Tuesday 7 May 2013

Mayor Naheed Nenshi : Glorietas y agua del grifo

Naheed Nenshi, Mayor
City of Calgary

Dear Naheed,

I’ve got some advice for you.  If I could take a number I’m sure I’d be so far down the list that you wouldn’t get to it until you retire as prime minister.  You’re doing and have done a great job, and your popularity is well-deserved.  So first, best wishes in the coming mayoral race.

Wherever I live or travel I can’t help but watch how things work, how things could work better, and what stops people from making things work better – especially with cities.  They’re a fascination of mine, going back to childhood.  I remember asking bus drivers, what’s the population of the city?  What’s the population of the greater metropolitan area?  What percentage of the population works in the services, and how does this statistic compare with a conurbation of the same size in a different climate?  Why are you looking at me as if you’re annoyed?

Calgary is one of the cities I love to watch.  It is a special mixture: dynamic (homeless in the cold?), optimistic (arrogant?), clean (and where does it go?), ambitious (greedy?), spirited (loud?) and dry (yes, it’s dry). It is a city trying harder than most to know itself, place itself, and make itself.  Most of all, whether by virtue of its geography or economy or people, it has enormous potential. 

It is a city, like any other, marked by the good, the bad, and the indifferent.  I can spend my letter to you decrying the examples of each: good balance between big world and small town, bad petro-city in a bad petro-state, and the indifferent treatment of its history and heritage (“It’s old?  Knock it down.”).  But I think you know these things, I think you act on these things when and if you can, and I’d just run on.  I’ll run on anyways, but maybe I’ll hit on something along the way.  Please forgive that and the Spanish theme.

Arts and public transportation.  I bundle these together because I think you get it.  You understand the value (yes, this can include monetary value) of the arts and its critical membership in the urban community.  Your championship of the local scene is unique, hopeful and unprecedented for the city.  And your advocacy for modern, accessible and comprehensive public transport as a solution to any number of city issues is outstanding.

Agua del grifo.  If you order something else and ask for tap water, restaurants should serve it for free.  Many do.  This is a universal complaint and maybe isn’t for a Calgary desk, but I am so often disgusted by being forced to buy bottled water in any locality where the drinking water is processed for drinking.  It’s water.  It’s for all of us.  And it’s just damn polite.  If there’s any chance Calgary institutions begin the practice of treating people so flagrantly like dollar-signs, stop them before it gets out of hand.  Tack onto this one: menus displayed in front of restaurants.  Quebec City has a bylaw where any restaurant must show its menu outside, so that customers can take a look before they walk in, get bothered and guilted.  It’s a good idea and is quickly apparent that it works for the restaurants instead of against them.

Glorietas.  Traffic circles.  Roundabouts.  Whatever you want to call them.  Try explaining to a European the benefits of a grid-and-light traffic system without them laughing.  Try taking a European through a grid-and-light traffic system without them cringing.  To make it more appealing to those panicked by change or by driving as they’ve been tested to drive, use the Spanish term, glorietas.  For so many circumstances they are safer, simpler, more efficient, require less upkeep, and are far more aesthetically interesting.  There are a few new ones these days, I know, but it’s not enough.

Public spaces.  What I mean: libraries, museums, galleries, sculpture parks, convention centres, performance centres, green space.  What I don’t mean: shopping malls.  The benefits to a city of having open spaces, indoor and outdoor, accessible to anybody for free, and typically for the purpose of art and culture, are huge, not subjective, or only for those of us socialist-hippie-queers who like to partake.  It doesn’t take a set of wide eyes or a pair of well-worn feet to find just a few examples around the world that prove the point of benefits outweighing cost.

Red tape.  I could understand how a reader of this letter might see it as recommendations for more red tape – more regulation, more bureaucrats, more money spent, more money taxed.  But government is nothing but a giant interconnected fury of red tape – if it were a physical thing, it would be a big red plastic castle-shaped ball of adhesive.  Some red tape is redundant, some is too inhibiting, some is just stupid – and some is necessary.  Maybe we should invent a red tape that biodegrades when it is no longer a good idea?  Some would wither away upon application, I’m sure.

Here’s the part where I say that I know that you can’t fix everything.  I’d just like to see it tried.  So good work and good luck, Naheed.  I’ll be watching.



Agua del grifo