Successful cities are transformative but they need investments of all kinds, including our time, our energy and our best efforts. But most of all, they need us to believe in the possible.
By Maureen Wilson
Published April 28, 2017
Politics in Hamilton is broken. Until it is fixed, our city will never be as successful as it could be.
Nowhere has this chronic condition been more evident than in the high stakes political poker game of the City's Light Rail Transit (LRT) plan. LRT did not create this dysfunctionalism. It just revealed it.
LRT very nearly fell victim to Hamilton's cultural wars. These wars have been simmering for some time: urban versus suburban, Mountain versus Lower City, liberal versus neoliberal, older versus younger, hope versus insecurity. Most of all, these divisions are rooted in class.
LRT has become the latest weapon in the game of wedge politics. Wedge politics occurs when a certain politician seeks to exploit division to fuel their own political ambition. A wedge is used to attract and then lock in a segment of voter support not previously enjoyed, or to solidify and then expand an existing base of support.
Typically, this is done by focusing on feelings of disaffection or resentment. This game is presently at play because there is both a city election next year and, more importantly for some ambitious City Councillors, a provincial election with a sitting government that appears more than vulnerable.
We have seen this wedge strategy deployed during the ongoing debate about bike lanes. At first, the few people riding their bikes around town and calling for safer and more accessible routes were mostly ignored, often depicted as something akin to hippies. But, as their numbers grew, along with their voices, a political opportunity was born in the form of a wedge.
Nearly lost altogether was the opportunity for politicians to bring all sides of the issue together in an effort to share information, build understanding and find common ground. In wedge politics and cultural wars, everything is positioned as a zero-sum game and the goal is to keep the various sides apart so that they do not come to identify and understand their mutual shared interests.
The politically ambitious have been seeking to fuel simmering resentments that are holding us back as a city. In Hamilton, this takes the form of resentment about downtown and the people who live there, either by choice or out of necessity. Downtown was the place you moved from, not to.
The rhetoric cuts both ways: either downtown is abysmal and can't be helped so don't throw good money after bad; or, why does Hamilton's downtown get all the money and the rest of us get none?
For others, a genuine unease about their own economic security is causing them to wonder about any kind of big public investment, and where you stand on transit reveals where you stand on principles of equity.
On the other side, there are sentiments that the suburbs are less sophisticated, less cultured and more insular. And the people living in these neighbourhoods often feel that they are being looked down upon by those in the lower city.
Plus, there's a lot of misinformation about the LRT project. Without a doubt, it is one of the largest and most complex investments in Hamilton's public infrastructure - ever since our city became the first municipality in North America to build a sewage treatment plant in 1896.
Perhaps the ease with which the debate has been hijacked and forced into the realm of the absurd and irrational is the price we pay for failing to regularly invest in the public good - and with it, the practice of having to knit together a coalition of the willing to get stuff done.
Successful city building takes on the traits of a seasoned and skilled chess player. Successful cities see the whole board. Successful leaders create the conditions for this to happen. In this kind of game, there is no room for wedges.
I came into motherhood later than most. It's been the single greatest privilege of my life and stems from that moment when I was brave enough and smart enough to say yes to the guy I fell for at first sight and sound.
My kids have taught me more stuff than I'll ever teach them. Try explaining the most horrible historic event or existing condition to a child and you'll know what I mean. That first time you discuss Hitler and the holocaust, Canada's residential school system, lynching, apartheid and on and on.
The horror in their eyes and their inability to wrap their head around such incivility and inhumanity always causes you to think as the adult : "What were they thinking? How and why could that happen?"
So goes the burden and responsibility of being a parent. All of these big and even small moments offer the gift of re-education.
On a recent bike ride with my ten-year-old, I was told many tales including the story of a Greek mathematician who had invented something akin to the steam engine. Apparently, the blueprints went unrealized. Ahead of his time. Imagine, my son said, what might have happened if they tried and gave the guy a chance.
This led to a conversation about those all-too-frequent moments in history when opportunity is lost and its impact will forever be unknown. Most nights my son and I read a book about the history of the world. Too many nights we read about how leaders set out to destroy knowledge with the burning of books, poetry and writings of all kinds.
On our bike ride, my ten-year-old wondered what those ancient writings could have said and where we might be now if only they weren't destroyed.
I thought about all of this as I huffed and puffed my way home and how, sadly, the impulse behind some things never change. I thought about this whole Trumpian fake-news thing and how this compares to the impulse of those ancient regimes to control and even destroy information in an effort to maintain power and control thought.
And then I thought about our own Hamilton City Councillors and how they define and fulfill their public duties.
It seems that one of the most informed people in our city on the subject of LRT has been blocked from the twitter feed of a certain Councillor from Waterdown, Ontario. Now, this citizen has to be one of the most civil, engaged and informed persons I know. He operates on the basis of facts. Recently, he skillfully responded, point by point, to the untruths and errors in the Waterdown Councillor's about-face on LRT as printed in a local Metroland paper.
She responded by blocking him from her public twitter feed, which she uses frequently in her communications with her constituents. Her constituents are now denied access to this information. They are being denied access to facts.
As a public servant, you define your role as either a gatekeeper or a citizen builder. A gatekeeper seeks to control the type of information distributed to constituents such that it supports that servant's political ambitions. This is a pretty easy gig.
A public servant who sees their role as a citizen builder works to involve their constituents in all parts of the democratic process - giving opportunity to learn and understand the complexity of need, the importance of vision and balance, and when to recognize opportunity.
Central to building is respecting the right of all citizens to access information on all sides of a debate and then make an informed decision with this information in hand. This is a much harder gig. It's time-consuming, often frustrating, and is an investment whose dividends are not always immediate.
For too long, we have asked too little of citizens and we have let the easy gig pass for leadership because we don't want to put the time into building. On some fronts, we've stopped noticing the difference.
And one day, our kids will wonder about opportunities lost and what would have happened if we had only tried out that blueprint.
"Bed bugs can happen to anyone." That's the message that flashes across the electronic screen outside of Hamilton City Hall for drivers to read as they head east on Main Street.
What's implicit in this public health message? What on earth does this have to do with this essay on LRT, public transit and the need to look at the whole board when making and assessing public policy?
In short, the story of bed bugs speaks to the bias that underpins our politics, our policies and where locally-elected officials decide to spend public money.
Until recently, it was believed that bed bugs did not constitute a public health problem because that problem was contained within a certain segment of our city - the urban poor. Once this risk extended "to anyone" - meaning, other than the urban poor - then it became a concern to everyone.
This kind of assumption, or bias, underpins all forms of public policy and affects our approach to how we design and build our city. It informs where and how we build our residential subdivisions and who gets to live there, the design of our streets and our public spaces, and our expectations about safety, public cleanliness and even the state of our public schools.
Unfortunately, more than any other municipal service, public transit is the most bias-ridden political hot potato.
Why? Because the urban poor use transit. Add to that list immigrants, single mothers with strollers, and angry-looking teenagers with tattoos and piercings. Public transit has the additional cultural burden of being supported by those downtown-living, latte-drinking hipsters and liberal elites.
There's an additional, relatively new phenomenon, that overlays this class fuelled mix: populism. The rise of populism has meant that even those citizens who stand to benefit most directly and immediately from an investment in high order transit do not support the project because a) it is coming from City Hall and therefore it must be bad and b) it has the support of the "elites" and therefore it cannot be trusted.
These are the unspoken sentiments that underlie much of the opposition to LRT and serves as the perch upon which certain City Councillors seek to stand.
This inherent class bias and growing wave of populism, eagerly fanned to the delight of some Councillors, gives reason to the complete lack of reason and absence of coherency on the part of those City Councillors still opposing the investment of $1 billion into Hamilton's future.
It explains the otherwise inexplicable: that our city's largest employers, anchor institutes, transportation experts, health care providers, educators and city builders seem not to have been able to affect the debate at all.
It has been shoved into the realm of the irrational by sheer political force and the blatant willingness on the part of City Councillors to ignore all evidence - despite their own repeated calls for more evidence.
The problem with all of this, of course, is the precedent it sets for future debate and city building initiatives. Smart cities, successful cities, responsive and responsible cities will need to build things if they want to sustain the level of prosperity they presently enjoy or, like Hamilton, regain prosperity lost.
By undermining evidence-based policy advise, by engaging in class-based politicking, by ignoring their duty to genuinely inform and engage, by dismissing a coalition of citizens wanting to be active, Hamilton's future prosperity is far from assured.
By playing politics with the province, this city has surely jeopardized the willingness of any senior order of government to invest in Hamilton's future. Who in their right mind would?
And perhaps most importantly, the politically motivated intent to divide our body politic - pitting some parts of our city against others - has done untold damage to our local democracy, our local institutions and our sense of who we are and what we can be.
In the case of this week's LRT vote, reason and opportunity were finally - barely - able to prevail over irrational populism. But the damage to our political discourse and public engagement will not be undone by a single vote.
And to those who do such damage, this mother says, shame on you.
I recently attended the screening of I am Not Your Negro at the Westdale Theatre with my family. I have neither the talent nor intellect to describe its significance and its power. James Baldwin's observations about American life, American illusions and the treatment of black Americans is as important and relevant today as when his work was first released 50 years ago.
Baldwin spent a life trying to understand why white Americans have treated black Americans so badly, so unjustly, so violently, and with such inhumanity over the course of that nation's history. The answer is complex and complicated, but I think Baldwin concluded that the answer lay within the self-hate of white Americans, the illusion upon which their world was built and which was always changing and the fear that accompanied such change.
If you saw the movie and/or are familiar with Baldwin's writings, I would appreciate your insight.
There's something about experiencing this kind of film in a public cinema with other people. As you rise from your seat and make your way out into the lobby and onto the street, you know that others bore witness to your experience, and you to theirs. You are now forever accountable for your knowledge.
The late great basketball player and coach John Wooden said that the true test of a person's character is what they say and what they do when no one is watching. But, what about when people are watching?
What about when people bear witness to questionable character and do nothing? Does it tell us more about the person committing the infraction or the people who bore witness and sat in silence? Or both?
In Canada, our system of government derives from the Westminster (British) tradition. Within this tradition, the civil service is non-partisan. In other words, the make-up of the civil service does not change when there is a change in government. Our civil service functions on the basis of merit and they are there to provide evidence-based advice to elected officials, as opposed to political advice.
At the federal and provincial levels, governments receive this advice privately from top bureaucrats called Deputy Ministers. There is a Deputy Minister assigned to each department or ministry. The head of the Canadian civil service is called the Clerk of the Privy Council. The head of the Ontario civil service is the Secretary to the Cabinet.
Our local government model is generally based on this tradition, with one exception. The civil service at Hamilton City Hall must also offer their advice in public during committee and council meetings. The head of the civil service for the City of Hamilton is called the City Manager, and rather than deputy ministers there is a Senior Management Team. The SMT oversee various departments.
While imperfect, the value in this kind of tradition is that it provides for continuity in service and the accumulation of expert knowledge and professionalism over the course of political change. They are not supposed to temper their advice according to the political agendas and values of locally elected Councillors. They are to service those values with the best advice possible.
Donna Skelly, newly elected Hamilton City Councillor from Ward 7, is either unaware of this century-old civic model or is choosing to ignore it. Either way, it is a disturbing development and one that should concern us all and the future of city building in Hamilton.
On more than one occasion, Councillor Skelly has questioned the intent and integrity of Hamilton's civil service. She suggested that their motivations were political and their advice not based in fact but rooted in politics.
The accusation was met with silence by the City Manager, members of council and the Mayor. Councillor Skelly herself remained silent at a public meeting when an audience member and organizer claimed that both the Mayor and another member of the city's senior management team had compromised themselves on the LRT project.
When confronted, Councillor Skelly denied any duty in rejecting this kind of unfounded (and incorrect) recrimination. She stated that members of the public were allowed to say whatever they wanted, unchallenged, and that it was not her duty as a City Councillor to correct their mistakes nor advise them of the inappropriateness of their remarks. (Is this what we would expect from any member of a board, volunteer or corporate, at a shareholders' meeting?)
So what? Why does this matter to city building? Isn't this just inside-baseball stuff? I will set out why this development is both troubling and threatens progressive and responsive city building.
Accusing Hamilton's civil service of playing politics risks creating a civil service that is political. We only have to cast our gaze back to before amalgamation in 2001 to see how dangerous such dysfunctionalism can be to city building. A weak mayor, a weak city manager and a handful of Hamilton City Councillors who ruled by fear and reward tested the key principles of the Westminster model - merit and non-partisanship in our senior civil service.
And while this malignancy was not the cause of Hamilton's economic stagnation, it served to magnify Hamilton's woes and created a progressive policy vacuum and a risk adverse culture, not to mention a financial accounting system that could only be described as a mess. A prosperous city might be able to withstand this kind of culture for a short period of time but a economically stagnant city cannot.
By allowing the accusations of one or more City Councillors to go unchecked with the suggestion that staff are compromised and not offering their best professional counsel creates the slow drip that leads to the flood of dysfunctionalism. In Hamilton, we have been there and done that and the outcome is never ever good.
It will make it difficult for the city to attract and retain the best and the brightest of policy minds, it will instill a risk-averse culture when what you want is a hub of innovation, and it will limit the chance of good ideas getting to print and to the table for public debate and consideration. Eventually, the city and all citizens will pay the price.
At all times, and especially at a time of critical debate, we must safeguard our public institutions along with the rules and norms that guide these institutions in order to safeguard the public interest. This is particularly the case today with the rising tide of populism and the war on experts and activism.
When we bear witness, we become an accomplice to what we have seen and heard and we become accountable for how we respond. Or, in the case of too many, how we remain silent.
I've spent too much time and energy over the past number of decades trying to figure out the city I love, especially when it can inflict such heartache. But even after these periods of deep frustration, Hamilton remains the object of my affection. It shall ever be thus.
How do you explain a city of such startling contrasts? A place that can inflict such highs and lows? A place with limited possibilities that time and time again limits its possibilities with self inflicted wounds born out of an absence of courage, character and vision on the part of its political class?
I have argued that to understand the dynamics of any policy, including LRT, you have to look at the whole chess board and what's at play and in play. I have attempted to identify some of the factors at play specific to LRT. In this last instalment, I would like to address one other.
Hold on. What does neuroplasticity have to do with LRT in Hamilton?
Neuroplasticity is all about how our brains work. Hamilton's own Dr. Jean Clinton tells us that scientists used to believe our genes played the most significant role in determining our behaviours. But really, it is our environment. Our brains are sculptured by experience. Our genes can be turned on or they can be silenced as they interact with what goes on around us.
Dr. Clinton gave a talk recently about understanding the adolescent brain but as I listened, I couldn't help but think about city building.
She recounted the story set out in the book The Brain That Changes Itself about an older man who suffered a debilitating stroke and lost most of his competencies. His son was a neuroscientist. The neuroscientist son began a process of trying to retrain and reconnect parts of the father's brain by starting everything over again.
He began by having his father crawl around the garden. Eventually, the father progressed to a slow walk with the help of the garden fence and other nearby supports. Gradually, the older man regained his ability to walk on his own. Ultimately, the stroke victim returned to his teaching position at the university. Later, when the father passed away, an autopsy revealed he had a hole in his brain.
Even before the autopsy, the son saw what was not yet visible. He believed that the front and the back of the brain could be reconnected, around the hole. "I see it when I believe it is possible" replaced "I'll believe it when I see it" and brain science was turned upside down.
"I see it when I believe it is possible" must be the mantra of city building. Believing in the possible and then making plans to realize these possibilities is what separates successful cities from all other places.
Implicit in neuroplasticity is hope. Neuroplasticity is teaching us that the brain is always changing and that at certain times in life, even a time of crisis, timely intervention can strengthen and even repair the brain.
Cities are like that too. Successful cities are transformative but they need investments of all kinds, including our time, our energy and our best efforts. But most of all, they need us to believe in the possible.
For the most part, supporters of LRT are hopeful without being naive. They see the possibilities this kind of transformative investment offers in strengthening and transforming Hamilton for more people. But change can bring fear. And at such time - especially at such times - we must lead with hope (supported by facts) rather than fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Knowledge + hope + courage = Successful city building.
Thanks for reading. Onward Hamilton. May it always be the object of our affections.
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