Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Creating a diverse city - How Edmonton is doing it

City skyline of Edmonton, Canada - photo Wiki Creative Commons

GUEST BLOG - Lilit Houlder is an urban planner working with a consulting firm in Edmonton, Canada. She is the most recent member of the SafeGrowth team and in this blog, she describes how the City of Edmonton is crafting diversity into their City Plan at a large macro scale, just as SafeGrowth does the same at a smaller micro scale. 

SafeGrowth strives to apply citizen-led visions and goals into practice. In our experience, this results in strong communities and active partnerships which in turn link neighbourhoods together and improve their resourcefulness. Neighbourhoods can then begin to address challenges on their own, using the vast repository of resources gained through the SafeGrowth process.  

What might this look like within an official city plan?

Edmonton recently approved its new City Plan. The City Plan came about with a goal to create a feeling of home and give the ability for diverse groups of populations to participate in their communities, groups such as women, children, indigenous people, migrants and immigrants, and seniors. 

Indigenous parks in Edmonton - photo Explore Edmonton

How can such high-level concepts be realized in communities? Right now, Edmonton is working on a new zoning bylaw that aims to transform its current legacy of segregation.

The zoning bylaw describes what can or cannot happen on one’s property and it is a tool used to implement visions found within higher-level documents like the City Plan. 


Edmonton is a leader when it comes to the inclusion of its indigenous residents and neighbours – the Enoch Cree Nation to the west. The key is to strengthen this relationship through initiatives that increase indigenous participation in the city’s workforce, support indigenous community-led initiatives, and many others. With Edmonton located on the Treaty Six First Nations Territory and as the home of the second-largest urban indigenous population in Canada, prioritizing diversity and inclusion is no small task. 

Perhaps more symbolic than practical, Edmonton has recently approved the renaming of its 12 wards to indigenous names (in different languages). 

This process was led by a committee of 17 indigenous women. Additionally, the Indigenous Art Park was opened in 2018 that permanently exhibits artwork from indigenous artists across Canada.


SafeGrowth begins with big ideas – the vision and goals. These vision and goals are turned into implementation tools resulting in outcomes that can be seen on the ground. Similarly, Edmonton’s City Plan presents a long-term vision of inclusion and diversity, and the zoning bylaw regulations ensure that this vision is implemented on the ground. 

The City Plan and zoning bylaw encouraged extensive public participation at various stages of the process. It is a great way to empower communities to make decisions about what’s best for them. In this case, they sought to empower women, children, indigenous people, seniors, and newcomers to Edmonton. 

As with the SafeGrowth principle to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, Edmonton’s City Plan aims to build sustainable, empowered, and interlinked communities. Mateja Mihinjac’s blog Cities of Neighbourhoods - Are We There Yet? describes how SafeGrowth links neighbourhoods through pedestrian-friendly design. 

Edmonton is attempting to achieve similar goals by reaching out and representing its diverse population in decision-making. It is a work in progress that shows how large-scale city planning might adapt to the demands of a diverse society.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

David slew Goliath - Money doesn't always rule in city development

Arvada is an historic, independent city in the western suburbs
of Denver - photo Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

Amazon is a global, corporate superstar. Arvada is a suburban city 15 miles from downtown Denver, with 120,000 people spread in dozens of residential neighborhoods. The annual Arvada budget is $250 million compared to Amazon’s $1.6 trillion. It's David and Goliath. 

So you might wonder how Arvada could resist when Amazon showed up with a plan to build a 112,000 square foot distribution center - a delivery hub - onto a 36-acre undeveloped site. Amazon came with an offer of 2,000 jobs, tax revenues, and a green buffer to shield nearby housing. 

Yesterday Arvada council rejected the proposal. 

Triggered by a local citizen anti-development campaign, and a petition of 10,000 residents who opposed the plan, City Council voted 5-2 to reject the Amazon proposal. Why? And what does this have to do with neighborhood crime?


Did the residents oppose Amazon’s taxation history (e.g.: media stories that they don’t pay enough)? Nope, that was not a main point of contention. Were there complaints about Amazon’s global environmental record? Nope. In fact, Amazon co-founded the Climate Pledge and Global Optimism program aiming for net-zero carbon in the next 20 years, ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles, and spent $100 million into the Right Now Climate fund to focus on solutions to climate warming. Wow! That should impress even the naysayers. 

Not so in Arvada.

Local news coverage of the controversial Arvada vote

One environmental group complained that the development would destroy a nearby active wildlife habitat. But it was traffic congestion that carried the day, namely, complaints about hundreds of delivery vehicles and a 1,000 vehicle parking lot.

In a car-dependent suburb, where walking takes second place to driving, vehicle congestion is the thing.  It obviously was on the minds of the 5 councillors who voted it down. I’m sure 10,000 opposing petition signatures caught their attention.


The vote, of course, might have gone the other way. Amazon made a strong case and everyone loves to get stuff delivered promptly by Amazon – especially during this pandemic. Add to that two thousand jobs - not an insignificant number! 

But traffic jams and growing congestion is a powerful motivator in the face of a weak bus system and a new, but grossly underutilized, commuter rail line to downtown Denver. In American suburbs, cars rule!

Site rendering of the Amazon proposal from the Project Indiana website

The takeaway? When it comes to changing future cities for the better, it is crucial that we understand the politics, dynamics, and economics of land acquisition and usage. All the slick 3-D renderings, public statements, comprehensive plans, zoning regulations, and design guidelines, (such as CPTED design guidelines), do not matter one iota if resident expectations are unfulfilled.  

Nor does it matter to complain about racism, gentrification, or the “flat white urbanism” planning bias if new developments flail and falter at the altar of public expectations. (Not that any of those things were part of this story).


If we want to bring forth a new form of neighborhood safety planning (and in SafeGrowth, we do), we need to dive deeply into the mindset of local residents. We need to avoid NIMBY name-calling and figure how to work alongside residents from the get-go. 

In SafeGrowth we use co-planning workshopsLivability Academies, and other types of intense neighborhood engagement. This must happen long before development proposals are written up in some distant office. 

I’m unsure if a more exciting and beneficial outcome might have emerged from a more collaborative planning process. I suspect the answer is yes. This week in Arvada, the answer was no! David slew Goliath.