Back in 2012, Mack Male, an entrepreneur known for pop-up restaurants, proposed to open one such temporary eatery on a pedway bridge in downtown Edmonton. That's when the tragedy of Edmonton's pedway commons got in the way.
Male first approached Edmonton city officials for permits, but bureaucrats deferred to one another before finally sending him to the owners of the office towers on either side of the glass-enclosed bridge; the property owners, in turn, deferred back to the city. Nobody, it seems, felt they had authority over a heavily used pedestrian bridge that's at once both a public space and, in many ways, privately owned. "The pedway is such an unavoidable and functional part of downtown that I had incorrectly assumed it would be easy to find the owners," Male says. "Turns out the system is highly decentralized."
Edmonton's heavily trafficked pedways, which developers started building in 1974 to allow pedestrians a modicum of comfort during the city's frigid winters, are essentially indoor pedestrian streets. Anyone walking downtown will inevitably end up in the pedway, because it’s central to the urban design of the area, says Jim Taylor, the executive director of Edmonton's Downtown Business Association. And yet, unlike Edmonton's outdoor streets, its pedways are a confounding mix of public, private, and semi-private space.
Male's dilemma eventually ended up on Taylor's desk. "The problem that immediately arose was nobody knew who 'owned' the pedway," Taylor says. "It brought home what we've known for years about the pedway – nobody knows."
Several private sections of the pedway closed during the 1980s and 1990s, as Edmonton's economy hit a downturn. This left its mark in peoples' perceptions. "The closures broke it up and made it seen as less of a system," Taylor says.
All of the pedway has since re-opened, but negative perceptions remain. The result, Taylor says, is a lack of true ownership and a profound sense of municipal amnesia. When he asked the city who was changing the lightbulbs in directional signs in some private parts of the pedway – because someone was – city officials couldn't tell him who. He asked about the security phones in parkades inside the pedway. "Nobody knew who was answering the phone," Taylor says. "But somebody was."
In 2010, Taylor helped create a city committee that essentially sought to re-learn who was responsible for what inside Edmonton's pedway. The committee discovered the pedway's network of tunnels and bridges were governed by more than 30 unique agreements between the city and private owners. There was no unifying standard guiding any of them. In one place, one set of rules; right next door, another. The committee found that the lights were being changed thanks to a contract the city signed decades ago. And for Male, it determined a maintenance company that cleaned the bridge could grant his needed permit.
But Taylor still hasn't gotten what he still seeks—what he calls a “pedway czar,” a central authority than can oversee the pedway as a single network, or in effect, own it. Edmonton’s unprecedented current building boom includes five private pedways under construction, and several more proposed. And yet there is no overall plan for how they are used as a system, who controls them, or who effectively ‘owns’ them.