Q&A with Edmonton's mayor: Don Iveson looks back at an era of rapid growth

CBC spoke with Don Iveson about the city's successes and failures in managing growth during his time on council.

In 14 years since Don Iveson was elected to council, city grew by 240,000 people

Mayor Don Iveson says Edmonton has found some balance when it comes to growth in the capital region. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

CBC's Kory Siegers is spending time digging into stories that explore issues affecting neighbourhoods around the Anthony Henday ring road. We'd always love to hear your ideas. You can email us at edmontonam@cbc.ca or kory.siegers@cbc.ca

When Don Iveson was elected to city council in 2007, Edmonton's population was around 730,000 people. According to the 2019 census the city has grown by more than 240,000 — now knocking on the door of one million, if not there already.

CBC News sat down with the mayor as he prepares to leave civic politics to talk about the challenges of that growth.

Here is that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Q. Has your opinion about suburban growth changed since you first joined council?

When I ran back in 2007 … a concern that I was hearing was about the unmanaged growth of the city spreading out further. Here I am 14 years later, still working on these things. But the way we grow has changed considerably over that time.The levels of density that we're achieving, both through infill and transit-oriented development ... has changed markedly from 14 years ago when low density growth was king. We're not all the way to where we need to be, but it is fundamentally different than it was 10, 15 years ago. 

Q. What is an example of finding that balance?

Take an area like Heritage Valley, which has got about as many people in it as Red Deer now, but in a fraction of the footprint. It has an LRT line planned into it. Getting the train down into the new hospital site there, the park-and-ride that's just opened and right into the town centre, which is going to be another mini downtown — having many of those clusters of density connected together by high-frequency transit is really the future of regional growth, both in the city of Edmonton and in the surrounding suburbs.

Q. Would you have changed anything when it came to planning around the Henday? 

[The Henday] really did open up one last push of business-as-usual lower-density growth. Unfortunately, the design of many of those neighbourhoods is still fundamentally car dependent and not built around transit. And that's what you get with the major enabler of growth being a giant freeway. 

Q. Will the transit redesign help get transit where it should be in the suburbs?

Yes, [but] it will be a very tough transition. Partly because people haven't seen how the on-demand is going to work yet, and partly because people do not all understand necessarily how unsustainable the service we have been running is. The last time the bus network was reorganized was almost 25 years ago, and now the city has essentially doubled in size, with a lot of low- to medium-density communities on the outside of the Henday. Very hard to get transit service effectively into those neighbourhoods. Yet we did it and frankly [it] was very costly and very inefficient. 

Q. Looking back at your legacy, how do you see the completion of the Henday in that picture? 

There's no doubt that it's been beneficial to the region in terms of improving the health of the overall transportation network. It has also opened up a lot more new growth that we are trying as hard as we can to manage. It is a bit of a moat to try to get transit to the other side of, but that's why extending  [the] LRT ... and piercing the Henday with great rapid transit ... has to be done to make sure that it isn't the defining feature of growth for the next 50 years. 

Q. Final thoughts?

Ultimately, I'll know if our work here in the city has been successful if my kids choose to stay here. Will they say, 'This is a lovely place where I can do whatever I want to do? And I feel safe and the air is clean and the people are nice. And I can afford to live here and I can get around the way I want to get around.' And I think we're on track to build that kind of city.


Kory Siegers

Network producer

Kory Siegers is a network producer with CBC News, based in Edmonton, Alta. She previously worked as a producer for CBC Edmonton and as an assignment editor for Global Edmonton. She has spent more than two decades covering news across Alberta. Email story tips to kory.siegers@cbc.ca.


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