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Month: April 2012

Livin’ Local

Last week I attended a follow-up of sorts to the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues’ Living Local summit last fall.  The summit itself was indeed a learning experience, both in terms of the knowledge and expertise brought to the table, and the lens it encouraged participants to view their home neighborhoods through.

Participants, citizens-at-large, city staffers, and politicians in attendance have had several months now to digest the information.  Discussion has involved building walkable communities, promoting a more compact urban form which better takes advantage of Edmonton’s sprawling infrastructure, sustainable local food sources, economies, and Edmonton’s long-term fiscal and sustainable health.  The questions now, and ones we put a good deal of thought and debate into  are; where do we go from here, what are the next steps, how do we judge success?I’m a policy nerd and a Community League volunteer, and as such my responses to the above,  tends to focus on civic policy/planning, and potential projects and resources that local volunteers can use to enhance the quality of life, amenities, and activities in their communities.On the policy side, I’ll be judging success, to an extent, by what kind of consideration is given to the principles of living local in several pieces of upcoming City of Edmonton policy.

The Elevate report, and it’s recommendations for revitalizing mature communities. The currently under construction Growth Coordination Strategy, and the New Neighborhood Design Guidelines. What ultimately becomes of these, will to me be the barometer of support for living local concepts within City Administration and Council.

To what extend will the Elevate report be endorsed by Council and adopted by Administration. And what initiatives, and policy changes will come as a result?

Will the design guidelines for new communities incorporate greater inclusion of walkability, and local amenities that allow residents to do more close to home, and allow them easy access through alternate modes of transportation?

The Growth Coordination Strategy.  Another blog post could perhaps be dedicated to a reference in a previous draft of this document, to older communities hindering new development through opposition to all new proposals.  Those two-to-three lines were most definitely offensive, and placed without any backing evidence or citations.  However, I reference this because of the positive impact this strategy could have at the community level. Rather than taking potshots at community volunteers, it could pull from the feedback provided by the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues Planning & Dev committee and incorporate strategies such as the following;

Focus development on vacant sites in established areas of the city (brownfield, underutilized surface parking lots, vacant store locations with restrictive covenants, and so on.

Suggestions that could bring life and local amenities to dead space across the city.

At the Community League level, I’d suggest a role for the EFCL as a broker between communities and the City.  Serving as an advocate for Leagues and other organizations/groups that are trying launch local initiatives, such as a community garden. The process in arranging something like this can easily overwhelm a volunteers time and resources. The Federation could be a champion or a facilitator for improvements to the bureaucracy, making these sorts of projects easier to achieve.  This of course, in addition to the inevitable lobbying for funds and resources to drive local projects.

I’ve told this story before, and I’m going to tell it again.  Personally witnessing a pedestrian struck by a vehicle at a poorly marketed and difficult to cross intersection here in Glenwood (156st & 97 ave, part of the bike path through the area).  The Glenwood Community League went out and pushed for improvements to the pedestrian crossing, namely the painting of new lines and the installation of crossing lights.  The response, there’s a signalized crossing at 98 ave and an intersection at 95th avenue, any more lights would confuse drivers (yes, this is what I was actually told).  If walkability and local improvements are indeed a priority, then this type of issue requires a far better response from civic government to residents, and the bureaucratic barriers and red-tape, need to lessen.

As a final thought, let’s be vocal about the positive.  If something is being done in the city or in your community that you like, that you support, that you’d like to see more of, then feel encouraged to speak up.  Councillors, their staffers, and city admin hear plenty when folks are upset, but feedback on popular and positive projects can often be mute.  Particulalry close to home, a warm note or positive feedback to your community league or a local group for a job, event, project, etc, well done can go a long way.

Anyway, enough from me.  This is a subject with no shortage of branches and directions.  For some more info – Some resources posted by attendees, the agenda, links and presentations from October’s summit, and Live Local Alberta.

If you learn anything, that’ll cost extra

It’s been pretty well covered by the Journal’s Liane Faulder, and discussed on #yegcc, but it’s knawed at me to the point I feel a need to chip in my 5 cents (no more pennies anymore so it’s been rounded up to a nickel).

The City of Edmonton is currently in process of drafting a Food & Agriculture strategy with the stated goals of:

increasing access to local food in our neighbourhoods
providing opportunities to grow and process food in the city
stimulating and diversifying the local economy
improving the health of residents
reducing our ecological footprint

Furthermore, the attached literature states:

The process to develop a strategy will involve citizens, interested groups and the City itself as together we examine the potential and possibilities of a made-in-Edmonton food and agriculture strategy.

As part of this process, a “Food in the City Conference” has been scheduled for late May and advertised as:

…a celebration of the innovative and groundbreaking work being done in our city to help build a resilient local food system.

Food in the City is an opportunity for Edmontonians to participate in a conversation as we together develop a city-wide food and agriculture strategy.

The conference is a key milestone in the engagement process for a strategy. Participants will be able to learn and engage in conversation about food and agriculture issues, hear about the development of a preliminary draft strategy and play a part in promoting Edmonton as a leader in innovative municipal food and agriculture policy and initiatives.

A milestone in the engagement process of future public policy and an opportunity to learn and engage in conversation about food and agriculture issues.  All this for the low low price of $175 + GST (early bird) or $225 + GST (regular).  Yup, part of the public engagement process for future civic policy comes with an expensive entry fee.

The City’s Communications staffers did offer a reply in the comments of Ms. Faulder’s excellent article on the subject, to quote some of the highlights which caused me the most aggravation:

“The costs of running an actual conference versus a public involvement exercise means the City of Edmonton needs to charge a registration fee. Although the conference does have a public consultation component, the bulk of the conference is educational, where participants can learn about the latest research and best practices on food and agriculture issues. “

“Following the conference there will be further opportunity for anyone to provide feedback on the draft strategy that is presented at the conference. Finally, when a draft strategy is ready to be reviewed by City Council, expected in the fall 2012, citizens will be able to share their views with Council.”

Conducting research, hiring consultants, putting together a draft strategy, guidelines, etc and then heading out on the road to “public involvement” stops is a fairly common process in Edmonton.  It’s something however that tends to turn “public involvment” into more of an exercise in word-smithing and spell checking, rather than the creative policy development process that it should be.  I’ll reference the recently approved Transit Oriented Development Guidelines as an example of this, where several drafts of the document were created, amended and discussed internally, and within a “key stakeholder group”, before the guidelines went on tour.  I sat in on almost all of those meetings, and generally had the distinction of being the only person at the table who wasn’t paid to be there.  Watching it all the way through as a citizen-at-large/community rep, it comes off entirely as a backwards way of conducting business as a public body, or perhaps a free-fall from the top, down.  

“Public Involvement” events for the TOD Guidelines however, were free and included snacks and some fairly nice coffee.  The Food & Ag Strategy will apparently follow along similar lines, however with the added step of first dropping a draft version upon those who can afford the entry fee, before finding it’s way to the general public.  All the other issues, and large discussions about public involvement, aside, it’s a dumb added step and I’ll tell you why.

To go back to the first quote above, from the City’s Com Dept, the costs of a “conference” vs “a public involvement exercise”.  I’ve met with, and attended many sessions and on-going “involvement exercises” facilitated by outside contractors.  None of which I imagine came cheaply.  If you’re to make this claim, then I’m going to approach it with some curiosity as to which costs more; a series of open-houses and Q&A sessions facilitated by a contracted outside entity vs. a two-day city-hosted conference at the Shaw Centre.

Even if these two days at the Shaw comes out ahead as the more costly expenditure, if it has an educational aspect compared to the usual “this what’s happening, what do you think?” event, then why charge to the public to attend.  We are after all, a City of Learners are we not?  A city “that promotes life long learning”?

What could be better than to combine not one but two city initiatives, into an open, and inclusive educational and consultative event? It’s not too late to actually provide Edmontonians with an opportunity to “participate in a conversation as we together develop a city-wide food and agriculture strategy.”

Be Nice

Is it worth it, or even appropriate as a candidate or campaign worker to call upon the door of a home bearing an opponents sign? As a candidate once upon a time, I generally took it as a cue to move on to the next home, even though I don’t subscribe to any theory that the votes under one roof should be unified or that spouses and adult children should block vote, as it were.

In an even more contradictory sense, I’ve tipped my hat to the political process and those who put their names forward, by encouraging neighbors to attend local events held by candidates I won’t be voting for, or by offering up the corner of my yard for a sign, even though the best spots on my corner lot will be going to someone else.

Don’t look at me strangely. Politics is about ideas, respect and at times even bipartisanship, or at least it darn well should be, despite the ease at which some turn to hostility or harmful discourse. Unless you’ve been a candidate or put the sweat, and at times, tears into a campaign as a volunteer, the physical grind on your shoes, knees, and your endurance can’t truly be appreciated. That’s not meant to be an arrogant comment, just an honest one borne from my own eye-opening experiences.

Spiritually, as a candidate, you put your soul on the table; this is my experience, these are my thoughts, my ideas, my vision, and as such are they worthy of your consideration? Human nature having a flare for the negative, it’s all too often that the slammed doors, snide and rude comments, and even rattling experiences at the doors are remembered ahead of the kind words, good debates, and offers of encouragement and support.

It’s easy to be nice and take the high road. It may seem to some like a walk up-hill would be required for this, but it’s not. It’s easy to shake a candidate’s hand, accept the brochure, have a good, if brief, discussion and move on, regardless of what you think about them personally, or their party.

On the other hand it takes some effort to be an ass. To slam a door, flip the bird, drop an insult, or even shove and chase an Education Minister off your porch. If we truly and honestly want better debate, better discourse, and better public policy as a result, then we all need to lead by example, it’s surprisingly easy to do, and somewhat more productive in the long-run than “well, I showed him”.