussion over other areas of urban planning. It’s been made clear these issues are becoming increasingly important to more and more people. This is a great sign, of course – a greater number of people are interested in the future of Edmonton – and likely means more people are raising concerns about a place they would like to build a life in, depending on the results of some ideas for improvement. No one can ignore the urban sprawl, nor can anyone change it, really. But there is something to be done in the name of connecting the self-sufficient suburban dots: extending the light rail transit (LRT) lines in all directions. This is something that has been of great interest to many Edmontonians for a long while, but significantly more lately, likely because of increased media coverage (37 articles so far this year) and action taken by the city to complete new lines like Century Park and Southgate.

These are the ideal expansion lines with proposed completion dates:

And these are the lines that exist now (*note that the Century Park line has been completed):

As can be seen, the expansion project is absolutely massive, and overall will cost well over $3 billion to complete. From the sounds of it, the expansion of accessible transit would mean many things for the dispersed community. I would like the website to incorporate accounts of how the expansion affects the lives of citizens from several different perspectives. For example. it would be interesting to note the cost effectiveness of taking speedy transit across the city, as well as how it might affect the commute time of people traveling to work or for leisure. It might increase the appeal of working in the downtown core for people who were once opposed to the hour drive from city outskirts, depending on weather, traffic and construction, and to the high price of gas that came with a long commute. I would use two-minute video segments on the site documenting different effects of the transit improvements on individual lives. These might include focusing on a mother and/or father who suddenly have a couple of extra hours to spend with their children each night, or on a teenager being able to attend his or her sports practices independently when they couldn’t before because a parent worked nights and couldn’t drive them.

These recent developments to planning more effective transit have sparked some discussion over whether Edmonton should institute its own Urban Planning School. An article published earlier this year in one of Edmonton’s alternative publications, SEE Magazine, said the University of Alberta is looking into developing its own civic planning program. General Manager of Edmonton’s planning and development branch, Gary Klassen, said the program would “produce planning professionals with a better understanding of Edmonton’s unique problems and assets and provide an opportunity for both government and business to work with the university on projects.” If the university were to go ahead and implement the program, The Edmonton Collective would cover its development process, step by step, and would follow the research and practical work of its professors and students. In effect, this coverage would pertain to all issues surrounding urban planning and the many flaws Edmonton’s has. But it would not be an attack by any means, and instead would aim to focus on the positive aspects of informed change, growth and progress.

Since interactivity with readers seems to be increasingly relevant – for example, the civil use of online comments generated by stories people are passionate about – it would be wise for the Edmonton Collective to engage its readers with specified forums on different subjects (ex. the LRT expansion) and to also conduct regular online surveys about reactions to change in the city, for which the results would be published online. While “streeters” are often not relevant in news stories in my opinion, I would use them in cases like these to survey people who are being directly affected by changes in their community.

Another major issue concerning the future of Edmonton that has generated a lot of controversy is the building of a brand new hockey arena downtown. The existing one is about six kilometres northeast of the downtown core, seemingly close, but for most Edmontonians the drive is a lengthy one because it involves taking routes that do not go directly through the downtown area. Both routes, as it turns out, take quite a while because of lights, construction and traffic. The new arena is such a contested issue is because of its high cost. The project is expected to cost $450 million: $350 million of publicly funded money from the city and taxpayers, and $100 million from Daryl Katz (Edmonton Oiler’s team owner and C.E.O. of Canada’s leading drug store operator, The Katz Group). The deal has certainly stirred up some strong opinions on either side. Some feel tax-payer money should be spend on the areas that urgently need them, like healthcare and inner city poverty. Others see the new arena downtown as a fantastic opportunity for investment in healthier infrastructure and the economy. Regarding the website, it would be interesting to cover all the affected aspects of the city that have been discussed already such as the predicted revenue the extra downtown patronage will create and assessing if claims about boosting the esteem of the city as an appealing and more attractive place to live and visit were actually fruitful. I would like to see detailed business reports gathered from the area to use as information with which to base an in-depth piece on the effects of the arena on downtown business: have businesses experienced a significant jump in sales? What kinds of business have undergone the best financial gain? Which businesses renovated to improve their image? Which businesses have experienced a drop in sales, and why? As always, it would be ideal to put individual faces on these stories to best represent them. To do so, I would employ short video features similar to the ones I described earlier about the LRT expansion, and also print articles with digestible graphics to explain the financial information that is often tough to read about. I would like to also use slide shows of high-resolution photos representing the many changes to the downtown core, such as construction, changes to existing architecture, and downtown pedestrian traffic. The Globe and Mail use slideshows and video clips effectively to communicate stories, as we have seen with its recent feature on Nunavut, and Ian Brown’s feature on his son’s struggle with severe mental illness. This use of multimedia allows us to become a part of the world we’re learning about in a way that print just isn’t able to accomplish, so it will be paramount on the Edmonton Collective site.

Funding

I would prefer that a website like The Edmonton Collective that is doing a lot of coverage of expensive, high profile projects avoids conflicts of interest by remaining untouched by funds from the city, businesses, or philanthropists who are directly involved in said projects, such as Daryl Katz. This would mean seeking independence from advertisers and relying on donations from members and private investors. I would want to stress the importance of maintaining strong community values with community issues remaining at the heart of the platform’s priorities. I would trust that with such an active and energetic group of concerned citizens in Edmonton, support would not be difficult to round up – especially because I think an online platform like this would unite several concerned voices. Having said that, I would make a consistent effort to maintain balanced coverage in all stories, which would be made a lot less complicated by steering clear of city and business financial support. It would also rely on online subscriptions and quarterly membership drives and fundraiser events.

As community print publications are being phased out, the creation of online platforms is imperative and the role of the journalists who contribute to them is perhaps even more valuable. It’s clear that it’s only the medium that’s changing; people still want to be informed about their local community because they can’t find it elsewhere. It is the specialty of local reporters to relay the goings on of the city or town they live in because they know it best. But the reason it is imperative that this type of community news platform remains run by professionals and not by regular community members is that the content will then remain without bias or agenda, whereas it is likely to be unbalanced, exaggerated or manipulated if run solely by concerned citizens. They may be very well informed about the issues they write about, but if they have no obligation to report as objectively as possible, why should they be expected to? This is why an online publication like the Edmonton Collective will always be able to serve its community with in-depth, engaging coverage of community flaws and the measures taken to overcome them as a community.

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