01/7/14

Looking back on three years


If you attended the Mayor’s Levee, Jan. 5, you received a small brochure that listed some of this council’s accomplishments to date, as well as our collective plans and priorities for the remaining year of our term. It’s worth reiterating some of those notes.

Keeping the public informed was identified by this council as a strategic priority in our first strategic planning session at the beginning of our term. This flyer was produced by our new Communications Officer as part of that ongoing transparency and accountability. We want to let you know what we’re doing on your behalf.

Many of the things municipal government deals with don’t get reported in media. In part that’s because they are seen as procedural, internal or part of an ongoing process, or sometimes simply as unimportant. But they are all important to you, our residents and ratepayers. You should know that your council is working for you in all areas and interests, not simply those that get headlines.

A lot of our decisions are based on long-term initiatives and goals, and often the public only sees the final stages, not the lengthy process that arrived at them.

I am reproducing some of the information in the brochure below, but a full report about the strategic planning session will be coming to council in the next two weeks, with this and more material included.

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09/14/13

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World


Walking quoteThe title of this post is a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking, published posthumously in 1862, but which he wrote and rewrote during the 1850s. I was thinking of that line this week when Council officially opened the new Black Ash Creek Park, in the northeast of the Georgian Meadows subdivision.*

I was thinking of it not in terms of the park – a pleasant, family-oriented, structured space with playground equipment, a small pavilion, basketball court and a chess table – but rather about the untamed green spaces around the park. It is this small patch of wildness that delights me, not the carefully manicured grass or artfully curved sidewalk that borders it.

I’m sure kids – the older ones – will see those woods, the trail, the fields as a magnet for play. I’d hate to think we live in such a paranoid, dangerous world that children can’t be free to explore such spaces, to discover for themselves the magic of the woods. Maybe I’m naive, but I want to believe children can still play outside the confines adults build for them. At the very least, I hope parents take their children for walks into those woods: teach them to love, appreciate and respect the wild, to care for it, to protect and defend it.

Not all unbuilt space should be clear-cut for a housing development. Some wild space has to be retained for our collective enjoyment, and sanity. We need, as Thoreau wrote, wildness to complete ourselves.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Walking defined Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, described through his experiences while walking into the nearby woods; like Buddhist walking meditations on our role in nature and civilization. It later became one of the key essays in the American Transcendentalist-environmentalist movement of the mid-late 19th century. It still has resonance today.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

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07/7/13

Why are Pickup Trucks so Anti-Pedestrian?


Pickup truck exhaustTake a look at the back of any of today’s pickup trucks. Notice the exhaust pipe, under the vehicle? It points to the right. The same side of the road that pedestrians and cyclists use.*

Notice the bike lane in the photo – that’s where cyclists will be when this truck passes by them. No place to move to avoid the fumes.

1951 truckYet I have seen vintage trucks with that design, as in the photo to the right (even here in town). Several, in fact in just the past week. I don’t know the date of the change from rear to side exhaust, but it seems to be at least two decades old. I also know there are aftermarket kits that will return your exhaust to the rear on pickup trucks.

By design, modern pickup trucks are meant to spew their exhaust directly at pedestrians and cyclists they pass, unlike most cars, vans and even SUVs which exhaust to the rear. And a very few that exhaust to the left.

Diesel exhaustIt’s got to be a deliberate, anti-social design by manufacturers. Designers surely think of these things. They’re not stupid, even if they are misanthropic towards pedestrians and anyone on a bicycle. They planned it. They know where people walk or cycle.

Why, one has to ask, are governments permitting what is clearly a hazard – even a threat – to pedestrians in truck design to continue? Continue reading

05/19/13

Collingwood and our Comparators


The recent KPMG presentation to council, May 13, included some interesting data about where Collingwood sits in several areas among its peers. These included staffing, parks, recreational facilities, taxes, debt ratios and operating costs. These figures were taken from data reported annually to the province.

KPMG selected six other Ontario municipalities as comparators: Owen Sound, Wasaga Beach, Midland, Bradford-West Gwillimbury, Orangeville and Port Hope. This represents a range of population from 16,214 (Port Hope) to 29,561 (Orangeville), and households from 6,750 (Port Hope) to 12,029 (Wasaga Beach). Data is current to 2011, but not 2012-13.

Collingwood (population 19,241, households 10,695) sits in the middle of the population range, but second highest in households. This is because we have both a high percentage of seniors and seasonal-home owners here (therefore smaller numbers of people per household). We are the second lowest in number of residents per household (1.79; Wasaga Beach is lower at 1.45) – every other community is between 2.14 (Midland) and 2.96 (Bradford-West Gwillimbury). The data doesn’t take into account the seasonal residents.

We are 3rd highest of the seven in reserves per household (more than $2,000). Unlike some municipalities, we have continued to build our reserves, rather than using a higher portion of our tax revenue for debt servicing. Orangeville was the lowest at under $500 per household, Owen Sound the highest at more than $2,500.

As a result, however, we are in the peer group second highest in debt per household (slightly higher than Bradford-West Gwillimbury at about $4,000 per household, but much lower than Port Hope at almost $6,000; Wasaga Beach was the lowest at under $1,000).

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09/27/12

Should we sell naming rights to public property?


Selling namesI was recently forwarded a link to a blog post about selling naming rights for public buildings to corporations. The author writes,

Last week, I wrote about “the halo effect” on events, buildings, and properties that have had multiple names, all of which have been commercial. The other area we often advise on is the sponsorship naming rights of iconic buildings “owned” by the community or named after community leaders. Often a building may be named after a past politician or community leader. Brands interested in naming such properties must take into account these situations and be prepared to invest accordingly.

As a municipal politician, I am always interested in how public property is named because these names are, for the most part, permanent, and say something about how our community presents itself and its heritage. Public property is not merely the bricks and mortar: it can also be a public event or activity. In a previous post, the author commented positively on the selling of naming rights to a public event in Vancouver:

A few weeks back, I wrote about my experience at the Honda Canada Celebration of Lights (COL) event in Vancouver. It was awesome! This is a fantastic property that has had more naming rights than China has tea. But when Score Marketing Inc. was able to bring Honda into the naming title for the COL this year, it was great. It is an old event that has been around a long time. It has had its ups and downs. But as the property rejuvenated itself, making it more applicable to the audience and worked with corporate sponsors such as Honda and The Keg, it was fantastic. Mature properties can be refreshed. The COL truly did this and it worked for the audience, the sponsors, and the property itself. To those involved—well done!

I am not convinced. The author writes (in part II):

So yes, you can place a corporate name on a community property and benefit from it. Both the selling property and the brand can reap rewards, as can the users of the properties. When there is an activation plan in place and a PR plan, it works well. When due diligence is not undertaken, it can be a catastrophe!

To me, the benefit seems limited solely to money, at the expense of community pride, heritage and the recognition of our own citizens. And I don’t mean just former politicians. We have many people who have contributed to the greater good of our community – volunteers, teachers, librarians, editors, museum curators, historians, writers, business people, philanthropists… why shouldn’t they get the recognition, rather than some international corporation?

The image, above, is from an Ottawa Sun piece on the selling of Ottawa. It’s a satirical piece, but it makes a point.

Question: “Would you only try to sell corporate names?”
Answer: “Not at all. You could also market products — the way a beer company features a particular brand or a car maker a specific model. Small villages would be ideal for this. What about Manotickle Me Elmo? ”
Question: “The city says it wants to sell naming rights not only to its facilities, but to its programs and events as well. Do you see opportunities there?”
Answer: “Absolutely. It’s a stroke of genius. I don’t think we pay these people enough. ”
“City department’s with marketing budgets could keep it in the family by promoting themselves on other city of Ottawa properties. That way their budget would just be turned back into city coffers, making the accounting real easy.

The CBC news story about the discussion noted that,

…the single largest potential generator is exclusive naming rights for city buildings. Officials have identified 16 recreation facilities for possible re-branding, including the Nepean Sportsplex, Kanata Leisure Centre and the St-Laurent Complex.

“What we want to make sure is that folks don’t get the sense that we’ve, you know, kind of sold out and all we’re doing is letting big business and advertising take over the city,” Taylor said.

How could anyone NOT feel like Ottawa Council was selling out? The evidence suggests clearly that, by turning our national capital into an advertising space for corporations, it has.

I feel it’s a bit like selling your soul, if it’s just about the money. Had that corporation contributed something significant to the wellbeing of the municipality, and we wanted to recognize their generosity, I might support it. I could support a street named after a historical business that was once located nearby. But not simply sold to a company without a business and social presence here.

Even naming after an existing business is tricky. I’m reminded of the Molson Centre in Barrie. Molson closed its 200,000 sq. ft Barrie brewery in 2000, putting 300 local people out of work. Today, Barrie residents still have a sports arena named after the long-departed brewery, a daily, and embarrassing reminder of that closure. The adjacent Molson’s Park, a park and concert venue, was quickly renamed to Park Place, probably to try to help erase the memory of the company’s departure. It was closed a a public space and re-opened as a commercial business park a few years ago.

Rather amusingly, the abandoned brewery was used as a rather large grow-op until it was discovered in 2004, prompting many jokes at the expense of both Molson and the City of Barrie.

Obviously the name Molson is not highly respected in Barrie these days, even though they contributed to the community in the past. The name still lives on in the arena. Had the arena been named after a historical figure, its name would still have the same respect as it had when built.

Where do you decide to draw the line? Should we sell naming rights to all public buildings and property for some ready cash? What about the library? The curling club? Town hall? The terminals? The new ice rink? Should we sell naming rights to streams, to streets, to parks? What about events and activities? The farmers’ market? The harbour? You could potentially sell naming rights to anything municipally owned.

Collingwood would then seem less like a town than a sprawling advertisement. Local colour and flavour would be diluted by the brand names. Hume Street might be renamed Hyundai Street. The water tower could become the Google Tower. Sunset Point Park could become Microsoft Park. We could host the Apple farmer’s market and the Sony Elvis Festival. Why not sell the name of the town, too? After all, most kids today probably know more about Coke, Nike and Samsung than Cuthbert Collingwood.

Toronto recently approved a naming policy like this:

Rob Ford’s executive committee approved a city naming rights policy Tuesday that critics fear will turn Toronto’s public space into an advertising free-for-all.

The city already has the ability to auction off naming rights to city property and events, but the new policy standardizes the process and will see the municipal government take an active role in soliciting cash from outside parties in exchange for the right to rebrand public assets.

Personally, I think our identity has been homogenized enough through all the cookie-cutter franchise businesses and restaurants that pervade Canadian cities. I would not want to further erode our own local identity through selling naming rights for public property to outside corporations and businesses. The money just isn’t worth the long-time cost to our heritage.

05/29/12

Dogs and dog owners need places to socialize


Dog picHow many dogs live here in Collingwood? No one knows for sure, but we can make some good estimates, based on numerous surveys and national statistics. It’s a lot. Dog owners are a very large special interest group, perhaps larger than any other demographic group in town.

I’ve done some research and read many studies on pet populations done since 1996 (like this one from 2001 and this one from 2007). All of the major census figures of the older surveys are consistent with the most recent surveys.

Nationally, we have between 35 and 39 percent of homes with one or more dogs. On average there are 1.7 dogs per household.

I wrote about our pet populations last year when council was debating the cat tag bylaw. Back then, I noted,

A recent survey done by Colin Siren of Ipsos Reid estimated there are 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. The survey also shows that 35% of Canadian households have a dog, while 38% have a cat, which is consistent with other surveys conducted in the developed nations. Based on a figure of 9,500 households we should have around 3,040 households with dogs and 3,610 with cats.

We actually have more than the original 10,695 households here (based on stats from the last census, used in a report prepared by the planning dept. in Feb., 2012), so the pet ownership figures need to be updated. If we are consistent with national averages, using the lower 35% ownership, we should have roughly 3,750 households with dogs. That means, based on an average of 1.7 dogs per household, more than 6,300 dogs in town.

If we assume that 80% of the households with dogs are full time residents (that’s the percentage of households here used by full time residents as estimated by Stats Canada), we get about 5,100 dogs live here year-round.

Figure on adding another 200 new homes to the mix in 2012, and we get another 120 dogs (95 full time). If Collingwood’s pet ownership figures are higher than the lower end of the national average – and there are reasons to believe that: we have more seniors plus we’re semi-rural, both of which push the averages up – we may have closer to 6,000 dogs living here year-round. And that’s not counting any new arrivals between the census and 2012.

Put it another way: based on an average of 2.3 people per household (StatsCan figures), there are more than 6,900 people living year-round in Collingwood in a home with one or more dogs, and more than 8,600 if we include all of our part-time households in the mix. And that’s the low end of the estimate.

In comparison, 1,276 Collingwood kids were enrolled in ball and ice-related teams in 2011. Another 220 Collingwood adults were listed in ‘pick-up’ hockey (source: PRC Dept., May 2012). But even if the number of kids playing hockey was five times that number, it’s still fewer than the total number of people in Collingwood homes with dogs as part of their family.

It’s not about us-versus-them, however. It’s about accommodating all the user groups in the community, not just some of them. Dog owners are a substantial group of residents. Just because dog owners are not organized like hockey or soccer associations doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

We have made it illegal to walk your dog without it being on a leash, which forces owners to find a place where they can legally let their dogs run free. Allowing dogs to have exercise and socialize is as important to their behaviour and psychology as it is to children’s.

Happy dogKeeping a dog on a leash or penned in a back yard all the time will create a dog with the same sort of personality that it would if you treated a child that way: anti-social, aggressive, bored, destructive and overweight. Dogs, like people, are social animals: they need exercise, activity, companions and interaction with humans and other dogs.

To accommodate all of our dog owners, have one full-time off-leash dog park in an isolated area located at the most southerly edge of town, an area without neighbours.

It can only be reached by driving (even if a bus went there, dogs are not allowed on our buses). Anyone without a car can’t use it unless they walk a very long way to get to it: the location is very inconvenient, even inaccessible for many people who want to walk their dog to an off-leash area. This violates some of our basic beliefs in walkability, in active transportation, in creating community spaces and in creating neighbourhoods.

It’s a dark place with no lighting, and there are no nearby homes, so it is not considered safe by all dog owners.

“Pawplar” Park, as it was named, is beside an unfenced storm water management pond, too. Council has received complaints recently about dogs swimming in the pond and having to be treated for skin and eye ailments. The park currently has parking for only four cars, so drivers are parking on the grass wherever they can find space, and wet ground discourages parking there.

There is no source of safe, fresh, treated water for the dogs. Only the pond (which could be toxic) and the nearby river (which could mean any number of parasites) have water. Upgrades to make the park better and safer would be modestly expensive.

Dogs at playTwo baseball diamonds (at Central Park and Heritage Park) are designated as off-leash areas in the off-season (winter to early spring). These close to dog owners in mid-April. Once they close, where can dog owners go? If owners take their dogs to the water to swim, they still have to obey the leash law. Where can dog owners throw a stick or a ball for their pet without violating the bylaw?

Council is talking about expanding our ice surfaces to accommodate the demands from skating and hockey teams ($35 million for a total of 685 young players, according to those PRC figures). Yet a suggestion to spend a mere $5,000 on fencing to create a temporary off-leash park at High and Second – a well lit, safe, walkable part of town – was criticized by some at the table, last Monday. That is an odd alignment of priorities, as I see them.

We apply curiously different standards of service and facility to dog owners than we do to users of the arena, the curling club, the tennis courts, the skateboard park, the lawn bowling club, the pool. I don’t think we should. Dog owners deserve, I believe, more choices than one, out-of-the-way spot accessible only by car.

Dog owners, too, appreciate the neighbourhood off-leash parks because they can socialize with other owners; talk with neighbours, share stories, exchange ideas about pets and help strengthen community bonds. Off-leash parks are also safer areas for kids because they are protected from traffic.

Last night, six of nine members of council* voted to approve the recommendation to create a temporary off-leash area in an unused part of Heritage Park. It’s a small step towards a long-term, permanent solution. I would like council to also consider identifying some trails as off-leash, as well, if for no other reason than to recognize their use as such by contemporary dog owners.

* Voting for the motion: Mayor Cooper, Dep. Mayor Lloyd, Councillors Cunningham, Lloyd, West and myself.

02/18/12

Why not a Napoleon theme park?


Napoleon BonaparteThere’s a sarcastic, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek commentary in the Guardian this week, called, “Why not have a Napoleon theme park?” In it, Agnès C. Poirier editorializes on a recent proposal by a French MP to build a theme park in France dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. She writes,

Abroad, observers could be forgiven for almost choking on hearing this news: why not a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il theme park too?

That made me choke, almost pushing my half-swallowed tea through my nose. Imaginations must run very high among her set if anyone can associate Napoleon Bonaparte with two of the Twentieth Century’s most ruthless, genocidal dictators. Napoleon was no Gandhi, but he was certainly not genocidal. And by the way, North Korea just revealed a new, 70-foot statue of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, so can a theme park be far behind?

Agnes offers a backhanded compliment:

In fact, in France, many distinguish between Bonaparte and Napoleon, that is to say the man before and after he became emperor in 1804, when the child of the revolution turned insatiable tyrant. During his 10 years of folie des grandeurs, which cost the lives of more than a million men, he still achieved great things, such as emancipating Europe’s Jews.

Insatiable tyrant? No one who had read in any detail the history of Napoleon’s life and career would label him thus.

Calling Napoleon a tyrant was first done by the British press as a propaganda attack during the Napoleonic Wars. A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people. Cartoons pictures him as shorter than his actual height (he was 5′ 7″, average for the time). In 1908, psychologist Alfred Adler named an inferiority complex in which short people adopt an over-aggressive behaviour to compensate for lack of height; this inspired the term Napoleon complex, and that has coloured popular impressions of Napoleon ever since.

Napoleon was a complex character, and became increasingly dictatorial as he aged. But I find it hyperbolic to compare him with modern-day tyrants. The term tyrant orginally meant “one who illegally seized and controlled a governmental power in a polis.” It later added “connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of an oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls.” History, as Napoleon famously said, is written by the victors. Thus he has come down to us as a tyrant, rather than a hero.

Napoleon certainly placed family interests over state interests at various times, but also placed state interests over personal ones at times, when he tried to solidify his Europe-wide union of states through marriage and appointment. His reign was not that simply defined as the label suggests. Poirier realizes this, but it seems a grudging acceptance:

Napoleon is a fascinating subject, the study of which requires nuance and subtlety. The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror. What you’d call a bundle of contradictions. More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for “war tourism”.

She then refers readers to a novel by Anthony Burgess, The Napoleon Symphony, rather than any of the thousands of non-fiction works of history, military history or biography. Myself, I’d refer people to Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon for a better appreciation of the man’s military genius. However, Chandler does not cover his social, cultural and political activities (and does not cover the bloody campaign in Spain, because it was conducted by Napoleon’s marshals rather than by Bonaparte personally).

Napoleon’s life is fascinating and complex, and no one can deny he reshaped Europe (not just France) irrevocably. Some of his changes brought Europe into the modern world – he planted the seeds of a united Germany, united Italy, created a continental trade system that resembles today’s European Union, he changed the way armies fought (and how they treated civilians), he emancipated Jews from their ghettos, he challenged social beliefs in the divine right of monarchs, he rewrote laws, promoted science and learning, restored the church that had been almost destroyed in the French Revolution and established religious tolerance, founded institutes and schools, set up networks of communications, improved roads and sewers. He replaced feudal laws with the Napoleonic Code, based on equality and justice.

But why Napoleonland, a theme park based on Napoleon? Probably because it’s about the rise of nationalism in an increasingly complex and difficult European Union (beset as it is with financial woes), it’s about reaction to the popularity of Disneyland in Paris (which attracts 15 million visitors a year and is Europe’s most popular theme park), and it’s about a changing, modern perspective on French history.

Perhaps Napoleonland will be garish and kitschy, as opponents suggest. But perhaps it will instead help the world remember and celebrate a complex, challenging but ultimately great individual whose life and work still resounds throughout Europe today.