FFWD REW

Four city issues that need to be addressed

As the municipal election looms we get the conversation started

CULTURE AND PLACEMAKING

A textured vibrant city doesn’t just happen it requires a great deal of work and effort not only by artists and cultural workers but by a city. When someone thinks outside the box the city’s various cogs and wheels grind and creak in an effort to comprehend the plan and allow an event to take place. We need to make that easier.

What we need and what we’ve talked about before is for cultural zoning that allows a broad range of uses for artists and arts organizations throughout the city coupled with affordable studio and performance space. But we also need more than that. We need to consider the difficulties faced by a not-for-profit or individual when nagigating the tricky corridors of civic power.

Nicole Mion artistic director of Springboard Performance knows a thing or two about the challenges. She’s nearing the end of a long struggle to build a shipping container village in Sunnyside which will be a temporary cultural gathering spot — a new iteration of the containR project which first appeared at the Vancouver Olympics. “I would say that working with the IOC and Vanoc were a little more straightforward than working with the city of Calgary” says Mion.

She’s quick to point out that there has been tremendous support from some at the city but her insight demonstrates how far we have to go if we want innovative projects in our midst — with issues ranging from the slow creaking of the bureaucratic system to the costs. “We’ve had to get a development permit which is usually a task that developers someone with a lot of money who’s going to make a lot of money takes the risk on” she says.

Mion admits her project is breaking ground for others which adds to the number and the complexity of the hoops she must jump through but as the election nears we should be asking our would-be civic leaders what they’re going to do to help ensure a vibrant Calgary. Specialized zoning adaptable land-use designations creative permits with lowered costs — there are multiple ways to nourish creativity within city limits while reducing the involvement of the government.

“When we go away we know that those things are important because we look for them — let’s go to the zoo let’s go people watching — we all know on some level that those are important so we just need to keep reminiding our civic leaders and ourselves that we play a part in making that happen in our own city” says Mion.

— DREW ANDERSON

OPEN DATA

Sure you can sit in on a council or committee meeting if you have some free time during the weekday. You could even watch them on your computer if you’re so inclined but what really happens at city hall and within the various departments? What is administration doing in our name and with our resources?

Although things are improving Calgary isn’t exactly a shinning beacon of openness. If you check out the city’s open data site you can get information on business licences census data and you can plot development permit applications on a map but it’s limited and often requires specialized software to open and manipulate. In terms of government documents you’re still going to have to go through a freedom of information request to get your hands on a lot of it.

We need more sunlight on our civic government.

“I use Calgary as a positive example because about six years ago when they opened up the tax assessment records I was able to read all kinds of people’s information it was pretty well open season” says Tom Keenan a professor in the faculty of environmental design at the Univeristy of Calgary who recently spoke on the subject of open data at Defcon hacking conference. “So everybody looked up their ex-wife and their boss and all those people.”

He gives the city credit for realizing the breach of privacy and shutting it down to recalibrate. “That’s kind of the approach you need to have. You try it and then you go ‘whoops it’s a little bit too open’ and maybe shut it down for a little while you figure it out but then when you bring it back you bring it back more carefully.”

Other cities however are jumping out ahead of Calgary. Toronto posts all city contracts although it only goes as far as the title and the cost which can cause confusion and problems.

Keenan supports having more information available to the public so that we can hold our civic leaders to account but he’s cautious about exposing too much as highlighted by the too-open tax assessments.

“I guess the point of my paper had a lot to do with the fact that if you torture the data you can learn things that people didn’t want you to learn” he says. “So the cities should actually be hiring our smartest graduates the ones who know how to do all the really dirty tricks to make sure they’re protected against that.”

In Vancouver the city hosts hackathons to see what those with skills can do with the data made available resulting in fixes and practical things like apps.

What’s clear is that more data and more information ought to be freed up for citizens to better determine what’s happening in our own community as long as our personal information remains protected.

— DREW ANDERSON

LIVING WAGE

The concept of a living wage as opposed to a minimum wage has been tossed around in Calgary for years. Calgarians have some of the highest earnings in the country but the city also has Canada’s largest income gap. According to Statistics Canada prosperity has driven overall prices in Alberta up by 23 per cent since 2002. That makes life difficult for low-income workers especially the 117000 Calgarians who make less than the living wage calculated by StatsCan to be $23298 per year or approximately $14.50 an hour before taxes.

Kelly Ernst of Calgary’s Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics says increased pay will lift people out of poverty more effectively and cheaply than social services can.

“My discussions with people in those [low-income] scenarios were very very clear. If they were just making a little bit more money they would be fine” he says.

As of September 1 Alberta’s minimum wage will be $9.95. There are reasons it’s not four dollars higher says Calgary Chamber of Commerce president Adam Legge.

“It only comes up typically from the perspective that the businesses hope it doesn’t get enacted” Legge says. “It would cost so many businesses to drive up their wage costs that it would either erode profitability [or] it would result in layoffs.” He also says it would force businesses to raise their prices negating the effects of higher wages on buying power.

“A living wage is also viewed at times as a disincentive for people to increase their skill set” he adds explaining hardships imposed by minimum wage motivate people to improve their situation.

Michael Fotheringham is the research manager at Calgary Economic Development. He agrees that wage increases will be difficult for some small businesses to afford but doesn’t support other reasons for opposing it.

“Having people who are connected in their jobs and loving their workplace is positive for the employer” he says.

The Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative’s (CPRI) executive director Derek Cook agrees.

“When you pay a living wage you do have reduced turnover and many companies see that as a benefit not a negative” Cook says. “But I don’t believe for a minute that people would not want to … advance. Everybody wants to advance in what they do.”

Since the CPRI is founded on Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s 2010 campaign promise to reduce poverty in Calgary the concept of paying higher wages is worth mentioning in 2013.

— SUZY THOMPSON

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Affordable housing may be the most prominent public issue in Calgary. The most recent Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey pegs the median price for a single-family home in Calgary at $358400. By comparing that to our median family income Demographia considers Calgary housing “seriously unaffordable” with the average home overpriced by about $110000 (before the flood which has reportedly increased prices by seven per cent).

Calgary Real Estate Board spokesperson Doug Firby says the city’s housing problem is a consequence of a boomtown in which price is no object for many but which like every city also needs lower-income earners to function.

“Everyone should be able to own a home of their own but then you run into these market factors” he says. “But how can [low-wage earners] afford to live here? It’s quite a dilemma isn’t it?”

The general consensus is that instead of densification policies that actually drive prices up by inflating the value of inner-city land the solution lies in reducing land prices by making more available to housing.

Ward 9 alderman Gian-Carlo Carra who is also an urban planner says that even if the city has the power to cap the price and size homes could be sold at he thinks the best solution is “to do everything you can to reduce the cost of land and incent the development of units.”

“Zoning is a major issue because land speculation in this city is rampant” he adds. “I’m very interested in a new planning system that gluts the market with entitled land and forces the price of land down.”

John Brown a University of Calgary architect and founder of the local “slow home” movement also suggests Calgarians are too quick to associate quality with size. He believes Calgary’s plethora of large mass-produced homes forces people to spend more than they should on a home they don’t need.

“We equate quality with quantity in lots of things but particularly real estate. And if you ask just about anybody to describe their house the first thing they’re going to do is tell you how big it is” Brown says.

He compares it to “only looking at how much someone weighed when you were trying to decide if you were going to marry this person or not. The actual size of a house makes almost no difference in terms of the design quality.”

Brown advocates for smaller cheaper but better-designed homes instead of building more suburbs where enormous houses typically sell for over $500000.

— SUZY THOMPSON

ILLUSTRATIONS BY JULIE MCLAUGHLIN

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