Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Open Letter to Our Future Mayor and Council

There are now five days until we all head to the polls to cast our ballots. At the end of the day 26 out of 35 of you will be unhappy with the day's events and nine of you will be our representatives. You'll be charged with guiding the operations, growth, and future of Red Deer over the next four years, and for being a part of the planning that will chart the course for the next 30 - 50 years.

My words here are on behalf of the community of reasonably-minded people, who truly believe that our future lies in creating a thoughtful, environmentally and economically sustainable, multi-cultural community; one that encourages business, promotes kindness, fosters environmental stewardship and ensures that we watch out for and support our fellows.

In short. I am speaking for all the citizens who want you to "do-right" by the entire community, not just those who can afford new toys, complete meals, winter vacations, and who think "like you". 

We have been subjected to the worst electoral season I can remember. While many candidates have been trying to engage in critical thought, full discourse, and well-rounded conversation, many others have treated us like children. Nenshi refers to his philosophy as "politics in full sentences." This is an ideal that all candidates - and future Mayors and Councillors - should ascribe to. Yet, there has been an element this season, that is all too-willing to reduce discourse to baseless accusations, twisted information, deliberate obfuscation of information, and most disgustingly, personal attacks and character assassinations.

Stop it. 

Growth, planning, social programs, environmental stewardship, and economic progress cannot flourish in this climate. It just can't. Reducing everything to carefully-parsed data, and black/white arguments will bind Council and prevent anything from getting done. Careful thought, full sentences, and conciliation are the markers on the path forward.

I've chosen to address two of the biggest issues to come out of this rancid electoral season: Spending and accountability.

First, some thoughts about spending: Funding proposals for capital projects and pilots will appear in front of you. It will be all too easy to vote no, saying "the majority of the people won't use this." At the risk of being the guy who turns on the light in a dark room, I'll point out that most of these requests don't service "the majority of the population". The skateboard parks, the Collicut Centre, the Rec Centre, the bike lanes, any new subdivision... they all serve minorities. Sometimes they're regional minorities, such as the case with the Collicut Centre or a new subdivision. Sometimes they're demographic minorities, as with the skateparks. Sometimes they're tiny minorities, as with the bike lanes. But, they all contribute to our overall quality of life and they all contribute to our community's appeal to people looking to invest, move, and create wealth here. More importantly, while they may serve minorities, the minorities they serve need those services and facilities. 

Also, for those of you requiring an economics refresher, please learn the difference between debt (which is used to fund big expensive things) and deficit (which would be tied to an operational budget - and something that Red Deer doesn't have).

Secondly, some brief words on "accountability" (the quotes are deliberate): There will come a time when you'll need to move a discussion "in camera". Those of you running on accountability platforms are going to have to weigh your responsibilities. Are you going to hold up progress by refusing to go "in camera", or are you going to alienate your constituency and join the off-record conversation. You can't have it both ways. By campaigning on a myth of accountability, you'll have potentially painted yourself into a corner.

Sometime around April, via Facebook, I flippantly told one candidate, who shall remain nameless, that unless they could hold two divergent opinions at the same time, and see the merit in both of them, that they should back off and let the adults work. While this wasn't particularly eloquent, the point stands. Municipal politics isn't the forum for polarizing points of view. It is not the forum for absolutes.It certainly isn't the place for anybody who lacks empathy.

Part of your job over the next four years will be to empathize with all the citizens of Red Deer. Your job is to carefully weigh the information before you and to make the decisions that benefit current residents and future generations. Your job, is to be able to look a pie and realize that there is more than one way to carve and serve it. If you get your job wrong, the pie will go rancid and we'll all lose. Get it right and our community will thrive and evolve.

Submitted respectfully, to all candidates.

Todd Nivens

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Simple Summer Saturday Mornings

The annual Red Deer Farmer's Market has come and gone. Six months ago we began our Saturday morning pilgrimages down the Spruce Drive bike lanes, into the free bike lockup, and off into the morass of human flesh; searching for lemonade, coffee, fish tacos, carrots, beans, hummus, cabbage, and any other locally-made, locally-grown food we could fit in our mouths and in our backpacks. Aside from food, we don't buy much at the market. We don't need weeders or pottery, carved furniture or lawn ornaments. We have our favourite vendors: Innisfail growers for Beck Farm's carrots, KJs for lemonade. Shan and I eat breakfast at the 'Stache trailer and the kids eat waffles from Victoria Waffles (local and scratch made is better than franchised and mix).

We have our route through the market and it rarely changes. The bikes go into the lockup and we wander down the first aisle, weaving our way up and down the rows, dodging wagons and baby strollers, mobility-chairs and wobbly toddlers. We aren't in a hurry. Our friends are there ready to stop, let the traffic flow around and through our group, and have a chat. There's coffee to get to down the driveway and Foui's banter to go along with his hummus.

Despite plans and promises to get together "one of these days" we only saw our friend Peter and his girls at the market; five times. Each time making plans that never really seemed to come together in the busyness of summer. If it wasn't for our Saturday morning routine, we'd have never seen him.

There was some evolution to our market mornings this year. Our son got his first job: Making and selling kettlecorn with the crew at KJs. Our daughter rode up all the hills on her bike, without needing to stop and walk. Toward the end of August the candidates for Mayor, Council, and the two school boards started staking out their spots. Some clinging to corners like a ship at anchor never wavering in their choice of space. Others like Cindy Jefferies, were more fluid. You never knew where Cindy was going to have her booth. The candidates brought new people into the market and new conversation.

That's the magic of the Red Deer Farmer's market. There are few other places in the City that I feel such a sense of connection to my fellow Red Deerians. Each weekend 20,000 of us wander in the cool morning air, and create a shared experience of what it means to be a community. For five and a half glorious hours, on 26 consecutive Saturdays we put our differences aside. We don't bicker about bike lanes and spending, accountability and development. We just "be". We light up when we see our friends, get a jolt from that first sip of coffee, get nourished by the food and conversation we take in, and make each others' Saturdays start off just right. Spontaneous plans for barbecues, firepits, parties, drinks, dates, are made at the market. Market mornings are loaded with the potential for weekend fun, unimagined the night before.

The Market is the manifestation of how I envision the future of Red Deer. It's dense yet happy. It's commerce but it's simple. It's conversation not accusation. It's multicultural and traditional. It's familiar and exotic. It's bikes and cars and transit and pedestrians and skate boards and strollers. It's got room for everybody. Nobody has ever been told "I'm sorry it's full", and been turned away from the market. At the market there's always room for one more; one more person, one more great idea, one more voice.

With winter on the horizon and snow already being made at the ski hill, my family will have other Saturday morning traditions; skiing, snowshoeing, and winter biking. However in a couple of weeks we'll have eaten the last of the kettle corn, and the carrot bag will be getting low. In a month or two the honey will be purchased from the store, and the only time we'll feel the push and pull of the human wave is the rare occasion when we venture into *shudder, the mall. And we'll grow wistful.

We'll miss our market community. No longer able to just bump into our fellows and friends, we'll need to make plans and do "things". Our winters become scheduled and our interactions become less fluid, more separate from the flow. Our community becomes a little more detached.

I've traveled all over Canada, and the States, and through east Africa. No place I've been in North America has a market like we do. Sure there are lots of other Farmers' Markets out there, but Red Deer's just feels special. It makes us one. It makes us whole.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

So Much Love

When I was around four I got my first two wheeler bike. It was orange, had tiny 12" wheels, upright ape-hanger handle bars, a double crossbar, a small banana seat, solid rubber tires on metal rims, and spokes as thick as your baby finger. I vividly remember falling in love with that bike when it saved me from being stung by a wasp. I pedaled hard, and she raced me to safety.

My next bike was red with white fenders. Today it would be retro-cool with its curved crossbar and wide handlebars. I think my poor father replaced eight or nine back tires on it, and our street was streaked with long, black skid marks. To this day I get a charge out of coaster-brake skids. There's just something satisfying about jamming your foot back on the pedal and sending the back of the bike around in a long, screeching arc.

A black Raleigh Rampar BMX, a red 10 speed of unknown manufacture, a copper Apollo ten speed (which is still in my basement), a black Raleigh Ozark, and a stunningly-painted blue and white swirl GT Tequesta, all led me to my current bike, my beloved green Brodie.

When I was ten I got my first skateboard; a Hobie Weaver Woodie.

In an age where all the kids had yellow "banana" boards, and the world (outside of California) had not yet heard of Tony Alva, Stacey Peralta and the Z-boys, this thing was the bomb. This board led the way to a Tony Hawk board, a Skull Skates, and most recently it's led to me "borrowing" my son Kaden's longboard for errands.

Today I am a 42 year-old supposed adult. I have a job and responsibilities, a family, a mortgage; all the things that go along with being "grown up". I have a truck that gets us up and down the ski hill, pulls the tent trailer, and on days when I can't ride, I reluctantly use it to get to and from work.

I say reluctantly because I have never gotten the same joy from driving, as I have from riding and skating. There is something indescribably freeing about swinging your leg over the seat, standing on the pedals and making yourself move. Every single day I get a little reminder of what it was like to be eight-years-old and having the freedom to glide my way to school.

While there are challenges with commuting by bike - weather and traffic are at the top of the list - the payback you get from riding is immense. You cannot cycle to work and arrive in a bad mood. It's just not possible. You might be cold, wet, tired, or sweaty. Maybe you crashed along the way. But you'll still get off your bike, park and lock it up, give it a little backwards glance, and grin as you head through the door. You'll feel a great little rush of nostalgia mixed with anticipation every single morning when you arrive. I keep waiting for it to wear off, but after 38 years of riding a bike it never does. 

Maybe we're getting away with something. Maybe we've tapped into something that keeps us young at heart, as well as keeping us young in body. I do not know a single person who rides their bike on a regular basis, who wishes they were doing something different. 

My question for the night is this: How can something that universally makes people happy, create so much angst among non-cyclists? 

Granted, we're caught up in election fever right now and the collective brain of Red Deer is operating under the dual narcotics of power and manufactured outrage, but the amount of anger being directed at cyclists is astounding. Put the issue of our bike lanes aside and the anger is even harder to understand. 

People are demanding that cyclists ride on the sidewalk/off the sidewalk/only on Waskasoo Park trails. They are downright pissed that there are some folks in the world who choose to commute in some other way, than by driving a car.

I'll let you in on our little secret. Here's what cyclists think of people who drive their cars to and from work and school. NOTHING. We don't give them a second thought, beyond the normal attention paid to them in traffic. Riding a bike is fun. That's it. While drivers are getting fueled on their daily dose of crappy pop music, bad news, and road rage, we're having a ball. You see while drivers get in their cars and listen to the kids yell at each other, and deal with other slow moving cars, and peer through foggy windows, and look longingly for parking, and wait in line to buy gas, and generally arrive at work exhausted; we've had some fresh air, some exercise, and that daily reminder of how we felt when we were kids.

I love my bike. I love every bike and every skateboard I've ever owned. If choosing to grab a little bit of childhood each and every day on my way to work makes me somehow a bad person, I can safely ignore the accusers. And so can you. 

Give it a try. Pull your bike out of storage, strap on a helmet, remind yourself how to make the appropriate hand signals, and head out to work. The eight-year-old inside your brain will giggle with delight. And you know what, you just might as well.