A colleague of mine is researching demolition. His work is really compelling, and thinking about his research has prompted me to return to some thoughts I shared on this blog in 2011. I’ve written before contrasting the degree to which buildings are torn down and replaced in Edmonton with the experiences of Scotland (and London) during and after the War. I don’t know how to quantify this, but I feel like there is an unacknowledged violence in the degree to which Edmonton ‘rebuilds’ (to use a trite euphamism) itself. It is a slow violence, one that is so normalized and even celebrated that at first glance you would not think of it as anything but ‘the natural order of things’ in city life.
The way in which space is reduced to property values allows us to ignore the history of our city (however short it may appear next to Medieval cities in Europe). Whereas there is impetus to re-use or recalibrate buildings in other places, the boom and bust cycle in Edmonton places great stress on building. And with that building comes a destruction that we don’t honour or acknowledge. It is not borne from the drama of war or the ravages of Mother Nature, so it passes by us almost imperceptibly.
I acknowledge that old isn’t always good or romantic — there are good reasons to expand or replace buildings. But I think it should be done consciously, thoughtfully. The economic impacts should be more closely examined. Is it really better, in the long run, to replace entire arenas every 30 years? Where is the hard evidence of that?
You could joke that a building’s life span in Edmonton roughly resembles that of a Medieval person — 30 years (give or take a few years). Now, I am being a bit overly dramatic. There are many buildings that survive the boom and bust cycles, that have stood valiantly between trends and whims and get-rich-quick schemes as they blow in and out of town.
What I suppose is that I want us to acknowledge that the degree to which we ‘rebuild’ our city is dizzying. And in that rebuilding is an inherent destruction. What does that do to a city’s identity? To its sense of place and self? To its ability to manage its resources wisely and carefully?
While London, Scotland, France all have ‘good reasons’ for the amount of rebuilding they had to do post-WWII, Edmonton doesn’t really have a good reason. Other than ‘there was money to be made!’. If there is one constant in Edmonton, it is re/building. When you think about it, our downtown has gone through three fairly distinct phases — each one unrecognizable from the other. The clapboard and wooden sidewalks of the early years, the stone and brick buildings of the 1910s-1950s, the modernist/brutalist turn of the 1960s-1980s, and today it is awash in all sorts of promises of renewal.
For one little prairie (sorry — my friend from Medicine Hat pointed out that we’re actually aspen parkland) city, that is an awful lot of major change in only 3 or 4 generations. So much so that the stories my parents tell about their childhood are completely incomprehensible to me. I cannot locate myself in the city they knew because it, for all intents and purposes, does not exist. And someday when I try to tell my children about the city I knew (with the Ellerslie grain elevator or the Tabernacle or the Rossdale power plant or the Modernist buildings we’re now tearing down) they won’t be able to situate themselves within it, either.
This isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. It’s a matter of civic responsibility: why is our first impulse to erase and start fresh? I argue that it’s rooted in our false sense of Edmonton as frontier. The same impulse that saw the State remove Indigenous people to create a blank slate for pioneers in the late 19th century reverberates unconsciously in our lazy acceptance of sprawl (into some of the most fertile soil in the province!), our lack of understanding or respect for the past, our desire to conquer the city with new ideas and bold, ‘world-class’ tropes.
This is 20th century prairie city planning. The planning borne of false sense of entitlement to space and the smug reassurance that there will always be land to appropriate. What we need is to move past this pioneer attitude and adopt a stewardship model. We are so blessed to be in this place. A place that people gathered and occupied for thousands of years. This is land that was stolen from people who loved it — who had their own names for it, and their own stories rooted in their movements through this space. To some people, ‘renewal’ is simply promise of having a Sobey’s closer to them. But when I see resources being wasted or hasty, shoddy buildings being built, it’s actually an affront to my ancestors. This land was taken by colonial forces: I challenge anyone involved in planning and building and city-making to acknowledge and respect this. If we are going to be serious about decolonizing our cities and our communities, then we can start by using our resources with respect.
We won’t necessarily always have the luxury of tearing down everything the minute the markets heat up. Or be able to fudge our way through the destruction of crucial agricultural areas. At some point, we need to think about how we will survive in this landscape should things change dramatically (as they really could due to climate change).
What I fervently hope to see is an indigenous approach (and by this, I mean both one that acknowledges Indigenous people’s knowledge and history and also an approach that is ‘of this place’) to planning and use of our resources. What can we use more efficiently? How can we challenge ourselves to use our buildings and spaces more effectively? When someone says we need to rebuild, we need to ask: is this to enrich and uplift the whole city or is it to make a few people really rich?
Therein lies a great challenge. Because people are generally willing to accommodate or entertain thoughts about Indigenous history and presence as long as it is embedded within the building model of city planning. But what I think we need to explore is the fact that building itself, when not done consciously or thoughtfully, is itself a tool that disenfranchises those who are already marginalized within a city. Gentrification. Rising property values that make affordable housing harder to access. The general North American fear of social housing prevents us from developing creative responses to our unacceptable homelessness crisis (social housing might breed crime! — although the real crime is that we don’t acknowledge how vital and economically beneficial it is for a city to provide safe and adequate housing for its citizens). These are all challenges that generally get ignored in our civic discourse. You can discuss social issues to a point — but we always come back to ‘but we need developers!’ and ‘building — at whatever cost — is always good for business!’.
As I watched reports of City Council’s decision regarding Horse Hill, I felt helpless. This is city building at its least thoughtful and most reckless. In response to concerns about whether the land that would be reserved would be viable, Mayor Mandel was quoted as saying:
“”It will be up to the farmers to decide if their operations are viable. What matters is that each property owner has the right to do with their land what they want,” he said.
“We’re a city. It’s nice if you can have farming in the city, but we’re a city.””
Such a response really betrays the pioneer/frontier attitude towards city-making. And if we continue to follow such approaches, we will really be left in the dust. I have heard the Mayor employ similar rhetoric before and it has always frustrated me that we have been able to successfully challenge this in local political discourse. The minute one critiques developers, you are immediately labelled ‘anti-economy’ (which is a a dubious retort, but so be it). Sure, property owners can do what they want (the law is pretty clear about that), but as leaders and stewards, at some point we have to take a stand on how to use land wisely and to really use our rapidly dwindling prime agricultural lands to their maximum benefit. I fail to see how vinyl and stucco housing and suburban style development achieves that.
This is what I think about as I stroll through Aberdeen, anyway. I hope that I’m wrong and that we’re already moving towards a stewardship model. And if we aren’t, let’s be bold and make it so.