By Kevin E. Jones

What does data add to an argument? Last week I attended Edmonton City Council’s Executive Committee meeting, at which city administration tabled a report detailing projections for the “cumulative impact” of three future suburban communities. Instigated by Council, the report outlines a projected shortfall of $1.4 billion over a fifty-year lifespan of the communities. It’s a big number, and the projection of costs and revenues behind it are complex and based on detailed assumptions about growth and the development lifecycle of these neighbourhoods. It will no doubt be picked over and projections will be modified and refined. My aim in writing this blog post is not to enter the fray about the accuracy of the numbers, but to consider the way in which report data enter into and are engaged within heated policy contexts; in this case, the protracted conversation about appropriate forms of urban development and the often polarising conversations which set sprawl against infill.

What got me thinking along these lines was the context in which the report was tabled itself. Well that and a longstanding research interest in the relationship between expertise, publics and policy development. The report was tabled alongside agenda items which included the naming of a number of new suburban communities and an extended conversation about nuisance issues associated with infill development. The former, raised questions about what’s in a name and focused on an appeal by developers to alter names proposed by the city, presumably because they think they will sell better. The latter, addresses emerging tensions as infill increases in Edmonton’s mature neighbourhood and suspect development practices challenge community support for redevelopment and densification.

Lined up next to each other on the agenda, there was something surreal about the day’s discussions as conversations about knocked over fences, and whether “Red Willow” or “Golden Willow” was a more appropriate name, shared space with massive infrastructure deficits and sustainability issues. How could mundane conversations about everyday city-building share the same billing as the more apparently substantial issue of unsustainable urban sprawl. Yet, these initial impressions are in many ways unfair, although I expect Mayor and Council will be keen to leave debates over grammar out of future meetings. For one reason, city governments are unique in their ability to be locally rooted within the everyday experience of citizens while also having to formulate abstract policy solutions to far reaching and challenging policy scenarios. Moreover, the issues at the heart of urban growth policies are every bit as much to do with contested identities, social expectations and community values as they are to do with planning modes, development models and density targets. Viewed in this way the Council’s conversations seem less incongruous and it’s probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that sustainable growth planning is going to require effort and successful governance across the spectrum of topics and concerns which were expressed.

It can be helpful then to reflect upon the role of the infrastructure report within this contested policy terrain. It is going to be increasingly important to think about how data contributes to debates over sprawl, density and infill, particularly as the City moves to increase growth modelling as a planning tool. Sociologists studying expertise within policy processes note for instance a tendency for advocates of certain policy directions to interpret “facts” as bottom-line-arguments. Data, in other words, is performed as a rhetorical tool in which its advocates seek to trump other perspectives and close debate. Yet, there is a great deal of research that suggests that bottom-line arguments can be counterproductive by polarizing debate further and diminishing trust. Controversial policy areas don’t close down easily, and governments will often find that issues that were considered settled by the “facts” continue to come forward. Conversations which are unattended within the policy process of course continue to exist outside of it, such as those around place identity. This means that such simple victories are relatively rare in controversial areas of municipal policy. Moreover, in the case of debates over sprawl and density, the facts on display in this instance are hardly surprising. The negative connotations of “sprawl” are widespread within popular discourse, as well as within planning expertise. Thus while $1.4 billion is a big number, it is unlikely to become single catalyst which alters long-term path-dependencies. Thankfully, I have yet to hear anyone wave the report around as a smoking gun, as to do so would be unhelpful.

There are, however, ways in which the report and the data it contains can contribute to opening up growth planning in Edmonton and identify possible directions for supporting sustainable transformations. Forecasting data when recognized as incomplete can provide useful reference points for both policy development and public conversation. Knowledge is essential. Employed appropriately, data can encourage a greater consideration of the complexity of development trajectories. In doing so, it can promote deeper and more meaningful forms of engagement than the sniping between urbanists and the suburbs which too often characterize debates now. Forecasting data and growth modelling, as these terms suggest, likewise provides an essential means of looking ahead and delineating possible development trajectories and decision pathways. The idea that the future is contingent is powerful, and can provide space to imagine the kinds of communities we wish to leave as our legacy. Such conversations cast local debates and tensions alongside possible futures. There are, in other words, important opportunities to make community informed decisions about growth planning, the costs we are willing to pay as a community and how these are divided between taxpayers and developers. Data, simply, can be a powerful tool in opening-up dialogue and potential futures, so long as we don’t interpret it as the final word.

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