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City Centre: It's All About Choice

Fort McMurray is in the midst of a transformation of its urban core, at a scale and pace that is off the charts in terms of what is normal for cities of a similar size.

“WE ARE TRYING TO DO IN FIVE TO 10 YEARS what takes most communities 50 to 100 years to do,” said Glen Laubenstein, Chief Administrative Officer, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

To say that Fort McMurray is going through radical renewal would be the understatement of the year. Fueled by the unanimously endorsed City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan, catalyst projects are quickly moving from renderings on a page to reality.

Trying to inspire a shared vision of this new urban environment has not been without challenge and controversy. Vocal opponents to certain aspects of the plan have made themselves known at community engagement events, public council meetings and on social media.

Standing in the middle of the fray between the myriad of designers and planners on the one side, and a mix of excited advocates and gritty malcontents on the other, is Ron Taylor, Executive Director, City Centre.

“This community has a very vocal minority and a very quiet majority,” said Taylor, “more so, I think, than any other community that I have seen.”

Having shepherded many urban developments in his long and illustrious career that has taken him around the globe from New York City and Toronto to London, you’d think that a predictable pattern would emerge. The reality is quite the opposite.

“The one thing I’ve learned in terms of development is that each place is different,” said Taylor. “There is no normal.”

While we often focus on physical structures – buildings, bridges, and roads – when it comes to urban planning, it is the human experiences we are trying to create that determines what happens.

“It’s important in the planning process to affirm what the function is before you start to deal with the form,” said Taylor. “When we plan places like this, what we’re building are communities. And communities are networks of people. Communities are people sharing, people living together, working together and playing together.”

For Amanda Haitas, Business Development Officer with City Centre, the dramatic changes afoot have contributed to her growing affinity for Fort McMurray.

“I can feel that it’s changing,” said Haitas. “People are no longer talking about when they’re going to leave, instead they’re talking about what they’re doing. People are staying here, even on their days off.”

Some people dream of the concerts they will see in the Sports and Entertainment Centre, others imagine standing in the middle of the bridge across the Snye looking up at the northern lights. Amanda’s vision is a little less specific.

She longs to come to City Centre without a plan, and just experience what it has to offer. In her ideal future for the heart of Fort McMurray she expects the unexpected: shops, pubs, gathering spaces that offer a sense of place and excitement.

For Ron Taylor, the success of City Centre comes down to one thing: people.

“Vibrant places and great places are all about moments,” said Taylor. “When I travel to places that I’ve built – Canary Wharf, Battery Park City, Halifax Seaport – there are moments that I experience when I’m there as the average person. Sitting in a bar on the third floor looking out over Canada Square with a skating rink in the middle of London, right? And there are all these people skating in London, right? And they rent skates and skate for a half an hour, people skating in the rain. I go Whoa! This is magical.”

“It’s about choice,” said Taylor. “Vibrant places are all above having choices.”

Over the next period of years as catalyst projects in City Centre go from initial plans through community engagement sessions to final design and construction, we will get closer to the reality of having a quality urban environment that is a vital and dynamic place to work, play and live.

To follow the dynamic changes in progress visit the City Centre McMurray website ( or download their mobile app, the CCM Insider.


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.