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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Performing Infrastructure

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Edmonton's Gallagher Park at the 2009 Folk Music Festival
Edmonton's Gallagher Park at the 2009 Folk Music Festival

With growing national interest in funding infrastructure projects to kick start our lumbering economy, Sean Ruthen considers another type of infrastructure requiring funding – Performance Infrastructure. They are now using this new digital system, the Igloo Software which stores the companies procedure and plans for the project. It can also develop team collaboration and communication within the company.

By Sean Ruthen, re:place magazine

At the end of 2008, the then president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Paule Boutin, wrote a letter to each member of the hundred year old Institute, asking that they in turn write to Prime Minister Harper and his two ministers Jim Flaherty and John Baird, to ask that the pending federal budget devote a significant amount of funding to national infrastructure. The federal government had been treating the subject with much rhetoric at the time, especially following in the footsteps of Obama’s new administration and its best intentions to kick start their economy, devoting colossal sums to infrastructure in a size not seen since the great public work programs of the Great Depression.

Jane Jacobs reminded us in Dark Age Ahead that the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression of the 1930’s was not the result of any one thing, but the combination of many things simultaneously going awry, including a massive coal miners strike in the late 1920’s. Arguably, the manufacturing sector today is the ‘coal-mining’ equivalent of our modern age, and with unemployment presently sitting close to 10%, we run the risk of a critical mass pushing us over the edge into another depression. So when, I ask, is this infrastructure money that has been pledged going to appear? How and where will it reveal itself – will it be schools and universities, roads and parks, or will it be delivered in some as yet to be determined form? In the US there is the ARRA – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – which is showing some signs of finally getting off the ground (read a recent Architectural Record on the subject here), though very slowly, but where is the Canadian equivalent?

I wrote these letters at the request of the RAIC president, and reminded my elected representatives that unemployment was 25% during the darkest days of the Great Depression. At the time of my writing these letters I had borne witness to massive cutbacks in both my workplace and profession, on par with the devastation surely being wrought on the manufacturing and auto industries. Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Baird wrote back to me within four months, though as of this writing, I have not heard back from our prime minister (though his communication’s personnel wrote to tell me they’d received my letter).

Mr. Flaherty’s form-letter reply was humorously apologetic for the delay in getting back to me, an indication at least that his communications staff had a calendar in their office. He/they wrote to me of the deficit the country was about to be plunged into, as by this time the party had finally given up on the mantra-like ‘Canada’s banks are in good shape’, and to be sure since then the official deficit number has most likely moved again to some new staggering sum (much like the recent provincial budget coming in at a whopping $3 billion). Mr. Flaherty seems to have recognized that my concern was the loss of jobs across Canada, as he pledged in the letter to help those in what he called ‘industries in difficulty’ – forestry, manufacturing, and the automobile industry to name only three.

Specifically, Mr. Flaherty assured me that the government was “taking immediate actions to build infrastructure. We will start construction of roads, bridges, public transit, broadband Internet access, schools and social housing, in every region of the country.” Overall, the letter read much like one of his prepared statements, which he finished with a couplet: “Together we made the right choices when times were good. Now, when times are difficult, together we can continue moving forward with confidence.”

Mr. Baird’s response was less formal and more to the point. He explained that the then upcoming budget had a new plan called the ‘Building Canada Fund’, to the tune of $33 billion. Of that, $12 billion would be spent over the next five years, including $4 billion for an ‘Infrastructure Stimulus Fund’ over two years, $1 billion for a ‘Green Infrastructure Fund’ over five years, and another $1 billion for something called the ‘Building Canada Communities Component’ to be implemented over the next two years. After visiting the ‘Communities Component‘ of the BCF website, I found that the second phase had just closed for new projects with 470 under review. Building types included convention centres, museums, and libaries, along side highways, public transit, and water treatment facilities.

By now, we have all heard much of the need for ‘infrastructure’, whether its building new roads and parks or maintaining what has already been built, as though we’re old seasoned pros since the Great Depression, and we need simply to blow the dust off the old public work programs and build new schools and bridges. I would then like to propose another type of infrastructure, something I call ‘Performance Infrastructure’, which I purport is necessary in order that any society be able to truly call itself civilized. With thousands moving to cities each day, it would be a shame to discover that this urban phenomenon is wholly without any soul.

Like a light bulb going on over my head, this epiphany happened upon me during this year’s 30th anniversary of the Edmonton Folk Festival (and, coincidentally, the 40th for Woodstock). For what better example of Performance Infrastructure than 20,000 people, orderly and civil, occupying the side of a ski hill for four days in the heart of a busy metropolis, all run by volunteers. The city’s festival organizer has discovered a gentle balance between civic pride and an entrepreneurial spirit, providing without a doubt one of the most profound public services in Western Canada (he is also organizer of the Calgary Folk Festival).

One could then imagine the collective gasp when it was discovered that the Edmonton Folk Festival would be receiving no funding from the federal government’s $100 million Marquee Program, which sponsors festival all across the country. Why Calgary and Ottawa festivals received funding (even the Cloverdale Rodeo) while the Edmonton festival didn’t can only be guessed at, though it is not a stretch to imagine that having the NDP take one of Edmonton’s longtime Conservative ridings in the last election most likely had something to do with it (the Calgary Stampede got a whopping $2 million). And so this year, the Edmonton Folk Festival demonstrated that the show can go on, despite the federal government’s snub.

My proposal to Mr. Baird and Mr. Flaherty then is this – give some of the infrastructure money to the arts, and let the dog actually wag the tail for once. Otherwise, how can one budget to spend $1 billion on infrastructure building without knowing what is to be built? Be explicit, committing to community involvement for indoor and outdoor performance venues, as well as funding other public places where people can gather to partake in the arts. This seems to be something that other places, including Quebec, seem to get, while our current federal and provincial governments seem to be missing the boat altogether. Great public spaces are the result of the partnership between governments teamed up with community spirit, some recent exemplars including the Millennium Park in Chicago and the High Line running through Chelsea in Lower Manhattan.

While our province is now officially running a deficit, we do have some things to show for it – for being $3 billion in the hole, we now have the $2 billion Canada Line to our airport, and a close to $1 billion trade & convention centre, on top of a new highway to Whistler. When you add in the new Golden Ears bridge (also $1 billion), the building of infrastructure is practically all we’ve seen in the Lower Mainland since the announcement that the five rings were coming to town. And now its time to pay the piper, so with education and health care having been systematically dismantled over the last decade to mere skeletons of their former selves, it will now be our other cultural institutions – our libraries, museums, galleries, theatres, and performance halls – that we are being told are the ones to pay.

Closing libraries and cancelling arts funding is I think to sacrifice the very thing that government is meant to safeguard in the first place. These are the storehouses of humanity where our values rest, they are the seeds of our societies, and the blueprints for our children to know such human traits as benevolence and compassion. Literacy informs us, enabling us to imagine the existence of other consciousness outside our own, such that we can enter social contracts with each other. Freedom is just one such social contract, and with freedom comes the capacity to create art, much as the thousands sitting on the side of the hill in Edmonton’s river valley this last August were themselves a work of art. Similarly are the 250,000 people that partake of Vancouver’s Celebration of Light every summer likewise a unique work of social interaction.

It would appear that our provincial and municipal politicians are then simply following the lead that our federal government took a year ago. In an article written in the Globe and Mail last October, entitled “Culture matters, even to ordinary Canadians”, the author Mark Leiren-Young recounted a story of Sir Winston Churchill’s finance minister wanting to cut arts funding during WWII. He is said to have replied: “Then what are we fighting for?” I would hazard a guess that the term philistine has been used on one or two occasions to describe our current government(s), especially due to our current prime minister calling arts and culture a “niche issue”, in turn prompting Margaret Attwood to pen a witty rebuke of our first minister.

History has time and again demonstrated moments immediately preceding great civilizations’ declines, where definitive signals have sounded that the end is about to arrive, most often delivered in the form of marauding Vikings or barbarians. While our present age is a tad more civilized than many in history (such that we can have ‘revolutions’ now on a weekly basis), these upheavals in the past have resulted in the decline of some of humanity’s more noble moments – we should not be so arrogant to think we are immune (the Greeks called it hubris). The idea of democracy born from ancient Athens is an ideal our present western democracies attempt to emulate, though often falling short, and much as historians recorded the words of the great statesmen of that time, so did they record their civilization’s darkest hour, when plague, starvation, and war stripped away all their greatest achievements. One of those first signals of decline in Athens was when they closed the theatre.

I recount this only because I believe we presently have reached a critical mass in the way we see our world – ecological, economical, digital – as well as in the way we cultivate ourselves. Our present day notion of democracy is now simultaneously a business transaction, with economic activities in the world market influencing each nation’s own cultures more than ever. It is in such moments that history may beget a great voice like Pericles or Churchill to lead us from the nadir. Without such a voice, we run the risk of entering a new dark age.

For any government to cut arts at a time of economic downturn, while perhaps justifiable when set against health and education, is simply to propose a statistical and obvious outcome of economics, much like other governments have used classical economic theories to justify an HST, or a 700 billion bailout. There is no heroism here, no bravery to look at how it could be done differently. And then it is to add insult to injury to allow casinos into our communities, and then deny those communities the funding to promote activities for families and artists to offset gambling and its associated vices.

Finally, it is worth remembering that in such dark economic times, it has always been the arts that make us forget our troubles, catharsis as Aristotle called it. Perhaps Mr. Harper’s communications people could gently suggest to him that our nation could use a distraction from the long trail of blunders and missteps that have recently become typical of the government’s fiscal mismanagement’s. I do not mean to suggest that our prime minister is wrong in regards to the direction of his current federal policies, but that he is perhaps on occasion misinformed, as I believe he was when he decided to cut funding to festivals like the Edmonton one. The darker implication is that like a collapsing house of cards the provinces and municipalities are now following suit, as Ontario’s HST move prompts BC to do the same, and our provincial government slashes funding to the arts, literacy, and tourism.

So where does the buck stop I ask when it comes to infrastructure? My guess is we will shortly find out, especially when the Olympics have packed up and moved on in April of 2010. Then we will see if there’s anything left in the coffers for both ‘niche issues’ and ‘non-niche issues’ alike.

By Sean Ruthen

Sean Ruthen is an architect working, living, and writing in Vancouver.