National Infrastructure Summit, Day 3: Report’d!

Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Karen Leibovici just finished presenting the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, and while it’s pretty bare-bones in terms of what it addresses for now – water systems and roads – she explained in an interview following the presentation that the FCM is looking to release a new instalment every two or three years, with expanded data and broader focus. Transit, for example, is something they’re looking to address in the next report card.

The big findings are here, and the upshot is that wastewater and roads are cities’ biggest necessity deficit, with an estimated $39 billion and $91 billion in repairs for the next two decades. Which, y’know, yikes: those two systems alone have a looming bill of $130 billion out of the $170 billion the report says needs to be spent to bring systems in “fair” condition across Canada up to a “good” standard. With the total estimated municipal infrastructure deficit across Canada right now sitting at $300 to $400 billion, it’s not hard to see why the FCM only focused on wastewater, drinking water, stormwater, and municipal roads in their first report card; taken together, those four systems represent roughly half of the deficit.

Going on right now is a presentation on “COMMUNITIES OF TOMORROW” and here’s an actually funny thing, if you’re into grim humour: according to the PowerPoint slide on display, a civic leader at a SUMA conference responded to the goings-on with, “Innovation you say? Innovation? We’re too busy trying to keep our ass above the alligators.” That’s, uh, that’s funny, right? Laughs? Nobody tugging their collar and going “guh-hoy?” Okay good, great.

(Image above from the FCM’s Canadian Infrastructure Report Card website.)

National Infrastructure Summit Day 3: The Reportening

My phone just died, so I can’t post a picture, but Mayor Pat Fiacco just finished killing time at the podium by talking about boxing, and Karen Leibovici, the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, has just walked in the room and is getting introduced. Leibovici will be presenting the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, which the FCM has developed in partnership with “several private partners” and claims is the first of its kind in Canada.

I just got handed a brief, so while this session takes place. Volume 1 deals, apparently, with municipal roads and water systems. I’ll admit I was hoping for something more comprehensive, but we’ll see what comes out of this Q&A session.

National Infrastructure Summit Day 2

I just made it in to the second day of the National Infrastructure Summit at the Delta. This is a pic from what is apparently the innovation panel and they’re talking about maintaining cement and asphalt. But I was late getting in and as a result I’m kind of lost.Of course, I’m blogging instead of paying attention so…

Anyway, coming up later today, the P3 panel at 11am with Mira Shenker of ReNew Magazine, John McBride of PPP Canada and Paul Moist, the national president of CUPE. And, as John Cameron tweeted yesterday, Mr Moist has some opinions on that topic.

Should be a good discussion.

Check back here for more updates or follow the summit on Twitter with #2012NIS

National Infrastructure Summit 2012, Day 1: City Smarter, Not Harder

Last year’s summit, according to the organizers, was about analyzing the scope of the infrastructure problem; estimates, including the one in the IBM Smarter Cities presentation today, range from $300 to $400 billion. For perspective’s sake, that number is roughly twenty times the budget of the city of Toronto alone. So cities looking to maintain, fix, or replace existing infrastructure while also ensuring that they have the funding (or “capital,” eghguhgh) available to equip new developments with efficient and enduring infrastructure must find radical new ways to think about doing that. “Innovation,” the business types call it, and it’s the focus of this year’s National Infrastructure Summit.

While a big chunk of the “innovation” comes from ways to source funding – more on that in a bit – another substantial focus of the summit is on data. Specifically, big data, the kinds of interlocked and complicated sets of data that make up the backbone of modern infrastructure. Everything from city libraries to water and power grids comes with data and statistics that mesh together to form pictures of communities and cities that politicians, bureaucrats, and planners have to navigate in order to provide effective services. Finding ways to turn that complex nest of information from noise into signal is high on the priority list.

Part of the presentation from IBM’s delegates focused, for example, on the Washington, D.C., water system. The problems the District of Columbia faced – aging pipes, rising costs, decreasing civic revenue – should sound all too familiar to anyone who’s watched municipal politics in any city, ever. But using database collation technology – some of which was on display out on the vendor booth floor, and all of which almost went over my head (I’m going to head back tomorrow or Wednesday and try to get it explained to me in terms an idiot can understand) – D.C. forwent the reactive approach to fixing their infrastructure, instead using data to predict usage and anomalies, as well as sharpening the algorithms by which they schedule maintenance and improvements.

Oh, and they used the data of their maintenance workers’ routes to initiate something called “spatial scheduling,” where workers who are already in the neighbourhood anyway check in on infrastructure and facilities, rather than hauling someone out for a special trip, thus maximizing the time and energy of their employees.

There are more examples on IBM’s Smarter Cities page, of course. And they’re the sort of public-private partnership – a collaboration between smart, commercially employed thinkers and public employees whose job is focused on making the best of limited municipal resources – that it’s easy to get behind.

The other kind of public-private partnership – one that’s heavily emphasized during the NIS – is a financial one, and it’s both tediously convoluted and sort of frightening. But Paul Dechene understands it better than I do, and he’s blogging a panel tomorrow featuring CUPE president Paul Moist (who at 1 p.m. today held a press conference to announce the release of a CUPE-sponsored study by University of Manitoba economist John Loxley that counters the hoo-rah attitude toward P3s so prevalent here at the NIS), so I’ll let him tackle that. It is, however, the main way that many municipalities are looking to fund infrastructure projects. No surprise there, given that the federal government has tied so much of its municipal infrastructure grants to P3s – $1.2 billion annually – that, in 2009, it created a Crown corporation for the express purpose of exploring and promoting P3s.

God, wasn’t this supposed to be a blog entry? I’ll keep it short: there are some ideas floating around that, at least, make the idea of P3s for infrastructure projects a little more palatable. One idea that’s been in practice for a long time is a municipal finance authority like they have in BC. Since the 1970s, British Columbian municipalities have had the power, thanks to a legislative act, to pool their resources together and negotiate for funding through one large entity. According to Jim Craven, who spent years with the MFA in BC and now does consulting work for British Columbia municipalities, the united municipalities have the clout to ensure fairer funding agreements. Down the line, this means that revenues from infrastructure don’t go to paying back exorbitant loans; instead, they turn into profits for the municipal finance authority and are translated into dividends paid out to the communities.

Regina city councillor Mike O’Donnell was at the panel discussing financing, and in an interview after the panel, he seemed interested in trying to find a way to make something like that work in Saskatchewan.

“We are a very diverse province, and I think sometimes we don’t co-operate enough,” he said. “…What I really took away from the presentation is that co-operation has many benefits. Co-operation financially can, in fact, be extended to the very smallest areas of the province. And for someone like me, it’s very worth pursuing.”

That’s all for me, folks, and probably all for you, too; check back tomorrow for a couple of soundbites from mayoral candidates Marian Donnelly and Michael Fougere, as well as an interview with Jennifer Barrett and Christopher Miles Kailing, the winners of the Greenfield Design Prize portion of the City of Regina’s Morph My City competition. I promise they’ll be shorter than this.

National Infrastructure Summit 2012, Day 1: No Acronyms

Well, here we are.

Right now I’m posting from the ballroom in the Delta Hotel, where Canadian Construction Association President John Schubert is discussing asset management and public-private partnerships. The language he’s using to discuss it is obviously hella business-y, but with municipalities looking more and more at P3s, that’s no surprise. So I’m half-listening and half-updating you, the prairie dog‘s Monday afternoon blog readers. Hi, Barb, basically.

I’m planning on a couple more updates today, which I’m going to have to whip up rapid-fire or else post at the close of the conference today, since I’m not invited to the mayor’s reception and dinner at Casino Regina at 6 p.m. Since the summit is a packed, rapid-fire event, I’ll be trying to focus on these highlights.

– Over lunch, reps from IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative will be presenting on… something. But it should be interesting.
– At one o’clock, during the summit’s “rejuvenation break,” CUPE has a press conference to launch a guide to “the other side” of P3s. I’ll be livetweeting that one.
– The Greenfield Prize of the “Morph My City” competition, which is an award going out to a proposal to turn empty land in (or presumably around, because that’s how this city works) Regina into a modern & sustainable community, gets handed out at 3:30 today; the finalists are from Toronto, New York, and Missoula, Montana, so it should be interesting to see what ideas they have for our burg.

Plus, you know, interviews and stuff, assuming I can hack it. Paul Dechene will be checking in on the summit tomorrow, and I’ll be back on Wednesday to wrap up. If you have thoughts for us – things you think we should pay attention to, people you think we should talk to – feel free to let us know in the comments. And you can follow me on Twitter, where I post as @warmandpunchy, although I can’t promise anything interesting and also that’s my personal account so, you know, fair warning about the amount of butt jokes.

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.)


Pick of the Day (Tomorrow Edition): National Infrastructure Summit

We yammer on quite a bit about infrastructure at prairie dog. In the post WWII period cities across North America experienced mega building booms fueled by factors like urbanization, the proliferation of automobiles and general post-war prosperity that saw tons of families that had formerly resided in inner city neighbourhoods decamp to sprawling suburbs.

All sorts of infrastructure that was built to accommodate that growth spurt, stuff like expressways, overpasses, bridges, sewer and water systems, is now 50 or more years old and is in desperate need of repair and replacement. In Canada, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates the infrastructure deficit at $130 billion.

That’s a shitload pile of money. And to make matters worse, people are still wedded pretty strongly to the idea of suburban dream homes so cities are still expanding outward. Through development fees, municipal governments are able to cover their ass for the initial infrastructure costs. But once a suburb is built, the city is on the hook for future maintenance of the infrastructure and eventual replacement.

In a city like Regina in particular, with hugely challenging soil and climate conditions, that’s a recipe for financial ruin. To try to get a grip on the problem, Regina is hosting a National Infrastructure Summit. It runs Jan. 26-28, and will feature all sorts of speakers and panel discussions on various aspects of the infrastructure  dilemma from accounting and planning strategies to citizen engagement and best practices that have been adopted by other cities.

prairie dog has been granted media access, so look for daily reports on the summit as it progresses. And for more info visit: