Sam Nabi Kirby Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:04:45 -0400 Sam Nabi's latest blog posts Long live the blogroll Fri, 17 Aug 2018 00:00:00 -0400 Buy local, eat local, … read local?

In today’s digital media landscape, there are a few giant tech companies that control most of what we read.

Their algorithms are tailored to feed us the most sensational, cringeworthy, funny, viral stuff. They dredge up the popular posts from the slurry of so-called “content” out there, and track our attention down to the millisecond.

These platforms push us to interact with them on their terms, and they make it so damn easy. As I spend more and more time consuming this content, I’ve found a steady decline in my desire to create.

So! What can we do about this downward spiral?

As it turns out, there have been a bunch of folks happily blogging away at their own websites this whole time. People that still have an interest in writing, rather than “producing content” for their social media followers. I hope I can join their ranks again. I’d like to give my blog more love. I’d like to read more peoples’ blogs. I’d like to surround myself with writing that isn’t calculated to maximize clicks.

To that end, I put a call out on Twitter (ironic, I know) to see who’s still blogging in Waterloo Region. Where are the indie writers at?

The ensuing discussion brought 64 blogs and email newsletters to my attention. Sixty-four writers in Waterloo Region with topics spanning art, technology, urban homesteading… And we’re just scratching the surface.

I’ve created a simple website at which offers a combined RSS feed of all those blogs. You can also follow @WRBlogs on Twitter, which tweets out links from that same RSS feed.

I’m excited to try reading and writing more on my own terms. And I think I’ll build a deeper connection to my local community while I’m at it.

Stirling Village: redevelopment without destruction Sat, 17 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Imagine a redevelopment project that could bring 50 new apartment units and 20 new retail shops, offices, and restaurants into a neighbourhood. It doesn’t sound terribly ambitious, but it could make a welcome addition to many semi-urban residential areas.

Now, imagine you could accomplish this without tearing down a single house, without displacing a single person who already lives there. Imagine the new buildings would be 2 or 3 stories at most, blending nicely into the existing strip of single-detached houses.

And what if this redevelopment project could happen largely on publicly-owned land? No, I’m not talking about developing on top of parkland or any public space that is used and valued by the current residents.

I’m talking about putting new buildings smack-dab in the middle of a four-lane roadway.

Bear with me here.

The project area: Stirling Avenue

This is a section of Stirling Avenue South, near downtown Kitchener. Cameron Heights high school is to the North — it contains a public swimming pool, excellent tennis courts, a football and soccer pitch, and a 400-metre track. This is most definitely a community hub for recreation.

South of Stirling, you’ll notice the Iron Horse Trail, a major cycling route. It’s important infrastructure for commuters, dog-walkers, and neighbours who like to go out for a Sunday stroll.

The triangle-shaped building to the right of this image is 50 Kent, the local headquarters for Mennonite Central Committee. It’s also my closest Credit Union branch, and contains a nice thrift store.

In the top-right corner of this satellite photo, you can see the ION light rail tracks being built along Charles Street. Opening within the next year, the closest train stop will be just a few minutes’ walk away.

Finally, notice that the properties lining Stirling Avenue are largely single-detached houses. There’s the recreation grounds, of course, and a Synagogue towards the bottom-left.

I point all this out because I want to emphasise that this neighbourhood is already quite vibrant. It has a mix of uses and community hubs. I’m sure there are a lot of proud, longtime residents here. And I wouldn’t ever want to wipe this slate clean for a high-minded redevelopment project.

That said, there is one major barrier here: Stirling Avenue is a four-lane traffic sewer where motorists drive far too quickly, and this breaks up the neighbourhood. There are no pedestrian crossings between Courtland Avenue and Charles Street, a distance of about half a kilometre.

This is what a cross-section of Stirling Avenue looks like today:

The distance from porch-to-porch is 27 metres. Four traffic lanes, extra-wide at 3.5 metres each, take up the bulk of the roadway.

And here’s what I imagine it could become. I call this concept Stirling Village:

The Stirling Village concept reduces houses’ front lawns by 3 metres, removes the two middle traffic lanes, and creates a new block in the middle of the road that is 10 metres wide.

A vision of Stirling Village

Hypothetical street-section diagrams are fun to create, but what kind of building can you actually squeeze into 10 metres? As it happens, we have lots of examples in Kitchener-Waterloo we could turn to.

The Duke Food Block, 10 Duke Street East, Kitchener

The Duke Food Block is only 6 metres deep, and 52 metres long. It houses 4 restaurants, a convenience store, a shoe-repair business, and 7 apartment units on the upper floor.

This building at Queen & Charles is a vibrant mix of uses. And it’s only 12 metres wide.

The Working Centre’s building at 66 Queen Street South is 12 metres by 41 metres. It contains Maurita’s Kitchen, a computer recycling and repair centre, along with some office space and apartments.

Proof that you can fit an compact grocery store in a 10-metre deep lot.

Full Circle foods is another building that’s only 10 metres deep. Together with its adjacent neighbour, home of The Games Exchange, this building measures 10 metres by 36 metres.

All of which to say, there are lots of buildings already in Downtown Kitchener that fit into the 10-metre envelope. And look at the diversity of uses they bring!

How would these kinds of buildings fit into the existing street to make Stirling Village work? Let my mediocre Photoshop skills paint a picture for you:

A vision of what Stirling Village could look like, with 2-storey mixed-use buildings and townhouses running along the middle of the street. The yellow areas indicate parking and loading areas.

If you look closely, you’ll see a new set of sidewalks up against the new buildings, which leaves one lane of traffic on either side. You’ll also notice the existing front lawns have been reduced to 1.5 metres.

The case for traffic calming

Regardless of a redevelopment proposal, this stretch of Stirling Avenue is ripe for traffic calming in its own right. Less adventurous places than this blog might propose a road diet to bring Stirling down to two lanes, and create cycling paths and wider sidewalks.

For users of the Iron Horse Trail, the crossing at Stirling and Courtland is an awkward encounter — a jarring discontinuity of the trail where people have to navigate a tricky high-speed intersection.

Cars leaving downtown start to speed up significantly between Charles and Courtland. It’s uncomfortable to walk or bike here.

At the same time, Stirling is not a vital arterial road for cross-city traffic. One block east of this project area, Stirling narrows significantly at King Street as it enters a quiet residential area. It’s listed as a “Major Community Collector Street” in Kitchener’s Official Plan, which is two steps lower than the “Regional Road” designation which four-lane roads typically fall under.

Stirling Village is very close to King Street, and more people will start walking along this route to get to and from the ION light rail stations when it opens. Adding an intersection with traffic lights at the midpoint of this block would also help connect the walking and cycling routes from the Iron Horse Trail to Cameron Heights.

The green line is the existing trail. The red area is the proposed new intersection. The hot pink side of the intersection is a wide, pedestrian-priority crossing path.

Public support

Asking residents to give up 3 metres of their front lawn — and probably one of the parking spaces in their driveway, too — might be a tall order. But at the same time, Stirling Village would replace a loud, busy, dangerous stretch of 4-lane road with a traffic-calmed, one-lane street. This tradeoff might just be enough to drum up some YIMBY support from the residents.

(Do you live along this stretch of Stirling? If so, absolutely leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear how off-base I am.)

Public money

The last issue I’ll raise is that of money. Since the city owns the roadway to begin with, it is creating a brand-new tax base out of thin air. They’ll also be able to sell the 5 or 6 properties to bring in more revenue. The great thing about selling public land is that other public agencies get first dibs (like the Region’s affordable housing program).

The cost of rebuilding the road, moving utility lines, and purchasing bits of peoples’ front lawns would be more than paid for by selling off the new blocks for development, and collecting property taxes from them over time.

Can this work in other neighbourhoods?

So, can this concept be applied elsewhere? I think so. Find a wide, four-lane road that seems overbuilt for its neighbourhood. Even better if it’s flanked by low-density houses with large front lawns.

Even with generous road widths, it’s quite the squeeze to insert a whole new block of buildings. To make it work here, I’ve had to assume zero-lot-line development, bare-minimum sidewalks and road lanes, and clustered parking arrangements.

Would you like to see Stirling Village happen? Where else do you think this could work? Send me your ideas!

Twenty-first century brutalism Sat, 14 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Brutalist architecture is having a bit of a moment in the public consciousness. A surprisingly favourable one. I’ve long heard buildings like UW’s Math & Computer building or U of T’s Robarts Library described as oppressive, faceless, and institutional. I’ve always associated the style with a big brother-esque presence in the urban streetscape. They were built to stand as monoliths, and people have always harboured a desire to see them torn down. Right?

A few years ago I started hearing whispers about the heritage value of brutalist buildings. Heritage? Really? I thought they were universally reviled. Who would ever want to keep these hulking concrete blocks around and make it difficult for them to be replaced with something sleek and modern? (Heh, modern — now there’s an interesting word for this discussion.)

The University of Waterloo’s Math and Computer Building. Photo by parudox.

Public opinion is varied and changeable — over time, we may grow to appreciate a style of architecture for the cultural importance it carries, or simply because it’s become part of our urban fabric. But I’m still surprised at the number of brutalism apologists I’ve come across lately. There’s a weird semi-ironic nostalgia for brutalism that is becoming less ironic and more compelling the longer I think about it.

On Twitter, This Brutal House posts a steady stream of austere art and concrete architecture to 15,000 followers (including myself). Shawn Micallef, who I admire for his writing on urbanism, tweets things like “Windows are tyranny,” and I can’t tell if he’s half-joking or not.

I got into a surprisingly long Twitter conversation when I casually retweeted a photo of a brutalist housing project near a town that my Dad and I had visited on our last trip to England:

Several of my followers, most of whom I don’t interact with on a regular basis, came out of the woodwork to retweet, favourite, and post their own photos of brutalist buildings. I was taken by surprise at this groundswell of — what? Appreciation? Love? Nostalgia? — for the brutalist era.

So why, I wonder, does brutalism seems to ignite these passions nowadays? Is it just another throwback aesthetic whose time has come? Or is there something more meaningful behind it all? I have a few ideas about what brutalism means to us in 2015.

The Immaculate Conception Church, Orsova, Romania. Photo by fusion-of-horizons.

Faux nostalgia

One explanation of brutalism’s newfound popularity is the lazy argument that everything old is new again. But I’ll include it here because it’s partially true. There’s a nostalgic aesthetic around brutalist buildings that stirs up the same feelings as when I see an old typewriter in a thrift store and think, ‘I want that.’

Old Stuff, especially Old Stuff made with strong, heavy materials, has a certain attractiveness that also imparts a sense of reliability and stability. That aesthetic flies in the face of planned obsolescence and our magpie-like obsession with the 6-month tech cycle. And it’s actually quite refreshing.

Pilgrimmage Church, Neviges, Germany. Photo by SEIER+SEIER.

Minimalism and flat design

On the other side of the coin, brutalism has much in common with our sleek, smooth, buttonless devices. Solid colours, flat surfaces, and simple shapes are the graphic design standards of the moment. With the release of iOS 8, Apple really brought flat design into the mainstream and by now, I would say it has been normalised into our culture. So as our digital aesthetic has become more simplified and less flashy, maybe the flat walls and simple geometric shapes of brutalist buildings don’t seem so out of place.

Glass and steel overload

Urban apartment and office towers these days are covered in steel-and-glass curtain wall. It’s smooth, sleek, and ultramodern. Unlike the brutalist era, where windows are tiny cubbyholes in a hulking wall, today’s skyscrapers forego the wall entirely for the appearance of one long, continuous mirrorlike cocoon.

In places like Toronto (especially along the waterfront), all this glass is just too much. It’s cold and corporate. By comparison, the concrete of brutalism almost feels warm and cosy. The heft and stability of concrete now seems comforting when surrounded by these twisting shards of glass and metal.

The Sheraton Centre, Toronto. Photo by Canadian Pacific.

A glimpse into the future of the past

Finally, perhaps we are warming to brutalism because it harks back to a space-race era of unbridled optimism about the future. Humanity had reached the moon! Expo 67! Monorails! Canada’s centennial came and went, and things were looking up.

Brutalism embodied a kind of futurism that put faith in logic and ingenuity, and those platonic ideals are expressed in the clean lines and authoritative presence of brutalist buildings. They didn’t need any architectural frills — their engineering stands on its own merit, unencumbered by ornate details.

I feel like today’s vision of the future is more fraught with cynicism and ambiguity. It’s more incremental, less ambitious, less clear. In that sense, 1960s and 1970s futurism — and by extension, brutalist architecture — is comforting. Plus, the brutalist age is not so old that it becomes laughable or kitschy, like the steampunk futurism of the Victorian era.

* * *

I definitely think we’ve arrived at a new appreciation for brutalism. It deserves respect, and it deserves to be thoughtfully conserved as our cities grow and change. If you’re an astute policy wonk, you might notice my careful use of the word conserve. In the lexicon of Ontario heritage policy, conservation means anything from protecting the entire building, to respectfully integrating it in redevelopment, to simply documenting heritage features for the archives.

I don’t think we need to keep every concrete monstrosity that was built in our cities. But I do think they have really great bones, that they have evolved as physical and cultural landmarks, and that they could be retrofitted to be more pedestrian-friendly and inviting at the ground level.

I would love to see a “walkable brutalism” movement among urban designers and planners, in much the same vein as our strategies for sprawl repair and reintroducing street grids. It’s all about fixing mistakes that were committed over the last century, and oddly enough it’s quite an incremental vision for the future of such an ambitious architectural style. Brutalist buildings may be a far cry from good urban design, but I believe they can be tweaked and reformed rather than demolished and replaced with yet another glass-and-steel tower.

Faith in the system Thu, 27 Nov 2014 00:00:00 -0500 We want to believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. We want to believe that if we just keep our noses clean, we have nothing to fear. It’s a lie you tell yourself because it’s easier to ignore systemic injustice than to do something about it — that is, unless you’re the one being marginalised. Then it’s impossible to ignore.

There have been a few phenomena over the past six months or so that got me thinking about the relationship between privilege, marginalisation, and cultural norms that perpetuate injustice. Specifically, I’m interested in peoples’ reactions and responses to events that expose these systemic issues.


May 23, 2014. Isla Vista, California. Elliot Rodger kills six university students, then himself, after writing a misogynist manifesto. The typical media narrative — mentally unstable lone wolf goes on a tragic, horrifying shooting spree — is derailed by men’s rights advocates who defend Rodger’s actions and his worldview.

They form an unexpectedly large contingent of sympathisers, and it becomes apparent that a counternarrative needs to happen. So men take to Twitter and begin to defend… themselves. The #NotAllMen stream stumbles awkwardly out of the gate as a collective hand-washing exercise, essentially saying, It’s okay, don’t worry, we’re not all like that. Don’t listen to those guys. As if gender equity will happen by simply ignoring raging misogynists. As if closing your eyes will make the problem go away.

At this point, #YesAllWomen becomes a necessary rebuke to the self-centred non-sequiturs of #NotAllMen. It steers the conversation back to the central issue, back to violence against women and the cultural norms that enable it. We get discussions about rape culture and how rigid gender roles enable the structural oppression of women. It becomes a platform for first-hand accounts of marginalisation, injustice, and abuse. People feel empowered to tell their story.

And I, with my male privilege, lose a little more faith in the system. I learn to believe in victims that speak out. I learn to amplify feminist voices. I learn to think more critically about my role in perpetuating harmful gender norms.


August 9, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri. Darren Wilson shoots Michael Brown dead. When it comes to law enforcement, cynicism runs deep for a lot of people. On the other hand, those that still have faith in the system can have an unshakeable loyalty and respect for police. Which of these worldviews do you lean toward? If you’re not sure, think about your initial reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Whose motives do you question? What about your reaction to the ongoing confrontation between police and protesters in Ferguson?

Residents mobilise against the injustice of Michael Brown’s death, and the Ferguson police respond with force and military equipment. Some of us international onlookers shake our heads in exasperation, thinking, Well, as long as the protesters don’t get violent everything should settle down. As if settling down to the way things were will eradicate police brutality. As if the onus is on unarmed civilians to use restraint when they’re staring down the barrel of a tank. This line of thinking is dangerous — it comes from a place of complacency, of comfort with the system, of privilege. And it invites harmful red herrings like tut-tutting looters and arsonists. When the government turns heavy artillery against its citizens, it’s not time to talk about what some ruffians did to the local pizza shop.

Yes, in times of chaos and mayhem, some people will steal things, damage property, and set stuff on fire. It happened in Ferguson. It happened in the UK riots of 2011. It happened all throughout the Arab Spring. It happened in Toronto during the 2010 G20 summit. It happened in the 2006 youth protests in France. That isn’t news. That isn’t the point. It diverts attention away from the reason people are out in the streets in the first place.

To illustrate: what if all sports reporting failed to mention the score of the game and instead focused on the drunken behaviour of a few fans? Tonight’s showdown between the Leafs and Sens erupted in violence when two men got into an aggressive barroom fight in the arena’s restaurant. What a black mark on the Air Canada Centre. Now with a look at this year’s Grey Cup predictions…

Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby

Let me briefly mention Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, two entertainers that are institutions in and of themselves. Here, the concept of “faith in the system” is more a personal affinity that one feels with a celebrity. Ghomeshi and Cosby have built careers on their personality, with legions of adoring fans.

So when news breaks that they’ve been sexually assaulting women, my very first reaction is one of disappointment and betrayal. Aw man, I liked Jian Ghomeshi. Q won’t be the same with him gone. Or: Thanks Bill Cosby, now my childhood memories of your show are tainted. As if it’s all about me. As if the worst thing about assault is that I can no longer think of the perpetrator as a nice guy.

This kind of reaction is understandable, because public figures like Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby are people who you’re supposed to identify with. But it’s far too easy to keep sympathising and making excuses for them. That’s what you do when you don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth. That’s how you silence their victims and perpetuate the problem.

What next?

That little seed of disappointment you feel when you hear about police brutality, sexual assault allegations, or any kind of injustice, reveals that your faith in the system has just been taken down a notch. Not just police, but the entire legal and justice system benefits from a sense that justice prevails and the rule of law is fair. As if the legal system doesn’t have its own prejudices and habits.

Having faith in the system means valuing the institution over victims of injustice. Once you recognise this worldview, you recognise your privilege. Which is a great first step, as unexamined privilege is the perfect vehicle for maintaining the status quo. So, as a privileged person in an unjust system, it is my responsibility to think, speak, write, and act consciously in ways that push against that balance of power.

Moving forward, I’m keeping these questions in the forefront of my thoughts and putting them into practice:

  • Which marginalised voices can I amplify?
  • Who can I donate to or support?
  • How can I remove or report hate speech?
  • Where is there misguided or misleading discussion happening? Can I identify any red herrings?

I no longer believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. Systemic injustice is pervasive. Here’s hoping my cynicism spurs action rather than complacency.

Imagining a more walkable Abu Dhabi Sun, 06 Jul 2014 23:55:00 -0400 In June, I spent a couple weeks travelling around the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Of course, Dubai is far and away the poster child of the region, with its gee-whiz projects like The World and the 209-storey Burj Khalifa — but neighbourhing Abu Dhabi, where I spent most of my time, is just as ambitious, if less flashy. In fact, the whole country (made up of 7 semi-autonomous Emirates, each with its own ruling Sheikh) is soaked in oil wealth and foreign investment, which the Sheihks spend with varying degrees of extravagance.

To infinity and beyond

Having sprung up out of the desert in the mid-1900s, Abu Dhabi has grown at an astronomical pace and isn’t slowing down. Its main island is more or less built out. Master plans for the neighbouring Al Reem island and Saadiyat island are going full steam ahead. But at the same time, the city has entered the second life cycle of its infrastructure. Sooner or later, Abu Dhabi will have to divert its energies away from chasing the Next Big Thing and invest in maintaining its existing neighbourhoods.

Al Reem and Saadiyat islands, to the city’s northeast, are on the cusp of a greenfield development boom. Will it come at the expense of the central city?

Unsurprisingly, restraint and maintenance are the last things people want to talk about here. Abu Dhabi is not content to stop at the status quo. Everyone I met had a glimmer in their eye about the city’s future. Checking into a hotel, the concierge exhorted me to visit the newly-built Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. “It’s a world wonder! Ten stars! People will be coming from all over to see it!”

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, photo by Andrew Xu

This is a city relentlessly looking forward. Once-decent apartments built in the 80s are being demolished — too short, too old, out of fashion. Why restore and upgrade outdated infrastructure when you can build a new gleaming steel-and-glass masterpiece in its place?

Even the old medina has been razed and forgotten. In its place stands Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Center. Of course, they’ve incorporated a contemporary souk to honour the traditional market: roomy, air-conditioned, with all the old-world charm of a theme park.

High curbs and wide roads

For such an ambitious place, Abu Dhabi (like the other Emirates) has taken quite a lax approach to active transportation. Walking and cycling is not just inconvenient, but often downright impossible. When I first arrived at the central bus terminal in Abu Dhabi, my destination was only two blocks away. I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to walk, despite the 40-degree weather and a suitcase to pull.

Poor pedestrian infrastructure on Old Airport Road.

Boy, was I wrong. Sidewalks and pedestrian crossings are an afterthought, if included at all. Curb cuts are almost non-existent, so people with strollers, wheelchairs, luggage, or carts simply can’t get around safely. Sidewalks zigzag at ninety-degree angles to accommodate parking stalls. If you’re not travelling on four wheels in Abu Dhabi, you are indeed a second-class citizen.

Abu Dhabi is planned along a strong grid pattern, with four-lane urban highways slicing the city up into neighbourhood units. These major roads usually have a landscaped median with fences, making jaywalking and mid-block left turns impossible. Many car trips start by heading in the wrong direction until you can make a u-turn.

No jaywalking over this barrier… nevermind the 3 lanes of high-speed traffic each way

Within the neighbourhood units, though, communities are surprisingly complete. In the places I visited, there were all sorts of independent businesses on the ground floors of every building. Supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, tailors, laundry services, hair salons, doctors’ offices, housewares stores, even the odd karaoke bar or covert nightclub. Each neighbourhood certainly had a mosque. All that’s missing are schools within walking distance.

The standard setup within neighbourhood units: this building is home to two hair salons, a travel agency, a fish market, and what looks to be an office supply store.

The bones of livability

These neighbourhoods are dense, with almost everything you need for day-to-day life — that’s two points on the urbanist scorecard. But I wouldn’t say they are walkable. Why not? Let’s take a look at some aerial photos of the Tourist Club neighbourhood. Despite the name, it’s not a haven for tourists; just a working-class neighbourhood nestled between Abu Dhabi’s emerging financial district and the beachfront Corniche area.

The northern part of Tourist Club. A neighbourhood unit is outlined in green.
Zooming in, we see that there’s no continuous pedestrian network. The space between buildings is almost entirely taken over by parking.
Here’s the view from street level. Not very pedestrian-friendly, is it?

I call this “towers in the parking lot”. It’s a shame that the area feels so hostile on foot, because you’ve got all this mixed-use density, you’ve got buildings in a more-or-less grid pattern, but what fills the spaces between them? A parking lot with little regard for active transportation. Sidewalks hug the edges of each building, but there is no connectivity for pedestrians to move around the neighbourhood comfortably.

Abu Dhabi’s Walking and Cycling Master Plan

It’s with great interest, then, that I came across Abu Dhabi’s recently-announced Walking and Cycling Master Plan. Could it be that they’ve got a plan in motion to address this issue?

The Plan starts with some strong rhetoric, declaring that “walking and cycling will be accessible, safe, convenient and enjoyable for all.” Among the challenges to a walkable city, it lists “Car oriented urban areas – large blocks, very wide streets with very fast traffic, huge parking lots and unorganized parking.” ()

The Safety section says, “The urban environment will be safer and more accessible, no longer dominated by motor vehicles at the expense of all other users.”

Abu Dhabi has done great work on its Corniche by building a widely-used cycle track and recreational pathway.

All good policy. Abu Dhabi clearly recognises the problems with car-dominant cities and wants to do something about it. So how do they plan on getting there?

Achieving broad and far reaching change inevitably draws on multiple stakeholders, necessitating involvement and close collaboration across a number of sectors – transport, police, health, industry, civil society and special interest groups. To have the greatest impact, it is essential that comprehensive institutional buy-in is achieved so a coordinated response can be effectively delivered. — WCMP Highlights, page 18

Re-read that last bit. Comprehensive institutional buy-in: this approach excludes incremental, lighter-quicker-cheaper interventions at the local level. Instead, the Emirate’s way forward is to garner everyone’s support for the already-finalised Master Plan, which the relevant authorities will fund, coordinate, and effectively deliver.

Unfortunately, the Master Plan says nothing about retrofitting the “towers in the parking lot” phenomenon in neighbourhoods like Tourist Club. Either the Planners aren’t aware that it’s a walkability nightmare, or it’s just not a priority.

And if neighbourhoods acted on their own?

Hypothetically, then, what could happen if neighbourhoods — say, under the structure of local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) or property owners’ associations — were given the authority to plan, fund, and implement their own solutions?

What if instead of lilypads among a sea of parking, the buildings in Tourist Club were connected by proper walkways?

What if a parking structure — generating revenue for the local BIA — freed up some of that scarce asphalt for a basketball court?

What if restaurants and cafes had enough sidewalk space for patio seating?

Maybe Tourist Club could look a little more like this:

Or maybe it would look completely different. And that’s okay. But if Abu Dhabi is going to maintain a resilient urban core, it can’t ignore the infrastructure improvements needed within neighbourhood units. Maybe the neighbourhoods themselves are the best entities to carry out this work, since high-level government seems ever-focused on the big and shiny and new.

“Towers in the parking lot” have no place in a walkable city. So if the Walking and Cycling Master Plan won’t do anything directly to reverse this destructive pattern, local-level associations should be empowered to take the reins.

It’s hard to believe that radical local empowerment could happen in an authoritarian monarchy… but I prefer to sell it as another leap forward for Abu Dhabi’s ever-ambitious society.

How the cities of yesteryear reacted to the automobile Sat, 08 Feb 2014 23:00:00 -0500 Debate over the role of the automobile is a mainstay of urban politics. A quick scan of the last few months’ headlines reveal a debate over surface parking in Minneapolis, Washington Metro’s push for more transit-oriented stations, mixed messaging from Hamilton’s downtown parking study, and Waterloo’s propensity for buying up land to build parking lots. That’s just a small taste of what’s happening today, as cities contend with the opposing forces of an entrenched car culture, and a desire to promote more sustainable modes of transportation.

The 20th century saw automobiles reshape the urban fabric of every city in the world. But what were things like at the beginning of this era? In the 1910s and 1920s, when automobile ownership started to rise, we didn’t have standards for parking lots or traffic signals or any of the infrastructure to support cars. Cities scrambled to create policies that would manage this boisterous addition to urban life.

In this blog post, I’ve compiled a short selection of news articles from local U.S. newspapers that offer a glimpse into the public reaction to automobiles at the time. (I found them while browsing the U.S. Library of Congress website, which has a fantastic searchable archive of local newspapers dating back to 1836. It’s a great way to waste an afternoon.)

This first article is my favourite one. Published in the Chicago Day Book, a publication geared to the “95 percent” of the population (ring any bells?) saw the arrival of the automobile as a class struggle.

The Day Book (Chicago, IL) — July 16, 1914

The big bugs win again

The South Park board again came to bat for the big fellows yesterday when it O.K.’d the plan to hand over to auto owners a big slice of Grant Park to be used as a parking place for autos.

They’re even going to build for the big fellows, at the taxpayers’ expense, a lovely bridge, so that the autos might not have any bother in getting to the parking place.

And then they’re going to let the big fellows have the use of a squad of their own park cops, so the auto owners won’t be troubled by ordinary folks hanging around.

Two years later, another article about car parking appears in the Day Book. It’s less vehement, but highlights the problems that autos are causing for the existing streetcar network.

The Day Book (Chicago, IL) — August 16, 1916

Would forbid auto parking near street cars

Automobiles should be forbidden to park within two street car lengths of a street crossing, according to recommendations made in the latest report of the board of supervising engineers, which has made a study of traffic conditions.

In nearly every other big city, street car loading spaces are reserved at every crossing in which vehicles may not be parked.

The board also recommended: The installation of electric semaphores at busy street crossings, to be operated by a policeman from a raised platform; a new ordinance limiting width of vehicles or burdens carried through downtown streets; stricter enforcement of vehicle parking ordinance.

Skipping ahead to 1919, Philadelphia envisions a giant, cylindrical parking garage to solve its congestion woes. (It would be another 45 years before a similar project was completed in Chicago.)

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA) — November 17, 1919

Skyscraper garage to solve auto-parking problem

How a suggested plan by E. G. Higgins to overcome the problem of housing automobiles in congested city areas, where parking spaces are growing smaller, would look if adopted in Philadelphia. The scheme is to build a garage in the form of a tower, with a spiral driveway, from which on etiher side there could be 700 car stalls. At the center there would be a spiral leading downward, access to which could be had at intervals from the ascending driveway. The entrance is at the right-hand side.

The sleepy town of Bisbee, Arizona, came to grips with its own parking issues by converting a public plaza to a parking lot.

The Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, AZ) — December 25, 1919

Opens plaza for parking of autos

The plaza in front of the post office was opened yesterday to automobiles for parking only. Because of the heavy traffic along Lower Main street and through Subway street it has been impossible for the police to find parking space for the vehicles. Chief J. A. Kempton yesterday rescinded the order permitting autos to park along Subway street when City Engineer Halleck said the plaza pavement would not be damaged by automobiles parking in the plaza.

The dirt covering the pavement while it is being cured will not be removed until December 28. Shortly after that Main street will be opened.

This next article highlights the attitudes of business owners in Richmond, Kentucky, towards the automobile epidemic. Interestingly, curb parking was not seen as “good for business” — it prevented people from walking across the street and hindered access to storefronts.

Richmond Daily Register (Richmond, KY) — June 19, 1919

New parking plan seem to please

The parking of cars in the business section of the city is making access to stores on each side of the streets much easier and business men say that their customers and callers can get into the stores far easier than by the old method of parking cars at the curb. Street Commissioner Allman has nicely marked white lines, indicating the parking areas.

All motor vehicles parked on Main and First streets shall be parked in the areas herinabove set out and described; they shall be parked on Main street at right angles to said street, side by side in single file. In removing any motor vehicle from said parking area, same shall be driven forward then in the direction which shall keep the curb of the street on the side upon which operator is driving, on the driver’s right. Motor vehicles passing along this parking area shall drive to the right side of same in the direction in which they are driving.

Motor vehicles parked on First street in the area hereinabove described shall park in a position at right angles to said First Street; they may park in two ranks, where practicable. When leaving said First street parking area said vehicles must be driven forward, where practicable, and then proceed in accordance with the traffic laws now in force, relative to driving to the right. When it is unavoidable, motor vehicles may be backed out of said parking area, and then proceed in accordance with the traffic laws, relative to driving to the right.

It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to stop or cause to be stopped any motor vehicle for a period of more than three minutes, at any point at, along or near the said parking areas, or the curb lines running along and parallel thereto.

The above article doesn’t say what the new parking areas look like, exactly, but this follow-up article makes things a bit more clear. The convention at the time was for cars to park in the center of the street, effectively creating a median of parked cars. Evidently, that system didn’t work so well. The city issued an ordinance to return parking to the curb once more.

Richmond Daily Register (Richmond, KY) — October 9, 1920

New parking rule to be established: Center of city streets will be kept clear as in greater cities—new plan

That there will be a new parking ordinance within a short time is admitted by members of the Richmond city council, and that the regulations of the same will be enforced is another statement that indicates a change in the city parking system that will be of unusual importance to everyone owning an automobile.

According to plan being discussed at present, there will be no center street parking, this privilege being confined to the sides of the streets, leaving the center of the thoroughfare clear. The parking at the sime of the streets will be admitted, an hour given for each parking period.

This, the officers as well as the councilmen declare, will do away with the congestion of the center of the street and cause drivers of vehicles going in either direction to pay more attention to keeping to the right and the street clear. It is the intention to arrange the matter of parking to the best adventage of all, and while the above plans have not been definitely decided upon, they are favored by many of the officials at present.

One city councilman stated this was the manner followed in greater cities, with the result that there is not the turning around of automobiles caused by center street parking, and those going one way will turn to the right, this mode being more satisfactory in every way.

The matter of parking will be taken up, it is expected, at the next meeting of the council when an ordinance is expected to be presented and the plans will be completed within a short time governing the movement. while there may be “backing out” upon the part of drivers from the gutter after parking, there will not be the turning around of the machine in the middle of the street or square, and, this is one of the dangerous practices, it has been discovered in greater cities. there will be a traffic officer provided for the up-town streets, and officers declare there will be arrests for the first violation of the new ordinance after its presentation.

In Washington, the Metropolitan Garage is trumpeted as “one of the largest and most complete” in the country. I include this little article to show how unprepared we were for the tidal wave of cars that would continue to flood our streets. The picture’s hard to see, but a single 7-storey parking garage just won’t be enough to meet future demand.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — May 1, 1921

The Metropolitan Garage — A large modren fire-proof garage which will be built on L street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets nearly opposite the Dewey Hotel. the greater part of the stock in this establishment has been subscribed for by Washington business men—the stock available is being handled by Donald G. Fisher, of the Vermont garage. When completed the Metropolis garage will be one of the largest and most complete in the United States.

A year and a half later, and we see that Washington is coming to grips with the sheer scale of the automobile phenomenon. The knee-jerk response? Buy up land, demolish buildings, and erect more parking garages!

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922

Garages for parking cars considered to relieve traffic: Highways must be freed

Laid out to avoid traffic congestion, the average width of Washington’s streets being considerable in excess of that of other cities, nevertheless, traffic conditions developing during the busy hours of the day throughout the central sections are declared to be the despair of those responsible for the enforcement of regulations governing vehicles in the use of highways.

This condition, it is pointed out, is of comparatively modern development. Its incipiency may be traced back to the advent of the automobile, according to highway engineers. Hence, they say, the chief traffic problem consists in finding a solution to the question of parking automobiles in the central districts of the city.

It is estimated that no fewer than 10,000 motor vehicles are parked at times in the highways traversing or leading into the business quarter of the city. In certain blocks in that section each side of the street is lines with autos tailed in or nosed in so closely that it is impossibel for the pedestrian to cross to the opposite side without going to an intersecting street. This is not the condition of a single block. It extends generally throughout the entire downtown section, and with the increasing use of automobilesin creeping out into adjacent sections.

To park thousands of motor cars within the limits of the commercial section, it is said, is the greatest problem faces by the authorities, and that until a satisfactory solution has been found for it little improvement in traffic can be expected.

Those who have studied the auto-parking situation here closely admit that the final solution to safe, sane and satifactory parking of autos cannot be reached through any regulations prescribing the particular way in which autos must be placed in relation to curbs… It is conceded that it is no longer a question of ranking and parking. The final solution of the traffic problem involved in the presence of autos left standing in the streets rests, it is asserted, in providing parking quarters off the streets.

Free the highways of the central section of the city of the thousands of automobiles left standing along the curbs for hours each day, it is urged, and a long step will be taken toward solving the other traffic problems, especially that of reducing the number of street accidents to a minimum.

While not authoritatively stated, it is understood that consideration is being given a plan which would result in the District Commissioners acquiring sections of land within certain blocks now used by the property owners as backyards, and converting them into sites for District Parking garages. Ont hese locations, it is pointed out, it would be possible to erect fireproof, substantially constructed buildings several stories in height, each having a capacity of from 500 to 1,000 autos. The garages would be equipped with powerful elevators capable of hoisting five or ten autos at one time to the upper parking floors. These floors would be divided into a given number of spaces. Each space would be numbered and a check corresponding in number to the space given the motorist.

In addition to providing parking space, the District garages, it was suggested, could provide service, including the cleaning of cars and the making of slight repairs. This would provide additional revenue, a nominal parking charge being made. According to those favoring the District garage plan the lower floor of each garage would be reserved for motorist parking cars for a few hours only, while the upper parking floors would be used for all-day parking.

Those familiar with the parking situation express the opinion that five District garages, having parking accommodation for from three to five thousand cars, would meet requirements for the next five years, while the withdrawal from the highways of a corresponding number of automobiles would free the streets from the dangers and inconveniences incident to existing conditions and parking methods.

From the same issue as the above article, here’s a succinct description of the dangers that parked automobiles brought to crowded urban centres.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922

These cars are fire danger

Traffic congestion resulting from the parking of thousands of automobiles in the streets throughout the business section of the city has resulted in a general disregard of the parking rule requiring an open space of five feet between each motorcar. The illustration shows how this disregarding of the spacing provision practically results in the formation of impassable barriers along the curbs of many of the downtown streets during business hours. Fire department officials declare the condition created in this way in the streets greatly increases the work and the danger in fighting fires. District parking garages, it is said, would free the street congestion existing at present.

It’s fascinating to look back and see how cities tried to manage the presence of cars in the urban environment. Of course, now we know the failed legacy of overzealous off-street parking development — huge tracts of unproductive land that break up our downtowns and make them less appealing to live in.

The parking issues of yesteryear still remain in many cities, but we can’t keep trying to solve them with 1920s policies. A shiny new parking garage is not a panacea, it’s a band-aid solution. In the 2020s, car congestion will only be solved by making other forms of transportation attractive — and the cities that don’t will be forever mired in the past.

Oh, one last article: this one’s not about parking, but it is about automobiles and it’s hilarious.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922

Judge tries out car; speeder loses case

CHICAGO, Dec. 29 — Hyman Miller, arrested for speeding, put up the familiar claim in court yesterday that his machine could not make forty miles an hour.

“Come on,” said Judge Schwab, reaching for his hat and overcoat. “I can drive a car a little, and we will see what your boat can do.”

Hyman and his father, a policeman and the judge piled into the car and the judge took the wheel and stepped on the gas. Half an hour later they came back. The speedometer showed forty-five miles an hour, so Hyman lost his car and the judge also imposed a fine of $50.

Generational aptitude Tue, 24 Dec 2013 01:30:00 -0500 There are few things quite as irksome as watching someone type “” when they can just search from the address bar. It’s like counting out a hundred pennies to pay for a pack of gum. Why would you do that?! My internal monologue screams.

My grandparents and parents approach technology in a fundamentally different way than I do. When personal computing became mainstream, they had already reached adulthood. In their formative years, computers were something that very smart scientists and engineers built for large institutions. Knowing how to operate a computer was closer to rocket science than to auto repair, for example — and to some extent, I think this mentality still sticks with them today.

Anytime my father asks me how to do some new tech-related task, I write out step-by-step instructions on a piece of paper. My grandparents are the same way. They need those instructions written down like a recipe because they want an authoritative source of information.

If for some reason my instructions don’t anticipate every scenario — a dialog box that I failed to account for, or a software update that changes the layout of a page — they are reluctant to experiment. They’re not likely to google the problem, nor are they keen to click around and see what happens. Fear of pushing the wrong button prevents them from taking a guess.

In a way, this generational gap in computer literacy is similar to learning a new language. Immerse a child in Russian, and they’ll absorb the language as they learn and grow. Teach Russian to an adult as a second language, and their learning is skewed by the structure of their native tongue.

I’m not saying that everyone over 40 is a luddite. My dad actually adopts new technology faster than I do — he’s really excited about his new seven-inch phone-tablet hybrid while I hold onto my QWERTY Blackberry for dear life. My grandparents use software to edit photos and map out our family’s genealogy, and they subscribe to a PC power user magazine to keep themselves up-to-date on the latest trends in tech.

As I think about the generational differences in the way we approach technology, I realise that in some cases, the aptitude gap goes the other way. My 78-year-old grandfather has no trouble driving with manual transmission, but I wouldn’t know where to start. He also has a fascinating low-tech solution to encrypt the PIN codes for his various payment cards. It’s basically a cipher that he keeps in his wallet on a piece of paper the size of a business card. I would never have thought to secure my data in this way, but it works — and it’s far from the prying eyes of the NSA.

Indeed, I have my own mental ruts and preconceived expectations when dealing with new technology. I still hunt for a save button when working in Google Docs, and I’m sure that other innovations will continue to trip me up down the road. I may have come of age at the same time as the Web, but it’s evolving faster that I am. How long will it take for me to feel like I’m really out of my element?

A tramway's transformative influence Thu, 03 Oct 2013 14:18:00 -0400 Jeune Afrique, a weekly magazine that covers current affairs and politics across Africa, has published an excellent article chronicling the success of Casablanca’s tramway system. The trams have been rolling for less than a year, but they’re already absorbed into the city’s daily life.

As Waterloo Region prepares for ION (and as other Ontario municipalities march toward some kind of mass transit), I thought I’d translate a few excerpts from the Jeune Afrique article that illustrate the tangible impact Casablanca’s tramway has had for its citizens.

More than just a transportation solution, the tramway has brought benefits for heritage preservation, economic development, public safety, and pedestrianisation. Some of the evidence is certainly anecdotal, but cities in earlier stages of the planning process can definitely learn — or, at the very least, gain some courage — from Casablanca’s experience.

Take, for example, the attidudes of Casablancans as the tramway was being built — it’ll never get done on time, it costs too much, construction is causing traffic headaches, we don’t want this — opposition which quickly dissipated as soon as the trains actually started running. In fact, a second tramway line is already in the works.

Without further ado, here’s my translation of the article’s most salient points:

For four long years of construction, Casablancans cursed this tramway that was supposed to revolutionise transportation, but seemed to bring only dust, traffic snarls, and parking headaches. Although opposition to the project never reached the fever pitch of the Stop TGV movement (which railed against a high-speed train from Tangier to Rabat), it was still viewed with deep scepticism. […] Even as late as June 2012, most citizens thought that it would never be finished on time. Despite this pessimism, the project was completed on schedule and an inauguration ceremony was held as planned on the symbolic date of 12/12/12 by King Mohammed VI.


Less than a week after the tramway’s inauguration, it confronted its first big test: the biannual football derby between bitter rivals Wydad and Raja. Marred by violence in the past, would this match sully the reputation of Casablanca’s new tramway system as a clean, quiet, and civilised mode of transport? Would the hordes of hooligans descending upon downtown Casablanca make quick work of the brand new trains?

As if by miracle, the tramway functioned normally that day. “Nothing happened,” remembers Réda, a sports journalist. Surveillance cameras in the trams and on the platforms, as well as police officers patrolling the stations, proved to be enough to maintain peace and order on the tramway during the football derby.


In reality, the tramway is already part of the scenery. The long period of construction included road realignments, over 200 kilometres of reconstructed sidewalks, and the installation of new signalisation infrastructure – and Casablancans are now comfortable and familiar with the tramway. In some places, the change is spectacular. One part of Mohammed V Boulevard has been completely pedestrianised. In fact, an old tramway circulated along this same artery until the 1950s. Building facades, some in Art Deco style, have been revitalised. The tramway has spurred property owners to take ownership of the city’s architectural heritage, which had been threatened by decades of neglect.


The 31-kilometre tramway line, stretching from the Sidi Moumen neighbourhood to the beach at Ain Diab, reunites urban neighbourhoods that had been segregated by the city’s erratic street network. This summer, beachgoers took to the tramway en masse, tolerating the long, winding route for the comfort of an air-conditioned train.


Even if it hasn’t yet replaced other modes of transport, the tramway is the best choice for travelling along certain routes which have traditionally been very congested. To get to the Derb Ghallef market, the city’s hub for buying and selling electronics, the tramway is unbeatable. Same goes for Hassan II Avenue, which houses the city’s financial district. For students seeking an affordable commute, it’s also the best way to get to the universities in the South end of town.


Perhaps the most striking transformation that the tramway has brought about is in Sidi Moumen – once known as the neighbourhood that raised the terrorists who carried out the 2003 bombings, it is now home to the tramway’s maintenance facility, which employs 1,200 people.

Taming traffic mayhem in my backyard Fri, 05 Jul 2013 00:00:00 -0400 I love living in Central Frederick — it has a wealth of century homes on comfortable tree-lined streets, a beautiful school, neighbourhood parks, and a corner store. This is one of Kitchener’s oldest neighbourhoods and, like many areas of K-W, the street grid can get a little wonky.

In the above satellite view, you can see Lancaster coming down from the north and meeting up with Krug Street. Mere metres from that intersection, there is a set of traffic lights where Cedar Street crosses Weber. These two intersections are too far away from each other to function together, an unfortunate confluence of history and geometry that wreaks havoc at rush hour.

Lancaster is a pretty significant north-south route that connects Kitchener to Waterloo and the Conestoga Parkway. Though by the time it approaches Krug, Lancaster has become a narrow two-lane street, it still carries lots of rush-hour traffic. Add that to the volume of vehicles passing through the Cedar/Weber intersection, and this area gets real messy around 5:00 PM on a weekday. Take a look:

(Did you notice the blue van at 0:41? At 1:07, it gets fed up with waiting, and escapes up Lancaster instead.)

As a pedestrian, I get frustrated with the Lancaster/Krug intersection a lot. I live on the East side of Lancaster Street, a few blocks up from here, and it’s well nigh impossible to get to that side of the street without dodging the traffic coming off Weber. Besides my own comfort, this neighbourhood has a lot of young families — there really should be a better pedestrian crossing here. Suddaby School is close by. In the mornings, there is a veritable parade of children that have to traverse this treacherous intersection, one way or another.

I decided to sketch out a possible solution to this mess — a pedestrian island that doubles as a traffic calming device:

1. Looking south from Lancaster Street East. Vehicles must yield to pedestrians and Krug St. traffic. The island also prevents left turns onto Krug St.

2. Looking west from Krug Street. With the island in place, Krug gets the right of way and has a full range of turning movements.

3. Looking from Weber Street toward Krug/Lancaster. No left turn onto Lancaster; the only option is to continue along Krug St.

Drivers coming from the Weber/Cedar intersection will not be able to turn left onto Lancaster; but perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, this is a school zone, and most vehicles that use this section of Lancaster are looking for a shortcut to avoid Weber St.

As a general rule, I don’t like restricting turning movements, but this street grid is just too messed up to allow the current free-for-all at Krug/Lancaster to continue.

In Boston, real reporting falls prey to hysteria Sun, 21 Apr 2013 01:53:00 -0400 The ferocious zeal with which news organisations have tried to piece together an explanation for the Boston Marathon bombing is astounding. Tripping over conflicting reports in a rush to break the story first, they appear to have done more harm than good.

Mere moments after the explosions, we all began searching for answers. Who, what, why, how? A mad scramble for leads began. False accusations were trumpeted from millions of TV screens, adding tragedy to tragedy as families of the wrongfully accused were torn apart. We saw the same thing happen in the wake of the Newtown shooting just a few months ago. The bigger the story, the more fact-checking gives way to sensationalism.

At this stage, journalists don’t know what evidence the FBI and police have collected. In the absence of material facts, the news stories of the last few days have become little more than thinly-disguised speculation.

Before charges were even laid, never mind a guilty verdict, family and friends were asked to publicly judge the suspects’ character. Dogged journalists dug up hobbies, school records, past feuds and misdemeanours, to paint a detailed, if mostly irrelevant picture of the suspects.

I don’t much care what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wore to his high school prom. Nor do I think that his mother’s run-in with the law for shoplifting has much bearing on the marathon bombings. If a nation full of journalists were desperate for an excuse to incriminate me and my family, I’m sure they would dig up some dirt too.

The story has now shifted: no longer focused on the tragedy of the bombing and how it came to pass, the media is left to pick apart the facts that are not protected by the confidentiality of an ongoing investigation. Somehow, in the frenzy, reporters have become no better than tabloid paparazzi, trying to peer into the private lives of the Tsarnaev brothers and their families.

In an age of instantaneous communication, it is not a mark of strength to be the first to scramble out of the gate. Real strength lies in the ability to set a story aside when you have nothing new to reveal.

Thoughts on a decade of digital media Mon, 08 Apr 2013 17:40:00 -0400 Ten years ago, I had barely begun to use Google. I was using (run by C|Net) to explore the web, simply because I had guessed the URL one day and had never heard of other search engines. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the state of digital media today, how I got here, and whether I’m more satisfied now than in the past about what kind of information I have access to. In the last ten years, entire communication patterns and social norms have been rewritten. That’s exciting to think about.

Where I’m at

The web today is a delicious soup of services, all interacting and competing simultaneously. To illustrate this, I’ll tell you the story of how I heard about Google Reader’s demise (which in itself is an important milestone in the history of the Web).

As I remember it, I first heard the news from a Tweet by Andrew Coyne. I then opened a new tab and searched for “google reader shutting down”, which brought me to a Google blog post explaining the decision. After reading the post, I hit up Ars Technica and Mashable to read more about the news. Then I talked about it on Twitter for a bit. I considered posting about Google Reader on Facebook - no, too techy - and then went to see what my favourite third-party Google Reader app, Reeder, had to say about it on Twitter. Later in the day, I came across a good discussion of the issue on /r/webdev.

This is how I consume and interact with media - bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a chaotic flurry of information. The pace of change in digital media is astounding. New platforms for content are being created all the time, and it’s tough to decide what not to read. Personally, I’m looking for a way to separate signal from noise. I waste so much time reading and responding to content that just goes in one ear and out the other.

I’m at the point now where I crave curation, which is why I recently picked up a copy of Alternatives Journal. A bimonthly, dead-tree publication. Think about that. A paper magazine won out over the torrent of information available on the internet. Why? I know that it will have staying power - the content in this magazine needs to be relevant for at least two months. The prospect of trusting in someone else’s editorial judgment, is more attractive than desperately scouring social media for the Next Big Thing.

How I got here

Ten years ago, news portals were the de facto gatekeepers of the internet. Most people had a website like Yahoo! or MSN as their homepage. These websites adapted the concept of a literal front page from broadsheet newspapers, making the transition to online media comfortable and familiar.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, blogging came to the fore. A source of independent news and commentary, free from the shackles of the corporate media structure, people took to livejournal or blogger to voice their opinions rather than write a letter to the editor. This is also what I would call the first instance of social media, because comments allowed readers to leave unfiltered remarks and generate discussion.

Facebook took the best parts of the blog - comments and freedom from editorial control - and made it easier to write, share, and discuss with family and friends. Facebook’s insistence on building upon real-world relationships is what began to bridge the gap between the Internet and the so-called real world.

Twitter burst on the scene at the end of the decade, quickly becoming an explosive force in digital media. The service’s character limit lends itself well to headlines and pithy quotes, making back-and-forth debate easy. By mainstreaming the use of hashtags, Twitter created an environment that is organised by topic, rather than personal relationships. For some types of media coverage, namely political punditry and sports, where minute-by-minute reporting makes sense, Twitter has become a dominant medium for discussion.

Road tolls are a barrier to complete streets Fri, 15 Mar 2013 21:08:00 -0400 I took my bike out of hibernation yesterday and rode from my home in Kitchener to the University of Waterloo. The commute was refreshing, after a season of being beholden to the bus schedule. Along the way, I stopped off at the bank and ran a couple errands in uptown Waterloo. This is the kind of flexibility I was missing over the winter. Biking season is here, and I couldn’t be happier.

But, the roads. Oh, the roads! I’ve never fully appreciated what a freeze-thaw cycle can do to asphalt, but boy was it obvious yesterday morning. The familiar potholes had grown deeper and wider, and unexpected new cracks had formed during the winter. The stretch of Waterloo Street from Roger to Moore, which used to be a tad bumpy, was nearly unrideable yesterday. I may have to plan out an alternate commuting route.

The immediate reaction is obvious: the city needs to fix these roads. But it’s more than that. As a cyclist, I want the city to fix the roads. Even as a bus rider, I appreciate a well-maintained road. There’s nothing worse than trying to remain standing on a lurching, jolting bus ride.

We tend to automatically think of roads as “infrastructure for cars”, which factors into debates about investing in transit. This dualism is not helpful and it’s absolutely not accurate. Bike lanes and bus bays are absolutely part of the road, and planners need to think about the road network as intermodal infrastructure if we want to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

This is why I’m not sold on the idea of congestion charges or road tolls in urban areas. These measures reinforce the perception of automobiles as the primary users of the road. Because motorists pay a user fee, they feel entitled to a road system that puts their needs ahead of other modes. These schemes have a singular focus: improving automobile congestion (i.e. timing traffic lights, increasing the rate of through-traffic, removing on-street parking). Such plans fail to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and mass transit.

A counter-argument might be that road tolls and congestion fees make motorists pay the “true cost” of the road and might encourage them to drive less. My counter-counter-argument would be: why should automobiles pay for the use of the road and not cyclists? Pedestrians? Transit riders? We all use the infrastructure. Let’s look at it as a common good and plan for multiple modes. Designing and maintaining comfortable roads for all modes will get drivers out of their cars more effectively than user fees ever will.

FYI, there is a good discussion about this post happening on reddit, as well as in the comments below.

How strong is your keychain? Mon, 04 Mar 2013 22:03:00 -0500 Password strength is always relevant, with security vulnerabilities being exploited all the time. Nobody is immune to attacks: within the past 9 months, Twitter, ABC Australia, Yahoo, and LinkedIn have all had their passwords leaked.

Of course, there are many factors at play beyond the strength of your password. Using a slow algorithm like bcrypt to secure passwords is generally more important than having a strong password in the first place. But, as an average web user, you don’t have control over the security infrastructure of websites you visit. So what’s the best password strategy?

We’ve always been told to use uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters in our passwords. These are good rough guidelines, but a complex password is not necessarily a secure password. As illustrated by this excellent XKCD comic, it’s more important to have a long, easy-to-remember password than a short, complicated one. The reason? The longer one has more bits of entropy. Measuring the entropy of a password is a better way to determine how difficult it would be to hack in the real world:

A password with, say, 42 bits of strength calculated in this way would be as strong as a string of 42 bits chosen randomly, say by a fair coin toss. Put another way, a password with 42 bits of strength would require 242 attempts to exhaust all possibilities during a brute force search.


There are a number of calculators out there that figure out how many bits of entropy are in a given password. I like Dropbox’s calculator, since it breaks down the method that would be used to guess each part of the password.

Most of the discussion centres around the strength of an individual password. But if you use the same password on every site, it only takes one of them to fail for someone to have access to your Facebook account, email, banking information, and more.

The reality is, most people reuse their passwords. So how strong does a password need to be for you to safely use it everywhere?

Here’s a randomly-generated 6-character password with letters, numbers and symbols: vL5e$Q. It has 39 bits of entropy - that’s less than desirable, but not bad (correcthorsebatterystaple, the password used in the XKCD comic, has 45). If you log in to, say, 50 websites with different randomly-generated passwords of this kind, your entire keychain has 1,950 bits of entropy.

So how long does a single password need to be to achieve 1,950 bits of entropy? Well, you’d have to type out the first 15 or so verses of Genesis to get 1,950 bits with lowercase letters.

The moral of the story: even if you have a strong password, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you use it everywhere.

A cost-of-living tax system Sun, 10 Feb 2013 23:44:00 -0500 Taxes are an exercise in income redistribution that every society goes through. It’s a way to level the paying field and invest in the public good. But the system we have in Canada is terribly over-complicated, with loopholes that favour the rich. When filing your taxes becomes so time-consuming that you need to buy special software or hire an accountant to do the job for you, it’s high time for change. The complexity of the income tax system means that the only people who can navigate it effectively are those with time, money, or expertise to spare.

(There are similar issues with the corporate tax structure, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish, so let’s save it for another day.)

The fact is, paying taxes is one of the few responsibilities that we have as citizens. And like voting or jury duty, this should be something the average citizen is capable of doing on her own.

Tax incentives are a favourite tool among governments for offering all kinds of incentives, from the wildly popular home renovation tax credit, to the arts and sports tax credit, to the transit tax credit, to charitable donation tax receipts.

Part of the tax system’s nebulousness is due to these kinds of exceptions and tax brackets meant to make taxation fairer. So how to strike that balance between fairness and simplicity? The Fraser Institute, among others, have advocated a flat tax, regardless of income, marital status, or number of dependents. That’s simply too blunt an instrument. But there is a way to make taxation work better: tie it to the cost of living.

Before I dive in, let’s take a look at the current federal tax system. Canada has four tax brackets (details here), and these charts show how much of your income is taxed depending on your gross earnings.

Now, what would tax rates look like if we accounted for cost of living? Statistics Canada keeps track of a Market Basket Measure (MBM), which fluctuates based on the cost of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and other necessities to live modestly. The MBM differs depending on what province you live in and how large your community is.

For the sake of illustration, let’s take a look at Toronto. Its MBM for 2010 was $33,177. In a hypothetical tax system based on cost of living, income below this threshold would not be taxed because we want everybody to afford at least a modest lifestyle.

The flipside of this issue is what is considered an extravagant income? I’m very much a believer in income ceilings, so I want my tax system to reflect that. A ceiling for some is necessary to provide a solid foundation for all.

With this in mind, let’s lay out some tax brackets.

  • Income lower than the MBM will be taxed at 0%
  • Income between 1 and 2 times the MBM will be taxed at 15%
  • Income between 2 and 3 times the MBM will be taxed at 20%
  • Income between 3 and 4 times the MBM will be taxed at 25%
  • Income between 4 and 5 times the MBM will be taxed at 30%
  • Income over 5 times the MBM will be taxed at 90%

The tax rates are defined as multiples of the MBM, so that they reflect the actual cost of living. People in the top tax bracket are earning at least 5 times more than is required to live modestly.

Let’s take a look at the hypothetical average tax rates for Toronto under this system:

Let’s circle back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post: our taxes are overcomplicated because of all the incentives that have been piled on by governments. This patchwork attempt to level the playing field and encourage certain behaviour has left us with a tax system that is too nebulous for regular people to take advantage of.

Tax brackets based on the MBM threshold would remove the need for some of those incentives - the transit tax credit and the northern living allowance, for example. Ideally, your income tax return would have only three questions: 1) your gross income; 2) your place of residence (so the MBM can be calculated); and 3) how many dependents you have.

As for other things not covered by the MBM, I’m of the opinion that the tax system is not the right place for them. Want to encourage post-secondary education? Lower tuition. Want to encourage kids’ sports? Subsidize municipal athletic programs.

Taxes should be simple, transparent, and based on the cost of living. Is that too much to ask?

The West ain't what it used to be Fri, 04 Jan 2013 01:33:00 -0500 The role of language in constructing a worldview has always interested me. Terms like “Western society” and “the global North” are common ways to juxtapose the lifestyles of rich people with an often romanticized notion of Noble Savagery.

“Our Western culture focuses so much on excessive consumption.”

“We in the global North must do our part to help those in the global South.”

“The Western media is controlled by corporations.”

When we talk about a singular “Western” culture or society or civilisation, are we really thinking in terms of geography? Is there an equal and opposite “Eastern” counterpart?

This kind of language is a veil; it puts a distracting geographic veneer on statements that are actually about class and wealth. So next time you make a generalisation about culture, society, class, or wealth, take a moment to think about what it is you’re really trying to say and don’t pussyfoot around it.

The good news is that the phrase “Western [blank]” has been falling out of favour since the mid-1990s. But it’s interesting to see how its use has mirrored historical shifts in power.

I plugged in some phrases to Google Ngrams, that wonderful database cataloguing the last 200 years of the written word. We were far more focused on the Western/Eastern binary in the 1960s, but today, Western society and civilisation are not talked about in relation to an Eastern “other”.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the recent increase in both Western and Eastern “culture”. On one hand, it could be a resurgence of binary thinking. But I think it’s rather two independent trends. “Western culture” increased sharply from 1985-1995, perhaps as English-language speakers tried to define ourselves in a rapidly globalising world. The upshot in “Eastern culture” during the same period is, I think, a result of a kind of “oriental intrigue” in the English-speaking world - the growth in popularity of Yoga, secular Buddhism, and manga/anime might explain it.

Of course, I could be totally wrong. What do you see in these charts? (Click to expand)

References to Western society, civilisation, and culture in the English language
References to Eastern society, civilisation, and culture in the English language
Atlas Shrugged (and eventually, so did I) Sat, 20 Oct 2012 15:56:00 -0400 Some people try to make a boring speech more interesting by throwing in a story or two. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand does the opposite - stuffing a mediocre story full of excessive diatribes and long-winded monologues. The result is a sad hybrid of philosophy and fiction that brings out the worst in each. It’s a philosophical text that lacks the structure and rigour of a treatise, and at the same time a poorly-told story that cannot stand on its own.

If you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, and want to, you’d better stop here because there will be spoilers.

I will concede that it was a book that made me think. Virtually every page contained an opinion, accusation, or challenge, forcing me to evaluate and justify my own assumptions about the ideal socio-political system. This is what I gathered as my own Coles Notes version of Rand’s philosophy in Atlas Shrugged:

  • It is right to earn rewards based on merit, but wrong to receive alms based on need. Charity is blasphemy against the sanctity of human ability.
  • People should be rewarded commensurate to their ability, even if the reward is exceedingly above anything they could hope to spend or need. The fruits of their labour - and nobody else’s - are theirs by right.
  • Nobody should feel compelled to sacrifice for the sake of others. If one acts for the benefit of another, that benefit ought to be a mere byproduct of the pleasure gained by the actor.
  • Healthy capitalism means businesses do not cut corners to make profit, but see labour as an investment in the highest calibre of skilled workers.
  • Those who implement an idea are infinitely in debt to the person who thought of the idea in the first place.
  • It is futile to talk about the public good without first specifying which public you’re talking about.
  • One has no moral duty except to one’s own rational mind.
  • It is wrong to gain power or wealth by means of bribery, favours, loopholes, extortion, imposed monopoly, or force.
  • A society that rejects need and celebrates ability will see its members use their minds to overcome any obstacles, thereby producing enough value to exchange for all their wants and needs.

I won’t get into too much detail about my position on the above bullet points, but suffice it to say that I think they are mostly wrong.

The overwhelming sense in my mind as I read Atlas Shrugged was, “get on with it!” - the characters’ endless inner monologues quickly became repetitive, reducing their persuasive impact. It was the equivalent of the type of person who has made their point long ago, but keeps talking in circles because nobody has forced them to shut up yet. I could only get through John Galt’s speech - that arrogantly, pretentiously long lecture - by keeping track of the page numbers and reminding myself that I was not, in fact, reading the same paragraphs over and over.

The narrative also suffered from repetition and a lack of originality. If you’re going to write a 1,200-page book, you’ve got to find some more creative ways of describing how Dagny’s clothes frame the fragility of her feminine body.

Probably the biggest disappointment for me was the entire concept of Galt’s Gulch. The idea that if you disagree with the prevailing social order, you and your friends can carve out a little piece of the world and live in peace without having to worry about anything or anybody else. Oh, and that such a place will have plentiful copper resources, agricultural lands, metal ore for smelting, and enough space for each person to live in whatever kind of house he chooses - whether it be a secluded cabin in a forest or near the main market street.

Ayn Rand’s glorification of the rational mind goes to such extremes as to make her philosophy nothing more than a pipe dream. The idea that by sheer willpower, Hank Rearden could buy up depleted mines and find some way to extract more minerals from them is a cop-out at best. No need for the people of Galt’s Gulch to worry about energy security either - John Galt figured out how make a motor that produces electricity from the air. How convenient!

If you’re like me and consider a 1,200-page book to be a fairly arduous endeavour, Atlas Shrugged is not worth reading. The story is not compelling on its own merits. None of the characters are likeable, and the plot is simply a vehicle for the author to project her philosophy in the form of fictional monologues.

There are entrenched notions of good and bad, which do not shift at all through the course of the book. Instead, the same themes, opinions, and scenarios are played out again and again, like a punished schoolchild forced to keep writing a lesson on the blackboard until his hands begin to bleed.

Woefully Horrid Method of Insuring Safety (WHMIS) Thu, 06 Sep 2012 00:10:00 -0400 Health and safety are important, but WHMIS certification (at least, my experience with it) is a joke. I first learned about WHMIS in Grade 9 or 10, as part of a mandatory “workplace skills” course. We learned all about the different hazard symbols, material safety data sheets, the rights and responsibilities of workers, and ended up with a certificate at the end stating that we were all WHMIS certified.

The certificate itself was a piece of paper with my name and a congratulatory heading - printed on standard paper in black and white, without any security features or unique identifier - laughably easy to falsify.

In the following years, I jumped through the same WHMIS certification hoops when I got my first part-time job at a grocery store; when I started each of my subsequent summer jobs; two or three times in University courses; and again, this afternoon, at my new office job. Sometimes I got a certificate that was photocopied with my name stuck onto it. Sometimes I didn’t get any notice of certification.

In any case, the whole concept of certification is void when it comes to the way WHMIS is administered. Each time I ran through the paces once again, my fellow new hires (or classmates) stared, glassy-eyed, at a video or presentation until we were fed the answers, one by one. None of us wanted to be there. None of us were learning. And none of us cared, because we knew that the tortuous hour-and-a-half was a necessary bureaucratic formality. Once it was over, we could get on with real work.

I wonder if the Ministry of Labour has any systems in place to review the effectiveness of WHMIS education. If they do, I wonder what metrics they use. Because in the current system, everybody passes the test whether they’re actually competent or not. Sure, we have certain rights and responsibilities enshrined in legislation, but what effect do they have beyond adding an hour or two of mindless drivel to employee training sessions?

My proposition is this: why not have a real WHMIS certification program, much like the Boating Licence, that workers need to complete once in their adult lives. The Boating license can be completed online, allows for unlimited retries, and upon successful completion of the test you’re sent a Pleasure Craft Operator Card in the mail. If you’re stopped on the water by police, they can look at your card and verify that you’re certified.

Surely, if we can trust people to pass such a lenient test to safely operate a motorboat, the same could be done for WHMIS. Pass it once, then you’re good for life. Put the certificate number on the HR form next to your social insurance number so the employer meets its legal obligations. I’d even be happy with a 5- or 10-year renewal period - health and safety regulations do change over time, after all.

But for the love of God, don’t make me sit through another WHMIS training session so I can lose two hours of my life to get another meaningless certification for the umpteenth time.

First flush Mon, 23 Jul 2012 04:37:00 -0400 On a whim, I decided to go for a bike ride today. I left my wallet and phone behind and spent a couple hours on the Grand River Trail. It’s a great ride; I started at the Economical Insurance Trailway (point 13 on the above-linked map) and continued to Kolb Park, then turned around. It wasn’t too hilly, but I did have to work up a sweat at times. It was about equal difficulty on the way there and on the way back, which is nice - it stops me from coasting too much.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. As I passed Bingemans on the way down, it started to rain a little. By the time I reached the Victoria St. underpass, it was a veritable torrent of fat, hot raindrops soaking my clothes through to the skin. I didn’t mind, the air was still warm so I decided I would continue riding along the river until the rain stopped.

It stopped after 10 minutes or so. I found myself riding through Kolb Park - and there was a slightly overgrown fork off the main trail that looked interesting. I veered left and ducked under the sodden, low-hanging branches. After about a minute my path was blocked; a dead end. But there  was a footpath down to the river. So I propped my bike up onto a tree, and walked down to the water’s edge.

As the tree canopy opened up before me, I saw a little beach of sorts - strewn with rocks and weeds and springy mud. An insect buzzed incessantly around my ear. A flock of ducks were floating in the water; a seagull stood guard from a rock on the opposite side of the river. Through the overgrowth, in the distance, I could spot a new suburban development, creeping toward the river from Breslau.

I had found quite an idyllic spot. I set my rain-streaked glasses down on a rock; took off my shirt and wringed it out; skipped a few rocks; stretched my legs; and after a sort while, I figured it was time to head home.

But as I walked back up the footpath to my bike, I heard the sound of rushing water grow louder. It wasn’t the river. It was a surge of water coming down the riverbank. In the time it had taken me to stop and take a breather, the intense but brief rainfall had filtered through the sewer system to end up here. It wasn’t an idyllic beach at all. It was a drainage area.

I scampered back down to take a look at the runoff. This was the first flush phenomenon in action - one of those concepts that I had learned theoretically, but hadn’t experienced first-hand. I could see the runoff making its way through the rocks while I stood on one of the larger ones. It was a thick brown liquid, kind of like hot chocolate, no doubt tainted with oil and sediment from the nearby industrial area. It smelled of sewage. Cigarette butts floated in the inky mixture. And it was travelling fast. Rocks the size of my fist were being displaced by the powerful flow. A spider, who had been basking atop a rock, was swept under. I moved to higher ground as the toxic effluent began to touch my shoes.

When the runoff met the water’s edge, it formed a visible brown streak as the river carried it downstream, cigarette butts and all. The ducks stayed put, seemingly unfazed. This must have been an all-too-common occurrence for them.

To imagine that this was happening at innumerable points up and down the river, as a result of rainfall lasting less than half an hour, baffled me. Is our water even being treated properly? Is the wastewater treatment system so overwhelmed by an afternoon shower that it had to divert raw sewage into the river?

After about 10 minutes, the effluent started to clear up. It was still brown, but less oily-looking. Does anybody test this water? I wondered. And if they do, a 10-minute delay would give wildly different results. I pondered all this as I rode back home.

This isn’t necessarily a suburban problem; but we need to be smarter with how we develop urban areas. We can’t accept the status quo - hectares of new impermeable pavement and kilometre after kilometre of engineered concrete sewer lines. If we want to keep the natural beauty of the Grand while encouraging population growth in the region, we need to incorporate the natural environment into our water filtration system on a large scale - before it gets dumped into the river.

Making sense of "sense of place" Sat, 07 Jul 2012 04:29:00 -0400 In Planning school, we’re taught that an area’s sense of place can make or break a neighbourhood. It’s that elusive uniqueness that ties a place to its history while forging an identity of its own. We often explore this through design, where the use of visual elements is the go-to method for achieving a sense of place.

But I think it’s a shame that we don’t focus as much on sense of place in other areas of planning — in policy development, in social planning, in employment strategies, in zoning, in transit planning. Because for me, sense of place is more than the character of a neighbourhood as I walk through it. It’s the immediate emotional response I get when someone mentions the name of a place. It’s the preconceived notions and prejudices that jump to the front of my mind. It’s the expectation of who I might see there, what I might do there, how I will feel there, that define sense of place. A neighbourhood’s sense of place has far more to do with what goes on inside our heads than how the area is actually designed.

Take these Toronto place names for example:

  • Bay Street.
  • Yonge-Dundas Square.
  • Queen’s Park.
  • Rexdale.

You’ve already got an image in your head of what these places are like, whether or not you’ve actually been there. You know that Bay Street is the financial centre of Canada, glistening with skyscrapers. You know there are festivals and concerts at Yonge-Dundas Square. You know that Queen’s Park houses the Ontario Legislature and that the words are often used as a replacement for “the government”. You know that Rexdale is home to many new immigrants. The connotations around these place names have already begun to form a sense of place in your head.

And it’s the same story with Kitchener, the city I now call home. I go to school in Waterloo, and there is a definite distinction between the two cities. I avoid telling people I live in “Downtown Kitchener” — that will only conjure up images of cheque-cashing establishments and the dirty bus terminal. Instead, I tell people I live in “Kitchener, close to Victoria Park and the Library”. With my careful use of words, I’m already creating the sense of place that I want people to feel.

There is no “Downtown Waterloo”. The city centre is called “Uptown”, which boasts vibrant nightlife, chic restaurants and cafes, a public square, high-end lofts, and government offices. “Downtown” is Kitchener. “Downtown” is where you go because you need to, not because you want to. “Downtown” is where you’ll get harassed for spare change on every other street corner. These are the things people think of when they hear “Downtown Kitchener”.

But the differences are not only perceptual — there are real divisions between the two cities. Melissa and I went for a night on the town this evening — we caught a bus to Uptown Waterloo (naturally), where we were going to attend a free ballroom dancing lesson in the public square. Sadly, the lesson was cancelled because they were setting up booths for tomorrow’s Turkish Festival. But we enjoyed ourselves with dinner at a small fish and chips place, followed by drinks at Starbucks and a slow meander back home to Kitchener, where there is no Starbucks.

As we walked along King Street, we tried to define exactly where it stopped feeling like “Waterloo” and started feeling like “Kitchener”. Such an intangible concept, but we both agreed that there was something utterly definite about the perceived character of both cities.

We walked past the Bauer Lofts, with its accompanying bistro, hair salon, and high-end grocer. This was most definitely still a Waterloo atmosphere. Once we crossed John Street, though, the ambiance had drastically shifted. The changes were subtle - a Dairy Queen that should have been renovated 10 years ago; streetlights placed just too far apart; a flickering neon sign on an old brick house that read HOLISTIC MEDICAL CARE; a once-grand estate lot that now looks haunted and decayed. We had crossed the boundary into a “Kitchener” sense of place. Never mind the fact that we were still technically within Waterloo. The sense of place was totally incongrous with the vibrant Uptown where we had spent our evening.

We hopped a bus to zip through the concrete wasteland of undefined urban space between Uptown and Downtown. When we reached the edge of Downtown Kitchener, we got off and continued to walk, trying to hammer out the reasons exactly why this city feels so different from Waterloo.

Transit patterns

In Waterloo, the Uptown bus stop serves the busiest mainline bus routes. The stops are located right on King street, adjacent to the public square. From there, you’re a stone’s throw from shopping, eating, and people-watching. The constant flow of buses encourages you to be spontaneous, hang out, and wait for your next transfer in comfort.

Meanwhile, nearly all the buses in Kitchener bypass the main Downtown strip around City Hall. They all detour a couple blocks before to get to Charles Street Terminal, the massive transit hub where schedules and maps are plastered everywhere, where clocks count down the seconds until the next departure, where you need to know which of the three staircases to take to get to your platform.

Charles Street Terminal is not a place to hang out. It is completely removed from the streetscape, and even though it is located right next to beautiful Victoria Park, there is no access through that side of the property. It encourages you to turn your back on the city and get out of there as fast as you can.

Retail environment

There’s no escaping it: in the 15-minute walk from the north end of Downtown to our house at the extreme south end, Melissa and I counted three cheque-cashing establishments, two dodgy furniture leasing stores, three pawn shops, and a “WE’LL BUY YOUR GOLD” store. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these places, and I’d expect any city to have some of them. But to have them all concentrated along the major main street in Kitchener is detrimental.

Most importantly, these are the kinds of establishments that prey on poverty. I don’t know what disturbs me more, the fact that so many informal lenders are still in business, or that other business interests haven’t pushed them out of Kitchener’s prime retail space yet.

Indoor Malls

I hadn’t noticed until today, but Kitchener has a lot of cavernous, glassy-walled indoor malls. Some of them, like the Manulife building, are a kind of unassuming labyrinth that offers no visual stimulation from the streetscape, and no incentive to come inside and explore. It also doesn’t help that it’s closed weekdays after 6PM and on weekends. The Market Square proudly boasts a McDonald’s sign and a Canada Post emblem on it front entrance, but peering in will leave people confused as they see a run-down tailor’s shop, a private college, and not much else. Those who continue down King Street looking for an alternate entrance will be rewarded with an entire city block of blank brick walls and service bays.


When I ask the question, “What’s missing in Downtown Kitchener?”, I think the answer is employment. Manufacturing and heavy industry was the lifeblood of this city for a hundred years. That has stopped. the old factories have been converted to lofts. The residential boom is here, and we’ll have a critical mass of people soon that will be commuting to Waterloo.

Sure, The Tannery is a tech-sector success story, and I’m hotly anticipating the live-work development at the Breithaupt Block. But those are on the fringes of Downtown. We need major employment to come to King Street. We need to make use of the second- and third-storey spaces that are currently abandoned. We need to fill in the missing teeth in the streetscape.

Final thoughts

This post has become horribly long. If you’ve read up to this point, I congratulate you. But I would be remiss to neglect the lack of a full-service grocery store in Downtown Kitchener. Central Fresh Market seems closer to Waterloo than to Downtown Proper, and the Kitchener Market is only open on Saturdays. I think the Bargain Shop at the corner of King and Benton would be a prime candidate for renovation into a grocery store.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on sense of place - can it be expressed tangibly, or will it always be an elusive concept? Leave a comment.

Our soldiers are just another political prop Thu, 03 May 2012 19:45:00 -0400 If there’s one thing the Conservative party’s limited roster of spokespeople do well, it’s controlling the narrative. The party’s spin machine is unrivalled, and reaches its tentacles deep into the operations of all government departments.

Government-employed scientists aren’t allowed to talk to the media? Oh, employee censorship is a common practice in any organization.

Recklessly speeding through the pipeline environmental review process? Oh, don’t worry, the only people concerned are radical foreign environmentalists.

Changing the definition of fish habitats and completely rewriting the environmental assessment act? Oh, it’s a minor budgetary measure.

The cost estimates for planes we don’t need were lowballed by $10 billion? Oh, it was just an accounting error.

This government’s arrogance demeans the intelligence of its fellow parliamentarians and of Canadians as a whole. I’m not of the opinion that Stephen Harper has a secret Reaganesque agenda that he will suddenly impose upon the Canadian people. The government’s decisions are made hastily, without proper debate or analysis. The fact that it hides so much of its policy from the rigour of public scrutiny speaks to a sense of entitlement beyond comprehension.

There are a lot of things about the Conservative government that make me bristle. But what really made me taste venom today was the excerpt in today’s National Post from Noah Richler’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War. He lays bare the plight of our injured military personnel, who get kicked to the curb if they’re no longer fit to serve.

If they die, they are hailed as heroes with a ramp ceremony and all. If they lose a leg, suffer PTSD, or commit suicide, the government quietly ignores them while scaling back supports.

Nothing is so callous as ordering young men and women to fight for a perceived sense of national security, then punishing them for not being quite dead.

Measuring what matters Fri, 03 Feb 2012 12:54:00 -0500 Traffic, weather, stock markets, gas prices, the value of the Canadian Dollar… Traditional broadcast media bombards us with real-time updates about these indicators throughout the day.

Because we’re told about every dip and surge in the stock market, our society pays attention. We watch the markets and ascribe value to them, not least because they affect many of our bank accounts.

Knowledge is power, and the more information we have access to, the better off we will be. Up-to-the-minute traffic updates on the radio can help us adapt to unexpected delays and find a quicker route home. This is a good thing.

But there are huge gaps in access to real-time information. There are other factors that impact our day-to-day lives more directly than the TSX, but are hardly reported at all.

Imagine the evening news reporter saying something like this: “Strong winds across the province today caused a spike in wind energy, pushing the share of turbine-powered electricity over 10 percent. The surge allowed coal-fired and natural gas plants to wind down, resulting in a 2-point drop in the air quality index.”

This isn’t just speculation. The real-time information for these measures exists, somewhere. The challenge is to liberate it and make it accessible to the average citizen.

So that’s what I’ve begun to do.

I’m developing a website that shows, at a glance, how our society is doing right now in areas such as electricity generation, air quality, and crime. (I mean actual measurements of criminal activity, not just lopsided reporting of the most sensational cases.)

My goal is to have these indicators of social well-being reported on CBC Radio with the same frequency as the traffic and weather updates.

The website probably won’t be ready for a public unveiling until the spring, but I want to start getting other people involved sooner.

So this is where you come in. What else do you want to see reported on the news? Rates of charitable giving? Organic food production? Deaths by automobile accident? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll try my best to hound them down.

Making development proposals "realer" Sun, 22 Jan 2012 02:09:00 -0500 I’ve had an idea kicking around in my head for the past year or so about how to engage people who don’t read the news or come to council meetings. When it comes to new development (or redevelopment) proposals, many citizens don’t know what’s going on until construction starts. And by that time, it’s too late to complain about a monstrous Wal-Mart in your backyard or an ugly condo conversion.

Another defect in the traditional consultation process is that it doesn’t feel very “real”. I mean, proposals come in on maps and diagrams and 45-degree aerial renderings, but when you actually walk over to the proposed site, it’s tough to visualize what the development will look like in that real, 3-D space.

The rise of Google Sketchup has solved some of these problems, but I’ve lot a low-tech idea that just might help.

Say there’s a missing tooth in the urban fabric that a developer wants to fill in with an 8-storey condo building. What better way to visualize the impact it will have on the neighbourhood than going over to the site and being able to actually see what it would look like? What if you could give feedback, right there on the spot, instead of relying on an abstraction in your mind to decide if you like the proposal or not?

So here’s what I propose. Take a viewfinder and clamp it onto a telephone pole (or a stop sign, or whatever’s there, as long as it’s in a fixed position). On the viewfinder’s lens is a rendering of the building. When you look through, you see the real streetscape - not a blocky, pastel-tinted Sketchup version of reality. You see the proposed building, as if it’s already been built.

Perhaps you’d be able to flick through a few different variations, like one of those old Kodak View-Masters that I played with as a kid.

And why not have a comment box there so people can leave their feedback? If anything, it would give people a reason to stop and mingle in the street.

What do you think? Is this idea a step forward in public consultation or am I just wearing sepia-coloured glasses?

Airports as public spaces Thu, 22 Dec 2011 01:41:00 -0500 I’ve travelled a lot in my short life, and airports have been a constant companion on my trips. There to see me off and welcome me to new lands, the airport is a gateway to the unknown.

Right now I’ve got two hours until my plane leaves from Pearson, so I have some time to kill and I’m thinking about how airports function as public spaces. More importantly, I’m thinking about how they can be better cultural standard-bearers and more welcoming places.

I said airports are a gateway to the unknown, but most of them are, in fact, depressingly predictable. Whether you find yourself in Karachi, Geneva, or Newark, you can be sure to find duty-free alcohol, book and magazine stores, jewelry, cologne, and tacky souvenirs. In other words, you can buy stuff you probably don’t need at prices you probably can’t afford.

If you’re lucky there might be some artwork up on the walls (and Pearson’s Terminal 1 has a beautiful echo chamber art installation), but it is rarely the focal point. It seems that public art in airports is mostly used to fill in the uncomfortable gaps between Starbucks and the duty-free shop. They are not attractions - a distraction, more like, from the steel-blue uniformity of the departure lounge.

Airport departure lounges are the perfect places for public amenities. I’m talking about museums, indoor gardens, recreation facilities. Flight delayed? Why not shoot some hoops to pass the time? Or why not have a proper museum with some Group of Seven paintings where I can get lost for half an hour? Because right now, my main options are either to buy some cheap rum or overpriced coffee, and neither looks very appealing.

If we transformed our airports into more than just malls, maybe travellers would feel like more than just cattle.

Bus, train, streetcar, LRV... what's the flavour this week? Sat, 19 Nov 2011 07:44:00 -0500 The oohing and ahhing over Toronto’s new LRVs (for God’s sake, don’t call them streetcars!) has got me thinking about how we tend to market public transportation.

Having spent time in both Waterloo and Hamilton during their respective campaigns for rapid transit, I can attest that much of the debate about sustainable transit initiatives revolves around the vehicles themselves. Sure, there are small differences in comfort or aesthetics, but when it comes down to it, there isn’t always a substantive difference between rail or bus vehicles in terms of efficacy or environmental impact.

Yes, buses emit exhaust. But so does every GO and VIA train (they’re all diesel powered - at least for now). And while electric trains and LRVs don’t generate greenhouse gases, they do weigh heavily on the electricity grid. Which is why it annoys me to hear people speaking about LRT as a “zero-emission” transportation solution.

But I digress. My point is that modal choice shouldn’t matter nearly as much as planners and urban enthusiasts make it out to be. It’s wrongheaded to make a type of vehicle the standard-bearer of sustainable transportation. There’s a grain of truth to the claim that LRT advocates are blinded by their desire for fancy toys.

It’s highly contextual. Right now, for example, there is a big push for all-day GO Train service to downtown Hamilton. The current bus runs every 20 minutes to Toronto and arrives in under an hour. While a train seems like the “better” transit solution, it would have to stop in Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga … and would take significantly longer to get to Union Station. In this case, the express bus is the best possible transit solution for getting to Toronto. It’s fast, convenient, and predictable. Even if all-day train service were to come, it would serve a totally different purpose than the current bus.

Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where rail handily trumps bus. But that decision should be made on substantive merits, such as capacity, projected ridership growth, peak frequency ability, construction impacts, development potential, and capital and operating costs.

Without a well-planned, convenient transit system behind them, these new TTC vehicles are no more than fashionable accessories. And, to paraphrase one of my favourite urban theorists, fashionable things tend to fall out of fashion.

Occupy All Streets Fri, 04 Nov 2011 13:38:00 -0400 This post first appeared as a 2-part article in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s official newspaper.

On Sep. 17, I was poking around the Internet when I came across news of a protest organized by Anonymous, the hacktivist collective known for circumventing state censorship to help the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. I was led to a video — a call to action, really — calling on New Yorkers to set up camp in Wall Street to protest the corporate dominance of American politics.

The video opened with this observation about Barack Obama: “People say things when they are running because they don’t know the powers that really control the house they are going to live in.”

Anonymous is an organization (if you can call it that) that I had heard plenty about, but I didn’t quite know how it functioned. I knew of its amoebic leadership structure, its non-centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. And on Sep. 17, I watched that system in action for the first time.

A self-organized movement

What amazed me most in the early days of Occupy Wall Street was the consensus-based general assemblies. The crowd numbered in the hundreds that first night, and it was difficult to hear who was speaking. So the demonstrators used a call-and-answer format, complete with hand gestures, where each sentence the speaker said was echoed back in unison by hundreds of voices. In this way, people at the very rear of the crowd were still able to hear what was going on.

Hearing the multitude of voices, young, old, male, and female, all shouting the same thing, gave me goosebumps. It was the voice of revolution:

— “I propose,”
— “I propose,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.

I watched the first hours of the occupation unfold on a live streaming video site, where someone was broadcasting from their camera phone. After a while, the phone battery was about to die and he (or she) directed viewers to another demonstrator’s video channel, where the broadcasting resumed from someone else’s phone. This is self-organization at its finest.

Expansion and loss of focus

The first few days of Occupy Wall Street were remarkably focused on the issue of corporate control. Protesters rallied against the injustices carried out by American banks that led to the recession.

Since then, support for the movement has exploded — along with the number of issues people are protesting about. With the massive amount of people that have joined the movement in just about every major city in the world, the original message has fallen apart. No clear demands are evident anymore, aside from a general feeling of leftist discontent. I heard a protestor in Washington, D.C. clamouring for “a crowdsourced rainstorm of slogans.”

As support for the protest went global, Oct. 15 was agreed upon for the launch of the international Occupy movement. By this time, there were far too many issues on the table. A New York occupier said, “We have about three times as many agendas as there are people here!”

In Toronto, the Canadian Auto Workers union, along with other representatives of organized labour, threw their support behind the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, this provided an easy way for critics to write off the movement. With the hand of big unions seemingly behind the scenes, Occupy’s credibility as a bottom-up people-power movement was diminished.

It wasn’t just big labour diluting the message. In New Mexico, advocates for aboriginal rights changed the name of their protest to (Un)occupy, to acknowledge that the U.S. is actually stolen indigenous land that was “occupied” by settlers.

This movement didn’t start out as a rallying cry about income inequality or unemployment or aboriginal rights. As far as I can tell, an end to corporate dominance was the original goal. But this movement evolved rapidly and is now going in a thousand directions at once.

Easily misunderstood

Without a central rallying point (except for perhaps the vague notion of “the 99 per cent”), critics of the Occupy movement are able to see what they want to see in these protests. “Stop protesting and get a job,” has been a common refrain. The National Post published an editorial deriding the movement for complaining about inequality in one of the richest countries.

The problem with the vastness of Occupy is that it allows people to protest whatever they want, and it allows the critics to pick whatever easy targets they want. In the mainstream media’s analysis of Occupy, different narratives can breeze right past each other without actually trying to justify their arguments or address what’s really happening. Bill O’Reilly, a political commentator for Fox News, even managed to conjure up a scary storyline about the anti-semitic intent of Occupy Wall Street.

This knee-jerk reaction from right-wing media outlets is actually more disorganized and ridiculous than the Occupy protests themselves. For the first time since the Cold War, free-market capitalism is being challenged en masse. The conservative establishment  has been caught off guard and it’s not quite sure what to do as the protests gain momentum.

What’s most disappointing is that the reactionary comments by the likes of Bill O’Reilly confuses the issue for people that are trying to figure out what Occupy is all about.

So where do we go from here? Amid the misconceptions and lack of focus, I believe that real change is brewing. But it’s not the kind of change you’d expect. This isn’t the rise of the New Left. Rather, it’s the start of a new political paradigm.

Moving towards concrete change

If the Occupy movement is going to continue gaining momentum, protesters in individual cities will have to coalesce around specific rallying points. In Canada, for example, we could demand corporate lobbyists be prohibited from contacting Members of Parliament. There is a specific law, the Lobbying Act, that governs such behaviour in Canada and could be easily amended to explicitly prohibit certain actions.

And this is really my crucial argument: ideally, the Occupy movement will drive real change. But to get there, we need to formulate concrete demands that the media and our politicians can understand.

I would even go so far as to specifically target a single MP (say Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics frontman) and petition them to put forward a private member’s bill to limit the power of lobbyists in Ottawa.

Herein lies the difficulty: It’s easy to rally around big ideas like “corporate welfare.” But when you start getting into specifics, people lose interest. I’ve seen it first-hand when I was advocating for a change to our voting system during the last two elections. People’s eyes glaze over trying to get their heads around the Schulze method of the Single-Transferable Vote, even if it would be fairer than the current electoral system.

I’m not saying that everybody on the front line needs to be an expert — there isn’t an effective protest in all of history that has accomplished that. But I am saying that the Occupy movement needs to start getting more specific if it wants to make a difference.

Not one movement, but many

As I look back to the first weekend of Occupy Wall Street, I can see that consensus-based decision-making was effective and focused because of the relatively small number of demonstrators. And while it was a stunningly impressive display of getting things done, that model doesn’t scale well to a global movement with tens of thousands of supporters.

But why should it? The issues in New York are different than those in Toronto, Rome, or London. Perhaps Occupy should not be seen as one massive, aimless, confused protest. Perhaps the multiplicity of views is just a reflection of unique local issues.

This is why I say Occupy is not the rise of the New Left. This isn’t a binary reaction to conservatism per se. It’s safe to say that people are generally distrustful of The Man and have very different ideas of how to change things for the better.

If there’s anything the Occupy protesters don’t want, it’s to be labelled and categorized. In a New York City General Assembly on Oct. 23, Occupy Wall street participants rejected the idea of “aligning ourselves with an ideological Left.” So when journalists speak of Occupy as a springboard for the resurgence of left wing politics, I’m not buying it.

The start of something new

The issues that protesters have been dealing with over the past month and a bit have been very pragmatic: finding places to sleep, getting food, cooperating with police, organizing marches. I think that the real social solutions coming out of the Occupy movement will be equally practical and locally-focused.

This is not the Arab Spring 2.0. There are no clear calls for constitutional reform, no demands for leaders to step down. Occupy is not a protest against dictators. A radical overhaul of civic institutions will not materialize from this movement. At least, not right away.

Occupy has given people a reason to self-organize. It has formed a foundation for progressive social change. The movement is made up of lawyers, musicians, students, tradespeople, activists, optimists, pessimists, and anarchists. These people have created a common language that cuts across cultures and allows people from different walks of life to work together for a brighter future.

The seeds of revolution have been planted. Expect those ideas to bloom and mature in their own way, from the bottom up.

How's this for efficiency? Wed, 03 Aug 2011 01:48:00 -0400 Imagine working in a hospital, trying to treat 300 patients a day with a staff of 5 doctors and 16 nurses. Now, imagine trying to do it in a revamped farm just outside Mogadishu. That’s what Dr. Hawa Abdi has been doing since 1983.

The famine currently sweeping East Africa - worse than the famines of the eighties and nineties - has brought thousands more to the doorstep of her hospital, and what was once a daily struggle is now an insurmountable wall of need. If one child dies in the hospital, that’s a great day.

But this isn’t just a hospital. The former farmland, which Dr. Abdi owns, is a tent city. People are free to stay here, where there is access to water, shelter, and healthcare. The people live more or less peacefully, governed by two simple rules that Dr. Abdi enforces (it is her private property, after all) - no talk of clans or politics; and no man shall beat his wife.

Dr. Abdi’s daughter (who is also a doctor) explains it like this in a TED video from 2010: “Three hundred patients per day, ten, twenty surgeries, and still you have to manage the camp - that’s how she trains us. It is not like beautiful offices here, 20 patients, you’re tired.”

To put this in perspective, 300 patients a day is roughly the number of patients that go through the emergency rooms of Mount Sinai Hospital and Toronto General Hospital combined.

Medical miracles aside, what fascinates me most about Dr. Hawa Abdi’s work is the role that non-violence plays in the hospital’s operations. The no-beating rule mentioned above helps to keep things civil, but the fact remains that the area is controlled by Al-Shabaab. This militant organization, when they took over the area, proclaimed that, as a woman, Hawa Abdi could not be in a position of leadership.

They held Dr. Abdi hostage and demanded to take over the hospital. She flatly refused, not least because they wouldn’t know the first thing about running a hospital. Furthermore, she wasn’t about to be ordered around by misogynist terrorists on her own private property. After a week of pressure from the people in the camp and from the international community, Al-Shabaab backed off. They now leave the hospital more or less alone. What’s more, Dr. Abdi demanded a written apology from the organization.

Not a hand was raised against those militants, and now the business of caring for the sick and feeding the hungry continues.

It’s refreshing to hear about an organization doing so much not only to care for the immediate material needs of its community, but also to instil a sense of unity, respect, and peaceful co-existence.

What’s more, they take PayPal - so throw them a few bucks to help keep the food, water, and medical supplies coming.

Urban Essentials Thu, 28 Jul 2011 00:10:00 -0400 Transportation has a huge role in shaping the way cities function and grow. Everyone wants to to be close to a subway station, so naturally cities coalesce into dense clusters around those station areas. Nobody wants to live on a highway onramp, so highway expansion pushes urban sprawl outwards in all directions. So it’s not without reason that city staff the world over are trying to marry these two ideas of transportation and land use, i.e. planning for the kinds of buildings and activities that lend themselves to dense, walkable neighbourhoods.

It makes sense to conduct land use planning at the same time as a large transportation project. All over the GTA (and Hamilton!), municipalities are expanding their rapid transit networks. And it helps with getting provincial funding if you can prove that land use policy won’t be at odds with the new subway, LRT, or rapid bus system you’re hoping to build. But there’s a delicate dance that needs to be done to ensure land use policies aren’t dependent on a billion-dollar transit line.

Increased transit options are always a good thing. So are comfortable walking environments. But while they complement each other, they both shouldn’t be scrapped if the transportation project doesn’t pull through. If, for example, transit funding is stonewalled by a city council that doesn’t want to commit or by a change of heart at the provincial level, more progress might be made by focusing on walkability alone.

The great European cities to which we lowly North American urbanists aspire grew up without the automobile. Walking, the main mode of transportation, shaped those cities before there was such a thing as centralized city planning. So, we shouldn’t expect rapid transit alone to save us from suburbia. We should work on making the original transportation mode - walking - easier and more comfortable.

Accommodating pedestrians doesn’t cost very much - wide sidewalks, trees for shade, benches to sit on, predictable crosswalks, flexible street networks, these are all things that have evolved naturally in cities that aren’t based around the automobile. And those cities have been better prepared to embrace rapid transit than those that start with cul-de-sacs and concrete cloverleafs.

Investment in rapid transit is a chicken-and-egg situation. The community may not, at present, have the population to sustain a new rapid transit line. But the argument is that the advent of rapid transit will cause people to flock to the area in order to use it.

That’s all good and well, but sometimes it’s difficult to convince the decisionmakers of the benefits that rapid transit will bring. Not to worry - throw them an easy choice by shifting the focus to the pedestrian environment. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point in their day, whether they’re going for a jog, walking to the corner store, heading to their car in the parking lot, or making their way to the bus stop. Enhanced sidewalks and other pedestrian features are not just for the elderly and disabled - we all benefit.

The crucial point, though, is that this change of focus can only happen quick enough if the land use planning is not intertwined too tightly with the rapid transit planning. I’m all for integrated urbanism, but let’s try to prevent politicians from throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The butchering of Hamilton's street grid has to stop Tue, 14 Jun 2011 21:40:00 -0400 Today, the inadequacies of postwar traffic engineering were unceremoniously laid bare as a power failure in downtown Hamilton forced thousands of people out of their office towers and onto the few arterial roads that traverse the lower city.

For those unfamiliar with Hamilton’s traffic history, traffic engineers in the 1950s converted the lower city’s main throughfares to one-way streets, in order to facilitate the movement of commuters from the Mountain to the steel factories at the waterfront. The one-way conversions succeeded in moving large amounts of traffic very efficiently - but only if that traffic was moving along a predetermined route. Traffic signal timing, lane widths, no-left-turn intersections - these were all engineered to create efficient vehicular flow. The problem is, if you feel like taking a different route or have a different destination in mind, good luck. Because the traffic gods will ensure that you get kicked back on to Main St. or King St.

Hamilton has a very old downtown core, with a tightly meshed street grid. However, since the 1950s, parts of that grid have become broken. Many of the smaller neighbourhood streets have been converted to one-way, and de facto dead-ends are littered throughout the lower city. Practically speaking, this means that you can’t use Jackson Street, for example, to travel east-west because there’s a dead end where it runs into City Hall’s parking lot from both sides. Another example is King William Street. Travel far enough west, and you’ll be confronted with an intersection that forbids you to go straight or turn left. The only option is to divert your route several blocks north to Cannon or Wilson, both major arterial roads.

The problem with funnelling all traffic onto a select few streets is that it doesn’t take much for the city to grind to a halt. Using this model, the efficient flow of vehicles requires precise control of traffic signals and as few complications as possible. Something as simple as a power outage can throw the whole system into chaos.

Because there were no other viable routes out of the city, today’s power failure forced everyone working downtown to simultaneously squeeze into four arterial roads: two going eastbound, two westbound. Even on my bike, which normally allows me to breeze past gridlock, I had to jump down the back of a parking lot and cut across City Hall and Victoria Park to rid myself of the congestion.

When I was eventually kicked back on to King Street by a dead-end, I spent a good half-minute watching an ambulance trying to break through a row of cars four lanes across and two vehicles deep. When emergency vehicles can’t bypass the afternoon rush hour, that’s a problem. Peoples’ lives are at stake. Yes, this rush hour was especially bad because of the power outage (which forced everyone to leave at the same time), but it’s exactly these kinds of crises where emergency services are needed the most.

I’ve studied the grid street network countless times, and I can spew all the rhetoric about how it dissipates congestion by providing alternate route options. I’ve heard Duany’s lectures and I know the theory. But seeing it unfold so clearly in front of my eyes made me realise just how fragile the collector-arterial system really is.

It’s one thing to build five-lane expressways through downtown Hamilton. It’s quite another to butcher the streets around it so that everybody is forced to use that one road. Choice is essential in a functioning transportation network. That includes the choice to use alternate modes of transportation, but also to take a detour if you need to. As long as motorists and cyclists are punished for trying to avoid congestion, Hamilton’s lower city will continue to be a traffic nightmare.

Tempest in a Tweet-pot Sat, 28 May 2011 02:15:00 -0400 There’s a fair bit of knee-jerk criticism making the rounds about this INDEVOURS event next week. So I thought I’d share my opinion on the matter.

Next Friday, the University of Waterloo’s International Development program will be hosting an event featuring Roy Sesana, an activist for indigenous rights in Botswana. Students were sent a mass email with details about the event:

Winner of the 2005 Right Livelihood Award, Roy Sesana is a medicine man of the Gana Bushman from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. Speaking through a translator in his native clicking tongue, Sesana speaks about land claim issues in the Kalahari between the indigenous populations, fighting to stay on their ancestral lands, and the local government.

Attached to that email was this poster, which has also been plastered around campus:

The poster was designed by International Development students, approved by the program’s staff, and then sent out to bulletin boards and email inboxes across campus.

When I found out about this event, I was super excited to hear about land claims negotiations straight from the horse’s mouth - a welcome change from the dry academic guest lecturers that are typically invited to university events. (Remember Joe Hulse in INDEV 100?) Also, the fact that this event lands on my birthday is an added bonus! I’m psyched.

But apparently, some people aren’t too thrilled:

Well, actually, A.Y. has a fair point. I would also like to know what the “clicking language” is called. That sentence is a bit vague. But borderline racist? Definitely not.

Twitter is a double-edged sword in that it frees us from the control of established media… but it also immortalizes forever any random stream-of-consciousness thoughts we decide to plonk down. A.Y.’s subsequent tweets were a testament to the latter. She ranted about the lack of Roy Sesana’s name in the event description, despite the fact that it’s plastered in big bubbly letters across the full width of the poster. She opined that the event was marketing him as a circus attraction. She takes offense to the fact that he’s wearing shell beads.

Oh sure, INDEVOURS could have used a nicely cropped headshot of Roy Sesana, clean-shaven, wearing a collared shirt and a tie. He’d look right professorial. Because then it’d look proper, wouldn’t it?

So, as A.Y. stamps her feet and fires off tweets about courtesy and respect, I have to wonder: what isn’t respectful about this? What version of courtesy is she looking for? Is it racist to display a picture of a dancing medicine man? I don’t think so. Traditional medicine and indigenous cultures around the world need to be preserved and celebrated. In fact, it’s the very thing that Roy Sesana is advocating for.

Prologue: Apathetic Students or a Pathetic System? Sun, 22 May 2011 22:41:00 -0400 On Friday, the first installment of my new biweekly column was published in Imprint. Broadly, I’m going to write about politics on a local, national, and global level - and how political issues impact students. Or, more to the point, why we should care about the way we’re governed.

My first column highlighted the rise of new media and open data in the political realm, and how it might best be used to engage students today. (Spoiler: politicians have a lot of catching up to do.) I don’t pretend to be the first to think of this idea, but I was astounded when, after firing off the final copy to my editor, I came across my exact argument in a book by Pierre Berton called The Smug Minority.

It was published in 1968.

Pierre Berton was talking about TV in this particular instance, but his words are uncannily relevant today.

Nobody can expect the politicians to give any sort of a lead here since the politicians, least of all, understand the new medium. When they use it at all, which is rarely, they use it atrociously, and they have made a law which prevents them, specifically, from using it dramatically. It is a measure of our political perception that most candidates for office continue to use the Nineteenth Century medium of the public meeting during election campaigns … One would think Sir John A. Macdonald were still running for office.

Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, I guess.

Hoop Jumping 101 Wed, 18 May 2011 02:21:00 -0400 I’m in the University of Waterloo’s co-op program, which means my schooling is interspersed with chunks of work experience to let me get some practical knowledge of the field. It’s a great system on the whole, but talk to any co-op student at UW and they’ll tell you the same thing: PD is terrible.

PD: Professional Development. Also known as How to Pontificate About Nothing, or perhaps Hoop Jumping 101. These online courses, which we take in tandem with each work term, are like a welcome mat for our transition into the working world that reads: “Follow the crowd. Do as I say. Don’t ask questions.”

The courses are structured in the worst kind of linear, there-is-only-one-right-answer format that squashes creative thought and stifles discussion. They ensure that we graduate with a standardized set of essential workplace skills, because God forbid we forget to use the S.M.A.R.T. checklist when we communicate in “the real world”.

I’m doing PD3: Communication right now, which contains such absolutist nonsense as “All employers will be pleased to be addressed by their last name!”. In a half-baked attempt to be relevant, one module had a story about Star Trek, which illustrated that it’s always better to be “civilized” than “barbaric”. I didn’t realise we were still in colonial-era England.

One exercise asked me to pick the “best” ending to a dialogue between co-workers, then write a paragraph about it. This was my paragraph.

This exercise took the classic “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” approach to presenting three alternate endings. It’s a formula that is predictable and guides the reader towards the last option - synthesis - requiring very little critical thinking on my part. Because of this, I can confidently say that Jim’s third response was his best. It combined the attempt to foster community (“I’m sorry you’ve had some issues”) with the attempt to keep company operations moving smoothly (“It might be worthwhile to ask her for a meeting”), all tied together with a requisite qualifier to absolve the speaker of responsibility (“I don’t understand all the circumstances”). The lesson here is to always speak as if you’re reading an HR Best Practices guide word-for-word.

PD encourages us to avoid risks, water down our ideas, and conform to become productive employees. All things, might I point out, that run counter to Waterloo’s marketing pitch as an innovative institution that embraces the “spirit of why not”.

Peak knowledge Wed, 11 May 2011 03:12:00 -0400 I’m suffering from post-election politics burnout, so I’m just going to riff on an idea here and see where it leads.

It seems every government, from City Hall to Parliament Hill, is trying to “position ourselves in the knowledge economy”. There is much fanfare about technological pioneers in the Life Sciences, Aerospace, Cleantech, and Software sectors, to name a few. But I have to question this idea of a “knowledge economy”. What do the words mean, anyway? It’s a term that’s been bandied about since the 60s, when we suddenly realized that a new Millennium was dawning and we’d better have some flying cars and stuff by then. But I think a more fitting term would be “abstract economy”.

The knowledge economy is, after all, preoccupied with pushing the boundaries of human intellect such that it loses its connection with the real world. It is not dependent on the natural systems that sustain life on this planet. It is isolated from issues of social inequality, blissfully free from societal constraints.

The problem is, nobody seems to want to invest in the real world anymore. It’s like being forced to eat ramen because you spent your OSAP loan on video game character upgrades. We are hollowing out our natural and social capital, supporting instead new and exciting innovations that have little direct benefit to society.

I don’t advocate ceasing research and innovation. I concede that antibiotics and solar panels have largely been a benefit to humankind, and that I wouldn’t even be typing these words if it weren’t for the internet. But if you’re going to have a “knowledge economy” at all, it must be supported by a firm foundation of agriculture and manufacturing. Farmers really do feed cities, and I think that reality gets lost in our ever-more-virtual world.

What business does government have giving grants to tech startups when most farmers have to find a second job in the city to get by? We are a nation that can design a new smartphone every 6 months, but we can’t even clothe or feed ourselves. The longer we take our Primary and Secondary sectors for granted, the more spectacularly our “knowledge economy” will crash and burn when the tipping point comes.

The other option, of course, is to just get Mexico to grow our food and Taiwan to manufacture everything for us. I’m sure they don’t mind.

Putting the Mother back in Nature Wed, 27 Apr 2011 17:30:00 -0400 It’s raining. Melissa and I are biking down highway 6 from Tobermory, letting the fat drops of water hit our faces as we cycle towards Singing Sands Provincial Park. We know the forecast called for scattered showers today, but we’d been cooped inside for the last two days and cabin fever got the best of us. A warm front preceded the deluge, raising the humidity and leaving us with fogged-up glasses as the first raindrops touched our heads. It feels good to be surrounded by the elements. It feels good to welcome nature, to remind myself that the world is not synthetic. The Earth is alive. It breathes, cries, shudders, and screams. It shelters, it provides, it performs.

Last night, we watched a lighting storm dance in the sky over the Georgian Bay. We laid on soft white pillows looking through double-paned balcony windows at the sudden flashes and cracks across the sky. The majesty of creation, framed by the window. Picturesque. Manageable. I opened the window just enough to hear the crash of thunder, but not enough to let the falling water invade our room. Just enough so the raging storm didn’t become a threat to our comfort.

We are at a point in human history where nature is a luxury. Parks and open spaces have become a social amenity, a quality-of-life indicator. More and more people are leaving rural areas to populate the world’s cities. Fewer people live off the land, and those that do are treating nature in an ever more formulaic fashion. This living, breathing, mega-organism we call Earth has been reduced to simple inputs and outputs.

Scientific evidence and cold, hard, peer-reviewed facts have helped make the case for environmentalism. But they have also changed the nature of our dialogue. The “Lungs of the Earth” have become “Carbon Sinks”. “Save the Whales” has become “A Biodiversity Crisis”. The Earth that we are trying to save is becoming faceless and far removed from our everyday lives.

So here I am, riding down highway 6 as rain beats down on my face, soaking my hair, blurring my vision, and I feel whole. An inexplicable happiness bubbles up inside me, and I’m reminded of these lyrics:

Rain, another rainy day Comes up from the ocean Gives herself away She comes down easy On rich and debt the same And she gives herself away (Daisy by Switchfoot)
Our generation will reform politics Fri, 01 Apr 2011 00:17:00 -0400 This is a message to Generation Y. The Millenials. The Echo Boomers. This is a message to all of us who grew up listening to the Backstreet Boys on cassette tapes. This is a message to all of us who spent our childhood playing with Crazy Bones and Pokémon cards.

We are the generation that will slowly dismantle and rebuild politics in Canada. We are the ones who will rescue the public service from its big-tent, populist, homogenous, polarizing culture.

Let me explain.

In 1990, I was born into a brand new world order; one where the divisive and polarizing decades of the Cold War had come to an abrupt end. In my infancy, world leaders came together in Rio to discuss how humanity should care for our precious Earth. When I was old enough to have an awareness of the world around me, I was flooded with the rhetoric of inclusion, tolerance, and the celebration of diversity. I remember learning sign language from Sesame Street in preschool, and realising that deaf people were people too. I remember the talks about racism and bullying in school. I remember the narrative of the global village, and the need for all of us - all of humanity - to stand together in solidarity.

My generation hasn’t had to fight for our rights. That groundwork had already been laid down by the passionate, dedicated activists of the sixties and seventies. From civil rights to environmental activism, the time was right to enjoy the benefits of our predecessors’ labour.

What does this have to do with politics? Well, our generation hasn’t grown up with a cultural scapegoat. We didn’t have that narrative of the “other” - slaves, Jews, whalers, commies, “the Man” - that permeated previous generations. We didn’t grow up with a system to rebel against or a group of people to victimise. We don’t buy the “us against them” argument that so often crops up in political debate. We’ve been bred to welcome diverse opinions and build consensus. We’ve been indoctrinated on the power of the individual and the importance of subjectivity. Everyone is special.

Generation Y has eschewed the rigid labels of our parents and grandparents’ generations. We see this in religion: despite a general acceptance of personal spirituality, Canadians aged 15-29 are the least likely to have a religious affiliation. In politics, young adults’ voting intentions are pretty evenly split across all parties.

We have grown up in a culture that celebrates our differences. This is our social narrative. And we know that this is the way things should be.

So here’s the problem: our elected representatives are stuck in the old social narrative of political dualism. Our voting system favours the two big parties, squeezing out other political views from the debate. It’s our job to change that.

This election season, grill your candidates on electoral reform. Send them emails and attend debates, demanding that they support a fair voting system (like the Single Transferable Vote).

Gen Y has had a pretty easy life so far. Now it’s our turn to shape the system.

It's too easy just to fall apart Fri, 18 Mar 2011 17:52:00 -0400 This is the new TV commercial for Joe Fresh Style, a clothing company owned by the Loblaws chain of supermarkets. Like the time that I blogged about Canwest, I saw this advertisement and immediately realised that something wasn’t right.

The music for this commercial is the song “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie” by The Submarines. It’s a wonderful song and I’ve tweeted about its inspiring and challenging lyrics. Here’s the chorus and a couple of the verses:

Oh my baby don’t be so distressed
Were done with politesse
It’s time to be so brutally honest about
The way we think long for something fine
When we pine for higher ceilings
And bourgeois happy feelings

And here we are with the pleasures of the first world
It’s laid out before us, who are we to break down?
Everyday we wake up
We choose Love
We choose light
And we try, it’s too easy just to fall apart

Plastic bottles, imported water
Cars we drive wherever we want to
Clothes we buy it’s sweatshop labor
Drugs from corporate enablers
We’re not living the good life
Unless we’re fighting the good fight
You and Me just trying to get it right

In the center of the first world
It’s laid out before us, who are we to break down?
Everyday we wake up
We choose Love
We choose light
And we try, it’s too easy just to fall apart

Love can free us from all excess
From our deepest debts
Cause when our hearts are full we need much less

(full lyrics)

As I said, it’s a beautiful song. It’s an anthemic call to action for our materialistic, consumer-driven society to eschew these “pleasures of the first world” because “when our hearts are full we need much less”.

Needless to say, I’m dismayed that this song is now being piped through our TV sets to endorse a line of budget clothes made in Bangladesh. Loblaws doesn’t mention Joe Fresh Style at all in its corporate social responsibility targets - the company has made great strides with organic and local food, but this line of clothing is the same crap that gets pushed out of South Asian factories to Wal-Mart and Zellers.

With this in mind, the commercial doesn’t even make sense. It’d be like playing John Lennon in a recruiting advertisement for the Armed Forces. I’m a little hurt because when I hear that song, it’s a personal challenge to resist consumerism and live with love. Pairing those lyrics with an ad for Joe Fresh Style makes me think that the band must have lost its moral compass - and that the lyrics are less genuine because of it. Sellouts.

I’m equally disappointed with Loblaws, who thought that just because they throw in a catchy song, people will buy their crap clothes. The advertisement splices the song into an unoffending 15-second clip, whitewashing its true meaning. Corporate greed knows no bounds.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword Mon, 07 Feb 2011 21:02:00 -0500 I’m pretty extreme in my views on pacifism. I believe that violence is unacceptable in any situation, no exceptions. I’ve had conversations with people over the years about this, but I feel like I should write down my thoughts in a somewhat coherent blog post. Most people don’t like violence. It’s obviously not the best way to go about settling disputes or expressing your opinion. When I ask people what their views on violence are, typical responses range from “It depends on the context” to “It’s a necessary evil that needs to be used sometimes as a last resort”. As a pacifist, I am categorically, unconditionally opposed to the use of violence for any purpose whatsoever. Non-violence as taught by Jesus Religion has been a huge motivator for war over the centuries, and it pains me to see systematic, strategic violence carried out in the name of God. A central theme in the New Testament is humility, which I think is a cornerstone of Christian faith (Luke 14:11, Matthew 23:12, Luke 18:14). As a Christian, I am called to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29). I am called not to exact revenge on wrongdoers, but to love them unconditionally (Luke 6:32, Matthew 5:46). When Judas brought “a crowd armed with swords and clubs” (Mark 14:43) to sieze and arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword and attacked the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. John writes that this gang of thugs was carrying “torches, lanterns, and weapons”. They were on a witch hunt, and they wanted blood. But Jesus admonished Peter for using violence, even in self-defence: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Jesus commands his followers to deny themselves, and to take up their cross daily. I really like the way that The Message translation interprets it: “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.” (Matthew 16:25) This theme of self-sacrifice, of submission, is a defining characteristic of the early Church. When the apostles were beaten by the Jewish leaders for teaching the Gospel (Acts 5), they were “full of joy because they were given the honour of suffering disgrace for Jesus.” No, God didn’t protect them from suffering. Good things happen to bad people. And we’re called to submit joyfully. (For a more eloquent article about Christian nonviolence, check out Jesus: The Prince of Peace by Keith Giles.) So you just lie down and take it? When I tell people I have a zero tolerance policy for violence, one of the arguments I often hear is something along the lines of: “Yeah, but what if some thug was beating up your best friend? What if someone had a knife to your throat? Are you just going to stand and do nothing?” I must say, I’ve never found myself in such a situation so I can’t guarantee I’d stick to my convictions. But I’d like to think that I would. Let me first explain what violence is, and what it isn’t, according to the Sam Nabi Dictionary of Subjective Meaning. Violence, for the purposes of this blog post, is a physical action with intent to harm. Self-defence (or defending a friend) does not excuse the intent to harm another human being. But pacifism is not just standing by while injustice happens before my eyes. While I wouldn’t hit an aggressor over the head with a frying pan, I would try to dissuade and restrain him. If simple reason and level-headed discussion doesn’t stop someone from committing a violent act, my last resort would be a defensive physical act. I’m talking a bear-hug, full-nelson, or other technique that can be used to immobilize the aggressor without causing pain (I wasn’t on my high school wrestling team for nothing!). Without causing pain is the key factor here. My goal is not to punish the person or exact revenge, but simply to prevent him from hurting someone else. From this position, I can cool the situation down, let everyone take a deep breath, and possibly make the target more receptive to a conversation. But the moment I take advantage of the situation to “get even” by putting a little too much pressure on a headlock, I’ve failed at pacifism. Obviously, there’s a microscopically thin line between what I call a defensive action and an intent to harm. But the difference is there, and intent makes all the difference. Stopping someone from using violence doesn’t mean I have to use it myself. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as a wise man once said. What about the death penalty? I firmly believe that nobody is irreversibly evil. Everyone can change. And someone who has committed terrible acts of violence should not be defined by those acts. Someone who has taken another’s life is not just a murderer. She is also a daughter, a mother perhaps, a friend, a music enthusiast, a citizen, a child of God. The word “murderer” makes it seem like their entire being is defined by a single act of murder. We need to look at people as individuals. Individuals with hopes, dreams, regrets, and a complex history that makes them who they are. No criminal is beyond rehabilitation. For this reason I oppose the death penalty. Capital punishment is just the institutionalisation of our primal, sinful gut-reaction to violence - an eye for an eye. It is reactionary, encourages hysteria, and degrades human beings by treating them like killing machines. Yeah, but pacifism doesn’t actually work. Violence is a logical, instinctive reaction when confronted with an aggressor. It’s fight or flight, and there doesn’t appear to be a third way. But there is. By responding to violence with violence, what’s to say I won’t make the situation worse, provoking further retaliation? Even if I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, resorting to violence is such an unpredictable path to go down. Maybe I’ll succeed in knocking the aggressor unconscious. But maybe I’ll further endanger the lives of those around me. The pacifist approach has its uncertainties too - who’s to say an aggressor is going to engage in rational dialogue? But the odds of success are probably about the same. In the same way that violence could work for stopping the aggressor, so too could non-violent conflict resolution. What about oppressive regimes? One last thought on war and violent conflicts: many a revolution has overturned the powers that be through the use of violence. These revolutions can be swift, decisive, and end up with a lot of martyrs. The problem with this is that the healing process takes a very long time. Gradual, peaceful social change takes longer to achieve the end result (if there even is a such thing as an end result), but I’m willing to wait if it means preventing the bloodshed of my brothers and sisters. Alright. That’s enough ranting. I wasn’t as coherent as I had planned, but hopefully you got something out of it. Did I stir the pot enough? Leave a comment and let me know what you think! (Edit: looks like comments aren’t working at the moment. I’m on it.)]]> Whatever happened to Newfie jokes? Fri, 28 Jan 2011 09:26:00 -0500 I can remember specific events in my life that have triggered societal change. Whether on a global scale or just within my circle of friends, these are events that I look back on and recall exactly where I was and what I was thinking at the time. Y2K. The 9/11 bombings. The day Pokémon stopped being cool. Sex Ed class in grade six. The 2003 blackout.

On the other hand, there are social norms that have changed slowly over time, without me noticing, until one day I think back and say, “Hey, whatever happened to… ?”.

I had a moment like that a couple weeks ago. Newfie jokes. Whatever happened to Newfie jokes? Have I lived through a social change in Canadian culture without noticing?

I can recall with clarity a point in my life when it was socially acceptable to tell a Newfie joke. I could crack a punchline about a cod fisherman to my friends, my babysitter, my parents, my friends’ parents, or my parents’ friends without getting scolded. One particular Newfie joke from my dad’s childhood became a family favourite when my sister and I were young.

So this phenomenon wasn’t a generation-specific thing that I outgrew, like jokes about poop. It also isn’t part of the cadre of jokes that are still widely used (though recognized as distasteful) like ones about keeping women in the kitchen.

Somewhere over the last ten years, though, it seems like Newfie jokes have migrated from silly humour to the league of the N-word and comparisons to Hitler: you just don’t go there.

I’m not pining for the day when I could spout off Newfie jokes without consequence - it’s a great development for our country that we’ve stopped marginalizing one province in our humour. But how did it happen, exactly? Did Canadians just collectively stop thinking Newfie jokes were funny? Or has the character of Newfoundland changed?

In the before times, I thought of Newfoundland as the province of quirky folk music and the hopeless cod fisheries. Now, when I think of Newfoundland, I think of General Rick Hillier, the offshore oil boom, and the populist, Harper-bashing political success of Danny Williams. Perhaps Newfoundlanders have beat down their old status as a have-not province through sheer pluckiness, overturning the old perceptions about its inhabitants.

I must say, I haven’t felt the need to tell a Newfie joke in years. It’s like forgetting that vanilla ice cream exists, and upon rediscovering it, thinking, “Oh well, it wasn’t that exciting anyway”. The country has moved on, whether or not I noticed the change.

Maybe there’s just a greater sense of national unity now than in the mid-to-late nineties. After all, Quebec’s 1995 referendum was fresh in the Canadian public’s mind and could have been a factor in pitting the provinces against one another.

I’ll just venture one more theory: my parents’ generation was born just after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. Perhaps some of them would have seen Newfoundlanders as less Canadian than the rest of us, the odd little province that joined Confederation 50 years too late, stuck onto Canada’s tail with their fiddleheads and half-hour time difference. But by the time my parents’ generation had kids, Newfoundland had been a part of Canada for long enough to give it equal status. And when my generation started to leave home in the late aughts, there was no reason to carry those prejudices with us.

At any rate, I’m just musing. I have no clue why or why not Newfie jokes have stopped being funny. All I know is, it’s a good thing.

Now, I wonder how long it’ll take for us to grow tired of American jokes?

Connected? Fri, 17 Dec 2010 22:35:00 -0500 The first song on my self-titled debut CD (released in 2006) laments the replacement of real human relationships with digital communities. When I wrote the song, I didn’t even know about Facebook yet, and needless to say lots has changed on the web since then. But then again, plus ça change, plus c’est pareil… I saw this tweet today, which inspired me to write a few verses on the subject. Enjoy the poem :)


Digital shackles, now there’s a cute thought
To throw into the web two-point-oh melting pot
Our electronics try to connect us in vain
As we swipe, left to right, glancing at dates and names
That we’ve dumped onto hard drives, bypassing the brain
But it’s alright, with two clicks, there’s my fiancée’s
Cousin’s last name and what he had for lunch today
He gave five shiny stars to the chinese buffet
Where he checked in with his friends from work and became
The new mayor of the hot and sour soup of the day
You see, badges and followers are the new rat race
Yeah, we’re still chasing money and fame in new ways
Giving newborn babies their own Facebook pages
But this isn’t anything new that we made.

Remember the mix tapes that we made as kids
By pressing record on the top forty hits
Except for commercials and the talking bits
To create our own specially curated playlist?
Well, I’d bring it to school the next day and hit play
And get comments and likes and retweets
Well, the retweets were telephone games but the concept’s the same
That was my social network back in ‘98.

Reclaiming the Big Box Plaza Tue, 07 Dec 2010 19:42:00 -0500 When I look at an ugly strip mall or a sprawling suburban development, I try to think of ways that it could be turned into a vibrant, compact neighbourhood. Though I don’t agree with everything James Howard Kunstler says, I think he’s right when he says that the decline of oil production will cause our cities to shrink and force us to develop more dense, mixed-use communities within the framework we already have.

So I saw this site plan for a new power centre that’s going to be built on the Western border of Kitchener-Waterloo.

It’s not the worst design in the world, but I wanted to paint a picture of what that block of land could become in the future. After spending 15 minutes with Photoshop, I had my vision of what this development could be 50 years from now.

A tight street network with active storefronts, pedestrian esplanades, reclaimed green space, and a nominal amount of parking, all without touching any of the existing buildings.

That’s what I hope many of our big-box suburban developments will become in the coming decades. Real neighbourhoods in place of monofunctional pods. What do you think?

They don't teach this in PLAN 103 Sat, 27 Nov 2010 00:26:00 -0500 When you present information in an unconventional way, people listen. So I’ve got an idea. It involves a group of poets who take an active interest in municipal politics. Sounds interesting, no? Read on.

Here’s what I’m thinking. All of us lyrically-inclined politicos will get together and look at the agenda for council’s next meeting. A cursory glance through the agenda for Waterloo’s November 29th council meeting reveals some hot-button issues that will be discussed: zoning changes on Regina street, a proposed extension of GRT route 4, parking issues around the hockey rink in the park, and new tax exemptions for veterans’ organizations.

I think it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. We’ll find an issue that interests each of us, write poetry about it, and show up to the council meeting to express our views. It’s not a joke; it’s not satire. It’s about students getting involved in the political process and getting the attention of the decision-makers.  There’s always allotted time for the public to address council with their concerns or questions. I’m betting that the student demographic is a tad underrepresented in the sea of white hair that makes up a typical council meeting audience.

The best thing about this political poetry club would be having rap battles with each other during council meetings. I can just picture it happening with the LRT…

Good evening, your Worship, I’m here to defend
The idea of light rail, now I know we gon’ spend
Many millions before it’s complete, but the end
Will be worth the means if it means bucking the trend
Of our car-centric suburbs and all their dead ends
Where I don’t feel at ease as a pedestrian
This here streetcar will bring life to Uptown again
Watch as cafés and third places invest and then
You’ll see people like me and my friends at events
Near that brand new town square where they’re jacking the rents
Because property values tend to represent
The most dynamic, vibrant places - it makes sense.

Ha! That was fun. The ending was a little weak, but hey, it’s late and I’m tired.

So basically I want to start this up as a student club when I get back on campus. Who’s with me?

Finding truth through tradition Tue, 23 Nov 2010 20:53:00 -0500 I was visiting Paris this past weekend, and on Sunday I went to a Catholic mass for the first time. Now, I’m more comfortable in a casual protestant crowd, but since I was in Paris, home to some breathtaking cathedrals and a healthy Catholic culture, I wanted to experience mass for myself. So on Sunday evening, I found myself sitting on a wicker chair at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a beautiful old cathedral in the 6e arrondissement.

The liberal protestantism that I identify with doesn’t ascribe much importance to clerical garments, relics, or rosary beads. I tend to dismiss them out of hand as a materialistic distraction from spiritual growth. But I decided to put my prejudice on hold and experience mass with an open mind. What I found was a new perspective and a deeper respect for tradition.

Through the haze of incense, I couldn’t quite make out the priest’s face. That annoyed me, because I like to see people when they’re speaking. By tilting my head slightly to the left, I could barely get a view of the altar through the sea of heads in front of me. I’m used to seeing an energetic pastor speak from a well-lit stage, accompanied by easy-to-follow PowerPoint slides. For a moment, I felt disappointed. But then I realised: it must be intentional.

Once I stopped judging the mass based on my own expectations, I saw the good in this setup: by not being able to see the priest, I was concentrating less on the man and more on the words he was speaking. The white robe he was wearing served to further blur the identity of the man. His individuality had been stamped out by religious symbolism. Ironically, this made me feel as if God’s word was being spoken to me more directly.

I say ironically, because one of the main criticisms of the Catholic church is that it ignores the “priesthood of the believer” - that is, it appoints specific intermediaries between God and people. But in this situation, I felt like the intermediary was far less present than a typical Pentecostal pastor.

When a preacher of God’s word is an identifiable human being, I find that I interpret his or her message as “Pastor so-and-so’s commentary of Luke Chapter One”. On the flipside, this Catholic priest’s identity was shrouded in ritual and symbolism. Since I couldn’t relate to him as a person, I saw him purely as a messenger of God. Funny how that works.

Lest We Forget Thu, 11 Nov 2010 07:48:00 -0500 A year ago, I wrote a scathing letter to the editor at Imprint, titled “The Hypocrisy of Remembrance Day”. As a pacifist, my main beef with Remembrance Day is that it seems to glorify a violent, intolerant chapter of our history.

On Remembrance Day, we should reflect on the atrocity that is warfare, and the damage it causes, rather than putting our military forces on a pedestal. I am saddened that a complex socio-political and humanitarian crisis has been dumbed down to three ambiguous words: “Lest We Forget”.

I went on to explain that “Lest We Forget” originated in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which was intended as a call to renounce pride and to acknowledge that military might alone does not make a nation great.

Today, Conrad Grebel’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Peace is holding an event that aims to do just this. The colloquium, held tonight at 7PM in the CIGI atrium, is billed as a “forum for respectful dialogue” about the complex linkages between religion, violent conflict, society, and politics. (Not to mention, E will be there, and if you haven’t heard him debate before, you’re missing out!)

This is the kind of Remembrance Day we should be having.