When good people leave it MEANS things are bad / by Tim Querengesser

When someone with youth, ideas and passion throws up their hands and leaves an influential planning position at the City of Edmonton, the City as well as all of us who care about shifting the status quo here must all take a good look at ourselves. We are all responsible and poorer as a result. And we all need to do better.

Most people don't follow the inner minutiae of planning in Edmonton to quite the level that I do, so I’m assuming, dear reader, that you have no clue what I'm referencing here. The Coles notes are this: a rock-star of an urban planner recently returned from Toronto to their hometown, Edmonton, and was working — hard — to build a better city. They were living their vision of a better Edmonton, too, by biking, walking and busing to work, and pushing for better streets and more vibrant neighbourhoods. 

While this might seem like a common thing to do for an urban planner with the City of Edmonton, given all the urban-shift rhetoric that our leaders and city campaigns share with us (one city worker told me at a parking event, recently, that when it comes to streets, “pedestrians are now seen as the most important users,” which made me quietly chuckle), my anecdotal experience tells me it’s not, and that, instead, many in our planning department still seem content to car-commute from bedroom communities outside our city boundaries, yet nonetheless make decisions about which users our city’s streets should prioritize.

Photo: Flickr//IQRemix

Photo: Flickr//IQRemix

As you might have guessed by the title of this blog, said rock-star planner who we lured back to work in Edmonton has now decided to leave their planning position here and take a job with, let’s say, a more welcoming environment in another city. We are far poorer a city with their loss. But that’s entirely clear, isn't it. What’s probably less clear, though, is that we all need to look at ourselves when things like this happen.

Those who push things within our city administration right now face an unsatisfying existence and that needs to change. From within, they face resistance if they work to push projects that deviate from the status quo — which, in my own words, is still to prioritize moving vehicles and worry about the rest of it all after that’s baked into the built environment.

And yet, on the flip side, these champions for change face way too much flack from outside their office as well. Communities pushing for better things — bike lanes, walkability, complete streets, LRT, density, you name it — figure out that one planner is on their “team” and unusually engaged. And then, sadly, these communities, with good intentions, no doubt, can tend to flood that person with pent up complaints, criticism, frustration. 

What’s the incentive, then, to break out of the disengaged norm as a city planner when you face a tough crowd from both inside and outside? There isn’t one. And sometimes people get so frustrated by that that they leave.

The deeper issue here, then, is that there are many communities in Edmonton who want to see change, and want action rather than more discussion, talk, study, consultation. But those who work at our city, and who listen to and act on these signals are, in my view, currently being set up to fail. They are blocked from within by a city still primarily focused on avoiding risk. And they are then criticized from without for not accomplishing more things more quickly because, well, they work for an organization that sees change as risk, not opportunity.

Those who are working to act and build on the promises we see in strategic documents or hear in election campaigns are our city’s rock stars. If we want to get where these shimmering promises tell us that we’re heading, though, we need to all give these rock stars a lot more support. And then, maybe, more of them will stay.

Now that another one's leaving, it's time to reflect on how we change this situation.