Managing Information – HIFIS Comes to London

One of the challenges we face in addressing homelessness in London, like in many municipalities, is the lack of information sharing across the many agencies involved.  From an administration perspective, this means difficulties in budgeting, in collaborating, and in creating a clear advocacy message.  From a service user perspective, this means having to complete the same intake forms and answer the same questions at every agency you access.  We have moved into a digital age, but our information systems and processes are not particularly advanced.

This concern parallels some of the work I have been doing around health and homelessness in London, and the lack of information sharing that can lead to poor health outcomes.  With this concern eating at me, I was quite pleased to see THIS report from the City of London highlighting that the federal government is going to support our adoption of the HIFIS 3 system (Homeless Individuals and Families Information System).  The system will be utilized for sure by our emergency shelters, and other services will have the opportunity to opt-in.

There is always some skepticism about information collecting and information sharing within social services.  A question many ask is why we need to be collecting personal information on individuals who are simply seeking shelter.  And, those more prone to conspiracies, wonder about the information governments have about us.  Additionally, when it come to sharing information across agencies, people wonder if negative relationships with a staff member at one location will negatively impact care at other agencies.

However, if we keep in mind the goal is to always optimize services to end homelessness, then good information, and information sharing, are a part of the direction in which we need to be heading.

Are Criticisms Fair? (Part 2)

Although community feedback is always sought, not all criticisms of development are particularly fair.  For example, high rises that pop up in the middle of fields are often conceived as developments that are out of touch (see Richmond north, Hyde Park north of Sarnia, or Southdale and Wonderland as shown above).  Once the rest of the area is developed, these actually fit in very well if properly planned, and create the mix that we are striving for.  More than that, these are examples of how we are adding density throughout the city, not just in the core.  Reviewing area plans will often alleviate concerns, assuming that the proposal is in-line with the plan.  Criticisms should always be based in the best available evidence.

Another example of where criticism often arises is in relation to London’s policy of a 40% intensification rate, which means infill and vertical growth.  This means that each neighbourhood needs to consider what intensification will look like for them, because it will not happen solely through towers downtown.  We need to be asking what does 40% actually mean, and how can we ensure that it is done well?  Some properties like the old Trafalgar Terrace on Ridout in an area surrounded by high rises and on transit (pictured below) make great sense, others will be more contested.  No one likes more windows facing onto their backyard, but it will have to happen in someone’s backyard.

A third example is criticism that maximizing profits is done maliciously.  In planning each development, it is the right of the developer to make application for designation or zoning changes.  Recalling that we want good business people as developers in our community, it makes sense that they seek to be profitable.  Developers do in-depth market analyses, so on a new subdivision would not propose 15’ lots, nor would they propose 80’ lots, if neither will sell.  Yet the frontage and coverage of each lot will be very important, as developments are multi-million dollar investments that can take years to see profit.  Sure, we would love to see copper gutters on buildings, and fancy glass high rises, but this will simply result in higher rental and sale prices.  With the average home price for new builds in the range of $360,000 in London, affordability will continue to be an issue.

The first two posts have painted a particularly rosy picture of development, in the next I will suggest that not all development is good development.

Considering Development (Part 1)

Having attended all London City Council meetings this year except for one (which I caught online), planning and development has become an interest of mine.  This has led to me making my first public submission and comment on a development proposal.  I have been an active observer of some developments this year that have hit the media as controversial for one reason or another, such as Richmond and Sunningdale, Reservoir Hill, the Huron St drive-thru, and most recently SOHO and Victoria Park.  In my own neighbourhood, I have been following the developments at 162 and 170 Wortley Rd.  I was struck by the comment of one of the councillors around the Reservoir Hill site when he mentioned an “anti-development lobby”, and feel the need to highlight the difference between being anti-development versus pro-smart development.

First off, our city needs development, and therefore developers, particularly those who are expert in their trade.  The last thing you want is for somebody like me with a shovel and a plan on the back of a napkin building new subdivisions.  Developers are of course driven by a profit motive, as is any business, which is a logical thing.  If businesses are to add value to the economy and the community, and ensure re-development and housing, then they must be successful.  This profit motive includes not developing terrible buildings, neighbourhoods, or plazas, because they need what they build to sell.  As is highlighted in this excerpt from an ebook by Gracen Johnson, the sprawl that we often criticize is a reflection of market demand, our own demands.

I have heard the development industry referred to as some kind of evil empire, and I have cringed.  The second point I would like to make is that like any business, there is a great variability in how companies work.  For example, Dave Tennant from Hampton who is doing the Wortley properties held extra meetings with the community of his own accord prior to proceeding.  Similarly, Wes Kinghorn and the Woodfield Community Association often see this same degree of collaboration by having shown themselves to be open partners in discussing development.  Councillor Matt Brown was able to mediate between a developer and community members in his ward to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on a site that was getting dicey.  The best example that I’m familiar with is Z Group, and how they have worked in the community.  They participated in both the Placemaking Demonstration Project and the Energy Efficiency Partnership Project.  Their developments have been consistent with neighbourhood plans, thus avoiding major conflict with community members.  And, in one situation where significant environmental concerns were raised for a planned development, they put it on indefinite hold.

Therefore, the first step in considering development, is that we temper any frustrations with a particular application with the understanding of the value of development to our community.  Also, it is worth considering that any application that hits the Council floor has already been through an extensive and expensive process with staff.  On the other side, it is worth noting that there is no particular lobby opposed to development, I have witnessed that the players involve in public meetings change with each parcel of land.  Lastly, the ‘anti-development’ label is both naive and inappropriate as on any planning agenda most citizens will support 19 of the 20 items.  Even if at every meeting there is an item where community members side with staff against a proposal, the majority of items are still supported.

In the next post I will explore some of the criticisms leveled against development, and ask whether all are fair.

Development Series – Preface

Over the next two weeks, starting tomorrow, I will be posting a series of six posts on the issue of development.  This is a very hot-button issue in the community, and it has become clear in observing City Council meetings that the tension also makes its way onto the Council floor.  One of my primary goals in participating with citizen engagement and municipal politics is to try to elevate the conversation.  As a researcher and scientist my modus operandi is try to understand issues in depth, to see both sides, and to move beyond rhetoric to facts.  I have been dismayed to see that on this issue the conversation has been particularly low, with lines being drawn in the sand, and insults and accusations thrown willy-nilly.

In exploring any issue and writing any blog post I learn a lot.  In fact, this is often why I set out to write on an issue, because it forces me to research it.  For this series, I have been particularly honoured to have a number of individuals provide feedback throughout the process.  This has included City staff, councillors, a former councillor, media, a realtor, citizens of all stripes, and in particular a developer who took a lot of time to critique and meet with me repeatedly through a number of drafts.  The diversity of perspectives has allowed me to push for the depth that I sought.

Inevitably, this series will not please all, and will likely dis-please many.  I have many wonderfully supportive left-leaning friends who will find too much concession given to developers and the logic of markets.  My more conservative friends and new acquaintances in the development community will find too much credit given to soft concepts like the feel of a neighbourhood.  Ultimately, though, if everyone is a little disgruntled and a little bit pleased, perhaps I have achieved the goal of pushing our thinking.

My dream would be that bridges could be built in the community, to see developers at pints and politics, and citizens participating in development charge planning.  I think our community will be strengthened if we can at a bare minimum respect the perspectives of others, and work together even in the face of disagreements.

Faith and Flags

Religious issues, of course, are incredibly touchy.  It has been stated that you avoid discussions of religions and politics to be good company.  However, as I cover politics in depth, why not tackle where politics and religion interact?  Many may have heard of the Christian flag at City Hall issue, and for more information I refer you to the London Free Press article linked below.  I chose to write to the City Clerk Cathy Saunders as she stated that she would follow-up if public concern was expressed.  I want to be clear that I am not against religious groups holding events, and wanting this recognized formally by the City, but I believe that the particular individual involved does not pass the test for the City to accept such a request.  Public outcry on this should not be seen as persecution of Christians, but as a reminder that regardless of your faith you must show respect to all.  In fact, this seems like a message that should resonate quite well with those of the Christian faith.

Good afternoon Cathy,

I’m writing in response to the issue of the flag raising at City Hall for the event organized by Mr. Rancourt.  As stated in this article in the London Free Press http://m.lfpress.com/news/london/2012/08/19/20118251.html the test for flag raising is “Flags (are) barred from political or commercial groups or those whose philosophies espouse hatred, violence or racism”.  In the same article Mr. Rancourt is quoted as stating that “90,000 (Canadian Muslims) believe in Sharia law, jihad and terrorism,” which in my mind fails to meet 2 of the 3 conditions.

I fully support the raising of flags to recognize various cultural, ethnic, and religious events and groups in the City, but our guidelines are there for a reason.  Unfortunately, what could be a good event for the City, has as it’s spokesperson someone who promotes hatred and racism.  Fly the Christian flag for such a day, but not at the request of Mr. Rancourt.

And just to clarify the comments of Councillor Henderson, the March for Jesus and other events of that day are explicitly Christian, not inter-faith.  There are many other inter-faith prayer events in London.

Abe Oudshoorn

Employment Calculations are Tricky

Although the 0% with no cuts to core services has proven to be the campaign promise made by Mayor Fontana that has garnered the most press, his other promise to create 10,000 new jobs over 5 years should prove to be interesting, not just because the promise is longer than his term as Mayor.  This should prove to be interesting because it will defy easy calculation and could be spun all kinds of different way.

Let’s start by comparing the job figures from October 2010 and July 2012.  It is only 21 months into a 60 month promise, but should illustrate the point quite well.  In Oct 2010 there were 232,800 people employed in the London census metropolitan area, and in July 2012 there are 253,100.  So, London has ‘created’ over 20,000 new jobs.  However, the population has also increased from 395,100 to 416,100 (side note: most of this population growth has occurred outside of the borders of the City of London, but within the census area).  So, looking at the other side, we have gone from having 22,600 people unemployed, to 25,800.  Although we have a lot of new jobs, we have more new people than we have new jobs (ie. the unemployment rate has increased from 8.9 to 9.3%).

If we take these rates and extrapolate them forward to October 2014, the date of the next election, London and area will have ‘created’ 46,416 new jobs, yet will also have 7,296 more people unemployed.  So, the unemployment rate can get worse while we are actually adding employment to the community due to population growth.  You can then see why the 10,000 job promise is perfectly safe where critics might say, “Unemployment has actually gotten worse”, the Mayor will be able to point to far more than 10,000 newly employed persons in London.  I’ll leave the discussion of whether the Mayor created these jobs or not to the media in 2014.

EDIT: Someone who commented on this post, who is clearly better with employment stats and the StatsCan website pointed out that I inadvertently used adjusted numbers for one year, and unadjusted for the other.  From this combined table http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/pick-choisir;jsessionid=6587477913245801B7A656AFD8A6AA5E it appears that using better apples to apples comparisons we have added 9,200 jobs to date, but have 900 more unemployed, and unemployment rate has gone from 8.5% to 8.6%.

Industrial Land Development

 

The discussion surrounding SYSCO and their decision to locate in Woodstock raised a number of questions around industrial land development.  There were also a number of things that I learned, and a number of assumptions that were challenged.  To get an overview of industrial land in London, check out this report from 2011.  A couple of highlights:

  • We do have industrial land available
  • But it is moving, so we are going to keep requiring more
  • Part of the reason it is moving is that it is at a discount
  • But given the economic context and the policies and prices of our neighbours, we will need to continue to offer it at a discount for the foreseeable future

How much of a discount land is offered at is highlighted by Councillors Polhill and Hubert’s comments to the press that we couldn’t out-bid Woodstock without breaking the law, and costing taxpayers a huge amount of money.  That said, we lost the facility.  So, the tough question is, in the race to spend money to purchase jobs, should we ever pull out?

A part of this picture is our current policy on development charges, particularly that there is an exemption for industrial land (and residential development in certain areas).  Development charges cover the costs of both engineered services and soft services; for (much) more on these charges and how they are calculated see this background study.  Industrial land costs $108.64/sq m, which is currently carried through property taxes.  To be more clear, you and I pay the cost of bringing new businesses to London.  Industrial land pricing and policies seems very much a catch-22 in my mind, so I’m interested in hearing your perspectives.  Do you think that development charges on industrial land should continue to be exempted?

Site Reorganization

I have found it a bit of a challenge to balance my writing on both London municipal issues, and on homelessness.  Some people subscribe to this blog for the one, some for the other.  I have reorganized, so I will now write on homelessness over at www.londonhon.ca, the site for the London Homelessness Outreach Network.  Here at www.abeoudshoorn.com/blog I will write about London issues.  My scholarly work including papers and presentations will continue to be at www.abeoudshoorn.com.

Thanks for your interest in my work.

It’s Your Twitter, and It’s Everybody Else’s

This post is going to be rather specific for some, it’s really just about London, Ontario and Twitter, so apologies if neither of these apply to you.  However, twitter is very important to me, not just in that the most access to my own professional work comes through my blog, and most traffic to the blog comes from twitter, but also because I use twitter for my personal life to engage with my city.

And in London we do have something special with twitter.  This is admittedly anecdotal, but friends and work acquaintances from other cities do not have the same stories of how twitter has grown the cultural engagement in their cities, the municipal pride, and the political action that we have seen in London.  Twitter has allowed, in London, for the building and bridging of social networks in ways that even the more adopted Facebook (900M active users versus 500M) has been unable to achieve.  The majority of new friends from London I have made in the past few years has been through virtual mediums.

That said, it’s not necessarily all butterflies and roses.  Like any community, twitter can easily devolve towards a school-yard style mess of grudges, rumours, factions, accusations, insults, and open conflicts.  However, I am hesitant to say that it is an ugly scene in terms of the social relations, or that it isn’t, because all I ever see of twitter is my twitter, a feed representing those I have followed.  My impression of a trend, a style, or a bias is in itself incredibly biased by who I follow, and who I have blocked.  An actual study of a total population sample of London-based twitter users would be fascinating, but until we have that data, I caution against painting things with a broad brush, dipped in one’s own narrow lens.

The twitter that I see is my twitter, and it’s my choice as to how I use it.  Until very recently I tried to limit those I followed to those who I felt I ‘knew’, whether that is from having met them personally, or at least engaged with them online.  Valuing the friendships built, I followed in the same style that I ‘friend’ on Facebook.  However, being too curious of half conversations, I have followed more and more people recently.  This comes at the expense of having to browse through more tweets that I don’t find particularly personally interesting, but perhaps these things go in waves.  I unfollow people for any number of reasons, be it quantity of tweets, quantity of retweets, stuff that just doesn’t interest me, stuff I consider unpleasant, or simply because they haven’t tweeted in a while.  That people care who I follow I consider a compliment, but also a bit of an intrusion into my choices of managing my time.  For blocking, my current policy is I might block someone if they @ me with something particularly offensive (understanding of course that offense is very subjective, and they might not have meant it).  Disagreeing with me is great, attacking me is not so much.

That, however, is just how I use my twitter.  It isn’t right, it isn’t wrong, it’s just my style.  And for tweeting, I make no claim to sainthood, but I do try to keep it positive, or if critical, at least measured and informed.  This has been a learning process, and I have had great mentors willing to DM me with suggestions, which I appreciate.  For others, it’s their own twitter, and their own prerogative as to how they use it.  It takes all kinds, and you can certainly find them without looking too hard.  There are the strong partisan political types, Conservatives, Liberals, NDPers, and Greens who blow their horn and bash the other guys.  From each party I follow some, and I avoid some.  There are the low filter types, tweeting from the heart, whether its rude jokes, curmudgeonly comments, strange reflections, or streams of emotion.  I follow some, I avoid some.  There are big egos, there are big insecurities, there are direct arguers and there are passive-aggressives, there are the endlessly positive, and the hopelessly negative, and there are countless pictures of cats, kids, and dinners.  And that’s their choice, not mine; my choice is how I pull this fascinating network of humanity together for my own observation, and what I choose to add to the mix.

Now, this is not to say that we should be careless in our comments, and behave however we choose, leaving it up to others to screen us out.  Quite the opposite, I would suggest that in this human adventure we are to do more good than harm, and each keystroke can be a part of that.  Positivity will always be greater than negativity.  Kindness will always be greater than emnity, inclusion greater than exclusion, and turning the other cheek greater than revenge.  We need to be acutely aware of what we are bringing into the community, and if we are building or tearing down.  And when only 140 characters are available, so much is perception, which should lead us to be hyper-aware.  Joining in a debate can be seen as ganging-up, a back-and-forth debate can be perceived as an argument.  A single insult can be your only tweet someone sees.  Pointed comments with no name as the target can be read by dozens as referring to them.  A comment you make can be interpreted as the opinion of your friends.

We are at a critical moment here, where we have something special in our community.  However, as it rapidly grows and evolves, and as this is new to all of us, it is going to be whatever we make it.  If we say there is a right-left divide, then this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if we say it`s a place of bullies and factions, then this is what we will get, and it won`t be pretty.  Because there is no clear line in the sand, thank goodness, and if it`s the direction we go there will be casualties along the way.  This was highlighted well in Lincoln`s post where he stated, “I should add here that if I end up being conservative or ‘right-wing’ in any way as a result of this entire shit-show I will never forgive any of you.“  Instead, let us each attend to our own behaviour, let`s allow each other to do twitter in our own way, but let`s also respect that each of us has an impact on the entire London twitter community.