Creating, not destroying

In the spring of 2011 I looked out the window of the office where I was working and saw a concrete wall. For years I had been complaining about it, comparing the wall unfavourably with North Korean urban design.

Then something happened.

I was a newspaper columnist. I loved having readers and I liked to pretend I contributed to their lives in some way. But I didn’t, really. Some people are real journalists but I wasn’t. My best year was as a freelancer, living in France and writing about my kids. I tried to be elegant about it but I complained for a living. This is a crucial function of journalism, to criticize, to hunt for malfeasance and reveal it.

But it isn’t for everyone.

Looking at the wall I felt something new. I felt like a professional complainer: a destroyer, not a creator. So I found out who owned the wall: Melcor Developments. I phoned Ralph Young, the CEO and, Edmonton being Edmonton, he took my call.

I asked him if we might do something about the wall, to make it less ugly, and he said yes. One of his smart vice-presidents, Darin Rayburn, started scheming with us. But this was fundamentally wrong, even if it seemed right. Journalists aren’t supposed to do anything. The most they can do, if they don’t want anyone to read what they have written, is praise a builder. They might come up with a new idea and hope someone borrows it.

So I came up with an idea: I would ask Edmontonians for ideas.

How might they fix their walls, their corners of the city that could be more beautiful? I had a case study, didn’t I? The Melcor wall?

I received over 400 e-mails. Edmontonians wanted to paint the pre-caste concrete buildings yellow, the rusty Low Level Bridge robin’s egg blue. They wanted pine trees and a line of torches along Gateway Boulevard, spewing glorious fire with Alberta natural gas to improve the drive in from the airport. Ideas seemed infinite.

What to do with them?

I asked the Edmonton Journal for money, for a prize. That didn’t work. Had I forgotten my place? The Edmonton Arts Council already had a public art program, primarily for City of Edmonton projects. The Works already offered to help businesses, if they had money to fix something. What did I want to do, that was different? And besides, what the hell was I doing? Stop doing!  If the columnist was doing something, who would criticize it? If it was not unethical it was certainly bizarre.

It was an utter failure. I didn’t sleep well, for a while. I quit my job and helped start Story Engine. First story, then action.

Great: but how?

When I started this blog a couple of weeks ago, smart people began doing what comes natural: let’s make taglines! As I revealed what we discovered, in our research, the possible taglines here and on Facebook and on Twitter have become more focused.

Make Something Edmonton and Edmonton: What are you making? are not traditional taglines or slogans because, I fear, a tagline or slogan can signal the end of something. We can celebrate who we are, teach others to celebrate it in three or four words, and pop the champagne. Invoice the client. See you in two years, when you’re ready for a new one.

We believe the story is step one. Mack Male wrote a thoughtful blog post about rethinking public involvement in city plans and projects. Listening is crucial: if we had not listened we wouldn’t have discovered what we discovered about Edmonton. Gathering ideas is important: no single person, or government department, or agency or business can think up the best projects. Doing all of this in public is marvellous. There is a reason why Pecha Kucha and TEDx are so popular in Edmonton.

What I learned with the wall, at the newspaper, is that ideas — as things in themselves — can stimulate us and die. We’re all busy. Making something is hard.

The most meaningful way to engage the public — that is, each other — is to incite them to do make something. To help them from idea to reality. To reward them when they Make Something Edmonton, on their own. To celebrate it.

How?

There are case studies like The Fun Theory. Part of what we do is design a local version of it.

ArtPrize has worked beautifully in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city that has addressed its reputation problem with action. An Edmonton version of ArtPrize would have to fit Edmonton’s bottom-up culture.

We commission a few of our top artists to Make Something Edmonton. Artists are in the mythology business: Colleen Brown and Alice Major and Trevor Anderson and Stewart Lemoine and Mitchmatic can tell us things about ourselves we didn’t know we knew.

The tricky part: inviting students at NAIT and developers and the men and women at refineries and in machine shops and steel fabrication plants, who have not been asked to participate in these initiatives before, to Make Something Edmonton.

Another tricky part: this cannot be all about the government, any government, telling Edmontonians what to do. We have to find partners in the community who understand a city story, proven out with projects, can solve fundamental business problems: recruiting the best people and finding investors, building new tourism products. It makes ambassadors and evangelists of all Edmontonians.

It makes us happy.

What does a Make Something Edmonton project look like? We’ll highlight examples in the city, where it’s already happening. We initiated one of our own, to show you how it works.

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4 thoughts on “Creating, not destroying

  1. thank you for this blog. i have been a not-so-secret lover of our city for years and having temporarily relocated to calgary has brought into sharp focus how far we still have to go, but your blog makes me giddy with excitement – i can’t wait to come back and make something! and, for the record, torches along gateway boulevard sound pretty darn interesting.

  2. Pingback: What is a Make Something Edmonton project? « magpietown

  3. I wasn’t going to say this, but I’ve been thinking about it for a few days, and I’ve decided to.

    Back when you were a newspaper columnist, I was often frustrated by your “professional complainer” guise: the tendency you so often had to claim, as a part of calling out unpleasantness, that said unpleasantness could never really change. I thought of you as someone who was eloquent and intelligent, but basically someone who tore down other people’s attempts to improve things because you were basically a cynic who couldn’t help but scoff at those attempts. I bought and own The Garneau Block, but it’s been sitting unread on my shelf because I was afraid it would be full of the same sort of eloquent, intelligent cynicism, and I didn’t feel like reading that about my city.

    As you might imagine, that makes this blog–and particularly this post–all the more exciting to read for me. It’s so delightful to see the side of you that wants to build things, and especially to see you disavowing the side of you that wants to tear them down. You have a real gift, and it feels like you’re now using it for good instead of for evil, if you’ll allow me to be so melodramatic. That’s an awesome thing, in both the colloquial and the literal sense of the word.

    I’ve been recommending this blog to everyone, and will continue to. I look forward to participating in creating and telling Edmonton’s story.

    • Idealistic Pragmatist, you’re right. I was a terrible poseur.

      I hope you have forgiven me to the point where you might read The Garneau Block now… thank you a million times for reading this and, most importantly, for telling your friends and fellow-schemers to read it. Now let’s go do something.

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