street sense - polish but don't necessarily spit


I read a thought provoking piece in the paper today about the filthy landscape of garbage and gravel that emerges in Edmonton every spring once the snow thaws. When the seasons are in transition, I often get caught up in the excitement that warmer weather is around the corner and happily join in with coworkers or fellow pedestrians on the street proclaiming how beautiful things are starting to look. But thinking about it more deeply, what we are really collectively expressing is not the beauty of the soggy grass and littered sidewalks, but rather our relief that the snow is finally gone and that warmer temperatures are on the way, for there is nothing beautiful about the ugly surface of early spring.

Scott McKeen from the Edmonton Journal writes:

I still can't accept this post-winter purgatory. Nothing's blooming. Nothing's green. The city's colour palette runs from brown to grey. And with our grimy Soviet architecture, we need colour to distract the eye.The curbs, sidewalks, power poles, windows and storefronts remain crusted in filth. Months of litter clings to shrubs, fences and mucky grass.
But the dirty appearance of Edmonton should not be blamed on the melting snow mixing with the sand and gravel that remains on the roads. Along any road or sidewalk you're apt to see cigarette butts strewn amongst flattened coffee cups, bits of newspaper and other extraneous detritus. This garbage has to come from somewhere... and it really infuriates me to think that during winter months people just decide to toss their junk anywhere leaving it to be covered by snow. This garbage may be out of sight for a few months, but come spring it doesn't melt away.

The article goes on to talk about Adopt-A-Block program that is part of the City of Edmonton's litter prevention program ( - look under Environment) that was developed to help keep Edmonton clean and attractive over the summer months. Businesses and citizens can sign up to keep a certain block clean over the summer months. It's a good program to have, but participation is key and so far the number of "city block captains" is down from last year. However, what I don't understand is what prompts people to litter. It is relatively easy to find a garbage can or recycle bin, so I would think that people could live with carrying their garbage with them for a couple blocks. Is it really that much of a hassle to carry your wrappers or empty bottles with you? I really have to wonder what people expect to get from a city that they abuse.

McKeen goes on to say,

We set a standard for this city with our collective choices and behaviours. Look at Edmonton today. Our standards suck.

Blame city hall? It's a convenient scapegoat. The sad truth is that elected officials reflect your wishes. So do developers and businesses.

And what Edmonton wishes more than anything else -- more than clean streets, public art, walkable streets and compelling architecture -- is cheap prices and low taxes.

Don't believe me? Look around you as you drive to the big-box store tonight. Look out the window of the concrete rectangle you call the office.

Blame city hall? If the majority of taxpayers wanted a sparkling city, the street sweepers would be whisking your neighbourhood right now.

City council isn't dumb. They give us the city we ask for -- the city we deserve.

Cynical pundits describe taxes as theft. I'd describe them more as The Tab.

I'm quite glad that when I moved to Edmonton I ended up living downtown. Not only has it been far more convenient for me in order to get around (I can walk to work and to shopping for my everyday needs), I also feel more connected to the city. Not being isolated in some suburb I've been able to more actively participate in the the many festivals and cultural events that are hosted in the city, either downtown or a short jaunt across the bridge. However, despite these events it can be quite obvious that downtown Edmonton lacks some of the same vibrancy of other cities, mostly due to the lack of mixed use commercial and residential developments . My current apartment building is part of a complex of four, each with their own enormous parking lot that could have been built underground, the street level surface to be used for commercial space or even green space to be used by the residents (not unlike what you see in artists' renderings of proposed developments). It almost seems like every possible measure to cut costs have been taken by developers in Edmonton. Thanks to market demand residents accept it and continue to pay top dollar for these spaces. Maybe it's the frustration with the ugly architecture that leads people to litter. When they leave their concrete pad on some grey day of winter and head to any of the various "Commons" around the city (Common is synonymous with the term "car mall") perhaps the only way they can deal with their depression is to sip on a double double from Timmy HoHos and then toss it on top the mounds of garbage on Gateway Boulevard. I can only guess here.

In other related news, San Francisco has become the first city in North America to ban the use of traditional plastic grocery bags. Read more in the CBC article. Aryn and I try to use our cloth grocery bags as much as possible, but I find that I often forget to bring some with me to work so when I stop at the store on my way home I don't have any with me. We have a surplus of plastic bags to reuse, so I'm thinking of knitting something useful with them. Just in case you were wondering how to do that, here are some instructions. One woman even went so far as to knit a wedding dress out of white plastic bags. Now that's dedication.


  1. were does one put cigarette butts and not create a fire other then the snow?

    Great post by the way ;)