Thursday, July 22, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Crowds make a city*

Photo credit: Eden Munro, Vue Weekly
The lifeblood of any city lies in its streets, alleyways and sidewalks. The flow of traffic from the pedestrian and vehicular and everything in between has been mused upon as the rhythm of this modern life.

If pressed, one can find a conglomeration of people in designated zones such as shopping malls, recreational parks (on sunny days), mega box stores or basically anywhere that supplies plenty of free parking. The flow of this city has unfortunately been shaped towards drivers, with many parts of the city inaccessible unless you drive or love riding the bus for hours at a time, and so that leaves very little face-to-face interaction between its citizens, giving sparse opportunities for physically seeing and hearing who we each are, what we look like, how we move, and answering the simple question of who actually makes up this city.

For a region where there's only a few months out of the year where we can comfortably walk outside, the recent temporary pedestrian conversions of 104 Street downtown and the main drag of Whyte Avenue changed the feeling of living and being in this city, even if it was for a brief moment.

The warehouse district on 104 Street shuts down its streets every Saturday during the run of the downtown farmers' market, and for the second year in a row, they extended that closure for an all-day/all-night block party on the same weekend as the Pride festival. For readers living anywhere but here, the concept of having a day out on a sidewalk patio may seem trivial, if not mundane, but for those who wandered around downtown that day, the treat of enjoying city life was a rare one. While there are scores of places, benches and green zones to wander and hang out in Edmonton, there isn't always a crowd to lose yourself in, which arguably is the very foundation for city life.

The recent weekend of SOS Fest (Sounds of Strathcona Festival) shut down Whyte Avenue on either side of Calgary Trail and again the people came out in droves. The street filled with people for the free music performances all day Sunday, and the reoccurring comment heard throughout the day was, "Wow, this looks like a real city!"

And somewhat sadly, that statement is true. Walking through a sea of strangers on a street in Edmonton is not a common feat, but it should be if we're ever going to be a real city with its own identity, concepts and style. For reasons from safety to simple activity, people need to see each other out and about doing things and living their lives.

Giving privilege to pedestrians and pedestrian activity is the first step in connecting people to the city. Plans to activate Churchill Square with Tai Chi classes to follow the well-used basketball nets and skate ramps isn't too bad an idea.

This goes back to urban theorist Roberta Brandes Gratz's notion that you have to make a city for the people who live there, above and beyond making a city in the model of world cities, because it's always been the specific character of the local that resonates into a reputation that draws life, visitors and commerce. The application of cookie cutter transplants into homogenous cityscapes that pursue sprawling development rather than pedestrians has contributed to the decay of city life, and for two weekends this summer, there was a glimmer of what this place could be.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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