Back in 2014, the USA-based Strong Towns group posted a test to “measure a successful Strong Town.” The ten questions or conditions posed include:
- Take a photo of your main street at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?
- If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather to participate?
- Imagine your favorite street in town didn’t exist. Could it be built today if the construction had to follow your local rules?
- Is an owner of a single family home able to get permission to add a small rental unit onto their property without any real hassle?
- If your largest employer left town, are you confident the city would survive?
- Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?
- Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other?
- If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you?
- Before building or accepting new infrastructure, does the local government clearly identify how future generations will afford to maintain it?
- Does the city government spend no more than 10% of its locally-generated revenue on debt service?
In 2017, another post on the site noted, “A Strong Town should be able to answer “yes” to each of these 10 questions.”
Could Collingwood pass this test? I’m not optimistic, even if I’m not entirely sure how all of the questions relate to a “strong” town. The group behind the site has a financial focus that, while important, isn’t the only thing that makes a town liveable. In fact, too much obsession over money can lead to overlooking other quality-of-life factors. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) always about the money. Sometimes things — like corporate culture, shared resources, and strategic partnerships — are more valuable than mere cash (as they were in the decision to partner our electricity utility with Powerstream, back in 2012).
The group’s website says:
We believe that in order to have a lasting impact on our culture, we must educate, excite, and inspire citizens of all backgrounds to get involved in the conversation about how we build our world, and advocate for a Strong Towns approach.
Well, our town would fail miserably at that. This council does NOT engage its citizens in any relevant decision-making (look at how they closed Maple Street without bothering to even inform the residents who live there; or how they privatized our public utility to a for-profit company without any public consultation, or when they hired the mayor’s former employers without bothering to follow legal, proper, tendering processes…). Educate and excite? By this secretive and deceptive council? Risible to even think it. Spend our money on the mayor’s personal agenda and give themselves raises every year is more like it.
I am sure that if someone told council about Cicero’s motto, “Salus populi suprema lex esto” (Let the good of the people be the supreme law: De legibus 3.8), they’d laugh themselves all the way to their next self-imposed pay hike (while asking “Who is this Cicero guy?”).
The website piece concludes with this lengthy list:
We believe that in order to truly thrive, our cities and towns must:
- Stop valuing efficiency and start valuing resilience
- Stop betting our futures on huge, irreversible projects, and start taking small, incremental steps and iterating based on what we learn
- Stop fearing change and start embracing a process of continuous adaptation
- Stop building our world based on abstract theories, and start building it based on how our places actually work and what our neighbors actually need today
- Stop obsessing about future growth and start obsessing about our current finances
- But most importantly, we believe that Strong Citizens from all walks of life can and must participate in a Strong Towns approach—from citizens to leaders, professionals to neighbors, and everyone in between.
I’ll come back to that. First, let’s look at my take on each of the questions:
- No. Downtown always has more cars than pedestrians and quite often parked vehicles cannot easily back out of a parking space because the other traffic is too dense. The main street is so treacherous to cycle on that cyclists ride on the sidewalk (prohibited but ignored), forcing pedestrians to scatter out of their way.
Despite the token (and risibly ineffective yet remarkably inconvenient) gesture of closing Maple Street temporarily, Collingwood is still far more vehicle-friendly and supportive than bicycle-friendly or pedestrian-friendly. Most of our shopping malls and stores are extremely hostile to cyclists or pedestrians, with no safe spaces, and few convenient bicycle racks. There are few bicycle lanes on any streets (even those designated as “trails”), and on the few that have them (like Ontario Street) there is no monitoring or enforcement to prevent people parking on the bike lanes. The traffic on First Street is out of control, with little to no monitoring of speeding, and no red light cameras, making it far too dangerous to cycle on.
- No. I assume people would show up at town hall with their torches and pitchforks because that’s where they would need to revolt against council’s ineptness, ignorance, and inefficiencies. The crowd would do it once and do it right, by riding our politicians out of town, tarred and feathered, on a rail. But we have no community centre as such, no focal point as such (except perhaps the weekly farmers’ market if your interest is bread or berries).
Why revolution? We can vote this self-serving, corrupt lot out of office next year. Assuming, that is, that voters pay attention and care about the future of this town.
- Not while Saunderson’s repressive anti-job, anti-revenue, anti-development interim control bylaw (ICBL) with its fake “water crisis’ is in place. And that bylaw will hamper development while killing jobs and growth for four more years. Even after he buggers off to Queen’s Park and leaves the rest of council to clean up his mess, it will hurt the town. But if it were a street full of monster homes, it might get approved… meanwhile developers beg for exemptions and one cannot help but wonder if there is graft involved.
- Not without hassle. You MIGHT be able to get permission, after wallowing through oceans of red tape, forms, bureaucratic indifference, and spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars getting the permits. But you can buy a house and turn it into an AirBnb party zone without much paperwork or law enforcement. Council, however, sees no problem granting permits to developers to build monster homes almost right to the lot line, close beside older homes half or less their size, ruining the character of the neighbourhood so some out-of-town millionaires can retire here.
- Probably, but we’d be weaker. Our single largest employer is likely the General & Marine Hospital. You might recall how Saunderson and his cabal blocked its desperately-needed redevelopment so it would be forced to stay in place and make deals with a private developer to get the necessary land to grow there. If the G&M closed here, it would likely move to Wasaga Beach. It would hurt the town, but we would survive, albeit as a more expensive yet less-desirable place to live. Not that council would care.
- Mostly yes. Collingwood is a generally safe community, despite rising issues with drugs (do we REALLY need five cannabis shops here, with a sixth in development?) and crime. However, our sidewalks are crumbling and uneven, streets are decaying, we still have ditches on sidestreets that regularly fill with water every time it rains, making safety hazards for children and liabilities for the town, and there is little to no traffic or speed enforcement. And there are no streets truly safe for cycling, given the escalation of traffic even on our side streets.
- Nope. The rapidly rising cost of houses here means you need to be either a retired millionaire or have a seriously high salary (like a town employee) to afford any house in Collingwood today, let alone build one. The price of the existing housing stock was driven up by Saunderson’s ICBL. Housing prices here are well beyond the reach of people working in retail or the hospitality sector. But real estate agents and lawyers seem to be benefitting (Saunderson is a real estate lawyer, and deputy mayor Hull is a real estate agent: they both voted for the bylaw — without declaring a conflict of interest — surely knowing it would affect real estate prices and thus their income, and that of their friends and coworkers).
- Maybe. Due to local climate and environmental conditions, as well as a limited number of local crops, and few stores or markets that sell local produce, it would be difficult, but not impossible. It would mean giving up some foods and sometimes travelling to nearby communities for other items. And you could only do it within the local growing season. It could be done, but why? And how far afield does “local” mean? I look for Ontario produce first when shopping, then Canadian, but Canada doesn’t grow avocados, oranges, coffee, or tea.
- Clearly not. The “local government” doesn’t give even passing thought to the long-term effects of their current spending, let alone to the future. Look at how they have already wasted more than $10 million of our tax dollars on the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (the SVJI) and are still throwing our money at this personal vendetta (mostly giving it to Mayor Saunderson’s and Councillor Hamlin’s former employers, both of whom voted to appoint them without going to tender, which says “corruption” in loud language to me…). And look what we got for all that money: a digital report about events that are a decade old.
Look at how council approved building a splash pad on a former dump despite data that showed the public wanted it in Sunset Point Park. But why should council start heeding public interests or wishes? Future maintenance on a dumpsite? Not even on the agenda.
- Yes. The 2020 budget showed $1,775,546 was spent on debt servicing from $33,933,028 raised from taxes (a far cry from the $100 million the mayor claimed back in 2020!). But that’s because provincial law in Ontario prevents a municipality to run a deficit budget, and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing checks and rates every budget and loan to identify problem areas and to set limits on borrowing. So it’s not a council accomplishment: they’re just following the province’s rules.
The biggest expenditure is on staff and the town keeps hiring people unnecessarily. And expensively. For example, “General Government expenditures increased by $723,775 or an increase of 11.71% compared to the 2019 budget with net expenditures of $6.9 million.” An increase of almost 12% is abominable and should never have been allowed, but council didn’t question the increase, just waved its hands and passed the budget anyway. Thinking about the financial impacts of their decisions doesn’t come easily to council. Or at all.
Not that every negative answer can be blamed on our inept, secretive council, of course, but clearly council’s reluctance to actually do something — anything — good for the community at large, anything for the community, anything for the rest of us, and not just for themselves, plays a large part in our town’s perceived decline.
Our council doesn’t build its world image “based on abstract theories,” because that would require thinking beyond the moment and actually having theories. I doubt they have anything as grandiose as a “world image.” Or even abstract thoughts. Nor does council obsess “about future growth” or about “our current finances.” Council obsesses over the SVJI. After all, none of them were elected for their intelligence or vision, rather for their loyalty to the Great Leader.
The Strong Towns’ site offers books, podcasts, and other learning materials to further their goals of strengthening municipalities, but face it: the reading-and-learning-averse quidnuncs on council already know everything, so why would they bother to even consider such material? It’s not like they even read Municipal World. If they ever read anything (and that’s a big “if”), I suggest it would be 13 Ways to Kill Your Community as their model platform.
No, I don’t think Collingwood would pass the Strong Towns test: not even close. And, frankly, I don’t think our council cares. Their focus has never been on making Collingwood a better place to live; their method has never been to engage our citizens to work together towards common goals. It’s never been about community, only about themselves.
Collingwood deserves better.