City in Flight

PROJECT Blatchford Redevelopment, Edmonton, Alberta
URBAN DESIGNERS/ARCHITECTS Perkins+Will Canada (prime consultant) in collaboration with Perkins+Will San Francisco, Civitas, Group 2 and Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
TEXT Jacob Allderdice

It can be said that contemporary Edmonton is a world leader in sustainable urbanism. The Blatchford Redevelopment (formerly known as Connecticity), the Perkins+Will master plan for the shuttered 536-acre Edmonton City Centre Airport (ECCA) north of downtown, is proof that Edmontonians are very serious about bringing their city into the 21st century with a renewed focus on environmental sustainability.

  For many, the mere mention of Edmonton conjures up the endless monoculture of tract housing portrayed in Gregory Greene’s 2004 documentary The End of Suburbia which used Edmonton as a stand-in for Anytown, USA, and featured New Urbanism polemicist James Howard Kunstler on petroleum-addicted lifestyles. “We’ve invested all of our post-World War II wealth in an infrastructure for daily life that has no future,” noted Kunstler. Then there’s Edmonton’s moniker, Gateway to the North–a nickname that conjures up images of behemoth dump trucks with wheels the height of city buses driving across the Athabasca bitumen fields. And finally, there’s Alberta’s brash former Premier Ralph Klein, who still haunts Canada many years after he quit politics. His description of Edmonton as “A fine city with too many socialists and mosquitoes (at least you can spray the mosquitoes)” denotes a time when real Albertans wore Stetson hats, and cowboy boots were paired with expensive suits. Those lingering stereotypes remain, but the province has changed.

Today, Alberta has Ralph Klein Park, a 385-acre constructed stormwater treatment wetland on the fringes of Calgary with a LEED Gold-certified Environmental Education and Ethics Centre. The project is the largest and most ambitious of its kind in Canada. Klein’s former nemesis, environmental activist and former Edmonton city councillor Tooker Gomberg was a champion of urban cycling, worm composting and front-yard gardening. If he were alive today, Gomberg would be proud of how his beloved city has evolved.

The fact is, the Edmonton Capital Region, comprising 25 municipalities with a population of just over a million people (and forecast to grow by another 700,000 over the next 25 years) is as large and diverse as any Canadian city. Vancouver-based Perkins+Will Canada’s Joyce Drohan, lead architect on Blatchford, states: “Coming from Vancouver, we were impressed at the deep concern Edmontonians expressed for the environment and their genuine interest in a truly sustainable community.”

Barry Johns, of Edmonton’s Group 2 Architecture Interior Design, was the local architect for Blatchford. Born in Montreal, Johns notes: “Alberta has as many LEED buildings and municipal regulations about touching upon the planet gently, but they have not done a very good job in broadcasting their achievements.”

The Blatchford Redevelopment was a design competition that was held in 2010 after the culmination of several years’ work on the part of the City of Edmonton to replace the outdated ECCA. The competition drew 33 submissions from around the world.

Outdated? Well before 2010, the ECCA was in need of drastic repurposing. Founded in 1929 as Blatchford Field (the first licensed airstrip in Canada), ECCA was once on the fringe of the city. By the 1990s, with urban development surrounding and leapfrogging it to the north, in addition to competition from the nearby Edmonton International Airport, ECCA’s future was limited. While it had once served as a vital link to the north, with bush pilots like the great Wilfrid “Wop” May flying daring rescue missions for the Mounties, by 1995 airport passenger service stopped. Ten years later, the airport saw its busiest days during the Edmonton Indy car race when its empty runways served as a temporary racecourse. By 2009, the City made the decision for a phased closure of the airport, and sought new uses for the increasingly valuable land.

The airport lands RFP proposed “a home for 30,000 Edmontonians, living, working and learning in a sustainable community that uses 100% renewable energy, is carbon-neutral, significantly reduces its ecological footprint, and empowers residents to pursue a range of sustainable lifestyle choices.” It specified “state-of-the-art approaches to achieving a sustainable community…with innovative and viable ideas that will shape the future development of the ECCA lands as an ecologically sustainable, family-focused, transit-oriented community.” The RFP further called for a “celebration of the history of this airport” and stipulated that the site development must work with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). “NAIT has expressed an interest in significantly expanding their campus onto the ECCA lands to coincide with their emerging educational programs and research activities in sustainability.”

According to Drohan, “It’s a tribute to Edmonton’s well-orchestrated RFP process that several Canadian cities including Montreal and Saskatoon have looked to the project for lessons in developing their own brownfield sites.”

From the 33 competitors, five finalist teams were chosen. Drohan’s team beat out the competition: BNIM (Kansas City, working with Edmonton’s Manasc Isaac Architects and Norway’s Snøhetta); Foster & Partners (London); KCAP (Rotterdam); and Sweco International AB (Stockholm). The jury comprised four members: Peter Hackett, a Fellow of the National Institute for Nanotechnology, University of Alberta; Todd Latham, co-founder of the Canadian Brownfields Network and publisher of an industry infrastructure renewal magazine; Christopher Henderson, CEO of the Delphi Group, which consults in the environment and clean energy sectors; and Lars Franne, Head of Planning for the City of Stockholm (and the project manager for Hammarby Sjöstad, an eco-friendly development of some 10,000 homes in Stockholm).

Of particular interest was the BNIM/Manasc Isaac/Snøhetta project which proposed a Landscape Urbanist approach to the site, effectively creating a “prairie” roofscape that would undulate across most of the 536 acres at four to 12 storeys above grade.

By contrast, Blatchford adopted a more New Urbanist approach. Its “connection” is divided into four elements: History, Community, Nature and Growth. The proposal envisioned the preservation of the runways, turning them into main streets with a central Wop May Plaza as a gathering place for the neighbourhood. Its streets are narrower and its blocks smaller than the standard dimensions currently seen in Edmonton. The buildings on the site often feature front-yard gardens for urban agriculture and its transportation planning includes a new light rail with “complete streets” that accommodate plenty of cycling while discouraging car dependency. Blatchford incorporates new apartments and research facilities for NAIT, and at its centre–a grand new triangular Flyway Park with a hill rising to the north for wind protection and a spectacular view of the downtown skyline beyond. The park contains a series of waterways including an artificial lake and marshland to clean and treat greywater. 

Barry Johns stresses the importance given to wind protection on the site. “We learned long ago on the Prairies that if you don’t build in harmony with nature, you lose.” For example, the new street along the northwest-angled former runway is staggered, not straight: a runway wants wind, a street doesn’t.

The site will have a district energy heat system and, in its most
compelling technological feature, heat-mining. According to Johns, Edmonton is number two after Iceland for geothermal potential, adding that “Drilling about five kilometres below the surface, the temperatures come close to 160° Celsius, enough to enable constant and relatively cost-effective and renewable heat generation. Ironically, thanks to the petroleum industry, it is arguably viable to develop heating and power generation as a new industry. Our engineers have calculated that a district energy system designed to support a population of 30,000 through both biomass and geothermal energy could generate enough surplus renewable energy to share beyond the boundaries of this site and take this master plan beyond carbon-neutral. It would be an exciting story for Alberta.”

But it was not just sustainability that won the day–the winning proposal also offers that elusive element known as “liveability.” At public workshops held after her team was chosen for the redevelopment, Drohan remarked, “Young singles looking to move from downtown bachelor apartments, and couples with babies seeking family-friendly neighbourhoods were thrilled with the diversity of housing, the broad range of amenities–from schools and daycares to grocery stores and restaurants, access to transit and the ability to grow food outside their front door.” 

Summing up the response to Blatchford, Drohan notes: “Interest came from across several age groups. One workshop attendee recognized the similarity in the fine-grained urban pattern of the proposal to Edmonton’s downtown of the early 1960s, before the razing of blocks erased an inherently rich walking, shopping and social experience.”

Of course, parts of Edmonton, such as Old Strathcona, still offer the dense, walkable, liveable neighbourhood that some folks remember as normal for the whole city core. Historically, Edmonton encouraged density through Georgist tax policies. As James Howard Kunstler writes in his 1996 book Home from Nowhere, the revolutionary tax proposals of 19th-century economist Henry George state that if you tax the value of the land, but not land development itself, you will encourage dense development. The Georgist philosophy saw that land parcels would be developed to their fullest potential, provided that the tax remain unchanged whether the land sat vacant or saw the development of a 12-storey building. Kunstler refers to Edmonton as being “the city with the purest Georgist tax system” worldwide. “Consequently,” Kunstler remarks, “Edmonton quickly developed a dense downtown core, considered by many to be an exemplary exercise in civic design.” However, this pattern ended in crisis in 1918: “To mitigate the expense of fighting World War One, the city slapped a 60% tax on the value of buildings, instead of simply increasing the tax on site value.”

What happened in the 1960s and ’70s–and continuing through to present-day Edmonton–is not so different from the development pattern of mature cities around the world. Entire blocks were bought, razed, and then rebuilt in a way that saw a once-vital downtown empyting out into a zone of nightly desolation while prime agricultural land was developed into car-dependent single-family tract housing. It’s the work of “impatient capital,” in the words of Edmonton’s Aaron Bourgoin, a former associate at Manasc Isaac. With today’s investors seeking profits within five years, Bourgoin observes that “Edmonton looks the way it does because capital is impatient. The airport development is going to need patient money.”

With a build-out projected over 25 to 30 years, the budget is a “moving target,” according to Barry Johns. “We are exploring the idea of a separate development corporation that can be mandated the responsibility for implementation, and structured to survive the vagaries of changing municipal councils and administrations.”

Adding to Johns’s strategic foresight, Drohan remarks, “In delivering similar projects–Dockside Green in Victoria, Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 and others–we’ve learned that champions are essential for long-term success. As a public project, ours will rely on City Council’s advocacy throughout the process, requiring the support of the development community as well as the larger Edmonton community.”

The larger Edmonton community supports Blatchford. The call to go “beyond carbon-neutral,” and in Barry Johns’s words, to build “a park you can live in,” and a city sector where “you can choose to be car-free,” warms the heart of a growing segment of the population appealing to the likes of old Tooker Gomberg. Back in the day, with his worm composter in his city council office, his bicycle advocacy work, and his opposition to the oil economy, his views were the radical fringe. “Why does Old Strathcona work while our city centre doesn’t? The major difference between the two districts is that people live in Old Strathcona,” Gomberg once observed. “We must vigorously encourage more people to reside downtown.” Today, with the Blatchford Redevelopmet destined to become reality, the radical fringe has gone mainstream. CA 

Jacob Allderdice is the coordinator of the Bachelor of Interior Design program at the Academy of Design at RCC Institute of Technology.

Client City of Edmonton, City Centre Redevelopment (Mark Hall, Phil Sande)
Urban Design, Architecture and Sustainability Perkins+Will Vancouver–Prime Consultant (Joyce Drohan–Project Lead, Peter Busby, Achim Charisius, Catarina Gomes, Martin Nielsen, Yong Sun); Perkins+Will San Francisco (Noah Friedman, Prakash Pinto, Geeti Silwal, Patrick Vaucheret)
Community Planning Civitas (Dan Daszkowski, Joe Hruda, Sok Ng)
Local Architecture and Urban Design Group 2 Architecture Engineering Ltd. (Barry Johns, Joylyn Teskey)
Landscape Architecture Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (Nathan Brightbill, Martha Farevaag, Chris Phillips)
Transportation NelsonNygaard (Jason Schrieber, Jeffrey Tumlin)
Engineering and Sustainable Infrastructure Perkins+Will (Blair McCarry), Archineers (Trevor Butler), Cobalt Engineering (Geoff McDonell)
Geotechnical and Environmental Golder Associates (Arthur Cole)
Local Municipal Planning ISL Engineering and Land Services (Connie Gourley, Shauna Kuiper, David Schoor)
Land Economics Pro Forma Advisors (Gene Krekorian)
Public Consultation Soles and Co (Katie Soles)
Heritage Consultant Alberta Western Heritage (Terrance Gibson)
Completion Construction Start 2014