Making Space: new comic book draws in colourful city-building ideas from Edmonton students

Zoning is a field strewn with technical terms, a landscape full of complex decisions about how land is used and how people move across the neighbourhoods they call home. 

At first blush, there’s nothing particularly childlike about zoning. 
“It’s unfortunate,” said Michelle Neilson, a City of Edmonton planner working on the Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative. “Because young Edmontonians, and those young at heart, often have the best ideas for their city.”

The Builders

Some of those best ideas are now captured in vibrant colour in The Builders, a new, 16-page comic book published by the City of Edmonton, with the help of some of the brightest minds in Grades 1 to 6.

The comic book traces the fictional adventures of Lily, Aadi and Chip as they search for their superpowers.  Along the way, they reimagine how their city could be built, where people live, where they spend leisure time and how people of all kinds get to where they’re going.

In other words, it’s about zoning. 

Earlier in March, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi donned his own superhero cape and met a class of City Hall School students for a public reading of the comic book. The Mayor said the power to imagine and reimagine a city is a strength that all people, including young people, have. 

“All of us are superheroes,” Mayor Sohi reminded them. “Because all of us have something to give back to the community. And that is exactly what city-building is about. Getting people involved to have their ideas heard.”

Here’s how things unfolded on comic book launch day.

Engaging experience

The Builders comic book is the result of months of engagement between the City and elementary school students from Edmonton Public Schools. Students developed superhero characters for their Edmonton neighbourhoods as they answered real-world questions, including what do these superheroes look like? where do they live? what do they live in? what do they need in their neighbourhoods? and where do they go for school, groceries, entertainment and fun?

 In his drawing, Jason created a skateboarding Terry Fox who shares cash and friendship.

One of the many City superhero sketches from Edmonton students during engagement for the comic book.

The students’  ideas, summarized in a What We Heard Report, inspired the plot and characters of The Builders
 “As we build a new Zoning Bylaw, it’s important that we listen to young people and their ideas,” said Neilson. “We’re building a city to support those here today and those who come after us. Part of city-building is making sure that children feel engaged and empowered to participate.”

The Batman, The House and The Nearby Park, courtesy Michelle Neilson and family.

Neilson’s own kindergarten-aged daughter got into the act, drawing a Batman who lives, according to the young artist, in a house with yellow windows and a backyard garden close to a park. 

Reviews are in

On The Builders launch day, students from Holy Child School took their copies of the comic to the big staircase in the City Room in City Hall where they sat and followed along while Mayor Sohi read the adventure. 

The reviews from the Grade 5/6 class were positive and profound. 

? “Our class was really lucky to be the first to have a comic book,” said Gabriel. “I really liked that everyone had a superpower and they didn’t think they had one but throughout the entire day they were using their powers and had no clue. It’s interesting because if everyone uses their superpower, that’s what the city will be like.” 

Dylan came away feeling stronger:

? “The Builders comic is a very meaningful and enjoyable comic that makes us realize what we do that makes us a city builder. The comic made me feel like I could change the city with my ideas.”   

Cody liked the colour of the comic and the city it’s set in:

? “This comic is unique because it is about our city and how we are all city builders. I liked the fun illustrations because they were very colourful and they represent this awesome and unique city.”

Livia Balone with The Builders, City Hall, March 7, 2022.

In the zone

For Livia Balone, hearing those words—fun, colourful, meaningful, enjoyable, unique—shows the comic book hits its mark. 

“We’re super excited about this comic book,” said Balone, who is the City of Edmonton’s Director of the Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative.  “It’s a lot of fantastic colours and some great characters. We really tried to take the images from the illustrations and the drawings and the words and really embed it into this comic book.”

And, then, from Balone, another description not usually tied to zoning: 

“It’s a short read, an easy read.”

Editor’s notes: the pic at the top of the post shows students from Holy Child School listening to Mayor Amarjeet Sohi read The Builders at City Hall, Edmonton, March 7, 2022. This is the latest in a series of Transforming Edmonton posts to look at space, zoning, regulations and other planning topics. In exchange for the gift of your time, we hope you’ll get a different perspective on space. Space—it’s not empty. The Builders is now available online. Printed copies will be distributed across Edmonton schools and libraries over the coming months.