You almost certainly live in Northwest Edmonton. Even if you’re deep in Mill Woods it’s still NW, just one of four parts of the quadrant into which the city is technically divided.
For your daily runaround, Edmonton-as-a-quadrant is effectively a non-issue: aside from capping off your shipping address with the requisite NW, chances are you don’t pay it much attention.
But, occasionally, an issue arises: the southwest pocket of residential Edmonton has a SW designation. It’s a reminder of that zone, and of the other two quadrants that sit idle in our civic awareness.
So, what the heck? Why have a quadrant system at all, if most of the city comfortably sits within only one of its four supposed zones? Why place the centre of the axis so far southeast—where 1 Avenue and 1 Street intersect—that it goes almost completely unconsidered?
Decisions on the specifics of why a quadrant was chosen, and why its axis is so offset—which officially happened in 1982—is pretty hard to track down. Edmonton’s city archives have little information, save a Naming Committee proposal to strike the axis-lines as Central Avenue and Meridian Street. Even Cory Sousa, a principal planner with the City of Edmonton, admits there isn’t much that can be found on paper. But he’s picked up some history from conversations he had after getting his job in 2006, from the planners that were there when the decisions were being made.
“When I first started, there was a generation of folks who did a lot of addressing and mapping, and were here, when they were young, when that whole debate was going on,” he recalls.
So: the seeds for a quadrant axis were sown long before they ever came to fruition. After merging with Strathcona in 1914, the then-nascent city centred itself with streets and avenues in the 100s in its centre. Starting there inevitably meant, after enough expansion into the south, we’d reach avenue zero. Which we did.
“That southern part of Anthony Henday, that roadway that used to exist before the Anthony Henday was built out there, was Quadrant Avenue,” Sousa says. “We called it that because it was basically the zero avenue as the numbers went all the way down.”
It proved to be an issue by the
mid-’70s: a growing Edmonton was brimming up against the prescribed limits of growth. Land prices were ticking upwards; an Edmonton Journal article dated October 23, 1978, had then-mayor Cec Purves call annexation, “the most critical thing facing us today.” So city council entered negotiations with the province and surrounding communities to expand the city’s borders.
Exactly how far to expand them became the hotly contested topic of hearings, editorials and letters-to-the-editor—the pre-Twitter battlegrounds of civic disagreement—for years. Early discussions dreamed of an expanding the city’s total area from 320 square kilometres to 1800, consuming both St Albert and Sherwood Park. The residents of both argued hard for their continued independence.
The annex was finally approved with compromise, granting Edmonton a sizeable expansion of land while leaving out St Albert and Sherwood Park. But it was here that the grid-system’s naming failed: the land gained from Parkland County, Leduc County and Strathcona fell below that southern-most first avenue.
Options on how to deal with their inclusion into the existing system were batted about: putting a quadrant axis in the centre of the city, like Calgary, arose. So did adding another zero to the existing streets and avenues (making 100 into 1000, for example), or giving every street and avenue outside the existing grid a name, rather than a number. But the offset quadrant that was eventually chosen was thought to be both the least disruptive and the most cost-effective choice.
“Even though it wasn’t written down in council’s motion, the reason that they chose to do the quadrant the way that they did—with the axis point at almost the very extreme of southeast Edmonton—was essentially [because] that was the less-expensive option,” Sousa explains. “If they did what Calgary did, which was to make it right in the centre of the city, that would’ve involved completely changing the whole addressing system, plus changing all the roadway numbers.”
And thus it is that the majority of Edmonton sits in the NW quadrant, to the point that people often forget about the designation: emergency responders, EPCOR power people and presumably the occasional pizza delivery end up in the southwest when they should’ve gone northwest, or vice versa.
As a modern city planner working in the aftermath of a major decision like this, Sousa admits he sometimes wonders if the best option was chosen. Then again, he’s quick to point out issues with the other plans, given the state of Edmonton when the annex arose.
“It’s one of those 20-20 hindsight vision type of things,” he notes. “You kind of wonder, would Edmonton be better off if we went the Calgary route? If we decided to do that very early on in its history, probably—saying that, though, there are lots of other issues that come with that … I mentioned how there’s been some confusion about people going to the southwest versus the northwest. In Calgary, that happens on a constant basis.”
But our blissful, northwest-focus is likely to fade in the coming decades. Edmonton’s eyeing up another land annex, and Sousa notes that the city recently approved a residential neighbourhood development in the northeast quadrant.
“You’ll see a greater need to educate people on using the quadrant system to enhance our understanding of it, essentially,” he says of the coming years. “In terms of administration, it’s our goal to have as many businesses and visitors and new Edmontonians [as possible] really appreciate and understand we have a quadrant system.
“For the most part, I think that Edmontonians are really catching on,” he adds. “But we can certainly do more to help their understanding.”