You can’t change New York City, not really. You can’t change Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. You can change Calgary but you’ll need a rather important job before you start thinking about it. These cities are relatively stable. This is why, when we make the decision to move to one of them, we know what to expect.
Edmonton — not really.
We came up with several reasons why Edmonton has resisted traditional branding exercises in the past, why internal rallying cries and external marketing campaigns have failed.
Some people say it’s because this is a city you work in but not a city you live in, settle in. You don’t commit to Edmonton, with your money and your heart, the way you surrender to Vancouver. I remember speaking to a great Edmontonian, John Poole, after he and his wife Barbara had decided to donate $5 million to the Edmonton Art Gallery — now Art Gallery of Alberta — with the condition that the institution run an international architectural competition.
“It pains me when people make their money here in Edmonton and then retire to the coast or in Arizona or California,” he said. “I’ll never understand it.”
That made him unique. I always felt I understood it. I did leave Edmonton, happily, in the 1990s. The downside of lacking an articulated story, an answer to “Why Edmonton?” is that it’s easy to leave. As citizens, we want to feel we’re on a journey with our cities.
If there’s no journey, it’s just infrastructure. You don’t even have to say goodbye to infrastructure.
We wanted to imbed this in the story we saw Edmontonians struggling to tell. The fact is, people are returning to Edmonton after leaving forever — to fixed and stable cities — and when they come back they nearly always say the same thing. They can contribute here. They can make something here. More than that: they can make something in Edmonton and feel its impact on the city.
That is, change the city.
On Friday, I sat in Transcend on Jasper Avenue discussing a potential Make Something Edmonton project with an artist and entrepreneur named Victoria Wiercinski. We were at the window. On street level, we could see the downtown main street in the midst of recreation. A little higher, a windowless west-facing canvas: the side of an office tower. The notion that something beautiful should go up there was not at all daunting, not at this point in the city’s history.
What do we want to put up there? Whose door do we knock on, to get started?
You can change Edmonton. You’ve been invited to change Edmonton, in whatever small or large way you like, and you will be rewarded for it. This is not something you do when you retire. It’s what you do now. This is what makes living in Edmonton different from other places: for mysterious reasons, your happiness here depends on it.