5 Wild Ideas to Save Alberta's Cities

Opinion: Our city elections are going to be mostly about property taxes, Jason Kenney and candidate personalities. That's a shame — we have work to do.

Alberta’s cities work but sometimes in spite of themselves.

Elections should be when we talk about what’s broken and consider how to fix it. Outside of a one-on-one conversation with a candidate at the door, though, municipal elections rarely offer voters a chance to engage in the minutia and weigh multiple ideas on merit. And with the politics of grievance and personal attack only growing in Alberta, and this infecting our municipal races, is that really the conversation many candidates are trying to have?

Well, let’s have a better conversation. To kick off a series of Rage ideas posts in the lead-up to October 18, here are five wild ideas to make city politics better in Alberta.

1. Slice wards like a pie

PROBLEM ADDRESSED: Enclave thinking in place of city thinking

One school of thought on ward boundaries is that people with similar needs — like a group of neighbourhoods that have a common link to a handful of bus routes, streets, or places where people work — should be clumped together into an electoral district or ward.

In theory, the ward’s elected representative will then be able to champion what’s best specifically for the ward’s interests. This is basically what happens in our cities today, with some minor exceptions. Indeed, in Edmonton, a specific city policy dictates wards be clear, distinct, easily identified and contain roughly equal numbers of people to ensure the one person, one vote principle.

The problem that comes up with boundaries made to this criteria is that councillors can play to political interests rather than city interests. Advocating, for example, for a freeway that costs hundreds of millions for your remote suburban enclave may play well with your ward’s voters but may also starve the rest of the city of resources and may see money spent in ways that don’t benefit the majority of residents but instead the privileged few. Councillors want to please their base. That’s how politics work. So we often get enclave thinking.

What’s one solution, then, to ensure the city’s elected representatives are concerned with the entire city? Better conversations.

And we could get them if we changed ward boundaries — by slicing them like a pie.

Why? Instantly, each councillor would have as their constituents an entire cross section of their city rather than a disconnected enclave. Each would represent a slice of the downtown core, a slice of its struggling first suburbs (which I wrote about for Canadian Geographic here), a slice of its second generation denser suburbs (where the majority of us live) and a slice of its ring-road dependent exurbs (where the majority of us will soon live, if we don’t reverse urban sprawl trends).

No longer could councillors ignore the core or the edges for political gain. No longer could they antagonize one part of the city against the other. Better conversations would emerge.

There are all sorts of problems with the idea, of course. Boundaries are in place to reflect neighbourhoods and existing grassroots organization. Any change to boundaries can unintentionally marginalize voices, dilute real political energy centred in specific areas and disconnect representatives from their constituents. But can the same not also be said of the status quo?

Imagine a city council that drew votes from the downtown core as well as the exurban fringe. Imagine what projects that council would prioritize. Imagine its changed stance on locating affordable housing, or transit, or public recreation amenities.

I think we’d see better decisions for the entire city.

RIP my mentions.

2. City charters

PROBLEM ADDRESSED: Unpredictable revenues for more than half the province

Edmonton and Calgary need their city charters back. Immediately.

Despite the rural-dominated iconography we share with the world as Alberta, the majority of the province lives in Calgary and Edmonton. Yet now, after the United Conservative Party ripped up most of the middling and weak first attempts at charters put in place by the New Democratic Party government, these cities have property taxes and a hose of grant money from the province that changes its flow rates with the politics of the day. That needs to end, for everyone’s benefit — even those who don’t live in Alberta’s cities.

With more than half of Alberta in Edmonton or Calgary alone, what’s good for these two economic powerhouses is good for the overall provincial economy.

Full stop.

Bring back our charters.

3. Culture shifts — senior staff should live in the city they work in

PROBLEM ADDRESSED: A lack of skin in the game at the top

I’ve had arguments on Twitter on this one and I get it: employers can’t dictate where you live nor should they be able to. Still, there could be a culture within our cities that sees at least the most senior city staff encouraged to choose the city they work for as the one where they also live, pay property taxes and otherwise experience outside work hours.

Is that really too much to ask for?

Recall that in the mid 2010s Toronto hired Andy Byford from London to run the Toronto Transit Commission. Byford not only lived in the city but rode the TTC subways and buses to commute to work, just like the people who use the service he was in charge of. The linkages should be obvious. Byford found idiosyncrasies and hidden problems while riding those trains, even if he didn’t fix all of them by the time he left.

The culture in our cities could shift to expect some skin in the proverbial game from its top administrators. All people who live in the city would benefit if it did.

4. Ditch smart-city hype for open-city ethics

PROBLEM ADDRESSED: A lack of ethical thinking as technology changes our cities

The highest tech smart cities are closed cities. They stupefy and make plain the complexity we need to make spaces into places. As Richard Sennett writes in Building and Dwelling, a philosophical look at cities that everyone should read, cities designed from scratch to adhere to the ethos of smartness are inherently closed and undemocratic.

What, then, do we make of the constant push to adopt smart city thinking, then? Isn’t technology helpful for many of our city problems?

Yes. We just need nuance. Our future smart cities should be open to the core.

Think here of the way data can be shared in cities. Some cities count and measure a near infinite number of things but make this data near impossible to come by or use without arduous labour. Other cities make data open, formatted for easy use (so, not a PDF but a spreadsheet) and encourage people to engage with it.

The future of our cities, unlike our confounding provincial and federal politics, is deeply engaged. Studies suggest residents of cities — who can take a day and scream at city council almost any time they like — only desire more engagement.

Why not, then, allow residents to engage more meaningfully?

Why not allow, for example, groups advocating for a sidewalk to show up in their neighbourhood or ward with accurate pedestrian numbers for the place they’re talking about? And not have to beg to be given this data but instead be able to find it and work with it? And why not allow companies to build engagement or service-enhancing apps out of this public data (think the app Transit for transit riders) and see them offer feedback and concerns into the city machine?

Our city data needs to be as open and accessible as possible.

5. City regions need regional governance

PROBLEM ADDRESSED: Metro regions are global economic engines but we still govern ours like a puzzle

Canada likes to think of itself as a country but it’s broken into ten provinces with unique laws, and three territories (shout out to the NWT) that few ever travel to. In reality, then, Canada’s federal system is byzantine, complex and hard to navigate. Beer brewed in one province is hard to buy in another — not because of a lack of markets but because of an abundance of regulations that often discourage inter-provincial trade.

Imagine this problem in microcosm, then, zoomed in on our cities. Calgary is huge but the true economic force it creates is created in the Calgary region. And yet Calgary’s municipal leaders can struggle to make decisions in unison with municipalities that orbit the city, despite each having a vested interest in decisions working for both.

Take transit and mobility. Recently, the Edmonton Metropolitan Region worked to think regionally by forming a regional group concerned with transit. Why? Consider this sobering stat. Since 2005, transit trips in the region increased 25 times slower than did automobile trips. That means the region as a whole, and the urban cores where offices are clustered in particular, are losing the battle against the negative side-effects of car dependency. In short, by not working together on a transit system, the Edmonton region is drowning in car dependency and will struggle to change this unsustainable and (for city cores) hostile pattern.

Solution: work on regional governance and make decisions that bring municipalities together to think as a whole.

How can you vote on this, though, if you’re only voting in one municipality? Ask your candidates for their dedication to this idea, at the very least.