The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: cities

Poverty’s Great Unknown (2) – Hiding in Plain Sight

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IN HER BOOK ALPHABET OF THORN, author Patricia McKillip has one of her chief characters ask another: “Do you become invisible?” In reply, the other character says, “No. I’m there, if you know how to look. I stand between the place you look at and the place you see – behind what you expect to see. If you expect to see me, you do.”

This is the way it is with modern poverty; people suffer their deprivations in private, yet they are seen everywhere in every community. They are us, but we don’t really see them. In Canada, we most often can’t be bothered to look for poverty in our midst, but if we truly wanted to, we could spot it – everywhere.

In yesterday’s post we talked about some things we might not know about poverty. Here are some more.

1) According to numerous studies housing affordability is one of the key reasons people remain mired in poverty. By the time rent or mortgage payments are made, little is left to afford anything else. For this reason, affordable housing is key to defeating poverty. Most people don’t realize that it costs more to keep someone in an emergency shelter than it does to provide them affordable housing. Cities could eliminate homelessness simply by investing more in housing.

2) With hunger growing in Canada, so is the amount of food people throw in the garbage. Food Banks Canada says that nearly 900,000 people are assisted in food banks monthly. Yet research from the Value Chain Management Centre revealed that Canadians throw out $27-billion worth each year, or roughly 40% of their food. Just over half comes from households. It forces us to ask a basic question: how can a nation find the will to defeat hunger when it considers it acceptable to throw out 40% of its edible food supplies?

3) Poverty in Canada is likely to increase, not the other way around. According to a recent IPSOS poll, 61% of working Canadians didn’t contribute at all to retirement savings in 2014. To make matters more complicated, the same poll discovered that the ability to keep a steady income is under assault and is listed as a major form of stress for 45% of Canadians. We keep treating poverty as some kind of fixed statistic when, in fact, it’s a moving target, usually drifting ever upward in numbers. In such a context, poverty is far more likely to go up instead of decline. An increasing number of Canadians actually feel they are more prone to falling into poverty’s clutches as opposed to ending it.

4) A startling number of Canadians feel that they have to make a choice between jobs or inequality. The reality is that they are both related and that one can’t be solved without the other. It will be impossible to defeat poverty in this country unless we address the growing rates of inequality. To separate the two, believing we can concentrate on jobs while we ignore the growing gap between the rich and poor is a fool’s errand and a false choice.

5) Perhaps the greatest thing about poverty that we don’t know or understand is that the roots of poverty are to be found in the bankruptcy of politics. Democracy has never been so “poor,” regardless of which jurisdiction you look at.  Democracy is in recession.  Poverty of public spirit and the belief that we can manage our problems is at record lows – a reality that can’t be separated from financial poverty itself.

Those facing poverty aren’t just facing the pitfalls of isolation from a few bad decisions; they find themselves in their present predicament because of the failure of systems-wide policies that ultimately alienate a city from itself, and from those living within it. This is why the poor have become invisible, even though they live among us. But they are there if we but look for them. Once observed, we find that they look surprisingly like us. That is because they are, but it took some knowledge and focus for us to realize it. This is where the fight against poverty must begin: in our understanding that one can’t solve a problem if they refuse to see or organize to defeat it.

A Tale of Three Rivers

IT WAS ONLY THREE DECADES AGO that Pittsburgh was deemed to be dying – an urban nightmare with polluted rivers, crumbling inner core, steadily declining employment, and a population fleeing for greener pastures. Yet the city my wife and I visited this past weekend showed rare traces of such a blighted past. Instead, we were caught up in a city life teeming with creativity, investment, and a keen new belief in itself. In just few years it has transformed from a warning to a model.

We had first been invited down by officials this past summer for the 15th anniversary of their RiverLife project. Rarely had we witnessed a waterfront so teeming with possibilities. Even though this past weekend’s visit was in the midst of ice-cold conditions, winter blues were nowhere to be found. The city got its game back. It knows it and it’s eager to tell its story.

The difference between the two visits, six months apart, couldn’t have been more distinct. The summer tour was all about Pittsburgh’s dynamic river transformation and the celebration of what that change has made to the city. Situated and the meeting point of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, it was known for decades as the City of Bridges. Its riverfronts were essential to its image and economy. When both began to fail, the once teeming metropolis fell into decline along with them. The years weren’t good to the city’s reputation.

Fifteen years later, the city’s waterfront has been transformed from an aged relic of industrialization to waterways designed with mobility, celebration, new businesses, and a strong sense of civic pride in mind. Though hardly complete, Pittsburgh not only has a new spring in its step, it has become the essential American model of how people can reinvent themselves in a way that redefines what it means to be a community in general.

But Pittsburgh is more than just rivers. This past weekend introduced us to new cultural dynamics that basically have the city morphing from the inside out. Key to it all were the city’s foundations sector. In drawing the key actors together, the foundations created the impetus for getting civic leaders to imagine a different city, one not so much linked to its past but its people. What began as a river project eventually mushroomed to focusing on the city’s cultural sectors. Incentivized planning and the desire to include the next generation of leaders has seen the city go from a fading industrial giant to a gregarious community of the arts, technology, and museums.

Grant Oliphant, former CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Foundation, and now the head of the larger Heinz Foundation, was key to it all. He spoke in London, Ontario’s X-Conference last year and challenged the large crowd to think big if it wanted to grow out of its malaise. In less than a month he’ll be back in the city, at the X2 conference, to check and see how we are doing in civic renewal and to talk about how Pittsburgh re-energized its cultural centre.

Jane and I were fortunate enough to listen to how Pittsburgh’s growth has been so successful that its leaders are now meeting to figure out a way to shape that growth for the future. It’s hard to imagine how a city with a declining pulse only 30 years ago could transform itself so radically in such a short period of time. It’s a reminder of what any community could do if it collaborates and doesn’t grow overly concerned about who gets the credit.

Check out this video below for the quick 1-minute ride it took us to climb up the incline overlooking Pittsburgh at night.

A City of Soul

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THE CITY OF SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, decided it was time to get more serious about the arts. Only they didn’t undertake the task in the fashion other municipalities had tried. Believing that every aspect of the arts was vital to any future life the city had, they laid out some clear markers:

  • they would develop 6 community public art plans, identifying sites and themes for the public arts around the city
  • Surrey would compile an inventory of public and private sector cultural assets, services and facilities n the city – identifying gaps and needs
  • seek to identify needs, opportunities, space and operational requirements for a decentralized model of arts and heritage
  • identify space and resource requirements for the growth and preservation of cultural and art collections
  • assess needs and roles for effective communication of cultural values and benefits by public and community stakeholders
  • identify cultural spaces and amenities in city centre development plans

What’s important here is the sheer comprehensive nature of their undertaking. This wasn’t about merely supporting one group or another, but was instead an inspiring attempt at getting every sector of the community to buy in. Just like other communities, Surrey had been through its own economic difficulties and it would have been easy to place what many regarded as the “soft stuff” on the back burners in favour of the harder financial realities. City leaders quickly discerned the fallacy in such an approach, reasoning that if citizens lost the ability to express their emotions and celebrate, then economics alone would lead to a diminished municipality.  Numerous cities have cultural prosperity plans, but Surrey actually implemented theirs.  Great cities find a way to get it done.

What’s the point of living on the same streets if we merely become an audience. Visionary community planners understand that citizens must become players in their own performances and the best way to achieve that is to inspire them – not just with amazing arts but in giving a city some soul. As David Binder puts it:

“Twenty-first-century arts festivals] ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

Those communities that make art to be solely about money have forgotten how they initially came together through community singing, acting out life in real-time, and painting the essence of a streetscape. Only as communities grew could they eventually sustain concert halls and art galleries – a great step in their respective evolutions as communities.  Any aspiring city should seek out the arts and support them at their very best.  And when they are performed at their very best, the arts help a city to become a showcase to the world.

A city that no longer has something to sing, act, or draw about inevitably loses those higher levels of the arts that can inspire entire communities through talented performances. It is through the arts that we learn to dream together, to feel the same collective emotional tug to weep or laugh, to mourn, or to live with purpose. Participatory democracy is better flamed through the passion of the human spirit than through any other source and it is often through the culture of a city that this passion is resourced.

There are those who occasionally imply that cities and their huddled masses will destroy themselves. We have yet to see it. Just two words remind us of just how resilient cities are: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their future seemed obliterated in a millisecond, yet today they thrive, having overcome some of the worst humanity could throw at them and prevail as robust communities.

In reality, cities can survive against the most amazing odds. They come back from floods, famine, conflict, poverty, and political catastrophe because in the end their citizens still dream and find way of using their emotions, intellect, and willpower to forge their own future.

If communities die, it will be mostly because individual lights went out over the process of time. People lose hope. They feel the odds against them are too great. They grow isolated, losing the humanity in one another. The bulbs burn out and the light is gone. It is for the very purpose of restoring the human soul and spirit that the arts were born.

Why a community flourishes is every bit as important as how it does so, and it is often through the presence of artistic communities in our midst – amateur and professional – that the will to actually be a great city is generated. The day a city can no longer find its purpose will also be the day that culture must rescue it. “To be or not to be” never came from a corporate or political leader, but from a writer. The ability to find ourselves and lose ourselves in the same moment is the gift of art. And no city can ever dance when its leaders can no longer hear the music. The question should never be whether we can afford culture; it should be how can we possibly survive without it.

Making History Without Knowing It

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ROSA PARKS ADMITTED THAT SHE WAS TIRED on that particular morning as she shuffled off to the bus stop and began a journey that was about to form part of the seminal beginning of the civil rights movement. As procedure demanded, she entered the front of the bus, paid for her ticket, then exited to the outside and re-entered through the back door to the black section. Realizing the white section was filled, the bus driver ordered Ms. Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger.

We all know what happened next and the movement her refusal helped to launch. Her own simple account of that day is still inspiring: “I had no idea history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” That was 59 years ago this month (December 1, 1955), but in so many ways average citizens have felt that kind of despair that says enough is enough. It can’t be compared to what southern blacks endured in the 1950s, but it’s been real to many citizens in London just the same.

Londoners were tired of a politics that seemed to shift our priorities to the rear of city business. On the occasion of this last civic election they refused to give in again and settle for more of the same. The effects of thousands of individual acts of conscience were cumulatively transformative, at least in the moment. The change was clear when some 800 Londoners attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new mayor and council – an occasion that rarely drew 50 people in years previous. Perhaps without realizing it, citizens were determining that the best way to find a future was to create it – a remarkable moment in time.

Tired of the status quo, they began to imagine new ways to move forward. It was is if they suddenly reminded themselves that the purpose of politics wasn’t to win elections but to govern collaboratively, and in the process they gained a new lease on life.

They also came to understand that a jaded kind of politics was something in which they had played a part. Many of them were tired of it all and had just quietly moved off to concentrate on their own private lives. But it eventually became obvious that even their personal worlds were circumscribed by a politics that under-performed. Their sense of optimism felt increasingly hemmed in, and so many among them re-engaged.

Voting as they did, Londoners were, in effect, declaring that they weren’t going to give up their hopes to that same kind of stasis that said they should merely give over local government to others and just sit back. They decided they wanted to play a part. Yes, voter turnout was up only slightly, but those who did show up actually stood up, saying, like Parks, “we were just tired of giving up.”

This council’s being successful isn’t a sure thing. The challenges before them are imposing and there are years of status quo thinking to overcome. The risks are high. Council could be tempted to spend wildly beyond its means. On the other hand, it could fail to invest sufficient resources to give the city a new sense of being. A spirit of experimentation is in the air, a willingness to entertain the unexpected. Innovation can no longer be about tweaking a little bit here or there, but can only emerge when people who care for their city are welcomed to think freely and create. For that to occur, London has to build a culture of inventiveness and originality, regarding the odd failure as a valuable lesson that inevitably gets them closer to their purpose.

Democracy was never meant to be easy. Nor was it meant to be merely top-down. Citizens and their representatives must agree to a covenant that each will do her, or his, own part. It’s been some time since Londoners felt that way, but a couple of weeks ago things clearly took on a new tone. Citizens took their seats at the swearing-in and refused to yield them up. In remarkable fashion, they were taking their own collective oath to participate in the process – remarkable.   They were there for what many hope to be the beginning of a movement. By growing tired of being tired, they, like Rosa Parks, placed a down payment on the future. Their time as Londoners has arrived and they will only succeed as they set a new direction, fulfill their covenant to one another, and derive the courage to become the heroes of their own story.

Democracy’s Urban Face

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SOME SERIOUS MOVEMENT AT LAST. During President Obama’s visit to China, it was announced that the two superpowers – the world’s largest economies, as well as the largest polluters on the globe – had reached an accord that would see the United States cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26-2% before the year 2025. China signed on to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. In a world where climate change have fallen off the front page headlines, this is a significant move forward and is likely to resurrect global climate talks.

Canada responded in that familiar fashion that has earned the scorn of many nations by saying it would attempt to link its plan to that of the U.S.. Sadly, there is no concrete plan to do so, and if past history is any indication, lack of any clear federal action will lead to forgetfulness. That’s the plan, confirmed again when Canada’s poor environmental performance was centre stage again last week as it was announced that we are at the top of the list when it comes to global deforestation. More than one-fifth – 21.4% – of global deforestation occurs in Canada, a recent study has discovered. Russia is in second place. Brazil, often derided for its deforestation of its massive rainforest, stands at 14% – well below Canada.

There are reasons why the Americans have taken on a form of environmental leadership and Canada has lagged behind that involve more than just federal governments responding to a global challenge. Put simply, it’s a matter of cities.

Sometime in 2009, for the first time in history, more people lived inside cities than outside of them. But the indications of the rapid rise of urban importance were already in the wind for anyone willing to take notice.

Tired of waiting for national governments to take action, cities around the world have taken on ambitious plans to fill in the vacuum. Prior to the US/China agreement, nation states around the world were noted more for their bickering than bargaining. Housing half the world’s population, cities simply couldn’t afford to wait any further and have been reaching out to one another, despite distance, cultural and linguistic complications, and their lack of formalized networking.

Put simply: the future of democracy has a decidedly urban face. Solutions are often best found where problems exist, and in the world of economics and social cohesion, cities form the vast network of laboratories where effects can be researched and bettered. It’s clear that cities are becoming more ambitious when it comes to solving difficulties because it’s not only effective, but within their own best interests.

Another aspect that’s becoming obvious is that municipalities are filling in the void created when senior government levels lost the imagination for solving societal ills. Obama’s agreement with China is a welcome development, but it does little to alter the global stasis that has resulted from nation states constantly debating one another in their own self-obsession.

Cities, and many prominent present and past mayors, aren’t waiting around any longer. For all their importance, international climate change conferences have yielded little, and the effects of such failures will be felt most catastrophically in cities – especially those close to oceans and seas. Something has to happen, and fast.  And while nations fiddle, cities are acting.

Yet in Canada, movement in this direction has been slower than we would hope. While groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are working on vast collaboration networks among cities, the results haven’t been up to the speed at which the federal government has abandoned its leadership role.

Perhaps that’s about to change, as a large number of Canada’s major cities meet regularly under the rubric of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus and have increasingly placed the environment as front and central to their future deliberations. In the absence of federal leadership (with some provincial laggards), these mayors should formalize themselves into a working body of municipal elected officials who will work together across the country to bring about the kind of coordination that could run counter to our troubling international decline on the climate change file. Cities could co-jointly set targets, help and challenge one another, and begin demanding that the feds wake up before it is too late.

Leadership as we know it has to change. For too long we have permitted politicians to list the various crises in our society without forcing them to admit that they are largely the cause. Less than 20% of Canadians trust their political leaders specifically because they are perceived to be asleep at the switch while our problems mount. Those who have the power to lead also have the power to stall – a reality rapidly becoming our federal narrative. Cities can no longer afford to tarry. Our effective future leaders will be mayors, not prime ministers.

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