Past Futures: What Was Never to Be

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A Future without Blight


Fifty years ago, the city of Edmonton commissioned a report on urban renewal as part of a grand strategy to revitalize the city, especially the downtown core. Part One of the study was published as a short booklet, titled, simply, The Problem.

As the city moves forward now with another set of grand plans to renew and revitalize the urban core, it’s worth looking back to see how people saw “the problem” fifty years ago.

The problem for Edmontonians in 1962 was, above all, one of blight.

This was blight:

Blight was a social problem, but also an aesthetic one:

 Maps were drawn to highlighted the blighted portions of the city. This one pointed out places with low “visual street quality.” How was this measured? We do not know. Is it subjective, or are there aspects of visual street quality that meet collective aesthetic standards?


Blight was also a social problem. This map showed the rate of incidents with police by neighbourhood.

Thinking about Past Futures across National Boundaries

In 1955, the President of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, announced a plan for “fifty years of progress in five.” The defining achievement of this plan would be the new capital, Brasilia, a futuristic kind of Latin American city that would be based on order, progress, and fluid movement. Brasilia had socialist—or at least populist—implications: by creating a city from scratch, the hierarchies of class and racial divisions that plagued older Latin American cities would be destroyed. Fifty years later, it is widely accepted that Brasilia’s utopian ambitions have devolved into a dystopia. The futuristic buildings now look like retro visions of the space age and the automobile-based urban planning has ended up disenfranchising, rather than liberating, the poor and working class.

As Edmonton aspires for a sort of utopia-light with massive new projects for the City Centre airport, a downtown sports arena, and other projects, one has to wonder how many of these high-minded projects will come to be seen as failures in the coming decades. Certainly, Edmonton has already produced many futuristic relics that, despite their lofty ambitions, have come to represent obstacles to a livable, creative, and vibrant city. What are these retro-futuristic relics (HUB Mall? The Butterdome?) and what lessons do they have to teach us?

How can we learn from Brasilia, avoiding the unintended consequences that comes with the ambition to construct a city of tomorrow?

The University of Alberta HUB Mall

Evangelical Modernism: Tulsa’s Oral Roberts University


A comparative study of urban design as a sort of language about modernism, progress, and the future.  This project will examine the use of buildings over time, seeing how their meaning changes over time. It will also consider how these plans were described and justified in writing.


The scope here is an international survey of non-world cities. The Globalization and World Cities Network has established criteria to classify and rank “Global Cities.” How do we think about cities that fall just outside their rankings?


Academic essay, lecture.


Russell Cobb & Maureen Engel