Tuesday, 7 January 2014

6 Potential New Sister City Partnerships for Edmonton

Commemorative stamp featuring Edmonton's Harbin Gate (source: CTV News)
Edmonton, it is often said, has an identity problem. In spite of the fact that the city is regularly ranked as among the best places in the world to live, it is still a place that most of humanity has never heard of or is barely aware of. And most of the people who know of it, if we're honest, probably think it's a boring, colourless frozen wasteland whose most interesting features are a giant shopping mall and a has-been hockey team.

In defence of the rest of the world, however, it should be noted that Edmontonians have, until recently, not done a particularly good job dispelling this notion. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the Alberta capital fall asleep at the wheel as its downtown core died, its stature as a transportation hub faded, its once vibrant community of corporate head offices disappeared and Calgary became the uncontested economic engine of the province. All the while, Edmonton's notoriously self-deprecating denizens failed to trumpet the city's enduring treasures - its festivals, orchestras, green spaces, universities and research institutes, world-leading construction companies etc. - and as such Edmonton became Canada's Lost City of Atlantis, somehow just off the map.

Fortunately, the Edmonton zeitgeist has changed dramatically since the dawn of the Mandel era in 2004. Edmonton's downtown is vibrant again, the airport is booming, the city's architecture is bolder and more imaginative than ever, public transit is at last being prioritized and the economy continues to thrive. Nevertheless, Edmonton's dream of becoming a global trade and logistics hub continues to be hindered by the city's lack of global profile. People simply don't know who we are as a city.

There are many things we could be doing as a city to change that, some of which might seem frivolous on the surface. One possible tactic would be to expand current our sister city partnerships. While many cities have numerous city twinning arrangements, Edmonton has only four such partnerships, specifically with Gatineau, Quebec, Nashville, Tennessee, Harbin, China and Wonju, South Korea. Of these, Edmonton's partnership with Harbin, the economic hub of China's northeastern Heilongjang Province, has proven the most economically fruitful, with the two cities signing a tourism and business cooperation agreement in 2011.

What other cities around the world would befit a sister city arrangement with Edmonton? Here are six suggestions.

1) Adelaide, Australia
Source: hubaustralia.com

With the notable exception of its famously sublime climate, Adelaide, the capital city of the state of South Australia, is arguably the world city that most closely resembles Edmonton. Its population is virtually identical to Edmonton's, as is its status as Australia's fifth largest city. It also serves a similar transportation and logistics role to Edmonton as the main air gateway to Australia's vast mining operations in the country's geographic centre. Want more parallels? It's also home to a thriving arts and culture scene, including the biggest fringe festival in the southern hemisphere. And as I pointed out in my recent post on Edmonton's airport predicament, it's also a city that has faced some of the same hurdles as Edmonton in building connections with the outside world. Adelaide - it's more or less Edmonton in the subtropics.

2) Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine

Source: Wikipedia
Why the hell do we not have a sister city in the ancestral homeland of at least one out of every ten Edmontonians? While other Canadian cities have entered into civic partnerships with Ukrainian counterparts (Toronto with Kiev, Winnipeg with Lviv and Vancouver with Odessa), Edmonton, one of the most Ukrainian cities outside the Motherland has notably not done so. The central Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk would seem to be an obvious choice. Not only does it not yet have a Canadian sister city, this riverside metropolis is of a similar size and economic profile to Edmonton. It is also a major educational centre in Ukraine, whose many post-secondary institutions include the National Mining University, a world-leader in resource extraction technology.

3) Concepción, Chile
Source: ab-imagensincriveis.blogspot.com

While it scarcely compares to the city's Ukrainian contingent, Edmonton's 3,000-strong Chilean community, most of whom came as refugees during the early Pinochet years, maintains an outsized presence within the city's Latin American population. Chilean accents dominate Spanish-language radio in Edmonton and empanadas and ceviche share shelf space with perogies and kubasa in the city's 'ethnic' grocery stores. Which Chilean city would be the best fit with Edmonton? The southern city of Concepción, with its metro population of just over one million, its renown as a "university town" (it's home to 15 universities) and its thriving music scene, would be a strong candidate.

4) Astana, Kazakhstan

Source: Wikipedia
A little-known fact about the Ukrainian diaspora of the late nineteenth century is that at the same time thousands of Ukrainian farmers migrated to the west, ultimately settling in the Canadian prairie provinces, an equally substantial contingent migrated eastward, settling in the steppes of what is now Akmola province in northeastern Kazakhstan. Today Kazakhstan is an independent republic that bears more than a passing similarity to Alberta, with its mountain and prairie vistas, extreme climate, multiethnic population and fast-growing economy dominated by oil and gas. At the centre of Akmola province is the country's new capital city of Astana, Kazakhstan's northern metropolis - and its Edmonton. (Almaty, the country's largest city to the south, is very much its Calgary.) Edmonton's architecture may not be as garish as Astana's, but the cities' roles, and the countries' historical and economic parallels, would make for an intriguing pairing.

5) Pasig City, Philippines

Source: Wikipedia
Of Alberta's total immigrant population of around 644,000, nearly 70,000 - about 11 per cent of the total - are of Philippine origin, making them the largest single immigrant group in the province. Edmonton's Filipino population is over 26,000, representing nearly three per cent of the city's total population. If Ukraine represents the city's ancestral past, the Philippines clearly represents its present. So who would we partner with in the land of Jeepneys and adobo chicken? With Winnipeg partnered with the Manila proper and Vancouver with Quezon City, that leaves Makati and Pasig among major Metro Manila cities without a Canadian partner. Makati, with its major agglomeration of banks and corporate head offices, might be a better match with Calgary, with Pasig, a major educational centre, home to the highly respected University of Asia and the Pacific, would be a logical partner for Edmonton.

6) Juba, South Sudan
Source: ssdnnetwork.com

Edmonton's increasingly diverse citizenry includes around 3,000 immigrants from the recently independent republic of South Sudan. The vast majority came to Canada as refugees in the late-1990s and early 2000s during the worst of Sudan's torturously long and cruel north-south civil war. As a relatively new contingent from a country still beset by instability and destitution, Edmonton's South Sudanese population retains a strong vested interest in their beleaguered homeland. Some have even returned to South Sudan to help set up infrastructure, while others continue to lobby on behalf of the country's people, which last month faced renewed unrest. A sister city partnership with the capital city of this young nation, especially one with strong ties to Alberta, would send a strong signal of solidarity to a country still struggling to survive.

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