10
Apr
13

My love affair with Cities

I was born and raised in London Ontario, a community my parents chose to move to when they immigrated to Canada from Gloucestershire England in 1965. My dad’s best friend had encouraged them to move to London (that friend decided to move back to Gloucester shortly after.) My parents stayed and in 1967, around the time of the birth of my brother, my maternal grandparents decided to follow their only daughter to London where for a time, they all lived on Stanley Street. Soon after, my parents moved to the new subdivision of townhouses in Berkshire Village built by Sifton Homes and my grandparents moved into a house on Ridout Street in Old South.

My early years were spent in those neighbourhoods as well as a vibrant downtown. Nana worked at Simpsons at Richmond and Dundas, I went to Montessori on Craig Street. My Granddad and Dad started the Home Doctor and often I’d go along with them to siding jobs, minor and major additions and the like. I saw a lot of different areas of London growing up, as well as the surrounding communities. And I developed, I think, an appreciation for old homes, for craftsmanship and for architecture and design.  Berkshire was bounded by Old Wonderland Road, prior to its expansion which also meant lots of time with friends riding bikes around the orchard that used to be there and in the creek that is long since buried under the major engineering of Wonderland Road. Westmount and beyond exploded as did all the areas in between and out to Byron.

I’m eternally thankful that I grew up where and when I did, in a safe community with honest working people and a sense of hope that embodied the spirit of Canada in the 1970s. Sadly, Berkshire would, to my understanding of Urban Planning, represent the last of pre-planned communities almost in the spirit of Don Mills, with a Public School on one end at Woodland Heights and Westminster Secondary School, opened in 1962, on the other. London has since boomed as a City. The predominance of London’s growth in the North, South and West has been over the past 30 years, meaning an overwhelming proportion of car-based infrastructure and road networks, that are now strangled by cars with no decent public transportation alternative. London is predominantly a use-pod City, with land-use zones separated rather than being tightly integrated. It’s a City that was built on the hubris of 1980s consumerism and the booms of the 90’s and 00’s. Sadly, while urban design has improved in London’s new communities, the predominant densities are downright sprawly.

I moved to Toronto in 1998 to follow her career. With the help of a dear friend from University, I got a job with Councillor Michael Walker, were I was able to put my Political Science degree, my passion for the underpinning philosophical ideas of government to work. The marketing and communications skills gained in my year as Music/Promotions Director CHRW helped me greatly. Councillor Walker, or Michael as you knew him at all, was a fierce local politician who seemed to instinctively take solid, unyielding,  populist positions on policy that would represent the position that the most vocal and likely to make trouble would take, if at all possible. More than anything, he never ‘waffled’. You knew where Michael stood. His brand beyond all others were consistency and community consultation. He likely stayed a term or two too long but he felt it his responsibility, after his years of serving the community, to leave it in the hands of what he saw as his heir. (there’s a tangent here I’ll leave for later.)

Michael assigned me heady files on Urban Planning where I was able to use the I’d experience gained working with my father and grandfather in the renovation business and Transportation which I quickly found was an area I was quite passionate about, I love driving and had grown up riding transit in London which is similar in many ways to that in North York or Scarborough except without the futuretrain.

I studied these files hard, embracing work that routinely and easily added to 60 hours a week. It didn’t matter, since I got to play West Wing at Toronto City Hall. I was exposed to big City thinkers like Paul Bedford, Jane Jacobs, Jack Layton, David Crombie, Robert Fung and met with influencers like Stephen Diamond and his clients who were increasingly shaping our City, and that’s just brushing the surfac. At one time I managed files for 35 development applications in the communities surrounding Yonge and Eglinton. With multiple boundary changes, we represented communities from the CPR tracks crossing Avenue Road and Yonge Street, from Mount Pleasant to Spadina. Eventually rising to Executive Assistant, I was ultimately responsible for understanding, analyzing, leading consultation and strategy development on files ranging the incredibly wide array of City responsibilities. Michael was an outsider for many years which meant that we had to form and research policy from perspectives outside of City Staff.

From Michael’s lone opposition to the Olympics, to his fight to restore Rent Control, from seeking inquiries on the redevelopment of Union Station, to leading the charge for an investigation of the deal surrounding the MFP computer contract, we were often on our own. Michael described himself as an extremist of the centre and for my colleagues and I that meant independent research and policy development. Michael gave me room to grow, to think, to consider the political philosophy and theory I’d read in University and to work with our outside consultants to polish our policy into shining examples of rabble-rousing.

I worked on notable files. I proposed that Michael become Council’s John McCain (pre-angry McCain) and lead a fight for Campaign Finance Reform and for the elimination of Corporate and Union Donations to Candidates and for stronger rules and penalties for those who broke rules. We developed planning policy to protect stable neighbourhoods and I worked with high-achieving constituents including former Prime Minister John Turner, MP Carolyn Bennett, fameless bankers and bureaucrats, lawyers, judges and other high-income earners who required that I constantly be well-versed on every single issue facing residents of Canada’s largest City. We fought for fair Property Tax policy. We fought for consultation. We fought for OMB reform. We fought. Eventually, for a short-time, Michael even became part of the inside and I was able to manage our oversight of the powerful Administration Committee, which gave me the opportunity to work with Toronto’s top bureaucrats who I know were impressed by my thoughtfulness, skill and by the fact that while I represented Michael very adeptly, I maintained my own views (shared from time-to-time in deep secrecy.)

When Michael decided to part ranks with the progressive yet pragmatic Mayor Miller, I decided to part ways with Michael. I was relieved when, within a day of making my decision known, I was asked to cross the aisle and join Shelley Carroll. A rookie Councillor at the time, Shelley was soon earmarked by Mayor Miller to take over from Jane Pitfield as Works Chair. Chairing the Works Committee, Shelley placed her trust in me and soon I was working with an amazing Group of City staff on issues of Water, Transportation, Waste Management (including managing shipments of household residential waste to Michigan, through my hometown London) and issues like Street Furniture. Works Committee handled the largest files, with the largest scrutiny, the most complex labour relations and the highest dollar value. I loved the work and gained a massive amount of knowledge in a very short time.

At this point, nearly 7 years into my City Hall career, I was ready for new challenges, was enduring severe personal pain of a divorce resulting from my personal pain-related issues and decided it was time to take some time off, and to seek work of a slightly different nature.

A few years after leaving City Hall, and having toured North America speaking and learning about the world of Transportation Economics, Financing and Demand Management using a ‘disruptive technology’ for a company located in the amazing MaRS Discovery District, I returned to London to reflect on my successes and failures, my strengths and shortcomings and to stop financial bleeding.

After 3.5 years talking loud about transportation and urban theory, about free parking’s effects on London’s economy and the reason for stagnant population and never finding full employment, I realized that the problems that I’d identified with the City affected people like myself the most and decided I’d just need to leave if I wanted more success in my career, and more enjoyment from life in a vibrant City. The period of development, the age of the largest City-forming views determine the economic feasibility and its ability to support new ideas and community development. Pod Cities rarely do that. I picked up and came to Ottawa within a month of deciding to do so, knowing that without risk, there is no reward and older Cities provide a greater rate of return on risk.

That’s the background about why i have so many areas of knowledge when it comes to Cities. I’ve also been exposed to other Cities and I’m now just starting to learn about Ottawa, though I’ve been here numerous times in the past. I’ve also been fortunate to travel extensively and been paid to study and propose solutions to the transportation issues affecting nearly every major City in North America – New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC and Northern Virginia, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg are all Cities to whom I pitched Skymeter’s solution. I always stayed in downtown areas on business trips because I hated the idea of the airport hotel strip. Might as well find out about a City while there. In Los Angeles, that meant going back to Santa Monica. I never sat in my hotel room either. I’d get out and see what I could see, notice how a City put its sidewalks together, what level of care they gave to urban design and of course, the design of their street furniture.

So, if I speak in an arrogant tone at times, or come off as a know-it-all I apologize but also state that I do not speak from opinion, but from knowledge borne of research, of consultation, of reflection, writing and learning. I love Cities. I love equity and social justice too and I find Cities are where that happens best. Particularly in successful Cities that replace imports, that have a mix of different aged houses and incomes dispersed, that worked for people and not cars. I have a deep passion for the environment and a growing level of alarm about the state of Climate Change and the impacts of current systems. I believe that the answer to these issues is efficient and resilient Cities. I know I’m not alone.

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