The Law of 90%

The Law of 90%

Have you ever started a project that you’re jacked up about, work on it for awhile, get it to a certain point and then either abandon it or let it fade out when you’re about 90% done? Yeah…… neither.

My brother and I joke about the Law of 90% because we have a very predictable tendency to do exactly what I described in the first paragraph. My condo is littered with nearly-completed projects. Frames for our collection of hockey jerseys to a series of built-but-not-yet-stained planters on the balcony. Hell, my condo has been a renovation project of mine since I bought it two years ago. It’s functional, and I only have a few things left to do, but I. Just. Can’t. Finish. The reasons for this vary from a genetic predisposition – my parents are notorious 90%-ers; to a full on psychological hurdle. Regardless, my reality is that sometimes good enough is good enough, and projects are deemed complete just short of their initial target. I took Project Management training recently, and remember the instructor saying that the last 10% of projects are the hardest to finish. My recollection has him looking directly at me while saying it.


There’s a fantastic stretch of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in downtown Edmonton that I’ve fanboy-ed about far too many times called Railtown. There is a trolley that uses historic rail lines to transport people from Whyte Avenue to Jasper Avenue, stopping for a photo opportunity on the High Level Bridge. You’ll never see me on this thing because of that pause at the midpoint of the highest bridge in the world (from my acrophobic perspective), but you will see me further north on the pathway comfortably located on solid ground (and where the former tracks used to lie). This path gets you from the river valley to 104th Avenue, including a stop at my nearest grocery store, all while minimizing interactions with vehicles. It’s fantastic, especially during the summer when I walk to get groceries and a sugary treat for myself as a reward for walking to get it.

Overhead - map

But this is also a good example of the Law of 90%. A stretch of this path between the commercial centre and apartment buildings as shown above is referred to in the biz as a greenway. This super original word hits it on the nose, it’s basically a path meandering in the middle of landscaping. It’s too bad because further south, a local consulting company designed a way better version of what Railtown could be.

Missed Opportunities

In this case, the focus was on the connection, which is understandable. This path connects directly to the bike lanes that take you to the core of downtown or the west end of the City. But there’s also a node right in the centre that is intended for programming or activities. In this circumstance, it’s a nice seating area with planters and landscaping. There are always people sitting on the benches, and mulling about, it serves its purpose.

gathering node

I’m not a professional photographer, that is clear from this exercise. Look at that lighting…

As functional as the node is, the part of the greenway south of this node is nothing but an asphalt path between two large swaths of sod, with benches, lights and landscaping strewn about haphazardly. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Railtown or ghost town?

Look at that bench on the right side of the photo. See how you have to walk over the grass to get to it? Notice how nobody is sitting on it? Why would you? It faces the back of a commercial strip mall, and there’s not even a path to get there. On wet or winter days, that bench is basically decoration. Its inclusion in that spot tells me that the designers of this space wanted to make the greenway more functional. And this is where the Law of 90% comes in.

Don’t stop short

If you want the space to be more usable and functional, make it so. If this was in Stockholm, there would be lawn bowling greens. In Chicago, there would be a giant chess set. In New York, it would be the High Line. Sparta would have an outdoor workout facility, or an inexplicable pit that messengers are kicked into.

But this is Edmonton, and here we cut corners. Instead of an installation that gets people to engage with each other, there is sod. Sod, whose only purpose is to get sprayed with chemicals to battle the dandelion epidemic and be mowed weekly.

Maybe I’m missing the point and this was intended to be an exercise in job creation. But I’m betting it was a classic example of the Law of 90%. Railtown deserves better.

what could be in Railtown


God damn it. Wouldn’t you know it that two weeks later I went back and found a guy sitting on that bench. Scrap the whole plan, I was clearly wrong. Railtown is perfect.

guy sitting on bench in Railtown


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