Robbing Roads-And-Sewers Peter To Pay Stadium Paul

The G&M is reporting that some Conservative MPs are suggesting we should use gas tax money to fund sports stadiums like the one being considered for Quebec City and, presumably, the one Regina has its heart set on. There is also a report out that looks at changing the gas-tax rules to allow for this.*

The only named proponent of the scheme is Edmonton-St. Albert Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber. Finance minister Jim Flaherty, however, is on record as saying that such a shift in focus for the gas tax is a possibility.

Meanwhile, over at the L-P, in a piece by Angela Hall, saner heads seem to be prevailing as provincial cabinet minister Ken Cheveldayoff points out that in Regina at least that money is already spoken for. And then some.

See, that gas tax money is supposed to be used for things like water and waste-water utilities, roads, bridges, public transit and solid waste management. Not only has our budget already taken this year’s allotment of gas tax money and earmarked it for such purposes,our council has also been lobbying for a greater share of gas tax money in future so that we can use it to offset some of our $2.1 billion infrastructure deficit.

Putting gas tax money towards the stadium would just mean leaving our infrastructure problems to fester. Problems like that $146 million expansion to our waste water treatment facilities that we’re being forced to undertake because of changes to federal environmental regulations the Conservatives put in place.

That some Conservatives are even floating this gas-tax-reallocation balloon seems to be a pretty good indication of how out of touch they are on the infrastructure crisis.

(And speaking of the infrastructure crisis — and the summits convened to cope therewith — we’ve a big feature article on that very subject in the latest prairie dog which should be hitting newsstands any minute now.)

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Note: This G&M story changed dramatically from when I first linked to it. When it first went up, it was about the gas tax scheme. Later in the day, after Quebec City’s mayor announced that his city and the province would be going it alone on the stadium plan, the gas tax angle was sidelined. It’s all still in there, you just have to read through to the final few paragraphs.

Infrastructure Summit: See You In 2012!

The National Infrastructure Summit is all over. The big news out of today is that there will be another summit in June of 2012 and Regina will again be hosting it.

Also, Mayor Fiacco announced that he will be working with other municipalities to put together a national infrastructure working group. It’s goal will be to come up with an infrastructure strategy that can be in place following the end of federal infrastructure spending in 2014.

I’ll write up some more concluding thoughts, post a few pics and maybe another interview or two either later today or early tomorrow. I will say this for now, though, it was a fun trio of days and everyone involved was impressed by the ideas brought forward and what was accomplished. Regina has a lot to be proud of here.

Oh, and on a personal note: Despite using the word about 10,000 times in my writing over the last three days, I still find “infrastructure” to be a really freaking awkward word to type.

Preparing For More Sprawl As Summit Winds Down

One of the themes that seems to be emerging from the National Infrastructure Summit is that it simply won’t be possible to solve our massive, multi-billion dollar infrastructure deficit problem by finding new funding models alone. More importantly, we have to start building infrastructure in smarter, more innovative ways. And there are more than a few really smart people here who seem to agree that one really smart thing we should be doing is putting the brakes on urban sprawl. Now.

For instance, when I interviewed Calgary mayor, Naheed Nenshi, he called sprawl the killer of efficiency.

And in a scrum on Wednesday, Jennifer Keesmaat of the urban planning firm Dialog (formerly Office For Urbanism), had this to say on the subject:

One of the challenges we have at a municipal level is that we don’t have the money we need for the infrastructure that we’ve built and are building. What does that mean for you as a citizen? You’re going to be paying more. Or we can begin planning in a different way and make that infrastructure less costly. And the reason it’s so costly is because it’s so sprawling and so spread out…. I think in one word we need higher density communities where we better use the infrastructure we have.

Are people getting the message? Maybe.

Be that as it may, I found an oddly-timed press release from the city in my inbox this afternoon. It was about a public information session for a proposed development in Regina’s northwest. It’s a Harvard project called Westhill Park Phase IV and it will occupy the lands just east of Pinkie Road and south of 9th Ave N. The current plan includes 306 residential units and a public park.

The public meeting is Thursday, February 1 from 4:30 to 8 pm at the Westhill Park Baptist Church (8025 Sherwood Dr).

At right, there’s a map of where it is slated to be built. And the pic at the start of the post is a Google Streeview from the end of Sherwood drive looking out over the lands that are likely to become Westhill Park Phase IV.

Call me crazy, but that sure doesn’t look like infill.

National Infrastructure Summit: Citizen Engagement

I trekked over to Queensbury Centre this morning to join Paul Dechene for the second day of the National Infrastructure Summit. While Paul attended a workshop on Financing, I went to one on Citizen Engagement. We’ll have more on the Summit in our Feb. 10 issue, but here’s a few thoughts on my session.

Participants included Montreal Mayor Gérard Tremblay; Jonathan Levine, an University of Michigan Urban Planning professor; Jennifer Keesmatt, a partner in the Toronto urban planning and design firm Dialog; and Philippe Leclerc, Interactive Communications Manager at City of Regina.

In the two-hour workshop, they explored the role of public consultation when municipalities were involved in major initiatives. When should it be done, how should it be done, what were some of the pitfalls, what were some of the benefits, stuff like that.

Mayor Tremblay spoke first. He concentrated on the political advantages of consultation. At one end of the spectrum, he noted, there was the idea that politicians were elected to govern, and that if people didn’t like the direction a city was headed, they had an opportunity every four years to vote for change. As Montreal mayor, his approach was the polar opposite. He viewed consultation as an essential pillar of participatory democracy. Under his stewardship, a formal agency had been set up in Montreal to facilitate public consultation, an ombudsman’s position had been created to investigate public concerns, and a mechanism had been established for citizens to demand a referendum if they objected to something the city was planning to do. While this could seem like a recipe for gridlock, he said it was his experience that the guidelines that had been put in place to mandate community engagement inevitably led to compromises being hammered out that everyone could accept.

Johnathan Levine was a bit of a contrarian. In his talk he raised the spectre of NIMBYism run amuck. With virtually any civic project, the most vociferous objections are likely to come from people in the immediate vicinity — if only because the project introduces an element of change into their neighbourhood, and people are naturally wary of change. Those people have the greatest incentive to organize against a project. The benefits that a given project will deliver in a city, conversely, are likely to be more widespread. They’re there, but the likelihood of people organizing and campaigning to promote them are much less. Excessive reliance on public consultation, therefore, could potentially frustrate worthwhile planning initiatives.

Jennifer Keesmatt should be familiar to many Reginans. Since 2007 she’s been one of the driving forces behind the downtown revitalization process. With her Office for Urbanism colleagues, she devised and implemented an exhaustive series of stakeholder consultations, workshops and townhall meetings to gather input on the future of downtown Regina. Like Mayor Tremblay, she regarded consultation as fundamental to democracy. To make it work, though, it was important to ask the right questions, to devote time and resources to understanding the complexities of planning issues, and to empower and inform people so they can participate meaningfully in the process. To thwart the type of NIMBYism Levine spoke of, she advised establishing clear and transparent policies at the city level so that parochial interests aren’t able to derail initiatives (like sustainability) that have been identified as being in the broader public interest.

The final speaker, Philippe Leclerc, spoke about new technological tools that exist for cities to communicate with citizens and gather feedback. Facebook and Twitter are two obvious examples. If you’re talking about complex planning issues, they necessarily have their limitations. But they are another way for cities to promote citizen engagement.

One final thought from me. The workshop wasn’t called Taxpayer Engagement. Or Customer Engagement. Those two terms are tropes that are often thrown around these days by generally conservative minded politicians and pundits who want to see the role of government in society reduced. If we regard ourselves as “customers” of city services, it tends to promote a sense of self-centred entitlement (ie. the customer is always right). Similarly, “taxpayer” focuses too much on the cost of government without acknowledging the many benefits we derive from public services. Yes, the challenges of functioning as a “citizen” in a modern democracy are many and great. But so too are the rewards.

Infrastructure Summit Day 2: Rethinking The Infrastructure Deficit

The keynote address by asset management expert, Dr Penny Burns, was pretty interesting. She apparently rewrote the second half of her speech to take account of what she’d learned and experienced at the summit so far. And she reframed the debate away from one of how do we find funding to close the infrastructure gap, to how do we do things differently so that our infrastructure stops being a cost for our cities and towns.

Here are a few highlights from an excellent speech….

I predict that in future this infrastructure summit with its focus on innovation will be seen as a defining point in the history of infrastructure asset management. A time when we changed direction and by doing so saved our communities.

Even very advanced councils are now realizing that seeking to address all of their infrastructure deficits by throwing money at them is an impossible task. Taken all together, the task is just too big and it’s not difficult to see why. Your assets are wearing out a rate of about two per cent per year, maybe a little more.

I want to ask you, what is the total replacement costs of your assets? And the next question is, are you prepared to put aside two per cent of this amount every year in preparation for renewal? If we are honest, and we do need to be honest, we know this is never going to happen. We are never going to be able to or willing to fund the entire amount required for the renewal of our existing asset portfolios. And the size of those portfolios continues to grow year by year. So the size of the funding problem continues to grow. And our infrastructure continues to degrade.

What’s the solution?

Well, when all the outcomes of the game point to annihilation, there is only one solution. We have, as the movie War Games tells us, to refuse to play the game. Or rather we need to change the game.

If we cannot or will not pay to continue our infrastructure the way it is, we either have to learn to do without it — which is inconceivable — or we seek alternatives that we can afford.

We must stop looking at the infrastructure deficit as a funding problem. It isn’t. It isn’t a lack of money so much as a lack of imagination. With all due deference to innovative infrastructure funding –which we need to do — we need to do more than just produce the same types of infrastructure with different funding sources. What we need to do is to develop fundamentally different infrastructure.

In the innovation session here at the summit, Patrick Lucey argued that with the infrastructure we have today we only get to use something liek five to 25 per cent of all the energy we produce the rest is lost in transmission. What if we could produce energy locally and use 100 per cent? What if by treating waste water on site we could extract the energy and reduce the amount we need to produce? And by recycling water, reduce the amount of water needed overall? These closed loop systems can be introduced by innovative design. And this is not futuristic dreaming, it’s already been done. And again, it’s already been done here in Canada.

And here is a sound clip from her address. It’s a little on the long side (13 minutes) but well worth a listen.

Prairie dog-NISKeynote by Paul Dechene

Infrastructure Summit Day 2: Mayor Hazel McCallion Interview

I attended a workshop about financing city infrastructure that was chaired by Hazel McCallion, the 89-year-old mayor of Mississauga. Afterward, I spoke to her briefly. One of the things she talked about was how the federal and provincial governments benefit from the infrastructure funding they provide. Cities may wind up with new facilities, but higher levels of government get to collect tax revenue off them over the long term. Here’s how Mayor McCallion explains it….

When a municipality awards a contract to a company to build something, the employees pay income tax, sales tax, you name it. Every project that is put forward, we don’t get property tax from it because we’re building our own facilities and we don’t pay taxes to ourselves. But every project that is awarded under the stimulus program, the provincial and federal government benefit for all the many taxes that they collect that we don’t collect.

And here’s the audio from our interview….

Prairie dog interview-MayorMcCallion by Paul Dechene

Infrastructure Summit Day 2: A Debt Comes Due

After the first talk of the morning (on innovative funding models for cities by Casey Vander Ploeg of the Canada West Foundation), the Mayor of Montreal Gérald Trembley took to the stage to subject our Mayor Fiacco to a little good-natured, post-Grey Cup humiliation.

Yes, you all know how that game turned out. And you probably know that Mayor Fiacco once again made a gentleman’s wager with the mayor of Montreal. Well, that debt came due today and Mayor Fiacco has to wear an Alouettes jersey today and tomorrow the flag of Montreal will fly proudly at our city hall.

Here are some pics of all the fun. As always, click to embiggen.

Infrastructure Summit Day 1: A Luddite Blogs

I’m blogging from the main hall of the Infrastructure Summit. I’m out in the field. Jacking in to the ‘net. Ten years ago, I’d have looked at Future Paul and thought, golly, he’s so hi tech.

Here in 2011, I can’t help but feel like a hopelessly antiquated geriatric case. See, I don’t have a cell phone and I barely comprehend the vagaries of Facebook, let alone Twitter. Everywhere I go at this thing I’m surrounded by people with their mobiles out, social networking up a storm. Have you seen the TwitChat feed for this event (hashtag NIS)? It’s relentless.

Hell, even 89-year-old Mayor McCallion of Mississauga has an iPhone.

It’s time I get thrown on the scrap heap. (At least, based on what I heard at the innovation workshop, I’m pretty sure I could be recycled and the municipality could earn a brief revenue off me.)

Infrastructure Summit Day 1: Opening Speeches And Naheed Nenshi Interview

Canada’s first National Infrastructure Summit kicked off this morning. Emcee for the opening round of speeches was Dianne Buckner of Dragon’s Den fame. Mayor Fiacco spoke about the importance of dealing with infrastructure needs and how widespread the problem is. Regarding the summit, he said, “This dialogue is the first major step in collectively identifying and managing our challenges and opportunities…. We need to stretch the boundaries of the traditional when it comes to infrastructure.”

Groanworthy jokes aside (Fiacco on using Twitter at the summit: “Last week our council got a lesson on how to ‘tweet.’ They’re a bunch of tweeters.”), this seems to be developing into a productive and interesting gathering.

Before the speeches began I had a chance to speak with Calgary mayor, Naheed Nenshi. I mentioned to him that Calgary is the city that Regina both aspires to be and also that we’re trying to avoid becoming, and wondered if he had any advice he could pass on as our city grows. He replied:

Make sure that you contain sprawl. Sprawl is the killer of efficiency. It’s so hard to serve by transit, to build those rec centres. So make sure that you’re being thoughtful about intensifying your greenfield an brownfield neighbourhoods. And really make sure that your new suburbs are built as complete communities where people can live, work and play in close proximity and they’re well served by transit.

You can listen to the complete interview below. (It’s only four minutes long.)

DOWNLOAD THE FULL NAHEED NENSHI INTERVIEW (4.1MB 4:15min)

Rant Alert: Tales Of Another Mayor

Earlier this week, recently-elected Toronto Mayor Rob Ford announced that “the war on the car” was over and ordered the Toronto Transit Commission to stop work on a decade-in-the-planning, $8.5 billion light rail system. Today, the government of Ontario directed some sternly-worded diplomacy in Ford’s direction.

Here’s my unasked for two bits:

When one segment of the electorate — in this case the suburban fantasy-land dwellers who demand lower taxes, more services and don’t know thing fucking first about urban development systems like transit — elect a belligerent and ignorant bully like Rob Ford to the mayor’s office, they get the wrath when their candidate does the predictably stupid things everyone who wasn’t a fucking moron knew he’d do.

If this transit program is killed it will set Toronto development back by a  decade. As area populations increase the lack of light rail will lead to gridlock, long drives into the city and greater pollution. It’ll also kill tons of jobs–you can’t just flush an eight billion dollar project without consequences. Just imagine the lawsuits… ugh.

Ford doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing and the mob cheers. If I lived in Toronto I would be apoplectic — I’m pretty hot just sitting in my desk in Saskatchewan, where none of this affects me. The suburbs cheering this move by their smug, dumbass mayor are very likely the same fuckwits who elected the Ontario Tory government responsible for shit like Walkerton. Fuck those fuckwipes. Pardon my French but, fuck.

I have to say, one of the great things about living in Regina is I never have to use this kind of language to describe our own politicians and voters. They’re not perfect, our city’s not perfect but I don’t see anything that looks like the current Toronto level of bullshit going on here. It’s nice. Hey it’s not like we’re randomly firing our own transit chief, right?

…oh wait. Fuck.

Arcade Fire And Spike Jonze Take On The Suburbs

Speaking of America The Broken….

Well, that’s left me feeling sad and scared.

Apparently Jonze has been working on this since April and I have to say it’s more proof the guy’s the master of making short films set to music. (Did you catch the Win Butler and Regine Chassagne cameo as the sherrifs?)

Bixi Love

If I have one word to say about my trip to Montreal, that word would be BIXI, bikes for rent at hundreds of stations around Montreal (bike + taxi = BIXI). You pay $5, take one out, do your thing, lock it up at another station at your destination. Take another and another all day long and pay for the time you use between BIXI stations. Comfortable, theft proof, easy riding, widely loved, efficient and green… public transportation heaven.

(BIXI photo courtesy CBC.ca)

We’ve Gotta Get A Mainstream Movie Theatre Back Downtown

Here is my problem. I want to go see Scott Pilgrim Verses The World tonight. But it’s only playing at the Galaxy. Which is basically located in Saskatoon. So, I’m not going unless I can bum a ride or cave and take a cab for $20 (I live in the centre of Regina, just south of downtown).

Sigh. If only we had mainstream downtown theatres. Like, you know, the Capitol (demolished 1992), the Coronet (demolished 2005) or the Cornwall Cinemas (now a lame mall-basement discount department store, an anemic reminder of the excellent discount department store that was Army and Navy. Which oh yeah was demolished).

Note: no lectures about how I can see This Movie Is Broken at the RPL, please. I’m not a big Broken Social Scene fan. Nothing personal. Besides I wanna see Scott Pilgrim because that’s how this nerd rolls

Broad Street and 12th Avenue, Circa 1974

This picture, one of many  iconic portraits of American blanditude by photographer Stephen Shore, is making the rounds of Regina’s only other reliable news and entertainment source, Facebook. That block – now home to the liquor store and tumbleweeds used to be happening — Safeway, the Roxy Theatre, pedestrians… Oh, Regina. You used to be my kind of place. The second photo below shows the corner of Albert and Victoria looking pretty much the same as it is now. Sigh.

Hat tip to Brett Bell. Photos courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Deutsche-Boerse.com.

My Parking Problem

You may have noticed that parking irks me.  And while I’d find it quite enjoyable to rant a while about the many ways in which excessive, poorly-designed parking wrecks a city, someone has done a much more thorough and eloquent job of that already this week.

The KunstlerCast is a podcast featuring author James Howard Kunstler that’s billed as a weekly discussion about “the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.” This week’s episode is devoted to parking issues. Listen to it here. It’s a pretty good primer on why parking lots deserve a generous helping of scorn.

Continue reading “My Parking Problem”

Detroit Crop City

I had no idea things were this bad.

I mean, I’d heard that Flint, Michigan was in the process of disconnecting the municipal infrastructure in its abandoned suburbs — it was just too expensive to maintain roads, sewer and electricity out to areas that will likely never be resettled. But that’s Flint. It’s been in the crapper since before the internet.

But here I am last night listening to As It Happens and their interview with historian, Mark Dowie, about the Mayor of Detroit’s plans to raze entire neighbourhoods of his city and reclaim them as agricultural land. Yeesh. That’s some pretty big frickin’ news, I’m thinking.

Okay, granted, Detroit’s population has dropped from over two million to under 900,000. These are grim times for Motor City. Something needs to be done. But this project means deconstructing great swaths of a major American city. They’ll be tearing down and returning to scrub one of the great icons of the auto age. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea. I’m saying: Holy. Crap. That’s got to be unprecedented.

Continue reading “Detroit Crop City”