Edmonton council passes district plans, clarifies freedom of movement

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Edmonton’s new district planning program is going ahead and city council is hoping to quell some of the public’s fears around an misunderstanding of the 15-minute cities concept.

Council passed the first part of the program, the district policy, in a 10-2 vote Tuesday afternoon. They also passed an amendment clarifying these plans won’t restrict freedom of movement in Edmonton, and minor adjustments to guidelines for when the city will consider allowing workshop buildings. The district planning program includes a policy and set of maps separating Edmonton into 15 “districts” which together outline where and how the city wants to encourage more housing construction and business activity in the future as the city grows.

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The public hearing for the 15 district maps was set to continue into the evening and resume Wednesday morning.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, speaking before the final vote, said Edmonton is one of the most affordable cities in Canada and these plans will ensure that continues.

“This is very important work and this will honor the commitment that we have made to Edmontonians to ensure that everyone in Edmonton has a place to call home, whether they are renters, whether they live in a duplex or fourplex, whether they live in a single-family home, whether they live in a highrise — wherever people choose to live, we need to create that choice,” he told council, urging them to vote in favor.

The policy still needs to be approved by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board before council can vote on the third reading to finalize the bylaw.

Sohi said the kind of participation from the public around this topic is only available in local government, and he hopes this will reinforce the public’s trust.

But a lack of trust was clear throughout the five days of public hearings.

Around 100 people spoke during the meetings that began in late May. Comments were dominated by criticism. Concerns ranged from fears Edmonton’s quiet residential areas would be overwhelmed with tall apartment buildings, or conversely that the program is too restrictive on housing and commercial redevelopment. Criticisms around a lack of engagement, environmental protections, the impact on housing prices, and potential damage to historic neighborhoods were frequent.

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Many speakers also took issue with the late addition to the district policy that would direct city planners to consider supporting rezoning requests for added height close to a park or transit hub, among other qualifiers. Council unanimously agreed to make a minor amendment to this part so that a property on a corner lot, and next to a park, won’t automatically be considered for higher density if it doesn’t meet other criteria.

Resident Sheila Phimester told Postmedia those rules are still too vague and she doesn’t think city council is listening to people who don’t support the plans.

“Really, the whole city is screaming, ‘We don’t want this in our mature neighborhoods,’” she said.

While the city held various types of public engagement sessions and announced the district plans, Phimester and several others said it wasn’t sufficient. Much of the consultation on Edmonton’s City Plan, she pointed out, happened during the pandemic. She’s also frustrated with the zoning bylaw rewrite council approved last fall which allows building up to three-storeys and up to eight units on any residential lot.

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“They’re not really listening to the people.”

15-minute cities feared

Fears the city will restrict Edmontonians’ free movement around the city, stemming from misinformation about the 15-minute city concept, were also a common refrain among the speakers.

The city’s district planning program is meant to put an urban planning concept, the 15-minute city, into practice by making it easier for people to find amenities closer to where they live and to move around with the option of using different modes of transportation. The concept has often been conflated with a traffic restrictions program from Oxford, England, meant to reduce congestion by adding traffic filters during peak hours.

Edmonton’s district planning policy and district maps do not include traffic filters or barriers, nor do they suggest charging travelers for passing between different districts.

But concerns about restricting movement were so prevalent council unanimously amended the district policy to clarify this is not the intention, adding, “The district policy and district plans shall not restrict freedom of movement, association, and commerce in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

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Coun. Aaron Paquette, who suggested this clarification, said while it’s clear to him the city doesn’t have any intention of “locking people into their districts,” he wanted council to address this directly.

“We heard from speakers today who reiterated that and I realized, you know what, the past month hasn’t changed the perception. So why don’t we just be clear in our language and say, ‘No, this is not something that we’re going to do,’” he said. “It doesn’t hurt to just say it out loud.”

“We’re hearing from the public as we should and as you can see, it actually changes some of the things that we put forward, so it had an impact. And, frankly, if this helps people who have been scared sick to sleep well tonight, I don’t see the harm.”

The change doesn’t convince Wanda Banas.

While Edmonton has various plans in the works hoping to encourage more people to ride their bikes and take transit, Banas worries her freedom to drive a car could be curtailed. She sees council’s plans to expand the bike lane network, despite the city’s cold winters, as a signal their priorities don’t align with theirs.

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“That’s why there’s the mistrust, because you’re doing something that’s illogical because it’s part of some plan that you’re following.”

Her experience with a redevelopment next door also fuels her mistrust. Plans to replace houses with an apartment complex will block sunlight on her property and make it difficult to see around the corner when she’s leaving her driveway.

“I’m going to be sitting in the dark,” she said. “I don’t get sunlight, ever, in the afternoon or evening. Never again…what about my plants? What about my trees? Will they survive?”

“That’s my quality of life, and this was supposed to be my retirement place to live. So I can’t age in place, not anymore, not with any comfort. “I have to decide if I have to go somewhere and start over.”

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately report how many people spoke at the public hearing.

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