How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.


The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

May 29, 2011 at 2:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
    Awareness of climate change has filled Chicago city planners with deep concern for the trees.

    Not only are they beautiful, said Ms. Malec-McKenna, herself trained as a horticulturalist, but their shade also provides immediate relief to urban heat islands. Trees improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, and their leaves can keep 20 percent of an average rain from hitting the pavement.

    Chicago spends over $10 million a year planting roughly 2,200 trees. From 1991 to 2008, the city added so many that officials estimate tree cover increased to 17.6 percent from 11 percent. The goal is to exceed 23 percent this decade.

    The problem is that for trees to reach their expected lifespan — up to 90 years — they have to be able to endure hotter conditions. Chicago has already changed from one growing zone to another in the last 30 years, and it expects to change several times again by 2070.

    tags: chicago climate_change resilience nyt

  • Great review. Where Perl writes “strumming,” I misread “streaming” 🙂 That works, too.
    The modern masterwork, according to Duncan, is a new kind of symposium, richer than the Platonic dialogues because it involves gathering together so many more elements.
    “Our partisan feelings and resolutions,” Duncan writes to Levertov in 1971, “act as censors of the imagination that must go deep into the well we would call ours—not into a redundancy of how we would like to think of ourselves, but into some imagination of what that depth would be if it weren’t ‘ours.’” Later in the same long letter he explains that “I am and remain a pluralist. Within the plurality of forces the Heraclitean opposites have the drama and pathos of a heightened figure upon a ground in which a multitude of figures appear.”
    Everything begins with the shuffling of a deck of cards or the strumming of some popular tune on an old guitar.

    tags: jed_perl robert_duncan art_reception arttheory arthistory arts tnr

  • This reminds me of Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, which analyzed how America has “sorted” itself geographically into suburban enclaves, except now the sorting is done in our heads via algorithms. Interesting to think about…
    Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” At Facebook, “relevance” is virtually the sole criterion that determines what users see. Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy. But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution.

    tags: internet nyt eli_pariser gatekeepers big_sort algorithm

  • Totally agree/ am intrigued by the last sentence in this paragraph (starts with “In effect…”):
    We made the city work for people for whom it had not worked in a long time. People without capital for whom low barriers to entry and not certainty of outcome were the defining issues. Those who were operating digital cottage industries and Etsy stores, artists and fashion designers, bedroom record labels and Flickr photographers. In effect we made the physical space behave as their virtual spaces did — easy to get into and out of, allowing of experimentation and failure and most importantly full of tools and structures and plugins designed to make it simple and cheap for them to do what they are passionate about.
    Listen to the video. Couldn’t we do something like this in Victoria?

    tags: cities grist hacking urbanism renew_newcastle urban_renewal

  • Great article by Wesley Yang. I think women (irrespective of ethnicity) can glean some insights here, too. Among the many stand-out paragraphs and statements, this sentence struck me (spoken by Tim Wu, lawyer):
    Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.

    tags: wesley_yang asians asian_american amy_chua paper_tigers newyorkmag

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Change everything.

May 26, 2011 at 10:47 pm | In arts, housekeeping, ideas, just_so | Comments Off on Change everything.

Weeding through personal papers the other day, I came across several small index cards on which I had noted art project ideas. The cards date from the late 1970s, perhaps 1978 or ’79. I would have been 22 or 23, and at the time I was struggling to make sense of an artistic career. Until 1980 I was a student at Munich’s State Academy of Fine Arts, assigned to the Danish constructivist sculptor Robert Jacobsen‘s studio.

Within the context of Munich-style traditionalism, Jacobsen’s modernism (he was linked to COBRA) wasn’t celebrated as much as it was tolerated. So, while most of the Academy’s other sculpture students worked traditionally, I belonged to Jacobsen’s “far-out” gang, within which was the even smaller tribe I settled in: the people who read theory and were determined to elude what Theodor Adorno called “the culture industry.”

And so, our work – my work – had to be challenging, and (because we were trying not to be co-opted) hermetic. But part of me hated the hermeticism, which, as the daughter of people who hadn’t even been able to finish high school because of financial pressures, I saw as elitism, pure and simple. Rather unfortunately, I fell into trying to square the circle (what an idiot I was) by trying to make challenging art that had pretensions to being politically correct.

Please don’t ask me what that actually could have meant. It’s blindingly obvious now that the average working class Joe or Jane (if s/he even exists) does not give a rat’s ass about high art. But at the time, I really believed (7/8ths-heartedly) that art could change people’s perception, and that by changing their perceptions, artists could change the world.

I could have been happier if I’d just dropped another tab of acid. But I digress…

I worked with packing cardboard, which was cheap, relatively plentiful, lightweight, and (this was important later) easy to toss. Working with cardboard on a fairly large scale allowed me to tackle things like spatial perception, which I hadn’t been able to test properly when I was still making models out of balsa wood. The cardboard essentially allowed for what we now might call rapid prototyping. It also allowed me to wander down some obscure paths…

At one point I began to introduce color into the cardboard constructions. From the index card headed The Blue Theme:

– the artist as reprocessor of information, even previously common-property information, i.e., hit pop songs

“Crystal Blue Persuasion”

Um, yah. Modernism and Mass Culture. Funny, I designed and taught a course on that at MIT many years later…

More on the color blue:

Colour as thing – back to the “blue theme”: make cardboard support surface sculpture, and apply the blue theme, blue stroke, blue surface, …whatever. Next, a second, identical support sculpture, the blue cut out removed, lying in front of it; third, this theme continued, the blue further refined & developed as thing.

The entire thing presented as series, as steps, together:

[and here there are tiny little sketches, as per photograph, below]

frame support becoming predominant support, supporting support, yet being blue, bluer than blue, thus displaying its thinginess.

I built some pieces to approximate the idea. Below, some color slides (2 1/4 inch format), pardon the lo-fi quality… I just taped the positives to a window pane and used my iPod Touch to photograph them.

Another card, headed Yellow, but no evidence remains of any work carried out on this theme:

As the blue wedge triumphs over the cardboard triangle, geometric and hard-edged, so yellow must from the start be a wholly 3-dimensional shape, diffuse, being outside + objective and at the same time all-encompassing + therefore subjective. Like God, or a glass perpetually overflowing.

I was an atheist even then, so I’m not sure exactly how I meant that reference to god, except probably in reference to how other people experience transcendence.

Too much of what I was doing was about other people. What other people might think about my work if it was too conventional. Or too avant-garde. Or too hermetic. Or too political.

Or just weak and a not particularly strong artistically…

Another card, without a  header. Maybe it should be Danger:

The incorporation of danger into an art work. The daily threats and anxiety experienced by the artist transposed into the work, making it a transmitter of that anxiety, that danger.

Well. Maybe I should have electrified one of my sculptures and dangerously and anxiously shocked viewers. I was thinking about electricity, albeit for a video piece (I was convinced at the time that video could be the new sculpture).


I still like the thoughts noted on this next card, a lot:

Infrastructure as art medium?

A card about the Paris Metro:

The Paris Metro as medium. All those buskers, beggars and theatre players, graffiti artists, etc., using the Metro so that it has become the ultimate transportation network: it transports ideas, music, events, information and people.

Yes, I still like this idea. Seems to me it’s indicative of a longstanding attraction to urbanism and cities.

I also have a number of index cards that detail my ideas about video. But they’re very obtuse (and if you read this far, you’re probably thinking, “More obtuse???”). When I worked on (or thought about) video (and to a lesser extent, photography), I tried to marshal time as an element of the video medium, which (as I noted above) I considered a new form of sculpture. It just got pretty hairy. Obtuser.

I think a lot of the same sort of obtuseness (hermeticism) my 22-year-old self expressed in 1978 still thrives in today’s art world. Alternatively (and quite possibly worse), it’s also ok for art to be entirely unserious and just “fun” or consume-able. Goes down easy. Doesn’t get stuck in your craw.

Too bad. I still like the idea of that glass, perpetually overflowing, though – a plenitude that changes everything.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

May 22, 2011 at 2:30 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Great speech, inspirational for women and society overall.
    Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivered the keynote at Barnard College’s 119th Commencement ceremony. Addressing approximately 600 members of Barnard’s Class of 2011, Sandberg implored the young women to “never let your fear overwhelm your desire. Let the obstacles in your path be external not internal. Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”

    tags: youtube sheryl_sandberg barnard commencement_speech

  • Umair Haque on Eudaimonia:
    …here’s what I believe it [current economy] might just be called tomorrow, when the history books have been written, and the debates concluded: a Eudaimonic Revolution. A sweeping, historic transformation in what we imagine a good life to be, and how, why, where, and when we pursue it.

    (…) Eudaimonic prosperity, in contrast, is about mastering a new set of habits: igniting the art of living meaningfully well. An active conception of prosperity, it’s concerned not with what one has, but what one is capable of.
    Living, not just having; Better, not just more; Becoming, not just being; Creating and building, not just trading and raiding; Depth, not just immediacy

    tags: umair_haque eudaimonia socialcritique

  • Self-explanatory; great resource.
    In this post, we’ve compiled a list of businesses that have shared a peek inside their fascinating logo design process with the public. We hope it will get you started on your own.

    tags: design logos creativity brainstorming reference

  • Amazing leader:
    Beyond Facebook, the other social network that Sheryl Sandberg has been fervently scaling is her own. Every few weeks a few dozen Silicon Valley women—doctors, teachers, and techies—head to the seven-bedroom Atherton (Calif.) mansion Sandberg shares with her husband, Dave Goldberg, chief executive of Web startup SurveyMonkey, and their two kids. The group sits on foldout chairs in the living room and holds plates of catered food on their laps as they listen to a guest speaker. (…)

    These “Women in Silicon Valley” events, as Sandberg calls them, have become a mainstay in the lives of the women in her personal and professional circle. (…)
    The ease with which Sandberg marshals such support has friends and admirers constantly wondering what comes after Facebook. Sandberg’s recent barnstorming hasn’t dampened that speculation. In December she gave a speech at a conference called TEDWomen in Washington—TED talks are de rigueur for any tech star—and spoke about the small compromises women make that limit their career advancement. The presentation has since been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube. Last month, Sandberg delivered a speech on leadership to the U.S. Naval Academy as part of its annual Foreign Affairs Conference. She silenced the mostly male crowd by telling the women in the audience to find partners who will support their careers. Then she brought them to their feet with a rousing paean to inspirational leadership—and by putting on a midshipman’s jacket.

    So…governor? Senator? Will she or won’t she return to Washington? Sandberg’s impeccably political response: She’s happy friending Mark Zuckerberg for as long as they’re changing the world. Her husband believes she will stay at Facebook for a long time. “It’s well beyond an 18-month time horizon,” says Goldberg. “My guess is if she had to [predict her future], she has a real desire to improve the lives, particularly of women, but also the lives of people in the developing world.”

    Only Lant Pritchett, one of her former pro

    tags: sheryl_sandberg facebook women leadership

  • Fascinating article about social media’s impact on the naturally shy.
    Older media forms once offered vicarious entertainment in exchange for our passivity. We could escape from ourselves by projecting into fictional worlds designed to welcome us and to reinforce our sense of the rightness of the roles tradition forced upon us. The refuge for the shy person, beyond the illusion that entertainment addresses us directly and renders us less alone, was in the rigidity and pervasiveness of such standards. One could disappear into conformity, unthreatened by the sense that everyone else was leading a more exceptional life. But now traditional roles have been discarded, and individuals are instead expected to develop original lifestyles, aspects of which can be appropriated to drive an economy that increasingly relies on stylistic innovations for growth. Social media is at once the field in which these lifestyles are deployed and where they harvested for economic advantage as marketing information. Facebook demands interactivity and does not tolerate passivity. It promises not escape from the self but immersion in it. Under such circumstances, when total self-involvement serves as a perfect substitute for gregariousness, shyness becomes irrelevant. Eventually, it will become nostalgic.

    tags: rob_horning shyness psychology facebook socialmedia

  • Introverts, unite and stand up for your (our) brand.
    If the science behind the book is correct, it turns out that Introverts are people who are over-sensitive to Dopamine, so too much external stimulation overdoses and exhausts them. Conversely, Extroverts can’t get enough Dopamine, and they require Adrenaline for their brains to create it. Extroverts also have a shorter pathway and less blood-flow to the brain. The messages of an Extrovert’s nervous system mostly bypass the Broca’s area in the frontal lobe, which is where a large portion of contemplation takes place.
    The 10-point section on myths about introverts is bang on. Eg., smashing the “Introverts don’t like to go out in public” myth, the author notes, “Introverts just don’t like to go out in public FOR AS LONG.” Exactly right.

    tags: carl_king introverts introversion psychology neuroscience dopamine

  • This makes so much sense:
    Sex is not a metaphor for a relationship, it’s a parallel narrative. It speaks its own language. Love and desire are two different languages. We would like to think that they flow from each other. While love and desire relate, they also conflict. Love thrives in an atmosphere of reciprocity, protection , and congruence. Desire is more selfish. In fact, at times, the very elements that nurture love: comfort, stability, safety, for example, can extinguish desire.

    Love seeks closeness, but desire needs space to thrive.

    tags: huffington_post esther_perel sexuality

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

NYT calls it a Twitter Trap. I say Keller needs to rethink

May 21, 2011 at 11:55 pm | In social_critique | Comments Off on NYT calls it a Twitter Trap. I say Keller needs to rethink

Over on Facebook, a friend pointed to the May 18 article by Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times: The Twitter Trap.

Keller wrote such a load of nonsense – my heart sank when I read it. A few thoughts on that story in a moment, but first: let’s recall that, Keller’s claim that The New York Times “has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto” notwithstanding, The Times has egg on its face regarding its claims to priority regarding the Osama bin Laden story. The Times has been stumbling badly when it comes to dealing with new media, “prizewinning gusto” or not.

So what does Keller say about Twitter (and other social media) in his opinion piece? It seems he wants to blame social media for making us stupider. It’s a by-now-familiar argument. You know the drill: Google is making us stupider because we don’t have to remember as much or as many facts (or factoids) as we used to. Keller repeats the argument verbatim:

Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.

Oh sure, I bet every yokel you encountered at the local sty back in the day could recite …um, what, exactly?

Middlemarch, says Keller.

Well, allow me a peasant moment: oy.

C’mon. You’ve heard these (tired) arguments by now, right? Back in the day, before we had all the new technology that provides our poor brains with crutches, we were all veritable Atlases of erudition.


Where, I wonder, do people get the idea that people were generally so much smarter and better “back in the day”?

But that’s not really my problem with Keller’s argument.

It’s about Middlemarch (which, full disclosure, I haven’t actually read) and it’s about taking facts out of context to make his case. Keller “blames” Gutenberg (that is: the invention of the printing press) for the death of the alleged ability to remember “vast quantities of information,” but here’s what he wrote:

Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. (…)

Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.”

Wait… Rewind! Middlemarch, dear Bill Keller, would not exist – much less be an object of your regret over mnemonic challenges unmet – if not for Gutenberg (“the Mark Zuckerberg of his day” – eww).

As I wrote on my friend’s Facebook wall, Middlemarch was written centuries after the invention of the printing press, and Keller not only would never have been expected to memorize it, he wouldn’t have had a chance to, since that literary format depended in the first place on the printing press for its emergence.

No Gutenberg, no Eliot, one could just as easily argue.

Keller seems too married to his certainties to understand or appreciate formal innovations that actually create new content.

There’s plenty wrong with how we use social media – just as there’s a lot wrong with how we’ve used television (reality TV, anyone?), or any other media. But to sit around as the freaking executive editor of The New York Times and kvetch about Gutenberg (thinly disguised as – fie! – a Mark Zuckerberg avant la lettre!) robbing you of your chance to recite Middlemarch just shows lazy thinking.

I guess there isn’t yet an app for that.

And for the record: if you’re the editor and can’t turn off the goddamn Tweetdeck (or whatever other intrusive / distracting app you’re using), then that’s your problem. Don’t go blaming the technologies for the time you’re wasting.


What I said about Victoria BC municipal elections in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:45 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | 1 Comment

Here’s an article I’d like all candidates for the upcoming Victoria municipal election in November 2010 to read: Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning (September 2008 – link goes to Scribd). I wrote this for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the 2008 municipal election. Oh, how prescient – yet also how optimistic – I was. I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of FUBAR we ended up with.

Below, the full text of the article as it appeared in FOCUS:

Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning
Yule Heibel

This fall, we’re electing new local governments, and the people we elect in Victoria will shape our city’s development.  We need to be talking about leadership, teamwork, and our collective attitudes toward winning, success and failure.

If you read Victoria’s “alternative” publications (for example, Sid Tafler’s Monday Magazine opinion pieces) or listen to some of the candidates emerging from Community Associations, you’ve probably noticed a rhetoric of heightened partisanship.  In some ways, this is to be expected.  After all, if you stand on a street corner and shout, “Sunshine!”, no one will pay much attention.  But shout “Fire!” and everyone comes running – even if that “fire” is the sun shining up in the sky.  Wolves, fires, bad news: they always get attention.  And as surely as newspapers need attention to sell, candidates need attention to get elected.

Incumbent politicians know this, too.  At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff warned that the current Council has developed (pardon the pun) a reputation for being developer-friendly – as if this were a dirty and dangerous flaw.  The message was that some councillors weren’t doing enough to protect Victoria from developer predation.  Rifts on council – and possibly among staff itself – are becoming painfully obvious.

It’s easy enough to repeat the meme of “pro-development” councillors rubber-stamping proposals.  But how can you draw attention for positive discourse that strengthens respect, listening, teamwork?  Local papers report on council meetings where development proposals fail to pass, and the stories are peppered with quotes from community association members who skewer the city for even considering these proposals.  Their solution?  Prevent proposals from ever reaching council in the first place.  Declared candidate and Fairfield Community Association rep Wayne Hollohan, responding to a recent tabling of a proposal to develop the Crystal Court Motel site, stated, “I don’t know what policy exists that this [building] doesn’t violate.” (Times-Colonist, Aug.15/08)   This is a language that brooks no conciliation or teamwork.  “Violation” draws a curtain on conversation, for it suggests that some councillors collude to violate an undefended city.

Cities should, however, be robust enough to venture forth unchaperoned.  But what’s a city?  We must address that question and figure out what we are as a city.  I’ll reveal my hand by stating what to me is obvious: a) we are a Canadian city of significant size as well as this province’s capital city; and b) failure is not an option for cities today.

Cities compete.  This is why they must be robust.

They have to compete regionally, nationally, and internationally.  Victoria shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge or get out of the game, as cities are far too important to regional and national economies.  They are productive hubs where large numbers of people of all ages, with complex needs and contributions, gather, live, and work.  This also means that their built form must maximize resources and extract the best efficiencies in land use, so that ecological benefits consequently are a byproduct of density.

Density in turn supports complexity.  That’s what cities do best, and it’s how they contribute to the well-being of economies and ecologies.  For cities, change (as a function of complexity) is a constant.  If they’re smart, change means they develop; if they’re dumb, they stagnate and decay.

As a voter, I have to ask how comfortable our municipal leaders are in addressing urban growth and creative development.  How familiar are they with the work of Jane Jacobs, who argued against centralized planning and in favour of organic growth as well as “webby” or networked economies that deal flexibly with import replacements and growth?  Or the work of Alan Broadbent, who writes about the need to fund Canadian cities properly and to give them the tools that allow them to run with greater autonomy and independence?  Or Richard Florida or Ed Glaeser, who make the case for creative economies?  Consider, for example, that your purchase of gadgets like iPods validates not the metals and plastic in the device, but the design — its embodied creative, intellectual value.  What this means is that the “creative class” or “knowledge workers” who create that value are more important than the raw resources that went into the product.  These knowledge workers live in cities, including Victoria, as our growing technology sector proves.

As a voter, I want to know what sort of competencies our elected municipal leaders demonstrate with regard to understanding regional  economic contexts; understanding information and knowledge economies; understanding the potential of the creative classes, green urban development, and the need for density?  How many are stuck in yesterday’s thinking, which says that density is equal to “slum” or “blight”?

During a meeting between mayoralty candidate Dean Fortin and the Downtown Residents Association, Councillor Fortin declared that each additional storey on a building raises the crime rate and social problems.  When pressed, it turned out that his opinion was based on reading just two University of Toronto reports about an out-of-date public housing project – hardly the stuff of contemporary urbanism!  Councillor Fortin then volunteered Councillor Sonya Chandler’s opinion that high-rises are not a workable urban form because Peak Oil means that elevators will grind to a halt.  This rather fanciful, and hardly realistic, view of urbanism just isn’t helpful.  A more creative, versus fear-mongering, approach would foresee elevators running on alternative energy sources, generated by the high-rises themselves.

One wonders: have some of our municipal leaders missed the message that densely built-up cities are in fact far “greener” and better for residents than low-density development?

It seems that the provincial government “gets it,” as shown by Bill 27 (see my August 2008 article), which explicitly asks cities to encourage density and compact growth.  Unfortunately, in BC there’s always the danger that if “they” get it, then “we” have to oppose it, because partisan politics rule.  But the fact is that at the local government level, partisan politics are simply stupid, and not smart at all: if you want to run a city, grow up and leave partisanship at home.

And yet, consider our culture.  Victoria has always attracted eccentrics.  Whether they’re newcomers or homegrown entities, the city has attracted its fair share.  That’s a good thing if you believe that eccentricities contribute to a city’s vibrancy, and that our ability to attract them speaks volumes about Victoria’s potential.

But, and this is a huge but: Victoria fails to nurture respect for team-players.  Look into our history and note how many creatives ended up leaving Victoria because the climate here wasn’t supportive.  If someone wants to build a winning team, he or she will likely run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground.  The cheering section for failure in this town is huge, and that needs to change.

What’s wrong with winning, anyway?

Well, winning usually means increased complexity and change.  It’s that simple.  Losing, on the other hand, means simplification, stasis, stagnation.  Obviously, my support goes to complexity and change, which is why I would ask those who want to win in our next election whether they’re certain our city won’t lose.

What I wrote about “Victoria fail[ing] to nurture respect for team-players,” and that people who want to build a winning team have to “run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground” because “the cheering section for failure in this town is huge,” still stands. I was referring to the difficulties encountered by change-makers, not to Old Boys or to partisan politicos – those guys always seem to “work together,” albeit not for change, but for the status quo. Then I wrote, “and that needs to change”; three years on I doubt it will.

This is Part 2; read Part 1 about my foray into the archives here.


DNA quadruplex formed by telomere repeats

What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | Comments Off on What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

Social media mavens, Victorians: take note. We have a municipal election coming up this fall, and I just re-read a piece I wrote for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the last municipal election in 2008, published in October of that year: Smart Twits? (the link takes you to Scribd).

Below, I copy and paste the entirety of the article. It pains me to say it, but I was way ahead of my time here – underscoring that “here” is not where I belong.

Smart twits? A user guide
Yule Heibel

The scenario: municipal elections approach, but you haven’t managed to get excited enough to pay attention.  One candidate says, “our backs are up against the wall,” while another suggests affairs are trundling along as always.  Which one gets your attention?

My bet is on the one who tiddles your panic button (even if you don’t like it).

But wait…  Don’t they say that once you’ve panicked, it’s already too late?  Who manages smart decisions when panicked?  But when you’re voting, choosing smartly is important.

So maybe that’s why you decide not to vote?   You leave the panic-mongers to their wide-eyed, sputtering friends, and you don’t like the “career politicians,” either.  Face it, bud: you’re an alienated citizen, …although we both know you’re smart.

What should politicians do to engage you?  It’s not an academic question.  Locally, I’ve overheard the “our backs are against the wall” statement numerous times in recent weeks, and simultaneously I’ve watched more temperate players struggle to develop a message that gets people’s attention.  There’s definitely a chance to run a dumb race to the bottom, where candidates exploit fear instead of explaining opportunities.

Can we google this problem?

I spend lots of time online.  Believe me, the holy grail of many web developers is to create applications that make users feel empowered and smarter.  Smart is powerful, and it’s in our DNA to learn: we’re a monkey-see, monkey-do kind of mammal, and we want to feel like smart apes, not dumb chumps.  I’m convinced that in the aggregate, web technologies make users smarter.  Since it’s election season, let’s see if politicians are learning here.

Online, I’m immersed in a river of information and feedback generated by an array of sources, from individuals to organizations to traditional media outlets.  That web-based informational flow is as real to me as daily mail, newspapers, and chats by office water coolers were to previous generations.  By using technology, I gather flows of information without relying on just one or two broadcast sources.

Savvy politicians have figured out that they, too, can’t afford to ignore how users are actively re-organizing information, as opposed to being its passive recipients.  Look, and you’ll find that nearly all the local politicians are on Facebook, “conversing” with their social networks.  Look further, and you’ll find that those with national aspirations and an adventurous bent use even more immediate social networking tools.  Twitter, for example, is a microblogging platform where users “tweet” (and can tweet each other) in a constant ping-pong of real-time informational back-and-forth.

We’ve seen a persistent migration to online social media in politics.  The goal?  Relationships with other users and with potential voters.  Politicians need voters to win elections, but first they need to communicate with them.  At the national level, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper “twitter,” Stephane Dion and Elizabeth May don’t (yet).  All are on Facebook, though, as are many of our municipal candidates.

Mainstream media and information sources have migrated to social media, too.  CBC journalists, Macleans Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post all twitter, as does the Vancouver Library and many individual librarians (who typically are early adopters).  Businesses small and large twitter (AirCanada, anyone?), and customers can tweet complaints (or kudos) directly to a business’s stream.  If the business tweets you back, that conversation is visible to anyone. WorkSafeBC twitters new guidelines, updates, and more, all in real time.  Even BCLegislation twitters (“Automated alerts for legislative changes …Published by Quickscribe’s BC Legislation Portal”).  Facebook and Twitter are just two platforms.  There are others: blogs, Tumblrs, Flickr, MySpace, Identica, FriendFeed, etc.  The list will grow.

Many smart users are online, skinny-dipping in a river of news.

Except not so much at the local level, where information flow is often turgid, dependent on broadcast media, or on having access to the “right” individuals (who may or may not be online).  Local politicians and the civic institutions they represent aren’t using social media to talk directly with “users.”  There’s no VicCouncil twitter-stream, …unless you consider the actual experience a tweet.  While quite a few candidates are on Facebook only a tiny minority of incumbents are.

At the same time, it seems improbable that the lessons of social media technologies aren’t having a powerful effect on local politics.  Online mavens know that’s discussion forum has opened up the city’s conversation on urban development and politics (along with many other things) to anyone with access to a computer.  Ask a question, get an answer.

Candidates who face the icky choice of either getting your attention by panicking you, or boring you because they have nothing attention-worthy to retail, should talk to users (potential voters) directly: open the conversation and engage alienated voters.

Just don’t try to get our attention by panicking us.  That’s so dumb (read: not-smart).  Smart should be empowering and make YOU (the user) better.  As one of my Twitter friends noted, “Don’t focus on making your BOOK better… focus on making the READER better.”  She also wrote, “[It] NEVER matters how good YOU are. Only how good USERS can be.”  Substitute “election platform” for “BOOK,” and substitute “citizen” or “voter” for “READER” or “USER,” and we can start talking.  …Or tweeting.

Of course it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually meet offline.  As someone twittered recently: “All my batteries are dead.  Talk to me in person.”

Well, that was my take on public engagement in Victoria THREE YEARS AGO. How have things improved?

PS: This is part 1. Next up, Part 2, about my September 2008 article, which is another piece worth reading, considering that municipal elections will soon be upon us again…

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

May 15, 2011 at 2:30 am | In links | 1 Comment
  • Man tweets about his stolen laptop; a thousand miles away a posse forms to retrieve it for him. The paragraph that follows is very suggestive, possibly giving an insight into mob psychology and how Twitter / online social media might enable the good, the bad, and maybe even the ugly…
    While he appreciates the generosity of the people who helped him, Power also notes that the situation took on a mind of its own and at some point it seemed the more he told the people in the bar not to take action, the more determined they were to do it.

    tags: twitter theft crowdsourcing mob_psychology socialtheory

  • An “oldie” (2009) but goodie.
    Tim Brown says the design profession is preoccupied with creating nifty, fashionable objects — even as pressing questions like clean water access show it has a bigger role to play. He calls for a shift to local, collaborative, participatory “design thinking.” (Recorded at TEDGlobal, July 2009, Oxford, UK.Duration: 16:50)

    tags: tedco tim_brown design_thinking

  • Do you have a (personal) manifesto?
    Manifestos are a powerful catalyst. By publicly stating your views and intentions, you create a pact for taking action. (Movements from the American Revolution to Dogme 95 film to the Firefox web browser were all launched by manifestos.) If you want to change the world, even in just a small way, creating a personal or business manifesto is a great place to start.

    tags: 99_percent behance reference manifestos creativity art

  • Cute reference page for “Tips”:
    At 99%, Behance’s think tank, we focus on what happens after inspiration — researching the forces that truly push ideas to fruition. Our profiles of proven idea makers, action-oriented tips, best-practices sessions, and annual conference are all designed to help you transform ideas from vision to reality.

    tags: 99_percent behance reference tips creativity

  • Not sure I’d ever use this (and I’m not keen on cluttering up lectures with live tweeting), but this is interesting:
    …how to automatically tweet useful links and tidbits of extra information during your presentation. (…)

    Now I’m not a big fan of live tweet streams during keynotes. Before you know it the audience is laughing about cheap jokes in the Twitter stream instead of listening to the speaker. Not very classy or respectful.

    That doesn’t mean you as a speaker can’t use Twitter to your advantage though! At the beginning of your presentation show a slide with your Twitter account (mine is @Boris) and ask people to follow you for extra information handed out during your talk.

    tags: twitter live_tweeting how_to

  • Interesting organization:
    The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent nonprofit research group. We work with organizations of all kinds to help them make better, more informed decisions about the future. We provide the foresight to create insights that lead to action.

    We bring a combination of tools, methodologies, and a deep understanding of emerging trends and discontinuities to our work with companies, foundations, and government agencies. We take an explicitly global approach to strategic planning, linking macro trends to local issues in such areas as:

    Work and daily life
    Technology and society
    Health and health care
    Global business trends
    Changing consumer society

    tags: institute_for_the_future palo_alto california think_tanks futurismo

  • Great resource for finding green landscaping in BC’s urban areas.
    This website presents a sample of landscape architecture in British Columbia that includes parks, public gardens, and urban design, as well as commercial and multi-family developments.

    tags: atlas landscape_architecture british_columbia green_strategies

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

I dreamed I saw some posts last night…

May 12, 2011 at 7:06 pm | In just_so | 2 Comments

Such a vivid dream: I wrote several long, tremendously satisfying blog posts. Once I woke up, I realized they weren’t there – yet. But at least I know they are there.

PS: Apologies to Billy Bragg (I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night) with regard to my title – it was just a silly near-rhyme that kinda struck me… 😉

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