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November 20, 2017
October 18, 2017

Edmonton Headlines: Wednesday, October 18, 2017

First look at four years

Written by Jeff Samsonow

Now that everyone’s had some sleep, and we’ve double-checked who won what, we can talk about what the next four years might look like for Edmonton’s new city council and school boards.

We think the election was an endorsement of a future the last city council started pushing Edmonton toward. That means more LRT, more infill and affordable housing, and even more bike lanes (so many bike lanes!). There have been some doubters since the results came in, but we’re not buying the hype that a landslide victory for Don Iveson (and a council that looks likely to support him) is somehow indicative of discontent. The mandate was delivered Monday and Edmonton’s leaving its sprawling, car-oriented past behind to embrace a walkable, urbanist future. Let’s build a better city!

Teamwork makes the dream work

City council is 2/3 incumbents, so most relationships are already built or set and shouldn’t create any fireworks. We do have four new councillors though, so it’s always interesting to watch for potential voting blocks to form. 

There’s a potential north-south split brewing, with councillors Jon Dziadyk (Ward 3) and Aaron Paquette (Ward 4) running campaigns that called for more investment in north Edmonton and less support for the downtown and southern Edmonton neighbourhoods. It’s going to be a hard sell with mayor Don Iveson though. I think it’s also going to be a hard sell when you consider the $1-billion going into the Yellowhead Trail, the development of the Blatchford neighbourhood and the pending redevelopment of Northlands.

Now, if north-end councillors want to talk about how that $1-billion could be better spent than on a freeway…

Former councillor Kim Krushell also sums up potential council splits with sage advice:

If you don’t have seven votes you’re not getting anything done.

There is going to be a north-south fight about LRT though. (More on that below.)

The perfect segue to talking about the school boards is the collaboration that needs to happen is between city council and those boards.

As schools are built in new neighbourhoods, and older schools are consolidated, there has to be communication between the two governing bodies (with the provincial government involved too). Edmonton cannot reach its goals with infill housing if it’s building lots of new homes without any schools nearby. It needs the school boards to be allies in neighbourhood planning to try and encourage new life for some neighbourhoods by keeping or bringing in families.

Getting along shouldn’t be a problem for the Edmonton Public School Board, as there are just two new faces, and both appear to align with a lot of values of existing board members

The Edmonton Catholic School District needs to do better this term, since the provincial government was already keeping an eye on them. With more than half of the board being new trustees, however, they’ll have time to find a groove. (This race didn’t get much coverage, so here are some thoughts from the new trustees.)

There was no hating on each other” in the Ward 12 race. I like that. 

Protecting LGBTQ students

Just before the election there appeared to be a split of the Edmonton Public School Board over LGBTQ issues. It appears that split will be near impossible to notice with the new board, as we’ll probably see at the first board meeting when the same item is brought forward. 

With most of the board members being new at the Edmonton Catholic School District we’ll have to wait and see how those trustees handle issues of sexuality and gender. It caused a lot of friction for the last board (which, of course, means it leaves a lot of students vulnerable).

The issues around protecting the privacy of students in gay-straight alliances (GSAs) will also be decided more stringently by the provincial government in the next legislative session, so this one might not be completely up to trustees anyway.

All aboard

As Edmonton continues to grow, and continues to struggle building itself around suburbs that weren’t integrated in the best ways, transportation will be a big topic for the next city council. 

With a new transit strategy starting to get hammered out next year, there’s a lot of potential for urban-suburban splits on council. The new strategy calls for frequent bus service in Edmonton’s densest and busiest neighbourhoods, closer to the city centre (where there’s already lots of ridership), with less frequent service the further you move out to the edge of the city. While the ‘burbs would get express routes and feeder buses to get people to transit hubs, this one could get contentious as councillors fight for bus routes through various neighbourhoods. Of course, the more successful councillors are at keeping lots of routes that dawdle through neighbourhoods or drive empty, the less successful the new strategy is. 

The second contentious piece to the transit strategy is considering the use of private transportation companies, like taxis or rideshares, to help fill in gaps in the suburbs or where bus routes aren’t as frequent. The last city council ditched this idea, but it could return because it was a close vote.

LRT

This is the one that I think has the potential to shift where Edmonton is headed (and provide us a north-south split on council). Other than the Valley Line currently being built from the downtown to Mill Woods, Edmonton’s next LRT priority is continuing that line from the downtown through to Lewis Estates in west Edmonton. Then we’re supposed to continue the Metro Line north through Blatchford. 

Beyond that, nothing is really set. While it could make sense to continue the Metro Line toward St. Albert to connect Edmonton’s northern neighbourhoods and eventually offer better transit to St. Albert’s many commuters, there’s a new push to look south. With a new hospital now planned in the booming southwest, and the potential to start building an LRT connection to the airport, we saw this decision starting to loom before the election. Councillors on both sides of the river will be making their pitches to secure mass transit through their part of the city.

The election saw the idea of BRT (bus-rapid transit) really enter the conversation. While it could be somewhat cheaper than LRT to build, it’s still a massive infrastructure investment, but it might be an option for one or both potential future LRT lines. Maybe it does the trick to quell the potential north-south fight over LRT?

That’s not all!

The other LRT debate is going to be around the currently planned Valley Line west extension. While I don’t think it will be scrapped, or converted to BRT, there’s a lot of discussion about raising it over a few intersections to improve vehicle traffic flow. 

That will increase the cost of the plan, which makes for an interesting discussion for this city council. I’m stereotyping a bit here but often people who hate paying taxes also hate sitting in traffic the most and you can only solve one of the problems with this one.

pay more/raise the train OR pay less/sit in traffic for a minute

Also, if major projects continue to stall, face delays or cost overruns, this will be the city council to carry the blame. The last one got away with so many big project delays by pointing at decisions made by the previous city council (2007-2010) and City staff. There was some major restructuring of staff departments and we’re another term removed now, so this council is likely going to need to answer for new delays. 

I hope there aren’t any major project delays, but if I had to guess at one it’s going to be related to the LRT. I’m just too cynical to trust that Bombardier will deliver Edmonton’s new train cars on time.

A place to call home

It’s just like a real house! photo: @YEGardenSuites

There are two major issues related to housing for the next city council to work on. 

Infill housing needs some tweaks, or there will be even more neighbourhoods fighting against densifying and modernizing. Some neighbourhoods have seen pushback against lot-splitting, where a couple of smaller homes might pop up on a site that used to be a single-family home. (There are also garage and garden suites, but there doesn’t seem to be as much anger about those.)

In Edmonton’s core neighbourhoods, the issue is high rise towers that might not fit the character of the community and certainly bring in a flood of new residents all at once. 

Both forms of infill also need to be made more affordable and as family-friendly as possible. We need families and all kinds of people to move to older neighbourhoods but we won’t do that with single-family homes or one-bedroom high rises alone. And we do need to keep filling in our older neighbourhoods, because we can’t just keep sprawling out. 

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Everyone seems to like the idea of affordable housing, and even the idea that it should be in every corner of the city. It’s getting there that will be the challenge.

There will be, of course, the first challenge of actually getting money from other levels of government to build more affordable and supportive housing. Then, councillors will need to make sure there’s a good process set up to put affordable units in as many new (re)developments as possible. Supportive housing may need to be more centrally located or near medical, mental health and employment services, but affordable units can be just about anywhere in Edmonton. 

We’re going to see how serious Edmonton is about giving everyone a place to live in the next four years.

Safer streets

Image courtesy: Strathcona County

This one is going to tie together a few different files. There’s the push to reduce all neighbourhood speed limits – which most councillors seemed to be in favour of – though it does require a decision on what exactly a “neighbourhood” street is and whether we drop the limits to 40 km/h or 30 km/h. The science says 30 is the best bet to keep traffic moving and keep people from dying, but it’s going to be a big debate. 

We’ve also got to spend more on crosswalks and intersections that we know are dangerous, but that’s going to take spending more money. Hopefully this one doesn’t get too bogged down in geographic politicking and the places more people get hurt get the money first. 

Along with Edmonton’s transit strategy, we need to make sure every neighbourhood has sidewalks that get people where they need to (and are ideally wide enough for parents with two strollers or people in wheelchairs to pass each other). This is being covered somewhat by current budgeting and the Neighbourhood Renewal program, but when we put this into the safe streets debate, it could probably use more action. (Also, stop putting signs in the middle of sidewalks.)

And then there are bike lanes.

Everyone’s favourite thing to hate during the campaign, these will keep a lot of people safer on our streets, protecting cyclists from drivers, pedestrians from cyclists and even providing more safety and space for people driving. The amount of money to build a few more lanes, especially if they can be connected to the growing downtown and Old Strathcona networks, is minuscule when compared to anything else in the transportation budget, but bike lanes are a political hot potato for some reason, and this one is going to need some champions at city hall. 

Bonus idea: make roads, sidewalks and bike lanes safer (and actually build bike lanes) for next to nothing by upgrading safety through neighbourhood renewal projects

Diversity and parity

image: Equal Voice Alberta North

We had more women running for office this election, but Edmonton’s city council still only has two women. That’s about 15% of city council, which is well below the pre-election provincial average of 26% for all municipal seats. We saw a big push to try and get more women running, so we’re going to need to keep this up to do better in 2021. 

Personally, I would have loved to have seen a couple of the male front-runners for council step aside and back some of the strong women we had running. That includes incumbents and some of the challengers. 

Our school boards do have a majority of women. 

Edmonton could also use more diversity on council and school boards, to better reflect what our city actually looks like. We elected only our second-ever Indigenous councillor, in a city with nearly the largest urban population of Indigenous peoples in Canada. We also only have one person of colour (who is just our second-ever). 

The lack of diversity on city council and school boards could impact how we deal with issues of sexism, racism and reconciliation.

I’m hopeful that the YegParity campaign continues, as does the work of WAVE, and some new initiatives get other people involved in their communities to build confidence to run for office. And then we need to elect them, Edmonton!

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We’ll take a look at regional results and provincial issues on Friday. Spoiler alert: St. Albert did the thing I can’t believe they did!

If you still haven’t had your fill of election by the end of this post, check out discussions about the election on The Ryan Jespersen Show and the Press Gallery podcast

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