Archive for city hall

What changed our view of cities in 2010

Thinking back on 2010, there were at least three noteworthy phenomenon that have helped change the discussion about cities and how we live in them.  Here are my three.  Feel free to debate, or add your own in the comments section.

1. The discussion and debate surrounding Richard Florida’s publishing of The Great Reset.  In Canada, bloggers and the media focused more on his argument about urbanization supporting the knowledge economy and broader creativity–the new economic reality for the 21st century.   In the US the discussion was more about the role of home ownership in slowing the needed economic restructuring, tying people to places with dying economies.  But everywhere, it got many thinking about the relationship between how we live, where we live, and the economy.

2. Walkscore.com saw it’s popularity and use expand, and received the funds to expand its offerings, adding more heatmaps, a transit score, commute report and a commercial property score.  Taken in conjunction with discussion coming from The Great Reset, walkscore provides some quantiative data on amenity density and walkability that can be correlated to economic or job growth.  By mapping features and amenities of a city, it’s allowing for discussion of what makes an ideal home location.

3. Social media is playing a growing role in city politics and city life.   Key city policies are now arguably discussed and debated on blogs and websites more than in town-hall or council meetings.  Naheed Nenshi harnessed social media to offer a more walkable and urban vision for the city and seize the mayor’s chair in Calgary.  And twitter has more people sharing urban events with each other and the world.

Why Revolutions Are Being Tweeted

A few weeks back respected trend spotter Malcolm Gladwell commented that The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. His argument is that twitter and social media does not generate the personal connections or convictions needed to create the revolutions of the past, such as the courage four young black men had to sit down in a “whites only” restaurant and request service. At the time, his arguments and sources sort-of-convinced me.

But, hearing and seeing first hand how the ground shifted in Calgary last week, it’s clear that Twitter and social media were crucial.  I have some theories as to why revolutions can happen via twitter.

First, twitter with its 140 character limit is a “cool” medium, to use the language of Marshall McLuhan.  This means that you have to interpret it.  And people interpret short, often ambiguous information and messages according to their own context.  The act of interpreting–or interacting–with this medium and message draws you in.

Second, social media can create an “imagined community” of people who feel a part of the same group. (This time I’m borrowing the thesis of Benedict Anderson who argues that nations are imagined in the sense that people belong to them in their own way, in their own mind–being “Canadian” or “American” means different things to each person).  In the case of our “revolutions, because they are all following a candidate, many participants may feel they have more in common with each other and the candidate than is really the case.  And imagined communities can be powerful.

Third, maybe the structure of political revolutions has changed with the times.  Gladwell suggests that twitter works best for getting things done when you’re not asking too much of people.  He suggests that Revolutions in history have typically happened because people were willing to sacrifice everything including their lives to achieve a goal.

Perhaps 21st century “Revolutions” will happen because millions of people did a few little things (instead of fewer people sacrificing their lives).   On Twitter, blogs, facebook, etc. it’s easy to ask people to chose one small thing as Obama’s team did with fundraising–anyone can donate $5 and then feel a part of the campaign (and become part of it’s imagined community).

In Calgary, followers were tweeted tips for getting out the vote, and apparently they did. The voter turn out for Calgary’s municipal election rose from 18% in a previous election to 53% this time.

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BTW – you can also follow me on Twitter (@Wendy_Waters)

The Next Generation Takes Over a City

Evidence is mounting that younger adults live in and experience cities differently than their parents, grandparents or even older brothers and sisters did at their ages.

And, in Calgary this week, youthful adults used their smartphones and their feet to mobilize the vote for one of their own, 38-year-oild Naheed Nenshi, the unexpected new mayor.  He went from 1% support in the polls to victory with the help of an army of inspired youthful citizens who spread his messages.

The Calgary-born, Harvard educated Nenshi campaigned on a platform that included ideas to improve the functioning and design of the city, including design guidelines that would ensure greater walkability in new subdivisions. One of his key messages that people were talking about on the streets this week was about de-emphasizing the automobile in a city that lives and dies by the oil industry.  Despite the mild contradiction, a lot of Calgarians seemed to like this idea.

Nenshi’s election shows how a new generation with ideas—and a candidate who can articulate them—can seize control of a city.

This was a revolution in Calgary, long stereotyped as a place of white, socially and fiscally conservative cowboys with minimal educations.  Indeed many observers would characterize some past mayors (such as Ralph Klein) in this light.

Nenshi’s election reflects a different Calgary that I see gaining strength in every visit I make to the city.  From beneath the above-mentioned stereotype, over the past couple decades, a young, well-educated, energetic, idea-drive, tolerant and highly diverse population has been remaking Calgary into a vibrant global city. 

This was the logical next step—seizing control of city hall.

 Note, although the media has given some press to Nenshi’s minority and muslim background, it shouldn’t be overplayed.  The genius and power of this youthful movement he lead happened precisely because those two things didn’t matter to the voters, of all ages, he inspired with his ideas and fresh approach.

 Watch for this collaborative, youthful revolution to shake other Canadian and North American cities within the next 5 years, including Toronto and Vancouver.

Special civic advocates for walking? cycling?

Cities need to offer residents and businesses a variety of transportation options to maximize livability.  Only facilitating automobile travel makes for a polluted, congested, and concrete-freeway-based environment.  Only facilitating bikes or walking in 21st century life and you hamper citizens’ ability to go any distance or carry very much while doing it.   As recently discussed, some argue that a plurality of viable transport options are what make a neighbourhood and city more livable.

So, would city benefit from a special advocate for each type of transportation option?

A professor of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University believes Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate.  Along with some other dedicated walkers, he’s frustrated by the new bicycle-friendly policy to take over a one vehicle lane and one sidewalk on the Burrard Bridge between downtown and Kitsilano.

Portland Oregon apparently has one (according to the professor) — although in googling to learn more, I could only find out about a paid coordinator for the Willamette Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, which is a volunteer-based community organization to promote pedestrian-friendly policies in greater Portland.

In looking at the dramatic swing to bicycle friendly policy with the new Vancouver city administration (the new mayor is an avid cyclist, commuting by bike to many city events), I’m inclined to think that cities don’t need single-transportation-mode advocates.  Focusing on improving the situation for just one transportation option, can result in ignoring the implications for other users, as the SFU prof notes.

I’d like to see cities embracing a position for balancing citizens’ transportation options.  The holder would be someone knowledgeable and sympathetic to all forms of getting around a city — motor vehicle, bus, metro, street car, bicycle, walking, stroller, wheelchair, etc.  And their role would be to consider the implications of any proposed policies on all of these transportation options.

Cities themselves generate volunteer-based citizen lobby groups for cycling, walking, driving, transit use, etc.  This “transportation advocate” I’m envisioning would also be their liaison to city hall, helping to turn their ideas into workable civic policy proposals that will improve the livability of the region.

Maybe a multi-modal transportation advocate position would be something CEOs for Cities could consider in their efforts to re-envision America’s cities and come up with strategies to help them emerge from this recession or “reset” ready to support 21st century economic, social and ecological needs.

Edmonton: Where Oil and Sustainability Meet?

Edmonton is an intriguing place.  It sits next to the world’s 2nd largest oil reserves and the economy is dominated directly and indirectly by the oil extraction industry.  Yet, it has also been ranked the most sustainable large city in Canada by Corporate Knights Magazine:

With the lowest unemployment rate of all cities [below 4% ] and the second-lowest unemployment rate of immigrants, Edmonton wants to be an “innovation centre for value-added and green technologies and products,” and is measuring progress by the percentage of green collar jobs created. Edmonton is also the only city in our consideration set to have inclining block pricing on water to encourage conservation.

This may be true, but I wonder if the sustainability ranking is premature.  Having just returned from there, Edmonton was definitely a spread out city that requires a car, or a truck — even a rig rocket.

That said, it’s a city where the mayor and many residents envision a lower-carbon future:  A new light rail transit system is under construction; the downtown is booming with new funky condos;  post-secondary education opportunities are abundant; and city hall has a plan to promote higher density housing and more infill rather than greenfill development.  Solar and wind energy research is also emerging as the city seeks to diversify from an oil town into an energy town.

What’s ironic, is that 10 or 15 years from now, Edmonton — where much of North America’s oil may come from — could actually become the model city for a more sustainable, even post-oil era.  Even if the plan struggles somewht, it remains  impressive is that this city of barely 1 million, centred around the oil industry,  has a plan to get there.

Not the time for short term thinking

Many smart business leaders and investment managers are taking advantage of the economic slow down to stop, think, and put into place the foundations for the next 5 to 10 year business cycle — and even thinking much further ahead than that.

Unfortunately, it seems that many city governments, and those at other levels that impact cities are taking the opposite approach.  Some are even backtracking on progressive, forward-looking plans initiated before the recession hit.

Take San Francisco’s proposed congestion pricing strategy.  The mayor and other urban leaders previously saw reducing congestion as vital to the long term livability of the region and especially the metro core.  Now they are seeing the economic downturn as a reason to backtrack.  From the New York Times (pointer Frances Bula):

During his second inaugural address a year ago, San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, called congestion pricing “the single greatest step we can take to protect our environment and improve our quality of life.”

Last week, however, the mayor’s office offered a more tepid endorsement.

“The devil is in the details,” said a spokesman, Nathan Ballard. While Mr. Newsom supports congestion management, Mr. Ballard said, “Given the challenging economic times, we would hate to impose too heavy a burden on commuters.”

Commuters are paying less than half price for gas!  The congestion charge would likely still have the vast majority paying less to commute than they did 6 months ago.

City governments, urban business leaders, and all of us voters and citizens need to be thinking about what we want our cities to be like when the economy is next running at full tilt, and over the next 10-20 years. If we want less congestion, more amenities, more walkability, etc. — and more desirebility as a place to live for talented people (which will attract tax-paying corporate employers)  then now is the time to push forward on projects that enhance this.

This is not the time to prop up an older way of doing things for whatever short term gain may be had.

I am concerned that aspects of the stimulus plans that Obama’s administration is formulating will end up being a waste of money and actually set America’s cities back.  More freeway capacity will tend to prop up suburbia, rather than support the revitalization of downtowns and inner urban neighbourhoods.

Once the economy rebounds, many features seen in 2007 and early 2008 will return: high oil prices; citizen concern for the environment; popular interest in living closer to places of work, entertainment and recreation.

These social and economic features that characterized the end of the last cycle should be kept in mind by everyone from urban residents to urban planners and politicians.

Are City Halls Too Isolated?

In most cities I’m familiar with, City Hall is a distinct, self-contained building separated from most of the key residential, business and entertainment areas of the city.  The staff that work in the City Hall building typically don’t visit the neighbourhoods and the employees who work on the streets and in the communities rarely visit city hall.

Perhaps this is not the most efficient nor innovative way to run a city.   If a city were like a private corporation, better connecting all employees to “their product” would bring productivity as well as morale gains.

For my regular, Monday posting on workplace trends at CreativeClass.com, this week I detail the new Boeing 737 facility in Renton, WA (a Seattle suburb).  By combining the engineers, sales and administrative staff with the factory floor manufacturing workers, productivity increased 40%.  Suddenly engineers were not isolated from the product they designed — nor were sales staff removed from appreciating the details of the aircraft they sell.  This also allowed for innovative, spontaneous problem solving.

Cities have numerous challenges on the ground that would benefit from similar thinking. Perhaps city hall workers need to have a variety of locales from which they can work.  Sitting in an office overlooking a poor neighborhood filled with the homeless, mentally ill and/or drug addicted might help inspire more creativity in solving this issue.  Reporting to work in a struggling business district similarly might allow city workers to better understand the needs of businesses in that area.  Just being in close proximity would encourage spontaneous dialog, which can’t but help.

With today’s flexible workplace designs supported by mobile technologies this is easily possible, especially as technology costs continually decline.  City employees themselves might enjoy the flexibility of getting out more and the sense of accomplishment from seeing their initiatives and efforts pay dividends for everyday citizens.

Anyone know of a decentralized City Hall?

Unintended consequences of a new bylaw

In Vancouver a new bylaw came into effect last week banning cigarette smoking on restaurant patios and within 6 meters (about 20 feet) of doorways. Smoking has been banned at indoor public places for a long time.

I had a positive and a negative experience with this new bylaw this week. The positive experience was visiting a favorite local coffee house with my kids. My son likes to ride his trike in the door and down the ramp to order banana loaf for himself; I typically add an expensive but tasty coffee drink to the order. In the past, we’ve had to enter through a cloud of smoke and then go elsewhere to consume our snack outside. But now, we can sit on the patio, watching the world go by. This is nice.

The negative experience was the next day at the small local park with a large, new playground. Every table and bench in other parts of the park was filled with people smoking, and enjoying a take-out coffee from one of the local haunts. This meant that overflow smokers ended up sitting around the playground smoking, both cigarettes and another substance that this region is well known for. I’m quite allergic to both, so it’s now hard to enjoy the playground with the kids. More importantly, neither the example nor the smoke is good for children.

Having smokers take over parks and playgrounds seems to be an unintended consequence of the new patio and doorway smoking restrictions.  I’m pondering writing a letter to the politicians who sponsored the bills that created the restrictions to suggest they also ban smoking within 15 meters of a playground (dogs are banned from being within 15 meters, so why not cigarettes?).

But, I’m also worried about what the unintended consequences of that bylaw might be.

(Oh, and I know many smokers — likely the majority — wouldn’t dream of lighting up around children.  But unfortunately, not everyone is so considerate, hence our problem).

Creativity, anarchy and civilization

From Journalist Frances Bula’s City States Blog:

My son, who does visuals for DJs … sent me an email from Austin today. He’s of course at the South by Southwest music festival … It seems he also has something to say about city policy.

“we went to a show last night that started at 3am and was on a bridge. like basically imagine if a band played a show on cambie st bridge and 800 people showed up and it didn’t get shut down. i asked a cab driver how it’s possible that all these shows can happen in such crazy locations and he said sxsw funnels something like 30 million dollars into austins economy so the city just turns a blind eye to all these crazy events. i thought it was really funny imagining these bands filling out paperwork to get a permit to play a show on a bridge at 3am but i guess there is none, the city just lets people do whatever they want.

i wish vancouver would relax it’s liquor license laws and take the same attitude, which would promote art and culture, instead of spending millions of dollars trying to force designated “culture” or “club” sections of the city. and only giving liquor licenses to people who can afford the 250 thousand dollars or whatever which only corporate superclubs can really afford. a similar sxsw event could happen in vancouver if only they would do that.

[apparently there is some organization of the spontaneity according to a reply from Gary Etie, an engineer and consultant in Austin]

“I just want to get the word out, because, as you say, it is a very critical issue, that affects the arts, and the ability to party, while preventing disasters that can occur from overcrowding in unsafe buildings, if not done properly and professionally.”

[Bula:] Now that is what I call one dedicated watchdog.

So there is in fact a permit system. But, from the sound of it, it’s a unique and flexible one that Austin has developed so that, yes, it can encourage exuberance and, yes, bands can hold concerts on a public bridge at 3 a.m., but there are also some rules in place so that the city doesn’t end up with bodies floating in the river, major disasters, etc.

For those who want a closer look at Gary’s site and blog, go to www.austincitypermits.com and www.austincitypermits.com/blog.

Urban areas can be like the frontier, where new forms of living or expression can be tried, beyond the reach of the state. Or, cities can be highly prescribed places where order is the main goal of government. It seems that many cities drift back and forth from “over ordered” to a state of nature.

As cities attempt to offer more space for creative expression and fun, I predict many challenges from business, citizens and other organizations to where a city policy will sit on the spectrum between anarchy and boring, excessive order. Austin is known as a “creative” hub, and a festival like this furthers that image, which probably helps attract talented, highly creative people.

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More semi-random thoughts on this:

I like the idea of relaxing the order for certain occasions, like sxsw, to let creativity reign anywhere and everywhere for a few days so long “as bodies are not showing up in the river” the next morning. Locals can participate or leave for the duration. And, such an event can contribute to a city’s creative “brand.”

To me this approach seems more inspiring than having a designated “entertainment” zone in a city where the anarchy can take place most nights — like the New Orleans French Quarter. The latter almost seems artificial — a disneyland for young adults.

But I also wonder: could the Austin SXSW festival disorder work in cities and places that are normally tightly controlled? Or would the removal of some authority create a situation that many people cannot handle responsibly?
My reasoning (based on perhaps debatable premises) is that places like Texas naturally have less state presence and control so people are accustomed to being more responsible for their actions and looking after themselves, rather than relying on the state. So, relaxing regulations further for a few days isn’t a shock to the system … as it might be elsewhere.

Technology for improving city governance

For some, city hall, city council, and the planning department moves to fast.   Initiatives for new zoning bylaws or transportation plans might go through the governance process in a matter of months, with many residents feeling they did not have enough time to digest the plan and comment on it.  For others, of course, city hall moves too slowly.  They want action, not process and procedure.  (If both sides are unhappy, it may often mean that the pace is about right.)

What if there were a way to allow for easier and broader public participation on initiatives that affect them?  Perhaps this would reduce the numbers feeling things are moving too fast.

Dave Atkins recently drew up a plan for how social media technology such as Wiki documents might improve the town governance process.  Although I see some rough spots in his plan that need refinement, it’s worth a read and a ponder.  Here’s the essense of it:

  •  Individuals can contribute when and where they have time and expertise – Rather than attend a series of meetings, a person can follow the development of a document over time and submit their modifications at 3am or whenever they have time. If a person has special expertise, they can fill in with much greater detail or correct misunderstandings of details that often escape review in higher level discussions.
  • The entire process is public – the wiki is hosted on a public website and can be set up to send automatic notifications of topic changes to interested persons via email.
  • The process itself can be engaging – A wiki is no cure-all, but it provides a much lower barrier to entry and a way for residents to research the current status of an issue–to better understand how to join the conversation.
  • The process is more transparent – [For example, ]Massachusetts and most states have enacted Open Meeting Law legislation to prevent public matters from being decided through back room deal and crony networks.

Atkins admits to some challenges, including mass chaos, but suggests perhaps a registration process to contribute to the wiki.

I wonder whether a combination of a wiki and a discussion forum would work best.  A limited number of authors would have access to change the wiki pages.  But they would do so in response to the public forum discussions.  Anyone could contribute to the forums (although registration as a resident or other interested party might be required, as it typically is to speak at a city council meeting).  Having to take the time to register and be approved would avoid anonymous nonconstructive comments.

Also, anyone could view the process of changing the documents and see the links to the discussions that brought about the changes.

Here’s where I could see the potential of Dave’s idea:  I attended a neighborhood meeting about the Vancouver Eco-Density charter last week.  There seemed to be some suspicion in the room that this was all a ruse to allow developers to make more money by building more multi-unit buildings in currently-single-family neighborhoods.  I don’t believe this is the case (but I have no inside knowledge either way, I’m just an interested observer here).

Assuming that the plan is indeed an effort to make Vancouver live in the ecological footprint of one planet, then allowing everyone to see the process of developing The Eco-Density Charter — and allowing everyone the option to participate — might go along way toward increasing “buy-in” and reducing suspicions.

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