Accidental Activist

What's the Big Idea?

Sometimes the best ideas are simply the bad ones that go away.

By Ben Bull
Published May 16, 2005

Sherlock Bull surveyed the scene before him: Two corpses, no witnesses and only a solitary footprint for a clue. Or so it seemed.

"This is a deed indeed!" exclaimed Watson, crouching over the grim remains of the old man.

"What do you make of it, Doctor?" asked the detective, keen, as ever, to get to the point.

Before Watson could answer, a loud clonking noise came at them from the top of the street.

The two men squinted through the murky darkness to see the unmistakable figure of Detective Lestrade running - or rather lurching - toward them.

"Must be important," remarked Bull, dryly, "I didn't even know the man could run."

Several clonks later, the portly detective emerged, staggering through the fog. "Th-th-ank you for ... coming, Bull!" said Lestrade, rolling his eyes and puffing his cheeks. He did not look well.

"You should get more exercise," chided Watson, in his best bedside manner.

"Thank you ... Doc-Doctor," stuttered the detective, between heavy breaths.

"You have something to tell us?" asked Bull bluntly.

"Yes, you have a call on line two."


"Call on line two, numbnuts. Pick it up."

"What on earth do you-"

"Hello? Anybody home?"

"Oh, er, sorry Gale. Thank you..."

Back in my pokey little office, I lifted the handset and watched my alter ego drift away into the London fog.

My imagination is so much better than anything real life has to offer. It's no wonder I daydream. One phone call later and I was back. But now everything had changed!

Instead of the murky London streets of 1890, I found myself sitting across the desk from Spectator columnist Bill Dunphy. What was all this about?

"Where did you come from?" I demanded to know.

"I'm looking for your One Big Idea" replied the affable newsman. "One Big Idea to turn Hamilton around."

"Oh give it a rest" I replied, unimpressed. "There's no such thing. It takes lots of ideas, and they're all small."


"Yes, really. Now bugger off and let me get back to my sleuthing."

But it was no use. No matter how much I closed and unclosed my eyes, I couldn't get this One Big Idea out of my head. It was lodged in there like a crappy Barenaked Ladies song, spinning around and pissing me off.

As I stared forlornly at the frosted panes of the First Canadian Place I conjured up some of the ideas from the series in the Spec. "Let's make Hamilton a city of Waterfalls," Raise the Hammer's Jason Leach had suggested. "Plant more trees," said someone else. "Green spaces in every school yard," was another of the 77 mostly excellent replies.

Could there really be just One Big Idea that could turn my town around, I wondered? Was the Hammer's urban decline about to rebound on the back of a single inspirational suggestion?

I closed my eyes, put on my thinking cap and lit up my imaginary pipe. What would Sherlock Bull do? He would start by reviewing the facts of the case. By reflecting on any similar circumstances from his case files, to see what he could glean.

Case studies - in the realm of revitalized cities - abound. What can we learn from these? I thought back to a story I'd heard about Pittsburg. It was the early 1990s. A Leeds MP I chatted with some time ago told me about a meeting he'd had with the Mayor.

"He saw that he had a first rate medical facility," he recounted, "And also two excellent sports franchises. So he decided to put them both together." Today Pittsburg has one of the leading Sports Injury clinics in America.

"What a good idea" I thought to myself. "But what can we learn from this?"

"Build on your strengths," the Leeds MP had told me, "Build on your strengths."

A good start, I thought to myself. But what else could be leaning on my Baker Street bookshelf, waiting to shed some light on this curious affair?

Somewhere in the archives of the world's urban success stories you will surely find the curious case of Manchester, England and its infamous Supertram extravaganza.

It was circa 1992. I was a loutish Leeds soccer fan with a healthy distaste for the my pretentious Lancashire neighbours to the west. I heard about a tram that was going to bankrupt the town and I wondered if that might affect their team's performance.

Either way, I was happy. Who the hell needs a tram?

The town struggled on and, along with their football team, today they are thriving. And while it has taken more than just a snazzy streetcar to turn the town around, it has to be said that the project paid off.

Every day, thousands and thousands of moronic Man U supporters and slow witted Mancunians pour into and out of the city on a daily basis. These days there's more to Manchester than just football rivalries. Even arch enemies Leeds are planning a little engine of their own.

So what of this? What can we take from this success?

I had a vague idea...but Sherlock Bull does not crack a case on hunch! Facts, man, facts.

I thought again, this time back to Leeds. Like towns all over England, Leeds began to see the value in its people. It invested in major park improvements, trails, bike lanes and many other "quality of life" attractions. Today, Leeds has more parks than Vienna, and one of the fastest growing economies in the north.

The lessons from Leeds and Manchester are simple: Invest in your people. Give them a quality of life.

Surely there must be more! I reasoned. "Watson!" I shouted as the Doctor wandered back into my head, "Which of your many memorable transcripts can you bring to bear?"

"Well, Sherlock," replied my imaginary friend, "Might I suggest, 'The town with the skinny streets,' 'The case of the cheesy games,' and the memorable affair of 'The road to nowhere'?"

Yes! By Jove, Watson was right! These were all worthy of my attention. In the 1980's and -90's the growing town of Portland, Oregon drew up a set of bylaws governing the construction of its residential streets. It decreed that no street could be wider than 20 feet. Residents and developers cried foul. This will slow us down! they protested. It will be gridlock!

Portland's "slim streets" did indeed slow the traffic down. At 20 feet in width no two cars could pass safely at high speeds. Motorists slowed down to avoid colliding. Being slim meant pedestrians had less road to cross and more sidewalk to enjoy. This unremarkable idea has served to encourage walkable neighbourhoods in this blossoming little town.

And so, by an elementary twist of logic, I reasoned that our next lesson might well be to: Get life on the streets!

The case of the cheesy games takes us back to Manchester. But this case could also be told up in Glasgow, Liverpool - or even Kelowna BC.

Back in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, these towns were all about, well - nothing. Manchester and Liverpool were grotty, and Kelowna was just a little bit too easy to ignore. They had a crappy image. But with the hosting of the Commonwealth games in 2002 (Manchester), and the elevation to "European City of Culture" (Liverpool, for 2008) and "Canadian City of Culture" (Kelowna BC, for 2004) these three towns achieved something that no amount of quirky marketing campaigns could do - they got a new image. Which leads me to lesson number 4: Promote a positive image.

Finally, we should examine a not-so-cold case much closer to home - the Toronto Island bridge. Now here is an example of a good idea gone bad - and then gone good again. The Toronto Island airport bridge, which I'm sure most of us will remember, was hailed as an economic brainwave at first blush. It seemed so obvious, so doable, and in every way money in the bank for our favourite first cousin and friendly rival.

But then the waterfront condos went up. First a couple, then a few more, and then, in the end it was as if the entire waterfront was being eaten up before our eyes. I lived in Toronto at the time. In fact, I worked on Queens Quay for nearly two years while it was being steadily built into oblivion.

In the end Torontonians had had enough. The last Mayoral campaign adopted the airport road as its wedge issue, and foresight and common sense won the day. Veterans of the Spadina Expressway will tell you a similar story of success from the 1970's. Sometimes the best ideas are simply the bad ones that go away.

I checked the clock - nearly home time. I should really do some work before I go.

I put down my pipe and wandered over to Bill Dunphy's desk. "I have an idea," I told him.

"Oh really?" he replied, unconvinced. "Is it a big one?"

"No, not really."

"Well - what is it?" he demanded.

"Just keep doing what you're doing, Bill," I said. "This Big Idea just might be out there somewhere. Just keep plugging away - please."

"Is that it?"

"It's out there, Bill. And if it isn't - well, what the hell. Maybe we'll end up implementing a whole lot of small ones trying to find it, and would that be so bad?"

"Why are you wearing that stupid hat?"

"I have to go now."

"Go where? What the hell are you even doing here in the first place? And what's with the pipe? This is a non-smoking building! I'm calling Dana. Dana!"

"See ya, Bill!"

I wandered off in the direction of the Spectator canteen, where I found Andrew Dreschel wearing a frilly apron and stirring mash potato. It was definitely time to get back to work.

"I'll think of a big idea tomorrow," I told myself. "Until then, this case is still wide open..."

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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