Previous post: Tamarack Experience

I’m so grateful to have been a part of the Tamarack Institute’s gathering in Kitchener last week on neighbourhoods and community building. Each day was packed with excellent talks, small group discussions and walks around the surrounding communities.

The only problem from the events is that there was so much to take in that it left me somewhat struggling to find the most pertinent points to take away and share.  It was amazing to join a national conversation with community leaders from across Canada and the States, but it can make it difficult to take everything shared and apply it to our city and Argyle community.

One of the messages that stuck with me through the entire gathering was one introduced near the start by John McKnight about gifts. His challenge was for us to turn to someone near us that we didn’t know and simply ask them, “What are your gifts?” I and many others were flabbergasted, this is not something I’ve ever really, deeply considered before…plus it was 8:30am after waking at 5:30am to drive there. Not the perfect time to be considering who we are and what we have to offer.

But conversations got rolling, and when John asked the audience what their answers were, they came back, numerous and varied. His challenge was to ask this question often, when we gather with colleagues and community members, but even when we’re with friends and family. It can be tough to answer, but quickly reveals we all have a lot to offer. We are repositories of experience and expertise.

I found this an excellent reminder, as I sometimes struggle to find ways I may be helpful, and have heard many members of our communities I’ve spoken to say things like “I’d like to help/be active in the community, but there’s nothing I’d be good at.” John’s message was: when we can unlock and encourage all the gifts in our communities, only then are they truly strong. Communities can be served by the city and civil services, but when citizens are recognizing and using their gifts, that’s when great communities are truly shaped.

The big question is how is this achieved? The talks were excellent, but left us with a lot of questions. The power of the talks we heard may have been in igniting or reigniting our passion for community building, and helping us recognize the potential every community has. The greater challenge ahead will be turning that passion into actions and decisions.

After John’s talk and small group discussions we broke into workshops for the first part of the afternoon. I joined a talk by Tamarack President Paul Born called “Deepening Community in Neighbourhoods”. We reflected on what community means to us, and how we can experience shallow vs. deep community. Some of the ways that Paul believes we can deepen our communities include:

  • Telling our story and achieving unity by opening doors between ourselves
  • Enjoying time with one another and finding ways to regularly spend time together
  • Caring for one another and building a sense of belonging through mutual acts of care
  • Working together for a better world and moving from a life of them vs. us to one of all of us, together

After the small group discussions we had the chance to go on one of four walks through communities being showcased. I chose to take the walk through Kitchener’s downtown. I’m always interested to see what other cities are doing with their downtown spaces, and I wanted to better understand London’s downtown community and learn ways that it may be further improved.

We walked through Victoria Park and checked out two co-working spaces, TreeHaus and the Tannery District (pictured below), finishing by examining the streetscape along King Street including in front of City Hall. The impression I’m getting is a downtown core very similar to London’s, in that until very recently it had a rough reputation, one that it continues to overcome.

tannery district

One of the strategies shared on the walk was the changes city planning staff have implemented in the way people move through the downtown. I was deeply impressed by how some of the leaders in the planning department had researched and visited cities around the world that are showing leadership in creating truly walkable, environmentally friendly, safe communities. The vision the staff has for downtown Kitchener is something along the lines of Nice (France) where a vibrant street market happens all day long, ranging from fresh flowers in the morning, fresh produce in the afternoon, and a lively restaurant and bar scene in the evening.

Admittedly there is still a way to go to match such high ideals, but the staff feel that the vision is slowly going forward. Some of the elements shared on the walk include:

Green planters. These planters look similar to those found all over our cities, but the downtown stormwater drains have been engineered to flow into the planters instead of into the sewer system, reducing impact on downtown infrastructure and making use of the water to feed the plants, reducing city labour and upkeep costs. The planters are filled with local, salt-resistant plants that are both attractive and able to thrive in the water coming from the streets.


Great bike racks, adding to the overall attractiveness and interest on the street.

awesome bike racks

Moveable bollards that allow the city to adjust the parking and patio space along the downtown core. In this picture, there is both space allowed for parking where the bollards are against the sidewalk (background) and space where the bollards are against the road, making more room for walkers and/or patios (foreground).

kitchener downtown parking

I may also have a serious case of City Hall envy.

Kitchener City Hall

Next post: Tamarack Day 2: Organizing Ourselves