Even with some hiccups, the future is bright for London – Ontario that is.

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As my VIA train trip home was delayed, it gave me a chance to reflect on my time here in London.

The purpose of my visit to London was to attend a course on Advanced Local Government with Andy Sancton at the University of Western Ontario. Many of my followeres know I am in the Masters of Public Admin Local Government Program.  For those in political and public admin circles, I’m sure you’ve come across many of his journal articles.  If not, Google him and you will find a plethora of information about him.  I have nothing but praise for him and his passion on local government issues.

I stayed at a hotel on the southside and took transit to Western.  I wanted to view parts as a curious spectator with my former transit planning eyes.

Through some previous knowledge and research of London is that their downtown, Central London as it is called, is your proverbial “hole in the donut”. The suburbs have sucked the life out of downtown with big box retail and medium level chain restaurants like Earl’s and Jack Astor’s.  Moxie’s is the exception.

I Instagrammed a photo of the corner of Richmond and Dundas.   

Plenty of low end ground floor retail such as convenience stores as part of historic buildings.  Mark McAlllister from Global News commented on my photo:

Downtown was struggling when I lived there 20+ years ago. The garden market came in afterward and it didn’t seem to have much of an impact. Neither did the arena.

Further to this, plenty of parking lots.  What a way to invite people to downtown by a having a plethora of parking spots. The photos below were taken at 7:30 on a Friday night.   So nothing has really changed.

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I was a bit skeptical of the transit service.  I wasn’t used to service in a mid-sized city.  I boarded Route 90 most days from White Oaks Mall and transferred downtown to connect to a University bound bus – either Routes 2 or 6.  Route 90 operates only during weekdays for 12 hours per day with a 20 minute headway, aka frequency.  It’s hard to justify an express route when its main destinations are hospitals, malls and downtown.  I don’t know the ridership during the school year, but I hope it would be better than what I experienced. The land use along the route doesn’t really justify an express route. Predominantly low rise housing and auto-oriented development.  Some ground floor retail north of downtown along Richmond Row – a trendy stretch with retail and restaurants.  But the alternative local routes 10 and 13 along Wonderland Road and Wellington Road respectively meander through several areas before they head to the University.

A second issue with the transit service was there was too much layover time.  I will use the example from Friday. The operator on Route 10 departed the University late after he got his coffee.  Downstream the driver layed over for about 10 minutes at the Westmount shopping mall.  It gets better. There were two subsequent stops outside of schools that were less than 500 metres apart.  Unless there is some rule with Westmount Mall, a transit terminal with multiple routes should have a walking distance of 750 metres.  If I were working as a planner or manager, I would conduct a stop audit as well as a review of layovers.  I’m sure there are savings to be realized.

A third issue were the electronic destination signs.  They are inconsistent.  Some of the routes have the number and route name.  Others have the destination included.  I get that they have automatic stop announcements including transfers to routes, including the one that passengers are currently on.  But .  Unless passengers are consulting a schedule and are already cognizant of the routes themselves, these signs should be modified.

Finally was their real time information.  While I commend them for having boards with arrival times at major transfer points like Richmond and Dundas, their information is not connected with any apps, like the Transit App.  I am unaware if London Transit officials have been approached by these app developers to collect the GPS tracking data or vice versa.  But hopefully an agreement is in place soon.

Good news is on the way.

Being the curious person that I am, I wanted to see what has been going on to rectify some of these planning problems.

In doing a search of downtown studies, a Dundas Place Vision Study completed in early 2015 by IBI Group .  The study uses the planning buzzwords like placemaking, reducing on street parking, complete streets, and mixed streets.  In referencing mixed streets, IBI’s recommendation was to remove transit altogether on Dundas and eliminate some on-street parking.  Glad to see London Transit come out and quash that idea.  As mentioned in my Instagram photo, a transit mall with protected bike lanes could be a possibility.

As of April 2015, a new Downtown Plan went before City Council for approval. Some of their strategic directions include a vibrant Dundas Street corridor, reconnection with the Thames River and economic development initiatives.

Dillon Consulting just completed the first draft of a route review for London Transit and went through public consultation recently.  The recommendations suggest some route design modifications, elimination of inefficient routes and new frequency.

With a progressive city council, I would hope they provide the policy and planning directions for staff to get the move forward in revitalizing and energizing the City .  There is a bright future for London.  I make a toast to that!

I Like Being Poached and I Cannot Lie

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Like I said, this blog would be a little different.

One of my old coworkers posted an article on LinkedIn on the nature of the being poached or recruited in the present day employment market.  It rings true.

While I was employed in the transit planning profession, I was poached by more than a handful, but not quite two hands full of recruiters over the years compared to little success in landing an interview while responding on my own to a posting.  Most of the time while I was being poached, the jobs that were offered to me were lateral moves and in area of the profession I wasn’t interested in.

I will never forget I bit on one potential management opportunity in Niagara Falls several years ago.  As much as it was a wonderful stepping stone, in my gut I knew it wasn’t the right position for me.  I should have went with my gut and I made that two hour trek all for naught.

I knew in my mind while I was getting poached I wanted to do something different, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  I was of two minds – land use planning or policy.  I had never been recruited for a policy-related position and the conferences I attended, those I networked with were mainly in transportation or urban planning.  As one of my colleagues said, many transportation people are “gear heads”, and that I’m not.

Now that I’ve closed my consulting business, I decided to enter new waters and fully commit to making a career transition.  Networking can only get you so far especially when you’re breaking into a new field and no one knows who you are.  The article mentions 60% stayed within their own industry, compared with just 40% of active searchers and even less, 22% who get a job are searching.  

It’s easy to blame the human resources profession because of their reliance on keyword recognition for narrowing down hundreds of candidates to just a handful.  But many will rely on trust and referrals, sometimes they will go so far as to Google your name to see if you have made any disparaging remarks or find something negative about you.

Now that I am making a career transition towards GR & policy analysis in a very saturated market, it’s back to ground zero for me proving that 10 years of skills and experience are transferable into another profession.    I will continue to make myself known in my new network through school, social media and (inexpensive) conferences and seminars.

I liked being poached and I cannot lie.  I can’t wait to take my talents somewhere.

A lesson for transit agencies – think outside the box on affordable housing

In all the recent discussion in Toronto regarding revamping Section 37 in Ontario and providing proper allocation for affordable housing, especially along the Avenues, there is no talk on where these types of units will be located.

Sure there has been a recent trend in Toronto’s development industry towards building of new market-rate rental housing units instead of condominiums, but that still does not solve the problem of affordable housing.

Sure we will applaud Vancouver developer Westbank Corp to committing to rental housing at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor replacing the storied Honest Ed’s.  But these until will also be market-rate rental.

But therein lies the problem of providing appropriate levels of affordable housing along transit corridors where many of its riders are located.  University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski’s report “Three Cities within Toronto” much of the middle income will be all but gone and lower income residents will be located in the peripheries by 2025.  This is assuming that there will be no major policy changes that in the next 10 years, especially ones that lead to affordable housing and equitable income distribution according to the report (Hulchanski, 27).

The lack of affordable housing in cities has become a national crisis in cities on both sides of the border and action must be taken. Los Angeles Metro is being encouraged to get in the game.  In the Los Angeles Times editorial, they encourage Metro’s Board of Directors to vote yes on providing affordable housing along transit lines. 

On Thursday, Metro’s Board of Directors will consider setting a goal that 35% of all apartments and condos built on land no longer needed by Metro be set aside for low-income residents. To that end, the agency would, for the first time, offer its land for lease or sale at below-market cost for projects that include affordable units. In addition, Metro would kick in $10 million to a new trust fund that would provide seed money to developers to build low-income housing.

35% is a good starting point but it realistically might be whittled down to 25%-30%.  Those are aggressive targets that are not even encouraged within Ontario’s Section 37 guidelines.

TTC, for example, already has a Property Development Department.  The Property Acquisition Management Plan outlines criteria on takings for acquiring property which includes their Secondary Exit Strategy for subway stations.  Many of the other transit agencies resort to their city or region’s real estate departments for taking on rapid transit projects.

It already is a foregone conclusion that many residents of these newly built high rise condominium projects masked as transit-oriented development will use their cars more than using transit.  It is those lower and middle income residents who are captive or choice riders who use transit the most.  It makes good business sense for transit agencies to explore this opportunity.

It is essential that transit agencies across Canada look beyond its ridership numbers and operations and collaborate with other city departments to follow Los Angeles’ lead. It’s time cities be creative by thinking outside the box on affordable housing.

UPDATE: The Metro Board of Directors approved the Mayor’s initiative to have 35% of their properties developed as affordable units. Press release here.

Ambition personified – Regional Governance Research

Earlier today, I posted this photo over social media.

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Chicken scratch aka Regional Governance notes

As followers of this blog and on social media channels know, I have been supportive of assembling a regional governance model for the Greater Toronto area, beyond the various special purpose bodies and regional groups that exist in the region.

As I set of on a journey towards completing courses within the Masters of Public Administration degree, this is the research I plan to embark on.

For those who cannot read my chicken scratch (I apologize to my future colleagues and professors in advance), here are the questions I hope to answer within my research:

  • How do we fend off the perception will be another level of government?
  • How do we not make the mistakes in the development of a Megacity/Unicity model of Toronto and Winnipeg?
  • How will this governance model encourage direct participation/engagement?
  • Manpower/human resources while avoiding duplication
  • What will be the financial benefits/costs to such a governance structure?
  • What to do with the current regional municipalities of Peel, Halton, Durham and York?
  • What will be the geographic boundaries?  Who stays and who goes?
  • What will be the makeup of political representation?
  • Planning, health, transportation, infrastructure, housing, water and environment should be the key areas within this structure?  Are there any others that should be included?
  • What will intergovernmental relations look like?  Funding, MOUs and grants
  • How could this model be different when it comes to developing an innovative culture.
  • Are there benefits of replicating the US model of metropolitan planning organizations like SCAG, SEMCOG, etc?
  • What will the relationship be with the federal and provincial governments?  Advocacy groups role for organizations like AMO and FCM?
  • Economic development and marketing of region – How will organizations like the GTMA and TRBOT play a role, if any?

Much of my research will be conducted utlilizing the professional knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the years; knowledge through the courses I will be taking; and, secondary research and primary research from questions I ask to politicians in all levels of government and those in the advocacy organizations I mention.

I maybe well ahead of the game here, but it is definitely something I am looking forward to doing in the next few years.  I am sure there will be many other questions to be asked and answered. Maybe some of these questions will be modified.  By the time I begin this research, I may focus on one program or policy area specific to regional governance.  It is a start.

What do you think?  Am I missing anything?  Please post your comments.

Transition is almost complete.

I had been contemplating what to write about in my next blog post.  I had several drafts written but never completed them.  They were of course planning policy related.  But given my career transition, I wanted the blog post to be positive.  It is always easy to harp on the past – positive or negative.  It is about moving forward and learning from your experiences.  I even contemplated shutting this blog down altogether.  I trudge along.

So as an introduction to the re-born Urban Strategist blog, I wanted do a little storytelling.

Defense of the planning profession no more.

Several years removed from my second degree in urban planning, and jumping from job to job in the financial sector and co-op housing, I went to work for the Canadian Urban Transit Association in 2006.  This was not the first time I applied there.  I was rejected twice before but was subsequently given a third chance after the person they hired resigned.  Coincidentally, him and I met that same year at an event and had become friends ever since.

I was stubborn and wanted to be involved in land use planning.  Never received that opportunity in Canada so I took my talents to the Los Angeles where I worked in regional transportation planning.  In the 3 years, I learned enough about project management, policy analysis and development, grant application reviews, and regional governance.

For the next 7 years, I learned about transit service planning but I was not satisfied.  Some people enjoy that work, but I don’t.  It isn’t for me.  I definitely needed a change in direction.  During that time, I said to friends and colleagues I wanted to get back into what I enjoyed – regional governance and strategic thinking.

The last straw came in a leadership course I completed just before I resigned.  I was an angry person and was juggling things at home.  One thing was for certain – I needed a change.  Coaching, mentoring, strategic planning and change management on top of policy work were things I enjoyed.

Maybe all those organizations who rejected me was a sign that I should not be in planning profession altogether.  I’m not a technically sound individual.  It would sicken me to read posts utilizing planning verbiage. My mind doesn’t work like that.

After copious amounts of networking, attending and planning events surrounding the planning profession, and paying for a useless planning designation, that was it. It was time to do something else.  I had to remove myself from the industry, which meant even reinventing myself on LinkedIn and removing connections that I would no longer be associating myself with.

Summer of 2014 and the journey beyond

Various personal events clouded my judgement even further. I needed to get back on track.  I was desperate and needed something to happen fast.  The first was career counselling.  Plenty of introspection was involved.  One of the exercises was to think of which animal I represent.  I am a bear –  Tough on the outside and very sensitive on the inside.  Fast forward to several weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, I realized that I am a brown bear according to Native American astrology.  Funny how things work.

I volunteered and was very active on two local political campaigns.  I had been enticed to run on several occasions and was asked once while in Alberta.  In the end, I thought better of it and knew it wasn’t for me.  I still wanted to do behind the scenes policy work but receive recognition for it.

One of the bucket list items was for me to obtain a graduate degree.  On the third attempt, I will finally get that opportunity where I will be working towards a Master’s of Public Administration degree from Western.

I also revamped my resume to reflect my career transition into policy analysis and government relations.  Even with my research I intend to focus on governance.

Several weeks ago, completed the True Colours Test again.  Although I knew I was critical and analytical, what I didn’t realize was that I have a desire to analyze systems and I am drawn to technical occupations.  Then I thought about it, maybe it made sense.  While in my two transit planning positions, I always wanted to find ways to change the network or even the departmental structures, but again, I wanted to go in a different direction.  Earlier I said I detested technical work dealing with the mundane and repetition.  Maybe it had to do with the profession I chose?

Conclusion

Everyone has a direction in life and will have different paths to getting there.  I have taken the long winding journey. I learned plenty along the way.  I learned to overcome the challenges.  I was desperate for action but asking people who I didn’t know well enough to help me with that direction was not the answer.

This blog will now reflect discussions on policy and governance. I won’t be distraught by those who stop following this blog.  I look forward in building a new professional network and rebuilding my career.

A language change is necessary

In 1994, I read Reinventing Government for a book review in a human resources class in my senior year. Bill Clinton was President and the Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.  Jean Chretien was Prime Minister. The language was different.  The steering.  The rowing.  Citizens as taxpayers.  Passengers as customers.  Government should be run by a business.  These were times where neo-conservatism speak seeped into everyday language, and still does.

Working in the transit profession, I could not wrap my head around the change customer over passenger.  In transit speak, we would talk about passengers.  Passenger counts, passenger riders, passengers per capita, etc.  But when we talk to passengers who ride transit, the language changes.  It is about the “customers” who ride transit.  Like there is a fear of those transit ridership will be lost.  Transit is funded by property tax dollars in Canada, and by other means elsewhere in the world.  Transit is not going anywhere.  It is an alternative means of transportation aside from the automobile, bicycle or even walking.

But here is what irks me the most.  TTC’s Customer Charter, which was released today.   Ok, maybe irks is too strong of a word.  Bothers me might be more a propos.

Who is really going to read or call out the TTC if they fail to come through on their promises?  Maybe the odd transit foamer, TTC Riders or hard nose stingy politician?  All that matters are the large improvements to the system.  Passengers want to move, with improved service and comfort.  There are many big picture thinkers, like myself, who rely on a strategic plan.  Citizens or passengers should be thinking beyond the short term snippets and view long term improvements and the system’s resiliency.

Whether it is a business or public organization, improvements are inevitable.  This is what happens in the age of social media and where gotcha moments are the norm.  These are the Tim Horton’s voters as mentioned in Susan Delacourt’s “Shopping for Votes”.   Tim Horton’s voters were those who would not normally vote. Citizens don’t care about policy statements that cannot be summarized in a Facebook post or in 140 characters.  My concern is that the language has been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  As a result, there is no vision.

This is not about moving backwards and bucking trends.  A new public service movement is necessary.  What that will look like has yet to be determined.  But a language change is necessary.

The Greenbelt Act needs to grow up, but not the way one real estate policy professional thinks.

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I was looking to find the source of a couple of Jennifer Keesmaat’s tweets on the Greenbelt:

I found this article: Has Toronto’s Greenbelt done more good than harm? Written by Tom Curtis who calls himself a “Toronto-based real-estate policy professional.”  

In doing some investigation through LinkedIn and piecing parts of the article, I found that “Thomas Curtis”, was a Senior Policy Advisor with the Realty Management Branch at the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure until May of this year.  Like me, he is unemployed so I am not going after him on that.  Also his education and experience is London-based, so he referenced his experiences from there.  Curtis touches on how the Greenbelt Act is currently under its 10 year review. So is Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, better known as Places to Grow. You cannot address one without the other.  He failed to mention the precursor to this legislation, the Provincial Policy Statement, which was updated this past Spring.  These are the critical flaws to Curtis’ article.

Flaws aside, he is highly critical of the Greenbelt Act.

Meanwhile, Greenbelt legislation has been introduced, premised on controlling the GTA’s urban growth boundaries. This, along with municipally-enforced density and height restrictions, heritage building protections and NIMBYism, impedes any effort to balance the supply of housing stock with demand. The result of this imbalance has been extreme and it is highly visible: hyper-development and Manhattanization of the downtown core, rapid gentrification of neighbourhoods, severe overcrowding of the transit system, and skyrocketing rents and property values.

There is a balancing act that must take place when any policy is developed. Development, transportation, community development and environmental issues are all taken into account.  While the legislations, with the adherence of Toronto’s Official Plan to directs the city to build up instead of out, there are other factors that should be addressed.

In 2005, the Neptis Foundation wrote about the Greenbelt’s shortcomings in its report on the draft of the Greenbelt Plan.  In it of note with respect to addressing urban sprawl, not much has changed.  We are still speaking of such issues as traffic congestion, the environment and development pressures.

I have been critical of the maintenance of heritage buildings and NIMBYism in the past.  But Curtis totally makes some intriguing points in the latter half of that paragraph.

I have been critical in how we have developed our tower neighbourhoods. The housing market is skewed towards young single adults who are part of the creative class.   Families who want to live downtown need to make rational economic choices and sacrifices.  Condos are smaller in size.  Newer developments either have limited or no parking spaces, so does one sacrifice closet size or having a vehicle at all.  Even decisions about how many children to have come into play.

Second, gentrification may not be a bad thing at all. it is inevitable that neighbourhoods cannot stay intact without necessary change.  But when it comes to social justice issues, therein lies the problem.  New immigrants maybe attracted to the city, but can they afford living in these revitalized neighbourhoods.  Black communities tend to remain stable and are pushed out of necessity.  Do planners, urbanists, developers and policy makers have an understanding of cultural issues?

Third, overcrowding of the transit system has absolutely nothing to do with the Greenbelt plan and everything to do with the underinvestment into our transit infrastructure.  The City and the region have simply not kept up.

While Curtis clearly doesn’t understand planning legislation, let alone theory, both the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow need some growing up to do.  I have proposed three areas that need to be reviewed in addition to planning legislation.

  1. Regionalization. I will continue to say this until I am blue in the face.  in order to address planning, health, transportation and infrastructure issues, the Province must establish a regional governance structure for the Greater Toronto Area to tackle these issues. It is not solely a Toronto issue.  Professionals and policy makers must come together as a starting point to discuss how to make this region resilient.  Official establishment of a regional government should also be a discussion point.  There are pros and cons to regional government, but it is worth raising if we are going to move forward as a region.
  2. Social Justice. Many in the Greater Toronto Area are very familiar with Hulchanski’s Three Cities with Toronto report.  Policies like the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow, ignore what happens when cities become more dense.  As I mentioned earlier, we need a greater understanding of mobility patterns of new immigrants and specifically of Caribbean, African, and Latin American communities.  Is there a difference in how different ethnicities live and why aren’t planners addressing these when developing newer or revitalizing communities?    Are we measuring these relative to the intended goals of the Greenbelt Act?
  3. National attention to urban issues. In order for those two policies to work, there needs to be attention paid to cities, namely in the form of national housing and transportation policies. Housing affordability is a major factor in the decisions of home owners and condo dwellers.  Part of the onus is on the homebuyer as mentioned, but something must give.  Land use transportation connections are the premise behind Places to Grow, Greenbelt, PPS and Official Plans.  Proper transportation infrastructure is sorely needed for this region. The federal government needs to play its part. Brent Toderian and RIchard Florida called for a department for cities at the federal level.  The NDP released their Urban Agenda earlier this month calling for better governance, social and built infrastructure.  Mind you, I believe it lacked teeth compared to what the Federal Liberals released in 2002.

Tom, I think you need to brush up on your planning and politics before criticizing legislation.  Or is he just angry at his former employers?