So, You Wanna be a “World-Class” City? | By Navneet Khinda

Last fall, I took a great class on city politics, and learned a ton of things, one of them being how mayors like to toot their own horns and boast about how great their city is. More recently, I’ve been stumbling upon tweets, articles, and statements from politicians about building a world-class city. I’m not just referring to Edmonton here, because in any city council meeting you can hear those words buzzing around.

Now, our great City of Champions is adamantly on the path to revitalization. We are as determined as the early European explorers were to discover India and its spices. But, are we taking the wrong path to discovering the ‘promised land’? Moreover, what do we actually want as Edmontonians? Do we want to create a downtown full of skyscrapers and really expensive buildings we can’t afford?

Or should we focus elsewhere? To me, a world-class city, or a global city, can mean many things. What comes to mind are places like NYC, Toronto, Tokyo – you get the idea. Not Edmonton. But I’m okay with that. Instead, I want my city to be more progressive and innovative, more diverse and technologically advanced. A city where I can step outside of my house and have a myriad of things to do within walking distance. A city that is inclusive and kind.

I think we should focus on changes that will actually make a difference to our quality of life here, not some overpriced arena that a fraction of our population will actually frequent. The arena will not, in my opinion, revitalize downtown for a number of reasons. First, it will be on the outskirts of the downtown core, and people will be taking the LRT to go back and forth, but will not actually be walking or passing through the streets. The people that will come will be attending major events like games or concerts that only happen once in a while. For any surrounding businesses to benefit, they’ll have to stay open later hours. A fancy new arena does not equate to a world class city.

Instead, how about building affordable housing in prime locations, like downtown, near educational centres, or near the river valley? By doing so, we can slow down the outgrowth of suburbs and instead build ourselves up, literally. How about pushing communities to take things into their hands?

The problem with development that we’re currently seeing is that it is too top-down. We, as individuals, don’t have as much of an impact as we’d like. And maybe that’s our fault. When was the last time you or one of your neighbours hosted a block party, or volunteered with your community league?

Just a few years ago, and even to this day, 118th avenue was not a place people likened to being safe or vibrant. But just a week ago I went for a walk and began perusing various businesses and restaurants. Lo and behold, I was pleasantly surprised at how great the avenue is. You can see signs in most windows supporting the community-led, grassroots movement to make their place of living and business that much better.

That’s revitalization. Having sidewalks people can walk on, or bike trails such that drivers aren’t constantly afraid of hitting some poor environmentally-friendly soul. Having venues like cafés and interesting multi-purpose spaces spruce up Edmonton. They add colour, literally.

Revitalization means “to give new life to” and to “restore animation to.” Edmonton is getting there, and for that I am grateful. But if we truly want to be world-class, we must first adopt a world-class attitude, one which involves intelligence, creativity, selflessness, and pure joy for being who we are. Our size and our history are undoubtedly unique. That is what makes us world class. All we have to do is turn it up a notch, and make the right investments in our communities.

City politics and urban design are both growing interests for Navneet. In fact, she is looking forward to discussing such topics at a public policy conference hosted by the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network in New York this week! Catch her daily updates on twitter @navneetkhinda.

Illustration: Katrina Regino

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  • Anonymous

    The problem with Edmonton is social. People don’t like downtown because of social reasons. And they refuse to pay for solutions to these social reasons.

  • Sydney

    No way were you in lightbodys fall 2011 class? I was totally in that class!

  • Quentin

    Navneet, your article is well written and you present an interesting view. However, I will have to disagree.

    Your main argument, from what I understand, is that Edmonton should invest in its communities rather than large projects, like the proposed arena. Unfortunately for this to happen, projects such as the arena are necessary.

    Although I agree that it would be nice to step out of my home and be able to have a good time without travelling to the other side of the city, the need for appeal towards the city is imperative for that to happen.

    What you suggest places small business owners as a integral part of this vision. However, these owners will not be attracted to a city that does not have that “big city” appeal that speaks consumerism and economic success. Furthermore in my opinion, Edmonton has been stuck in this phase where it has not had a significant change in years. The arena is a project that can have the potential to spur the city into “revitalization,” and also attract others to build the city up.

    The example you give about 118th avenue is a limited occurrence and quite frankly takes too much time. Edmonton is a city that has grown substantially in the past decade with a growing diversity and new business ventures; it is ready for the next step. Edmonton needs to put its foot down and say that it is ready too; with the proposed arena, it is a step in the right direction.

  • Navneet

    Apologies for the late reply, folks! Thank you for the comments.

    @ Anonymous, what “social reasons” do you speak of?
    @Sydney: Yes!!
    @Quentin: Fair point. And yes, I agree that ultimately, we need a little bit of both approaches because they do complement one another. My contention is not with city planners’ ambition to create a “world class city”, but rather in defining what “world class” means. It’s personally more important to me that Edmonton become a hub of energy and people, and I think it will take more than building an arena to do that.