A new vision for our towns and cities

Our small mountain towns are joining the ranks of world-class cities in pedestrianizing streets in the downtown core.  The Towns of Banff and Canmore are mirroring actions in big cities like Paris, New York and Milan to make more space on downtown streets for people to maintain social distance while enjoying the commercial and recreational activities that our towns have to offer.

Whether this should be a short-term reaction to an immediate problem or an enduring solution towards addressing deep-rooted challenges in our towns is worth considering.

Across the world, measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic have yielded inadvertent but welcome environmental benefits:  cleaner air, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, decreased pressures on wildlife.  People and policymakers have seen what their cities can look like without traffic congestion and air pollution.  Liking what they are seeing, and feeling that it was a state worth preserving, they are taking bold action now. 

Milan has accelerated its Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan by a decade from 2030 to 2020 to transform 35km of inner-city streets, prioritizing pedestrian and cyclists over motor vehicles. Likewise, Paris is reserving 30 streets and 50km of car lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, respectively, and Mayor Hidalgo has predicted that some of these changes could become permanent.  

In Canada, several large cities are seizing the window of opportunity presented by post-COVID-19 recovery to accelerate changes to make cities more sustainable, equitable and livable.  The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Cities, signed by Mayors and Chief City Planners from Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Victoria among others, calls for responsible use of land, decarbonization of transportation systems and sustainability in built and natural environments. 

Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

In the Bow Valley we do not have big cities with big city problems.  However, we have small towns with significant visitation that gives rise to traffic congestion, parking problems, and reduced enjoyment for visitors and locals alike. 

What can we learn from the experience of other urban centres who experience similar problems? 

Reducing vehicle dominance and replacing car-oriented urban spaces with people-oriented spaces have economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits.  Bars, restaurants, retailers and artists all benefit from the increased foot traffic, liveliness and sociability of pedestrianized spaces.   

Our towns also have good intentions for environmental sustainability and written plans for decarbonization, waste diversion and ecosystem preservation. Dates for achieving key targets have been set out to 2050. 

But what we saw in the COVID-19 crisis is that when we are faced with a potentially devastating public health emergency, we can act swiftly and collaboratively in days to weeks to make sure people’s health, lives and livelihoods are protected.  Why don’t we leverage this success to treat climate change like the public health emergency it is? Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

Finally, we need to reinvent our towns so they do not perpetuate the inequities that currently exist. Built environments such as sidewalks, public buildings and parks need to be accessible to all residents throughout their life.  Children, seniors and people with different physical abilities should feel safe moving about towns during winter and summer. 

Decent, affordable housing is needed to create mixed-income neighbourhoods that reflect the wider population and bridge people from different walks of life.  Food security and high-quality public transportation benefits everyone, but are essential for people with low incomes to ensure that they have access to good nutrition, employment and recreational opportunities. 

In the Bow Valley we don’t have the cachet of urban centres like Toronto, Paris and New York.  But we can learn from them and we too can seize the window of opportunity in the post-pandemic recovery period to re-imagine and re-invent our communities. 

Vamini Selvanandan © 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on June 18, 2020. Photo credit: Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Further reading:

Re-imagining Work: We can do better

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great revealer.  While creating new challenges, it is also shining a light on those problems in our society that we have chosen to ignore.   The pandemic has opened our eyes to the plight of seniors in long-term care, inadequate housing on reserves, and crowded shelters for the homeless.

As a result of the pandemic, we now see and appreciate the essential workers in our community – grocery clerks ensuring we can access food, cleaners keeping our facilities virus-free and health care aides caring for our seniors. 

The pandemic has also made us see all too plainly how we have undervalued our essential workers.   We ask frontline workers to work for low wages in physically-demanding jobs and under conditions that put their health and the health of their families at risk.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for fair payment for essential frontline work and the importance of providing safe working conditions.  Paid a living wage, health care aides would not go from job to job in senior care facilities carrying the lethal virus with them.  Given safe working conditions, or at least proper attention when they sounded the alarm, meat packers in High River would not have suffered the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America.  

We in the Bow Valley have largely been spared the ravages of coronavirus infection with 4 cases in Banff and 18 cases in Canmore and area as of May 15, 2020.  While many parts of the province are seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases, the real danger to Bow Valley communities is just beginning.  The economic relaunch means large numbers of visitors could flood in, bringing with them the risk of infection.  Being in close proximity to Calgary, the largest reservoir of coronavirus in the province, we need to be vigilant and prudent in re-opening our economy. 

Let us build an economy that lives within its means.

We have frontline workers in the hospitality industry who are about to be exposed to new risks.  They deserve fair treatment and safe working conditions like essential frontline workers.  A 2018 study showed that hotel workers in the Bow Valley suffered a 48% higher rate of physical injuries requiring time off work or modified duties than hotel workers in the rest of Alberta.  Bow Valley hospitality workers suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse.  They face social challenges including isolation, workplace discrimination and lack of social support.

As we relaunch, we have a chance to put this right.  We have a chance to reimagine what work looks like in the Bow Valley and build something better.  Let us begin by acknowledging how hard our frontline workers labour and the risks they take.  Let us pay them a decent wage that allows them to thrive in our communities.  Let us provide them with safe working environments and give them voice and agency in addressing safety concerns in the workplace.  Let us treat our workers with respect and without discrimination.  

Let us build an economy that lives within its means – an economy that recognizes the boundaries imposed by labour, housing, infrastructure and environmental considerations in the Bow Valley.  To sustain our communities, we do not need to create an economy that looms larger than necessary and thrives on the exploitation of people and nature.  As we rebuild our economy, we can focus on making it better, not bigger.  If you agree that we are all in this together, now is the time to show that you mean it.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on May 21, 2020. Photo credit: Chelsey Horne on Pexels .com

Further reading:

Confidence during the COVID-19 Crisis

In times of crisis, we reap the benefits of the society we have built around us.  This is why knowing that I live in Canada lets me sleep better at night.  Although the novel coronavirus causing the global pandemic is virtually identical in all parts of the world, it is having dramatically different consequences in different countries. How countries are dealing with this imminent threat is rooted in their social and political fabric.

Good governance can go a long way to mitigating the impact of the virus.  In Canada, we are seeing federal and provincial policymakers basing decisions on available scientific evidence and being consistent in their approach and messaging to Canadians.  They look to experts in public health to guide them with the timing and intensity of health protection measures.

Provincial and federal governments are also putting people’s safety before the economy, instituting strict social distancing measures and travel advisories knowing full well that these measures will grind the economy to a halt.  Opposing parties have set aside political ideology to work together and pass laws quickly for getting money into the pockets of Canadians.  We only have to turn our attention south of the border to see what the consequences of the pandemic could look like if we lacked these aspects of good governance.  

A month ago, few people knew about the discipline of public health.  Today Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s top public health official, is a household name.  She leads the province’s public health system:  a robust mechanism that provides health protection, disease prevention and health promotion. 

Countries with good public health infrastructure are able to identify and isolate infectious cases early in an outbreak, trace and monitor contacts closely and mandate measures such as social distancing swiftly and effectively.  This slows down the spread of disease and flattens the epidemiological curve.  In Italy, where early and effective public health action was lacking, people who might have survived with appropriate treatment are dying because the health care system has become overwhelmed. 

In good times and in bad, we can remind our politicians that the economy works in service of the people and not the other way around.

Here in Alberta, we have become accustomed to receiving daily updates on the extent of infections in our province and the corresponding measures to counteract the spread.  Anyone with an internet connection can get detailed information on case numbers, distribution and demographics. 

When leaders give clear and reliable information to the public, we can better appreciate the gravity of the situation and take measures to protect our health and that of our family, friends and community members. 

Transparency allays anxiety and engenders trust, so when our personal liberties are curtailed, we understand why and are better able to comply.  

One can only wonder if transparency and freedom of speech had been part of the social fabric in China, would the world be faced with this pandemic today?  Instead of muzzling the medical doctor who sounded the alarm on early COVID-19 cases, if Chinese authorities had heeded his warning, the outbreak may well have been contained within Wuhan and never spread outside.

We have many reasons to be confident that our country is dealing well with this pandemic.  But we can do better. 

In good times and in bad, we can remind our politicians that the economy works in service of the people and not the other way around.  We can urge policymakers to restore funding to public health systems that provincial governments have scaled back in recent years.

We can use the same resolve we are showing to combat COVID-19 to rally against other more sustained and disastrous threats like climate change.  And most importantly, we can all work together to address the gaps in our society that create poverty, homelessness and inequality.  Because in our interconnected society, if some of us are vulnerable, we are all vulnerable.

By Vamini Selvanadan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on April 16, 2020. Photo credit: CDC from Pexels

Further reading:

Public schools matter

Universal access to publicly-funded healthcare is a source of national pride and a social policy that Canadians are willing to go to great lengths to defend.  But how passionate are we about preserving a robust public education system? 

Recent events locally and provincially challenge our resolve on this very issue.  Exshaw School is under threat of closure due to changes in federal funding for indigenous students and public schools provincially are under threat from the UCP government’s proposed Choice in Education Act.

Education like health is a public good.  Market theory with its emphasis on choice and competition – with few external controls – cannot be applied to education any more than it can be to health.  Providing public funding for charter, private and religious schools to compete with public schools only undermines the efficiencies of a single high-performing system.

Public schools are an effective means of delivering education.  Research from the United States shows that public schools outperform private schools when socioeconomic status is taken into account.  Finland has the highest-ranking education system in the world and all schools in the country are publicly funded; no school is allowed to charge tuition fees.  Schools are encouraged to co-operate and innovate together rather than compete with one another, leading to world class results.

Inclusion is the hallmark of public schools.  Public schools recognize every child’s right to education and welcome every child.   By contrast, Catholic schools turn away students based on religion, charter schools screen out students with low test scores, and private schools refuse students who cannot pay tuition fees.  We wouldn’t accept a health care system that denied people service on the basis of religion, ability or income, so why do we tolerate an education system that does exactly that? 

By accepting and valuing children from all backgrounds, public schools embrace and celebrate diversity.  They teach inclusion and tolerance, foster good citizenship and increase empathy.  Public schools best prepare students for the real world where businesses thrive on employee diversity, and where complex political and social problems are solved by including diverse perspectives in decision-making.

Public schools recognize every child’s right to education

and welcome every child.

Health and education are inextricably linked:  poor health can be an obstacle to pursuing education, while educational attainment leads to better health outcomes.  Education improves health directly by providing individuals with basic knowledge and skills, and indirectly enhances people’s ability to lead a healthy life by improving life circumstances in employment, income, food security and social support networks.

Public schools are a powerful way to reduce avoidable and unfair health differences (health inequities) among different segments of society.  Being free and accessible to all, public schools reach and benefit everyone regardless of race, religion and socioeconomic status.  Education is the great equalizer, reducing income inequities and breaking the cycle of poverty for the most disadvantaged.  Decreasing inequity benefits rich and poor alike:  more equal societies have less mental illness, fewer crimes, less substance use and more trust among strangers. 

Public schools are also community hubs that bring together families and neighbours, creating bonds and interpersonal relationships through shared experiences.  Frequent contact with neighbours and other community members increases trust, social networks and shared values, all factors linked to better health outcomes. 

Public schools give all children an opportunity to develop to their full potential, and in doing so, improve health and social outcomes for individuals, families and communities.  The provincial public engagement survey on choice in education closed last week and as a physician and a parent, I let Jason Kenney and the UCP government know that I choose a province that is more tolerant, safe and healthy because of universal access to high quality education.  When it comes to education in Alberta, public schools are the only choice.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2019. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on December 12, 2019. Photo credit: Pixabay on Pexels.com

Further reading:

%d bloggers like this: