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Past Futures, Episode 1: Patio Housing and Urban Renewal of Edmonton in 1963 | By Russell Cobb

As the City of Edmonton embarks on a massive urban revitalization scheme, a group of researchers at the University of Alberta has been asking what we might learn from failed experiments in urban renewal over the past one hundred years. Over the next few weeks, Edmonton Pipelines – a group of students and faculty who explore Edmonton’s identity via digital narratives – will bring you stories about dreams of a future that never came to pass. 

Part 1: Downtown urban renewal
Part 2: Edmonton’s “Miracle Mile”
Part 3: The Omniplex


A half century ago, Edmonton took a deep breath and gazed upon its transformation from provincial town to medium-sized city. The first years of the oil rush had resulted in the construction of the city’s first skyscrapers and the development of Canada’s first master-planned suburb (Parkallen, 1951), but the boom also left urban blight in its wake. Workers poured into the city and lived in overcrowded apartments. Some lived in “Dawson Huts,” temporary dwellings meant to house soldiers during the war. The area just east of downtown was crawling with vice, and Edmonton’s first skid row developed around Boyle Street.

The City formed a commission in 1962 to study the “rabbit warrens” of sin around downtown and in the flats of Rossdale. In 1963, the commission, known as the Urban Renewal Study, was made up of architects, academics, and high-ranking city employees. Together, they developed a strategy for dealing with the number one problem Edmonton faced: urban blight. Blight was a “contagious disease” that was spreading out of control, making the inner city a “stamping ground for deliquence and immorality.”

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[Building east of downtown in 1963. Image courtesy of City of Edmonton]

A certain Mr. S.H. Prickett was quoted in the Commission’s report as saying that in dense neighbourhoods, “Men with nowhere to rest in their own homes are forced into the streets and taverns. Children must play on the streets where they are in constant danger from traffic.” Prostitution, gangs, and drug addiction: all of modern Edmonton’s vices shared the common denominator of overcrowding, and by 1964, the city was ready to wipe the slate clean and start again.

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[Among the many rabbit warrens were “lean-tos” constructed in backyards. Image courtesy of City of Edmonton]

The City held a competition to design a new kind of housing “module” that would alleviate overcrowding but would also appeal to people who could only afford a small down payment. The winner was an architect named R.L. Maltby, who came up with the brilliant idea of a “patio house,” which was something like a small modernist fortress. Instead of a front yard, patio houses featured a wall protecting the main house from the street (streets being the source of vice in the mentality of the time) and creating a small, landscaped courtyard, where children could be contained from the street, but also allowed to play outside.


[Artist rendition of the courtyard of a patio house. Image courtesy of City of Edmonton]

A fully landscaped patio house with paved driveway could be built for $9500 and a worker would only need to put down $650 for a piece of this experiment in western Canadian urban renewal. In the process, patio houses were supposed to completely transform the neighborhood of McCauley (near the present-day Commonwealth Stadium) from a den of sin into a quaint neighbourhood that could be entered and exited through another modernist (and never-built) project: a Downtown Freeway Loop that would hook up with a River Valley Expressway.

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[Architect’s rendering of a sleek, modern row of patio houses. Image courtesy of City of Edmonton]

The master plan, including rows of patio houses, never went beyond the planning stage. Edmonton continued to grow outward and the development of the inner city was seen as too expensive and complicated to bother with. The plans were relegated to the archives and forgotten.

Fifty years ago, urban planners and architects thought the answer to Edmonton’s problems meant replacing old, decaying neighborhoods and densely-built streets with streamlined houses, schools and workplaces as “machines for living,” in the words of the high priest of international modernism, Le Corbusier. Cars would make walkable streets a relic of a past era. Urban renewal, in other words, would be prefaced by urban demolition.

Of course, all that 1963 Edmonton wanted to demolish is precisely what the present-day urban planners want to bring back: street life, walkable neighbourhoods, and limitations on parking and car traffic.  This is the image that our current regime of urban planners want us to believe in: streets filled with people, not cars; life lived not in the confines of a walled patio, but out in the open, for all to see and enjoy.

 

[From Capital City Downtown Plan, 2010. Image courtesy of City of Edmonton]

Russell Cobb is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Slate, NPR, The Nation, and Texas Observer. He was recently nominated for a National Magazine Award and won a silver medal for Alberta Story of the Year for his article about becoming a Canadian. He is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at the University of Alberta and an avid fan of basketball, classic country music, and Mexican street food.

 

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