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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Future Fear

Nathan Raine
Published Wednesday November 26, 01:23 am
Why is Saskatoon so slow to embrace progressive change?

Saskatoon has a reputation for a number of things: an abundance of goofy big trucks, bad winters and lots of sunshine, for just a few examples.

Implementing progressive policy change in a timely and uncontroversial fashion is not one of those things.

Most recently, Saskatoon has been spooked by the prospect of composting. The City outlined a potential city-wide curbside composting program, which could possibly entail a $10 mandatory monthly fee. But the proposal has been less than well-received. And fair enough, perhaps: developing a compost processing plant would be expensive, and there is the question of whether a mandatory year-round food and waste collection really is affordable and necessary.

Nevertheless, this is far from the first forward-thinking proposal that has met an overwhelming amount of resistance. In May of 2012, Saskatoon was one of the last major cities in Canada to implement a curbside recycling program — a process of which took six years. Our transit system is a perpetual mess, decent bike lanes are still non-existent, wind turbines will apparently cause city-wide seizures, and on and on.

Why is Saskatoon so timid around progressive ideas for change? Bob Patrick, a geography and urban planning professor at the University of Saskatchewan, says it might have something to do with the city’s rapid growth.

“Where other cities have been active on things like bike paths or other transit corridors, or different types of development, those opportunities weren’t on the table here,” said Patrick. “People here weren’t necessarily thinking about that stuff. And then all of the sudden, wham, [growth] kind of hit. And [the City’s] response wasn’t as immediate as some of us would have liked.”

A 2013 report showed that Saskatoon still ranks among the fastest-growing cities in Canada, with the city’s 3.9 per cent growth rate second only to Calgary’s 4.3 per cent.

“For a long time we were a kind of like Sleepy Hollow — we just didn’t feel that pressure,” says Patrick. “And then in the last five years, with the population increase, the pressure has kind of hit. The City is scrambling and trying to keep up with day-to-day activities, and, at the same time, trying to be innovative as well. The city didn’t see a whole lot of growth for a whole lot of time, and now things are growing quickly, and Saskatoon is quickly becoming a modern city.”

Part of the problem when it comes to the slow acceptance of innovation, says Patrick, might be due to an over-analytical approach to any and all change.

“Things get studied and restudied. In one way, that’s good, but it also delays things from happening,” he says. “The response to change is often to study and get other people to the table to tell us what we should be doing, so that creates delay as well. And this planning process can sometimes take any number of years to get some of these reports back in. So they get an idea [then expect to hear] ‘Wow, now we have a new report on transit,’ or ‘We’ve got a report on bike lanes,’ [but] these things take time to evolve. So there’s a delay factor in those things as well.

“Be it senior management, elected officials, council — there just seems to be a lack of resolve to work quickly,” says Patrick. “I don’t know how progressive the council is. I think looking at the council, there are some people there that are more worldly or more attuned to innovation and what other cities are doing. There could be people on council that aren’t that innovative or progressive in that regard.”

One of those city councillors who’s considered more progressive, and who’s championed a lot of initiatives (including bike lanes) is Charlie Clark.

“From what I’ve seen, there can often be a tendency in the community where when new ideas come up, polarization can occur quite quickly. And people make up their minds about the other side and they kind of dig in and stay there,” says Clark. “That’s one of the things that we have to figure out in the city, is how to allow some of the ideas to develop a little bit more and then create the space for people who see things differently to really hash it out and talk about them in a more productive way.”

A current example of that polarization within city council are the proposed bike lanes on 4th Ave. and 24th St. One driving lane would be eliminated in each direction to make room for bike paths, and parking space in the area would be reduced — which is not sitting well with the downtown business community.

“Because [of] the way it came out there was a lot of momentum and enthusiasm for it, and then at the very end of the process when it was coming out to council, there was a huge backlash. And the way it played out, it was kind of the business community against the cyclists. [Recently] there was an open house where all of the information was put on the table. And I’m hopeful as a result we are going to be able to see that this isn’t just one winner and one loser, that there are ways to view new ideas, ways of tackling things that allow people to get past initial polarizing reactions and work it through together,” says Clark.

Clark says that in order to expedite some of these proposals, it’s a good idea to work out and implement a rough draft of the idea.

“Some of the criticisms or concerns I get, it feels like it’s hard for some people to imagine something that’s different than it is now. That’s why I think it’s good to have a chance to try things out and pilot them. [It’s] sometimes hard to get people excited about something, even if it’s a different or new idea, but I don’t think that’s representative of the whole population. I think there’s a lot of people who do embrace change and want to see change,” he says.

There are a number of areas that require immediate attention and action, says Clark.

“The faster we can change the way we move around the city and the faster we can create the conditions for a stronger downtown residential living and more of an urban city — [the sooner we’ll be] building a city that’s more sustainable for the long term. These are the kinds of decisions that the longer it takes to get there, the harder it is to do. But I think the Integrated Growth Plan and the Growing Forward plan is asking a lot of the right questions. It’s just a time-consuming process to make those big changes,” he says.

Published in June of 2012, the Integrated Growth Plan outlines a transit, land-use, roadway and water-and sewer-servicing strategy to guide the growth of Saskatoon to a population of 500,000 over the next 30 years. But positive and progressive change, contrary to Saskatoon’s history, doesn’t have to take that long.

In the meantime, we can do little things that show people that we can still have a great city even if it’s designed differently,” says Clark, “and maybe even [have] a better city by creating new ways for people to interact with public space and convenient options for people to get around — then you’re not actually compromising quality of life, you’re improving it.”

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