It works. We love it. Let’s have more of it.

#movesj and #playsj should overlap significantly.

Our vision for transportation in Saint John should include making our transportation routes that connect neighbourhoods into recreation spaces. Also, when we consider recreation infrastructure investments, these active transportation plans should top the list.

Remember the vision for trails through a cleaned up Marsh Creek? Let’s have that and consider it an attractive commuter route between uptown and the east side.

Does Saint John possess a recreation facility that is used anywhere close to as much as Harbour Passage? There is no rink, track, pool, gym, or field anywhere in our community that can rival the thousands of people that walk, run, bike, stroll, sit, skate, and run into friends on Harbour Passage every day – and use it as their main commuting route!

This is what we call validation. The evidence is clear that people want whatever it is we got right about that investment and we should be expanding it, improving it, and promoting the heck out of it.

It works. We love it. Let’s have more of it.


Stuck in Renaissance City

I’m embarrassed to admit this, or I should be anyway. On April 1st of last year, I was listening to an interview with Mayor Mel Norton on CBC Radio’s Information Morning. Norton was rather earnestly suggesting the city should rename some streets after Renaissance artists, part of his attempt to brand Saint John “Renaissance City.” I believed him and was annoyed, and then embarrassed when we listeners were let in on the joke – April Fools!

“Renaissance City” is a political slogan reflecting Norton’s vision of renewal in the city. It’s a Twitter hashtag to celebrate events and developments in the community, and a catch-phrase to repeat during speeches at business luncheons and charity dinners. It’s not something that should have a permanent legacy in the form of city street names. And so I was relieved (though a little sheepish that I fell for it) that Norton’s proposal was just a joke.

Detroit (another “Renaissance City”) should have displayed the same sense of humour, and restraint – regarding the use of the name anyway.

In the early 1970s, a group of businessmen started an organization called Detroit Renaissance to help revive the city’s sagging fortunes. The group still exists, but has been rebranded with the more matter-of-fact name, Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM).

It’s actually an impressive organization when you review the list of accomplishments and initiatives over a five-decade period.

Welcome to Detroit: The Renaissance City

There is still a “Renaissance City” legacy in Detroit. There is a photo online depicting an old street sign that says, “Welcome to Detroit The Renaissance City”. I do wonder, though, if this photo has been altered because I can’t quite believe they actually put this phrase on a municipal street sign. But the city does have a Renaissance Center, a downtown multi-tower complex with shops, restaurants, a theatre and hotel. It was originally built by Henry Ford II in the early 70s as a catalyst to rejuvenate the city centre.

Detroit also still has what it calls a Renaissance Zones program, which offers tax incentives for commercial and residential development in eight designated areas of the city. The emphasis on the economic revival of these areas seems much like Saint John’s focus on the Primary Development Area in PlanSJ.

What Detroit is trying to do (revitalize itself) is ultimately more important than what it’s called (Renaissance City), which may partly explain why the BLM ultimately abandoned its original name, Detroit Renaissance.

People in places like Saint John and Detroit – industrial cities labouring to improve their economic fortunes and reinvent themselves – engage in a lot of soul-searching about the core identities of the places where they live. That leads naturally to branding exercises like “Renaissance City.” The nickname is aspirational in nature (much like “People City”), and is the kind of catch-phrase a mayor such as Norton would adopt to instil a renewed sense confidence and optimism in a city like Saint John, Detroit, or Newark, N.J. (another industrial city that’s been called Renaissance City in the course of reinventing itself)

‘Greatest Little City in the East’

At different times in its history, Detroit has had many nicknames, including Motor City and Hockeytown. The same is true of Saint John. We frequently refer to it as the “Port City,” and proudly call it Canada’s first incorporated city. That’s not very catchy though, is it? A few years ago, some started referring to Saint John as Canada’s “Original City,” used mostly around the time the city held its 225th birthday celebrations and was designated a Cultural Capital of Canada (2010). Of course, the city’s most famous nickname is “Loyalist City”, and its most celebrated tagline is former mayor Elsie Wayne’s expression, “Greatest Little City in the East.”

Norton’s “Renaissance City” is probably most like Wayne’s expression; they’re both feel-good in nature, even if Wayne’s is more folksy. They’re also both open to criticism for being overly-optimistic, especially in a city with so many economic and social problems. But Norton, as Wayne likely did before him, has helped inspire an important discussion about the city’s identity and how we talk about its strengths and weaknesses. Good politicians help frame conversations for their constituents, and they can hardly be expected to do so in negative terms.

It’s not ‘Renaissance City’ and that’s okay

And good citizens will take an active part in those conversations, offering praise, a critique or constructive feedback. Local writer and zine publisher Julia Wright gave a thought-provoking presentation called, “Hard Times/Good Times. Creating a scene in SJ,” at the IgniteSJ speakers event I helped organize last month. She subsequently published an expanded version of her talk as a blog entitled, “Saint John is not the Renaissance City, and that’s okay.” Her post provoked a flurry of comments from people on her Facebook page, and ultimately inspired a critique of her piece by poet and UNBSJ English professor Robert Moore.

Saint Johners love to talk about what they love about this city, and what they hate; why they want to stay, and why they sometimes want to pack up and leave. These angst-ridden discussions are common-place between the people who live here, and ex-pats trying to decide if they want to come back.

We are #stuckinrenaissancecity

Last week, I attended a speaker’s event at Port City Royal cheekily entitled, Stuck – a provocative, attention-grabbing title that could make you think the participants were down on the city and its future prospects. That was far from the truth. It was an inspiring evening of stories about why we choose to live here, or why we have to because of our circumstances – some happy, some not. It was packed with 75 people who care a lot about Saint John, but have a sense of humour and perspective about its strengths and weaknesses. At one point, I told a friend the evening had inspired a cheeky hashtag of my own: #stuckinrenaissancecity.

By characterizing the evening this way, I don’t mean to frame the discussion in opposition to ones that take place between proponents of “Renaissance City.” If the city is indeed in the midst of a renaissance of some kind, it was evident at Port City Royal that night.  The event took place in a great new restaurant, in a beautifully restored historic building, and was attended by active and engaged people who want this city to be a more vibrant and interesting place. If you organized a speakers event on the “Renaissance City,” I bet you the people at “Stuck” would be happy to take part.

It’s not Renaissance City, it’s Saint John

Ultimately, Norton’s phrase is most useful as a conversation starter, not a brand identity. Saint John is not the “Renaissance City,” “Loyalist City,” or the “Original City.” It’s Saint John, as someone I know said on Facebook recently.

Of course, the naming of the city was really just another branding exercise. Perhaps we should rename it. Mr. Mayor, that could be the subject of another April Fools’ Day joke, long after people have forgotten about your last one. But not me. I’ll be onto you this time around.


SJ’s ‘Iron Ring’ to combat sprawl

This article originally appeared in Spacing, a national magazine about urban issues, in the spring of 2013. An updated version is re-posted here because of the ongoing debate about ZoneSJ. Council will host a “teach-in” during next Monday’s session on the zoning document that will implement the policy principles laid out in Plan SJ. It will hold a vote on the zoning plan that will guide development in the city for decades.

Saint John is a rural city in many ways, as I discovered on a bike ride outside the urban core one summer day a few years ago. Just beyond the suburban neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the city, the sidewalks disappear, the houses are set further apart, and roadways snake around small lakes and heavily forested land. On that bike ride, I passed a promotional sign for a special care home that captures the spirit of a rural area in close proximity to urban amenities: “Country living in the city.”

photo (5)For a developer, that kind of catch phrase is a sales pitch aimed at residents that want the best of city and country living. For the proponents of smart growth, it’s an obvious sign of a sprawl problem that’s actually more pronounced here than in many other cities across the country.

Sprawl is far worse than other cities

Just how much worse is the problem here? Saint John has 70,063 people (2011 census) in an area that’s about 315 square kilometres. In nearby Moncton, there are 69,074 people in an area less than half that size. In Peterborough, ON, there are 78,698 people in an area that’s even smaller – 63.80 square kilometres.

The city finally has a plan to address sprawl – a national award-winning one that’s still in the early stages of implementation. PlanSJ, which was passed by city council in 2012, creates a primary development zone that encompasses urban and suburban neighbourhoods in the centre of the city.

PlanSJ advocates tout the smart-growth, feel-good benefits of restricting development to the urban core, ideas that have taken root in cities across North America. They envision densely populated neighbourhoods where people interact at street level, and live within walking distance of everything, or have easy, affordable access to public transit.

The ‘Iron Ring’ of development

Mayor Mel Norton shares this vision; he moved to the city centre so he could walk everywhere. But he said mainly driven by the potential savings for a city that provides infrastructure and services for homes and businesses along the city’s 760 kilometres of roadways.

“One of the councillors refers to the primary development area as an ‘iron ring’,” said Norton in an interview in early 2013. “It’s meant to constrain sprawl; to grow a density that can be highly serviced at a very competitive rate.”

PlanSJ had a comprehensive public engagement process that included public meetings and workshops, and storefront office in the city centre, so Norton was confident the public would be largely onside with the new plan. I was present at many of the sessions myself, and never witnessed any opposition to the plan.

Critics emerge when ‘rubber hits the road’

The public may still be largely onside, but the critics sure came out when the rubber hit the road, so to speak, with the planned implementation of Zone SJ. At a public hearing in September, some angry residents and property developers told councillors the new city-wide zoning bylaw, which is based on the policy guidelines laid out in PlanSJ, would scuttle their plans for future development.

Council was supposed to hold a vote on ZoneSJ is mid-October, but it will now be next week before it is even debated again. Council has scheduled a “teach-in” for the Nov. 3rd session. It will then decide when to proceed with a vote.

Planning development at the local level

photo (4)If ZoneSJ is passed, the next step will be developing individual plans at the neighbourhood level; this process will involved a new round of consultations involving residents and interest groups. “It will give those folks a real voice to help shape future development in their areas,” said Norton in our interview last year.

The city will face additional challenges implementing the new plan, though. Much of the housing stock in the urban core dates back at least 100 years and is in poor condition. There are currently no plans to strengthen existing incentive programs, in the form of tax relief or increased grants, for doing costly renovations on these buildings.

However, developers like Historica are demonstrating that you can do quality, commercially viable restoration work to city-centre buildings (one on Princess St. is pictured above). Historica rents apartments in the upper end of the rental market. On the affordable housing front, there have been several new low-income or mixed-income buildings constructed in the city centre in the last decade.

Suburbs need smart-growth too

The neighbouring suburban municipalities also aren’t part of the plan to revitalize the residential neighbourhoods in the city centre, even though this would be a healthy development for the entire region. The suburbs will continue to grow unchecked at the expense of the urban core; the town of Quispamsis, for example, had a 17% population increase between 2006 and 2011.

Many cities concern themselves with sprawl in outlying suburban municipalities. Saint John obviously has that problem too, but Norton is far more concerned with the sprawl inside – not outside – the city limits.

He said the city will continue to service its established rural areas, but future development will take place primarily in the city centre. “Country living in the city” may be a nice sentiment – and an option for some residents – but it’s not a realistic growth plan for the city at large.

Chas’s Challenge: Buy Local Food, Minister

On a beautiful fall afternoon last week, I took the kids out to the Mackay Apple Orchard on the Kingston Peninsula. We picked a couple of bags of apples and played on the beach overlooking the St. John River; the kids even stripped down and went for a swim.

And as always, Chas Mackay wanted to talk a little politics. Specifically, he wanted to discuss his idea for the incoming Agriculture Minister in the Brian Gallant Liberal government, which will be sworn in Oct. 7. I turned on my iPad and recorded his two-minute pitch (you can watch it above). Mackay wants the new minister to buy food produced here as an example for people in the rest of the province.

“Maybe he could get other people doing the same thing, and he’d also have a better feel for his job,” says Mackay. “Agriculture doesn’t need money to promote food. We need a face, and that face is the Minister of Agriculture.”

In our interview, Mackay cited some statistics he’d read in an article years ago. He read that if we increased our consumption of local food by 10 per cent, we would create 3,000 new jobs. I couldn’t track down those stats through web searches and conversations with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and the provincial Department of Agriculture.

Most food came from here 40 years ago; almost none does now

But I did find an article that cited numbers which illustrated the province’s movement toward consuming mostly imported food. In the 1970s, 75 per cent of the food we consumed was produced in the province; now, 95 per cent of our food comes from outside the province.

In recent years, there has an increased emphasis on supporting local growers and producers. The Conservation Council has an ongoing Buy Local campaign, and is building an online directory of local food resources in the province. There are also a growing number of farmers markets and small stores that feature local food, and businesses like Real Food Connections that connect consumers with local producers and producers.

The provincial government has also launched its own Buy Local Initiative and made “value-added food” one of six priority growth sectors. Of course, this strategy was developed by the outgoing Progressive Conservative government, so we’ll have to see where it ranks with the incoming Liberal one. The Liberals did commit to developing a local food and beverages strategy to help growers and producers in their election platform (page 18).

Of course, for the purposes of this post, Mackay is mainly interested in the Minister setting a personal example for people to follow. He even suggests that the minister’s spouse help advance the cause by publishing on a web site recipes using mainly New Brunswick ingredients. Mackay says this most likely would be the wife of a male minister, and he may ultimately be right given that only four of Gallant’s 27 MLAs are women.

I’ll start cooking local now, get a jump on the Minister

But more men are assuming responsibility for cooking these days, including me – a stay-home-dad and, for better or worse, the primary cook in the family. I’ll take up the challenge before a new minister is even in place. For the next month, I’ll do an audit of our family’s food shopping habits, and see how we can eat more affordable, local food grown and produced here.

I have what I need for many desserts with 10 pounds of apples from Mackay’s farm. I’ll hit nearby stores, markets and our community garden plot for everything else I need, and let you know how it goes. I may even share a recipe or two with you.


Tom Connors

Out of the Cold with Stompin’ Tom

It was a March evening at the Out of the Cold men’s shelter at Grace Presbyterian Church. The guys were just settling in for the night. Volunteers had given them bedding and pillows for their cots, and served them hot coffee and a warm meal.

As was often the custom, some of them had come to the lobby before bed to chat with volunteers. We had all just learned that Saint John native Stompin’ Tom Connors had died that day.

Some of the men were old enough to remember his early years in the city, and I listened to them swap stories about seeing him in shops and on the streets.In particular I remember them talking about Connors playing guitar and singing on a bench in Queen Square.

Stompin’ Tom grew up poor in Saint John. His family was evicted from apartments for not paying rent, and his teenage mother sometimes stole or begged for food. As a struggling young musician traveling the country, he would sometimes get arrested for vagrancy, and welcome the warm place to sleep at night.

Though Connors eventually became rich and famous, perhaps these guys could relate to a man who had once struggled like they did; or maybe they were they were just like everyone else in Saint John proud of a native son who hit it big. This night was typical of many I’ve spent at the shelter over the last three years.

Yes, volunteers are mainly responsible for things like signing in the men, setting up the cots, and preparing and serving the meals. But it’s a relaxed and social environment. Over coffee and bowls of chili, we’ve talked about everything from religion, politics, good movies and books.

We still take a professional approach to the operation of the shelter, and don’t pry into personal lives of the men who stay there. But this intimate setting helps us – me, anyway – see these men as regular people, in a way that’s often not possible when they’re asking for spare change on street corners.

I don’t mean to gloss over the very real challenges these guys face – mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, severe poverty caused by chronic unemployment or family break up – or suggest that a warm meal and a good night’s sleep in a welcoming, respectful environment will solve all their problems.

They need long-term housing options, mental health and addictions services, a job or education and training programs to help them get one. But getting them out of the cold on a winter night is a good first step.

When Stompin’ Tom Connors died last March, his family asked people across the country to donate to a local food bank or homeless shelter in his name. Out of the Cold takes financial donations, but needs people to give of their time too. It operates seven days a week for three months, and needs dozens of volunteers to cover evening and overnight shifts and prepare food.

Because I enjoyed being at the shelter, I often forgot I was providing a valuable service to someone. One night, as I was on my way out the door, one of the men called out, “Thank you for the work you do.” I didn’t know what to say. I just smiled and said, “No problem. See you next week.”

For more information about volunteering with Out of the Cold, please contact Jillian Driscoll by e-mail: