CBRM Election 2012: Congrats & Thanks

Huge congratulations to Cecil Clarke, and tons of respect to Rankin MacSween; also Glenn Jessome, Elizabeth Barrie, and Wilf Isaac. Congratulations to Eldon MacDonald in District 5, and respect to Doug Johnston, Rico MacEachern, Max MacDonald, Leah Boyd, George Woodberry, and Charlie Long.

Two months ago, we gathered around the radio to hear John Morgan announce he would not re-offer in this election. To us, this signaled that a new direction was inevitable for the CBRM.

Today, no matter who we each voted for, we have a mayor who is committed — on the record! — to not only economic development and job creation, but affordable housing, public transit, addiction services, community engagement, and more. This, I believe, is because VOTERS themselves prioritized these and other important issues of equality, accessibility, and social justice. And so now the real work begins.

I went into this never expecting to win. We thought, hey, we’ll learn a lot (which we did) and we’ll raise my profile a little (which we did) perhaps preparing the ground for 2016. But as more and more people started to come on board, all of a sudden I found myself surrounded — by family, some of my oldest friends, and some of my newest friends — and you all just lifted me up.

In the last 40 days, we turned an exercise in long-term planning into a truly inspiring campaign, one that created a fair amount of buzz. I never needed to prepare myself to lose. But in the last two weeks, I needed to prepare myself to win. The fact that we accomplished that much — and had fun doing it — is remarkable.

And so I thank you, from the bottom of my heart — which has grown three sizes larger since I moved to Cape Breton 12 years ago.

The Northend Turnip: Election Edition

Below is my contribution to the Northend Turnip’s 2012 election edition, where they asked the eight candidates in district 5 to answer the question: “How would you define a vibrant community, and how could we attain this vision?”

I’ve written a lot on my website about what I think makes a vibrant community, and what I think council can do to achieve that vision. So I’d like to use this limited space to tell a story.

I run my business out of a shared office space in the former Chandler’s building on Dorchester St. I was at work one Saturday when I saw a couple of kids throwing rocks at the abandoned building across the street. I went over to talk to them. Seems they had just missed their bus by a few minutes, and had three hours to kill before they could catch the next bus home. With “no money and nothing to do anyway”, they were killing time by vandalizing an already derelict building. I asked what they and their friends normally did for fun, and the answer wasn’t any prettier.

So I asked them: “If you could turn that abandoned building into something cool, what would it be?” Simple: they wanted an arcade. Of course, it would take huge amounts of capital to renovate that particular building. I was just curious to see what ideas they would come up with. But what about one of the vacant store fronts on Charlotte Street, or behind the Civic Centre along the boardwalk?

We talked about the more realistic possibility of turning one of those into a drop-in youth centre — with arcade games, pool tables, etcetera. CBRM already has several models of successful youth clubs. The new council and mayor, working with other levels of government, could look for ways to strengthen those existing services, and replicate them throughout the region. Even if only on a small, distributed, part-time basis, such services would give kids more options.

And to be clear, it’s not about getting kids “off the street” so they don’t smash windows. Creating a vibrant community is about making everyone, young and old, feel welcome, supported, safe, and valued.

I also talked to those kids about ways to improve the public transit system, which had left them stranded in the first place. More frequent trips, they said. Cheaper fares for youth (and seniors), they said. Wait a minute, that sounds familiar… Had these kids read the 87-page transit study that the CBRM engineering and public works division had commissioned just last year!? Probably not. They just knew what it would take to increase their autonomy, expand their options, and make their lives better.

Council and the new mayor should talk with those kids, and others like them, both young and old, who may feel their concerns aren’t being heard — and we should listen carefully.

CBRM district 5 candidates panel

CBC Information Morning held a debate with the candidates for district 5. Listen here:

Municipal Candidates’ Panel – District 5

Here are some of the issues that we discussed:

Creating a vibrant downtown core

Marketing our world-class artistic talent

Debt and equalization

Port development

Community Engagement

Kids and their families

Youth & Early Years

Council should rightly focus on long-term sustainability. And that has to include a strong focus on kids. Child poverty is at an alarmingly high level in CBRM (roughly 20-25%). When kids fall behind, it can be very hard for them to catch up. And as long as our kids are falling behind, our communities will always be at a disadvantage. That’s our future right there.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of how local government can deal with these and other big picture issues. After all, we’re not in a position to throw money at the problem, or pass legislation at the provincial or federal level. We don’t have what CBU political scientist Tom Urbaniak calls “hard power.”

But we do have “soft power.” Municipalities have access to data, information, resources, and expertise. And council wields “convener status”, which it can use to bring the senior levels of government to the table — to meet with representatives from the community, young people themselves, and organizations already working on youth issues. Together we can address the needs of kids and their families.

Early Years (0-4 year olds)

With the help of this network, council should work to develop and strengthen existing supports for early childhood development.

For families struggling to make ends meet, affordable child care can mean the difference between getting by and falling through the cracks. Especially when, in Cape Breton, a common snow day can result in lost wages for a working family.

But it’s not just about babysitting, which is a service more for parents than for kids. Early Years programming is about helping kids become confident, secure, responsible individuals, and celebrating childhood along the way.

And the case to government is clear: research shows that investment in the early years results in — forgive the technocratic term — improved “outcomes”. Meaning that while creating a nurturing environment for children and their families is an end in itself, it also comes with a very real Return On Investment, namely a reduction in costs later in life related to health, crime, employability, addictions, and poverty.

Kids & Teens (5-15)

No need to reinvent the wheel: the Whitney Pier Youth Club is consistently pointed to as a model of success. Council should find ways to replicate that success in other neighbourhoods and communities.

Young Adults

Both Cecil Clarke and Rankin MacSween have recommended creating a Mayor’s Advisory Council on the Economy. There are just as many issues affecting young people and their families as there are issues around the economy — and many are interconnected. Council should create a Youth Advisory Committee, made up of people who work with kids, CBRM recreation, police services, and — the real experts — young people themselves!

Tackling these issues isn’t supposed to be easy. But identifying and building on our successes and potential, and involving youth in the process, is a good start. It’s ambitious, necessary, and possible.

Small town downtown

Tonight, while you’re enjoying the best night out in Sydney at Lumiere, think about how cool downtown Sydney could be every night.

I was out with our six-month old last night between 7 and 8pm, and here’s what I saw: Families walking dogs and pushing strollers (sometimes at the same time). Joggers and hand-holding couples going round and round Wentworth Park. International students carrying their groceries home under their arms looking only a little confounded. An adorable army of nerds playing with paper magic in the comic book shop with all the lights on. Diners in every restaurant. Kids riding their bikes on the sidewalk with flashing LED lights. A tour bus of seniors disembarking in front of one of the downtown hotels. Skateboarders grinding the curb in front of the civic centre.

I had a chat with those skateboarders and they told me some really simple ways the municipality could design public spaces to be more inclusive (friendly, safe and inviting for both young and old). It wouldn’t take much.

As Donnie Calabrese said in a CBC Leadership Series interview, Sydney is already pretty cool. It wouldn’t take much to make it a really cool small town downtown.

More kid- and youth-friendly public spaces. A few more businesses and coffee shops like Island Arts Cafe that stay open later. A better parking design to get more cars off the main strip and more feet on the pavement instead. Bike lanes so those kids don’t have to ride on the sidewalk. A few dozen downtown loft apartments, in a range of affordability, for young families and recently retired professionals looking to hang out a consulting shingle.

These things have a way of complementing each another, and building on one another other. Think about some of them tonight. And then think about how to make them happen.

Engaging CBRM to reinvent itself

“Around the world there are cities in desperate need of rejuvenation and transformation. Elected officials are scrambling to equip their cities for the 21st century, talking about creating ‘open’, ‘networked’, and ‘smart’ cities.”

So writes social media commentator Don Tapscott in a blog post titled “Engaging the Population of a City to Reinvent Itself”. And not just elected officials, but also people like yours truly who are running for municipal council. For example, see my recent post: Access to Information & ‘Open Government’.

Tapscott continues:

“Cities need new strategies for meeting [their] challenges, and fortunately, the Internet and new digital tools provide a low-cost and effective way of doing this. These tools allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process and be engaged in public life. Residents can offer their wisdom and enthusiasm on an ongoing basis. When citizens become active, good things happen. People learn from one another. Initiatives get catalyzed.”

An example he gives is Bogota, Columbia, which recently elected a new mayor. The local Chamber of Commerce led the charge on increasing community engagement. Here’s what the story would look like if you simply swapped CBRM for Bogota:

“With a municipal election scheduled for the end of October the Chamber saw an opportunity to challenge the mayoral candidates with ideas and proposals to fix the city. But rather than doing the back room lobbying that characterizes municipal politics, it took a different approach. It decided to engage the citizens of [CBRM] in a process to reinvent their city.”

“…It was an extraordinary exercise that is rich with lessons for anyone wanting to help their own city. The goal was to encourage local businesses, community leaders and citizens to become involved in the [CBRM’s] affairs.”

“The process involved a mix of online and local face-to-face initiatives. The Chamber wanted voters to help set the agenda for the new mayor and government. However this was not simply about asking the candidates to adopt platitudes about building a better, more open city. Many of the proposals were not only fresh, they had teeth.”

Or, as Fr Jimmy Tompkins put it, and as I quoted him in my Ideas talk, the ideas “had legs”.

The Chamber was able to involve more than 10,000 citizens. Its 26 roundtables attracted 1,800 citizen, business and student leaders. During the sessions participants made 1,600 proposals and 1,700 commitments towards the city. More than 8,000 people filled out the virtual and face-to-face surveys.

(Tapscott will elaborate on the results in a future blog post.)

Cape Breton and the Creative Economy

Interest in the arts as an economic engine is growing (especially interest from the provincial government1). So continuing on the theme of economic diversity, CBRM should develop policies to address emerging opportunities in the creative economy.

Here’s how the creative industries contribute to our collective prosperity (directly, through economic growth; and indirectly by improving quality of life).

The Ripple Effect

Investing in “core creative fields” (such as music, visual arts, and literature) creates a ripple effect:

At the centre, artists create original works.

The cultural industries then turn these original works into mass-produced goods such as books, recordings, and video games.

This in turn creates opportunities in the creative industries — for example graphic designers, industrial designers, and software developers — to make new and innovative ways to distribute creative goods.

And, lastly, the broader manufacturing and service sector develops new and innovative ways to consume, interpret, and enjoy culture. Think for example of how the Apple iPod is the result of industrial design and manufacturing, software design, the publishing industry, and ultimately musicians who are at the core of the process.

The Cultural Ecosystem

Artists are inspired by, build upon, and even re-use, elements of the existing cultural landscape. This means organizations that preserve cultural artifacts (such as libraries, museums, and heritage collections) are key to the creative process.

In a report titled “Building the Creative Economy in Nova Scotia”, the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network (NSCAN) says:

“Creativity can be envisioned as a cycle that begins with core creation and moves through production, distribution, consumption and conservation of the creative product.”

It concludes, “successful creative economies require significant investment at all points in the creative cycle.”

Art and quality of life

Cape Breton is a world-class arts centre, with a growing innovation/tech sector, all set amidst some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. It’s a compelling “value proposition” for retaining and attracting the types of creative people who will make unique contributions to the culture — through their music, art, literature, theatre, and food, as well as in the built environment: dwellings, streets, heritage buildings, public spaces. These can’t be thought of solely in economic terms. They are part of what makes the quality of life in Cape Breton so attractive. Just look at some of the success stories in district 5 alone:

Plus the Greenlink trail system, Wentworth Park, and the new Louisa gardens in the North End; and the potential for a new downtown location for the Cape Breton Farmers’ Market, a new multi-purpose regional library, and downtown loft living for international students, artists, young families and recently retired entrepreneurs.

1 “Building the Creative Economy in Nova Scotia”.

CBRM’s Infrastructure Deficit

CBRM’s services and infrastructure are chronically underfunded — even as we’ve accumulated a $100+ million debt over the last decade. This “infrastructure deficit” impacts our competitiveness, making it harder for CBRM to attract investment, new residents, and tourists.

But we are not unique in our predicament.1 Municipalities across Canada face similar obstacles to delivering services efficiently and affordably. Calgary and Toronto have infrastructure deficits of roughly $2.5 billion each, Montreal $1.5 billion, to name just a few.

Like all municipalities in Canada, CBRM’s primary source of revenue comes from property taxes — an outdated and unsustainable funding formula that is increasingly leaving municipalities underserved. CBRM should partner with other municipalities — especially, but not exclusively, in Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia — to find ways to diversify its fiscal base. This might include collectively negotiating increased tax sharing and grants from the provincial and federal governments.

To ensure that taxes raised by the municipality are put back into the local economy, the CBRM could consider adopting the Canadian Labour Congress’s “Made in Canada” procurement policy.

The municipality should also encourage economic diversity — by promoting our rich history of cooperatives, credit unions, and various forms of social enterprise that benefit business owners, workers, and the community — in order to foster resilience within the local economy.

1 “Infrastructure Issues Threaten Canadian Prosperity” [pdf]

Access to Information & ‘Open Government’

Continuing on the theme of ‘Open Spaces’, CBRM should use the web and social media to deliver more open, transparent and engaging government. As part of a broader communications strategy, this might include:

  • crowd-sourcing input at key decision-making times, such as budget approval, in order to better identify community priorities;
  • cataloguing and showcasing the community’s assets — from recreation and infrastructure, to events and important dates, to wifi hotspots and bike lanes;
  • monitoring operating costs in municipal buildings and fleets, and tracking reduction efforts such as electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions;
  • automating the system for identifying, prioritizing, and handling infrastructure improvements, such as roads, sewers, sidewalks;
  • and improving access to information, especially that which is readily digitized and made searchable, such as transit schedules or government contracts.

Canadian municipalities, both small and large, are adopting the Open Data concept1 — which equates access to information with good governance. The result is that government is more accountable, and citizens are empowered to come up with creative uses for the data.

1 How Canada became an open data and data journalism powerhouse

Sustainable Transportation & ‘Open Streets’

I’m attending a 2-day workshop in Halifax to support the development of the forthcoming “Provincial Sustainable Transportation Strategy”.

Municipalities across North America are coping with rapid economic, cultural and technological change. Those that are successful are the ones that treat these changes as opportunities for revitalization. Many cities and towns start in their downtown core, by creating more welcoming, vibrant, and inclusive public spaces.

As a web designer, I create “virtual open spaces” where people can come together and organize for social change. And in my volunteer work, I’m drawn to opportunities to create physical open spaces where people can share in, and co-create, the life of the community. I hope to bring my passion for ‘open spaces’ to municipal politics.

This might include, for example, transforming downtown Sydney (one day a year, or even one day a month) into a pedestrian-friendly centre of activity — by diverting motorized vehicles from Charlotte Street, and opening it up for people to walk, roll, stroll, play, shop and eat.

By encouraging shopkeepers and restaurateurs to have a presence on the sidewalk, and filling the streets with a diversity of activity (art, live music, community theatre, bicycle maintenance workshops, skateboard demonstrations, outdoor exercise classes, kids activities), organizers would create a ‘street scape’ that integrates active transportation, shopping, food, arts, and socializing.

Creating a walkable downtown core — connecting downtown Charlotte Street, North End Heritage Conservation District, Sydney boardwalk, Wentworth Park, Membertou and the GreenLink trail system — would promote density, diversity, and discovery and give tourists the integrated small-town experience they expect, while giving locals plenty of ways to connect (or re-connect) with their community.

To be continued…