Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

When City Council Won’t Listen to Reason

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Dear Winnipeg,

If you’re like me, you love this city. And despite its many issues, you’re willing to step up and be the change you wish to see here.

But you’ve no doubt felt, from time to time, just a whiff of what I can best describe as the overwhelming, soul-crushing vortex of despair, frustration, anger, depression and futility brought on by trying to convince the City to make changes. Any changes.

It can sometimes feel like absolutely no one on Council or in Administration is even listening. [Like, what is on that screen? Are they playing Candy Crush?]

That despite your best emails, media coverage, in-person meetings, witty posts on social media, or speeches at delegations, you’re essentially just banging your head against a brick wall. For fun and profit.

Minus the profit part, of course.

Because despite some people’s best efforts to paint you and your fellow change-seekers as “special interests” or “lobby groups”, you are just regular Winnipeggers trying to improve their city, or as I’ve heard Wolseley Renter (now Lord Roberts Lady) put it, just “volunteers trying to work themselves out of a job”.

And this is true whether you’re trying to improve city trees, recreational facilities, greenspace, transportation, safety, land use, or just straight-up avoiding municipal bankruptcy.

Well, you are not alone. And I am here to help.

You see, I too have felt that way every now and again. But I have a trick for getting your mojo back that I’d like to share with you:

[Note: Confession time… I think I made this up? But it’s also entirely possible I read it somewhere. If anyone knows of where I may have subconsciously ripped this off of, let me know! I’d be happy to give credit.]

Effecting change in a city is like a stack of stones. And successfully moving the top stones requires a strong base of lower stones.

So if you’re working your tail off and feeling like you’re getting nowhere (or worse, the vortex!), you’re probably working at too high a level. You need to level down and give yourself a few quick wins before leveling up again. Work at as low a level as you need to succeed. Only then do you move back up the stack. Doing it this way not only creates the stable base you need for your stack, but it’ll also give you the mental strength to continue to work for change. [Because it’s always more encouraging to keep playing when you’re winning.]

I like to think of it as the Strong Towns approach, but for the soul.

Let’s look at some examples.

City Level

This is the level most people picture when they think of working to improve the city. At this level, you are working at the scale of the city. This is where you join (or create) an advocacy group for an issue. It’s where you write to Council, make presentations to committees, fill out public engagement surveys, attend City information open houses, and organize/attend demonstrations to affect policy. It’s the level where you choose to run for office when none of the rest seems to be working.

It’s also the level where it’s easiest for a person to be ignored by Council and/or Administration. Even if that person is 100% right.

So if you’re feeling disillusioned at the lack of progress you’re making here, time to level down. [Don’t worry, you can come back to this level, once you’ve charged up on the lower ones.]

Neighbourhood Level

At this level, you’re working at the scale of your own neighbourhood. This is neighbours, community groups and local businesses working together to improve their neck of the woods. You’ll still find some neighbourhood-focused advocacy groups starting up, like the safe streets campaign in the Bourkevale neighbourhood. But you’ll also find people joining, starting (or re-starting) their neighbourhood associations to do neighbourhood clean-ups, front porch musical festivals, community scavenger hunts, and banding street trees for cankerworms. And you’ll find neighbours getting together to beautify parks, do safety walks and try out tactical urbanism projects on area streets.

This is a before-and-after of the work of some amazing volunteers in my neighbourhood who took it upon themselves to clean up the garden beds at Elmwood (Roxy) Park. This is neighbourhood-level change.

The activities at this level bring immediate and tangible improvement to the neighbourhood, but they’re also a huge help when you need to level up. It’s one thing for Council or Administration to ignore a single person or group calling for safer streets in their area… but it becomes a lot harder to ignore when nearly a dozen community groups in a neighbourhood start working together on actual traffic calming projects.

Not to mention that success in one neighbourhood nearly always inspires other neighbourhoods to do the same. One neighbourhood applying for a Use of Street permit to install a parklet on a regional street? Who cares? But a dozen neighbourhoods doing it? Well, now the City might have to hire someone to deal with this…

But success at this level is dependent on having existing bonds between neighbours. There has to be a certain amount of trust already built-up to get people to come and pull weeds at the park with you…

So, if you’re having a hard time garnering neighbourhood support for your project, you’ve likely got some nurturing to do at the level below. Time to level down!

Street Level

For the purposes of this level, when I say street, I mean the immediate vicinity of where you live. It can be all or some of the residences on your street, but it can also mean the houses across the back lane from you, the other apartments on your floor, or some other measure of “close by”.

At this level, you’re looking to connect with the people who share the same general space in the neighbourhood as you.

Examples of activities at this level include bringing muffins or a bottle of wine to a neighbour who just moved in, setting up a turquoise table or bench in your front yard, creating a love letter with your garden, drawing a macarena zone on your sidewalk, or planning a pancake party in your front yard for your neighbours. But it can be almost anything you imagine!

You’re building trust, and opening the door to conversations about your neighbourhood. You’ll find that no matter how different people are, when you live close by, you’ll tend to have the same vested interests in the neighbourhood, similar things you like about it, and similar worries about what could be improved.

These are the people who’ll eventually help you organize an outdoor family movie night, build an on-street parklet, or weed the park, at the Neighbourhood Level.

But if you’re struggling to find the motivation or mental energy to put yourself out there at this level, you may need to level down once more.

You Level

Sometimes, you just need to focus on some self-care. You can’t recharge the neighbourhood, or the city, if your own batteries are on low.

You may need to completely unplug for a bit, and just take a breather from being a change-maker. You’ll come back to it when you’ve filled your cup.

One of my favourite things to do at this level is walk around my neighbourhood. In addition to all the physical and mental benefits that walking itself confers, going for a walk lets you reconnect with your neighbourhood in a way nothing else can. It lets you start to recognize familiar faces who may have similar walking routes, or have you discover a new local shop that just opened up. And importantly, you’ll be able to notice, up close, where your neighbourhood, and your neighbours, struggle. Whether that’s an unsafe crossing, a broken tree branch, a community centre in dire need of repair, a bus stop that could use some shade or a bench, or any number of other things, this is where you’ll gain the insight needed for the conversations with your neighbours at the Street Level.

Another thing to do at this level is to continue to educate yourself. Whether that’s watching videos on YouTube [I highly recommend Not Just Bikes], reading blogs [I obviously recommend Strong Towns], or reading books [I have lots of recommendations… I may even develop a page for that one day], you can’t go wrong learning something you didn’t know before.

On that topic, I recently had the privilege to read an advance copy of Chuck Marohn’s second book in the Strong Towns series, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, which is due out for release on September 8th.

Wow. If ever there was a book that so perfectly captures Winnipeg’s dysfunction with regards to transportation, this is it. In a way, I kind of found myself wishing I didn’t know what I know so I could have gone in fresh to get my mind maximally blown.

I know. A book about transportation. Sounds… riveting. But trust me, it’s great, and totally easy to read. You’ll definitely recognize some of the themes I’ve already written about here. Plus, if you’re serious about improving our city, this is a must-read. I couldn’t get more than a few pages at a time without thinking about yet another public official who would benefit to read it. [If you’re a public official who thinks I’m referring to you here… yes, I am.]

And know ahead of time, this isn’t meant to be a book for engineers, or policy “wonks” (although it still works for them too). It’s a book for regular people who want a better city, but are currently looking to fill their cup with the sweet, sweet nectar of transportation knowledge. It’s a book for you and me.

And just a heads-up, the last chapter is a doozy. I did manage to hold back the tears. But just barely.

Also, small content warning if you are a traffic engineer… this book will definitely challenge you. But that’s a good thing.

So let’s do this: One city, one book. Transportation edition.

You can pre-order a copy through your favourite local bookstore (or major retailers). Or you can borrow it from the public library.

I can’t wait to talk about this with all of you!

Love,

Elmwood Guy