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kingmills_2

Proposed Fanshawe College building at Kingsmills.

08/16/2014 12:25pm UPDATE: I’ve added responses received from councillors to the bottom of this post. 

I’ve been following with excitement the Fanshawe College proposal to renovate the historic Kingsmills building downtown into new classroom space for 1,600 students – as a Londoner and alumnus I’m glad to see the rapid expansion of the school. I watched the Fanshawe presentation to the London Advisory Committee on Heritage (LACH) with great interest (in the gallery with Molly, as Sarah is a member of the committee). The committee seemed equally impressed, and felt that the proposal, though extensively renovating and updating the building, took prudent steps to maintain the heritage of the site. A downtown heritage building that is no longer useful is at risk, and this proposal balanced preservation and occupation.

It is then with great disappointment that I watched Council vote down the proposed project and request for $10M investment by the city, despite the $66M being paid by Fanshawe to make this happen. I was especially surprised that one of the reasons cited by Joe Swan was concern about preserving the heritage of the building – why have advisory committees if their recommendations are ignored? Did he think LACH didn’t dig deep enough, or did he simply not read the report? Fanshawe’s pitch made it very clear that they would be undertaking hassle and expense to not just preserve but to restore the historic Dundas Street facade.

A lot of the issue has been chalked up to an election year – voters are scrutinizing how councillors spend their tax dollars, and with a city that elected Joe “0%” Fontana four years ago, many candidates are probably concerned with being perceived as big spenders. In particular, with Ward 3 Councillor Swan taking a run at the big seat, he is trying to channel a similar “friend of the taxpayer” persona.

However, this is foolhardy on two fronts.

First, this makes it seem that the money would have to be levied through higher taxes, when there is already money set aside for exactly this kind of project. The city has funds for investment and the economic prosperity of the city – surely investing in one of city’s largest institutions to purchase and reinvest in one of the historic downtown buildings is exactly the purpose of those funds? The only other project on the horizon that could be a contender is the hotly debated Performing Arts Centre, and there are assurances that should such a project go forward, there are ample funds for both projects.

Second, Swan of all councillors should be supporting this project, with the main Fanshawe College campus in his ward. Beyond the massive investment in the downtown core, it gives Fanshawe much-needing breathing room as their attendance continues to climb as they expand their course offerings, and they stretch the limits of the main property. Already they have expanded to a massive new building at Oxford & Third as well as the first phase of downtown development, across from the now-empty Kingsmills building. Investing in Fanshawe brings more students to the city and higher demand for jobs including faculty, and gives Fanshawe space to bring 1,600 new students to Swan’s ward. This is exactly the kind of innovative and progressive vision we need for our city, the kind of vision Swan is evidently lacking.

The last vote failed with a tie vote, with Henderson not there – he has indicated had he been there, he would have also voted against the proposal. Those that voted against it were Councillors Bud Polhill, Bill Armstrong, Joe Swan, Stephen Orser, Paul Van Meerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White.

Today, the London Downtown Business Association has called an emergency meeting to address what can be done, but there is only a faint hope – to reignite the debate at Council it would take 2/3 to vote for a renewed discussion, meaning several councillors would have to change their vote.

It may seem a slim chance, but if you think this project is what London needs, please take a few minutes to write to Council to express your views. This is the letter I’ve sent to Council, you’re welcome to use it as a template if it would help frame your thoughts on this important issue.

To London City Council,

I’m writing today to ask you to reopen the debate on the proposal by Fanshawe College for $10M towards their investment in the now-vacant Kingmills building downtown, and to support the proposal. Accepting this proposal would show excellent leadership and investment in our city by this Council. Fanshawe is putting forward $66M into this project, noting that they could much more easily build a new building on cheaper property, but they are choosing to move downtown and invest heavily in one of the historic storefronts, and teaching their culinary students while opening a new restaurant downtown. As well, LACH and senior city staff including Martin Hayward and John Fleming support this plan – as Councillor Branscombe has noted, whether to support this project seems to be a “no-brainer”. This project will pay massive dividends for our city, and be one of the shining moments of this Council session, should it go through.

In particular, I ask Councillors Armstrong and Swan to reconsider their position on this proposal, as this plan will greatly impact their wards. Fanshawe is already stretched to the limits of their existing property even as they are continuing to expand their attendance and course offerings, if this project were to go forward 1,600 students would be admitted to the downtown campus, opening space for 1,600 new students at the main campus. London desperately needs new, innovative minds, every effort should be made to bring more students to the city, and retain them after graduating. Investment downtown creates opportunities all over London.

With this proposal, Fanshawe College is showing vision, innovation and leadership. Today I ask that you stand with them, and do the same.

Thank you for your time and consideration, please contact me if you’d like to discuss this issue further.

Sincerely,

Brian Gibson

Ward 2

 

UPDATE: Below are the responses I’ve received from Councillors. 

I received this response from Councillor Matt Brown 3:05pm August 15:

Thank you for taking the time to write this Brian. Best regards, Matt
Matt Brown
City Councillor, Ward 7

I received this response from Dawn MacLean on behalf of Councillor Russell Monteith 3:43pm August 15:

Good afternoon Brian,

On behalf of Councillor Russell Monteith, thank you for your email. Your comments and concerns have been noted and will be taken into consideration.

I received this response from Councillor Joe Swan 5:31pm August 15:

Dear  Brian

Thank you for writing. I know you care about doing the right thing for London,

Here is some excerpts from my letter to the downtown business association in a genuine effort to keep the project moving forward:

I indicated to the Business association  that it is my belief that all city council members  seek a solution that is good for the entire community and is within the existing City of London budget allocation.

The city has committed $20 million to ensure the College locates in the downtown. The College has indicated up to 20 other properties in the downtown that may be available to make their campus a reality without the need for an additional $10 million of local taxpayer support. Those buildings may be a more economical solution, with the same or better economic impact.

I indicated this particular property (Kingsmills)  was from a construction and facility cost point of view too expensive at $660 per square foot basis, (Fanshawe’s own consultant said the price was “exorbitant” school costs are usually about $350 per sq ft.). Also the location of the project meant the College would exceed the approved budget allocation of the City. The proposal will also demolish an important heritage property. The project does not have Provincial government financial support, yet it is a Provincial responsibility to fund Colleges. As Chair of the City Investment (IEPC) committee I have been made aware of at  least two other private sector owners that have indicated they have viable alternatives that do not require additional city funds. I presume they have not contacted Fanshawe or the downtown association yet as the current plan appears to be an intractable position for the benefit of one property owner.

I met with the downtown business association in good faith to suggest how we all might be able to move forward with a plan for Fanshawe downtown. I believe the downtown business association has the mandate and the capacity to take a professional business minded approach to help overcome difficult issues in the interests of all stakeholders.

I laid out to the association what I believe is a positive process that would move the project forward. I respectfully suggested I and others would welcome an LDBIA task force to look at all options. The LDBIA task force mandate would engage Fanshawe, the City and the Province and the private sector in a problem solving exercise that would achieve the result we all seek which is a vibrant downtown that welcomes education institutions locating in the downtown at an affordable price.

I have been a big supporter of the downtown. The results are clear. I chaired the downtown committee that was recognized internationally as the best in the business. Under my leadership the city committed millions for residential development, public infrastructure, and major destination venues such as the Budweiser Gardens, Covent Garden market and the new library. Much more city investment is on the way with Kilmer, transit, greening the Forks of the Thames and the Dundas flex street to name a few.

It is my view that the opportunity to build a positive and affordable plan for Fanshawe in the Downtown  remains. The city has allocated $20 million dollars to make the Fanshawe downtown campus project happen.

I have done difficult and challenging projects many times. I have done it before and can do it again. The deal with Fanshawe can be done with determined and skilled leadership that gets results.  

I remain confident the Fanshawe campus will be a reality in the downtown. We have the skills and talent we need in London to take a positive leadership role and get the results we all want.  

The College and the business association owe it to taxpayers to look at other viable properties and by doing so taxpayers will get the best value and highest rate of impact in the downtown.   

Regards

Joe

This was my response to Councillor Swan at 10:30pm August 18:

Hi Joe, 

Thanks for sharing your view about the proposal. Having spent the weekend reading about and considering the proposal and speaking to other councillors, I am still convinced that this proposal would be ideal for Fanshawe, the downtown and the entire city. Since you wrote, the LDBA has pledged $1M from their membership towards the proposal, signalling the downtown business community’s support for this specific project. As well, Councillor Denise Brown in speaking to her constituents has indicated that she would be willing to support a $9M loan to Fanshawe instead of a direct investment – is this something you could also support? I think it would at least be a very positive beginning to have partners in the proposal back to the table. 

Also, I noticed that the e-mail I received from Councillor White was very similar to the closing lines of your letter, without citing the source. When I asked her about it she told me that you had “shared his information and gave us permission to use what we found helpful”. Was this information shared with all of Council or just certain members? 

Thanks for your time, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Joe Swan 7:16am August 20:

I am glad to see that the dialogue is still open

I support Fanshawe downtown and am confident the project will move forward, I do not see the need for the City to add another $10 million dollars and I believe the Province has to step up and help fund the school. That is their responsibility.

Further I do not support local taxpayers providing an annual operating subsidy of $150,000 a year to the College every year especially when we have so many local responsibilities to be funded.

Joe

I received this response from Councillor Sandy White 8:21am August 16:

Brian,

Thank you for writing.  I know you care about doing the right thing for London.

 It is my view that the opportunity to build a positive and affordable plan for Fanshawe in the Downtown  remains. The city has allocated $20 million dollars to make the Fanshawe downtown campus project happen.

Council has done difficult and challenging projects many times. We have done it before and can do it again. The deal with Fanshawe can be done with determined and skilled leadership that gets results.  

I remain confident the Fanshawe campus will be a reality in the downtown. We have the skills and talent we need in London to take a positive leadership role and get the results we all want.  

The College and the business association owe it to taxpayers to look at other viable properties and by doing so taxpayers will get the best value and highest rate of impact in the downtown.   

Regards

Sandy

This was my response to Councillor White at 9:47am August 16:

Hi Sandy, thanks for your time and consideration. 

I am glad that you want to see the plan for Fanshawe to expand their campus downtown go forward. I sat in on the presentation to LACH for the Kingmills building and found it a win-win for the college, downtown and a valued heritage site, but understand the concerns about cost and the money requested of Council. 

With the news yesterday that the business association has worked hard to put together $1M over 10 years to help pay for this particular proposal, does it change your views on it at all? I think they’re making a clear statement and commitment to bring Fanshawe specifically to the historic Kingmills building. 

Thanks for your time, all the best.

This was Councillor White’s response at 9:52am August 16:

Brian, the point is best value for dollar and heritage remains a concern. I believe Fanshawe wants to make this happen and they will work hard to find a better deal. Sandy

Noticing that her first e-mail was almost the exact same as the closing line of Councillor Swan’s, I sent this forwarding Swan’s e-mail 5:51pm August 16:

Hi Sandy, I wanted to bring to your attention this e-mail I received yesterday from Councillor Swan, and the similarity in the closing lines to your e-mail to me. Was your response taken from this letter to the downtown business association? If so, you should cite the source. Just wanted to check. 

Thanks, 

Brian 

This was Councillor White’s response with Councillor Swan cc’d at 10:56pm August 16:

Thank you, Brian. Councillor Swan (included here) actually shared his information and gave us permission to use what we found helpful. For me, one very important aspect is the heritage value of the building. It’s not the façade; as much as, the interior of the building. Regretfully the historical significance of this store site has been lost on most of Council and the media. It would be despicable to demo this building rather than preserving the historical value that is far greater than the 10 million. sw

This was my response to Councillor White at 11:00am August 17:

Hi Sandy, thanks for the clarification. Was this information shared with all of Council? 

I agree that the heritage value of the building is extremely important. However, the concerns about the interior will have to be addressed by anyone looking to purchase the Kingsmills property, not just Fanshawe College. From the LACH meeting it was noted that the building is not AODA compliant. To bring it up to code would have to include the installation of a new elevator (the existing Victorian one is not up to code), changing the street entrance including accessible doors and a smoother entryway, to name a few features. There are also structural/safety issues that will have to be addressed. All of these concerns make the site very difficult to work with, yet Fanshawe has taken great pains to address every concern and bring the building entirely up to code. Finally, Fanshawe in their proposal outline how they will save as much of the interior as possible including incorporating original materials into the design. I feel that it would be difficult to find an applicant more sensitive to the heritage of the site than Fanshawe, and should Fanshawe not purchase the property, it will be difficult to find another applicant willing to face the sizable challenges presented by the site. 

Sincerely, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Denise Brown 1:53pm August 16:

Thank you for your email Brian.  Although I do not represent you directly, I feel every decision such as this one affect the entire city.  I am sharing the information below with those who contact me, as I feel the press can be very misleading.  Once you have read this information, I would like to hear from you again.

1.  May 9, 2011 – council approved 20 Million dollars over 10 years for Fanshawe to come downtown with a result of 1000 students.   Today, there are 400 students downtown.  For the record, the Province only gave Fanshawe 6 Million and Fanshawe contributed 14 Million.  So, the municipality paid 1/2 of the total contribution. 

2.  Fanshawe publicly said that they would move forward with the 2nd campus, with or without additional municipal funds. 

3. Fanshawe requested that council give them another 10 Million dollars to bring it to a total of 30 Million which would bring additional 1000 students downtown.  Fanshawe and the press keep referring to 1600 students, but that includes the 600 students that are already part of the 20 Million dollars approved in 2009.  The new proposal would see the City now contributing a total of $30 Million dollars, the Province $25 Million Dollars and Fanshawe $27 Million.  Question:  If Fanshawe already had  an extra 13 Miilion dollars, why did they ask for $20 Million originally.  Why not $10 Miilion.  How much more does Fanshawe have?  

4.  The London Downtown Business Association has now agreed to contribute 1 Million Dollars to this project.  I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but the request from this group for funding from the City submitted March 2014 was over 1 Million Dollars – from the taxpayers.  Question:  Where does the 1 Million Dollars they are contributing really come from?  Is it the merchants reaching in their own pockets or is it the 1 Million Dollars the city gave them for business improvements?

5.  It is to Fanshawe’s benefit to bring as many students in one location as possible. 

6.  Education is a provincial issue.  The province downloads on municipalities on a regular basis and we should be careful not to pay for expenses that clearly fall under the Provincial budget. 

I am speaking to constituents this weekend, and this is the top subject.  I appreciate you taking the time to contact me, I look forward to hearing back from you.
Sincerely,Denise Brown
Councillor – Ward 11

This was my response to Councillor Denise Brown at 7:30pm August 16:

Hi Denise, thank you for the information you have provided. I will try to address each of the points you raised. 

1. Fanshawe currently has 400 students at the new downtown campus, however the facility is still new, and will see expanded use over time. If a brand new facility is at capacity right away, then that facility was built to be too small. Fanshawe have likely left themselves room to grow, and as programs expand there over evenings, weekends, etc we will see more students using that facility.

2. Going ahead with a second campus does not indicate size. Fanshawe could go ahead with a reduced facility that does not meet it’s demand, or allow them to grow. 
 
3. Fanshawe’s ability to raise money is for this project shows their dedication. The additional money they found for this project likely means that something they originally wanted to do will have to wait (that money could have been originally earmarked for something like renovations to main campus, more residences or purchasing property to expand satellite campuses). It is also not prudent to spend everything you have.

4. From the article http://www.am980.ca/2014/08/15/25181/, “The $1 million is a donation from the members of Downtown London, an organization made up of Main Street London and the London Downtown Business Association.” So it seems the business members are contributing their own money towards the project. There may be a misunderstanding about the funding, in speaking to Janette MacDonald of LDBA she told me they don’t receive funding from the city, only approves their budget under the Municipal Act. 

5. I agree that it is to Fanshawe’s benefit to bring as many students in one location as possible. Between the facility that has just opened and the proposed building at Kingsmills, it would create a small campus atmosphere in the middle of downtown, including a new restaurant that showcases the skills and training of culinary students. It also brings many more students to the downtown core during the day, allowing them to experience and spend money at the many excellent businesses in the area. 

6. I agree that education is a provincial issue, and that we should be careful about shouldering any of the provinces’ financial burden. However, the province, through the college, is contributing millions into this proposal. As well, they could build elsewhere at less cost, but they are showing what I think is admirable vision by proposing to renovate a historic and significant London site. I am concerned that if Fanshawe does not purchase Kingsmills whether another buyer could be found for such a unique site before the building begins to show the signs of neglect that put so many of our vacant heritage buildings at risk. 

Please let me know if you’d like to discuss this further. All the best, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Denise Brown 11:59am August 17:

I have had the opportunity of speaking to constituents in my ward, and many do not agree with giving the money to Fanshawe.  Some suggested a loan as we already gave them $20 Million.

What is your stand on this suggestion?

Sincerely,Denise Brown
Councillor – Ward 11
This was my response to Councillor Denise Brown at 2:30pm August 17:
Hi Denise,

I think this is an interesting suggestion, especially if it could see this project move forward. Brantford has used a similar model, using a combination of direct funding and interest free loans to bring post-secondary education to their downtown. 

Would you support the city loaning the remaining $9M to Fanshawe? Would it still be $900,000/year for 10 years, with Fanshawe then beginning to pay it back in that time? With the money already available now and the long timeline (2.5 Council sessions from now) does it make sense to propose such a long-term loan? 

If you were to support it, do you think this proposal would change the minds of other councillors that have voted against the proposal? If this would bring all parties back to the table I think it would be a good idea, especially if it could clear up how the present funds have been/are going to be used. Hopefully an understanding could be made with Fanshawe. With the money the LDBA members are willing to give to the project, it shows that the downtown wants to move forward with this proposal. 

Sincerely, 

Brian

I received this response from Councillor Denise Brown 4:39pm August 17:

It is something I can support and it is something that I think other councillors may support.  It is worth a try. 

Sincerely,

Denise Brown
Councillor – Ward 11

I received this response from Mayor Joni Baechler 4:30pm August 16:

Thanks Brian. I appreciate you taking the time to email your comments. I will continue to support the project when deliberated on Tue. Aug. 26th.

gathering discussions

Previous posts:

I’ve been trying to grapple with everything I heard at the Tamarack Institute gathering in Kitchener, and figure out ways this information can make me a better participant and member in my community and the entire city. One thing that has helped has been reading though books by two of the speakers, “Community Conversations” by Tamarack president Paul Born and “Neighbour Power: Building Community The Seattle Way” by Jim Diers.

Jim’s book in particular has helped me understand what his city of Seattle has done, and dream of what is possible in London. The following quote is quite long, but please take some time to read and consider it, it is a terrific condensing of the spirit of the Tamarack meeting:

Perhaps more important than the financial and other material benefits of civic engagement are the social benefits of a strong sense of community. No amount of public-safety spending can buy the kind of security that comes from neighbours watching out for one another. Similarly, neighbours supporting latchkey children or housebound seniors provide a kind of personal care that social service agencies can’t replicate.

There are other things that communities can do better than government can. Community members have local knowledge and can provide local perspective. At the same time, they think more holistically than governments that tend to specialize in specific functions.

The community is often more innovative than the city bureaucracy and can constitute a powerful force for change. When the City of Seattle planned to build incinerators to deal with its garbage problem, the community demanded a recycling program instead. When electricity rates escalated after the city bought into a nuclear power project, the community pushed for a model conservative program. It was the community that introduced the Seattle Police Department to community policing and insisted on its implementation.

None of this is meant to suggest that there is no role for government. While the community provides a local perspective, government must look citywide to ensure that neighbourhoods are connected and that each is treated equitably.  Community innovation needs to be balanced by a certain amount of government standards and regulations. My point is simply that cities work best when local government and the community are working as partners.

True partnership requires government to move beyond promoting citizen participation to facilitating community empowerment. Citizen participation implies government involving citizens in its own priorities through its own processes (such as public hearings and task forces) and programs (such as block watch and adopt-a-street). Community empowerment, on the other hand, means giving citizens the tools and resources they need to address their own priorities through their own organizations.

In his book, Jim outlines many methods Seattle has used to empower communities across the city, and bring them together in sharing goals, aspirations, dreams, people and projects so that they can move the city together more effectively instead of overlapping.

One particular example that jumped out at me was the city’s Neighbourhood Matching Fund (similar to London’s SPARKS Neighbourhood Matching Fund, though larger in scope), where communities could bring forward proposals to the city with requests for money, resources and city personnel the community have identified as needed to see their project into reality. The projects are ones identified as being high priority by the community, instead of from the tradition where the priorities are identified by the city, often with little or no community consultation. The matching comes from an expectation the community would include in their proposal their “share” in the project, where skilled work by community members and donated materials would be valued and added, making the proposals more accessible to lower-income neighbourhoods.

It also challenged communities to assess their assets, a key component to the community philosophy of the Tamarack Institute. Jim tells countless success stories in his book, highlighting that communities identified as “high-risk” or “struggling” in city assessments were some of the most mobilized by the matching program, allaying initial fears they would be ignored against better presented and argued proposals by affluent neighbourhoods.

The part I’ve been struggling with since returning to London from the conference with a head full of great information about what other communities have been doing is trying to condense it down into easily actionable projects and events in our city.

So what can we do?

Here are 3 online resources that are great starting points:

Urban League of London @ULld

The Urban League describes itself as “an umbrella group whose members include a number of neighbourhood and ratepayer associations in the city of London, as well as a smaller set of (primarily) environmental or heritage community organizations.  Individuals with an interest in urban or civic matters may also become individual members of the League.” Their website provides a number of terrific resources, including a listing of all registered community organizations and neighbourhood associations with a search that points you to the closest association to you, planning notices in the city, information on how to get involved with the League and other helpful links.

The NeighbourGood Guide @LDNeighbourGood

This website allows Londoners to “like” and share their favourite gems in their community, helping communities promote their favourite places and find out the great places to go in others. As an awesome bonus, the community with the favourite gem is eligible for a $5,o00 neighbourhood enhancement project! The website lists all communities (such as Old East Village and Argyle) for easy searching to see the gems by neighbourhood, as well as providing tons of other links, including 2013 community initiatives and community news in London. The site is fun and interactive, allowing anyone to mark new gems not yet identified, so the content is built by users. Spend some time on this website, I guarantee you’ll find new great places to explore all over the city!

Better London @BetterLondon

Better London is a terrific forum for sharing ideas on how to make our great city even better. You can share brief ideas on the site to be discussed by users and given priority based on how popular the concept is. Other social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be used to further the audience reach, often sparking great conversation on the merits and drawbacks of different ideas. Better London allows Londoners to connect with others in their community, dream together what can be done to make our city and communities better, and work out goals and actions that would make these ideas a reality.

And a bonus fourth! Shameless community plug time: Discover Argyle @DiscoverArgyle

Discover Argyle is a summer-long project launched on Canada Day in East Lions Park that highlights events, places and spaces in the community. The program includes a personal “passport” to Argyle that participants can get stamped at the destinations. The website link includes a full list of events in the community, places passports can be picked up and dropped off, and a blog that will be written over the summer on everything happening.

Over the summer, many community associations are on a break to participate in and enjoy the many events happening in their communities and throughout the city. Events are a terrific way to meet with others, get to know your neighbours, and sew the seeds of further participation. This summer I hope to be in the city as much as possible, hear and see what others are working towards and hoping for. I ask that this summer you may do the same, learn about some of the great things happening in our city, and dream with others of what can be while looking for ways to make it happen!

downtowrooftop2

I’ve struggled to complete my series on my experience at Tamarack, as the concluding day tackled deeper issues. These included what a strong community looks like, and how we can each return to our own communities with renewed purpose and energy to make the community visions a reality.

As I’ve reflected on community and what we can each do to grow a vibrant and caring city, two major developments passed the city’s planning committee, despite the protestations of both planning staff and many concerned citizens. The mayor has touted the construction developments in environmentally significant areas as a major win for our city because of the potential 1,200 jobs they will bring. This is against concerns that this growth further spreads the sprawl already too typical of London, the fact that the jobs would be mostly minimum wage jobs to multinational corporations not invested in the best interests of our communities, and that it would draw opportunities away from neighbourhoods across our city that are already struggling.

I was motivated to write this letter after reading Shawn Adamsson’s letter to Council expressing his concerns about the direction these developments will take our city. Please consider writing a letter to Council (wards and contact information available here). The more people who are sharing their thoughts and opinions on important civic issues, the stronger our city becomes. Please feel free to use this letter as a template if it helps to express your thoughts on this issue.

———–

To Councillor Armstrong, Mayor Fontana and members of London City Council,

I believe the two developments approved by the planning committee this week are the wrong direction for our city for several reasons.

As a student of urban planning and a participant in the highly successful ReThink London process, I’m concerned that these proposed developments are contrary to the public will and the wisdom of the city’s planning staff. The recently published ReThink London discussion papers and specifically the paper Creating a Mixed Use, Compact City demonstrate the public will to utilize our existing lands more efficiently and creatively, instead of the further hollowing of the core these developments would represent. If Council opts to ignore these massive citizen engagement initiatives, to ignore the advice of their paid professionals and instead to side with furthering urban sprawl for very little net job gain for our city, we risk further disenfranchising and losing valuable London citizens.

As a member of the Argyle Community Association board and a member of the city-led Strengthening Neighbourhoods Argyle initiative, I am very concerned about the impact these proposed developments will have on our community. Strengthening Argyle has worked diligently to survey the community to understand their priorities, with the ultimate goal of creating a vision statement and action plan for citizens to see their desires realized. One of the underlining goals for the community is jobs, especially jobs that provide a living wage that allows Argyle citizens to live comfortably and be contributing members of the community. I am deeply concerned that these jobs will do very little to provide new net jobs to our city, and only further drain opportunities from communities already struggling.

I recently had the opportunity as a member of Strengthening Argyle to  join the Tamarack Institute gathering on neighbourhoods and communities in Kitchener with many City of London employees. One of the key features of the gathering was walkabouts in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge communities to hear their success stories. One of the walks we were able to take was to see downtown Kitchener, featured as “The Revitalization of an Urban Core”. In it we saw many repurposed buildings (most notably the extremely successful Tannery District) and infill developments, making the most of existing sites. The planning staff that guided the tour noted that these kinds of projects help save the city money by slowing the need for expansion, reducing strain on public utilities and infrastructure.

As a previous employee of London Hydro working in the engineering office (2010-2011) and as a current contractor to hydro utilities, I see first-hand the costs of expanding developments into unserviced areas. On top of the massive environmental impact of clearing and developing an environmentally significant woodlot and wetland, the city needs to consider the burden servicing these developments will have on the citizens and infrastructure of London.

As a family that depends on public transportation to get around the city, we are concerned that these developments would either be unserviced by the LTC and therefore costly to reach (especially by the minimum wage employees of that site), or by being serviced by the LTC, would further strain an already over capacity and underfunded public service. There are many routes in the urban core that are unable to deliver sufficient seats to people that depend on transit (including students who pay for a bus pass as part of their tuition), and the LTC hopes to keep up with neighbouring cities by introducing express bus service. Furthering our urban sprawl will sacrifice these kinds of ambitious projects, and put us further behind the kinds of innovative communities we must compete with for our post-secondary grads.

As we struggle with 9.8% unemployment and the continued drain of our younger generation, these new developments may seem like big gains for our city. However, the generations of young educated professionals we want to keep value the environment, value having efficient public transportation, and recognize that a city with long strips of vacant commercial space (like the Pond Mills area, or McCormick area) already being serviced is short sighted to abandon that neighbourhood to decay for the sake of the appearance of progress (shovels in the corn fields).

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Brian Gibson, Ward 2

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After the morning discussion, we broke into workshops to start the afternoon. I joined one called “Social Capitol and Neighbourhoods” at the Victoria Park gazebo hosted by Milton Friesen, who is completing a Ph.D. at the University Of  Waterloo School Of Planning.

gazebo meeting

Milton’s discussion centred on the research he is doing, including understanding how people move in their environment, and how this data can help us to appreciate how connected a community is and estimating social isolation in the community. Part of his research includes subjects being voluntarily tracked with a small GPS device (currently being invented by Milton) that would simply log their location every 15 seconds or so, for one week (the data would be entirely geospatial, without any personal information attached). In theory, with enough willing participants chosen by random sample in a community, the community could be “mapped” by seeing where people tend to congregate and when, how far they travel on average from home to work, etc.

I found his study very interesting, partially because it reminded me of research I worked on as part of my undergraduate degree, “Estimating Population: A Case Study”. The research I did (lead by my GIS professor Martin Healy) investigated how people can move through their environment in London, based on the case study of the outdoor pools across the city and how accessible they are to the local population around them. My study used paths (walkways, sidewalks, roads) in the GIS to estimate how people can access the pools, but this data would allow the researcher to see how people really move in their environment, and as more communities were studied, start to develop a stronger understanding of trends, and to be able to spot communities that are more or less connected. At least, in theory.

Very soon, we walked from the gazebo back to the pavilion to take one of the school buses to communities in Waterloo and Cambridge for our second walkabout. I chose to visit a community called “Lang’s Farm Village” and their village association, drawn to the prospect of talking to another community association and seeing what they’re doing. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself in a Cambridge community started in the late 60’s-early 70’s.

We were greeted by a harsh looking neighbourhood, and a very friendly community leader, Bill Davidson. Bill briefly told us the story of Lang’s, a community built on what had been farmland, replacing the arable soil with many brutalist high rise apartments and town house complexes. He described the community as one of big problems and big hearts, where social issues such as high drug use, pregnancy and school drop out rates are seen as opportunities. The community has pulled together against tough odds, and is flourishing.

He took us quickly through the community association building (what started as the unit of a townhouse, but soon spilled into an additional portable unit because of the need and the desire to work there), which has evolved into a youth and teen centre, which includes daycare and afterschool programs, cooking and fitness classes.

Langs Village Association

As we left the townhouse, Bill grinned and said, “we’re very proud of everything happening here…this isn’t what we brought you to see, though.” Some others from the group who were more familiar with the region seemed to guess where we were going, but I followed the group down the street, not knowing what was coming next.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I’d find as I turned the corner.

Bill beamed and welcomed us to Lang’s, the community health & wellness centre built in 2010. This project was a joint venture from all three levels of government, creating a regional centre, but built primarily for the immediate community of Lang’s Farm Village.

Langs entrance

At the front entrance is a map and list of all the community partners. In this one centre, the community has a multitude of different services, workshops and facilities available to them. Many of the speakers at the gathering had been talking about “breaking down walls” and “connecting communities”, but I hadn’t envisioned something quite like this.

The community was instrumental in every aspect of the centre, from pushing since the 80’s to have an integrated place where all needs of the community and region could be met, to consulting on the design and choosing who would occupy the space. This even includes the interview process – when selecting professionals that will work in the centre, the community is welcomed to meet the applicants and help choose the person they want serving them!

Langs community partners

This is the main space that greets visitors, with seating in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, a large reception/help area and entrance to various wings of the building.

Langs main area

Behind the reception area is a large gymnasium, with windows looking out into the reception area. Bill impressed on us that the centre works to support health and wellness in the community, from teaching fitness and recreation activities, supplying many different medical offices, to various forms of counselling and support.

View from gym

This is Bill telling us about all the medical offices in the building. Many of the practitioners in the centre are there on rotation from other offices, but they also have dedicated staff. Many of the people that have come through their doors have never been to a doctor or a dentist before, but now they see one regularly, as well as having access to specialized care such as chiropractic and massage therapy.

medical centre

The centre was built with many green features to keep the maintenance and energy costs down, including a green roof.

green roof

A mural above the gym was designed by the youth of the community, and created with them by a team of graphic designers working in the community that continue to mentor aspiring artists.

gym mural

After a whirlwind tour of the community centre, we were back on the bus to Kitchener. We were invited to return to the pavilion in the evening for lively line dancing. I lingered with a group of others from the conference over dinner and beer and ended up getting to the pavilion just as things were winding down…so we went over to the Victoria Park Boathouse instead. Not a bad way to end the day!

victoria park at night

Next post: Tamarack Day 3: Benefits of Organizing Neighbourhoods

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.

IMG_1048

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

Victoria Park Pavilion

Last week I joined city employees, service providers and other citizens/community association members at a 3-day event hosted by the Tamarack Institute in Kitchener called Neighbours, focused on the power of neighbourhoods and citizens in creating community.

gathering discussions

The event was hosted at the Pavilion in Kitchener’s Victoria Park. This was the first time I had spent much time in Kitchener, and was amazed at everything I saw there. Though the event was framed around the Institute’s typical conference format, the gathering was the first time that they had brought people together in a park. The Pavilion was a beautiful space, and being in the park gave us many places (including picnic shelters, a large gazebo, and the Boat House bar) to meet together for small group discussion.

gazebo meeting

Each day we met in the morning for opening thoughts from one of the Tamarack leaders, followed by discussions in small group “pods” that were a blend of citizens, city and public sector employees, before listening and sharing thoughts in a discussion lead by the leaders. Each afternoon was concurrent workshops on varied topics followed by walkabouts in different communities in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge reached either by walking or school buses.

I found the discussion very interesting and illuminating as we dug into what community means for everyone at the gathering and how we can build stronger communities across the country and the world, but I found the walkabouts especially valuable as we examined what the region has been doing to build and grow.

tannery district

On the first day I chose to join the downtown Kitchener walkabout, exploring how the city has revitalized the urban core. We walked around the Victoria Park neighbourhood, a place called TreeHaus and the Tannery District (pictured above) for examples of inventive co-working spaces and King Street to see creative uses of the downtown streets.

langs

On the second day I joined the walkabout of the Lang’s Farm Village community in Cambridge, visiting the Village Association Youth and Teen Centre and their brand new regional community health & wellness centre (pictured above).

For the next three days I’ll share my thoughts and experiences from the event in a series of posts. I hope that I can convey the various elements of the gathering well, and take away from it some goals and actions we might be able to take in London to strengthen our communities both separately and united as parts of our great city!

Next post: Tamarack Day 1: Community Assets

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been more out of the loop in London politics and activity than I’d like, and I hope in time to get more involved again. Having said that, I didn’t think I’d be back into it this soon.

Last week, we discovered that an empty lot (193 Clarke Road) very close to our house is being considered to an infill development project. This is the project (as stated in this article):

The project, a one-storey, 14-unit structure planned by a group of people with autistic children, is slated for a long-vacant lot in a neighbourhood along Clarke Rd. — and has the endorsement of city hall’s planning staff.

The community reaction to the project has been very negative:

But neighbours, stressing the building doesn’t fit their established east-end community, have pushed back hard, along with ward Coun. Bill Armstrong.

I find this extremely disappointing. The planning staff have endorsed the project. They have the constant challenge of trying to encourage infill developments wherever possible instead of seeing city growth continue to push against the urban growth boundary, yet when an excellent opportunity to develop happens, the community pushes hard against it.

This is the site in question:

193 clarke road map

As Councillor Armstrong says, from this perspective, the surrounding neighbourhood is all residential. But the plan is a single storey building actually shorter than the surrounding houses, and as this map shows, it is a massive lot.

Now look at this map, east and north of the site:

193 clarke road map

The site is on Clarke Road, a major city artery, and across and to the north of the site are an elementary school, a church, a secondary school, a city arena, and behind is medium and high density residences. To the south at Trafalgar and further is all commercial zoning, including one of Argyle’s largest shopping areas outside the mall itself. I absolutely don’t accept the argument that a modestly-sized apartment is not in keeping with the rest of the community.

Finally, there is the site itself:

photo of 193 clarke road

Currently, 193 Clarke Road is unlit, uncontrolled and unsafe. The site is used as an unofficial neighbourhood park, but it is also an unofficial dump, often used for disposing of garbage and shopping carts. I think the plan for this site is excellent, and having someone taking ownership and responsibility for the property would be a positive move for the community.

Though I’m sorry to see this project delayed, I’m glad that there will be further community consultation on this project, and that Sarah and I will be able to voice our support for the project in a public forum. I’m also glad to have time to be able to write to Councillor Armstrong and the rest of Council to say that I think that the design is the kind of project we should support in our community, and encourage to happen across London.

This is the letter we have submitted to Council:

To City Council,

I’m writing today to voice my support for the proposed development at 193 Clarke Road. I live very close to the site, and believe that what is being proposed is an ideal use of the site. I look forward to more information at the next public meeting about the engineering specifics of how the site will be laid out, but I believe the single-story apartments proposed are an excellent use of the space, especially since planning staff believe the site is properly situated and zoned for the use.

We should always strive to find good use of existing city structure, instead of continuing to develop and sprawl outward. As well, the site is currently uncontrolled, unlit and unsafe, so a cohesive plan to have the area developed, controlled and maintained by an owner is a positive step for the community. There are properties that connect to the proposed site that may be impacted as the site is developed, but I feel it is unfair to expect that this space would remain unutilized forever.

This site is ideally situated to the use proposed. 193 Clarke Road is along a major city artery, easily accessible to residents and visitors. The neighbourhood has a mix of uses and densities, has a bus stop to several routes very close-by, and is very close to two shopping centres, Argyle Mall and the shopping plaza at Clarke & Trafalgar.

Finally, as a member of the Argyle Community Association and the Strengthening Neighbourhoods Argyle Steering Committee, it is my understanding that our community wants to be welcoming, compassionate and inclusive. The strong opposition to this plan sends the wrong signals to the parents’ group, It’s Our Home, to the rest of the city and the greater world about the nature of our great community.

Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely,

Brian & Sarah Gibson

Shortly after writing Why Public Transit Matters, we had our second public participation meeting around London Budget 2013 (#ldnbudget13), with many great speakers around a variety of issues. A common set of themes for many was public transit, active transit, public health, the environment, and how they can all work together.

Photo credit: Wired magazine http://www.wired.com/autopia/2008/10/bikes-on-board/

I searched online for future strategies and existing examples, and quickly found many. This picture is from a Wired Magazine article on San Francisco’s Caltrain system, which was one of the first to allow bikes on board. The article explains that the idea was so popular with commuters that it soon became unsustainable, because of the demand for bike space outstripped the availability of train cars. Possible solutions include having a bike renting/sharing program, or having additional bike racks at the station for “beater bikes”, one you can leave overnight so it’s waiting for you to get you from the station to work and back. Why is combining rail/bus transit with biking/walking transit so attractive? From the article:

“Transit trips are way up,” Tim Blumenthal, head of the national bike advocacy group Bikes Belong, told Wired.com. “More buses have racks on the front, and more light rail and subways are allowing bicycles on board even during peak hours.” According to Blumenthal, the benefits of bicycle transit trips are huge: commuters lose weight while the air gets cleaner, and highways get less crowded while America starts to recover from its oil addiction.

There are many benefits to both public and active transit, and creating a city that fosters both would help us towards being a sustainable, healthy community. A green strategy report by the City of Vancouver states:

How we move around a city makes a big difference to our quality of life. The air we breathe, the amount of land we need, our physical health and well-being, and the cost of travel are all impacted by our transportation choices. Green transportation includes transit, as well as active transportation like cycling and walking. It is also about the places we see and experiences we have on the way to our destinations.

This report “Walking to Public Transit: Steps to Help Meet Physical Activity Recommendations” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention covers the direct health benefits of taking public transit. It identifies that the Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity, yet nearly half of Americans don’t meet these guidelines. Many may receive the recommended amount simply by walking to and from public transit, which increases their activity drastically over driving a personal vehicle.

 As well, Toronto has examined the health and financial benefits of encouraging walking and biking in the city in this report, “Road to Health”. As the quote below shows, there are a great deal of human and financial benefits to be considered when building active transportation infrastructure:

Higher levels of physical activity through increased cycling and walking can significantly reduce an individual’s risk of a number of chronic diseases and prevent deaths. Based on very conservative calculations, 2006 levels of walking and cycling in Toronto are estimated to prevent about 120 deaths each year. Total savings from these prevented deaths range from $130 million to $478 million depending on how deaths are valued. Savings in direct medical costs arising from residents staying active by walking and cycling are estimated to provide a further economic benefit of $110 to $160 million.

London as well as communities including KitchenerTorontoVancouver,  and Hamilton are shaping comprehensive strategies for our transportation future. London’s SmartMoves 2030 Transportation Master Plan (full report found here) lays out ambitious goals for lowering London’s reliance on cars and creating a city that is denser, more efficient and easier to move through alternative transportation methods.

Personal vehicles were once a North American symbol of empowerment, opportunity and freedom. However, younger generations are now driving much less than their parents, often foregoing driving a car entirely to embrace public transit, biking and walking. This shift is happening slowly, but this may very well be our transportation future as more and more people look for ways to get around that are healthier, more sustainable and better for the environment.

So what can we do?

London’s SmartMoves project is moving forward. We can follow its progress and advocate for the program. We can also work to change our commuting habits, and tell Council that we are looking for a public transportation system that makes getting around the city affordable, efficient and pleasant. We can follow the LTC and see how the service can be improved/enhanced to better service the London we want to build together. And we can push the city to continue to invest in path and bike lane infrastructure so we and future generations and move through our city effectively without relying on cars.

Thursday February 28, Council will vote on London Budget 2013 (#ldnbudget13), and how our tax dollars will be spent in the year ahead. It is an excellent opportunity to see how Council operates and represents us, hope to see you there!

Next post: Our transit future

not in service

I wrote this post last month about why I believe that the public library is a core pillar to the vitality of any community, and why London Public Library should be granted the increase it needs during the London budget deliberations to maintain their excellent level of service.

The library is one of several pillars we depend on for a truly vibrant, livable and desirable city, and it ties in with others including education. We also need to be able to easily move throughout our community, and the experience should be as safe, comfortable and pleasant as possible. Placemaking, urban design, land planning, and an integrated transit system including public transit are key components. It is about this last area that I want to cover in this post, even as it is under consideration for (further) underinvestment/cuts from our city.

I came to London in 2004 to study at Fanshawe, and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Integrated Land Planning Technology. As a student and new resident of the city, I accepted the public transit pass I was given with my tuition gladly, and used it to explore all over our city. Many trips were crowded, noisy, smelly, hot/cold and uncomfortable, but they got me where I needed to go.

But as I continued to travel year after year, I was turned away at the door more often as the bus was packed to capacity, and more often the bus never came at all. But the real awakening happened for me when I spent a summer co-op working in Hamilton/Burlington at the Royal Botanical Gardens, living in Hamilton. The bus wait times were extremely short, there was BRT to the McMaster area where I lived, the stops already had unique numbers posted so you could call to check schedules, even the high traffic commuter routes weren’t overcrowded, and the service was always excellent. If the driver saw you running, they would stop and wait. That’s right. Stop. And. Wait. For. You. It was tough to say goodbye to the HSR and return to the LTC at the end of the summer.

I am amazed that as the city talks about economic development, being an enterprising and forward-thinking community grasping for the future, we slip backwards in so many ways against our surrounding neighbours, and competitors. Groups like Emerging Leaders work tirelessly to work with the city to encourage and keep young talented minds in our city, and advocate for services students and new graduates depend on, including an efficient, effective and affordable public transit system. But despite this, I have watched the LTC slip further and further behind as it is underappreciated and underfunded by City Council, under both mayors AMDB and Fontana.

In my undergrad thesis project “Estimating Population…”, I examined through GIS technology how we currently examine population, and how estimates may be performed to create a more accurate understanding of our populations, our people, who they are. But the crux of my research was to examine not just where they are but how they move, how they get to where they desire to go, and how easily this is done. A multitude of different movement systems, including affordable, dependable and efficient public transit, are necessary to create a community where people of all walks of life have an equal opportunity.

This is the bare minimum. Layered on top of these considerations by urban designers is the much more intangible experience, examining what one experiences as they move through their environment, and how this can be heightened for the betterment of the entire community.

As I said, we rely on public transportation as well as the sidewalks, bike paths and nature trails of the city to get to everywhere we need and want to go. We depend on London’s public transportation system, yet have watched the service quality and quantity deteriorate instead of improve since I moved here in 2004.

I’m frustrated as I hear many say they would like to use the transit service, only it is always too crowded, and that the wait times are far too long (completely legitimate concerns), then as members of council criticize the low level of service, imply that the LTC is squandering what little money they do receive, and say that, somehow, it will get better subsisting on less, they’re not being “creative” enough. The LTC’s main webpage now displays a breakdown of their expenses, and what will have to be cut to reach a budget increase target of 0%, including a staggering cut to ridership (351,400 on conventional and 17,000 on specialized).

I’ve also been dismayed to see and hear many refuse to use the transit service, with a great deal of words like “I’m not a bus person”, “I don’t want to share a bus with them“, etc. What dismays me about this kind of language is this othering, placing space between who we are and who “they” are, both implying a betterment of one over another, as well as the assumption public transit is only for those that can’t afford to have their own vehicle, instead of a legitimate transit option for everyone. I often say “But I’m a bus person”, which is sometimes met with bafflement, or, “No you’re not…you know what I mean”.

The thing is, I wish we were all “bus people”. Our transit system is part of the lifeblood of our city, and it deserves investment from us, but it also needs to be recognized by City Hall as a necessity. That’s why I’m so glad to see the new advocacy group LTC bus people (covered recently in this Londoner article, found on Facebook and on Twitter @LTCBusPeople). Amanda Stratton (@‏AmandaStratton), who started the group, has this to say: “Everybody recognizes the importance of (public transit) and building a city around it except the people who are setting the policies”.

Shobhita Sharma (@LondonerShobh), who wrote the Londoner article, made this observation:

The LTC Bus People collective has come up during an interesting time in the city’s history as councillors battle to maintain Mayor Joe Fontana’s promise of a zero per cent tax increase in property taxes for a third straight year. The flip side to the tax freeze? Despite how politicians like to word it, services, including those provided by the LTC, could receive a severe blow resulting in restricted service on some routes and complete elimination of certain others.

Public transit is vital to our city. Quality of public transportation is even one of the factors used to measure the world’s most livable cities. In the preliminary budget talks, service cuts that were on the table were voted down, but councillors did vote to eliminate the $500,000 transit replacement request the service made, despite warnings that failing to maintain the fleet only kicked problems further down the road.

The LTC is a vital service, and only one of many being voted on during the budget process. This week on Wednesday Feb 13 is the second public participation meeting, and the final deliberations are Feb 28. These are the biggest decisions Council will make all year, choosing how our municipal taxes are spent. Make sure to speak out, participate, and have your say!

Next post: Public transit, active transit

In early June, I wrote this post about the loss of the long-form census and what it means for those that produce and analyze census data to better understand demographics and plan for Canadians. We’re now finding just how destructive the decision to stop the long-form mandatory census was.

In my last post, I examined the Sun Media op-ed “Census cry was all elitist paranoia”, and how the author uses the roughest of population migration data to argue the data is unsullied, without offering any examination of the deeper issues the cancellation presented. Instead of examining skew and how the under- or over-representation different people groups makes the data utterly unreliable, he takes clumsy swipes at so-called “elites”, the only people that apparently care about the change.

Unfortunately this is only one example of insulting and uninformed opinion pieces on the issue. Another is this Sun editorial from February of this year, “Senseless census spluttering ceased”. In particular, this observation by the author:

Notice there are no screaming legions today trying to sell the notion that the census is now meaningless.

No, instead of carrying on with their condemnation of the mandatory long-form census’ departure, they are gleaning the important information the census continues to deliver.

As details of the census findings begin to roll out, there appears to be nothing of great significance lost for the marketers and the analysts to digest and, for governments, NGOs and the non-profits to formulate workable strategies for the future.

All that teeth gnashing was all for naught.

The author also argues that statisticians are quietly moving on with their business as usual with data that is as reliable as ever. Everything now being presented by Statistics Canada as they roll out the first set of data since the decision was made to scrap the traditional census completely contradicts such statements. Such editorials are now proving to be premature at best and at worst, purposefully misleading.

This weekend, these news reports came out, stating that the long-form census cancellation is rendering new StatsCan data unreliable and questionable. Halifax’s ChronicleHerald put it this way:

Data users are advised to exercise caution when evaluating trends related to mother tongue and home language that compare 2011 census data to those of previous censuses,” Statistics Canada states bluntly in a box included in its census material.

Those are strong words for a statistical agency, since they raise profound questions about how the data can be used reliably to come to conclusions about language trends. Officials have undertaken a thorough investigation, with a report to be published shortly.

As a student of information technology, I find the language StatsCan chose striking. It may not read as a glaring condemnation of the new methodology, but as the article observed, what has been said is very strong words for a statistics agency. For now, it seems that with some guessing (a word no statician should ever be found using!) and analysis of contextual evidence from past censuses, some approximation of reality can be gleaned. However, this in itself is a completely invalid method of producing data, and we will only be moving further into the wilderness of guesswork and supposition the more information comes out using this new voluntary method. As the Globe and Mail article stated,

…the method of gathering the new data makes it difficult to assess where Canada is going in comparison to where it has been. Experts say these questions will only grow more complicated as results from the voluntary survey start to roll in next year.

At the highest levels, this information will still be fairly reliable. As the Sun editorials observed, we can still see movement across the provinces and understand where growth is and isn’t happening. But this is far from a complete picture, and is far from the most valuable data. Professionals including urban planners, sociologists and community organizations rely on much finer, community-level data to do their jobs effectively, something that will become much more difficult as time goes on. Observations by Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician of StatsCan until 2008 in this CBC article put it perfectly:

Even if big cities have high response rates, the swings in the data within smaller communities suggest to him that there may well be similar swings within certain groups in urban centres. Good data for the City of Toronto as a whole says little about how the Chinese population is faring, or whether low-income groups in the downtown core have enough daycare facilities.

My hope is that either the current federal government realizes just how damaging the decision to cancel the long-form census was for professionals working to understand the people they serve with the best possible data, or that the next government will reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

If you have an opinion on bringing back the mandatory long form census don’t forget to inform your MP, you can find their contact information here.