Were one to read City of Edmonton policies and guidelines on LRT, or transit-oriented development, walkability, mobility, Vision Zero — you name it — one might be convinced Edmonton is a city on the move. In print, in policies, in the news media even, depending on who’s talking, Edmonton sounds like we’re part of a group of progressive cities working to build places that are usable for everyone.
Adding to this, Edmonton has a cadre of ‘thought leader’ type city employees who speak about it all. We send them to conferences where they give talks and highlight our accomplishments. When a volunteer group or individual does something in the city-building space that they support, these public faces take to social media and say how great it is. In isolation, this cadre’s work is encouraging and heartening. It’s what you’d hope for in any city trying to make change: actual champions with actual guts and actual voices.
Of course this stuff doesn’t happen in isolation. Were we to look closely at how Edmonton makes concrete decisions, rather than make noise and policies, we would see a troubling pattern. To me this pattern is best sketched as one of reliably contradicting our policies or direction. As of late, the pattern has come to include our council actively voting against proposals that amplify and justify our investments in new ideas.
This pattern is easy to point out (the best example of late was last night, which I wrote about in a flurry of tired typing), but there is no easy answer to fix it. What we need to do is admit that it’s happening and that it’s now costing us. A lot. Saying one thing then doing another deflates ambition in our city administration, which works to build progressive policies, and leads to disbelief in the public that these policies actually mean something. Moving forward and backward decreases investor confidence in putting money behind development proposals in areas where decisions seem to be ad hoc rather than sticking to a vision. But perhaps worst of all, stepping ahead with one foot while pushing the other backward is a great way to spend a lot of money to see small returns on an investment.
Building a low-floor LRT, for example, but not endorsing low-floor LRT-style development beside its stations is like building a house without a door. You can crawl inside through the windows. You can live there, sure. But nobody — not you, not your neighbours, not your family — should sugar coat the fact you built a house without a front door.
Each time we allow this forward-yet-backward pattern to make our decisions, we lock in mediocrity. We waste another chunk of time and burn off yet another unquantifiable bit of energy from those who keep pushing for this city to build itself into something better.
It’s an exhausting, expensive pattern.