Saturday, March 27, 2010

Your city needs you.

Make your mark on your city. It's waiting for you.

Provincial, federal, and international politics is difficult for the average person to influence, but politics at a city scale is accessible to everybody.

Municipal politics attracts citizens who are passionate about their community. Whether you agree with them or not, they're putting themselves out there to do their best for the community. The job involves lots of late nights and it's fair share of criticism.

They can't do it alone. The administrative staff is a huge part of what makes any city successful, and they don't often get the credit they deserve.

The volunteers that help out on council's advisory boards help out too. They give up their time for free in order to make their city better.

But a city takes more than that. There's the active and engaged citizens. They are the business people, the local clubs, the church groups, the unions, the emergency responders, and all the other citizens who take action to make their city better.

We're all in this together. The better we work together, the better a city we will spend our lives in.

You've got a choice.

You can be a free rider, opting out of the life of the city. Allowing other people to make the decisions that determine your city's future. It's easy to do. It's also an abdication of responsibility.

If everybody takes the easy way out the city will find itself run into the ground through neglect and apathy. The vibrant public discourse you get when people care about the future of the place they call home is what breathes life into the city.

Instead, participate in the public discussions. Engage with your neighbours and with your leaders about issues that matter to you. Listen to viewpoints that aren't your own. Bring out the best in others by bringing out your best.

We would do well to recognize and appreciate the diverse and generous people who make this city the best it can be. We would do better to join them in their quest.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Utilities can't justify a green building. People can.

Business owners have a different perspective on the costs of operating a building than the rest of us. They know that the biggest cost of operating an office building isn't the utilities or the taxes; It's the staff.

In isolation, saving money on utilities looks attractive. However, when you look at the big picture it's too small a win for most businesses to spend mental energy on.

Utility bills aren't the reason to look at a green (eco, not colour) building. The real reason you would rather be in a green building has to do with your people.

Buildings are expensive, and you pay for them once. Salaries are expensive, and they just keep coming.

Green buildings, with their natural light, their views and by avoiding nasty chemicals provide an environment where the employees are more likely to enjoy working there.

This is where it gets interesting. If the employees are happy in their space, and if the building doesn't make them sick, their productivity will go up, their sick days will go down, and they will be less likely to jump ship to another company.

Seeing as the salaries are a very expensive part of running the business, even modest gains in productivity pay off quickly.

In some cases the increased productivity can be so significant as to justify the entire construction project by itself. Your mileage may vary.

Don't try to justify a green building based on the utility bills. Yes, you'll save money and go easier on the environment, but that's probably not enough to sway shareholders.

Think of green buildings in terms of increased employee satisfaction, retention and productivity. Hidden costs and benefits. Suddenly green buildings become a compelling business decision.

Unfortunately this sort of evaluation is difficult to measure, and there's no control group. How do you track the day someone might have stayed home ill but didn't? How do you even notice that a valuable employee didn't get fed up and leave? It's hard to count the money you don't spend.

When thinking about a green building, the utility bills are easy to measure, but that's not where the real gains are.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Quit sprawling. Build a better city.

It's like this all over Paris.

Suburban sprawl doesn't scale very well. It's time we replace it with something that does.

Build urban villages with mixed use buildings four to six stories tall in your existing communities. Plan for something more like what you'd see in Europe.

Retail stores, shops and restaurants would be on the ground floor to liven up the street life. Offices on the second floor let people work near where they live. Put residential apartments over the offices.

These neighbourhoods should be between 80 and 200 acres large, with at least 12 dwelling units per acre. That's a reasonable walking distance. These communities will be walkable and provide accommodations, employment, entertainment, and a vibrant social scene.

These dense urban villages would provide a real alternative to the 'biggest is best' philosophy we have been taught. Being able to walk five minutes home to your apartment is an attractive trade off to the hour long daily commute some suburban dwellers put up with. People wouldn't have to feel inferior for not buying the biggest house they could.

Being in the middle of a dense, vibrant community would profit the businesses too. In dense cities where they have closed some roads to cars, business has increased on those streets. You can't shop from a moving car, but it's easy for pedestrians to walk by and wander into the store.

These urban villages would help protect the agricultural land from development and because they are so efficient in their use of the land, they would reduce the infrastructure costs to the city. Public transit would become viable again.

When combined with the vibrant street life that emerges with dense population and you've got a compelling vision for how we should remake the city.

The frayed social fabric would be repaired by the many small connections that people would develop with their neighbours.

We're going to keep building in our cities. We would do well to build someplace we're going to want to live for the long term.

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Saturday, March 6, 2010

The problem with vague problems

Cars were going through this picture, but except for the light trails, you can't see them.

It's hard to deal with vague problems. If it's not concrete we just can't grasp it, and it gets dismissed.

Take Haiti for example. The recent earthquakes in Haiti sprung millions of people and dollars into action virtually overnight. It unified the world in wanting to help out an unfortunate nation. Haiti was unfortunate before, but ever since the earthquake, they've been able to access massive amounts of global aid.

Now what happened there is certainly unfortunate, but also serves as an example of what moves us. Between hurricanes, floods, wildfires, ice storms, and planes flying into buildings, acute disasters kickstart us into action. As humans, we react well to immediate threats, but poorly to vague, slow growing problems.

The slow, vague problems can't command the world's attention long enough to build the political momentum necessary to solve systemic problems.

There are ways to get people to act. Marketers and psychologists research this because it helps them sell products and make money. We're constantly bombarded with compelling, targeted calls to action. The action is usually to buy whatever is in the ad, but it also has the effect of distracting us from slow moving but serious threats.

And there are lots of slow threats: Insidious things like the national debt, climate change, the Canada Pension Plan, peak oil, habitat destruction, sub-prime loans, deferred maintenance on infrastructure, loss of arable land to development, deforestation… These are things that don't change enough in any given week to merit space in the newspaper, but eventually they become the background that dominates our lives.

The vague, slow problems inevitably flare up. Then we have to deal with them in crisis mode, rather than solving it calmly when it would have been easier to fix. Good thing we're good at dealing with crises. We're certainly not smart enough to pre-empt them all, but that shouldn't stop us from trying.

In the meantime, we had better stock up on pounds of cure, at least until we can get ounces of prevention figured out.

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