The evolution of our zany road system has led to the end of a mayor's career, a lawsuit, silly contests and endless civic squabbling - all the while leaving us puzzled in the driver's seat.
By Omar Mouallem | February 11, 2010
Illustration by Genevieve Simms
Edmonton’s road scheme is a grid made up of numerical streets ascending westward, with avenues ascending northward. In theory.
The core of it is simple and easily navigated – but then you venture into the outer rings and meet a confused road such as 95th Street in the north, which, depending on the direction you’re driving in, can have a change of heart and decide to be either 179th Avenue, Klarvatten Road or 168th Avenue.
Or maybe you’ve ventured too far south and find yourself driving across a Flintstones-like background of homogeneous houses on tortuous roads without end, or worse, a dead end. All the while you’re looking for that next street number but getting meaningless alliterations instead: Goodwin Crescent, Galland Close, Geissinger Road. It’s supposed to indicate that you are in Glastonbury because, as you may remember from Sesame Street, G is for Glastonbury. But that doesn’t solve the mystery of where Glastonbury is and how to get out of it.
“Long-term Edmontonians complain about named streets because they’re used to the numbers and have probably never used a map in their day-to-day travels,” says Cory Sousa, an Edmonton city planner. “In the northwest, we have numbered streets that curve and become an avenue, and curve again and become a street.”
Unbeknownst to most residents, Edmonton has a four-quadrant system, but about 90 per cent of addresses are in one quadrant. “We get people calling to tell us, ‘I don’t live in the northwest! I’m on the south side!’ ” says Teresa Williams, Canada Post spokesperson for Northern Alberta.
According to documents at the city archives, the history of our idiosyncratic roads goes back to 1912, when Edmonton officially amalgamated with Strathcona. Both cities were experiencing an immigrant and business boom due to the “Go West” propaganda spread by Ottawa. By merging with Strathcona, the capital city would double in size and population, and establish itself as a major Canadian city.
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Immediately, the problems with navigating the “new” Edmonton began. Each city had its own road scheme. Strathcona had quadrants meeting at a centre point – Whyte Avenue and Main Street (now Calgary Trail). Edmonton had no quadrants and a hodgepodge of named and numbered roads that often changed from one corner of the block to the next, mainly because property developers wanted to increase marketability with a fancier name than, say, “Threadneedle Avenue.”
To further complicate matters, the cities had some streets of the same name. If you were looking for Agnes Street, you could have ridden your horse all the way across the river before realizing the Agnes Street you wanted was behind you. In fact, there were three streets or avenues named Agnes in Edmonton and one in Strathcona.
By the end of 1912, the city clearly needed remapping, renaming and renumbering. Luckily, both sections were built on a river lot system (long, rectangular strips of land) and had imposed grid schemes that made it easy to connect two streets along an imaginary line through the river.
But which names from each city would be kept or surrendered? Deciding on the right plan, pitted neighbour against neighbour, merchant against merchant and politician against politician. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing,” says city archivist Kathryn Ivany. “It was quite a time.”
Naturally, Edmonton-centrism gave weight to a plan suggesting all Strathcona streets adopt Edmonton names. (The plan was supported by then-mayor William Short, who was described as “too autocratic” by his opponents.) Strathcona’s property and business owners contested the plan to A.J. Latornel, who had the misfortune of holding the post of city engineer at the time. Latornel spent months writing up two new schemes aimed at appeasing all Edmontonians, old and new. In March 1913, he unveiled the options, “one as easy as the other,” before city council. Both plans were so specific he even provided new names and numbers for existing streets. “It’s necessary to have a [point] of origin, so that expansion may take place in the quadrants which may be settled,” his report said.
But Mayor Short had a different plan, one that completely ignored the requests of Strathcona residents and the city engineer’s hard work. After meeting with Edmonton businessmen north of the river, Mayor Short decided in favour of a grid system with numbered roads that would turn Jasper Avenue into 101st Avenue, and 1st Street into 101st Street. (Which is why the city’s geographical midpoint today is at 101st Street and 101st Avenue, instead of crossing like Calgary’s Centre Street and Centre Avenue, or zero street and zero avenue.)
There was much resistance from inside his political circle. Alderman Joseph Driscoll declared: “A storm will break just as soon as you try to put this system into effect.” The mayor’s response was tantamount to giving them the middle finger; he created a road-reform committee that excluded the city engineer and opposing aldermen, and ignored many citizens’ pleas for a plebiscite. He and his committee ordered 8,000 nameplates with the new numbers for the old roads; many of the nameplates are still in use today.
As the Balkans battled abroad, Edmonton’s mini-war could be heard from Garneau to Glenora. Most businesses and homoeowners rejected the new address system and mapping scheme that embraced numbers over names. It rattled their ordinariness. It was too confusing. Too boring. Too numerical.Mayor Short was alienating the populace by arbitrarily enforcing his road plan. A second plebiscite was requested, this time petitioned from within his administration, but the request was again rejected. It was Short’s biggest mistake. He forgot that a civic election was two months away.
In December 1913, a new mayor, W.J. McNamara inherited the quagmire. McNamara put it in the hands of the people, announcing a contest for a $100 prize to come up with a new road scheme.
The winning plan, called the “Edmonscona Plan,” proposed an alphabetical model much like the Glastonbury neighbourhood today. After the prize money was rewarded, the appointed awesome alphabetical plan . . . was scrapped. Dividing the city by letter only allowed for 26 neighbourhoods, and it didn’t do any favours to newcomers and visitors with language barriers. Logistically, it was a worse plan than the one Short had been advocating all along.
McNamara rehashed the former mayor’s unpopular scheme and continued installing new numbered nameplates. Then, just when it looked like the people of Edmonton were about to surrender, the changes were halted. A citizen had launched a lawsuit against the city. How dare they make him change his letterheads!
To stave off criticism and the looming lawsuit, McNamara’s administration held a plebiscite. Unbelievably, after the two-year-long brouhaha, Edmontonians – both northern and southern – voted for the controversial numerical plan that Mayor Short first proposed.
It was the plan that Edmonton grew by. That is, until post-Second World War immigration brought us European developers who were all fired up about cul-de-sacs and crescents, and naming those curvy roads after historical figures we’ve since forgotten, such as McQueen Road.
If that didn’t complicate things enough, in 1982 it became apparent that city road development was going to exceed the boundaries of 1st Street and 1st Avenue, so a quadrant system was implemented a few years later. The new system meant that our midpoints would be on the outskirts, and almost the entire city would be in the northwest quadrant.
And if you think the issues end there, you’re wrong. In 1991, the city was taken to task for sexism because too many roads were named after men; in 1999, the complaint was ethnocentrism, because the names were too Anglo.
Sousa says there are still some city councillors who muse over renovating the road plan to make it similar to Vancouver’s, which uses secondary numbers added to names to help drivers figure out where they are. To use a local example, nameplates on Riverbend Road would be accompanied by a 148th Street nameplate. But Sousa doubts there will be any more major changes. “Nowadays, it costs about $350 just to change one house address. Plus, there are all the costs for the homeowner with changing their bank information, drivers’ licence and Canada Post information. And then there are the signage changes and all the nameplates.”
The fact of the matter is that we’ve long since reached a point of no return. The fickle roads with befuddling names have been built, the houses the roads take you to are here to stay and the quadrants will never be appropriately balanced unless Edmonton explodes to the size of New York. Of course, with GPS technology in cars, navigating our quirky roads is becoming more tolerable and less painful. But if that technology should glitch, just be thankful that we don’t have four roads named Agnes anymore.