Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

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Going green is more than planting flowers and pruning trees

March 16, 2007

I wrote this as a Comments piece for this week’s issue of The Uniter.

Going green is more than planting flowers and pruning trees

Nick W

Slapping the “green” label onto anything in these days of heightened environmental awareness is an easy way of inducing congratulations and approval from a public whose knowledge of environmental issues is growing daily. This is exactly what the City of Winnipeg did when it released its 2007 operating budget, which highlights, among other things, “increased funding for clean and green services” as a major priority area for the upcoming year. The city is finally taking some real steps to acknowledge the various environmental concerns—a dying Lake Winnipeg, climate change and impending oil price hikes. Sounds good, right? Taking a closer look at the document, however, reveals that the city’s version of “green” is hardly in line with the environmentally conscious efforts that the public has now come to expect from the term. Of course, the lack of environmental awareness at the civic level of government has become something to be expected.

According to the budget, the few items that could pass for being “clean and green” include an extra $390,000 for flower beds, $150,000 for scrubbing downtown’s sidewalks and $700,000 to start catching up on the massive backlog in pruning public trees. Things around town might look a bit nicer, but the actual environmental benefits are next to nothing. Clean? Yes (kind of); Green? No.

None of this is surprising when you consider what else the city has passed into being in recent months. The other major financial document, mid-January’s 2007 Capital Budget was the largest in the city’s history as a result of considerable provincial and federal transfers. Yet, even with the “cost-savings” that are reportedly to be had from Mayor Sam Katz’s new favourite buzz-phrase, public-private partnerships (P3s), precious little money was given to new, truly green initiatives. Meanwhile, the inherently unsustainable practices of extending low-density, single-use and automobile-dependent land uses and transportation modes maintained their strong presence within the document, with the proceeding Waverley West subdivision being the most obvious example.

In addition, the Winnipeg Free Press noted on Feb. 15 that the mayor and council delayed having any sort of discussion about a rapid transit reserve fund until 2008, let alone actually contributing any money towards a fund that would one day be used for Winnipeg’s rapid transit system that has been 40 years in the making.

Mayor Katz is quoted on his personal website as saying that “we all recognize that if we want to be competitive, we have to continue to improve the way we operate.” Winnipeg and indeed all of Manitoba has been struggling in recent years to keep in step with our richer neighbours to the west; even Saskatchewan has made the jump to a ‘have’ province. Their luck to have vast oil reserves sitting underneath their boundaries reinforces the notion that Manitoba and Winnipeg simply must improve their operating standards to have any sort of chance; the status quo has led to fairly stagnant growth and even decline, yet it is the path that continues to be followed.

It does not have to be that way. With its proximity to vast hydro-electric generating stations and a burgeoning wind power industry nearby, as well as a large university population, Winnipeg seems ideally suited to capitalize on the growing ‘green collar’ jobs that make up one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in much of the world.

Vancouver’s traditional role as a mining and resource-extraction city has changed to become a very health-oriented, active lifestyle one. The once heavily industrial and racially segregated port city of Oakland, California has started to ride the “green wave” thanks to unlikely alliances of social justice, labour and environmental activists, who have seen benefits for much broader sectors of the population. Toronto publishes a Green Guide and actively supports environmental initiatives with its annual Green Toronto Awards. The Regional Municipality of Waterloo, Ontario was once a sleepy agricultural and industrial area; it is now a haven for high-tech professionals seeking the quality of life that can be found in the clean and forward-thinking cities, as evidenced, for example, by the council-supported plans for the provision of a rapid transit link between the region’s three major cities that have a combined population of less than Winnipeg’s.

All over, cities, like their individual citizens, are taking steps to reduce their environmental footprints, to use less water and to properly treat what has been used, to combat climate change by reducing the need to use one’s car. The clean, environmentally-positive businesses which seek to deal with green issues that other, more progressive cities are actively pursuing (or becoming home to as a result of the synergy of like-minded people) has resulted in Winnipeg falling further behind them in attracting and retaining the residents needed to drive the green economies that will necessarily shape our nation’s future.

A considerable amount of initiative lies with the public, businesspeople and entrepreneurs to bring about change if and where they see it needed, but the City’s role in fostering a climate (pardon the pun) to promote these ventures can not be understated. The impression that a city puts forth will necessarily dictate where its priorities lie, and whether the city is overall, conducive to progressive environmental, social or artistic work.

Winnipeg, in the long term, will fare much better by changing the status quo and actually taking real steps to going “green”. Unfortunately, many of our policy-makers cannot see past their current terms in office, and the kinds of people and businesses who can help make those changes are not giving us a second glance.

And, ladies and gentlemen of council, please don’t count planting flowers and pruning trees as being ‘green’ initiatives; they aren’t, and acknowledging that fact will be the first step in changing the collective consciousness towards environmental issues.

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Winnipeg’s Civic Electoral Parties, or Dissenting Voices Unwelcome?

October 10, 2006

Even though they’re officially not allowed (insofar as they won’t be indicated as being members of a party on the actual ballots come October 25), there’s a couple civic political parties running this time around.

The Winnipeg Green Party is running a slate of six candidates across the city, bringing much-needed democratic choices to their respective wards. The Greens share a platform, campaign website and manager and the strength their collective voices and the voices their supporters adds up to.

The second party running (aside from the traditional union- and NDP-backed candidates), however, is much more low key about its party affiliations, so much so that the media had to give them their (fitting) name: The Sam Katz Party.

Yep, the incumbent mayor’s got his own political party and he, the leader himself, is doing a lot for the rest of his candidates: signing nomination papers, handpicking campaign staff for others, knocking on doors, opening campaign headquarters (and vice versa)… needless to say, the man sure knows who he wants joining him in the Council chambers come October 26.

The Winnipeg Free Press’ Mary Agnes Welch wrote on September 22:

“Katz rejected the suggestion he has an organized slate, saying instead he is simply helping out quality candidates. “I would actively campaign for any individual who I thought would make a good councillor,” said Katz.”

Unsaid, but assumed, of course, is that those “good councillors” in Sam’s eyes will be ones who will support the mayor many more times than not.

For the past two years, Katz has arguably been building his team and its easy to see who’s already on it: Councillors Pagtagkhan, Clements, Magnifico, O’Shaughnessy, Steeves, Swandel—basically EPC plus more who wish they were. That’s already almost half of Council, and he’s looking for more this time around.

In wide-open St. Charles, Grant Norman is Katz’s go-to guy.

“Grant Nordman understands how to invigorate a community through economic growth and attention to infrastructure. His solid track record and experience as President of the Assiniboia Chamber of Commerce make him an ideal Council choice for the residents of St. Charles.”

In River Heights, Brenda Leipsic’s endorsement by the mayor’s office has been quieter, but the desire to work with the administration is evident:

“Winnipeggers want action and results,” she told a crowd at her campaign office. “Not endless bickering.”

As well, even her campaign slogan: “A Positive Voice” [emphasis mine] is a jab at incumbent Donald Benham and his perceived role as an unofficial Sam Katz critic (and here) in Council.

In North Kildonan, former Tory youth wing member Jeff Browaty wishes to “work with the Mayor and City Council, not sit as an ‘opposition’ councillor” (as opposed to sitting councillor Mark Lubosch who has taken the opposite side as the mayor on various contentious issues lately) while his counterpart in St. James-Brooklands, Scott Fielding, has the same political history (and alleged friendship of Sam Katz’s chief of staff Ryan Craig) was recently appointed by Sam Katz himself to the Winnipeg Convention Centre’s Board of Directors to represent on the City’s behalf.

Should these candidates get in, Council will be heavily stacked in Katz’s favour.

Now no one is rationally suggesting tha tthe mayor has some diabolical scheme up his sleeve that he needs an overwhelming majority on Council to bring forth to and then have support, but a Sam Katz Party—often being yes-men and women (or at best totally like-thinkers)—would do little for reasoned debate (as it exists even now in its battered form) for the next four years at least. It is interesting that one would need to be marketed as a new “positive” councillor in wards whose incumbent is more of a critic and as a councillor who would “work with” the mayor on the issues. Isn’t the implication there that being a critic, or disagreeing with the mayor on issues is somehow incorrect or wrong?

Those councillors who don’t automatically support Katz may be seen as “negative” or “against cooperation” but their roles are very, very important in light of decisions that will affect Winnipeg’s future well-being. They may have different visions for the future of Winnipeg—but because he’s mayor, Sam Katz’s vision is somehow the better one worth pursuing? So much for the reasoned voice of dissent in this democracy then; we don’t need it.

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A Cycling Chicago of the North someday?

August 7, 2006

While browsing various urban and alternative transportation blogs, I came across this post at Toronto cycling blog TorontoCranks.com. Most of the post is dedicated to a City of Chicago press release from June of this year, entitled “Bike 2015 Plan features 150 strategies to encourage bicycling”. In light of the craziness in Winnipeg surrounding Critical Mass that has permeated the media and local message boards and blogs, polarizing the population on both the issues of Critical Mass and cycling in general, this is especially interesting and, from some Winnipeg perspectives, depressing. Chicago seems to actually be encouraging cycling as a viable and attractive alternative transporation option with the adoption of Bike 2015 Plan, as its Executive Summary and two main goals indicate:

“The Bike 2015 Plan is the City of Chicago’s vision to make bicycling an integral part of daily life in Chicago. The plan recommends projects, programs and policies for the next ten years to encourage use of this practical, non-polluting and affordable mode of transportation.

The Bike 2015 Plan has two overall goals:

  • To increase bicycle use, so that 5 percent of all trips less than five miles are by bicycle.
  • To reduce the number of bicycle injuries by 50 percent from current levels.”

Most impressive are the recommendations for a “500-mile bikeway network” that reaches to within a half-mile of each and every resident, the identification of cyclists’ needs with all new and restorative infrastructure development, thousands of additional bike racks and longer-term storage spaces, using rapid transit stations as bikeway hubs, and many more. [full Plan available here: 4.5 MB pdf file] Very ambitious, but, given the right dedication, funding and commitment of the city’s leadership, there doesn’t have to be much doubt that it’ll happen.

Which is in stark contrast to Winnipeg. There’s little reason why Winnipeg can’t follow suit with a vastly scaled-down, yet thorough version of this plan save for leadership. And we haven’t had it on the topic of cycling for 13 years. The now-outdated, yet still valuable 1993 Final Report entitled “Winnipeg Bicycle Facilities Study” (of which an online link seems to be lacking) has now seen a third mayor essentially ignore it, prompting cyclists and all who strive for viable alternatives to the private automobile to say on the topic something akin to what the initial TorontoCranks.com post is entitled: “Chicago’s mayor proves Toronto’s Mayor Miller SUCKS!”

The benefits of cycling abound for both the individual, his/her pocketbook and health, and for society as a whole. The Critical Mass movement in Winnipeg, with all their faults, alleged or true, likely don’t realistically believe a bicycling system akin to Chicago’s comprehensive Plan will come through (though I’m sure they won’t complain); they, and all other cyclists simply want cycling as a valid commuting and transporation choice to at least be taken as a priority by the leadership of this City. With the amounts of money going towards highways and roads built decidedly for cars, is asking for a fair share too much these days? If we have never become the “Chicago of the North” as far as our economy (and size) has been concerned, then perhaps, with the right leadership, we can one day follow in their path as a cold-weather, midwestern alternative transportation hub.