Sunday, October 18, 2015

Last Leg

Canadians expect a few things from government: a strong economy, participation on the world stage, and a fair and just society at home. Over nine years Stephen Harper has proven unable to provide these things as Prime Minister.

Canada's international reputation is a tattered shell of what it was. Once rightly thought of as reasonable and progressive in global politics, we are now the country that reneges on international agreements like Kyoto, denies refugees, and no longer has any clout or respect at the United Nations. How far we have come from Lester Pearson getting the Nobel Peace Prize for using UN peacekeepers to resolve an international crisis. I wonder if Canadians still wear a maple leaf when backpacking across the world.

Canadians have always counted on our common values for our sense of identity. Being Canadian is less about where we came from or what our ancestors did, and more about who we are and what we are like. Our sense of fairness, openness, tolerance: universal health care, embracing multiple cultures. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is admired across the world. We are proud of being a decent people. Stephen Harper has eroded this pride like a cancer. His willingness to use racial tactics to divide us against ourselves in the niqab debate and the "barbaric cultural practices" hotline are only the most recent examples. Canada is a less tolerant and more hateful country after nine years of Harper.

Yet somehow Harper is seen as a sound economist. A spate of endorsements, all from Postmedia-controlled papers, were variations of how the Conservatives are the only party capable of managing the economy. (As in the spring Alberta election, all Postmedia papers were directed to endorse the conservative leader. These unsigned endorsements read like forced confessions and usually contradict the opinions of the local journalists.) The Globe and Mail endorsed the Conservatives based on their fiscal record, while hilariously calling on Harper to resign.

It's time to kick this last leg of the stool out from Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. They are not good at managing our money. They are not good at creating growth, or exports, or jobs. This article shows Harper's dismal record in all economic areas as compared to all other Canadian prime ministers over the past several decades. The full report that this article is based on also shows how Canada has lagged most other countries during Harper's tenure. He has mismanaged the economy while being credited for the opposite.

On this last day of a long and ugly campaign, media with a conservative agenda will continue to perpetuate the myth of Harper's able management of the economy. But the independent media and free thinking voters should be aware of the facts, not just the popular assumption. Harper has destroyed our reputation and identity as Canadians, and created a climate of fear and hatred. Without the false perception of his financial competence, he doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Easy as ABC

With one week to go until the federal election, the "Anyone but Conservative" vote is shaping up. In Canada's multi-party, first past the post system, talk of strategic voting always comes up. Until a better electoral system is implemented (such as the preferential ballot), voters will have to decide how to make their vote count best. Strategic voting means trying to prevent particular party or candidate from winning by voting for someone who may not be your first choice. A vote for someone polling a distant third place is better spent on a candidate in a winnable position.

Most Canadians (about 62%) are voting to get rid of Harper; who gets voted in matters less. There are differences between the Liberal and NDP platforms, but they are close enough to each other and are both starkly different from the Conservatives (I'm substituting the Harper government's actions as their platform instead of what they promise they will do, because they tend to lie a lot). So, if most non-Conservative votes are transferable between the other parties, strategic voters should be monitoring the polls to avoid wasting votes on 3rd-place candidates with virtually no chance of winning.

In the wake of recent political change at the provincial level (an election also about turfing an out of touch and corrupt conservative regime that overstayed its welcome) a few Liberal and NDP candidates have realistic chances of success across Alberta. My own riding, Edmonton Riverbend, has never once elected a Liberal or New Democrat, but this could change with strategic voting. A poll from mid-September has the Conservatives leading the 2nd place NDP 44 to 34 percent, with the Liberal candidate trailing at 18 percent. An unscientific tally of lawn signs confirms the NDP is way ahead of the Liberals. If that same 62% of ABC voters swings from supporting a distant third candidate to the non-Conservative with a realistic shot at winning, Edmonton Riverbend could elect its first progressive MP. Two other local ridings (Edmonton Centre and Edmonton Manning) have very similar breakdowns.

Ali Kashani did a great job of identifying sixteen ridings across Canada where NDP-Liberal vote-splitting threatens to give Conservatives victory. In addition, in all ridings - an even eight apiece for Liberals and NDP - the third place candidate is clearly behind the frontrunners. Dr. Kashani calls on the NDP and Liberal parties to cooperate for their own mutual benefit, by standing down in half these ridings in order to win the other eight. Despite the obvious strategic logic, it is unlikely either party would consider doing so. But individual voters certainly could affect the same result by voting strategically.

Canadians who want to heave Steve should not nitpick about minor differences between Liberals and New Democrats. Find a local poll, or simply count lawn signs, and figure out who the two top contenders are. Then vote for the one who isn't Conservative. It's that easy.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cabin Life

We're preparing our cabin for sale. I was out there about a month ago to check things out and everything looked good. Then I went out last weekend and this had happened:

Probably due to the big snowfall we got the day after the election. That tree could not have fallen in a better direction.

I went out there yesterday to clean things up. Here's how things look after an afternoon with two chainsaws:

That wood should be ready to chop in two or three years. A present for the next owner.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Better Than Fear

It's crunch time in the 2015 Alberta election (#abvote for Twitter enthusiasts). Six surveys have reported over the past 24 hours (aggregated here), all with similar results: NDP hovering around 40% and flirting with a majority, Wildrose in second place in the mid-twenty percent range, and PC third in the low twenties (one poll did have PC edging out Wildrose). And yet there is skepticism about these numbers that goes beyond healthy. The lesson from 2012 was that polls are wrong and never count the PCs out.

Heading into the final weekend before Tuesday's vote, this is where the polls have finished, the fear is mongered, and the undecideds decide:
“When I was with Redford, we made the decision to portray Danielle Smith and Wildrose as extreme,” said Stephen Carter, who worked for the former premier as campaign manager and chief of staff. “People are motivated more by fear than opportunity. The hyper-engaged know how they’re going to vote. The less engaged make their decision in last 72 hours to 72 seconds before marking their ballot. It is those people who can decide an election.” (source)
I believe the polls in 2012 were mostly accurate, but did not capture this successful 72-hour campaign of fear. Here is a poll tracker for Edmonton right up to the April 23rd election: notice the change of direction at the last minute for the Conservatives at the expense of the Liberals:

And the same chart for Calgary. The trend here is even clearer over several days:

The only error from the days before the 2012 vote is the pollsters did not correctly extrapolate the trend, but called the election as if the final poll numbers would not keep changing. They did.

Now at the same point in 2015, the trend is defintely not the PC's friend:

All the momentum is with the NDP, and Wildrose is holding steady. In 2012 the trends continued, in 2015 they would have to reverse course for the PCs to have any chance at government.

The fact that this is a three-way race means trying to scare voters away from the NDP could drive them to Wildrose, and vice-versa. In 2012 the PCs had a fairly moderate and likeable leader in Alison Redford (as far as we knew - the Sky Palace and fake airplane manifests were yet to come), but today the party is led by an old-boy banker who comes across as an arrogant asshole. The PCs have had the puck in their own end this entire campaign.

But the biggest difference today, and why I think the NDP will form government, is that people are no longer voting out of fear. We did that last time and it didn't work out. Had the Conservative party actually governed responsibly and without scandal or corruption, many of the Liberal and Wildrose votes they scared loose last time might be available to them again. Instead, people are simply fed up, and the prevailing emotion is rage. The prospect of a bunch of commies or rednecks in charge isn't nearly as frightening as another few years of entitled, unaccountable, corrupt Progressive Conservative mismanagement. That's how bad things have become. These people need to be punished, not given yet another chance. We're voting a government out, not in. It's more about the crush than the orange.

Maybe next time we'll be able to vote out of hope for the future. But in 2015, and with apologies to Jack Layton, anger is better than fear.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Spring Cleaning

Rachel Notley did something very smart yesterday - she claimed the legacy of the patron saint of Alberta politics, Peter Lougheed. She praised Lougheed's ideas such as corporations paying their fair share of taxes, and acting like owners of our natural resources (and charging accordingly). Considered "extreme" by the current version of the Progressive Conservative party that Lougheed once led, these ideas now form part of the NDP platform while the PCs seem to have lost their vision.

In the 2012 election, the imminent threat of a Wildrose government forced a lot of progressive voters to support the PCs. Campaign Manager Stephen Carter recently admitted the PC strategy to scare moderate voters away from Danielle Smith in the last few days and hours before the vote, which somewhat explains the polls. What is different in 2015 is this is a three-horse race, and similar tactics to portray Wildrose as extremists may end up driving voters to the NDP instead. Also different in 2015 is three years of almost uninterrupted government scandal and incompetence, with a recent spate of undemocratic dealings in their own candidate nominations. The cherry on top was the budget which raised taxes, cut services and still managed to run a deficit, alienating everyone.

The status quo is not nearly as appealing as it was three years ago. The vibe is different now. People can nitpick the polling numbers and methodologies, but we're halfway through the campaign and the aura of inevitability, of invincibility, is gone from the PC party. Long-time party loyalists are quitting. Calgary newspapers are attacking the PCs like never before. Wildrose, having lost its photogenic leader and two-thirds of its members only a few months ago and now led by a virtual unknown, is in first place. Just how angry and disillusioned does a conservative voter have to be to choose that chaos over a traditional party?

The NDP are working hard to present themselves as a moderate option (which they are: a centrist party anywhere else in Canada is considered leftist here) and are the most organized of the non-dynasty parties. We saw what happened four years ago when a national party let go of its more extreme ideas, presented itself as a reasonable alternative, and chose a charismatic leader: Jack Layton tripled the NDP seat count in Ottawa. Voters in Edmonton and Calgary recently elected young, progressive mayors. An urban-led Alberta orange crush does not seem so unthinkable all of a sudden.

True progressive conservatives are likely saddened and disappointed by what their party has become lately under Redford and now Prentice. After four decades in power, it resembles an authoritarian monster captured by corporations and more interested in getting elected than actually governing well. Had they been faithful to Lougheed's vision, the province would be a much more prosperous, free and democratic place to live. (And much richer, too. Read this and weep, Albertans.) It seems that the party is beyond repair and won't be able to voluntarily fix itself, especially if dissenting voices continue to be silenced.

The federal conservatives rebuilt themselves after Kim Campbell's annihilation. The liberals tore everything down following Michael Ignatieff's catastrophic leadership and are on the road back to relevance. Perhaps an electoral obliteration under Prentice is the only way for the progressive conservative party to truly clean house and renew their ideas and culture. A new coat of paint probably won't do it - an extreme renovation is required. Somehow I think Peter Lougheed would agree.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dr. Strange Bedfellows or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wildrose

The Progressive Conservative party's 43-year stranglehold in Alberta might actually be coming to an end. The March budget was supposed to be so radical that it would require a new mandate. Although the actual budget wasn't as bad as advertised, it still provided cover for Jim Prentice to call an election anyway (and sidestep his own party's fixed-date law in doing so). But it was clear that this was a naked political calculation trying to catch the opposition unprepared with an unnecessary snap election. As of February all opposition parties were in some state of disarray: NDP having recently transitioned leaders, the Liberals with nobody in charge and losing candidates, and the Wildrose decimated by the defection of their leader and a majority of their members.

The 2012 election was a very near miss for the Conservatives, where Wildrose were in first place right up until the weekend before the vote. The pollsters took a lot of blame, but I believe the polls were mostly accurate and did not capture a last-minute shift as progressive voters started to realize that four years of Premier Danielle Smith was about to actually happen. That option seemed worse than a pre-scandal Redford government.

The 2014 by-elections following Prentice's coronation signalled a shift may be coming. Even though the PCs won all four seats, only Prentice himself won easily. In Calgary-West the margin was a slim 315 votes, and a strong second-place finish by the Alberta Party split the vote in Calgary-Elbow. Also interesting was Edmonton-Whitemud, a conservative stronghold with a star candidate: Stephen Mandel won, but the PC vote share dropped from 60% in 2012 to 42% while the NDP more than doubled from 9% to 22%.

And then came Danielle Smith's own nomination battle just a couple of weeks ago, with a very unexpected result. Highwood PC members expressed their anger by voting Smith out as their candidate. The event had a different feel to it, as if going off-script. Perhaps in 2015 nothing is inevitable in Alberta politics.

The Progressive Conservatives have been in power unchallenged for far too long, and have become arrogant and unaccountable. The need to change governments has never been so obvious. In 2012, fear of the Wildrose won out over anger at the Tories, but in 2015 the desire for change might win the day. Currently the NDP look poised to win in Edmonton and a few other urban seats, Calgary is up in the air, and the Wildrose could take most of the rest. Today's numbers from show no party likely to win the 44 seats needed to form a majority (Wildrose 35 / PC 24 / NDP 23). Any two of these three could join forces to form a minority government. Given the bad blood I have a hard time picturing the Wildrose and PCs cooperating long enough to form a coalition, even though politically they are closer to each other than either is to the NDP.

But what about a Wildrose minority supported by the NDP?

Progressive Conservatives benefit from being positioned politically in the centre (for Alberta that is). Far right-wing voters fear the NDP, left-wing voters fear the Wildrose, and the thought of either being in power usually drives those votes to the PC devil they know. But a left-right minority government might balance the crazy just enough to allay fears for one election. The electorate would know that the Wildrose would not allow massive new taxes, and that the NDP would pull the plug before letting health care get slashed or any "lake of fire" social programs were passed. That might be enough yin-yang for Albertans to go all the way this time instead of getting cold feet at the last minute.

I will be voting NDP because in my riding that is the best chance to unseat the conservative incumbent, and I'm naturally on the left end of the spectrum anyway. But if the Wildrose candidate had the best shot at beating PC, that's where I would park my vote this election. For me personally, a change - any change - is the top priority this time around.

A Wildrose government? What the hell - bring it on.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed....

George Orwell, 1984

Wonderful news! The progressive folks in the provincial government have finally seen the light, and are committing to supporting mature communities! To think that just a few years ago the standard procedure was to euthanize the weakest schools and transport the students out of their neighbourhoods and pack them into the next closest school. Now we have the promise of a brand new replacement school in one of three mature Edmonton neighbourhoods. After pouring all new money into modern schools in expanding suburban circles, the core gets some respect at last.

This is quite a transformation, from indiscriminately closing its enrolment-challenged schools (always, always in central areas), to a two-year closure moratorium, to thinking about "amalgamations" last year, and now to this year's replacement schools to support older neighbourhoods, beginning with one of the "greater" Highlands, Lawton or Westmount areas. The new replacement school is projected to be a K-9 with a capacity around 600, at a cost of around $20 million. According to the website they could be modern, accessible, environmentally friendly and include space for day care or other services. And at the bottom of the page is a reassurance that "the replaced schools could continue to serve the current and future needs of the community in other ways."

So, what's the problem?

First, the plan involves closing three schools, and that's just for starters. This could be an annual thing, potentially three closures per year. On the EPSB website the word "close" does not appear once, but that's what is happening. The community ends up with two schools less than they started. The targeted schools in "greater" Westmount in particular are dozens of blocks apart, so depending on the replacement school's location, most students would likely be forced to travel outside their own actual neighbourhood. And there's no guarantee, likely no plan, as to what happens to the closed schools. They might sit vacant, or become storage facilities as other closed schools have in the past. That's a far cry from their former status as community hubs.

Second, replacing three small or mid-sized schools with one large one falls into the same "bigger is better" fallacy that research shows is just not true (see here for much more info on this). Smaller schools provide better educational outcomes for the same or less cost, are healthier, happier, and create a better sense of community. Creating one "big box" school out of three smaller ones has the same impact as a Walmart does on local merchants.

Third, in each area there is already a school that has a capacity over 600. The Alberta program allows for money to upgrade an existing school, or build a new school, as long as three schools are "combined into" one. The EPSB video promptly forgets the existing school option: "There will be one new school to replace three schools in the chosen community." We should upgrade what we have and take some pride in our history whenever possible. Highlands and Westmount schools are both 100 years old and are grand architectural legacies that this city desperately lacks. One of my favorite schools in Edmonton is John A. McDougall in an inner-city area just north of downtown. This school was built in 1913 and modernized about ten years ago for a little over $5 million. It includes all the perks of a brand new school (elevator, wrap-around space, environmental design, modern science lab) but with the unique character of a heritage building. Too often we throw away what we could easily improve.

Fourth, EPSB administration is up to its old tricks by fudging enrolment numbers to make things look worse than they truly are. There are at least three different measures of a school's capacity. One is the provincial school capacity, which is simply based on the square footage of the entire building; this is usually the highest number and most often used when the school board wants to make a school look like it's underutilized. The second is ACOL, which is based on class sizes as recommended by the Albert Commission on Learning. This method counts the number of rooms and applies the ACOL suggested guideline (for instance, a K-3 room can accommodate 17 students, grades 4-6 should have no more than 23 per room, etc.). This formula excludes gyms, but does include all special purpose rooms like carpentry shops or music rooms. The ACOL number tends to be a little more reasonable. A third method is the Optimal Enrolment Limit, which as I understand it is based on feedback from the school's principal as to how many student will actually fit regardless of floorspace or number of rooms, and is only calculated for schools that have to restrict enrolment. OEL is the most realistic, and usually significantly lower than the other two metrics.

Only two of the nine schools have public OEL numbers: Montrose and RJ Scott. On the EPSB site Montrose is shown to have a capacity of 315 (provincial capacity number) and an enrolment of 199 (this is using the provincially adjusted student enrolment figure from the school's profile pdf). So the utilization rate is 63% - not great. But if we use the much lower OEL capacity number of 175, the utilization is 114% and the school is now over capacity. Running the numbers for RJ Scott show a similar inflation, from the "Supporting a Mature Community" claim of 52% utilization as opposed to an OEL-calculated 85%. Official capacity and utilization statistics are at best suspicious, and more likely intentionally deceitful, and this is nothing new from EPSB administration trying to build a case for school closure replacement.

[In 2008 Ritchie Junior High's official capacity was at one point listed at 900 going into a closure review. The public school closed and reopened the next year as ├ęcole Joseph-Moreau, which the Francophone school board considers close to capacity at 260. It's the same building.]

Look at how the plan is described in a recent article by a journalist who seems to have drank the kool-aid (my emphasis):

One aging Edmonton neighbourhood is about to hit the revitalization jackpot.

The Edmonton public school board has come up with a short list of three older neighbourhoods, with one of them to be awarded the one, new K-9 school that the Alberta government has allotted to be built in Edmonton’s core.

Highlands, Westmount and Beverly/Rundle Heights are the three finalists.

School board trustees will select the winning neighbourhood in June. In that community, three older, smaller and massively underutilized schools will be shut. The neighbourhood kids will all go to the new $20 million-plus school for 650 to 800 students. The new school is to be built starting this summer and to open in 2016.

I'll bet after reading this article community residents will show up to the public meetings giddy with hope that their area will be the lucky one chosen. But nothing has changed except the extreme positive spin. The word "replacement" is optimistic, right? Like "renewal" or "revitalization". Stripping the school board's website of the word "closure" does not change the fact that three schools will close under this plan. The end result of less schools in the core is the same as before the moratorium. And when you falsify the numbers on top of spinning black into white, then we are really at the point of doublethink. Ignorance is strength.

Is there an option to modernize one (or why not two or even three) of these schools without closing any? Because the province is - as usual - holding the purse strings, it's unlikely that the program is negotiable. Despite having a big new shiny toy, the chosen community will not benefit from this replacement school plan if its smaller schools are shut down. If it were up to me the school board would refuse the money if it required schools to be closed. A much better solution would be to (a) acknowledge the research supporting the value of small schools to the student, the community and the bottom line, (b) re-invest the same dollars in our existing old, beautiful buildings instead of building new, (c) try to fix struggling programs and find creative enrolment solutions instead of walking away, (d) just give local school boards the funds instead of playing political games, and (e) be honest with the numbers and communications in general.

We need to think twice about this one.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sprawl? What Sprawl?

With about seven weeks to go before the Edmonton civic election, the first mayoral candidates forum took place on Tuesday. It was attended by the three main candidates, and presented by the Urban Development Institute Greater Edmonton Chapter and the Canadian Homebuilders' Association. Unsurprisingly the subject of urban sprawl came up. Here's Kerry Diotte's take on it:

Let's clear this up right now, shall we?

Urban sprawl is generally thought of as a low-density development with a great dependency on cars to get around. Lots of detached bungalows spaced well apart, two-car garages, no sidewalks, and driving on a freeway is how you get anywhere. Cities that grew before the invention of the car rarely have a sprawl problem; when your main and likely only mode of transportation is walking, you don't want things too far apart. Also, cities that have natural geographic boundaries are forced to develop more densely - think of Vancouver or San Francisco, each surrounded by water on three sides.

Conversely, cities that have no natural limitations, and that grew in earnest in the twentieth century, are much more likely to sprawl. Pretty much every city in the western half of North America fits this description, including Edmonton. Of Canada's top six metros, Edmonton is the sprawliest:
  • Neighbourhood density: according to the Pembina Institute, Edmonton has the lowest percentage of residents living in high-density areas at 0.4% compared to an average of 6.2% and over 15% in Montreal. Medium-density residency is similar at a national low of 29%. 64% of Torontonians live in medium-density neighbourhoods, and the average is 47%. Which means over 70% of Edmonton lives the low-density lifestyle, highest in Canada and well above the average of 47%.
  • Similar data from a poster at SkyscraperPage, who actually drilled into the census data and graphed the densities for each city. The steeper the curve, the more dense areas exist in the city.
  • Commuting: Edmontonians drive the most of the six cities. They are the least likely to take public transit, least likely to bike, and the least likely to walk.
  • Population density: Edmonton has the lowest population per square kilometer, about half that of Calgary, one quarter the average and seven times less than Toronto.
  • Roads per capita: Ottawa spoils Edmonton's perfect streak with 236 people per kilometer of road, compared to roughly 260 for Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. Toronto's roads serve about four times as many people. [Given the Ottawa and Vancouver results, I'm a little suspicious of this last statistic - there is no single consistent source for road network kilometers.]
Apart from the numbers, I can add that having lived in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton, this is truly the sprawl city of champions. Every city has some element of low density growth as it expands, but the most livable ones have lots of high and medium density options as well. I can think of only two or three neighbourhoods in Edmonton where you can live reasonably without a car.

Whether you believe urban sprawl is good or bad, Edmonton obviously has it in spades and to pretend it doesn't exist should disqualify Mr. Diotte as a credible candidate. I understand Karen Leibovici made some similar sprawl-denial remarks at the same event, but I am unable to confirm this. Don Iveson has maintained a blog during his six years on council so his views are quite transparent.

I personally think urban sprawl (and its opposite, smart growth) should be the main issue in the election. The more we sprawl we allow, the less compact of a city we build, we create the following problems for ourselves:
  • increased costs for car ownership and fuel
  • increased pollution
  • isolation of those who cannot drive
  • longer commutes are associated with mental health issues
  • physical health problems which could be avoided with increased walking or cycling
  • more infrastructure to build and maintain (Edmonton repairs nearly half a million potholes each year - that's about one every ten meters of road.)
  • fewer densely-populated areas challenge local businesses like restaurants and shops
  • discourages diversity
  • prevents human interaction (a key element for Richard Florida's creative class)

Low-density, auto-centric sprawl is inefficient, expensive, unhealthy, uneconomic and inhuman. We can't simply pretend it's not a problem, or worse, that it doesn't exist. It does, and it's going to cost Edmonton greatly as young people take their talents to more livable cities. Unless we elect ourselves a mayor who gets it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

More Crap

After decades of the "bungalow and bunker" school of architecture in Edmonton, where aesthetics, form and style were low priorities, mayor Stephen Mandel demanded in 2005 that we build "no more crap". Interesting and beautiful buildings did not spring up overnight, but at least design became part of the urban conversation.

Now we have a rare opportunity to redevelop eight acres of land close to downtown where the Molson brewery was a landmark for years. The proposed design is a real letdown for urbanists and anyone who has a bit of vision for Edmonton. The problem is that the proposal is a glorified strip mall that caters to cars.

It looks amazingly like the Oliver Square West shopping mall literally right next door. Perhaps the new development is intended to be an extension of it. Here's the current mall on the north side of 104 Avenue - the empty lot on the far left where the Molson/Crosstown mall will go.

If there was one chance to do something different and break the mould, this is it. The Oliver community is active and progressive, and wants a pedestrian and bike friendly development. Oliver is already the closest thing Edmonton has to a walkable neighbourhood, and is an easy stroll or ride from downtown or 124th street. The kicker is that this development is also the site of a future LRT station: Molson/Crosstown is an ideal candidate for transit-oriented development. Instead we're about to approve and build more crap.

If you want to get more information or find out how to make a difference before this gets approved, check out the Oliver Community League.

Here are a few more illustrations from the developers:

Note that there is no connection between the sidewalk and the mall. Pedestrians would have to jump over a flowerbed to get in.

This one reinforces the idea that cars are the centre of attention.

My favorite: stay in your glass enclosure, humans, while the cars roam free.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


This week a list of new schools was announced by the Alberta government, possibly as a distraction from the PC's complete bungling of the Remand Centre strike. The announcement was spread over several days for maximum self-promotional effect. Like a doctor who refuses to treat terminal patients, the provincial government is there to deliver only good news, and leaves the unpopular and dismal work of school closures to the school boards.

Young families who migrated to the suburbs will be pleased, as this is where virtually all of Edmonton and Calgary's new schools will be located. Now they will only have to drive their kids a few blocks instead of halfway across the city. And likely these schools will be full when they open.

In a very short-sighted way, it makes sense to put the schools where the children live. But for those like myself concerned about the insidious effects of low-density sprawl, this is feeding the beast. People who moved to the outer ring of the city are being rewarded with brand new schools that are likely to be far more modern and well-heated than most of the older schools they will draw students from. At the same time, maintenance of the mature schools has been neglected. As a parent looking for what's best for your children, would you move to an area with a crumbling school and declining enrollment at risk of being closed, or would you choose a brand new modern school that will be there long after your children graduate? The incentives are currently stacked towards moving families ever outward from the city.

Thinking it through a bit more, what happens when the outward growth hits the city limits? Edmonton is almost there now. What happens is the population jumps over to adjacent communities on the other side of the border. As the population leaves the city, tax revenues are lost, enrollment numbers shift from the city school board to the adjoining towns, more and more central areas stagnate or decline, and basically you get Detroit: the first North American city to shrink its population under one million. When cities stop supporting their core, then the outward migration begins. Detroit proper had a population of close to two million in the 1950's, and it is currently less than half that. In contrast, the greater Detroit area, including all the bedroom communities that people moved to over the years, has grown over the same half-century from roughly 3 to 4 million.

On the other hand we have Vancouver, which has over the past dozen or so years made a priority of supporting services and institutions that serve its central residents, including families. This means zoning more 3-bedroom condos, providing transit options, public spaces, and most importantly keeping downtown schools open. It worked. Vancouver's city population has kept pace with the growth of its surrounding towns. Vancouver's downtown schools suffer from "disgraceful overcrowding." Edmonton's inner city schools are neglected until they close, while the overcrowding happens at the edge of the city.

Like dropping a stone in a pond, Edmonton's population is rippling wider and farther from the centre, leaving an equally expanding empty spot in the middle. Families have a carrot drawing them further into the suburbs, and a stick preventing many from locating in a mature neighbourhood. If there is no awareness or will to change, the detroitification of Edmonton will continue: everyone relocate ever outward in an increasing orbit around a growing black hole, taking their vitality, diversity and money with them.

Here's a few things that would improve the situation:

1) Understand the full, long-term costs of building low-density sprawl.
And not just the demographic impacts discussed here. There are social aspects as well, most apparent in the isolation of children and seniors, or anyone without ready access to a car. Car-dependency is also turning out to be extremely bad for our physical and mental health. The actual bricks-and-mortar infrastructure is expensive and inefficient; we create more road-miles (and more potholes a few years later) per person as we sprawl. A water main in a dense neighbourhood that serves 10,000 residents costs the same as one in a suburb with 500 houses.

2) Commit to providing options for living in the core, especially for families.
This is not to force people to live in denser areas, but to allow them the choice. Provide the option of a variety of housing (smaller footprints than in the burbs, but not all apartment buildings either), easy walking and biking access to shopping and public spaces, and amenities for singles, couple and families of all ages.

3) Give the school board control over all infrastructure funding, including the building of new schools.
I would also give the city veto power over the location of new schools and maybe even school closures as well, to ensure urban planning goals are not undermined. These two levels of government need to work hand in hand, not at cross-purposes.

4) Prioritize repairs and upgrades to existing schools over building new schools.
This is an extension of the last point, and has already been acted upon by the Edmonton Public School Board. In principal at least, since currently all the board can do is prioritize maintenance and new school projects in its capital plan; the provincial government has final say on which projects go forward. Except in the largest of projects, modernizations are generally much less expensive than new buildings.

5) Recognize that a small elementary school has immense value to a neighbourhood.
Having an elementary school in the neighbourhood does more than allow children to get some exercise to and from school every day (which is very important too) - it builds a connection to the community for the child and the family. It develops citizenship and local pride in a way that commuting to a school away from home does not. Again, small schools do not have to cost more per student than big box institutions. And again, learning outcomes are usually better in small schools, regardless of the number of options offered. Reinvestment in an existing school can anchor a mature neighbourhood and promote infill and revitalization.