Friday, April 9, 2010

Edmonton's Downtown: A Rich, Poor Juxtaposition

Martin Fenger-Andersen, Meghan Walker, Manav Deol

In post-industrial society, urban areas, and more specifically downtown centers, have been sites of revitalization programs. Across the world, major centers have seen infrastructure such as high class restaurants, shopping malls, sports arenas, and convention centers erected where aging factories or other small local buildings had stood. In Edmonton, this has created an interesting juxtaposition of multi-million dollar infrastructure projects standing within metres of worn down buildings from a time in Edmonton’s past. Why does the city choose to invest in major building projects when these small, fragile buildings cower beneath them? In post-industrial economies, the meaning of a city’s downtown has undertaken a significant shift, tied directly to neoliberal ideological hegemony (Brenner, 1998, 6). Downtown is no longer the industrial hub of a city, but instead is the industrial control center, a center which is in competition with other cities in attracting transnational investment to further that city’s economy. With this in mind, it is important to analyze what the downtown core of a city symbolizes, specifically what the rich-poor juxtaposition in Edmonton’s downtown means for our city. Reading the city as a symbolic text, what does our current infrastructure and attempted revitalization say about Edmonton’s inscribed values and beliefs?

Edmonton Skyline

In post-industrial society, downtown has become the control center of industry and the home of symbolic meaning for a city. As our society has shifted from industrial to post-industrial, there has been a subsequent shift in the meaning of downtown. This subsequent shift is tied in part to the dominant capitalist ideology in our society. Sociologist Neil Brenner notes that the contemporary neoliberal centers attempt to promote their cities as favourable territory for transnational capital investment (Brenner, 1998, 16). As cities compete with each other to entice investment, they must present an economically attractive downtown. In a capitalist society an attractive downtown may contain towering skyscrapers, luxurious accommodations, high end shops and boutiques, expensive restaurants, as well as a center for art and culture. The hegemonic neoliberal ideology of society views these examples of high class infrastructure as integral to the city’s well being. The city of Edmonton’s current attempt to revitalize downtown with the construction of new infrastructure is consistent with this neoliberal ideology.
Canadian Metropolitan Centres:
Vancouver (above left) Toronto (above)

According to the City of Edmonton’s website, the revitalization of downtown is attempting to create a well designed, dynamic, and accessible area that encompasses a sophisticated urban lifestyle. Downtown Edmonton is described as a place to experience first class cuisine, shop for chic clothing, and to stay connected to the rest of the world through an array of media. The “Do It All Downtown” program envisions a downtown that “will be transformed into a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive community that is well connected to the central business and cultural district” over the next 15-20 years (City of Edmonton website).

Edmonton's revitalization and construction at work

Edmonton’s downtown is the symbolic home of its city’s history and culture. Each structure contains meaning and is representative of our city. As historical preservationist Dovonan Rypkema asks: “Where are the buildings with meaning in [our] community-the buildings that were built to reflect symbolic values? The vast majority of them are downtown. Where are the
public spaces in [our] community- the places where people gather to celebrate or mourn or protest? The vast majority of them are downtown" (Rypkema, 2003, 1-2). For example, Hotel Macdonald, Edmonton’s chateau style Fairmont hotel was built in 1905 and was intended to become the center of Edmonton’s social life. Furthermore, the Alberta Art Gallery, architecturally designed to symbolize Edmonton’s geographical landscape, is meant to compete with the other major art galleries in Canada. This makes it vital to the future of Edmonton as envisioned by the city’s planners. Not only do the Alberta Legistlature and Edmonton’s City Hall serve to work functionally as government buildings, they are also aesthetically pleasing structures. Both buildings are available to host festivals and provide Edmonton’s citizens nice places to meet. Finally, Churchill Square was designed to be a vibrant and lively venue that hosts a number events year round (City of Edmonton website). It is important to note that these described meanings, associated with the corresponding buildings in isolation of their surroundings, will vary when placed in the context of their surroundings.

Hotel Macdonald (above left), Alberta Art Gallery (above right)
Alberta Legislature (bottom left), City Hall (bottom right)

The conscious physical transformation of a city is a demonstration and a consequence of economic and political power (Short, Benton, Duce, Walton, 1997, 245). This physical transformation is evident when looking at the aging buildings throughout the downtown area and their immediate proximity to high class or new infrastructure. The Chez Pierre peep show, the Greyhound Station and the Grand Hotel are all examples of the type of imagery the city is trying to alter. When looking at a higher class building alongside a low class building the meaning of the former is altered. Visual culture scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff states that intervisuality, or the interaction of images incorporating different media forms, networks of infrastructure and intertextual meaning, causes viewers to bring cultural associations that affect their individual interpretations of the image. When looking at multiple images within one frame, “viewers themselves bring cultural associations that will affect their individual interpretations of an image" (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, 55). Therefore, the juxtaposition of high class and low class infrastructure in downtown serves to change the the symbolic meaning and imagery that our downtown reflects about Edmonton.

Chez Pierre Peepshow with
commercial skyscrapers in background

Notoriously seedy Greyhound station in the foreground of skyscrapers

Grand hotel (left): $65 per night, situated one block from Delta hotel(right): $220 per night

The meaning of downtown in contemporary society has undergone a shift from being the industrial center of a city to being the control center of a city's economy. Revitalization projects in downtown Edmonton are attempting to urbanize and modernize our city; fitting with the dominant neoliberal ideology in our society. The juxtaposition of rich and poor culture in our downtown is evidence of the current shift in meaning that Edmonton's downtown is undergoing.

Loving life downtown


- Brenner, Neil. "Global Cities, Glocal States: Global City Formation and State Territorial Restructuring in Contemporary Europe." Review of International Political Economy 5, 1 (Jan 98): 1-37.

- City of Edmonton. "Government Planning and Development."

- City of Edmonton. "Edmonton Attractions."

- Fairmont Hotels Website. "Fairmont Hotels Website."

- Interior Design Website. "Alberta Art Gallery."

- Rypkema, Donovan D. "The Importance of Downtown in the 21st Century." Journal of the American Planning Association 69, 1 (Winter 2003): 1-7.

- Short, J.R., Benton, Lisa M., Luce, William and Walton, Judith. "The Reconstruction of a Postindustrial City." Journal of Architectural Education 50, 4 (May 1997): 244-53.

- Sturken, Marita and Cartwright, Lisa. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: University of Oxford Press, 2009.

Pictures Used:

City of Edmonton:

City of Toronto:

City of Vancouver:

Alberta Legislature:

All other photos by Manav Deol, Martin Fenger-Andersen and Meghan Walker

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