Sunday, November 29, 2009

Telling Our Story: Saskatoon’s Immigration Sculptures

I’m a weekly visitor to the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, part of an evolving redevelopment of the City’s South Downtown. It’s a delight to watch as the riverfront walkway is expanded and new features are added.

There are two wonderful sculptures adjacent to the Farmer’s Market, which celebrate some of the City’s earliest residents.

Egg Money
Egg Money is a particularly appropriate addition to the Farmers’ Market. Designed by Don and Shirley Begg and donated by the German community of Saskatoon, it honours the resourcefulness of Prairie women and their children, who raised chickens and sold the eggs to buy essential items for their families.

Storytelling Chairs
The Storytelling Chairs, designed by  Jyhling Lee and Paul Koopman, are part of the courtyard behind the Farmers’ Market. They’re a great place to sit and eat your breakfast on a sunny Saturday morning, but they also tell the story of the Immigration Hall, which used to stand on the site (now outlined in stone).

See Also:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Telling the Story of New Orleans

Which would you rather read – a statistical report full of charts and graphs – or a novel with interesting characters? For most of us, that’s not a difficult decision. We’re interested in people, what they do and how they think.
In fact, non-profits have learned that people will donate more money if we see one individual in need rather than facts about the thousands of people who are dying from disease or hunger.

Dan Baum, a former staff writer for The New Yorker, found a way to bridge the gap between fact and fiction. In order to write Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, Baum held in-depth interviews with nine residents of New Orleans – from a Mardi Gras King to a police officer to a transsexual barkeeper to a successful establishment lawyer. The people come to life on the page, and it’s hard to believe it’s not a work of fiction.

Another character is a strong but unseen presence on every page – the City of New Orleans. We listen in on union discussions around integration. We watch teachers and principals struggling to keep the poor kids off the street. We dance in the Mardi Gras parades – in the poor areas as well as on St. Charles Avenue.

Dan Baum contends that New Orleans is like no other city in North America. Nine Lives shares his love and respect for its residents and for their courage in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and in trying to escape poverty or to help their neighbours.

For more ideas:
Another great book about New Orleans is The House on First Street by Julia Read.

The Interviewer: Echoing Stakeholder’s Voices explores ways that municipalities and organizations can document and evaluate their work through interviewing key stakeholders and synthesizing the information.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Adaptive Reuse: Promoting Synergy and Collaboration

Saskatoon has been enriched over the past few months through the establishment of Great Places , a discussion forum on current issues in the built environment. On Wednesday, November 18, three local professionals shared their perspectives on renovation and design.

Structure Supports Ideology
Jyhling Lee, architect, public artist and designer, discussed three heritage buildings in Toronto that have been renovated to serve as cultural centres. While respecting the original integrity of the buildings, the structures have been adapted to meet social and environmental needs.

401 Richmond, formerly a factory, is now home to 140 cultural organizations. The entrance way, lobby and wide hallways are social meeting places that build community. The roof garden includes an urban garden, a greenhouse, a deck with free internet access and a 3,000 square foot green roof. The gardens insulate the building, prevent stormwater runoff and counter air pollution.

The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is another warehouse that has been transformed to provide work space for social action groups. CSI’s goal is to create spaces where “creativity and social conscience ignite each other” in a “dynamic community hub.” There are offices (with glass walls allowing the natural light to reach the core of the building), permanent desks and shared-use desks as well as a wide range of common areas, including a kitchen and meeting rooms with whiteboard walls and chalkboards on the closet doors. Again, there’s a green roof to support insect and bird life and a living bio wall inside the building to help purify the air.

Sedimentary Architecture
Andrew Wallace, Architectural Design Coordinator with the University of Saskatchewan, describes the renovation and reuse of heritage buildings as sedimentary architecture. Changes and additions are designed to add a new layer of depth and richness rather than attempting to erase the past. By layering the new and the old, each layer is still distinct, both reinforcing and contrasting with each other.

Wallace described the work he was involved in to upgrade and add administrative space to the Whitby Junction Railway Station, which now serves as a community gallery. The original building was preserved and an addition was lightly connected to one side so that the old building was not obscured. The addition was constructed in traditional, southern Ontario brick and the metal beams resemble train rails.

They rebuilt the platform behind the old train station to serve as a sculpture court, and a boxcar parked on the rails serves as a printmaking studio.

Creative Expression
Curtis Olson is a musician and a developer. He and his wife purchased a 1935 Safeway grocery store in the Caswell Hill and turned it into a combination of residence, home office, music studio and performance space. It’s their home, but they also host home concerts. The space expresses their respect for Prairie structures by incorporating a red barn, a grain elevator and a grain silo (kitchen in the round) into the space.

Olson emphasized that adaptive reuse is a form of storytelling and must show respect for the building. His company was responsible for converting the Fairbanks Warehouse into 12 loft condominiums. He has just completed the first Shift home providing modern, affordable, green housing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Open Government: from Accountability to Participation

Over the past few years, the public has increasingly demanded greater accountability and transparency from both public and private organizations, and this has had a major impact on communications professionals. It has changed not only what we write but also how we write it.

But people are requesting even greater openness, particularly from government. In the past, most citizens believed that they had done their civic duty by voting. After that, it was up to the politicians to make the decisions. That’s no longer the case. People are disillusioned with their politicians. They want more information and greater involvement.

A study on Leadership in Customer Service indicated that citizens “do not accept the idea that politicians and civil servants can effectively shape public services simply on the basis of their own assumptions of what is best for citizens. Instead, they want access to channels that will offer them the chance to engage with politicians and public managers, influencing public policy and shaping public services in ways that meet their personal needs and the needs of their communities.”

Technological Advances
Advances in computer technology and increased internet access have dramatically altered how people interact with government bodies. The City of Saskatoon’s new website includes interactive maps, the ability to pay bills online, information about road closures, and a searchable list of local business owners.

You can track your water consumption on the City of Nanaimo website and download an iPod audio tour that includes washroom locations and accessible routes from Whistler’s website

Whistler is also leading the way in providing greater financial transparency. Their 5-Year Financial Plan is available online and includes not only an overview of the budget-planning process but detailed financial information.

Open Government Databases
A number of North American cities are now moving beyond simply providing information. They are giving the public access to their databases and inviting volunteer programmers to “play” with the data.

As David Eaves indicates, this is a two-way deal: “On one side, the city agrees to share as much data as it possibly can, in open formats, as quickly as it can. On the other side, the community – and in particular citizen coders – must make that data come alive in applications, websites and analysis.”

The US government was one of the first to provide public access to its databases. In Canada, both Nanaimo and Vancouver have open data portals and several other cities are considering following their lead.

Information that was once private is now becoming accessible online:
FixMyStreet Canada provides an online reporting mechanism to inform your City of potholes, graffiti, or other problems in your neighbourhood.
• You can use the HowdTheyVote website to track your MPs voting history and attendance record.
EveryBlock offers a news feed for every city block in 15 US cities providing information about everything from crime, to traffic jams, to robberies, to upcoming events.
CarPool Mashup Matchmaker helps Washington, DC, residents find a carpool that matches their preferences.

Vancouver’s First Mashups
Volunteers have used the City of Vancouver’s databases to create a number of new programs to make information more readily available:
• One of the first apps to be created, during this past summer’s heat wave, was a map showing the locations of all the water fountains in the city. Volunteer coders set it up and invited the public to add to it.
VanTrash is a free garbage service reminder. You can download the schedule to your electronic calendar or set up email/tweet reminders.
• You can now search the Vancouver Public Library from the Amazon website. Amazon’s website is much easier to use than the library’s, and you may save money by reserving a book rather than buying it.

Is It Useful?
There is tremendous potential in the move towards public access to government databases. Open source software, such as Mozilla, Open Office, and Library Thing, were all created through the combined volunteer efforts of computer enthusiasts from around the world. Now they are turning their talents to developing programs to assist municipal, provincial, and federal governments in understanding and responding to public concerns.

There is a risk, however. At present, open government projects are primarily driven by computer geeks. This is a restricted group of people who are focussed on developing software applications but may not have spent sufficient time understanding the community and its problems and needs.

I hope that open government projects will expand the circle of involvement to include community activists, business leaders, academics, marketing and communications experts, and members of the public. And I hope that they will address some of the most urgent needs of our communities – environmental sustainability, transit, health.

Stay tuned for further developments.

For further information:
Government Ambassadors for Citizen Engagement, O’Reilly Radar
Bridging the Gap between Expectations and Reality, GTEC
Creating the Open Data Bargain in Cities,
Gov 2.0,

Note: This article was prepared for IABC Saskatoon’s November, 2009 newsletter.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Spaces

Great Places will be hosting a discussion on Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Spaces on Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 7 PM at the Frances Morrison Library (main downtown branch) in Saskatoon. Information about the event is copied from the flyer distributed by Great Places.

Jyhling Lee, Andrew Wallace and Curtis Olson will share their unique perspectives on renovation and design in an evening devoted to the discussion of adaptive reuse and cultural spaces.

Jyhling Lee - architect, public artist, and designer - will introduce three adaptive reuse projects which have become important creative cultural complexes within their urban Toronto neighborhoods. She will describe 401 Richmond, The Centre for Social Innovation - Robertson Building, and the Wychwood Barns and discuss how the existing heritage structures have positively influenced their building’s new functional program and the refurbished architectural spaces.

In his presentation of Whitby’s Station Gallery, Andrew Wallace - Architectural Design Coordinator with the University of Saskatchewan - will take a closer look at cultural spaces and adaptive reuse within the context of the smaller city. Wallace designed and managed the construction of this finely-crafted project, completed in 2005, while working at Goldsmith Borgal & Company Architects in Toronto.

From a local perspective, Shift Development’s Curtis Olson will be speaking on the Hayloft, the adaptive reuse of a former grocery store in Saskatoon.

This talk will be located in the lower level auditorium of the Frances Morrison Library. The event begins at 7:00 PM. Admission is free. Following the presentations, there will be a moderated public discussion on the topic with the panelists.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Control Freaks

I have just finished reading Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, and I am appalled by the human desire to dominate and control the world around us. It’s well known that Henry Ford invented the assembly line, dividing up the act of building a car into 7,882 separate actions. But he had much grander schemes than that.

He paid his workers well, but he didn’t want them to waste their money so he set up a Sociological Department and dispatched inspectors to probe into the most personal corners of his employees’ lives. “By 1919, the Sociological Department employed hundreds of agents who spread out over Dearborn and Detroit asking questions, taking notes, and writing up personnel reports. . . . Sociological men came around not just once but two, three, or four times interviewing family members, friends, and landlords to make sure previous reports of probity were accurate. They of course discouraged drinking, smoking, and gambling and encouraged saving, clean living habits, keeping flies off food, maintaining an orderly house, backyard, and front porch, and sleeping in beds.” Later, he would employ a gang of thugs to make sure that workers didn’t attempt to form a union or stir up any kind of trouble.

Once Ford’s factories were up and running, he set about creating model communities that combined industry and agriculture. When Ford came across a pretty site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he ordered his men to dig a lake and build a lumber mill. The dozen or so workers were expected to divide their time between lumbering, milling, and farming. Ford townships were spotlessly clean; alcohol and tobacco were prohibited; and it was compulsory to stand up perfectly straight on two feet at all times.

Ford dreamed of developing model communities in the Tennessee River Valley. When that proved impossible (during the Depression the federal government would institute many of his ideas), he looked south and bought a huge tract of land in the Amazon. He spent millions and millions of dollars trying to not only tame the jungle but to tame the natives. He built rows of Cape Cod bungalows, a golf course and taught the locals to square dance. The steam whistle blew four times a day; the workers were expected to punch a time clock; and the family homes were inspected for such things as making sure they knew how to use and dispose of company-provided toilet paper. With a complete disdain for expertise, he tried to develop a rubber plantation. The whole experiment was disastrous.

Henry Ford wasn’t unique. He simply had more money to help him implement his ideas. The Amazon continues to be manipulated in order to provide cheap labour, cheap beef, and cheap consumer products. We continue to consume energy and resources far faster than they can ever be replaced.

Will we ever learn humility? Will we ever try to live in harmony with the world around us?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Who Has Seen the Wind?

After a grey day of snow and rain, today's sunshine pulled me out of doors and into the country. The sun was still low in the sky when I arrived at Beaver Creek, and the shadows were darkly drawn upon the land. By the time I left, there was golden sunshine but a strong wind that was pulling the last leaves from the trees and speeding the migrating birds on their way south.

beaver creek nov1 09