Photo: iStock/Lisa Marie

What’s at stake this October: An Edmonton election issues primer

Find out what city council did — and didn’t — do.

Want to get up to speed on what Edmonton’s last city council did? Or on some of the issues affecting our city?

Here’s a regularly-updated list to guide you as you prepare to head to the polls for Edmonton’s 2021 civic election. Voting day is Oct. 18, 2021.

Consider these briefs as you get to know the candidates running for city council.

If there are any other issues you’d like to add or see listed here, email hamdi@sprawlalberta.com.


AFFORDABLE HOUSING

What this council did

In June 2019, there were about 1,200 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton. Some of them set up camp in Dawson Park, and were cleared out after a string of fires put nearby Riverdale residents on edge. A few months later, Edmonton city council amended zoning bylaws to make room for more supportive housing (long-term housing that provides access to health and social services).

By June 2020, the number of unhoused Edmontonians grew to just under 1,700. Many resorted to sleeping at camps in Rossdale and Old Strathcona. Recognizing the need for a stopgap, the city approved a plan to turn an old jockey dorm at Northlands racetrack into bridge housing (temporary homes for residents waiting on permanent housing).

Now there are roughly 2,500 people in Edmonton without housing, and the city is working toward a goal of creating 2,500 new affordable units (including 600 supportive housing units) by 2022.

Five supportive housing developments are under construction in Westmount, King Edward Park, Inglewood, Terrace Heights and Wellington. Those buildings are scheduled to open in early 2022 and will create 210 units toward Edmonton's goal.

The city also applied for $68.8 million through the federal government's rapid housing initiative to create 480 more units, but it was turned down because the province wouldn’t commit to funding the cost of operating social services embedded in those homes.

What to watch for

The city is considering a proposal to sell land in Queen Alexandra and Garneau for additional supportive housing, and is also trying to convert four local hotels into permanent supportive housing that would create 360 more units, but just like before it’s depending on the province to cover the cost of support services.

TRANSIT

What this council did

In April, the city launched a redesigned bus network that’s supposed to offer more frequent and direct service. While the new network extends service to outlying communities, there were some tradeoffs that led to mixed reviews. The redesign cut about 100 routes and increased the walking distance to bus stops. After receiving a slew of complaints, the city made more than 40 adjustments to the new bus network two months after launching the redesign.

Edmonton is also working with several surrounding municipalities to create regional transit service as the metro region is projected to reach three million people by 2065. A regional transit service would have members combine their resources under one unified system.

And, in keeping with its goal of expanding LRT coverage to all city sectors by 2040, the city is working on a southern extension for the Capital Line thanks to recently announced federal funding. However, some on council believe an extension to the northern leg of the Metro Line from Blatchford to Castle Downs should have come first.

What to watch for

The next council will have to revisit a cash fare increase (deferred in April) in February 2022, when the rate is expected to climb to $4. Compared to 2019, 2020 saw ridership drop by more than 44% while fare revenue fell by 57% during the pandemic.

Participating municipalities in a regional transit service expect the system to start running in 2022, and become fully operational in 2026—but not everybody is on board. Strathcona County withdrew from the proposal because it doesn’t believe the plan will improve service for residents. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569 is wary of what regionalization means for job security and bargaining rights, so it opposes the plan unless the union can be involved in the decision-making.

Meanwhile, some council candidates want to see the Valley Line paused, or replaced by alternate, less expensive modes such as Bus Rapid Transit given the cost of LRT expansion and economic downturn caused by the pandemic.


ECONOMIC RECOVERY

What this e last council did

When the pandemic hit, businesses suffered and thousands of workers lost their jobs. Efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 drained Edmonton’s core as tens of thousands of office workers began working from home. Office vacancy rates climbed, and downtown events virtually disappeared.

To offer some relief, council voted to freeze property taxes for 2021, and created grants to help businesses, festivals and events bounce back.

To aid Edmonton’s economic recovery, city hall is trying to attract business and stimulate activity downtown—a relatively small area that represents almost a tenth of the city’s tax base. To that end, the city has incentivized private construction projects and launched a two-year, 20-point Downtown Vibrancy Strategy.

And, thanks to early budget adjustments, the city reported a $40.2 million surplus in 2020 that has been useful in buffering the economic effects of COVID-19.

What to watch for

As the delta variant surges, there’s no telling what a rising fourth wave (or the response to it) means for Edmonton’s economy. Come what may, it’ll be the next council’s job to steer the ship.

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the economy, and while council voted to freeze property taxes this year, Edmonton could see a 1.8% tax increase in 2022, so the city is looking for ways to both save and make money.

POLICE FUNDING

What this council did

In the summer of 2020, Edmonton city council held a public hearing where Edmontonians voiced concerns about racism and their experiences with police. In response, council created a task force charged with making recommendations to improve policing and community safety in Edmonton.

Last March, the task force reported that Edmonton spends more on police per capita than some comparable Canadian cities, and that thanks to a funding formula approved by city council, Edmonton Police Service (EPS) has been enjoying steady budget increases despite failing to meet performance targets.

“EPS has enjoyed the privilege of receiving the money no matter what,” the report reads. “Such a scheme provides zero financial incentive to save money, to divert people away from the criminal justice system, or to make any changes of any kind.”

What to watch for

The report made 14 recommendations, the last of which involves a freeze on EPS funding until it lines up with comparable cities, tying funding to performance expectations, and using the extra money that would have gone to police for health and social services instead.

Mayor Don Iveson said the current council shouldn’t make funding decisions for the next budget cycle, which starts in 2023. Police funding will also be an important topic for the next city council.


CLIMATE CHANGE

What this council did

In 2019, Edmonton city council moved to declare a state of climate emergency. That motion gave the city a sense of urgency to cut greenhouse gas emissions fuelling climate change and extreme weather events devastating cities and ecosystems around the world. It led to the city fast-tracking some initiatives to cut emissions, such as solar projects and rebates on electric vehicles.

The decision to sound the alarm came after the city realized it needed to recalibrate its plan to cut carbon emissions. In line with the Edmonton Declaration, an initiative calling on municipalities to recognize Paris Agreement goals, Edmonton is trying to help keep the average global temperature from rising above 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

The city has since updated its energy transition strategy, but it will cost $42 billion over the next 30 years to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, with $100 million coming from the city annually, and matching funds from other levels of government.

What to watch for

In August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report indicating that the world has already warmed by 1.2 C. It also warned that governments will need to take drastic action to keep from crossing the 1.5 C threshold. With 74% of Edmontonians concerned about climate change, voters will want to know how candidates plan to handle this file.

Some climate action suffered over the course of the pandemic. Council put a hold on a rebate program for e-bikes (one of the fast-tracked initiatives), which ruffled some feathers given the economic fallout from the pandemic. Will a new council resume the program?


SPRAWL AND DENSIFICATION

What this council did

Edmonton is currently home to about one million people. The government of Alberta predicts that the city will grow to more than two million people by 2046, making it one of the fastest growing regions in the province. But where will all those people live?

To keep Edmonton from sprawling, which drains municipal resources and increases emissions, council made changes to zoning bylaws that enable higher density neighbourhoods through infill development, and opens up areas to more than just single-family homes.

In December 2020, council approved a new city plan that aims to accommodate the next million people, and sets an ambitious goal: 50% of new units developed as infill housing for 600,000 people.

What to watch for

In an effort to give Edmonton communities more of a small town feel, the city is also working on plans to group neighbourhoods into 15 districts. It’s another goal of the city plan—creating communities where residents can get where they need to be (work, a store or recreation destination) by any mode of transport within 15 minutes.

These plans also aim to steer the city away from growing outward into annexed land outside Anthony Henday Drive. The extent to which the city realizes the vision of these “15-minute districts,” or any part of the city plan for that matter, depends on whether or not the next council chooses to follow the city plan.

Also, infill homes in mature neighbourhoods are often more expensive than homes developed on the edge of town, and sometimes draw the ire of residents who worry about losing the “character” of their neighbourhood. To create a “vibrant” city that attracts not just investment but talent, infill needs to be more affordable.


TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION

What this council did

Recent actions from city council have ranged from symbolic gestures, such as giving a Cree name to Maskekosihk Trail (formerly a stretch of 23 Ave.) to supporting larger projects such as the creation of ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11, an Indigenous art park. Council also voted to give its recently redrawn wards traditional names gifted by a committee of Indigenous matriarchs.

In February, council approved an Indigenous Framework that aims to build stronger relationships between the City of Edmonton and Indigenous people, and the June approval of a new Urban Reserve Strategy could see First Nations acquiring city land to provide services to urban members.

Following the discovery of 215 unmarked residential school graves at a former Kamloops residential school in May, the city moved to strike the name of Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, an architect of Canada’s residential school system, from a downtown LRT station, and boarded up a mural that celebrated him.

What to watch for

Many Edmontonians are looking for more meaningful change, such as addressing systemic racism in municipal institutions.

The discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools also renewed efforts to rename Oliver, a central neighbourhood named after a politician and publisher who aggressively campaigned to remove Indigenous people from land in what is now south Edmonton.

If Oliver changes its name, will the Grandin community follow suit? A school and restaurant have already.

And finally, some candidates for council are still using the old numbered ward names in their campaigns. If you get a chance, ask them if they can pronounce the new name of the ward they’re running to represent. The City of Edmonton has provided a pronunciation guide on its website.


PARKING FEES

What this council did

Is an Edmonton election really an election without some mention of potholes or parking? The latter was a hot topic this year when council discussed plans to cut costs on the largest budgeted service areas.

The idea was to implement parking fees at select city parks and attractions such as Fort Edmonton Park, Telus World of Science, Emily Murphy Park, Rafter’s Landing, and the Muttart Conservatory (as well as Hawrelak Park once it reopens).

A business case by KPMG estimated that the city could generate $700,000 to almost $3 million in revenue over five years with those parking fees, and noted that other cities are doing it.

But, as expected, the proposal was met with disapproval from residents, and Council voted unanimously to shoot it down. But Mayor Don Iveson said it’s not just about raising money: it’s also about making sure there’s enough parking and sufficient turnover for Edmontonians to visit and enjoy the attractions.

What to watch for

Although council voted against the recommendation, this isn’t the last we’ll hear of parking fees. Council’s urban planning committee will consider a public parking “action plan” next spring.

Hamdi Issawi is The Sprawl's Edmonton editor.

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