Jan Morris: Edmonton A Six-Day Week?

Never visit Edmonton in the winter!

This was Jan Morris’ warning in the prologue to her 1990 essay about the City of Champions for Saturday Night magazine. She arrived and it was “COLD, VERY COLD and while everyone was friendly and the city seemed to be handsome and all of her creative comforts were satisfied she felt defeated.”

The longer she stayed the more she wondered “why on earth would anyone want to live there and she left a day early.” 

Today Edmonton celebrates its long cold winters with its ice sculpture festival in Hawrelak Park. Today, Morris could have used Uber instead of renting a car to get there. I am sure she would be impressed with how Edmonton has evolved since the early ‘90s.

Today Edmonton celebrates its long cold winters with its ice sculpture festival in Hawrelak Park. Today, Morris could have used Uber instead of renting a car to get there. I am sure she would be impressed with how Edmonton has evolved since the early ‘90s.

Jan Who?

Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.  

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do. The series of essays on Canadian cities in her book “City To City” were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.  

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  

Perhaps I am jealous?

This is from Edmonton’s Downtown Saturday street market from a few years back  .

This is from Edmonton’s Downtown Saturday street market from a few years back.

Poor First Impression 

It didn’t start well with her decision to attend the Full Moon Hootenanny at the John Janzen Nature Centre to listen to the hooting of owls and learn how to hoot herself. Blinded by snow flurries and baffled by the intersections, the city’s numbering of streets and avenues and the one-way bridges she couldn’t find the place. “I circled helplessly in the gloom.”   

The initial venture into local culture was a complete failure.  Not a good first impression, but read on as she has some nice things to say.

The second day wasn’t much better as she explored the city centre where the streets were half-deserted with only a few cars and trolley cars on the slippery streets and the subway stations looked abandoned. 

When she arrived at the downtown commercial district she thought, “I might be in Houston, Denver or almost any other provincial business city of the United States. The Legislature could easily be the capitol of one of the smaller American states and she notes it was American-designed. The unmistakably Canadian building, the venerable railway-baronial Macdonald Hotel was boarded up.” 

This was not a good start.

She did think Edmonton was a “forceful place” mostly because of the magnificent North Saskatchewan River. Adding, “The architecture is predominantly late Bauhaus with few post-modernist tomfooleries…seems to me to offer an urban vista of world class.” 

Edmonton has numerous parks and colour public art that I am sure Morris would enjoy if she visited today.

Edmonton has numerous parks and colour public art that I am sure Morris would enjoy if she visited today.

Strathcona to WEM to UofA

On the third day she “ignored downtown and went to the unmistakably indigenous quarter of Strathcona, whose very name struck me as allegorically of the country.” Here she found the archetypal prairie settlement of the 19th century, still recognizable and offers a homey contrast to the skyscraper clump in downtown. 

She loved Strathcona’s main street (Whyte Avenue) which still feels like a main street with grand old hotel, theatre, car dealerships, pinball arcade and various shops and restaurants. However, it offered her “no rumbustious vibration,” she sensed the “inherited strain of reserve to the Canadianness of Edmonton.” 

Morris found it strange that while the city swarms with every kind of foreigner it did not feel in the least like an immigrant city. “Even the few Indians I saw looked more integrated than most…it was hard to realize that only a few generations ago, Cree and Blackfoot lived in tribal panoply, pitching their tents on Whyte Avenue sometimes.”

“The Canadianness of the place worked on me rather slyly” she says, things like the destination names at the Greyhound Bus Station – Wandering River, Elk Point, Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House. She also met several interesting people that made her stay interesting. She noted her view out her hotel window was very Canadian in a “distinctly insidious way: the Great West Saddlery Co. Ltd., Café Budapest, W.C. Kay the Gold and Gem Merchants, the gentrified Boardwalk Market decorated with fairy lights, stacked office towers beyond, and the illuminated thermometer on a building across the street registering minus 27 degrees centigrade.”  

She acknowledges Edmonton’s one big international claim to fame is the West Edmonton Mall and so she decided to visit and judge for herself as someone had told her the Mall is “aimed at an average mental age of nine.” 

To her it is “mostly artificial, largely derivative, it is a very declaration of contemporary capitalism, the world-conquering ideology of our time. It is beyond nationality, beyond pretension actually, and however much you may detest it yourself, you must be a sourpuss indeed to resist the eager excitement in the faces of people young and old, for better or worse, as they enter its shameless enclave.” 

At the end of her fourth day she wondered “if the fantasy of West Edmonton Mall was the one thing in Edmonton that I really got the hang of.  For the rest of the city seemed to be losing, rather than gaining, clarity in my mind…so indeterminate does the civic message seem to be. Edmonton has few instantly recognizable features, and so far as I could see no very pronounced local characteristics.

People did not talk in a recognizably Edmonton way, or cook specifically Edmonton dishes…I noticed very few striking-looking people in Edmonton.” 

She concluded her rant with “sometimes I thought it the least Canadian of cities, in its lack of icons or traditions.” But then says “at other times I thought it the most Canadian of cities, but of an indistinct kind. I expected it to stand, temperamentally speaking, somewhere between Saskatoon and Calgary…in the end I concluded its character to be altogether unique!” 

This is followed by “Edmonton does not feel like a young city. There is nothing brash about it except the mall…it seemed to me a gradualist kind of place…Edmonton appears to have developed, through many a boom and many a bust, with persistent reasonableness.” 

She was not a big fan of the University of Alberta either, “the buildings look more or less indistinguishable from the apartment blocks and office buildings nearby.”   

She recognizes that Edmonton has always been a liberal city, a place of bureaucrats and academics. She also acknowledges “theatres abound, art galleries are two a penny, bookshops are nearly all within reach. The natural history dioramas in the provincial museum are the best I have ever seen. A professional symphony flourishes, there are several publishing houses, the Edmonton Journal isn’t bad and there is a lively film industry.” 

She concludes the essay with “For a city of its size Edmonton is cultivated not just by North American but by European standards. And yet it left me curiously indifferent – not cold exactly, except in a physical sense, but unengaged.”

Ultimately, she decided to leave a day early, hence the title of the essay “Edmonton, A Six-Day Week!” 

Edmonton’s nickname in the ‘90s was “Deadmonton.” Fortunately, Edmonton has got its mojo back today.

Edmonton’s nickname in the ‘90s was “Deadmonton.” Fortunately, Edmonton has got its mojo back today.

Edmonton’s downtown streetscapes have improved significantly since 1990.

Edmonton’s downtown streetscapes have improved significantly since 1990.

What was she thinking? 

In her essay, you can sense Morris’ frustration that she simply couldn’t understand the city’s sense of place, or why anyone would choose to live there. It is too bad she chose to visit in the winter, I am sure she would have had a completely different experience in the summer.  

Still I am surprised she wasn’t able to understand how the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) was a logically adaptation to winter, providing a warm and inviting place for shopping, entertainment and recreation.  How it became the city’s town square? How it usurped downtown as the city’s gathering place. How it reflected a city dominated by its new suburbs.  

I couldn’t help but wonder why she loved Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and hated WEM? Aren’t they pretty much the same thing?  In fact WEM, has a better mix of uses.

I also found it strange Morris was frustrated with the roads on her first day. I would have thought an experienced traveller would know anyone getting into a strange car and driving in a strange city almost always ends up getting lost and frustrated by the quirks of the city’s streets.

Add to that it was cold and snowing and one has to ask “what was she thinking?” 

The Art Gallery of Alberta adds some fun to Edmonton’s downtown.

The Art Gallery of Alberta adds some fun to Edmonton’s downtown.

Alberta’s Provincial Museum that Morris liked has moved downtown’s cultural district.

Alberta’s Provincial Museum that Morris liked has moved downtown’s cultural district.

Edmonton’s downtown is in the middle of a mega makeover with several new residential buildings.

Edmonton’s downtown is in the middle of a mega makeover with several new residential buildings.

Even Edmonton’s suburban transit hubs are fun.

Even Edmonton’s suburban transit hubs are fun.

Last Word

Morris found Edmonton to “disarmingly modest, in the biggest-west-of-Winnipeg mode.” This is not surprising as she finds all Canadian cities lacking in “bravado.” 

I wonder what she would think of Edmonton today with its shiny new downtown toys - arena, art gallery, museum, office and condo towers.  Surely, she would be impressed by how it has become one of North America’s best festival cities and how its river valley park system is one of the best in the world.  And I wonder what she would think of Edmonton’s current “ICE District” bravado?

Perhaps if she visited today, winter or summer, her essay would be titled Edmonton: An Eight-Day Week!

It is amazing how cities evolve.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Design Wars: Its Edmonton vs Calgary for the architecture cup

Edmonton vs Calgary: Who has the best River Parks?

Brewery Districts: Edmonton vs Calgary

Calgary vs. Edmonton: Who has the best river valley parks? 

Recently I tweeted out that Calgary may well have the best urban river public spaces in the Canada - maybe even the world. While many agreed with me, one response from an Edmonton follower shared an excerpt from Wikipedia saying:

Edmonton has the largest urban park system in Canada with 20 major parks and attractions.”  

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 10.45.19 AM.png
The City of Edmonton's website.

The City of Edmonton's website.

Really?

Quick mental calculations made me think Calgary could easily match or exceed that with our three amazing river valleys – Bow, Elbow and Fish Creek.  And Calgary easily has over 160 kilometres of river pathways. 

So, I tweeted back, "The challenge is on!” 

And I immediately started doing the math to see if Calgary’s river valley could beat 20 parks and attractions.

Bow River Valley Parks

  1. Bowness Park
  2. Bowmont Park
  3. Edworthy Park
  4. Douglas Fir Trail 
  5. Shouldice Athletic Park
  6. Shaw Millennium Park
  7. Prince’s Island Park
  8. St. Patrick’s Island Park
  9. Calgary Zoo and Botanical Garden 
  10. Inglewood Bird Sanctuary/Fish Hatchery  
  11. Harvie Passage 
  12. Sue Higgins Park 
  13. Carburn Park 
William Hawrelak Park is perhaps Edmonton's signature urban park. 

William Hawrelak Park is perhaps Edmonton's signature urban park. 

Prince's Island is Calgary's signature urban park. 

Prince's Island is Calgary's signature urban park. 

Edmonton's North Saskatchwan River Vallery is a place to escape from the city.

Edmonton's North Saskatchwan River Vallery is a place to escape from the city.

The Douglas Fir Trail is just one of the many places in Calgary's river valley where you can escape the city.   

The Douglas Fir Trail is just one of the many places in Calgary's river valley where you can escape the city.  

Elbow River Valley Parks

  1.   Weaselhead Flats
  2.   Glenmore Reservoir
  3.   Heritage Park
  4.   North & South Glenmore Parks
  5.   River Park/Sandy Beach
  6.   Riverdale Park
  7.   Stanley Park
  8.   Lindsay Park
  9.   Stampede Park 
  10.   Fort Calgary Park

And then of course there is the massive, Fish Creek Park that encompasses the entire creek valley within the city’s boundaries. One of the largest urban parks in North America, it stretches 19 km from east to west. At 13.5 square kilometers, it is over three times the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park.

S.S. Moyie on Calgary's Glenmore Reservoir.

S.S. Moyie on Calgary's Glenmore Reservoir.

Early morning walk along Calgary's Elbow River. Can you spot the walker?

Early morning walk along Calgary's Elbow River. Can you spot the walker?

Elbow River Camp at Stampede Park.

Elbow River Camp at Stampede Park.

Attractions along the river

Edmonton’s Kinsmen Centre and Calgary’s Repsol Sport Centre (in Lindsay Park) are probably on par with each other as recreational facilities, but ours is an architectural gem. 

Calgary can’t match Edmonton’s Convention Centre, but our equivalent would be Stampede Park, which includes the BMO Centre.

Edmonton has a baseball diamond in their river valley, Calgary has the Saddledome on the Elbow River. 

While Edmonton has riverboat cruises, Calgary has the S.S. Moyie paddlewheeler on the Glenmore Reservoir.  In addition, Calgary has thousands of floating rafts, kayaks, canoes and paddle boarders something I understand Edmontonians don’t do as much. Oh, and what about river surfing at Louise Bridge and some the best fly-fishing in the world all along the Bow River.

What does Edmonton have to match the Calgary Zoo, Fort Calgary, Heritage Park and Shaw Millennium Park?  Fort Edmonton for sure and the Muttart Conservatory? Anything else? 

Edmonton has the 100th St funicular (an elevator for small groups of people and bikes) that links downtown with the river valley.  Calgary’s river valleys are more accessible so we don’t really need a funicular.  Calgary has the Crescent Heights staircase that we have turned into a unique recreation experience. 

Edmonton’s Folk Festival in Gallagher Park is definitely more internationally renowned than Calgary’s.  But we do have that world’s “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” happening at Stampede Park which just happens to be along the Elbow River.

What about golf courses within the city limits? Calgary has six: Valley Ridge, Inglewood, Calgary Golf & Country Club, Lakeview, McKenzie Meadows and Blue Devil. Edmonton also has six: Windermere, Royal Mayfair, Victoria, Riverside, Rundle Park and Raven Crest.

Calgary's International Folk Festival's home is Prince's Island which is located on the edge of downtown in the middle of the Bow River.

Calgary's International Folk Festival's home is Prince's Island which is located on the edge of downtown in the middle of the Bow River.

Edmonton Folk Festival in Gallagher Park (photo credit: CTV News)

Edmonton Folk Festival in Gallagher Park (photo credit: CTV News)

Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre is built into the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre is built into the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Muttart Conservatory is one of Edmonton's architectural gems.

Muttart Conservatory is one of Edmonton's architectural gems.

Repsol Sport Centre is one of Calgary's architectural gems. 

Repsol Sport Centre is one of Calgary's architectural gems. 

Edmonton's High Level Bridge at night.

Edmonton's High Level Bridge at night.

Calgary's Reconciliation Bridge at night.

Calgary's Reconciliation Bridge at night.

Edmonton's new Waterdale Bridge.

Edmonton's new Waterdale Bridge.

Fort Edmonton Park.

Fort Edmonton Park.

Calgary's Heritage Park.

Calgary's Heritage Park.

Public spaces along the river

Does Edmonton have the numerous natural pebble beaches along their river valley that Calgary has?  

What about urban promenades like Calgary’s Eau Claire or East Village? Can Edmonton match these urban gems?

Can Edmonton’s downtown workers easily walk to the river and back at lunch hour?

Can Edmonton match Calgary’s iconic river bridges – Centre Street, Peace Bridge and George King Bridge? Yes, Edmonton has the High Level Bridge.

Can Edmonton match Calgary’s Elbow River Camp (formerly Indian Village) at Stampede Park? What about a theatre space like Calgary's Pumphouse Theatre?  

What about river island parks? Does Edmonton have anything to match Prince’s, St. Patrick and St. George’s islands?

Edmonton's downtown beach.

Edmonton's downtown beach.

The green beach in Calgary's Stanley Park. 

The green beach in Calgary's Stanley Park. 

The pebble beach in downtown Calgary's St. Patrick's Park is a popular family spot. 

The pebble beach in downtown Calgary's St. Patrick's Park is a popular family spot. 

River surfing has also become a popular activity in downtown Calgary.

River surfing has also become a popular activity in downtown Calgary.

Paddling along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity in Calgary. (photo credit @surrealplaces) 

Paddling along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity in Calgary. (photo credit @surrealplaces) 

Second opinions

I decided to send my unscientific analysis to a couple of friends who live in Edmonton but have lived in Calgary to see if I was being fair. Both were adamant I wasn’t.  

Terry Bachynski who had lived in both cities for about 18 years each wrote:

“Calgary has a great river valley, but Edmonton's river valley is spectacular. 

Comparing the two river valleys against one another is not an apples to apples thing.  The two cannot be compared and "winner" identified.   The two valleys are completely different, not only in their geography, but how each river valley relates to and is integral to the respective city.   

Edmonton's river valley is a sharp, well defined river escarpment running through the heart of the city with very little commercial or residential development. Calgary's river valleys are much more tapered.  The entire downtown and beyond is built at the bottom of the escarpment, right on the river flood plain.  You don't even climb out of the south side of the Bow River Valley until you climb up to the green on the first hole of the Calgary Golf and Country Club.  

 Calgary's river valley is integrated into the rhythm and flow of the urban downtown experience because the downtown is in the river valley.  While Edmonton's river valley is more an escape from the city right in the heart of the city.  

 Being a veteran of 60 marathons and a dozen ultra-marathons, I have logged a lot of miles in both river valleys.  I have run literally thousands of kilometers in Calgary and Edmonton along the rivers and I have to concede that Edmonton's river path system is second to none.  You can literally run for hours and not even be aware there is a city all around you.  Edmonton's River Valley is a near continuous, uninterrupted park experience. 

Not so with Calgary's trails.  There are constant reminders of the city confronting you all along the trail, from Fish Creek Park all the way to Bowness Park.  Calgary's river valley is urban by necessity and design."  

Ice Castles in Edmonton's Hawrelak Park. 

Ice Castles in Edmonton's Hawrelak Park. 

To each their own!

Terry continues, "Both work for both cities.  But, if I had my choice, the escape from the city is preferred.  

 In your analysis you kind of skimp on the other pluses of the Edmonton River Valley.  The Muttart Conservatory, three river valley ski hills inside city limits, the sandy beaches that pop up every summer to enjoy, The Edmonton Zoo (granted, it can't hold a candle to the Calgary Zoo, but for a day's outing with a young family, still very rewarding), the Equestrian Centre just down the road from Fort Edmonton, where you can go horseback riding along the river, mountain bike trails (also great for ultra-marathon training), canoeing and the many, many parks offer everything you can think of.  

So, in my mind, both river valleys really reflect the cities and both work for both cities.  Neither wins.  To say one is better than the other is like saying golf is better than baseball.  To each his/her own.  

Chris White (no relation) wrote “I would say your draft is not "fair" but very enjoyable none the lessYour blog talks about "things," but people don't have things, they have experiences. Of course, your challenge is that experiences are subjective. But we shouldn't pretend that "things" are objective. If I were to sum up the difference for me, I would say the Edmonton valley is a more private experience. I’m very glad the two cities don’t try to duplicate each other. I don’t want to sound harsh, but a point-for-point comparison seems misguided, even un-Canadian.”

Edmonton's spectacular new funicular and stairs is a lovely urban public space.

Edmonton's spectacular new funicular and stairs is a lovely urban public space.

Roof top patio in Calgary's East Village offers great views of the Bow River. 

Roof top patio in Calgary's East Village offers great views of the Bow River. 

Likewise, Calgary's new West Eau Claire park with the Peace Bridge is a great place to sit. 

Likewise, Calgary's new West Eau Claire park with the Peace Bridge is a great place to sit. 

Edmonton's Quarters redevelopment. 

Edmonton's Quarters redevelopment. 

Calgary's massive East Village redevelopment next to the Bow River.

Calgary's massive East Village redevelopment next to the Bow River.

Best For Who?

Fair enough! One can never say something is the “best” as it really depends on each individual’s perspective and interests. While my friends love how Edmonton’s river valley is an escape from the city, I love to embrace the urban experience.  

Perhaps the Canadian thing to do is say both Calgary and Edmonton have great river valley experiences, Calgary’s being more urban while Edmonton’s is more natural.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Battle of Alberta: Urban Design

Edmonton/Calgary: Let's Plan Together?

Brewery Districts: Calgary vs Edmonton