Built in 1929, the Edmonton City Centre Airport (ECCA), located in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, was the first licensed airfield in the country. Facing site constraints in the 1950s, the city built a new international airport and, in 2009, the city council voted to enact a phased closure of the ECCA.
In 2010, the City of Edmonton shortlisted five teams from 33 international design groups to reenvision the existing ECCA land as a world-class sustainable community providing leading-edge infrastructure and exceptional livability. The city’s mandate went well beyond LEED requirements, looking to create a development to optimize innovative strategies for renewable energies and sitewide systems such as stormwater management and transit. A largely inaccessible brownfield site, the ECCA initiative presents an exceptional opportunity to repair a 530-acre rift in the city’s urban fabric and create a truly memorable place for Edmontonians.
Following six months of intensive design, the five final proposals were evaluated by a jury of business, sustainability, urban planning, and policy experts. In June 2011, a Perkins+Will (P+W) team that also includes the Vancouver-based firms Civitas, PFS, and Edmonton-based Group2 was chosen and confirmed by the city council to lead the site’s transformation. The P+W proposal addresses ambitious sustainability goals set out by the city (outlined in a downloadable PDF here .) and builds on the idea of connectedness—identified as important by Edmonton residents in a series of public forums leading up to the competition. To capture the essence of this idea, the P+W proposal is called “Connecticity.”
At the heart of the new community, a major park will provide a jewel in the city’s park system. Embracing the park are three new districts, each with its own distinct character, which will offer diverse urban experiences and superior walkability—both cornerstones of a truly sustainable community.
Four strands of connectedness are pursued in the plan, with each embodying key sustainability principles as set out by the city. These include:
Cultural Sustainability: Connecting to Site History. Seeking to embed the site’s past in its future, the P+W plan reuses airport runways as key streets and the organizing structure for the development; repurposes historical airport elements such as hangars and the control tower as new community amenities; and adopts the names of those who played key roles in the airport’s past, including the celebrated Canadian bush pilot, Wilfrid “Wop” May, for major public places.
Environmental and Ecological Sustainability: Connecting to Nature. The central park and the many neighborhood parks extending from it provide an extraordinary opportunity for residents to experience the benefits of open space at their doorstep, whether for recreation, contemplation, or growing one’s own food. Walking and bike paths provide access to the native aspen parkland as well as the lake and hill that recall the glacially formed “kettle and knob” terrain of the prairie landscape. Extending deeply into the “agrihoods” of the West District, six linear furrows provide a wide variety of opportunities for urban agriculture from the private garden plot outside one’s door to community gardens to a small demonstration farm.
Social Sustainability: Connecting Communities. The plan draws from the pattern of existing neighborhoods surrounding the site, extending streets and pathways through new neighborhoods to connect future and current residents, giving the latter access to the many amenities and open spaces of the ECCA community and the former a sense of belonging in the larger Edmonton setting. At the citywide scale, a new light-rail transit (LRT) line planned for the site connects more-distant neighborhoods to the site and provides easy access to the downtown core for ECCA residents while reinforcing their sense of connectedness to the city.
Economic Sustainability: Connecting to Growth Catalysts. The P+W master plan seeks to ensure economic vitality, not only by creating a deeply mixed-use community on site but also by connecting to the growth potential of four major existing catalysts in and around the site: the LRT line, which will spur the first phase of development; the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, a potential partner in sustainable research, slated to expand onto the ECCA site; a new rehabilitation hospital, poised to become the new center of a health-sciences precinct; and Kingsway Gardens Mall, a commercial center whose retail activity will extend the High Street planned for the ECCA’s new Town Centre.
The approach to site infrastructure is critical to the goal of creating the kind of sustainable community sought by the city. One main aim is to reduce the community’s carbon emissions by 3.2 million metric tons over 20 years. The site is a perfect candidate for direct geothermal systems that capitalize on the unusual proximity of core heat to the Earth’s crust in the Edmonton vicinity. Taking advantage of Alberta’s drilling know-how, the systems would rely on a depth of approximately 5.3 kilometers (3.3 miles) to access this source of available heat. Energy produced by biomass and deep geothermal sources is expected to create enough electricity to adequately meet the needs of the new development—and then some. In fact, our plan proposes that surplus energy be sold to public buildings within the greater Edmonton area, including an existing hospital, a university campus, and the parliamentary precinct, and resulting in a development that is effectively beyond carbon neutral.
Housing options, key to a healthy community, range from the row housing and multifamily buildings of the agrihoods where families can connect to the land and grow their own food, to the higher density, more-urban research and technology district with immediate connections to the LRT system, to a mixed-use highly urban setting of the Town Centre, where jobs may be within a short walk from home and residents have access to a wide variety of amenities.
To take the master plan to fruition, the P+W team will orchestrate a highly collaborative 15-month process featuring a series of comprehensive workshops in which city leaders, key stakeholders, and the citizens of Edmonton will participate. Through community focus groups, open houses, and online forums, P+W will formulate a series of strategies for meeting the ambitious goals set out by the city and refined by this master-plan process.
We believe that the ECCA project represents one of the most significant urban design competitions in Canada’s history. This, coupled with the city’s vision for creating a leading green development, makes it an unparalleled opportunity to realize Edmonton’s dream to become a global model for sustainable city building.
Peter Busby, Intl. Assoc. AIA, is the managing director of Perkins+Will’s Vancouver office and the 2010 eco-structure Evergreen Award winner in the Perspective category. Joyce Drohan is the director of urban design in Perkins+Will’s Vancouver office.