12 07 2010

Canada Day at the Ledg

Originally uploaded by yotung

It’s been almost a year since my last post… and I still don’t seem to be able to get over my non-posting inertia. I’m posting this little one just as a reminder to myself that I should come back.

And when I do, I can delete this post. I mean, come on. How embarrassing is it for the only post in a year to be: “sorry, nothing new to say”?


The only excuse I can offer for my intellectual inaction over the last year is that I have been devoting myself quite… devotedly to my photography.


The Hair that Wags the Dog

13 03 2009

Municipal government being the closest level of government to the people, mayors can sometimes be more powerful agents of change than national leaders, even if their sphere of influence is much smaller. So I thought perhaps it was time for me to have a look at a few notable municipal leaders. But on which criteria would I select from the masses of world mayors? Hair, of course. If age and the political establishment can be characterized by bald or balding men, then the image of the next generation of leaders, those with vigorous and fresh ideas, must naturally have a full head of gorgeous hair.

A google search for “mayor” and “hair” brings up three star candidates, two of whom have already graced these pages: Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, the young playboy with a forcefully slicked ‘do who fights for health care and gay rights; Mayor David Miller of Toronto, the Blackberry-Twittering, wide-smiling liberal who enchants with his wavy golden mane; and Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the outspoken Conservative and media darling, whose laissez-faire approach to hair management matches his political record as LM thus far.

Weighting: 50% for hair, 50% for political record.

Slickster Gavin Newsom - photo Justin Sullivan

Slickster Gavin Newsom - photo by Justin Sullivan

Gavin Newsom

Hair – That hair is not going anywhere. There are no signs of recession (impressive, considering the challenges his city and state are facing), and it would take a very strong wind indeed to put a hair out of place. I’m not sure what kind of product he uses to achieve that look, but it must have some serious grip. Ultimately, however, it’s a tad too severe for my tastes.  Score – 35

Record – Newsom’s political record is impressive, having aggressively tackled some very big issues since becoming mayor in 2003: homelessness (Care Not Cash initiative); gay marriage (he legalized it in SF shortly after taking office, and his administration is now fighting the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 referendum, which banned it in November); universal health care (Newsom’s Healthy San Francisco initiative provides health coverage to all SF residents); and the environment (Newsom has committed SF to achieving Kyoto targets). Overall, Newsom seems unafraid to take on big issues and is making progress on a number of fronts that, while locally-focused, have had implications and repercussions much farther afield than the Bay Area. He can be a bit sensitive to media criticism, and has lashed out at reporters in the past, but this seems like a minor criticism in light of his other progressive achievements.  Score – 45

David Miller's flowing locks - photo by Babak

David Miller's flowing locks - photo by Babak

David Miller

Hair – Oh my, what a beautiful wave. This man has a good barber. It suits him, it’s luxuriant, and I’m sure it can’t hurt his re-election chances. There are photographic indications that Miller’s hair health has suffered during his time as Mayor of Toronto, but I would blame that on the stresses of the job and not his personal hygiene.  Score – 45

Record – Recently in the news for his enthusiasm for Twitter, sometimes posting from his Blackberry while in the middle of meetings (!), Mayor Miller has been active on a wide variety of issues, but not necessarily successful on all of them. Public transit improvements are high on his list of priorities, unveiling plans in 2007 to massively expand the light rail network in Toronto. The plan is dependent on significant funding from higher levels of government, however, and already some project priorities have been rejigged for political purposes. Miller has been a vocal supporter of the redevelopment of the Toronto Waterfront and, conversely, an opponent of Toronto Island Airport expansion, areas where he has had success. Reform of Toronto finances resulted in major controversies in 2007 (but eventual approval), with massive operating shortfalls reported and opposition to his proposals on how to solve the problem, a mixture of tax increases and service cuts. Miller has also been active on environmental issues, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city aggressively. Overall, Miller’s record has seen some successes, but also some setbacks, and while the mayor seems charismatic, he has not managed to win the Toronto and Ontario political set over to many of his ideas.  Score – 30

Boris Johnson and his unruly hair - photo Fiona Hanson

Boris Johnson and his unruly hair - photo by Fiona Hanson

Boris Johnson

Hair – Boris Johnson has a unique approach to hair, and it seems to involve basically just letting it run free. Although this image is the best I found, a full google image search reveals that his hair is hardly ever the same twice, and its uniqueness has helped establish him in the public eye in Britain. But what does the laissez-faire approach to hair indicate about his political persona: a perennially fresh perspective, or dangerous unpredictability? Score – depending on the day, 30-40

Record – It is hard to make too many solid judgements on Johnson’s track record as mayor, primarily because he has been in office for less than a year. Policy (or lack of it) on tall buildings has been for many years now a topic of intense debate in London, but it would appear that Johnson has not offered clear leadership on the issue. He has some links to Mayor Miller, co-chairing a world mayor’s group focused on greenhouse gases, the C40, with him. He made the sensible decision to ban the consumption of alcohol on London public transport, but the decision unfortunately resulted in mass public drinking and confrontations with police on the Circle Line the day before the law came into effect. A recent Economist podcast offered the opinion that Johnson has made significant strides over Ken Livingstone, the previous mayor, in terms of governing style (more consensual, less combative) but has done little to put his stamp on the Mayor’s Office, and has not articulated a clear vision. I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt due to his newness in the post, but the signs are not promising.  Score – 20

RESULTS – The winner, by a hair, is San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom with 80 points. His record stood out like a roostertail amongst the three candidates, though he nearly got the shaft for a middling hair performance. Any moves to emancipate his mane would no doubt soften his image. Though to be frank, I just can’t see him succeeding with a Boris Johnson-style approach to hair. Perhaps he should just stay the course and keep focused on the politics.

From Eye Teeth to Urban Jewel?

4 03 2009

In June of this year Edmonton will consider the possibility of closing the city-owned City Centre Airport (the Muni) and look at options for redevelopment. While the decision is still a long way off, the debate seems to be ramping up in the media, with Scott McKeen writing two columns in the last week, business leaders making their pitches, and a slew of letters to the editor showing up in the Edmonton Journal in recent weeks.

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

The future of the Muni, which competed with Edmonton International until a referendum in 1995 decided (by an overwhelming 77% of voters) to consolidate scheduled air traffic at the larger airport, has long been a point of debate. Although the referendum halted most scheduled traffic, it remains a hub of Edmonton’s aviation industry, still serves the small-but-influential business travelling class, and serves as a convenient base for med-evac flights. It’s the business travellers that seem to be the most vocal proponents of not only maintaining the Muni, but also reopening it to scheduled air traffic. Arguments offered are varied, but usually boil down to these two points: that the Muni is a vital economic driver for Edmonton’s connections with northern communities, and that almost any North American city would give its eye teeth to have an airport in such close proximity to its downtown. I don’t really see how Edmonton’s links with the north would be severed by the closure of the Muni any more than Edmonton’s links with the rest of the world were severed after consolidation. But it’s the second argument that interests me most, as there are actually some North American cities that have shut down major inner city airports in the last 10 years, and have made real urban development success stories out of the choice.

Denver’s Stapleton International Airport and Austin’s Mueller Municipal Airport were closed in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Both were huge sites (Stapleton – 4700 ac/1850 ha; Mueller – 709 ac/279 ha) and in both cases the existence of neighboring residential communities was a major factor in the decision to relocate. Both cities took their time developing master plans for their sites, and both chose to select a single master developer to take charge of construction. Stapleton has been under development since 2001, while Mueller has been on the go since 2004. Both master plans exhibit all the best of current planning thought, focusing on mixed uses, higher but mixed densities, pedestrian and transit orientation (both have rapid transit stops planned or under construction), significant open space components,  and an overall emphasis on social, economic and environmental sustainability. The developer at Stapleton, for instance, is grinding up old infrastructure for reuse, stating sensibly: “It’s cheaper to mine the runways than to go mine the quarries.” Both sites have garnered significant interest in planning circles, and Stapleton in particular has received numerous Smart Growth awards, one from as far away as Sweden. An interesting analysis of Denver’s Stapleton redevelopment here, and a comparison of Denver and Austin’s approaches by Austin’s Chamber of Commerce here.

The other notable Canadian urban airport debate would be over Toronto’s Island Airport. Closure of this airport has also been considered in recent years, and the current mayor David Miller was elected in 2003 partly on a pledge to nix plans to build a bridge to the island (currently served by a ferry). Similar arguments have been made in that city, with a swelling downtown residential population arguing for closure or restrictions for quality of life reasons, and the business community citing the need for expansion for reasons of economics.

So Edmonton is not alone in this. Arguments on both sides still need to be made, and the final word will be heard from City Council. But it seems clear that the “eye teeth” argument, that Edmonton is a bush league city if it thinks that closing a central airport is a good idea, does not hold water. Some very dynamic North American cities have made the tough choice to close their airports, and then have gotten busy constructing a progressive urban vision for them. Taking planes out of the downtown skies may not necessarily mean that the sky is falling.

A House of Cards

10 11 2008

A recent article in The Walrus, Grim Repo, describes the fallout from the US housing crisis in Stockton, California. Families who were surviving in the good years when housing prices were rising and gas prices were low enough that the cost of an hour and a half (each way!) daily commute to San Francisco was manageable, have folded up and drifted away. They’ve left behind scores of empty houses: 1 in every 10 in Stockton has been foreclosed upon in the last several years since the housing market started its freefall.

Urban decay in Harlem, by futurebird

Urban decay in Harlem - photo by futurebird

I often wonder (and worry) about the future adaptability of suburban landscapes. Monoculture land uses are functional as long as driving is affordable. But if gas prices spike (and stay spiked), suburbs become a land of privilege. Or poverty. More affluent areas will survive, as their residents more easily absorb increased costs. But residents of more modest means may find it less and less affordable to stay, and will find it harder and harder to find someone to take their property off their hands. Remote and unifunctional suburban areas could become the new slums, sprawling versions of urban decay a la 1970s Harlem.

Inner ring suburbs will likely fare better, as they are close enough to the center to be practical, and yet they are also old enough for redevelopment to be a natural evolution. Depending on their age, they may even be less segregated in their land use; maybe they will already have corner stores and offices in the neighborhood that could be easily expanded or adapted to serve an increasingly localized population.

But some of these older neighborhoods will pose problems as well. Intentionally disconnected, curvilinear local streets make sense for a driving culture, but are the opposite of what pedestrians, cyclists and transit require. They are also less adaptable to higher-density urban style development. Ripping them up and starting from scratch may be a tempting solution, but may be a prohibitively expensive proposition for a society burdened by ever-tightening energy supplies.

“Repo Tours,” rapid-fire group viewings of foreclosed properties, are all the rage in Stockton these days. Speculative buyers grab these properties at auction rates, fix them up a little bit and hope for the good times to return so that they can flip them for a profit. Maybe this optimistic scenario will play out in the next couple of years and speculators will find enough people who want to buy these houses. But I don’t think I’ll be one of them.

Check out futurebird’s blog (where I got the photo) at