Opinion Polls: Getting the results you want

August 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm | In johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | 3 Comments

Opinion Polls: Getting the results you want is the title of a Yes Minister sketch (click here to view).

From Wikipedia:

Set principally in the private office of a British government cabinet minister in the (fictional) Department for Administrative Affairs in Whitehall (the sequel was set in the Prime Minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street), the series follows the senior ministerial career of The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, played by Paul Eddington. His various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or effect departmental changes are opposed by the will of the British Home Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne. His Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds, is usually caught between the two. Almost every episode ends with the line “Yes, Minister” (or “Yes, Prime Minister”), uttered (usually) by Sir Humphrey as he relishes his victory over his “political master” or acknowledges defeat—and, more rarely, to acknowledge a joint victory.

Not until I returned to Canada after living in the States for nearly two decades did I realize just how veddy veddy similar the system here is to England’s, right down through every level, it seems, of government, from senior (Federal) to middle-senior (Provincial) to local (municipal). It strikes me that the people who run the show are the staff (the unelected bureaucrats), not the politicians. Call me naive, but I have a bit of a problem with that.

I mean, we can’t vote them out, can we?

I’m betting that tomorrow City of Victoria council (the politicians) will follow recommendations from staff (the bureaucrats) to go forward with replacing the historic Johnson Street Bridge. From where I’m sitting, as a very interested observer, it looks like this: the politicians, like well-played puppets, will fulfill the plan set in motion by staff some time ago (probably about 18 months, maybe 2 years ago). I don’t know whether they (the politicians) really have any idea what sort of shit-storm of public anger is going to hit them, …but, frighteningly, I can’t see that staff give a hoot – and therein lies the problem. After all, when the next election rolls around in 2011, staff will still have their well-paid jobs and glorious benefits, while the politicians will be out on their asses – and we the public will be left holding the bill.

From day one, it was clear that Engineering was hell-bent on getting a new bridge (to the point of presenting the Delcan Report in an extremely biased and one-sided way to council in April 2009), even if expenditures for a new bridge mean that this city has to go into massive debt and forgo every other sort of infrastructure project along with many opportunities for civic improvement. Their single-mindedness – and what it has cost in resources (human and financial) – is astonishing. The political capital, as well as the social capital, squandered on this gold-plated Cadillac project (whose true dollar cost is still unknown) could have been spent so much better on far worthier endeavors.

Talk about playing the public – and the politicians. On the one side, bureaucrats with benefits, on the other …chumps.

Postscript: I picked this particular Yes Minister segment because opinion polls will figure in a big way in tomorrow’s meeting.

On re-reading Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street

August 7, 2010 at 11:49 pm | In cities, FOCUS_Magazine, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, leadership, local_not_global, nature, victoria | Comments Off on On re-reading Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street

Since I’m fuming in a conversation over on Facebook about the City of Victoria’s Department of Engineering (which seems to me benighted), I was reminded of my 2007 article, Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street (the link goes to the Scribd version).

Not to sound too much like I’m tooting my own horn, but that was such a good article, and such a great idea – and it was instantly shot down in a committee meeting of council without so much as a second thought by then-Director of Engineering Peter Sparanese, who told Councilor Pamela Madoff that the scheme floated by me in the above-linked article would be too expensive: as far as anyone could tell, he quoted a $12million price tag seemingly on the spot – amazing, how quickly that particular variation of a Class-C estimate materialized…

In the Director of Engineering’s mind, it was seemingly more expedient to build yet another paved road, …and that’s exactly what happened. And how did the Director get his way? By conjuring a figure that was 3 times more expensive ($12million) than what his conventional fix would cost ($4million). No one ever questioned him on how he came up with his numbers, and from what I’ve seen he has been given free rein ever since: “…Coun. Helen Hughes pointed out the last time the council looked at the project [to fix the View and Vancouver Street intersection] the cost was estimated at $1.55 million, less than half the $4,080,000 of the latest estimate.” (source) and let’s not forget how mercurial the Department of Engineering’s financial estimates regarding the Johnson Street Bridge refurbishment and/or replacement have been…

That this city has no imagination is something I’ve suspected ever since, and my suspicions have been proven again and again in every twist and turn regarding the Johnson Street Bridge fracas – where the only imagination shown is in quoting increasingly bizarre budgets for either option.

For the record, here’s my August 2007 article in full:

“Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street”

We know that regular exposure to nature is good for us, and yet we perfect designs that keep nature out, sometimes even erase our awareness of it. Protected from nature, we control and limit our exposure – we stay warm in winter, cool in summer, which affords us greater productivity and increases our comfort. Like most people, I’m happy to enjoy central heating and storm windows. But an over-armored life isn’t ideal, either. Think of dinosaurs or giant turtles next time your car has you imprisoned in a traffic jam or your office window won’t open because that would disturb the air-conditioning.

Today’s eco-conscious designers point out that excessive barriers to nature produce lowered quality of life as well as boring, mediocre built environments. But designing with nature, they argue, contributes to health, creates excitement, and even fosters love. Love of nature, termed biophilia by E.O. Wilson, refers to a deep-rooted need “to experience natural habitats and species.” Wilson’s colleague Stephen Kellert writes of biophilic design: a conscious bent to design access to nature into what we build in cities. It’s a mandate that can shape buildings, parks, …and streets.

Earlier this spring, the City asked for the public’s input at several Parks Masterplan workshops. Planners wanted to know how we use parks, and where we might create new ones. During one workshop, there was an electric moment when a participant suggested turning part of View Street into a linear park. She noted that traffic volume on Fort and Yates (both one-way arterials) is heavy, while it’s relatively light on View. While still allowing cars, the city could nonetheless create a linear park – which would function as a badly needed beautification project, too – and, she added, let’s incorporate exercise stations for seniors.

View crosses Vancouver Street, already blessed with an unparalleled canopy bestowed by majestic chestnut trees whose massive trunks suggest outdoor sculpture. Under the trees, wide grassy boulevards suggest to the many pedestrian commuters that here, indeed, is an urban park – or should be. The intersection of View and Vancouver is sinking, however, and presents a major engineering conundrum. But this problem could become an opportunity.

As we know from Jennifer Sutherst’s research (“Lost Streams of Victoria,” map, 2003), that intersection is built on what was a wetland fed by seasonal streams and rainwater run-off. The wetland in turn fed a stream that coursed along Pandora (accounting for Pandora’s odd bend, between Douglas and Government): the stream marked the boundary between Chinatown and “white” Victoria. It was treated badly even in the 19th-century (apparently turned into an open sewer), was soon contained, put underground, paved over. Its remnants still drain into the Inner Harbour.

Sutherst’s map shows the wetland directly at View and Vancouver. Today, its asphalted surface is impermeable, while drainage codes mandate that run-off from roads and neighbouring buildings diverts to storm sewers, versus flowing back into the marsh. Consequently, the now-hidden wetland is drying up, and as it dries, its layers of peat shrink and compress, causing the roadbed to sinks. To “fix” that problem, we’ve in-filled additional layers of asphalt, making the surface even heavier – and contributing to increased compression of the underlying stratum.

It’s in many ways a classic vicious circle, and a lesson in living peaceably with micro-ecosystems. In effect, by building yet another protective barrier between nature (the wetland) and us, we have also paralyzed the wetland’s hydrological functioning. If the land were a body, what would the wetland be? Perhaps kidneys, absorbing fluid, treating it, discharging it. By putting impermeable asphalt over that natural organ, we’ve desiccated it, and now it’ll cost a pretty penny in engineering surgery.

Since we have to throw money at it anyway, what if we did something truly innovative to that diseased organ? What if we practiced biophilic design to restore its ecological function – and gained a unique urban focal point in what could be a fabulous linear park project? Imagine, for example, an intersection with a permeable steel-grid “road-bed” suspended slightly over a daylighted wetland, the latter slowly restored to full hydrologic function. In the restoration field, daylighting typically refers to excavating and restoring a stream channel from an underground culvert, covering, or pipe. In the case of the View/Vancouver wetland, it would more appropriately refer to removing an impermeable surface, and planting appropriate vegetation that allows the wetland to resume its normal function as a water filter. Restored urban ecology also provides both an educational tool for stewardship and an aesthetic community amenity.

The art-technology-engineering challenge lies in marrying restoration with normal urban functioning: traffic (automotive and pedestrian) has to flow. But consider the value that could accrue for Victoria with a project like this. If Dockside Green, locally the symbolic heart for sustainable development, attracts worldwide attention, perhaps a brilliantly restored kidney could turn a few heads, too.

Civics assignment, part 2

July 28, 2010 at 9:10 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | Comments Off on Civics assignment, part 2

Very important for City of Victoria British Columbia residents/ taxpayers: Click through to FOCUS Magazine‘s poll, How should Victoria City Council solve the Johnson Street Bridge problem? As FOCUS notes, this is for “City of Victoria residents only, please” – so if you live in Saanich or Oak Bay or Esquimalt (or beyond), skip this (unless you own a business in Victoria and pay taxes to the City).

No need to tell regular readers that I’m all for option 3.

Go vote in the poll if you’re in Victoria.

Civics assignment

July 27, 2010 at 11:15 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, victoria | 1 Comment

Ok, if you live in Victoria BC, or if you live in any city anywhere and have chafed at scandals related to your political leaders and how your bureaucratic staffers are handling civic and fiscal issues, here’s your assignment: hie yourself over to FOCUS Magazine and read Sam Williams’s latest article, Victoria City Hall: well paid but confused (just published – and now live online, too!).

I’ve been made so angry by this whole issue – which started for me in April 2009 with the decision to replace the Johnson Street Bridge: a decision made within 20 minutes of council chit-chat on the basis of a skewed, very skewed Power Point presentation by the City’s Engineering Department; a decision that represents the biggest expenditure in the City’s history but that was made with NO public input; a decision about a project that wasn’t even on the radar prior to 2009 (so I’d just like to say “stfu” to all those idiots who say “let the leaders lead, we elected them” – and besides, speak for yourself, I voted for none of the ones leading the replacement charge) – so angry that my whole attitude about Victoria has shifted. For the worse.

I’m not sure whether voting the bad-asses out in 2011 will change things for the better. Read Sam Williams’s article and you’ll understand that there’s an entrenched bureaucratic culture – one of piggy-ness and entitlement – and that this culture unfortunately is incredibly hard to shift since it can’t be voted out because these staffers have contracts that would cost the city millions to break. So what is to be done?

Some excerpts from Victoria City Hall: well paid but confused:

…the number of City Hall staffers making more than $100,000 a year jumped from 15 in 2008 to 50 in 2009. According to Statistics Canada (2006) only 4 percent of Canadians have annual income greater than $100,000.

City Manager Gail Stephens topped the list with remuneration of $186,418.09 and expenses of $168,443.94. The City’s Director of Communications, Katie Josephson ($115,369.52) said Stephen’s high expenses “included transition costs for moving to Victoria [from Calgary] that included losses on [her] house sale” as well as “moving expenses, travel and professional dues.”

Dear reader: who has ever heard of an employee (hired at the start of the current recessionary mess) getting a six-figure bonus to compensate for “losses” on a property in the city the employee is leaving? Huh? Did someone force Gail Stephens to sell her property in Calgary so she could buy one here? Oh wait, she didn’t buy a property in the City of Victoria – no, she bought in Saanich, which means she doesn’t even pay property taxes to the City of Victoria. (This might explain why she’s willing to cripple the city with borrowing debt for a new bridge: her property taxes won’t go up because of it.)

The pay increases for top management are obscene. Mike Lai’s and Peter Sparanese’s “remuneration increased by roughly 20 percent in 2009.” In words: Twenty percent. Meanwhile, the regular union folk employees at City Hall are being told to toe the line at 2%. And in another meanwhile, the regular rank and file at the Provincial level of government have been told to expect 0%. But our municipal princes (and princesses) of upper-level bureaucracy are making out like Wall Street fat cats, with 20% pay increases and six-figure expense accounts.

It’s a good thing I have low blood pressure because even so it feels like I’m blowing a head gasket.

It gets worse, of course. The salary scandal is just the frame around the fetid mess of crap that city staff and politicians have made of the whole Johnson Street Bridge issue. Read on in Williams’s piece to see how they’ve even managed to misrepresent earthquake risk – all, in their deluded quest to foist strips of new roads in our downtown (roads that will suburbanize Old Town). Oh, right: and into the bargain deal with a tiny short little bridge that’s being used as the excuse and catalyst for god knows what.

Go read the article and think about change.

Arresting perspective: Johnson Street Bridge integral to Victoria’s Old Town

July 22, 2010 at 11:28 pm | In architecture, authenticity, heritage, johnson street bridge, victoria | 5 Comments

Victoria British Columbia residents and visitors may have seen the Johnson Street Bridge before from this perspective, looking west down Johnson Street toward the Harbour:


But the arresting perspective seen in Eric Porcher‘s photograph drives home a crucial point. Porcher‘s photo clearly shows that the bridge is absolutely integral to the distinctive fabric of Old Town. Consider how well the industrial structure of the bridge, with its girders, beams, and thousands of rivets, answers the density of architectural detail that Old Town’s street facades offer.

If the Johnson Street Bridge is removed and replaced with a generic new bridge, a significant piece of Victoria’s heritage – what makes it uniquely itself – will be excised and lost forever.

It’s obvious that a destruction of the Johnson Street Bridge equates to a mutilation of Old Town. It’s also obvious that our city council speaks with a forked tongue about heritage and has no shame about hypocrisy.

Victorian? Johnson Street Bridge dot ORG has the survey you need

July 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm | In johnson street bridge, victoria | Comments Off on Victorian? Johnson Street Bridge dot ORG has the survey you need

The City of Victoria has sent surveys to residents, asking for feedback on what we think should be done regarding the Johnson Street Bridge.

My post today is aimed at Victoria British Columbia residents – voters who live in the City of Victoria: Victorians. I’m asking you to visit the latest post on our website, JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG, to read Give Your Feedback to City Hall on the Johnson Street Bridge. Download the additional survey (PDF) that JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG has developed and send it in to City Hall, together with the official survey.

I also recommend that Victoria residents (or other interested folks) take a look at this summary, Johnson Street Bridge project retrospective, part 1 of 2, on Vibrant Victoria. (Full disclosure: it was written by my son, Adam Bahlke, who is working for Skyscraper Source Media this summer; the article is entirely based on the public “Johnson Street Bridge” threads on the Vibrant Victoria forum and reflects the information and sentiments expressed therein. Irrespective of my personal interest in the topic, the article is a sober reflection of what in essence has been a very fraught topic.)

To recap: if you’re a City of Victoria resident, please surf over to the JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG article, Give Your Feedback to City Hall on the Johnson Street Bridge, and carefully read the strategy we’re proposing. Download the PDF and include it with your official City of Victoria survey.


Please tell your fellow Victoria voters, too.

Clapperclaw, the verb

July 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm | In johnson street bridge, just_so, victoria | Comments Off on Clapperclaw, the verb

Here’s a great old word: clapperclaw. We should all start using it again.

Clapperclaw, vb., trans.: To claw or scratch with the open hand or nails; to beat, thrash, drub.

Clapperclaw, as in: While I chopped the vegetables, my dog clapperclawed my leg to demand a piece of zucchini.

It also means “to revile, abuse”…

Clapperclaw, as in: The citizens, ready to clapperclaw the councilors for their lousy decisions, voted them out at election time.

(Sing it, sister!)


What prompts a municipal CAO’s expenses?

July 15, 2010 at 7:39 pm | In johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, victoria | Comments Off on What prompts a municipal CAO’s expenses?

Victoria British Columbia hired a new City Manager one year ago (July 2009). Recently, the city released its 2009 Public Bodies Report (PDF), which itemizes the city’s expenditures. On p.8, we read that the City Manager’s 2009 salary was $186,418.09 – and that her expenses were a staggering $168,443.94.

What prompts expenses that come to ~90% of annual salary? No one else comes even remotely close.

Knowing the cost of buying a house around here, I have some guesses. But if I’m right, it’s a shame that property tax paid won’t go back to the City of Victoria – its manager, according to what she told me in conversation, lives outside the municipality.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

July 11, 2010 at 2:30 am | In johnson street bridge, links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • This article in Dwell relates nicely to the previous bookmark about Intel. The author’s husband’s company, Elan Home Systems, builds automated home monitoring and programming systems.

    The real gains of a smart home, however, are in energy conservation. HVAC and irrigation specialists aside, most of us would rather not expend brainpower on the nuts and bolts of heating and plumbing. Yet, at the same time, to neglect these seemingly prosaic matters risks ruining the planet by wasting precious resources.

    A smart home’s technological bells and whistles, software, algorithms, and networked systems enable people to be mindful about resources without always having them on their minds. In our own home, we have reduced our energy consumption by 15 percent, primarily thanks to the ability to automate and easily control how much lighting, air-conditioning, and heating we use, in addition to enabling us to make behavioral changes based on the system’s feedback.

    tags: dwell_magazine energy management widgets

  • Very promising new approach that incorporates insights from ethnography, mainly around how to keep users engaged with energy management:

    The company has developed a home energy management console that comes with 1) a household clock and 2) an answering machine that stores and plays back video messages. The console also sports an iPhone-like interface with apps for checking daily power consumption, historical power consumption and other data. Nonetheless, the answering machine, and to some degree the clock (with the hours corresponding to peak power periods painted in red), represent the real breakthroughs.

    Why? Home energy management companies admit that it has been tough to get consumers to interact with their consoles after the initial thrill wears off. By integrating an answering machine, consumers will inadvertently have to come in contact with their energy consumption all the time.

    “We realize energy can get boring,” said Mary Murphy-Hoye at Intel Labs. “We’ve got to give people reasons to interact with it.”

    tags: energy management intel widgets

  • Washington State Department of Transportation page about the benefits of roundabouts. Thinking about this with regard to the so-called “octopus” of roads in downtown Victoria, just before traffic gets on to the Johnson Street Bridge. A roundabout might be the better solution…?
    Contrary to many peoples’ perceptions, roundabouts actually move traffic through an intersection more quickly, and with less congestion on approaching roads. Roundabouts promote a continuous flow of traffic. Unlike intersections with traffic signals, drivers don’t have to wait for a green light at a roundabout to get through the intersection. Traffic is not required to stop – only yield – so the intersection can handle more traffic in the same amount of time.

    Also consider space constraints: roundabouts need less space:
    A roundabout may need more property within the actual intersection, but often take up less space on the streets approaching the roundabout. Because roundabouts can handle greater volumes of traffic more efficiently than signals, where drivers may need to line up to wait for a green light, roundabouts usually require fewer lanes approaching the intersection.

    tags: johnson_street_bridge victoria roundabouts wsdot

  • Interesting observations. Heavy users are ~1% of online participants (90% lurk, 9% comment occasionally, 1% comment heavily and shape the community). Re. anonymity, see also the Shirky article in The Guardian, and consider this observation in Boston.com:
    Almost all the heavy users I spoke with said they would continue to comment even if they had to provide their real name.

    And how easy is it to uncover anonymity? Very.
    While news organizations debate scrapping anonymity, the ground may be shifting beneath them. With all of our identifying information getting sliced, diced, and sold, by everyone from credit card companies to Facebook, is there really such a thing as the anonymous Web anymore? Consider this demonstration from the late ’90s by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Latanya Sweeney. She took three commonly available data points: sex (male), ZIP code (02138), and date of birth (July 31, 1945). Those seemingly anonymous attributes could have described lots of people, right? Actually, no. She proved they could belong to just one person: former governor William Weld. She tells me that 87 percent of Americans can now be identified with just these three data points.

    tags: boston_globe online_commenting anonymity internet socialtheory socialcritique

  • Clay Shirky defends the web, has a couple of insights into the nature of nasty anonymous commenting, too, which really make a lot of sense. I like his “islands of civility” notion. And here’s my favorite bit:
    “The final thing I’d say about optimism is this. If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”

    tags: clay_shirky internet socialcritique socialtheory

  • Great article in the New York Times Real Estate section on Victoria BC’s Dockside Green Development.
    “So it’s all integrated: the economic, the environmental, the social,” he added.

    The holistic design is the hallmark of Dockside Green, which will eventually encompass 1.3 million square feet, including 26 buildings and 2,500 residents. The project’s first neighborhood, Dockside Wharf, was completed last year and has 266 market-rate apartments, 253 of which have sold; 26 “affordable” units; 32,600 square feet of office space; and 5,881 square feet of retail. Prices range from 411,900 Canadian dollars (about $390,000) for a one-bedroom to 529,900 for two bedrooms and up to 1,233,900 for penthouses.

    The development also includes an 8 million Canadian dollar heating plant that converts locally sourced wood waste into a clean-burning gas that produces all the community’s heat and hot water. The system, which eliminates the need to use fossil fuels as a heat source, illustrates Dockside’s neighborhood-based approach to environmentally friendly design, said Robert Drew, a project architect and an associate principal with Busby Perkins & Will.

    tags: housing victoria dockside_green nyt

  • Nice presentation by Ellen Dunham-Jones on retrofitting suburbia. “We need to retrofit the corridors” – so true. Let new urbanism do a do-over of arterials. “Restore the local ecology” – restore the original wetlands: hmm, that’s what the City of Victoria should have done at the View St. and Vancouver St. intersection! Another idea: “eco-acre transfer.” Possible problems: astro-turf and urban streetscapes but suburban parking ratios.

    tags: suburbia video ellen_dunham_jones ted_conference sprawl retrofit

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

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