Would Expo transform E-town? Ask Vancouver
West Coast city came of age after world's fair
Gary Lamphier, The Edmonton Journal
Published: 1:31 am
EDMONTON - Now that Edmonton city council has set the wheels in motion for a possible World's Fair bid for either 2017 or 2020, it's instructive to consider what Expo 86 did for Vancouver, more than 20 years ago.
Expo 86 wasn't just a giant, 165-day party. It was also the catalyst for a civic transformation that forever altered Vancouver's urban landscape.
Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing's massive condo development on False Creek North wouldn't have been built without the kick-start provided by Expo 86.
Ditto for the first leg of the city's now-sprawling SkyTrain system, and such eye-catching architectural icons as Canada Place and Science World.
Even the Coquihalla Highway owes its birth to Expo 86. The initial 115-kilometre leg of the spectacular toll road -- between Merritt and Hope -- was fast-tracked to coincide with Expo's launch in May, 1986.
These are a few of the "legacy" assets Expo left behind. And these assets, in turn, helped accelerate subsequent changes -- such as the redevelopment of the city's Yaletown district -- that now define the Vancouver brand.
It's a brand often associated with dense urban living, livable neighbourhoods, vibrant streetscapes and easy access to green space. It's also celebrated -- and envied -- by cities around the world.
Just as Vancouver's built landscape changed, so, too, did the city's psychological landscape. After Expo, Vancouver no longer saw itself as a somewhat isolated resource and port town, blighted by ugly sawmills.
Almost overnight, it morphed into Canada's gateway to the emergent economic giants of the Pacific Rim.
In the years before Britain's 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China, Vancouver attracted thousands of emigres, and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.
Vancouver wasn't always regarded as a cool, urbane place to live. In the 1970s, when I first lived there, the False Creek and Granville Island neighbourhoods were ugly industrial zones.
By the time I returned in 1989, the Expo lands still sat empty, but the city was in the initial phase of a decade-long, post-Expo development explosion.
So what could an Expo '17 or an Expo '20 do for Edmonton? Could it accelerate development of the city's still-stunted LRT system, and push it to the outer 'burbs as well as the Edmonton International Airport? Could it lead to the redevelopment of the under-utilized but strategically located City Centre Airport lands?
Could it attract infrastructure dollars from the feds or the province, so Edmonton could finally clean up its main entrances, develop its own version of Granville Island in the centre of the river valley, and build a bridge to connect Gateway Boulevard to the downtown?
Just as importantly, could the transformational impact of Expo finally end the petty bickering that plagues Edmonton and its suburban neighbours, and focus the entire region on something bigger, nobler and grander?
The answer, in all cases, is yes. But don't take it from me. Take it from Larry Beasley, the widely respected Vancouver urban planner who played a huge role in creating the West Coast metropolis that exists today.
"Vancouver came of age through its World's Fair. It gave the city a kind of confidence it didn't have before, and set off a lot of the things that we've come to appreciate about the city," he says.
"It also brought in a lot of money from government and the private sector, and it brought the city to the attention of the rest of the world. I have almost nothing but positive things to say about it."
Beasley sees no reason why Edmonton couldn't pull off the same kind of world-class event, and achieve similar long-term benefits, provided it's well supported, properly planned and executed.
"Definitely. Now I'll say honestly, it's a little audacious for a small city to do. But hey, that's what these kinds of moves are about. They're about smart cities that do what is somewhat counter-intuitive."
Beasley says the city centre airport site would be an ideal location for a World's Fair, since it offers lots of opportunities to leverage future public infrastructure dollars and private redevelopment investment.
Locating such an event in the river valley would be a mistake, he argues, since it could "compromise" the city's crown jewel, while limiting opportunities for "legacy" infrastructure investment.
Beasley started as a neighbourhood planner in Vancouver in the 1970s. By the early 1990s, he was co-director of city planning, where he played a central role in transforming the city core into a model for urban redevelopment. In fact, it's now known globally as the "Vancouver model."
Beasley is now in demand worldwide, advising cities in the U.S., China and across the South Pacific on how to bring life back to their urban cores.
"I don't know Edmonton well, but what I do know of it is that the energy of a fair would be beneficial, provided it's well located and well conceived," he says. "It's always important that you do these things in a very thoughtful way."