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Healthy Skepticism

Ontario’s rookie municipal politicians have a new sandbox to play in.

Its size?

Four years long by whatever latitude municipal staff and re-elected incumbents will allow them. New councillors and mayors will receive orientation and training, and will be schooled in the reasoning and dictates of policies and procedures: in short, why things are the way they are.

A few new faces will have attained election victory because incumbents have either bowed out or chased larger ambitions (as mayors, as regional councillors, or as regional chairs).

Fresh in from the campaign trail, they may feel that they have arrived at City Hall with a mandate for change. Never fear. They will be joining very, very stable organizations that have successfully assimilated newcomers before.

Make no mistake. No re-elected incumbent or upwardly mobile city staffer believes that past decisions adopted around the municipal horseshoe, or the methods used to attain them, are in need of change. Their loyalty to the status quo is quite natural and logical, unless they have been living the last four years as outsiders, shunned by the organization they are elected to lead.

Returning incumbents rightly see their election as endorsement of past behaviour, equally as valid as any newcomer’s mandate for change.

We need only look south of the border to see how difficult change in government actions can be, even where leadership at the very top is backed by massive initial support.

Jane Jacobs attempts to explain why this is so, in her 1992 book Systems of Survival. It’s subtitled “A dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics”, and the work is an exploration of the two very different systems of these worlds (or “syndromes” as she calls them). She concludes that within the realm of government, military, religious and large corporate organizations, with their necessary “guardian” syndrome, there are a number of effective moral precepts that contrast with their equivalents in commerce and trade. Jacobs does not judge these precepts as necessarily good or bad, but believes that they are effective.

Distinctive guardian syndrome precepts include: using deception for the sake of achieving results (the end justifies the means) rather than overt dissent or objection; exerting prowess (pulling rank or citing reputation or qualifications) rather than engaging in competition; and being disciplined and obedient rather than efficient. Jacobs finds the guardian morality in man’s transition from hunter/gatherer and nomad to rooted settler, where territory and the division of tasks must be overseen, managed, and organized. It is this necessary management (the standard operating procedures) that she believes reinforces the values of loyalty over collaboration, respect for hierarchy over initiative, honour over honesty, and tradition over innovation.

New councillors and mayors will be initiated into this world, a world to which few citizens feel connected and fewer still might understand. Citizens and small enterprises live in the world of commerce, of trade. According to Jacobs trade is conducted using moral precepts that often contrast with those needed to administer territories and run hierarchical corporate bodies.

Calgary’s new mayor Naheed Nenshi describes city hall bureaucracy in blunt terms, as a “horrible soul-destroying system” with a “risk-averse culture.” While he’s been elected on a wave of optimism, and Calgary’s government may be worse than some, even there his “12 Better Ideas” will need to be implemented as effective change to a longstanding system of government, and that will be neither easy nor welcomed.

A prime example of this reality is the framing of debate regarding light rail transit in Waterloo Region. Consultants, the development industry, lobbyists, and those who benefit from the status quo have much to lose if real change is implemented. Investments have been made on the basis of present arrangements, and much is riding on the assumption of continuity. Although there is much talk of Smart Growth, and the changes it will bring for our communities, this is policy only, and policy can sometimes be far from the reality of specific decisions. The time-honoured administrative conveyor that turns farmland into subdivisions and lanes of congested traffic will continue unabated, in the name of “housing choice for consumers”.

Never presented as a threat to car-based development and patterns of living, public transit is touted as an added benefit that will complement traditional growth. Its expense cannot be compared to the $300 to $400 million that will be spent moving Highway 7 (from Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo) into farmland and wetland, estimated by its project consultants to save about 5 minutes of a 20 minute commute. That expense is quietly seen as necessary, but it’s only nominally for transportation. Its real task, as with most road and sewer infrastructure, is to open up land for development. Although its proponents will never admit such a thing publicly, the road will succumb to the inevitable pressures and arguments that created the Woodlawn Road and Victoria Street “gasoline alleys” it is meant to replace. A first, then a second, then more big box developments will be approved by township councils eager for assessment dollars, and less-than-smart-growth will be perpetuated.

Similar logic for rapid transit, that it will spur development, albeit in existing built up areas, falls on deaf ears. The debate over Highway 7 has been framed as one of transportation, of freedom and consumer choice, which plays to a taxpayer’s understanding of the public realm as nothing but support for his private movements. Evidence is glossed over, of how the highway’s further lanes will quickly become as congested as ever. The project’s real purpose: land development, growth, and the profits that flow from it; lies in the background. Light rail transit cannot be sold in similar terms. It is a system of infrastructure that requires an overt shift in where development profit is harvested. The development industry will always prefer greenfield subdivision, with its control of “lifestyle” sales message, over the messy dictates of urbanism. That is the devil it knows, and the mechanism that our civic bureaucracy is designed to support.

Low turnouts at municipal elections are not to be wondered at. While it may be true that a municipality’s services and programs, its policies and procedures, and its way of doing things have greater effect on our lives than any other level of government, it is also true that few citizens believe City Hall can truly change, regardless of how it may affect their children’s future. The apathy does not spring from the issues. It is a view of how our guardians conduct themselves, and their lack of healthy skepticism. Where politicians cite the mantra “On election day the voters have their say, and they are always right” they should add “And on election day, those who do not vote have also spoken loudly: that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

JM, October 22, 2010, as originally for the Business Times

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Upcoming Downtown Tour

I keep meeting people who were on a Jane’s Walk of Kitchener’s Warehouse District last May 1st, given by me and enjoyed by about 80 participants. Lots of community connections were made that day, and it was a great way to see the district with a fresh eye.

Coming up this Monday, November 4, 2010

I’ll be leading a group of cultural geography students from Wilfrid Laurier University on a different tour, but with a similar focus on the realities of design, culture, and the built landscape that is Kitchener’s Downtown.

We are assembling in the Rotunda of Kitchener’s City Hall, at 3 pm, and will be heading out, rain or shine, for a 2 hour walk through the downtown and warehouse district. We’ll examine issues of place-making, heritage and culture, our understanding and use of the idea of downtown, and the relation of built form and architecture to the patterns of our everyday lives.

The tour is part of a third year Cultural Heritage Landscapes course given by Dr. Jody Decker of WLU’s Department of Geography & Environmental Studies. I met Dr. Decker through our efforts to derail the demolition of a cultural heritage landscape in Kitchener’s Warehouse District (unfortunately a lost cause).

Everyone is welcome to join us. It will be fun and informative.

The themes of Dr. Decker’s course, as stated in her abstract, are as follows:

  • The concept of culture
  • The concept of place (community, neighborhood)
  • The concept of landscape
  • The discourse of heritage (conservation, preservation, restoration, revitalization, as resource)
  • Cultural heritage landscapes (CHLs)

I’ll probably be talking about concepts that are most interestly presented in Italo Calvino’s work Invisible Cities, and I’m sure there will be lively debate about what we’re looking at.

Calvino’s imaginative work catalogues 55 cities in a fictional conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, as Marco describes (in fanciful terms) the cities of Khan’s empire. For the short first chapter, see here.

Here’s an excerpt:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, or agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Look forward to seeing you on Monday. 3 pm, City Hall, Kitchener.

Community Tensions

Recent municipal elections here in our watershed included a referendum for both Kitchener and Waterloo voters on the question of whether each city’s council could discuss the pros and cons of amalgamation. Since these communities have been joined at Union Street for nearing half a century, this is a sort of “across the fence” conversation.

The tension around the dynamics of local and regional governance are real, with many concerns regarding changes to the present uneasy balance of shared and autonomous authority. The tension might even be a good and necessary aspect of our community’s recipe for success.

Other amalgamations in our province (Ontario) have had mixed results, so there’s little evidence that such actions increase efficiencies at the neighbourhood level, and some evidence that decisions move further from the citizen.

In the end the larger municipality, Kitchener, voted 2-1 in favour of conversation. The smaller, Waterloo, 2-1 against. So the politicians won’t be discussing the question. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, or that citizens can’t have that discussion.

A local blogger, Hilary Abel, has started a conversation forum asking Waterloo citizens to share their reasons for voting no. It’s an interesting read.

Dear Residents of Waterloo


Healthy Cities Help Raise Children

A few years back, our neighbours across the street in our downtown Kitchener neighbourhood (Victoria Park) proudly announced the impending arrival of their firstborn. “Fantastic!”, we said. “A playmate for our own children. More laughter up and down our street!!!” Alas, it was not to pass. The parents-to-be had another plan: a quick getaway to the outskirts of town. “We can’t raise children here. It really would be better for them in the suburbs.” Ouch! We waved goodbye through the exhaust of their moving van, and slunk back to our front porch to ponder our failure as parents. We knew as well as anyone the litany of evil that permeates our culture’s notions of “the City”, in stark contrast to its healthier and morally superior country setting. What were we thinking in exposing our offspring, their minds tender and not yet made up, to straight streets named after citizens, mature trees, and schools with two floors? While we weren’t swaddling them directly in unspoilt nature, couldn’t we at least procure the safety of pastoral scenes but a few subdivisions yonder?

As early as the 1950’s, that prescient urbanist Jane Jacobs lamented the geographic cleaving of North American cities along the lines of age and gender. Communities designed as a daily pattern of break-up, with breadwinners commuting each day to the concrete jungle, leaving the women and children safely ensconced in a more predictable, healthier, and “natural” setting. The gains we have made since those times (for women, for instance) have largely been about participation in this model, not as a fundamental change to it. If anything we have further reinforced the geographic isolation through public school closures and the relocation of high schools out of our downtowns, so that a teenager’s exposure to “life on the streets” is first minimised, and then redefined as a fearful dead end. Our children visit Downtown Toronto more than their own community cores, and they are now a second and third generation removed from any experience of the healthy hustle and bustle of a 1950’s main street.

We have planned our cities to reinforce a perception of urban streets as inherently dangerous. Our media dutifully report and dramatise this state of affairs. Statistics and facts are skewed in support of a powerful piece of urban mythology: Downtown is where the crime is! If we cannot eliminate it, then we should at least contain it geographically. Our hopes for the young and vulnerable are that they be protected from this den of iniquity, only bearing witness to the carnage through the flat screen of NYPD Blue, Cops, and sundry reality shows: the prime-time line-up from which our potential assailants are stereotyped.

Urban districts that do not include for children must surely be condemned as inadequate. The active presence of children is a fundamental measure for the health of our streets. Where they are absent, our design has failed. It is unfortunate that we have so few examples in North America for the integrated design of schools, shops, work, entertainment, recreation space, cultural experience, and accommodation within one geographic district. The City of Vancouver and other municipalities that lack a farm belt into which they might endlessly expand are leading the search for this new city form, and a return to a sustainable urban model for living. In the words of Larry Beasley, former Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver: “without its comprehensive ‘living first’ strategy, Vancouver would be lightyears behind where it needs to be. Most of all, the city would not have realized its dream for an urban lifestyle that will draw people back from their 50-year romance with the suburbs, bringing with them their resources, energy, and creativity to build the kind of remarkable city that an extraordinary natural setting and the city’s people so richly deserve.” Sound appealing? This weekend, why not explore a new frontier.  Bring your kids downtown.

People and Place

Here’s an excellent site with much discussion of the continuum among individuals, people, their lives and neighbourhoods, and our environment. Thank you to Carol Coletta, CEO of “Ceo’s for Cities” for the retweet to PeopleandPlace.net.

How do we act on the local and the global? Here are some ideas, at PeopleandPlace.net.

“The entire notion of neighborhoods in Portland is that they are vehicles for participation and engagement, key ingredients in the EcoDistrict concept. They are available equally to all neighborhoods and to all residents, landowners, and businesses within their boundaries.”

Hopefully more discussion of Portland won’t give them a swollen head.

Let us know what you think of the discussion and connections at People and Place.

Let’s Talk About Design and Community!

Communication between design and community is often a really long and sloooow conversation, if a conversation at all. It’s usually more a sales pitch. The urban or architectural designer offers a completed idea in a “ta da!!” song-and-dance sort of way and we’re just about done.

We think that needs changing, and we’d like your help.

We’re intrigued and excited about how emerging social digital media can help our design studio, as:

architects, urban designers, interior designers, citizens

to name a few of the hats we wear, to openly engage with the community into which our and others’ designs are built; to talk openly about how particular designs affect all of us. It’s an important conversation that can’t happen often enough, or soon enough in the design process.

That’s why we’ve founded this blog, Design and Community, as a space of conversation, ideas and interaction about the relation of specific designs and our community, centred in the Grand River Watershed of Ontario, Canada.

The usual behind-the-scene project process engages designer and client, and centres about what the project is to accommodate. It rarely engages the community that the resulting design will directly affect. That community includes (among others)

Passersby,     Users,     Adults,     Children,     Patrons,

Employees and Staff,

who must experience and use the design, and must incorporate it into their everyday stories and sense of their world. In addition, and more importantly, our designs have lasting effect on the

natural environment, birds and wildlife,     water and air,     the microclimate,  our collective and individual culture,     our past and future,  and our economy.

Over the past 15 years we’ve help craft hundreds of public and private design offerings for clients, including the Region of Waterloo’s Airport Terminal, retail stores across Canada, and streetlighting for Kitchener’s King Street among many others. We’ve participated in public forums, given lectures and written articles, patiently building a portfolio of successful projects and engagement that illustrates our collaborative approach to design, and how it helps both client and community.

The interactive nature of social and digital media allows us to take another step forward, introducing better design processes that make better designs, and ultimately better places and spaces for all of us.

Over the course of the next several blog posts, and through interaction with you, we’d like to explore:

  • the Grand River Watershed, a diverse community that includes
    • a natural ecology of 7,000 square kilometers organized along a Canadian Heritage River, and
    • a built ecology of 800,000 residents and associated urban form
  • How its 800,000 people, potentially growing to 1.2 million in just 20 years, should participate and decide upon issues affecting these ecologies.
  • Particular ideas of design and community, with emphasis on their relation
  • How design can participate positively to foster better community for us all.

Do we know where this Blog is headed? Hopefully yes! We’re moving firmly into the 21st Century, with both feet (er, all fingers).

Our thanks to Digital Media Producer, Dwight Storring, for his professional assistance and introduction to much of the Social Media sphere.