John in Vancouver in 2013

Internationally-renowned planning theorist John Friedmann passed away on June 12, 2017 in Vancouver. At 91, John was an honorary professor at the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), where he taught and conducted research alongside his wife, fellow planning theorist Leonie Sandercock. The fact that he was named the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) Distinguished Educator in 1987, yet continued to teach, publish, supervise students, and conduct research for another 30 years, is a testament to his passion for the discipline.

Generations of urban planning students have been shaped by John’s work as a scholar, theorist, and planner. Born in Vienna in 1926, he arrived in the United States at the age of 14. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1955, and taught at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil (1956-58), MIT (1961-65), and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (1966-69). In 1969, John was one of the founders of the planning program at UCLA under Dean Harvey S. Perloff, and he served as its director for a total of 14 years. He retired from UCLA in 1996, then spent four years as a Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning of the University of Melbourne before joining SCARP as an honorary professor in 2001.

John in 1969

John’s astonishingly productive career spanned major transitions in planning education and employment. From the positivist 1950s and citizen-powered 1960s all the way to the millennial concerns of labour market restructuring and international (re)development, his work evolved over time. While his earliest work was undoubtedly in the realm of regional science and development, central themes were power dynamics among stakeholders, the roles and responsibilities of citizenship, economic transitions in world cities, and the relationship between action and knowledge. His publication record includes 15 individually authored books, 11 co-edited books, and more than 150 chapters, articles, and reviews. Planning in the Public Domain (1987) remains a foundational text in the discipline. His most recent work focused on the urban economic transition in China, with China’s Urban Transition published in 2005. His writings have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Farsi, and he received the first UN-Habitat Lecture Award for lifetime achievement in the service of human settlements in 2006. In 2013, ACSP created the John Friedmann Book Award, to be presented to a book or comparable work that best exemplifies scholarship in the area of planning for sustainable development.

As a SCARP Masters and Ph.D. student from 2005-2011, I saw John frequently, read his work, and was his student in the Ph.D. theory and colloquium courses. The colloquium was a uniquely Friedmann experience: each student was required to present their work twice during the first year, second term, and then repeat the process again the following year. John would ask pointed questions about the theories we relied on, the authors and the relevance of their ideas and methods to the discipline of planning. He wasn’t above suggesting that questions concerning urban design, transportation planning or community health were outside of the realm of planning; indeed, unless your work centered on questions of power, participation, or increasingly, Chinese urban economies, you would find him an inescapable skeptic.

Yet his power as a teacher, mentor, and lecturer was undeniable. With Leonie, John helped reinvigorate the Ph.D. program. The two of them played a large role in the successful graduation of every Ph.D. student since their arrival in 2001, through program and course design, teaching, and supervision. John was instrumental in the work of several Ph.D. students through the colloquium course, shared interests, and informal discussions on theory and practice, including:

  • Aftan Erfan (Ph.D. 2013): Instructor, University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning
  • Sarah Church (Ph.D. 2013): USDA Postdoctoral Fellow, Purdue University
  • James White (Ph.D. 2013): Lecturer in Urban Design, University of Glasgow School of Social and Political Sciences
  • Janice Barry (Ph.D. 2011): Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba Department of City Planning
  • Danielle Labbé (Ph.D. 2011): Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Urbanization in the Global South, Université de Montréal
  • Sheng Zhong (Ph.D. 2010): Lecturer, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou
  • Laura Tate (Ph.D. 2009): Executive Director, InnerChange Foundation
  • Matti Siemiatycki (Ph.D. 2007): Associate Professor at the University of Toronto School of Planning
  • Tanja Winkler (Ph.D. 2005): Associate Professor, University of Cape Town School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics

It was through his eyes that we first saw our own research questions and proposals, and through his critical lens that we learned to defend our theories. This wasn’t always an easy process, because he always demanded more: more reading, a more critical understanding of the literature, and more in-depth research. For him time was not a luxury, but a necessity; he pushed his students to think outside of the typical constraints of funding, publications, and career trajectories.

John exerted his considerable influence to organize a biannual event he called the Ph.D. Jamboree, which brought students from the U.S. and Canada together for one week to hear from well-known planning scholars and to discuss their own research ideas. Bent FlyvbergAnastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, and Mike Douglass are just a few of the visiting scholars who spoke at the Jamboree since its inception in 2003. I don’t think John foresaw the impact of this event on Ph.D. students in planning, who often work in isolation from others and struggle to produce viable research questions, develop methodologies, and conduct research in very different conditions from those in the natural sciences. Every time I attended the ACSP conference and mentioned that I was a Ph.D. student at UBC, the listener would ask how John and Leonie were doing, often because they had met at the Jamboree. The Jamboree created a lasting bond of collegiality between these disparate people, who were always assured of meeting friends at the next ACSP.

In 2014, SCARP alumni received a request from John to develop profiles for the school’s website. In addition to our current/previous positions, he asked us to include what would we consider our main accomplishments to date, any awards we had received, and our thoughts on what our time at SCARP meant to us. I expect many of us are now evaluating what John meant to us, as a teacher, scholar, and mentor. Rest in peace, John.

On March 22, the federal budget was announced, including $2.2 billion over the next 11 years to cities for transit projects, part of $11.9 million that would be allocated to infrastructure. The Liberal government commited to 50% of the funding for municipal projects. This week, municipalities across the country announced how they would use the much-needed funding for public transit infrastructure.

In British Columbia, the federal announcement was matched by the Province’s commitment to contribute another $2.2 billion, allowing regional authority TransLink to move ahead with Phase 2 of a ten-year plan in Vancouver. Projects will include the Broadway subway, which TransLink has wanted to build for over 20 years, Surrey light rail transit, replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, expanding bus and HandyDART services, more railcars and upgrades to the roads, cycling and walking networks.

The big news in Hamilton and Niagara Falls was that they will get all-day GO Transit service, with a contribution of $1.7 billion. Both municipalities also received funding for their bus services. Niagara Falls Transit will use their $3.4 million in federal funding (which will be matched by the city) to develop a real-time “next bus” app, buy new buses, update a transit hub, update its fleet management software, buy and install new fare boxes and allow online booking and management for its specialized curb-to-curb transit system. Hamilton will use its $32 million in federal funding for 13 projects including a bus storage and maintenance facility, new buses, rehabilitation of transit shelters and bus stops, automatic passenger counters, transit priority measures, and improvements at the Mountain Transit Centre.

In Guelph, $9.6 million federal funding will allow the municipality to buy new buses, replace fare boxes, upgrade bus stops, and upgrade the traffic control system. London’s proposed bus rapid transit system will get a boost, in addition to the transformation of Dundas Street in the core into a pedestrian-first “flex street”, replacement of all of London Transit’s bus shelters, and construction of protected bicycle lanes downtown.

Winnipeg announced 33 projects that will be jointly funded by the three levels of government including replacement buses, new bus shelters and handi-vans. The federal government’s 50% of the projects amounts to about $3.1 million, while the province will pay $1.5 million and municipalities will cover about $2 million.

Of the total $11.9 billion allocated for infrastructure, the federal budget sets out $2.2 billion for water and waste management in First Nations communities, $2 billion for the Clean Water and Wastewater fund, $1.5 billion for affordable housing, and $1.2 billion in social infrastructure for First Nations, Inuit, and northern communities. All this spending will come at a cost: the federal budget will not be balanced during the fourth year of the Liberal mandate as promised.

The municipalities of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland moved a step closer to a regional transit system this week when St. Catherines City Council voted to endorse a plan to combine services in the three cities.

Since 2011 Niagara Region, the upper-tier government which includes the three lower-tier municipal governments, has granted funds to Niagara Falls Transit, St. Catharines Transit and Welland Transit in a pilot project to allow the three bus systems to work together. In September 2014, Niagara Region voted to extend the pilot until spring 2017.

A memorandum of understanding and business model would be the next steps if the other two cities endorse the plan. A regional system could possibly serve other smaller centres like Grimsby, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Colborne, if a cost-sharing model could be developed–for example, towns could designate a percentage of their transportation budgets towards regional transit if they don’t already have their own services. Transit providers in the three systems say they already have a good working relationship, meeting on a regular basis and discussing future changes with a joint committee. The larger municipalities already have arrangements to provide services to the smaller centres of Port Colborne, Thorold and Fort Erie.

The pilot project has been successful, with many residents voicing their support of intermunicipal bus service to local councillors. Niagara Region’s motion to extend the pilot by 20 months passed by a vote of 26-1. The Region’s role in a future intermunicipal transit service is still unclear, because it must have the support of a triple majority–a majority of those on council, a majority of local councils (seven of 12) that represent a majority of eligible voters, which seems unlikely. Advocates of a regional system include the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, who say that a single-fare system across municipalities is critical for low-income communities. The long-term goal of system and fare integration seems to be the extension of LRT service to Niagara Region.

Other regions in Canada are also moving towards regional transit services–Edmonton and St. Albert are considering joining their services in order to speed up a proposed LRT extension to St. Albert. There are currently eight transit systems operating independently in Alberta’s Capital Region. Toronto is slowly moving towards a regional system with the introduction of Presto cards across the region allowing fare integration between the eight existing systems, the provincial priority of 15-minute all-day service on the region’s GO train system, and service improvements leading to a 10-minute frequent transit network in Toronto.

gardinerexpressway.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterboxToday, Toronto City Councillors received a staff report that could have major implications on a longstanding issue: what to do about the Gardiner Expressway. Built during the heyday of highway infrastructure, the Gardiner has become an expensive and dangerous piece for the City to maintain, costing millions each year. Chunks of the concrete have fallen onto roadways below the expressway in recent years, and the Gardiner has become emblematic of North America’s lagging postwar faith in technological solutions to urban problems.

Removing the Gardiner Expressway completely has never been on the agenda, at least not in realistic terms, even though cities around the world are struggling through similar decisions. The City is at the end of an extensive environmental assessment process that looked at options for repairing, replacing, or maintaining the section of the Gardiner that runs from Jarvis to the Don Valley Parkway. This 1.7km stretch of the expressway handles only 3% of peak hour trips to downtown. During the morning rush, about 5000 trucks and 500 cars use this stretch every hour. The EA process has spanned six years and consulted over 3,500 stakeholders, but did a thorough job of investigating each option using cost estimates over a 100-year life cycle. The transportation projections used in the evaluation of the options included the assumption that transit alternatives to the expressway will be in place by 2031, including the waterfront LRT, the downtown relief line, and improvements to GO Transit; this would negatively impact demand for the expressway.

The three options currently being discussed are:

  • Remove and replace. An eight-lane boulevard from Jarvis to the DVP would replace the Gardiner This is the cheapest option but you can imagine how long and disruptive the construction would be–it’s estimated at six years but this is Toronto, so figure on a decade–and there would be detours for at least four years. It’s estimated that 75% of driving trips would not change. The cost is estimated at $326 million in capital costs and $135 million in operations and maintenance over the 100-year life cycle ($461 million). This was the City’s preferred option back in 2013–and it’s still the cheapest.
  • Maintain. The City spends millions on maintaining the Gardiner each year because it’s near the end of its lifespan–and because like many cities, maintaining existing infrastructure isn’t exactly a sexy budget expenditure. The cost would be $342 million in capital costs and $522 million in operations and maintenance over the 100-year cycle ($864 million).
  • Replace with a hybrid. This would involve building a new connection to the DVP. Construction is estimated at six years–but would likely be much longer and involve traffic rerouting as well. An estimated 90% of driving trips would not change. The cost is estimated at $414 million in capital and $505 million in operations and maintenance over the 100-year life cycle ($919 million).

City staff is now conducting what is likely the final round of public consultation on the options (never say never) and will present a final report to Council on June 21st. If the selected option is approved by the Province, construction could begin in 2018.

Update: Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat came out in favour of the Remove and Replace option on May 22nd, although Mayor John Tory favours Maintain.

 

Last week’s federal budget announcement has raised the hackles of transportation analysts over the potential for Canadian cities to implement badly needed public transit in its most populous areas. With the creation of a new fund for public transit of $250 million in 2017, the fund would increase to $500 million in 2018 and $1 billion by 2019. This is the first time a federal government has proposed a permanent transit fund–but make no mistake, this budget was designed to counter voter fears in an election year. It has no basis in reality.

While mayor John Tory said he was confident the City of Toronto would get its fair share of the federal funds, TTC Chair Josh Colle said it’s too early to make assumptions because cities across the country would compete against each other to fund projects. Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said the funding still isn’t enough to meet the needs of Ontario cities, or rapidly changing areas like the Ring of Fire mineral deposit, which needs a road or rail connection to develop further. Toronto Star commentator John Barber went even further, calling the proposed funding “a sop to the gullible” since $250 million would only build as much as one subway station in a single city. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi agreed that the federal funding proposal is “too little too late”: years of federal backsliding means that cities have been struggling with aging infrastructure for decades, and the fund doesn’t make a dent in the backlog of proposals for improvements. In Winnipeg, mayor Brian Bowman would hope to use the funding to extend the city’s bus rapid transit system.

There’s no question that our cities face major challenges in dealing with congestion and air quality problems, and for too long the solution has been one-off funding solutions. The tide of transportation choice appears to be turning–even in American suburbs, Millennial transportation choices skew towards public transit. Since Millennials are the largest living generation in the US, transit is beginning to be viewed as an economic development tool to attract young people, in addition to contributing to lower traffic congestion. Many countries have seen a decrease in driving among Millennials, and some have seen an overall decrease in vehicle miles travelled as part of a broad cultural shift as people rethink the way they live and work. Canadian cities badly need a permanent federal fund for transit–but it needs to be in the order of magnitude of billions, not millions. It should also guarantee that small and mid-sized municipalities can get transit that meet their needs, including bus rapid transit, local bus, and bike paths.

Funding shortfalls are common among cities, as this year’s municipal elections have shown. While many governments are turning to public-private partnerships to fund expensive projects, they also work with community organizations, social enterprises, and non-profit groups to implement projects and run programs such as affordable housing for seniors and job placement services for youth. Crowdfunding could represent another aspect of cost-sharing that municipalities could use to help pay for services and projects that have strong support of municipal staff and the public. I’ve written before about participatory budgeting in Vancouver, Calgary, Guelph, and Toronto and posted last month about a crowdfunded bus proposal originating in Toronto’s Liberty Village.

RaiseanArm.org is a civic crowdfunding website created by Abdullah Mayo and the Hamilton Stewardship Council to give the public more of a say in public spending. Building on crowdsourced models common among start-ups and entrepreneurs which allow innovative ideas to find funding from many small donors online, the website aims to allow citizens to suggest ideas for the city. Spacehive in the UK, the world’s first civic crowdfunding site, currently has 359 projects such as recreation facilities, public art, and building restoration projects–50 are now fully funded. Citizeninvestor in the US features projects from $2,500 bike rack installations or tree planting all the way up to $200,000 public parks.

RaiseanArm has worked with the City of Hamilton to investigate the feasibility and legalities of crowdfunding in Ontario. RaiseanArm staff will bring ideas to the City to find out if the project is feasible or already being done in the Hamilton. If the idea were approved by the City, the project would be posted in the website and citizens would be able to pledge financial support or volunteer their services to get the project completed. While Mayo is excited to begin with local projects, he would like to gather support from across Canada and eventually expand to projects across the country.

After last night’s torrential downpour in Toronto and last month’s flooding in Alberta, climate change deniers in Canada must be having trouble making their usual arguments. There has been an increase in unusual weather this past decade, which the World Meteorological Organization recently called “the warmest decade since record-keeping began.” On average, Canada gets 20 days more of rain now than it did in the 1950s. Before 1990, only three Canadian disasters surpassed $500 million in damages–but in the past decade alone, there were nine.

Last night, Toronto received over 90 mm of rain; the average monthly average is 74.4 mm. Toronto Hydro reported that 300,000 people were without power at one point, including up to 80% of Mississauga residents. Drivers were stranded in their cars, which were left abandoned as rain waters overtook them, and passengers on a GO train to Richmond Hill had to be rescued by marine units after it was overcome with water. Some subway stations flooded, and power and signal problems caused major delays. Even the stalwart Toronto Island ferry was disabled by power failures.

On June 20th, many Alberta cities experienced severe flooding, including Calgary, High River, Okotoks, Canmore, Lethridge, Medicine Hat and Crowsnest Pass. 100,000 people in Calgary were evacuated from their homes, including those living downtown, as the Elbow and Bow Rivers overflowed. Dramatic photos from the event show the entire city submerged under flood waters.

The NASA ISERV camera on the International Space Station captured these pictures before and after the flood.

The NASA ISERV camera on the International Space Station captured the photo on the right after the flood.

Calgary Transit has posted photos of the damage to rail tracks, bridges and trains being towed down the street after flood waters receded. The city wasn’t safe either…a mere two weeks later, another flash flood hit the city. City officials say it will cost at least $256 million to repair damages, including $25.6 million to repair historic city hall, $50 million for the Calgary Zoo and $11.7 million to repair Calgary Transit facilities. Some estimates go as high as $1 billion total. Across Alberta, the total will rise to $3 to 5 billion and the provincial government has already pledged $1 billion. Some fault lies in poor planning, as this Vancouver Sun article describes (“Disaster recognition lost in the floods”, July 8, 2013):

Three major floods occurred during the period of 1875 to 1902, and early Calgary residents were well aware of the flood danger. Between 1932 and 2005, however, there was not a single major flood in the city, perhaps lulling people into a false sense of security. During that period and more recently, thousands of homes were built on floodplains within the city limits. –Dr. John Clague, Director of the Centre for Disaster Research, SFU

Some Canadian cities have actively sought climate change adaptation, but federally there isn’t much momentum yet for strategies like flood control as there was in previous decades–the Flood Damage Protection Program ran from 1975 to 1990, inhibiting development in low-lying areas. Dr. Clague reports that in Calgary, residents opposed the designation of flood-prone land urged in several City of Calgary reports, as they didn’t believe a flood risk existed and thought the designation would decrease their property values. This year’s flood was preceded by an earlier one in 2005.

Economic, ecological, and community resilience have risen to prominence among urban thinkers, politicians, and planners in the past few years, perhaps due to these increasingly unstable weather and unusual climate events. Today, Mary Rowe of the Municipal Art Society of New York City will be at the Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Vancouver as part of a debate on climate change adaptation and the responsibility of planners to relocate people to less hazardous areas. Other participants will be Jack Basey (BC planner), David Brown, (McGill University planner professor), Christine Platt (Commonwealth Association of Planners), and moderator Mark Seasons (University of Waterloo planning professor). Mary works on environmental sustainability and resilience, and spent five years as coordinator of the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation working on post-Katrina community recovery. She will also speak tonight on community-based resilience: http://communityresilience.eventbrite.com/#

In what is possibly the biggest municipal story this year, Toronto mayor Rob Ford will be removed from office by December 14th–two weeks from now. Over a measly $3,150, which Ford himself referred to as “an insignificant sum”, the mayor of Canada’s largest city has been ordered out of office. Justice Charles Hackland issued the verdict: that Ford had contravened the City of Toronto Code of Conduct in using city resources (including letters sent using official letterheads) to raise money for his football foundation. Even though Ford refused to reimburse the money, as recommended by the Integrity Commissioner and City Council, this alone was not enough to topple him from office. The crux of the matter was that in any member of council faced with a violation of the Code of Conduct is disqualified from speaking or voting on the matter when it is discussed at council, since council has the right to levy a financial sanction. However, Ford voted on the issue at a February 7, 2012 council meeting. This puts him in contravention of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, for which the penalty is immediate removal from office. The judge declared that Ford’s seat is now vacant, but he suspended the operation of his declaration for 14 days to allow the city to make the necessary administrative changes. This leaves Ford 14 days to file an appeal, which he is certain to do (“Rob Ford’s appeal will be filed ‘in the next couple of days'”, Toronto Star, November 27, 2012).

While many feel that Ford “got what he deserved”, Rosie DiManno writes that it may have been better if Ford had lost in a re-election, rather than the courts (“Little to celebrate in way Ford got the boot”, Toronto Star, November 27, 2012). She feels that Ford’s supporters will reinforce efforts to have him re-elected. Adam Goldenberg agrees (“Rob Ford lost the batle, not the war”, Ottawa Citizen, November 26, 2012), saying that Ford won the mayoral race as an outsider, and the ruling makes him an outsider once more. It certainly puts Toronto into uncharted territory as a rush of candidates prepares to run for mayor in a by-election. But the mayor of the country’s largest city has a major impact: Justice Hackland wrote that such an influential mayor has first and foremost a responsibility to act with integrity; news of Ford’s removal from office trended on Twitter around the world on Monday. And it wasn’t the first time Ford’s opponents have resorted to the letter of the law in exposing the man’s errors: just a few short months ago, an emergency council vote was held following the issuance of a legal opinion on the matter of Ford’s cancellation of the Transit City plan.

As for Ford, as he put it,”This comes down to left-wing politics. The left wing wants me out of here and they’ll do anything in their power to.” We didn’t hear much about the “right wing” supporting him in his successful bid for mayor, and we rarely heard Ford describe himself as a right-wing politician. Rather, his campaign promise to “trim the fat from city hall” fell flat, and the fiscal conservative finds himself in the ironic position of being removed from office over a few thousand dollars. Adam Goldenberg of the Ottawa Citizen characterizes Justice Hackland’s decision as “a model of judicial modesty, which conservatives like Ford are supposed to love.”

Several writers have addressed the difficulties in governing Canada’s largest city; undoubtedly councillors face some major challenges in the weeks ahead (“Toronto councillors critical of Rob Ford’s defiance”, CBC News, November 27, 2012). In “What kind of mayor does Toronto need?” Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume says that the city needs a mayor that understands transportation solutions, who can lead other Canadian cities towards more equitable fiscal arrangements for cities, who will celebrate the city’s diversity, and who will lead it towards planning for climate change. It needs a mayor who understands rules and is able to abide by them, but can unite people from polarizing viewpoints and make compromises.

“Toronto is a hugely complicated, even contradictory, organism, beyond the control of any one person or institution.” –Christopher Hume, Toronto Star, November 28, 2012

Ford will be absent while Toronto scrambles for a new mayor (“Rob Ford out: Mayor can’t run in by-election, city lawyer says”, Toronto Star, November 27, 2012), but nothing will stop him from running again in 2014.

Update: Ford appealed Hackland’s decision and won on January 25, 2013.

Zwarte Pieten arriving from Spain

Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam today, November 18th–not coincidentally, the same day as the Santa Claus Parade in many Canadian cities. An estimated 300,000 children line the canals and streets of Amsterdam to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives by steamboat with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten. The arrival of Sinterklaas (intoch van Sinterklaas) has been celebrated in Amsterdam since 1934 and transmitted on live TV since 1952. The Dutch maintain a separation between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, who they call Kerstman (the Christmas Man).

In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas lives in Spain (where the remains of the actual St. Nicholas lie). In mid-October, he leaves Spain by steamboat and arrives in the Netherlands, in a different Dutch city each year, then travels throughout the country. This year he arrived in Roermond, in the southern province of Limburg. While he stays in town, he’s considered the most important person in town–even more than the town’s mayor. His arrival also starts the traditional Christmas shopping season, which used to go up until December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. On the eve of the 6th, children leave out carrots by their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse, since he travels from house to house delivering presents on a white horse.

Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain

The Zwarte Pieten, the hundreds of Moorish helpers who work for Sinterklaas, deliver the presents by sliding down each chimney (the Zwarte Pieten also traditionally had the dubious job of catching naughty children and stuffing them into burlap sacks). Traditionally, the beautifully-wrapped present would be accompanied by a funny poem describing the recipient, written by Sinterklaas. It would be opened on December 6th. Children’s shoes would be filled with marzipan and other treats.

The tradition of Sinterklaas was brought to the US by Dutch immigrants, where the tradition of the Zwarte Pieten was presumably changed to elves. The Zwarte Piet controversy can be traced to Dutch colonial times: according to folklore, Sinterklaas had a Moorish servant boy named Zwarte Piet. During WWII, Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands noticed the joy that the tradition of Zwarte Piet gave to the local children during the wartime years, and held a Zwarte Pieten party with many of the characters. Today, the intoch van Sinterklaas features over 700 Zwarte Pieten. The Dutch have tried to dispel the obvious racial overtones by rewriting the story to suggest that the Zwarte Pieten are not people of African descent, but are merely dirty from sliding down chimneys all night. (Just last year, the Dutch community celebrating Sinterklaas’ arrival in Vancouver with the Zwarte Pieten resulted in opposition by the African-Canadian community). The controversy hasn’t dimmed the excitement of the local children: when I attended this year’s intoch, the children cried out for Piet, not Sinterklaas, and many sported Zwarte Piet medieval costumes and hats. Sinterklaas is dressed as a priest with red robes, bishop’s hat, and gold mitre. The Pieten hand out pounds of candy and pepernoten, bite-sized ginger cookies. Large taai-taai, shaped as Sinterklass, can also be found in local shops.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete on wrapping paper

It’s interesting to see the progression of St. Nicholas from a third-century Greek bishop known for generosity and kindness to children, to stories around the world of his protection of the poor and of sailors going away to sea. In cities from Montreal to Amsterdam, the church of St. Nicholas stands at the main port of the city as a symbol of protection at sea. In Greece, the coastline features many small white chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas. After WWII, American soldiers dressed up as Santa Claus to give out toys to children in war-torn England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and later Germany and Japan. In the Netherlands, during the weeks leading up to December 6th, kids can watch the Zwarte Pieten news on TV to see what’s going on with Sinterklaas. In Canada of course, we all await Santa’s arrival from the North Pole, where he makes toys for good boys and girls with the help of his elves. Dutch immigrants to Canada, as well other ethnocultural groups such as Greeks and Ukrainians, have helped shaped our Santa Claus tradition, which includes a parade in mid-November.

We’ve all read or heard about crumbling overpasses in Montreal, overburdened water treatment plants in Vancouver, and aging highways in Toronto. Inevitably, the physical components of our cities will face a new challenge in the coming decades: climate change adaptation.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities will release a set of recommendations today, asking the federal government for long-term investment in municipal infrastructure. FCM is part of the Municipal Infrastructure Forum launched earlier this year, which includes governments like the City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa, and business leaders such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Insurance Board of Canada. Members of the Forum announced principles for a new federal long-term infrastructure plan in Toronto on November 8, 2012. FCM conducted a study of 123 municipalities in 2009-2010 and reported on them in the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card. A major focus then was the declining quality of wastewater infrastructure, with over 40% of wastewater plants, pumping stations and storage tanks in “fair” to “very poor” conditions. Half of the roads surveyed fell below the rating of “good”. The report also found that many municipalities lack the capacity to assess the state of their infrastructure: they have limited data on their wastewater treatment plants or on buried infrastructure such as distribution pipes, some don’t have regular condition-assessment programs for their roads or a capacity/demand assessment process. They are also limited by financial and staffing constraints. But climate change is already beginning to take its toll: today, the forum notes that one in four wastewater plants needs major upgrades to meet federal regulations, storm events that used to occur every 100 years now happen every 20 years, and the insurance industry pays out more than $1 billion per year in sewage back-up claims. Stable, long-term funding will be more cost effective than replacement and will contribute to cities’ resiliency as the climate becomes more unstable.

FCM is encouraging municipalities to engage in the discussion on municipal infrastructure: a growing list of communities has already passed resolutions endorsing Target 2014, calling on the federal government to ensure that a new infrastructure plan is in place before the current federal programs (worth two billion dollars per year) expire in 2014.