Category Archives: The StarPhoenix

Column: City must go beyond status quo

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

I would love to shut the door on 2013 and move on, but there are always loose threads as you move into a new year.

Some things just never get dealt with and can linger for years, such as replacing our maligned Traffic Bridge that’s been sitting idle since 2010, slowly falling apart. Actually, it has been falling apart for longer than that, but we ran out of cheap repair options in 2010 and had to close it. The bridge’s collapse was said to be imminent.

It didn’t collapse as predicted, and the decision was taken in 2012 to remove an eastern span, which would have been a far more useful tourist draw if Evel Knievel were still around. Eventually city council tried to pressure the provincial government into paying for both a replacement Traffic Bridge and the north commuter bridge.

The province looked at the cost of two bridges and its shrinking bank account, and declined. The result is that we enter 2014 in the same position as we were in back in 2010, dreaming of bridges that no one else cares about.

Even as a public we have stopped caring. The intense rage we had at being stuck in traffic for 10 minutes each day because both the Idylwyld Bridge and the Traffic Bridge were out of commission has passed. We quickly moved back to our default mode of not acknowledging failed projects, hoping they will just go away or resolve themselves.

Chances are that the Traffic Bridge issue will not resolve itself, and we will have to go it alone. The thought so far is that we replace the old bridge with a wider version of it. The status quo wins again.

If we were to look around, we would see that other options have been very successful elsewhere. We could build an iconic pedestrian bridge on the existing piers to connect downtown and River Landing to the east side of the Meewasin Trail system and, more importantly, to the Broadway Business District.

Pedestrian bridges aren’t unique. Minneapolis has them. Calgary has the Peace Bridge. Montreal has a great one connected to its flood-control gates. Even the town of Outlook has one.

The Peace Bridge was controversial when it was installed but has since become a landmark in Calgary. It draws people from all over, and joins together two of Calgary’s vibrant communities. You could realistically see the same thing happening here with the South Downtown and Broadway Avenue.

Critics of a pedestrian bridge point out that there are sidewalks on the bridges. However, if you have ever tried to walk or ride on our bridges, it is less than a pleasant experience. These walkways are rarely swept, they are full of gravel, and they place you right up against traffic. Other cities have bridge sidewalks as well, but people flock to their pedestrian bridges.

There is a reason for it.

People are drawn to a space that is scaled and built for them.

Research from other cities has shown there are business reasons for a pedestrian bridge. Pedestrians and cyclists spend more money when out and about, especially at stores that provide bike racks. Whether it is stopping into a shop or grabbing a coffee for the walk home, the money spent locally is good for all of us.

Creating a pedestrian bridge on the old Traffic Bridge piers also would give Saskatoon an amazing prairie plaza.

Anyone who has been down in River Landing or across the river when the fireworks festival takes place understands how exciting it is to have a place where thousands of us can gather. There are the fireworks, water taxis, concerts and the buzz of tens of thousands of people coming together. Linking those two areas would allow for more events, but more importantly, it would be an important link across the river for more than just motor vehicles.

Instead of settling for the status quo, Saskatoon must think outside the box. Hold a design competition for a pedestrian replacement for the Traffic Bridge and see what happens. Put a $15 million price tag on it. Local design group OPEN has already drawn up a pedestrian bridge idea that features separate access points for bikes and pedestrians, a public space, a community garden and a zip line.

I think we would be amazed at the ideas that would come forward.

We talk about wanting to be a world-class city. Worldclass cities are not that by population size alone. They are cities with great dreams for themselves, which are expressed by great public spaces. Building a great pedestrian bridge downtown would be a good way to start.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Making Winters Work

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.

How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.

Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.

We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”

There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.

Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.

Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.

Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.

I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.

A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.

In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.

New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.

December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.

Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.

The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.

No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.

Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.

Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.

The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.

Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.

Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.

It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.

It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Prison no place for mentally ill

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix

Of the 15,400 people in federal prisons last year, 610 of them were women. This number has grown about 40 per cent in the last five years and the number of aboriginal women in prison has increased by 80 per cent during the last decade.

These are just some of more interesting numbers that the federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers makes in this 2012 annual report. Perhaps the most shocking stories are about how women with mental health are treated while in prison.

A little more than a third of women in prison have been found to have mental health issues. The report says prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness are typically afflicted by more than one disorder and often a substance abuse problem on top of that. These are people who need a lot of mental health assistance.

At conferences during the years I have heard speakers say that some function at a childlike level. Not only do they have no concept of their crimes, but they can’t function at even a basic level in society. For their inability to survive in society, we toss them in prison.

Many imprisoned women have behavioural problems and according to Corrections Canada’s inspector, they are being treated as security problems rather than humans struggling with mental health issues.

The report lays out offenders who hurt themselves typically are isolated, have pepper spray used against them and are moved to more secure parts of the prison. In the case of our own regional psychiatric facility, Corrections Canada put them into Canada’s first padded jail cell when what they really need is treatment.

It is hard not to make a connection between poor mental health care in prison and the rate of suicide in prisons. The report states that in the last five years, the amount of self harm – including suicide attempts – have more than doubled. Women offenders have a very high proportion of attempted suicides.

The report found that when a person tried to commit suicide, that person was punished rather than given needed help. This, of course, creates more suicide attempts, which brings about even more sanctions. It’s a ridiculous cycle.

After reading the report, one is left with the conclusion that mental health issues in prison are still treated as behavioural issues, rather than illnesses. A prisoner who breaks his or her leg or develops cancer is treated. If the prisoner is schizophrenic and suffers from depression, it is a behaviour issue and punishment is handed out.

The numbers show that the system is failing women with mental health issues and we are using prisons as the institution of last resort. One could draw a comparison to the insane asylums of years gone by where many of those who had mental health problems were locked up and forgotten.

Outside of the ethical issues of why we continue to treat people this way, there is another reason to get this fixed now. Those struggling inside of the jail will eventually get out and move back into our communities. We want them to get the best treatment they can inside of prisons so that can reintegrate back into society when they are released.

That doesn’t always happen. Protocols are ignored, medication isn’t released with the offender and if that person had psychiatric help inside the prison, he or she is released with no treatment plan. When the warrants expire, all help (if any was received) is terminated. It’s a recipe for failure.

We forget that failing to help offenders hurts us all.

Canadians don’t pay a lot of attention toward corrections at either the federal or provincial level, but we should. An 80 per cent increase in the numbers of aboriginal women entering our prisons says that something has gone wrong in the last decade. The fact that 69 per cent of the women entering our federal correctional system have mental health problems says that we are failing them.

The Harper government loves to talk about being tough on crime. I am not going to take them seriously until they start improving the conditions of those they put behind bars. Prison should be a place where we start to rehabilitate those who are behind bars, not release them in worse shape than they entered.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Saskatoon needs downtown drop-in centre

My column in The StarPhoenix

Saskatoon has been in an uproar over the suggestion the city spend $40,000 to remove the benches in the vicinity of the McDonald’s restaurant on Second Avenue and 22nd Street because people are loitering there all day.

Police officers and business owners with whom I have spoken have real concerns about the street corner. I have seen a couple of drug deals take place there, and there have been reports of violence and harassment of passersby.

Both the police and the Community Support Officers have done some good work to try to manage the problem. Over many lunch hours I have seen a police officer standing there. When the McDonald’s on Second Avenue becomes a police beat, it may be time to do something.

The problem with removing the benches is that it doesn’t accomplish what it is intended to do. I have gone into that McDonald’s over many lunches (Don’t tell my wife. She sent me to work with a salad). The staff is courteous and polite, and McDonald’s provides free coffee refills and sells a lot of soda for $1.

The combination of a friendly staff, free coffee, cheap soda and a centralized location where people can come to meet their friends have turned the restaurant into a downtown drop-in centre. I know people who come from miles away to meet their friends there daily. I am pretty sure that is not the business plan McDonald’s intended.

When you toss in the low fence in the neighbouring parking lot, the location lends itself to loitering. The solution isn’t to remove the benches, or to legislate behaviour. Other cities have learned it doesn’t work. Toronto has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to the poor and homeless. Numerous American cities have banned people from sitting on the sidewalks. Denver has made it illegal to be homeless by banning urban camping.

It’s the wrong approach. When you have nothing, what is the deterrent effect of a fine? Toronto’s inability to collect any of those fines shows that its policy is a huge failure.

The solution is to deal with the real issue. There are people in Saskatoon who are so far below the poverty line that to them, simple poverty looks like a welcome step up. Many are getting less in social assistance for rent than what their rent costs. Part of their rent has to come out of their living allowance – money that is supposed to be for food.

When people have very little, they at least want to be around their friends. These groups self-organize and find a place to meet. In this case it has become the downtown restaurant. Getting rid of the benches or even the entire McDonald’s won’t change that. They will organize and find somewhere else to meet.

Do we get rid of the benches on 21st Street or shut down the food court at the Midtown Plaza next?

Other growing cities have adopted drop-in centres. It’s not a new concept, as we have had them for youth and teens for decades. This needs to happen downtown for adults. An agency needs to step up and work with the city and downtown neighbours to create a space where people want to come, and at the same time works for neighbouring businesses. It isn’t easy, but as I have seen in visiting great drop-ins from coast to coast, it is possible to find that balance.

It takes a place where people can be warm on cold days, cool on hot days, and have something to drink, a bite to eat, and even some Internet access. From what we have learned in Saskatoon, cheap pop, coffee and hamburgers seem to be the formula people want. Just make sure they have a chance to meet their friends there.

Saskatoon has a downtown full of energy. People want to work, socialize and play there. We all want to be where the action is, regardless of our income. Other cities have learned that drop-in services need to be downtown, because that is where the people are going to congregate.

While this is a local problem, it’s also a reflection of provincial policies. Social Services needs to move beyond merely writing cheques and realize that it has a role to play in issues like this in cities and towns across Saskatchewan.

It was encouraging to see city council’s planning and operations committee look beyond the easy solution and realize there are much more complicated factors at play. Let’s see if council and the provincial government have the political will to address them.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix