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.

Alex Sheppard – “How Cape Breton Attitudes Shape the Decisions of our Youth”

Alex Sheppard is my wife’s 18 year old cousin. He’s currently attending Dalhousie.

Here’s the introductory remarks I wrote for his “Ideas Powered By Passion” talk:

Alex’s volunteer work — with Junior Achievement, all-ages shows, and most recently Lumiere — is a testament to the saying: “Do what you love, and try to find ways to make it matter more.” When Alex started playing in bands — often as the only under-age bass player in a band full of 19+’s — he needed adult accompaniment when playing at Bunkers. Rather than accept this as an inconvenience, or even allow it to become an impediment, he saw it as an injustice that there weren’t more all-ages venues and all-ages shows. So he started organizing some, combining his passion for the arts with the guts to take a risk. Rather than complaining about the youth out-migration problem — or simply saying “This town sucks” and moving on — he looks for ways to make music matter more, treating music and the arts in general as a downtown revitalization effort, a community development initiative, and a youth retention and attraction strategy.

In his talk, Alex identifies a tension in the life of Cape Breton youth — one which has far-reaching implications for both youth “retention” & outmigration, as well as immigration in general. Young people are brought up believing their only hope is to leave… but when they do leave (even if only to attend university elsewhere) they’re characterized as traitors. What a conflict! (“Should I stay or should I go?“)

Young people should be encouraged to pursue their dreams, wherever in the world those dreams take them. And they should be encouraged to return, with their degrees, their experiences, their expectations, and their entitlements.

We have a responsibility and obligation to make it a viable place to live, work, raise a family, and retire. So that when faced with the decision of where to set down roots, that Cape Breton is on the list.