The city that hosted this year’s Habitat for Humanity build also wants to create a downtown that attracts people to stay around after the Alberta oil boom has faded.
EDMONTON, ALBERTA—Edmonton does not need a slogan. Despite efforts to revive the “city of champions” tag touting the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, the Canadian city’s latest rebrand is instead a simple wordmark that caused much chatter locally: Edmonton in an all-caps typeface, punctuated by the Canadian maple leaf. The logo presents the city as an “inventive, open, courageous and cooperative” place, according to an Edmonton Economic Development Corporation study asking city residents about the city.
I recently found myself here in Canada’s fifth largest metropolis to help facilitate a Skype conversation between CityLab’s Richard Florida and former President Jimmy Carter, who was in town with his Atlanta-based housing nonprofit Habitat for Humanity. Edmonton was one of the sites for this year’s Carter Work Project—an annual homebuilding blitz that Carter and his wife Rosalynn have headlined for 34 years. The group spent the week building 75 homes total in the city’s southeast section as well as in nearby Fort Saskatchewan. Habitat built over 150 homes across Canada—including in cities such as Winnipeg, Manitoba—drawing volunteers from across North America to mark the nation’s 150th anniversary this July.
“We are some of the warmest people here,” Alfred Nikolai, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Edmonton, told me. “I don’t know if it’s because we live in the north, or if it’s because Edmonton was built with different types of immigrants, but we treat everyone like neighbors and that’s why Habitat for Humanity Edmonton is building so many of the houses in Canada.”
John Rose, the city’s chief economist, says housing affordability has not been the acute challenge for Edmonton that we see in superstar cities. “There’s no major metropolitan area without a housing affordability challenge of some order or another,” Rose says. “But when you compare us to other places like Toronto or Vancouver, housing is pretty affordable. In fact, we have relatively high rental vacancy rates and that’s bringing rents down.”
If anything, the city now has an excess of housing—with leftover construction produced after Alberta’s oil boom from 2003 to 2008 before the international recession caused a drop in oil prices and a decline in net migration to Alberta since 2012. And the city is about halfway through a ten-year plan to end homelessness with a housing-first model that has housed almost 6,000 people. File it under yet another policy that Canada does better.
Mayor Don Iveson describes the neighborhood of Laurel, site of the build, as “one of the most diverse parts of the city.” At an average price of about $461,990 CDN, a neighborhood such as Laurel might otherwise be out of reach for working- and middle-class families. “We’ve seen housing prices rise, but not as much as in other major Canadian cities,” Iveson says. “It’s still attainable for middle-class households, at around $400,000 for the median price of a house. But we haven’t seen nearly enough construction of affordable rental housing and entry-level housing to support people who are living in poverty or who are making minimum wage.”
Many of the future Habitat homeowners are immigrants or indigenous families who will be moving from rental or public housing, at significant savings. According to Habitat, the average rent in Edmonton for a three-bedroom apartment is $1,327; the monthly cost of a mortgage will be $740 for Habitat homeowners. “It’s a miracle, I don’t believe it,” Mohamed Abdi, a Habitat homeowner-to-be told me. “To be owning a home instead of renting, it changes everything.”
Abdi, a car salesman who moved to Canada fifteen years ago from Somalia, is raising his two daughters with his wife in Edmonton. As a Muslim, he described Edmonton as a place of tolerance, where people are free to practice any religion or come from any country. “I wish the whole world was like this project,” Abdi said. “It’s just about helping neighbors. I could [build houses] like this every day with everyone working towards one cause—a better community for all of us.”
But Edmonton does have other challenges, as I learned. It’s something of a recovering oil town, trying to transition from resource-driven economy to one that’s more diverse and knowledge-based. It’s also trying to reverse its sprawling development patterns, setting ambitious goals towards making its downtown more attractive, support transit, build walkable retail, and generally densify. “We don’t have natural barriers in terms of water or mountains, so sprawl has been a real challenge in our region,” Mayor Iveson says. “We’ve seen a real resurgence in our downtown too, so we’re approaching 25 percent of our growth being met within the existing footprint of the city.”
Edmonton’s downtown, about ten miles from the Habitat neighborhood, features high-rise apartments and condos driven by influx of income from the oil sands boom over the last two decades. The mix of building styles—a combination of early 20th century flatiron brick buildings, 1970s-style Brutalist piles, and declaratively modernist glass towers—shows when times were good and by omission, when times were bad. “Edmonton was traditionally a blue-collar, industrial community,” Rose says. “But [the city] is a very diversified economy—about 25 percent of Edmonton’s jobs are in health care, education, or public administration.” That diversity has partially inoculated Edmonton from the economic effects of falling prices of commodities compared to other Albertan cities such as Calgary or Red Deer.
In some ways, Edmonton’s economic changes resemble places like Austin, Texas, a progressive city of a similar size and population in a more conservative area dominated by the oil and gas industry. The city exhibits the telltale signs of a boomtown in transition to becoming a knowledge-based economy. “If you didn’t know better, you might look around and think, ‘Wow there’s all these yahoos in pickup trucks,’” Rose says. “But that guy in the pickup truck is probably a orthopedic surgeon.”
People in Edmonton still clearly love their cars, and the city has the sprawl to prove it. The neighborhoods on both sides of the North Saskatchewan River began as two separate cities, with the south side originally known as the city of Strathcona. While the pools and parks make the River Valley an amenity, it’s not exactly Central Park in terms of walkability with little crossflow between downtown Edmonton and Old Strathcona. The city has a light rail system for hopping over the river, but only one way to walk to between the two sides of the river: the High Level Street Bridge, which features a walkway and a streetcar that only runs on weekends. There is a recent proposal to extend that streetcar to the main retail street, 82nd Street also known as Whyte Avenue—where bars, restaurants, art spaces, music stores, coffee shops, theaters, and other businesses attract people for daytime arts festivals and nightlife.
With its temporary rainbow crosswalks, Whyte Avenue might be the most visible sign of Edmonton’s recent place-making efforts. A new downtown protected bike lane network has just finished construction. Pedestrian boardwalks jut out into the street in front of bars and restaurants, reclaiming road space. Solar powered cargo bikes sprout up for city employees to water planters, and adorably Canadian cartoons tout benches to make the city a place for people of all backgrounds.
In the downtown restaurant strip, I met Alex Granula, a city employee checking the electronics on the Christmas lights strung around trees to mark a restaurant strip leading to the newly developed Ice District. He described how the city and province has renewed efforts to improve the street life, spending from a budget that largely benefits from sharing billions in Alberta’s oil sands revenue. The challenge for Edmonton is making the city a place where young people want to stay. When I asked him what drew him to Edmonton, his answer was straightforward. “Why am I here? Because wages are higher and the cost of living is lower,” Granula said. “I get to keep more of my paycheck, there’s work here. I have a city job that I got by merit alone. If I lived in Vancouver, I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Still, I wandered around Edmonton feeling there was something missing from my experience in the city: people. The downtown seemed too big to have so few bodies on the streets. Another catchphrase thrown around about Edmonton is that it is “Canada’s Festival City.” That’s especially true in the summer months when this winter city produces a kind of gold rush of street life. (The K-Days festival at the end of July alludes to the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush.) But it wasn’t until I turned to Churchill Park, near City Hall and the Art Gallery of Alberta, that I saw this Edmonton phenomenon in action: A huge crowd of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, watching a Mexican immigrant do gymnastics as part of the International Street Performer’s Festival. From there, it looked like Edmonton was a city small enough that people get to know each other—but big enough to welcome newcomers. The question for Edmonton is: after the big rush, can they get enough people to stick around?
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number of homes Habitat built in and around Edmonton.