Who pays when cities get hit by climate change?

Also: The Strathcona stands; Saving shoebox homes; Re-thinking amalgamation

It’s edition three of The Local, dated April 5, 2019. Welcome new subscribers! If you have any feedback about the format or content of the newsletter, please let me know — it’s early days yet so we’re still figuring things out here.

Also, I’d like to start a letters section — so if anything in here strikes a response, please reply — or you can email thelocalcanada@gmail.com or find me on Twitter.

Issue in brief:
* Cities and climate change * The Strathcona stands * Preserving shoebox homes * Rethinking amalgamation in Sudbury * The commute from hell * Using better data to help homeless * Google reviews of downtown arenas * The power of street signs * And more…

Who pays when cities get hit by climate change?

Flooding in Gatineau, Que., May 2017 (CBC)

On Monday, Saskatoon city council received a report that “paints a picture of a very different Bridge City in the next 80 years if climate change proceeds unchecked”, writes Phil Tank in the Star Phoenix. Among the predictions: more extreme floods, droughts and forest fires, as well as pests attacking city trees.

The same day, a federal climate change report was released predicting much the same for the rest of the country, particularly the Prairies, far North and Northern B.C.

This is very much a civic issue: the cost of dealing with much of the changes from extreme weather events falls into city budgets. In Whitehorse, like many interior B.C. cities, crews are out burning potential kindling as wildfire season becomes earlier and more intense, while coastal communities are considering what to do with the population living below projected sea levels as oceans rise (inland communities aren’t safe: see record-breaking floods along rivers in B.C. and New Brunswick).

"Cities are by far the most vulnerable political jurisdictions in Canada to climate change, but have the least amount of resources to deal with them."

Then there’s the more mundane: intense road dust and increased numbers of potholes in my hometown can be attributed to more rapid fluctuations in temperature, but the money needed for road crews is not likely to come from provincial emergency funds.

"Cities are by far the most vulnerable political jurisdictions in Canada to climate change, but have the least amount of resources to deal with them," said Waterloo’s Jason Thistlewaite on CBC’s The Current. Particularly vulnerable are people in lower-income neighbourhoods, which tend to coincide with older neighbourhoods with infrastructure unprepared for current and future weather patterns.

So what should cities do to deal with this? Some, like Vancouver, Halifax and Hamilton, are declaring a climate emergency. Others, like Quispamsis, New Brunswick, are turning to geothermal heating for cities pools, using grey water on the local ice rink and no water in city urinals. Montreal is purchasing carbon offsets for all city travel. And then there’s the possibility of legal action.

The idea of suing fossil fuel companies is a global one, but it’s made the most Canadian headlines after Coun. Mike Layton put it on the table at the end of March.

“We could be on the hook for an enormous amount of money, into the billions as a city,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I am a firm believer in the notion that polluters should pay.”

Here in B.C., the idea has received the most traction in Victoria, where council has voted to put the idea of a class action lawsuit on the table at the Union of B.C. Municipalities, and a letter from Mayor Lisa Helps has been circulating to other communities in the province asking them to consider the same.

Not everyone is on-board, though: Fort St. John, in the province’s oil-and-gas rich northeast, has endorsed a counter-declaration that it is "not an appropriate direction for B.C. municipalities" to mount such campaigns, in part because they believe cities can work with energy companies to find more efficient forms of power, and in part because they see it as hypocritical to sue the companies that power so much of their growth.

And they may have an unlikely ally: after the federal government’s report was released this week, Victoria mayor Lisa Helps said she is having “second thoughts” about the efficacy of a lawsuit, instead musing it may be more effective to lobby the federal and provincial governments to put more funding towards helping municipalities.

The Strathcona Stands

“The reason people cry when they burn down is that we are emotionally attached.”

On March 29, Edmonton’s 127-year-old Strathcona Hotel was burning, and the city’s residents and expats alike waited to find out if it would survive.

I don't think I've ever been to the Strat (or Strath, as non-millennials call it). But I've been to these run-down, anyone welcome buildings that are inexplicably still there years past anyone expected them to. And living in northern B.C., I've seen a lot of our historic buildings burn due to the same issues.

There’s a certain type of person who loves these places — someone with a sense of history and community and local-ness (maybe the sort of person who would subscribe to this newsletter) — and, from what I can gather, that’s the type of person who currently owns the Strathcona, as well. Ivan Beljan is profiled in this Edmonton Journal piece by (now-senator) Paula Simons with his vision for preserving the hotel for the 21st century:

“Being able to work on a building with a story to tell, with some complexity, for us it’s what we wake up loving to do.”

And so it was with some relief that it seems the hotel will be… if not OK, exactly, still there enough to still be the original Strathcona once the damage is cleaned up. And some great stories were swapped as the building’s friends held virtual vigil.

We are Rosemont Shoebox Home Preservation Society

Meanwhile in Montreal, another type of historic building is being saved not through hashtags, but through a new bylaw adopted by the Rosemont–La Petite Patrie borough, “regulating all demolition or renovation requests for 561 single-family homes in order to preserve the working-class heritage the buildings represent.”

“The shoebox is a bit like a bagel… It’s not grand cuisine, but is it essential to Montreal? Yes."

It seems this regulation stems back to the efforts of David Hanna, a professor of urbanism at Université du Québec à Montréal, who raised the alarm about these single-storey, flat-roofed buildings being put at risk by the nature of an expanding city and rising land values.

Not everyone is happy, arguing they should be allowed to develop the land into more modern, high-density housing, but I kind of adore the counter-point put forward by Dinu Bumbaru in the Montreal Gazette:

“The shoebox is a bit like a bagel… It’s not grand cuisine, but is it essential to Montreal? Yes."

Greater Sudbury decides it’s greater than just Sudbury

20 years ago, the province of Ontario decided it would combine seven towns and one city into a single municipal entity called the City of Greater Sudbury, but not every community within that is going quietly into that dark night.

A group calling itself Our Towns, Our City has been pushing for a review of whether amalgamation is working on a fiscal and service level.

“‘After 20 years of amalgamation, any other corporation in the country would be reviewing what their operating plans are and whether we've accomplished what we set out to,’ [group member Tom] Price said.

“‘That's all we're asking. We'd like to do that formally with the government that brought us into being, so if there are alternatives, we can capitalize on those alternatives and recognize some of the benefits.’

“Price says many feel amalgamation hasn't resulted in better services, including road conditions and snow removal.

“‘You can see a stark difference between provincial roads and city roads,’ he said.”

This isn’t the first time these issues have been raised. A quick search for “Sudbury amalgamation” brings up many stories of people who once lived in their own distinct municipalities who believe they are worse off as a result of amalgamation. Here’s Dick Johnstone, former mayor of the former Town of Walden:

He says he feels amalgamation resulted in the outer lying areas losing control of a number of things. For example, Johnstone says Walden used to handle its own finances and services, and that changed when amalgamation happened.

"We were fully ... sufficient here. We had everything. We had money in the bank. Our recreation was good," he said.

"We had to give all this up to go in and give into the City of Sudbury. So we weren't very happy in that way that everything was going to go up [and] there would be no control out here whatsoever."

Municipal identities

These sorts of discussions are rarely about just better finances. As Shawn Micallef writes, “When names and geographic boundaries are changed, as they do in Ontario from time to time, our sense of place and identity can become scrambled.”

“To be sure, the names of old cities still resonate, with Scarborough being the strongest of the six, but this generally manifests as neighbourhood identity does, a kind of pride of place, rather than a historic affiliation with a municipal entity. Still, there are older folks who continue to even write places such as Don Mills, Willowdale or Rexdale as their mailing addresses, proving people have deep attachments to old place names.

“Outside of Toronto there’s been an even more complicated kind of name and place mix-up. Hamilton was amalgamated in 2001 with neighbouring towns such as Ancaster, Dundas, Stoney Creek and Waterdown, along with quite a bit of rural landscape. You could live on James St. downtown or on a farm in what was Glanbrook Township and still be from the city of Hamilton. It scrambles the very definition of what a city is, not to mention complicate the political tensions at a city hall that has to contend with some fundamental urban vs. rural differences in way of life.”

An aside: I briefly lived in Victoria, where an hour-long walk could take me through multiple municipalities. To my eye, there was no difference between the places — I am of northern B.C., where municipal borders ends and wildlife and farmland, and there’s an hour-long drive minimum to the next city, so the notion of a city block acting as a dividing line is still a strange one to me. But for the people who live in them, it’s clear there’s a sense of identity that goes beyond the physical space you inhabit, although it certainly plays a role.

Anyways, back to Sudbury, where de-amalgamation was put on the table in 2017 by councillor Michael Vagnini:

"We went from 68 councillors, mayors and deputy mayors down to 13. So the voice of the people has diminished in amalgamation and I think we are in a time right now where we have to really look and see what we can do make this a lot more effective."

The most interesting part of that 2017 article is the back and forth between two academics on whether de-amalgamation could even work:

Laurentian University economist David Robinson says amalgamation was pushed on the city and says it hasn't worked. He says de-amalgamation could work, if the citizens and politicians could agree to move forward on it.

"My view is to start rethinking our municipalities as voluntary organizations and let them form, let each small area decide if they want to be part of a larger group and what they want to be part of a larger group for," he said.

"So for instance, if you're running a municipal ice rink and you're willing to pay for it, you can do that. City council shouldn't tell you what to do. But you shouldn't expect people in the other part of the city to pay for your ice rink."

However, Bob Segsworth, a professor emeritus at Laurentian University, says the cost to split the city up would be too high.

"I think it would be a rougher road than it was in some ways to amalgamate because again, once you established costs, particularly human resource costs for the entire community and then you want to say 'well, we can now have variability and so we can pay people who work say in the old Rayside-Balfour less than we pay people who work for the city of Sudbury," he said.

This past week, councillor Vagnini had a motion on the table looking not at de-amalgamation, but decentralization of city services so former municipalities have more control over their own roads and garbage collection, but it was voted down. Somehow, though, I don’t think this is the end of the amalgamation discussion in Sudbury.

The commute from Hell

I came across this 2017 episode of Ideas this week and was just flabbergasted by it. I’ve long been aware that people in larger cities are dealing with long commutes, but I never spent much time thinking about what that means for the lives of people whose place of employment isn’t just a single-location 9-5, but precipitous gig work in multiple locations around Toronto. It’s eye-opening and well-worth a listen and, as it turns out, part of an overall series Ideas did on commuting, work and life in various Canadian locales — and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest (the more academic among you may also want to visit the study website from which the series was drawn).

Data has become a 'game changer' in helping London's homeless

In a project that sounds similar to one profiled in Saint John’s recently, London, Ontario social agencies are working together to better tackle issues of homelessness:

“Last April, the 13 organizations agreed to tear down their individual databases in favour of new one, that would allow all the organizations involved to pool their information in order to help them better understand the people they serve. 

“A year later, Richardson said the agencies involved are already getting a clearer picture of the homeless situation in London than what they saw before they began pooling information.

“‘I will tell you that has been a game changer in how we understand the unique needs of an individual.’

“Among the information captured in the database is each person's history, so that social workers don't risk re-traumatizing a client by having them recall what can sometimes be painful and heartbreaking details of how they got into such a vulnerable situation in the first place.”

What do Google Reviews say about downtown arenas? Let’s find out!

Redditor ltorviksmith says his city is currently considering building a downtown arena, and decided to share some Google reviews of similar projects in Winnipeg, Halifax, London and Guelph.

“Is it scientific? Of course not. But it's better than wild speculation! Let's *really* see what the people have to say.”

The reviews are largely positive, though it’s interesting to go through the Reddit thread on r/urbanplanning to see the counterpoints. I will say, again completely anecdotally, that the arena in my city is not downtown, and while parking isn’t a problem I certainly hear complaints that it would be nice if people could come visit for a concert or hockey game and be a little closer to other attractions.

Where the streets now have names: Young Yellowknifer posts street signs on frozen bay

Sadee Mitchell with her grandfather next to one of her homemade street signs on Yellowknife Bay. (Mike Mitchell via CBC)

Love this: nine-year-old Sadee Mitchell had a hard time telling friends where her house was, so she made her own street names and signs, based on research she did into their specific histories and geographies:

“Willy-Mac Cul-de-Sac is named for William McDonald, a prospector and naturalist who lived in a house on Back Bay and whose house burned down twice, Sadee said.

“Tindee Blvd. is derived from the Tlicho Yattii name for Great Slave Lake, and of course The Kingsway was named for the famed Snowking's Winter Festival and castle.

“And Catskinner's Road isn't as morbid as it sounds. Back in the day, cat trains, or Caterpillar tractors, would pull sleighs full of supplies to Yellowknife, Sadee explained, and the drivers were called skinners — hence the name Cat Skinner's Road.”

Not all heroes wear capes.

Incidentally, street signs are a great example of the municipal identity discussion from earlier in this newsletter: after amalgamation, Toronto started adapting uniform street signs for what used to be distinct municipalities, and the old signs were auctioned off— some for thousands of dollars.

And Mitchell’s street signs, the CBC reports, are already a tourist attraction.

In brief:

Municipal stories from around Canada and the world

That’s it for this week. Thanks again for subscribing, and please share this if you think it’s something other people would enjoy. Next week I’m hoping to dive into the SCOOTER WARS so send me any hot tips you have on that front, and anything else you think might fit in here.