7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.13 | Mil­brandtHarper­PDF

Abstract | This paper is an inter­pre­tive study of Edmon­ton, Alber­ta that com­bines pho­tog­ra­phy, writ­ten reflec­tion, and analy­sis. Blend­ing insid­er and out­sider voic­es and per­spec­tives, the essay rep­re­sents the city through the imagery of a grit­ty, post­mod­ern fron­tier. Edmon­ton is depict­ed as the locus of mixed and often con­tra­dic­to­ry ener­gies, asso­ci­at­ed in sig­nif­i­cant ways with its north­west­ern char­ac­ter. The project devel­oped through a process of pho­tog­ra­phy and dia­logue and is by nature sug­ges­tive and par­tial. It offers a visu­al-soci­o­log­i­cal engage­ment with a par­tic­u­lar social envi­ron­ment and cul­tur­al land­scape, whose look and feel are rep­re­sent­ed through a com­bi­na­tion of pho­to­graph­ic images and writ­ten text.
Résumé | Cet arti­cle est une étude inter­pré­ta­tive de la ville d’Edmonton qui com­bine pho­togra­phie, réflex­ion écrite et analyse. En mêlant des points de vue externes et internes, cet essai représente la ville à tra­vers l’imagerie d’une fron­tière post­mod­erne réal­iste. Edmon­ton est peinte comme un lieu d’énergies divers­es et sou­vent con­tra­dic­toires, qui sont asso­ciées de manière sig­ni­fica­tive avec son car­ac­tère du nord-ouest. Le pro­jet s’est dévelop­pé à tra­vers un proces­sus de pho­togra­phie et de dia­logue et, par nature, est sub­jec­tive et par­tial. Il nous offre un engage­ment visuel soci­ologique avec un envi­ron­nement social et un paysage cul­turel par­ti­c­uli­er, dont l’apparence et le ressen­ti sont représen­tés à tra­vers un mélange d’images et de textes.

Dou­glas Harp­er | Duquesne University
Tara Mil­brandt | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta

A Northwestern Crossroads City

Fea­ture Image/Figure 1:
Edmon­ton, late-sum­mer evening, a lin­ger­ing sun­set in a city at the 54th par­al­lel. A dis­cernible yet dis­tant urbanity.

This essay inter­prets the social land­scape of con­tem­po­rary Edmon­ton through a com­bi­na­tion of pho­tographs and writ­ten text. We rep­re­sent it as a grit­ty, “post­mod­ern-fron­tier” city, empha­siz­ing how its ambiance sug­gests a set­tle­ment locat­ed at the bor­der­line of dif­fer­ent worlds, the locus of con­flict­ing ele­ments and energies.

This essay was pro­duced through a reflex­ive process of con­ver­sa­tion, explo­ration, pho­tog­ra­phy, and writ­ing. We tra­versed Edmon­ton over sev­er­al months, pho­tograph­ing it sep­a­rate­ly and as a team; we dis­cussed our impres­sions of the city, includ­ing the ques­tion of how to rep­re­sent it visu­al­ly. Our dia­logues were influ­enced by our dif­fer­ing back­grounds (Cana­di­an and Amer­i­can); our over­rid­ing com­mon­al­i­ty as soci­ol­o­gists inter­est­ed in pho­tog­ra­phy and the urban life­world pro­duced a basis for dia­logue from which a shared vision of the city emerged. We made sev­er­al hun­dred pho­tographs and stud­ied them in a pho­to­graph­ic soft­ware edit­ing and man­age­ment sys­tem, using a key­word sys­tem to clas­si­fy and sort images in rela­tion to emerg­ing themes. This enhanced our abil­i­ty to com­pare and study the images, which influ­enced how and what we pho­tographed on suc­ces­sive outings.

The cre­ative ten­sion in the nar­ra­tive reflects our dif­fer­ent back­grounds: for one author Edmon­ton is a place to live: a site of struc­tur­al con­tra­dic­tions, col­lid­ing ener­gies and con­test­ed ver­sions of alter­na­tive futures. For the oth­er the city was orig­i­nal­ly a visu­al and expe­ri­en­tial impres­sion, inter­pret­ed com­par­a­tive­ly against the back­drop of a post-indus­tri­al Amer­i­can city (Pitts­burgh).  In dia­logue and suc­ces­sive pho­to­graph­ic out­ings, these two per­spec­tives on the city pro­duce a rel­a­tive­ly coher­ent vision.

In the begin­ning stages we char­ac­ter­ized Edmonton’s look and feel as a “post­mod­ern fron­tier.” Post­moder­ni­ty was first used to describe archi­tec­tur­al forms in which con­tra­dic­to­ry ele­ments play­ful­ly con­front­ed the author­i­tar­i­an blocks of moder­ni­ty, com­bi­na­tions of styles that con­tra­dict each oth­er but make an inter­est­ing, engag­ing total­i­ty (Jenks). Fron­tier, on the oth­er hand, con­notes a bound­ary between the set­tled and unset­tled: a “meet­ing place between two or more cul­tures” (Spur­geon viii), it is a point of con­tact and strug­gle, mate­r­i­al and sym­bol­ic. Tak­en togeth­er, “post­mod­ern” and “fron­tier” offer cre­ative ten­sions, both with­in their own inter­pre­tive uni­vers­es and between them. These ten­sions and con­tra­dic­tions res­onat­ed for both authors and led to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the fol­low­ing themes that offered spe­cif­ic chal­lenges and pos­si­bil­i­ties for visualization:

-The mix of north and west as a source of order and tension;
-the cen­tral­i­ty of riv­er and bridges as sites of con­nec­tion and separation;
-tran­sient and affec­tive ener­gies implied in “boom” and “bust”;
-the tex­tu­al and archi­tec­tur­al inscrip­tion of the past in the present;
-the inter­play of ambi­ent light and built form.

The pho­tographs and tex­tu­al analy­sis devel­op these themes, offer­ing an approach to rep­re­sent­ing the city that high­lights the dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship between the mate­r­i­al and the imag­i­na­tive. While we do not envi­sion them as exhaus­tive, defin­i­tive, or exclu­sive­ly “Edmon­ton­ian,” we nev­er­the­less pro­pose that there may be some­thing dis­cernibly “Edmon­ton” in how they comin­gle and form a uni­ty. They also rep­re­sent our inter­pre­tive choic­es with­in the mod­est con­straints of a short essay, as elicit­ed through soci­o­log­i­cal dis­cus­sion, walk­ing around, look­ing at, reflect­ing upon, and pho­tograph­ing the city. We con­cen­trate pri­mar­i­ly on the south-cen­tral area of Old Strath­cona, and to a less­er extent the urban core and the out­ly­ing regions.

The essay embod­ies an approach to urban visu­al soci­ol­o­gy in which images of land­scape and soci­o­log­i­cal ideas inter­twine. The tra­di­tion of urban soci­ol­o­gy that emerged out of the Chica­go School is an impor­tant influ­ence that informs this project. In par­tic­u­lar, we find inspi­ra­tion in its call to take soci­ol­o­gy into the streets, care­ful­ly attend­ing to and accen­tu­at­ing the rela­tion­ship between the form and expe­ri­ence of the city.

This project also draws on a social-land­scape tra­di­tion that explores the dynam­ic rela­tion­ship between human habi­ta­tion, mate­r­i­al, and land. These stud­ies range from George Tice’s 1970s pho­tographs of gas sta­tions and work­ing-class ver­nac­u­lar archi­tec­ture, often at night and devoid of humans, to Edward Burtynsky’s recent aer­i­al pho­tographs depict­ing marks made by humans as we trans­form (and destroy) the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment.[1] While we draw upon Tice and Bur­tyn­sky (for exam­ple) for inspi­ra­tion, both are art pho­tog­ra­phers who draw their visions from par­tic­u­lar pho­to­graph­ic approach­es applied to spe­cif­ic sub­ject mat­ter. Tice used a large-neg­a­tive cam­era, long expo­sures, and black and white film to present for­mal­ly the archi­tec­tur­al struc­tures of east-coast Amer­i­can work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties; Bur­tyn­sky pho­tographs in colour from the air, find­ing the “above” per­spec­tive a means to grasp visu­al­ly the often fan­tas­ti­cal­ly huge issues he con­fronts, such as water use. Thus, while we study the work of these (and oth­er) art-based land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers to see how they used par­tic­u­lar pho­to­graph­ic tech­niques and approach­es, we defined our own work­ing method rather than mim­ic­ked theirs.

We were also influ­enced by pho­tog­ra­phers who pro­duced “por­traits of cities,” such as W. Eugene Smith’s famous pho­to­graph­ic study of Pitts­burgh.[2] Smith’s Pitts­burgh essay offers land­scapes in which humans per­form the scripts seem­ing­ly asked for by their set­tings: work­ing, laugh­ing, argu­ing, fill­ing rou­tine pub­lic spaces. Pitts­burgh in the 1950s came alive for Smith because he pho­tographed with an eye to human action with­in the con­text of fac­to­ry, street, club, and home. As a sea­soned pho­to­jour­nal­ist he was trained to intrude when nec­es­sary into these events, and his small cam­era (a rangefind­er Leica) and flu­id shoot­ing style made him seem trans­par­ent. In oth­er words, he was a mas­ter “street pho­tog­ra­ph­er”: observ­ing, record­ing, merg­ing momen­tar­i­ly into the set­ting before dis­ap­pear­ing into the next. While we share Smith’s inter­est in explor­ing a city’s iden­ti­ty pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly, we elect­ed not to include images of iden­ti­fi­able persons.

We are both prac­ticed pho­tog­ra­phers and con­struct­ed images self-con­scious­ly, with atten­tion to the effects of cam­era tech­nolo­gies (lens choice, aper­ture, shut­ter speed, ISO, and so forth) on the images made. Empha­siz­ing the “how” over the “what,” our pho­tos were con­struct­ed by our fram­ing and tech­ni­cal choic­es to exem­pli­fy the ideas we wished to com­mu­ni­cate. We resist­ed the temp­ta­tion to spec­tac­u­lar­ize the city or present pho­tos as urban “eye-can­dy” through dig­i­tal enhance­ments aimed at bedaz­zling the read­er. We both use mod­er­ate wide-angle lens­es that fore­ground objects in the con­text of their set­ting and present land­scapes at approx­i­mate­ly the per­spec­tive of the human eye. To reflect on the mul­ti­ple lay­ers and forms of social exis­tence that the land­scapes imply, we have (most­ly) emp­tied them of iden­ti­fi­able human per­sons through pho­to­graph­ic meth­ods, includ­ing the use of long expo­sures in which peo­ple mov­ing through space fade or dis­ap­pear from view.

7-1-13-figure-2webFig­ure 2: Edmonton’s first Nuit Blanche street fes­ti­val, down­town core.

Edmonton—A City West by North

The car­di­nal direc­tions west and north begin to locate Edmon­ton geo­graph­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. Edmon­ton is a west­ern city, locat­ed in the west­ern region of the Cana­di­an prairies. With­in the col­lec­tive imag­i­nary, it is a city “out west” in a sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed region, an intense urban­i­ty sur­round­ed by low-den­si­ty set­tle­ments and agri­cul­tur­al forms of life cul­tur­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the west. The city’s exten­sive and con­nect­ed parks and trails include dense forests that some­times resem­ble wilder­ness ter­ri­to­ry. There is a vivid sense of urban land­scape, epit­o­mized in the view of the city’s sky­line from the south side of the riv­er along Saskatchewan Dri­ve; yet the expe­ri­ence of the built world is con­tin­u­ous­ly punc­tu­at­ed by nat­ur­al elements.

7-1-13-figure-3webFig­ure 3: Down­town Edmon­ton, as seen from the mul­ti-use path along Saskatchewan Drive.

The pres­ence of wild nature often appears as a spec­ta­cle: an arrest­ing sun­set, an inter­est­ing cloud pat­tern, or a strik­ing riv­er-val­ley vista. Edmonton’s com­mand­ing riv­er-val­ley sys­tem is the largest con­nect­ed urban park­land in North Amer­i­ca, 18,000 acres in size and 48 kilo­me­tres in length. Urban ener­gies coex­ist with rel­a­tive­ly iso­lat­ed nat­ur­al woods, often locat­ed along the banks of the North Saskatchewan Riv­er. The for­est and ravines inside the city with their criss­cross­ing paths are an invi­ta­tion to bucol­ic nature and activ­i­ties out-of-doors. Sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed and devoid of “nat­ur­al pro­pri­etors” to offer the grass­roots secu­ri­ty pres­ence that Jane Jacobs iden­ti­fied as “eyes on the street” (35), these pub­lic trails can also be fear­ful sites of poten­tial pre­da­tion. The allure of the urban wilds coex­ists with a hint of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and danger.

7-1-13-figure-4webFig­ure 4: The links between the city and the wilder­ness-like parks are often wood­en steps from the sur­face of the city down into ravines and val­leys or con­verse­ly, up into the streets of dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hoods and areas.

Sym­bol­i­cal­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, Edmon­ton evokes the set­tler imagery of a fron­tier town at the edge of habi­ta­tion (“old west”) with the promise of sub­sis­tence or even pros­per­i­ty dur­ing hard times else­where. Tied to the hope sig­ni­fied by going west is a sense of nos­tal­gic long­ing, cap­tured poignant­ly in the lyrics of Ian Tyson’s 1963 song “Four Strong Winds.” The song has been rit­u­al­ly sanc­ti­fied in Edmon­ton, col­lec­tive­ly per­formed on the last night of the four-day Edmon­ton Folk Music Fes­ti­val that takes place every August in Gal­lagher Park, near the banks of the North Saskatchewan Riv­er: “…Thought I’d go out to Alber­ta, weather’s good there in the fall. Got some friends that I can go to work­ing for…”

7-1-13-figure-5webFig­ure 5: Win­ter clouds above the riv­er and city, as seen from the High Lev­el Bridge.

Edmon­ton is also a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly north­ern city. Geo­graph­i­cal­ly it is the most pop­u­lous north­ern set­tle­ment on the con­ti­nent, the only north­ern cen­sus met­ro­pol­i­tan area (CMA) with a pop­u­la­tion exceed­ing one mil­lion.[3] The win­ter nights are long and dark and sum­mer light lasts well into the night. Amongst major Cana­di­an cities, it is the dark­est place to be on the win­ter sol­stice (approx­i­mate 9:00 a.m. sun­rise and 4:30 p.m. sun­set, 7.5 hours of day­light); con­verse­ly it is the light­est major Cana­di­an city on the sum­mer sol­stice (approx­i­mate 5:00 a.m. sun­rise and 10:00 p.m. sun­set, 19 hours of day­light). Such extremes invite dif­fer­ent forms of habi­ta­tion that fluc­tu­ate with the seasons.

7-1-13-figure-6webFig­ure 6: The High Lev­el Bridge, 2:00 p.m. on the win­ter solstice.

Edmon­ton is a gate­way to the remote north, a site of inter­sec­tion between north­ern routes and work­ers en route.[4]  Eco­nom­i­cal­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly, its north­ern char­ac­ter is tied to the extrac­tion of raw mate­ri­als and the ener­gy sec­tor; work­ers on the oil patch, par­tic­u­lar­ly Fort McMur­ray, use the city as a stag­ing ground, a place of tran­si­tion between times of work in an indus­try that is both volatile and con­test­ed.[5] Bil­low­ing smoke pumps into the typ­i­cal­ly blue skies above the city, lin­ger­ing potent­ly and vis­i­bly in the thick cold of a clear and sun­ny win­ter day; from the rows of oil refiner­ies locat­ed towards its north-east out­skirts, these clouds evoke a strange­ly dreamy and sin­is­ter effect. They are also visu­al metaphors and mate­r­i­al traces of Edmonton’s deep eco­nom­ic ties to the oil and gas sec­tor, with all of the ambiva­lence that accom­pa­nies this rela­tion­ship. Indeed this is a time in which crit­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges hang heav­i­ly in the polit­i­cal air, both here and around the globe.

7-1-13-figure-7webFig­ure 7: Cloud-like smoke bil­lows into the air from an oil refin­ery around Refin­ery Row on the east­ern edge of Edmon­ton, as seen from a car window.

The city’s north­ern geog­ra­phy also shapes its cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty in cre­ative­ly tan­gi­ble ways. In recent years Edmon­ton has offi­cial­ly embraced the iden­ti­ty of “win­ter city.”[6] .Pop­u­lar cul­tur­al events and annu­al fes­ti­vals staged in the cold dark of win­ter sug­gest a spir­it of joy­ful resilience in the face of a typ­i­cal­ly bit­ter (though dry!) cold. Pop­u­lar annu­al win­ter fes­ti­vals such as Ice on Whyte or the Deep Freeze Byzan­tine win­ter fes­ti­val are two exam­ples that include ice sculp­tures, snow slides, and oth­er entice­ments to aban­don the warmth of the indoors for the frigid world out­side. The north is both a source of phys­i­cal hard­ship and col­lec­tive possibility.

7-1-13-figure-8webFig­ure 8: Ice on Whyte, 2016. The fes­ti­val invit­ed an inter­na­tion­al ice-sculpt­ing com­pe­ti­tion, includ­ing the sub­mis­sion pic­tured here, “The Wind Blows from the South,” by team Lithuania.

River and Bridges: Connection and Separation

The bridge becomes an aes­thet­ic val­ue inso­far as it accom­plish­es the con­nec­tion between what is sep­a­rat­ed not only in real­i­ty and in order to ful­fill prac­ti­cal goals, but in mak­ing it direct­ly vis­i­ble” (Sim­mel 6).

Referred to local­ly as “Riv­er City,” Edmon­ton is bisect­ed by the North Saskatchewan Riv­er. A riv­er city is per­haps by def­i­n­i­tion a city of bridges. Bridges simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­nect and sep­a­rate parts of the city, phys­i­cal­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly (Sim­mel 5); they help to cre­ate, con­nect, and delin­eate a north and a south side. Edmonton’s bridges are also a vivid reminder of the city’s indus­tri­al prowess, espe­cial­ly true of the High Lev­el Bridge, an icon­ic land­mark in the city cen­tre. The rough and impos­ing con­struc­tion has recent­ly under­gone a visu­al trans­for­ma­tion through the Light the Bridge cam­paign that is visu­al­ly enchant­i­ng, some­times gar­ish­ly so. Six­ty thou­sand pro­gram­ma­ble LED bulbs are illu­mi­nat­ed every night. Vary­ing in col­or, the lights often mark notable local, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al events. On Christ­mas Eve, for exam­ple, they were illu­mi­nat­ed in green and red; fol­low­ing the Paris attacks in Novem­ber 2015, they were white, red, and blue. In these instances the endur­ing func­tion­al form plays with the ephemer­al, cel­e­bra­to­ry, and carnivalesque.

Tra­vers­ing the bridge on foot brings togeth­er sev­er­al defin­ing ele­ments of Edmon­ton. It has a grit­ty look and feel; one is exposed to the ele­ments with lit­tle pro­tec­tion, at the same time as one is opened up to the dra­mat­ic glow of a vivid down­town cityscape. As motor­ized vehi­cles on two nar­row lanes rush by, pedes­tri­ans and cyclists pre­car­i­ous­ly share the nar­row, tun­nel-like path­way between the riv­er below and traf­fic, often bare­ly audi­ble to one anoth­er amid wind and noise. Jux­ta­posed against the indus­tri­al func­tions of the bridge, with a train-track on top, one encoun­ters a spec­tac­u­lar, dan­ger­ous, and sub­lime beau­ty set against a mas­sive and ever-chang­ing sky, over­look­ing a wide riv­er whose sounds and move­ments reflect the city in its vari­able sea­sons. Even on the cold­est days of win­ter there is typ­i­cal­ly a thin strip of water 48 meters below, mov­ing too rapid­ly to freeze com­plete­ly. From the van­tage point of the bridge, the sliv­er of mov­ing water cut­ting through the frozen sur­faces rep­re­sents life and move­ment but also per­haps a strange invi­ta­tion to jump (as Trevor Ander­son sug­gests in his doc­u­men­tary short The High Lev­el Bridge, 2010). The bridge invites melan­cho­lia and an exis­ten­tial moment in the city and per­haps also for the city.[7]

7-1-13-figure-9webFig­ure 9: The High Lev­el Bridge.

7-1-13-figure-10webFig­ure 10: Enter­ing the pedes­tri­an walk­way from the south side of the river.

7-1-13-figure-11webFig­ure 11: The spec­tac­u­lar and often gar­ish light show.

7-1-13-figure-12webFig­ure 12: The light-rail tran­sit bridge as seen from the High Lev­el Bridge, sug­gest­ing the extra­or­di­nary vis­tas afford­ed pedes­tri­ans and cyclists on the bridge at all hours and in all seasons.

Transience: Boom and Bust, Population, and Economy

Edmon­ton is marked by ten­sions between growth and sta­sis. The city has always been demo­graph­i­cal­ly dynam­ic, cre­at­ing a cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and visu­al envi­ron­ment that is in per­pet­u­al devel­op­ment and always show­ing its rough edges. In part, these ten­sions reflect the coex­is­tence of those who use Edmon­ton as a step­ping-off place to north­ern extrac­tion indus­tries or oth­er endeav­ors beyond the city bound­aries and those who set­tle in the city, nor­mal­ly drawn by the promise of work or study rather than as a des­ti­na­tion in its own right. Marked by its loca­tion at the inter­sec­tion of mul­ti­ple regions of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, Edmon­ton is a path­way through and site of arrival for eco­nom­ic migrants. It is also marked by the anom­ic dimen­sions that invari­ably accom­pa­ny a boom-and-bust eco­nom­ic pat­tern with­in an often ruth­less­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic, late-mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism (cf. Durkheim).[8]

Indeed the city accom­mo­dates, ser­vices, and exploits the tran­sience of sig­nif­i­cant parts of its pop­u­la­tion. The embod­ied and unique bio­graph­i­cal ener­gies under­pin­ning this ongo­ing dra­ma are evoked in the ample pawn­shops and preda­to­ry lend­ing insti­tu­tions seen through­out the city core and in the var­i­ous built forms that meet the mun­dane needs of peo­ple on the move: laun­dro­mats, park bench­es, and self-stor­age facil­i­ties whose monot­o­nous façades con­ceal the nar­ra­tive details implied in each inte­ri­or. Pro­sa­ic pub­lic archi­tec­ture, such as the mod­ernist pub­lic bath­room in Old Strath­cona, sug­gest Edmonton’s attempt to accom­mo­date lives on the move and bod­ies in between places, from tran­sient and under-housed per­sons, to sub­ur­ban vis­i­tors, Farmer’s Mar­ket shop­pers, and intox­i­cat­ed bar-scene revelers.

7-1-13-figure-13webFig­ure 13: Pub­lic Laun­dro­mat, east Whyte Avenue.

7-1-13-figure-14webFig­ure 14: Mod­ernist pub­lic bath­room, open all hours, offer­ing facil­i­ties and momen­tary shel­ter in a glass box.

7-1-13-figure-15webFig­ure 15: Uncle Ed’s, a preda­to­ry lend­ing institution.

The Inscription of Past in Present

The past is inscribed in the city’s present in dif­fer­ent ways, both lit­er­al and sym­bol­ic. These are marked self-con­scious­ly in the city’s for­mal­ly des­ig­nat­ed his­toric areas and also implied in the lin­ger­ing pres­ence of par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal eras implied by fonts on mate­r­i­al sur­faces, cre­at­ing an ambiance of col­lid­ing times and memories.

Indeed, the city has cre­at­ed what it calls a liv­ing-his­to­ry muse­um at Fort Edmon­ton Park, com­prised of work­ing shops, restau­rants, and oth­er facil­i­ties that com­bine orig­i­nal and re-cre­ations of build­ings from three eras in which Edmon­ton was a fur-trad­ing out­post (1885, 1905, and 1920). Tout­ed as the largest muse­um of its kind in Cana­da, Fort Edmon­ton presents a san­i­tized and sim­pli­fied ver­sion of ear­li­er eras, replete with guides in cos­tume dur­ing sum­mer months to rein­force the visu­al pre­sen­ta­tion of an imag­ined past.

7-1-13-figure-16webFig­ure 16: Fort Edmon­ton, a muse­um pre­serv­ing and cod­i­fy­ing a ver­sion of the region’s his­to­ry. To wan­der through these re-cre­at­ed streets is to immerse one­self in an ide­al­ized vision of the past and engage in an imag­i­na­tive involve­ment with Edmonton’s his­to­ry and identity.

Edmonton’s demo­graph­ic dynam­ics have con­tributed to an ongo­ing ten­sion between orig­i­nal archi­tec­tur­al def­i­n­i­tions of the city and con­tin­u­al rebuild­ing, reuse, and rede­f­i­n­i­tion. Build­ings com­bine orig­i­nal his­tor­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion and con­tem­po­rary uses, most notable in Old Strath­cona, a for­mal­ly des­ig­nat­ed his­toric area south of the riv­er that is also the uni­ver­si­ty area and a pop­u­lar live the­atre, restau­rant, bar, and shop­ping dis­trict. His­toric build­ings are often labeled with infor­ma­tive brass plaques and occu­pied by con­tem­po­rary and most­ly inde­pen­dent busi­ness­es. Some his­toric build­ings con­tin­ue to serve their orig­i­nal uses, though of course in ways that bear traces of the contemporary.

7-1-13-figure-17webFig­ure 17: His­toric hotel and cin­e­ma, in con­tin­u­al use since its con­struc­tion in 1921. The icon­ic Princess The­atre is locat­ed next to the Com­mer­cial Hotel, which hous­es the pop­u­lar bar and live-music venue Blues on Whyte.

7-1-13-figure-18webFig­ure 18: Gar­neau The­atre Build­ing, which hous­es the art-house Metro Cin­e­ma, restau­rants, and a pop­u­lar cafe near the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta.

Cer­tain his­tor­i­cal eras, such as the 1950s, are frozen in fonts and design used in large per­ma­nent sig­nage, often with cor­re­spond­ing neon dis­plays. For exam­ple, an auto-deal­er on Whyte Avenue con­tin­ues to adver­tis­es “Olds” in a large tow­er and sign that pre­serves the look of the 1950s and ‘60s, though the last Oldsmo­bile was pro­duced in 2004. The pres­ence of mul­ti­ple car deal­er­ships in this rel­a­tive­ly pedes­tri­an con­cen­trat­ed and cyclist inhab­it­ed area of the city com­mu­ni­cates mixed messages.

7-1-13-figure-19webFig­ure 19: Neon sig­nage cel­e­brat­ing an auto­mo­bile that has been out of pro­duc­tion for more than a decade.

7-1-13-figure-20webFig­ure 20: 1950s font on an auto deal­er­ship on Whyte Avenue, where the pre­vail­ing busi­ness­es are inde­pen­dent shops, restau­rants, and cafes. The bold sig­nage recalls an era and is dete­ri­o­rat­ing before the eye of the public.

7-1-13-figure-21webFig­ure 21: Army & Navy depart­ment store on Whyte Avenue, opened in 1928. The chain is tout­ed as “Canada’s orig­i­nal dis­count store.” Army & Navy’s per­se­ver­ance con­trasts with the rapid turnover in adja­cent blocks.

Over­all, Edmon­ton mix­es his­tor­i­cal eras freely, with self-con­scious atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of par­tic­u­lar places and struc­tures. The over­all look is grit­ty-his­tor­i­cal, with an ad hoc feel­ing attuned to the rapid devel­op­ment of the city. Edmonton’s prag­mat­ic iden­ti­ty is based on its con­nec­tion to the ener­gy sec­tor in the north and its con­stant use as a tran­sit zone between places, imag­ined eras, and regions. Fight­ing to the sur­face is a sense of a “new fron­tier,” an urban place deriv­ing from loca­tion and purpose.

Interplay of Ambient Light and Built Form 

The city’s north­ern lat­i­tude cre­ates a land­scape of shad­ows that shape the look and feel of its neigh­bor­hoods, streets, and build­ings. The sun along the hori­zon shines into sur­faces, rather than down onto the tops of objects, even when the mid­sum­mer sun is high­est in the sky. This effect influ­ences the expe­ri­ence of the city in sub­tle yet dis­tinc­tive ways. By con­trast, in cities near­er to the equa­tor, one seeks refuge from the sun’s direct and inces­sant rays; in Edmon­ton the mut­ed and oblique sun­light is an aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing pres­ence. Prairie clouds are typ­i­cal­ly tex­tured and dynam­ic, often inter­rupt­ed with beams of sun­light that momen­tar­i­ly break through the grey cov­er, offer­ing an illu­mi­nat­ed sil­ver tex­ture to both the sky and build­ing surfaces.

Edmon­ton also has a rel­a­tive­ly high pro­por­tion of sun­light hours, gen­er­al­ly rank­ing in the top three or four Cana­di­an cities for total sun­light hours and for the num­ber of days in which bright sun­light is record­ed.[9] As a result, it has a visu­al ener­gy dri­ven by light, in con­trast to the ener­gy of cities with dull, over­cast, fog­gy, or (more) vis­i­bly pol­lut­ed skies.

Edmon­ton light appears rel­a­tive­ly undi­lut­ed by indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion in spite of the harm­ful par­tic­u­late mat­ter that lingers invis­i­bly in the air. The win­ter light is mut­ed by the low angle of the sun and the cor­re­spond­ing­ly soft hues of long sun­rise and sun­set hours. Although the sum­mer sun is high­er in the sky, the morn­ings and evenings are extend­ed and grad­ual. At 11:00 p.m. in June the city is still vibrant from the post-sun­set glow. It is also a city in vivid win­ter black­ness, where dark­ness com­mu­ni­cates atmos­pher­ic cold, still­ness, and with­draw­al into domes­tic spaces.

The city fea­tures light in its envi­ron­men­tal designs, par­tic­u­lar­ly in recent projects on the High Lev­el Bridge and win­ter fes­ti­vals where col­ored lights illu­mi­nate sculp­tures made from ice, some­times jux­ta­posed against fire. After­noon light in mid­win­ter illu­mi­nat­ing bare trees and the low angle of the sun cre­ate visu­al dra­ma; the ephemer­al­i­ty is inten­si­fied by the appear­ance of dark after­noon shad­ows along a vacant store­front, with a resid­ual sign that reads “TIME IS PRECIOUS” (see Fig. 28). It is as if the city’s mate­r­i­al and atmos­pher­ic ele­ments are in dia­logue with one another.

7-1-13-figure-22webFig­ure 22: Rain­bow over an indus­tri­al alley, Old Strath­cona, ear­ly evening, approach­ing sum­mer solstice.

7-1-13-figure-23webFig­ure 23: Ceil­ing light reflec­tions from a drug­store window.

7-1-13-figure-24webFig­ure 24: Shopfront of Clean­ing by Page against sun­light beam­ing through moody clouds.

7-1-13-figure-25webFig­ure 25: After­noon light in mid­win­ter. Bare trees and the low angle of the sun cre­ate visu­al dra­ma; the ephemer­al­i­ty is inten­si­fied by the sign on the vacant store.

7-1-13-figure-26webFig­ure 26: North­ern light reflect­ed in Edmonton’s down­town office towers.

7-1-13-figure-27webFig­ure 27: Art Gallery of Alber­ta. In 2010 the new pub­lic build­ing was opened in a more promi­nent and cen­tral loca­tion near City Hall. Its sur­re­al archi­tec­ture design con­trasts with the urban bru­tal­ist style of the pre­vi­ous build­ing and the gener­ic mod­ern tow­ers that sur­round it.


Guid­ed by the idea of a “post­mod­ern fron­tier,” we have explored sev­er­al themes and ten­sions that evince per­cep­ti­ble aspects of Edmonton’s pub­lic ambiance and unique geog­ra­phy. We have been attuned to seen-but-unno­ticed dimen­sions of the every­day and night, in a city not typ­i­cal­ly revered for its visu­al or urban qual­i­ties. With­out a rigid­ly pre­con­ceived frame­work, we allowed ideas to emerge and devel­op in dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship with the images being made, through con­ver­sa­tions elicit­ed by these images and in con­tin­u­ous (if some­times implic­it) com­par­i­son with oth­er cities. This nar­ra­tive is a mod­est attempt to under­stand and char­ac­ter­ize a mul­ti-lay­ered urban iden­ti­ty through writ­ten and visu­al text, an invi­ta­tion to see and imag­ine Edmon­ton sociologically.

*The list­ing of author names is alphabetical.

Photo credits

Harp­er: 2, 3, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27

Mil­brandt:  1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 25

Copy­rights of all illus­tra­tions reside with the authors.

Works Cited

Dorow, Sara and Goze Dogu. “The Spa­tial Dis­tri­b­u­tion of Hope in and Beyond Fort McMur­ray.” In David­son, Tonya K., Ondine Park, and Rob Shields, Eds. Ecolo­gies of Affect: Plac­ing Nos­tal­gia, Desire and Hope. Water­loo, Ontario: Wil­frid Lau­ri­er Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011, 271-292.

Durkheim, Emile. Sui­cide: A Study in Soci­ol­o­gy. Trans­lat­ed by John A. Spauld­ing and George Simp­son. New York: The Free Press, 1951 [orig 1897].

Harp­er, Dou­glas. Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy. Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2012.

Harp­er, Dou­glas. “New Topo­graph­ics and Ital­ian Res­ig­na­tion.” 2015. Fon­da­men­ti di Soci­olo­gia Visuale. Ed. Mari­na Ciampi. Rome: Bonan­no Edi­tore, 2015. 301-320.

Jencks, Charles. The Lan­guage of Post-Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture (6E). New York: Riz­zoli, 1991 [1977].

Knowles, Car­o­line and Paul Sweet­man, eds. Pic­tur­ing the Social Land­scape: Visu­al Meth­ods and the Soci­o­log­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion. Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2004.

Jacobs, Jane. The Life and Death of Great Amer­i­can Cities. New York: Ran­dom House, 1961.

Lax­er, Gor­don. After the Sands: Ener­gy and Eco­log­i­cal Secu­ri­ty for Cana­di­ans. Maldeira Park, BC: Dou­glas and McIn­tyre, 2016.

Sim­mel, Georg. 1994. “Bridge and Door.”  The­o­ry, Cul­ture & Soci­ety 11: 5-10.

Stephen­son, Sam, edi­tor. Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pitts­burgh Project. Essay by Alan Tra­cht­en­berg, pho­tographs by W. Eugene Smith. New York: W.W. Nor­ton, 2003.

Spur­geon, Sara L. Explod­ing the West­ern: Myths of Empire on the Post­mod­ern Fron­tier. Texas: A&M Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005.

Tice, George. Urban Land­scapes: A Jew Jer­sey Por­trait. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1975.


[1] For an overview of social land­scape as the basis for a visu­al soci­ol­o­gy of the city, see Harp­er (2012, 2015). For an intro­duc­tion to the con­cept of social land­scape, see Knowles and Sweet­man. Tice’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive work is found Tice (1975). Burtynsky’s exten­sive work is best accessed via his web­site (http://​www​.edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com/).

[2] W. Eugene Smith’s pho­to­graph­ic sur­vey of Pitts­burgh was an unprece­dent­ed visu­al study of a city. Armed with a let­ter of intro­duc­tion from the may­or of Pitts­burgh, Smith immersed him­self for more than a year in the pub­lic life and insti­tu­tions of the city, mak­ing thou­sands of black-and-white pho­tographs that were not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly cat­a­logued, exhib­it­ed, or pub­lished until sev­er­al decades after Smith’s death. See Stephenson.

[3] The Edmon­ton cen­sus met­ro­pol­i­tan area (CMA) pop­u­la­tion was esti­mat­ed to be 1,328,300 accord­ing to the 2014 cen­sus by Sta­tis­tics Cana­da, where­as the City of Edmon­ton had a pop­u­la­tion of 877,926. The pop­u­la­tion has been record­ed in cen­sus­es per­formed at five-year inter­vals and typ­i­cal growth rates over these five-year peri­ods have been more than 10%. For more detail, see http://​www​.stat​can​.gc​.ca/​d​a​i​l​y​-​q​u​o​t​i​d​i​e​n​/​1​5​0​2​1​1​/​t​1​5​0​2​1​1​a​0​0​1​-​e​n​g​.​htm and http://​www​.edmon​ton​.ca/​c​i​t​y​_​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​f​a​c​t​s​_​f​i​g​u​r​e​s​/​p​o​p​u​l​a​t​i​o​n​-​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​.​a​spx.

[4] Dorow and Dogu stud­ied what they termed the “local con­scious­ness” of res­i­dents of Fort McMur­ray by hav­ing them draw maps that rep­re­sent their sub­jec­tive def­i­n­i­tion of the city. They write: “ … most of the work­ers’ maps includ­ed escape hatch­es to places that tem­porar­i­ly mit­i­gat­ed the stark real­i­ty of spa­tial­ly deferred hope. … Mark went reg­u­lar­ly to Edmon­ton on his days off to spend time with activist friends; next to ‘E-town’ he wrote ‘this place keeps you sane.’” (284). Their study appears in an exem­plary col­lec­tion by David­son, Park, and Shields (2011) that explores what they term “ecolo­gies of affect,” that is, how par­tic­u­lar aspects of place (and time) evoke or man­i­fest nos­tal­gia, desire, and hope.

[5] The ener­gy indus­try, par­tic­u­lar­ly oil and gas, has become increas­ing­ly crit­i­cized both nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly by the asso­ci­a­tion of bitu­men extrac­tion and “dirty” oil from the Athabas­ca tar sands, locat­ed in Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, as well as fears of oil spills asso­ci­at­ed with pipelines. Fur­ther, boom and bust has been the dom­i­nant eco­nom­ic pat­tern with­in Alber­ta for decades as a result of how the (now for­mer) Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­v­a­tive dynasty gov­ern­ment man­aged the resource econ­o­my through close ties to the pri­vate oil and gas indus­try, while boast­ing of the (low) tax “advan­tage” in Alber­ta but leav­ing work­ers vul­ner­a­ble to such events as col­laps­ing oil prices in the glob­al econ­o­my. By 2016, under a New Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty gov­ern­ment, diver­si­fi­ca­tion of the econ­o­my has become a more imag­in­able alter­na­tive, although the degree to which this becomes real­i­ty remains to be seen. For some crit­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion of what this might require, see Laxer.

[6] Edmon­ton joined a list of oth­er north­ern cities around the world seek­ing to engage win­ter as a pos­i­tive time of cul­tur­al pos­si­bil­i­ty rather than a sea­son of dread. For back­ground on Edmonton’s offi­cial Win­ter­Ci­ty strat­e­gy, see the fol­low­ing report: http://​www​.edmon​ton​.ca/​c​i​t​y​_​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​P​D​F​/​C​O​E​-​W​i​n​t​e​r​C​i​t​y​-​L​o​v​e​-​W​i​n​t​e​r​-​S​u​m​m​a​r​y​-​R​e​p​o​r​t​.​pdf.

[7] In addi­tion to emer­gency tele­phones, which were installed by the city in 2015, con­struc­tion is under­way to build sui­cide pre­ven­tion bar­ri­ers, in the form of high-ten­sion wires, along the High Lev­el Bridge. While this is being laud­ed as an impor­tant step in respond­ing to the prob­lem of sui­cide, it has also led to some con­tro­ver­sy con­cern­ing its impli­ca­tions for cyclist safety.

[8] A recent increase in sui­cide has been attrib­uted to mass lay­offs in the ener­gy sec­tor in the past year. For exam­ple, between Jan­u­ary and June 2014, there were 252 sui­cides in Alber­ta, com­pared to 327 in 2015, a year in which there were mass lay­offs in the ener­gy sec­tor. See http://​www​.cbc​.ca/​n​e​w​s​/​c​a​n​a​d​a​/​c​a​l​g​a​r​y​/​s​u​i​c​i​d​e​-​r​a​t​e​-​a​l​b​e​r​t​a​-​i​n​c​r​e​a​s​e​-​l​a​y​o​f​f​s​-​1​.​3​3​5​3​662.

[9] https://​www​.cur​ren​tre​sults​.com/​W​e​a​t​h​e​r​-​E​x​t​r​e​m​e​s​/​C​a​n​a​d​a​/​s​u​n​n​i​e​s​t​-​c​i​t​i​e​s​.​php.