Edmonton: what are you making?

Edmonton: what are you making? wouldn’t necessarily replace the “City of Champions” sign on the drive in from the airport. But it could. It doesn’t sound like a slogan but a slogan, in Edmonton, can feel imported from one of those places where smart people live: New York, London, Los Angeles.

I was in a room once, when an advertising agency presented ten potential slogans for Edmonton. The only one I remember was “art and soul.” They were lovely, and they might have worked in other places, but in that room it was like someone had left ten pounds of raw chicken out on the counter for a week or so. The smell of death was everywhere.

We’re a tough audience. We’re tough on ourselves and on each other. We’re embarrassed by cheap boosterism.

We’re proud of action.

Once a city has a story, what does it do? How do we activate our city story, translate it into projects? What can our leaders do to help? No matter what we do, we have to follow the iconic Edmonton model: to make something, even a coherent identity or image, from the ground-up.

We can celebrate what we have already achieved, with Edmonton institutions and companies and events that prove our story. This involves a bit of education. What do we say about Edmonton, to each other and to Calgarians, Torontonians, New Yorkers? We’re all ambassadors and evangelists for the city. Even those of us who love Edmonton struggle with something to say.

Complaining is in our blood but we can stop apologizing for the weather. Bad weather didn’t stop Austin and Stockholm is doing just fine. St. Petersburg is sexy and mysterious.

This isn’t about advertising in Vancouver, not yet. If we’re going to make something with a Make Something Edmonton campaign, it has to work internally first. Edmontonians want proof. They want to feel it and then maybe they’ll think it and say it.

Let’s begin with the truth. Why Edmonton?

Thanks to our culture and our economy, Edmonton is the best place to make something, from the ground up, in North America.

If a Make Something Edmonton campaign were to have a communications component, you could imagine themes. Teatro la Quindicina and Folk Fest, Waiward Steel, Culina, the Birkebeiner, MicralyneMelcor, yoyoGstringKaleido, The Brick, What the Truck?Yardstick Software,the Edmonton Public School Board, Canadian Western BankClearwater Documentary and Manasc Isaac Architects have something in common.

Like the examples in my previous post, and many more, they all started as ideas in Edmonton.

But they’re also very different from each other, steel fabrication and theatre. If this is going to work, it has to be a call and an invitation to all Edmontonians — not just the creative class types. In Edmonton, you can make something beautiful. You can make something new, make something big, make something global, make something delicious, make something green, make something north, make something odd, make something unforgettable, make something true. We have anecdotes to prove all of these and more. You can make something thrive, starting with your family.

The language we use, about the city, the magic, might be in a project we can inspire. Our best civic projects, if they work, will have this ground-up spirit about them. This is what has been missing from the arena development so far, and one of the reasons it’s been so controversial. We can learn from this, as we proceed with the City Centre Airport Redevelopment. We are, as I mentioned in the last post, urban barn-raisers. We want to help conceive it and build it, whatever it is, especially if we’re helping to pay for it.

But our most revealing and our most loveable projects might be small things, tiny changes to the city.

What are you making? How can I help?

We have studied successful models around the world. How have cities activated a builders’ spirit in their citizens? What is a distinctly Edmonton application? In future posts, we’ll talk about some of those ideas and test a few.


16 thoughts on “Edmonton: what are you making?

  1. Lately, I’ve been using the word “Renaissance” to describe what is happening in Edmonton. Each time I’ve left, my return has always been met with gradual but noticeable changes. It is so difficult to describe how Edmonton makes me feel. What I do know is that no matter where I’ve traveled to, I’ve always yearned to be back here. After another eight month absence, I came back yet again and thought, “Something is happening here and I want to be a part of it!” even though it feels nearly impossible to articulate exactly what it is I see happening. I love that you are taking on this inspiring task! I look really forward to reading along.

  2. Perhaps leaving the “City of Champions” designation behind has been a blessing in disguise. We have to work harder to get there, but we can define ourselves as more than the city behind the hockey team; we are the city who builds things together. There is a new team approach, one that extends past sports and into the spirit of our small business sector, into the arts, into caring for each other. We are the City of Championing each other and our communal successes.

  3. I have lived in Edmonton for nearly 40 years. I was born here, grew up here, left 3 times and came back. I used to hate this city. I hated it because I thought it was ugly, and the thinking of the people that live here is backwards. In the last few years I have taken up photography as a hobby. Photography has taught me that anything can be beautiful. It’s just a matter of how you look at it. So I have started to look at Edmonton differently and now find it a beautiful city. It’s still rather backwards. The battles with the city center airport and new arena are clear examples of this. The people of this city seem to fight progress at every turn. Edmontonians hate change but seem to embrace it once it happens. Part of that might be because change takes so long here. On a drive to California I was passing through Salt Lake City. The city had just started a project of widening the interstate by one lane in each direction. Upon returning through Salt Lake on my way back home 10 days later the project was nearly complete. This task would be equal to Edmonton adding a lane to both east and westbound traffic on the Yellowhead. In my estimation a project that would take around a year. Salt Lake was able to complete such a project so easily for 2 reasons. When the original interstate was built it was built to be widened easily. It is above every other roadway and construction crews operated 24/7. I am sure Edmontonians oppose change so much because it is a long drawn out frusrating experience. It’s annoying driving by a project day after day and seeing nothing happen. There are hundreds of projects on the go at one time all moving at a snails pace.
    The arena is a prime example of this. Other cities that started talking about new arenas after us have already started building. Blame Katz all you want but he is just a frustrated as an Edmontonian driving past road contruction all summer.
    The heart of this city is the northern oil patch. Our economy depends on it and it feeds our growth. This city is about oil and The Edmonton Oilers represent that. We were once the city of champions but we have lost the spirit of a champion. To be a champion it takes resolve, commitment and dedication. When the city manages to find this spirit again it will be the city of champions. The youth of the new Oilers want to be here. They see the light over the horizon. They see a reason to be in Edmonton. I do too.
    We are not Steel town, The Big Apple, The City that Never Sleeps or The City of Lights. We are an Oil city. Oil isn’t a beautiful thing but when you look at it a certain way it really is. Oil is used in so many things these days. It’s not just for fuel.
    Edmonton used to be called The Gateway to the North. Northern oil reserves are our future. So now Edmonton is The Gateway to the Future. I think it’s time we started embracing the idea of building the city of the future.

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