Towards Vibrancy: Overcoming Path Dependence to Revitalize Traditional Retail Areas in Edmonton

  • Author / Creator
    Soans, Ranon
  • Like many North American cities, the retail environment in Edmonton, Alberta has experienced significant change since the early 1900s. Before World War II, traditional retail forms in central areas and main streets were accessible on foot and by streetcar lines. These areas provided residents with proximal access to goods and services and enabled spaces of social interaction, or street life, to thrive. Post-war municipal policies guided Edmonton forward on a path of modernist development that encouraged rapid suburbanization and automobile-centric retail innovations, particularly shopping centres. As trends of neoliberal deregulation emerged in the 1970s and 80s, developers successfully evaded municipal policies and received permissions to build more extreme suburban forms of automobile-dependent retail – mega-malls (e.g., West Edmonton Mall), big-box retail, and power centres. The post-war suburban shift, the rise of automobile-dependence, and new forms of retail challenged traditional retail areas in central areas and main streets, contributing to the decay of these formerly walkable and social landscapes.
    Since the 1990s, the City of Edmonton has adopted a number of sustainability-related policies and initiatives that aim to revitalize traditional retail areas. These have seen only limited success as much of the urban core and main streets continue to struggle with urban decay, vacancy, and a lack of vitality. Using a qualitative case study approach involving interviews with key informants, this research identifies a number of path dependent characteristics that have created obstacles to revitalization efforts, most readily seen in the hard-to-change bureaucratic tendencies (i.e., siloes and hierarchies) of the municipality. Bureaucracy is found to limit the abilities of revitalization agents (e.g., City revitalization staff, retailers, businesses, and developers) to affect change, by creating challenges in coordination and cohesiveness (both in policy and process) within the organization.

    Neighbourhood scale factors have also created related barriers. Property owner negligence and speculation produce derelict buildings and high vacancies, the effects of which can spillover to surrounding neighbourhoods and prolong urban decay. Socially-embedded characteristics related to auto-dependence – i.e., automobility – can bias the development industry towards creating suburban commercial forms to attract driving consumers; these are sometimes replicated in central areas intended for improved walkability, transit-use, and placemaking. NIMBY opposition to retail shops and mixed use development near residential neighbourhoods can help to sustain outdated city policies such as minimum parking requirements, which incentivize suburban development by adding major costs to businesses and developers in more spatially-constrained areas.

    Overall, this research emphasizes that revitalization efforts must contend with a confluence of challenges, some of which are formed in governance and others which exist in less formal structures of society. While the City of Edmonton has shown limited signs of progress by creating several programs that aim to address revitalization from the bottom-up (e.g., the Corner Store Program), becoming a city with denser, more walkable, and more social retail forms will require overcoming entrenched processes and policies. To eliminate incentives to develop auto-dependent retail and successfully promote walkable retail areas, policies and implementation strategies must be more effectively combined.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2018
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
  • DOI
  • License
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