Connecting the Dots

A City of Edmonton original podcast


Cherie Klassen, Executive Director, Old Strathcona Business Association

Michael Strong, Principal Planner, City of Edmonton


[Narrator] What do you live within 15 minutes of? If you were to walk out your door and just go for 15 minutes – you can take a bike or bus if you want but no car – what are you going to find? Maybe more houses, a coffee shop, perhaps a grocery store. If you were to do this experiment in Barcelona on one of their superblocks, within 15 minutes you would find, by design, everything you need to live, work, buy essentials, access healthcare, education, and entertainment. If you live there, you live within 15 minutes of everything a person needs to live.

But Barcelona and its superblocks are not the only place that work this way.

In Petaling Jaya, a city in Malaysia, you’re going to find everything you need by foot within 15 minutes no matter where you live. There are the vertical cities in Chengdu, China, which house all the things residents need – from grocery stores to schools – in a single skyscraper. And then there’s Paris, which under its current mayor is in the midst of a revival towards this school of urban design that hopes to place every resident within 15 minutes of the essentials.

This idea was coined by a French-Colombian scientist named Carlos Moreno, and it’s this idea which he calls “the 15-minute city,” that a sustainable, equitable city is one where every resident can meet their needs within a 15-minute walk, where you can thrive without commuting, where, to borrow his line, “cities follow the rhythm of people not cars.” And this idea, the 15-minute city, has started springing up all over the world, plans for 15-minute city revitalizations across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Which brings us back to that opening question. But let’s get a little more specific.

Here in Edmonton, what do you live within 15 minutes of?

There’s a temptation in Edmonton to sort of just rebuff this question. For reasons of geography, history, and preference, this is a car city. Who cares about a 15-minute walk, cycle or roll? But the reasons that we might not be, and maybe the shortest route to becoming a 15-minute city, might have something to do with zoning because the real answer to the question “What do you live within 15 minutes of?” is really “What can be built within 15 minutes of me, and what happens when we change that?” To find out, we did what we always do and reached out to a couple of subject-matter experts.

[Michael] My name is Michael Strong, and my title is Principal Planner. At the City of Edmonton I help plan new neighbourhoods, and in particular I’m working on a new project called district planning. District planning will help create 15 district plans for the city. Well, the 15-minutes city – it really kind of originated with a scientist who was looking at some really complicated systems, research about, like, how we connect spaces. Carlos Moreno is the gentleman that really kind of pushed for this 15-minute city. And a lot of other cities across North America and the world are starting to think about: “How do we create cities that are more local, more accessible for citizens?” Edmonton in listening to Edmontonians, and by engaging them on the City Plan and refreshing our municipal development plan, we learned from Edmontonians that people want to be able to do more closer to where they live. So in borrowing that idea of a 15-minute city, we decided we could apply that at a district level because we know that there are a number of neighbourhoods within a district that can be better connected. We can provide better services for them over time so we tried to find ways of applying that 15-minute lens at the district level so people living in neighbourhoods today could find more of what they need.

District planning is really about: “How do we better connect neighbourhoods and plan for all of their needs over the long term, in the future?” And one of the things we discovered here in Edmonton a number of years ago was the fact that, you know, as a city we provide a lot of different services to residents – police, fire – and we build a lot of different things like roads and parks, and one of the things that came up was: “How do we do a better job of that? How do we provide better services and invest more effectively and efficiently?” One of the things we discovered was that if we only looked at a larger area, not only could we provide better services and better investment for that area but for all the neighbourhoods within them. District planning is really coming out of that and looking to find ways of getting better value for tax dollars and at the same time still creating really great neighbourhoods that people want to live in, work in, and go to school in.

[Narrator] Ok. Let’s back up a bit. The City of Edmonton has more than 300 neighbourhoods, some of which have their own development plan but some don’t. This doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to guide development or growth. They rely on higher level plans, like The City Plan.

The issue with planning at the neighbourhood level is that people can’t stay in their neighbourhoods to access all the goods and services they need. That’s not realistic. People will cross neighbourhoods to go to the grocery store, access health care, go to work or recreation centres, restaurants, schools – you name it. So what if we look at multiple neighbourhoods together to make sure there are enough services and amenities within these combined neighbourhoods so that people have equal opportunity to access their everyday needs? This is the premise behind district planning.

And if 15-minute communities are the goal, district planning, as Michael explained it, is how we get there. It’s planning out each of those areas, those districts, small little towns inside of our big city where people can meet those daily needs locally.

[Michael] I would say the benefits of district plans for individuals within neighbourhoods are knowing that over time as our city continues to reinvest and redevelop, residents should have greater access to the things that they need and want locally. Maybe it’s being able to bike to the neighbourhood next door a lot easier to visit a park, go to school, go shopping, purchase groceries, or even find work. Over time, district planning will look to find ways of better connecting people to the things that they want locally and much more close to where they live.

[Narrator] So far so good. We want 15-minute communities, where people will have better access to their daily needs, so we’re going to plan for them, which we call district planning, but this isn’t really a show where we minimize jargon. You’re on episode 4. You know that already.

Let’s zoom out a little bit. Picture Edmonton. You’ve got downtown, which is kind of in the centre, the river valley to the south, Strathcona to the south of that, and the city expanding outwards in every direction. But in Edmonton as a 15-minute city is that one downtown centre really enough? There’s a word for this idea in urban planning. It’s called a polycentric city, a city with multiple centres.

[Michael] So in thinking about a polycentric city, when we think of Edmonton today, a lot of people will think about Edmonton in terms of its downtown. It’s got a lot of high density. It’s got a lot of our employment. And then outside of that we have all of our mature and established neighbourhoods that are very much lower density. So we have a lot of activity at the heart of Edmonton, but with this polycentric city idea, it really supports this idea that there’s lots happening in areas outside of the downtown. There’s lots happening in these districts that we’ve identified with Edmontonians.

So when we engaged on the City Plan, and we heard that people want to live more locally and be able to work closer to where they live and go to school, we started thinking about: “Well, how can we start supporting these existing centres here today in all these different districts, not just in the downtown?” Because in these larger areas there are neighbourhoods that have really attractive and vibrant areas, like Whyte Ave or 124th Street and many others. We asked ourselves, you know: “How can we find ways of growing our city and rebuilding our city around these many different nodes and corridors?” That’s really the term we gave them. “How do we manage growth as our city expands to 2 million people in a way that supports these nodes and corridors across Edmonton?” So the polycentric city is about nodes and corridors and how we use that and invest in that to really create a more local living opportunity for people.

[Jenny] I’m trying to, like, visualize what that looks like, and I get the idea of the downtown core, what we have right now. It’s almost like a bike with a hub and some spokes running out of it. But with the polycentric city it almost sounds like we’re trying to move away from that wheel and more into the cogs. We have a big cog and little cogs that all function together to help build this city. Do you think that’s an accurate visual?

[Michael] Yes, that’s a good visual. We’re also thinking of, like, circuits or a network or a series of webs because one of the things we know is that we want to encourage more walking, more cycling, more transit, and to do that we have to create more connections between different parts of our city. We can do that district to district, neighbourhood to neighbourhood by focusing on how we can extend our mobility networks and how we’re able to take the bus to different parts of the city. That, you know, doesn’t mean just driving into the downtown core or taking transit into downtown and then out again.

We really want to create a web of transit service throughout our city and support mass transit because over time we can’t continue to sustain car trips the way we are today. We’re going to get more congested. Our city is going to continue to rebuild and grow. As we grow to 2 million, we need to find other ways of moving more people locally and between district to district that doesn’t involve going into the heart of Edmonton and then back out again. There has to be other ways that we can move throughout our city.

[Narrator] One city, multiple centres – call them nodes – connected with robust transit, which we’ll call corridors. You could call it, as urban planners like Michael might, a nodes and corridors system.

[Michael] The nodes and corridors are really centres of activity. A node – a lot of people can probably relate to it today where, you know, there’s local shopping, there’s probably apartment buildings or some mid-rise towers. These are places where people go today for shopping, for work. I think of the Oliver neighbourhood, for example. Nodes are places of activity. Corridors are dual function. They’re really places where you can travel between node to node on a large roadway, but within that corridor of road and that space is also a place where people can shop. Whyte Avenue comes to mind or 124th Street. Between those two types of places, whether you’re traveling to or fro or stopping along the way, these are the places where a lot of life happens or a lot of business and investment happens, where people shop. So it’s really important that we connect these with transit and we find ways of enabling more people to walk there, to bike there, to take transit, and if they choose to drive as well. But really those are the two major pieces of this city plan and districts that we’re trying to strengthen over time.

[Narrator] So we’ve been looking at all this from one perspective, the perspective of the average person living in these neighbourhoods. Wherever you live, you should be able to access all of these essentials within 15 minutes. But what about the people on the other side of that transaction? What about the people providing those essentials? What about the people running the businesses?

[Michael] Right. So district planning, you know, through – the nodes and corridors that are a part of it, that make up a district, those are really important places for businesses because there are different sizes of nodes, whether it’s a local node, where you have a few small businesses, all the way up to a major node, where when you think of, like, the university area you have a major hospital and a university. That’s serving a lot of different districts surrounding it. You have this range of opportunities as a business owner. You can choose how to conduct yourself. Districts really provide a range of nodes and corridors for small businesses to start up, to scale up, and to establish themselves over time. It’s really important for businesses to have a mix of different spaces available to them but also access to workers and for workers to be able to travel and get to work as well. You don’t have to be an Apple or a Canadian Tire. You can be a small startup looking to start out as an entrepreneur and create something new in your own community. I think that’s really important.

[Narrator] The Strathcona neighbourhood here in Edmonton has long been one of those essential nodes, a heart of both commercial and residential activity right here in the city.

So we wanted to know a little bit more about how this idea of nodes and corridors, specifically how transit and mobility affecting those nodes would affect a neighbourhood like Strathcona and the businesses that call it home. We called up someone who knows more about business in Strathcona than anyone else.

[Cherie] My name is Cherie Klassen, and I am the executive director at the Old Strathcona Business Association. I guess to put briefly what my job is, it’s to lead our business association in our strategic goals that assist with economic development, community development, and revitalization in our business improvement area. Old Strathcona, so our district – our heart of boundaries are from 99th Street to 109th Street on Whyte Avenue and then we go as far south between 103 and 104 to 76 Avenue. That’s our approximate geography boundaries in Old Strathcona. I think an area like Old Strathcona, because we’re such a walkable district and we’re central – you know, we’re just south of the river – we have a tremendous amount of variety for bus options in Old Strathcona. We still don’t quite have LRT. That’s probably the one piece that’s missing, but I’d say that we do have a pretty good network and for a variety of forms of transportation. We also have a pretty decent bike network that connects into Old Strathcona. I think that public transportation and multi-modal transportation options coming to and from places like Old Strathcona are absolutely vital because we attract, you know, well over 1 million people a year just in the summertime through festivals and events and so we need multiple ways of getting to and from our district when you have that many people coming in and out of it. I think we’re really fortunate in the city that we are so well serviced. We could certainly use more options, but I think we’re pretty well serviced in those regards, which makes our area desirable and it makes it easy to get to and from, which are all very important factors when businesses are looking to set up here as well as patrons coming here. We often hear feedback with regard to those things from both businesses and patrons. Also parking and roads and sidewalks and bikes and scooters. For us it’s really important when you’re thinking about us as like an outdoor mall. Getting to and from your outdoor mall is really important for your customer base. If it’s difficult to get here and you only have one or two options, that’s going to limit your customer base, and I think that, you know, because we are so well set up, you can get to Old Strathcona and Whyte Avenue from just about any part of the city. I think once the LRT line from Bonnie Doon is complete and is open, that is going to further help us because our transit network will tap into that and probably open up the door for people from other parts of the city who maybe normally don’t come here be able to get here. Areas that aren’t as well serviced – that is going to be a challenge for them because they aren’t going to be able to bring a customer base in from more areas of the city like we have.

[Narrator] Whyte Avenue is a good way of thinking about all of this. The avenue itself is a corridor where a bunch of different kinds of transit connect different areas. It’s in the middle of a node, Strathcona, where lots of people live and work. But, importantly for the idea of this 15-minute city, Strathcona isn’t just housing or business. It’s both. And the presence of one improves the quality of the other.

[Michael] When we think of corridors like Whyte Avenue, there are lots of different housing opportunities, whether it’s apartments or, you know, duplexes, four-plexes, single detached, semi-detached. What’s important about nodes and corridors is that they offer a lot of different housing types, which attracts a lot of different incomes, and incomes mean people and people buy things locally and that helps the overall market and it really strengthens it. Just as an aside, we worked on a land-use study for Whyte Avenue a couple years ago, and we conducted a market study. The market study was really interesting because it showed that, given the economy, there was a number of vacancies on Whyte Avenue, and there was a concern that rents were really high. A lot of food services but there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the types of businesses that were offered. There were a couple really large rezonings that were in play and proposed for that area, and one of the things that we learned was that by finding more opportunities for people to live along Whyte Avenue or within the area, that actually brings a lot of market demand for different services and goods to that area and it actually offers to help a lot of existing businesses along Whyte Avenue and along corridors. I would say that the more housing opportunities we can bring to a corridor or, you know, to existing kind of nodes within our city and within different districts, the better able we are to support our local businesses and support those growing, whether it’s doing more of the same or creating opportunity for new businesses and services to come into the community so people won’t have to travel outside. Again, that kind of brings it back to this idea of a polycentric city, living more locally and having access to more of the things that we want.

[Narrator] Our current zoning bylaw does not have a true mixed-use zone, which is just premised on the idea of a mix of different land uses – residential, commercial, entertainment – all being able to coexist. If you want to have everything that you need within 15 minutes, you need to allow everything you need within 15 minutes.

[Michael] With district planning we want to make it easier for people to do more of the things they want to do in their community, so whether it’s finding a school close to where they live and making it easier to access it or, you know, think of school not just for elementary but for junior high or high school. The more we can connect neighbourhoods, the better opportunities we can create to connect people without them having to leave their neighbourhood or leave their community. District plans play a really important role in better connecting people to educational opportunities, to green space, to work nearby. It may not be in their neighbourhood but perhaps it’s a short transit trip, bus or LRT trip, away so they don’t have to commute large distances and be away from their families. We’ve also been aware that the more support we provide neighbourhoods in being able to do more within them and around them in a district, we create time for people to spend on the things that they want to spend their time on. Maybe it’s not having to commute, which frees up more time to volunteer in your community or just spend more time with your family or to do shopping more locally. Those are all really positive benefits from planning on a much larger scale to simplify life on a more local level. I would say by thinking about how we plan at a higher – planning at a district level frees us up to think about how we can help more neighbourhoods as opposed to just a few, and I think planning at the district level really helps us provide people more options or choices. We’re not saying you can’t use your car or you cannot leave your district. What we’re trying to do is make it easier for you to do and travel where you live. If you want to drive, drive. If you want to take the bus, you can do that. It can be a positive experience. You can bike. You can walk. District planning is really about providing people more options to live a really great life in the neighbourhood that they choose. You don’t have to live in south Edmonton. You don’t have to live in north Edmonton. You can choose anywhere in the city, but through district planning we’re working to make sure Edmontonians have the services and the opportunities that they all expect no matter where they live in Edmonton.

[Narrator] And there’s another benefit to the polycentric city and district planning that we haven’t really explained too much – climate sustainability. The closer you live to the things you need, the less you need to rely on your car. That’s not to say driving is off the table, but it’s less of a requirement to live, work and play in Edmonton.

When you have more of what you need nearby, you make different decisions, shift your behavior and this has big implications for climate sustainability. Being able to walk, roll or bike to access groceries, medicine, shopping, restaurants, school, parks and open space or work nearby means more than just leaving your car at home, saving fuel, preventing wear on your vehicle and having to replace it faster. It means you are directly helping to lower our collective carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.

It also means improving your physical health, getting to know your neighbourhood and the people that live and work there. It helps strengthen the local economy and keep our air, land and water clean for you, your family and friends for years to come.

So it’s not about removing one mode of transportation but opening the doors to other ways of moving around the city to help people access what they need on a daily basis.

So that brings us back to the very start of all of this, that question: what do you live within 15 minutes of? Today hopefully a lot. Hopefully your neighbourhood is bustling and lively, full of all the things that make a street feel like a community. But hopefully tomorrow you’ll live within 15 minutes of even more.

So far in this series we’ve talked about the ways zoning can have a really big impact on the world around us, the way that zoning housing, businesses, parking impacts you and your communities. As we wrap up, we want to look forward to where all of this is going next in Edmonton. My name is Jenny Renner, and we’ll catch you in the next and final episode of Making Space. Thanks for listening.