..and when the sun rises again tomorrow, we'll see how far we've come ...

..and when the sun rises again tomorrow, we'll see how far we've come ...

... just to remind myself why I'm doing this ...

Depending on our personalities, the world can be a crowded place or a very lonely one. For those who seek comfort in numbers, there is no shortage of hangers on, but for those who avoid that circus, keeping thier own counsel can leave them feeling quite alone and disengaged from the mad place we call home. Life is a trade off and most of us choose how we live it.

For me, I'd rather work things out as best I can, using my own thoughts and feelings to sort things out. Following the crowd has never been a temptation to me, but that has its price, one that I'm totally comfortable with every day I get to stand up and be the person I aspire to be. When I sometimes lose track of who that is, I come here to remember, to reconnect and to resume my quest.

These posts are a reflection of some of what matters to me and it's a privilege to have the opportunity to collect these thoughts as they form in my head, as they prepare the way for my life, as it evolves from one day to the next. They re-inspire me when things seem to be floating about, with no particular aim or purpose, and it does happen from time to time.

So, today I had these thoughts that I think are worth writing down for the future me to look back on when I need to ...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Downtown Revitalization... a typical use of "political duct-tape"

March 28, 2013

Today I attended a meeting of the Physical Improvement Working Team, a sub-committee of the Downtown Vitalization project. I was invited by Kevin Narraway, the project leader.

My first impression was mixed and somewhat expected. Those in attendance were people who I perceive as having their own and very distinct views of what they want Cobourg to “look like”, and they seem very different from one another. That’s what is sought, I think, for such projects. Representation of as broad a scope of opinions as is possible with a small working group such as this. The problem right from the start then is getting to an overall concept that satisfies everyone. Problem is, no one really is satisfied, they’re all feeling very compromised. In the end, that is a failure in achieving a clearly defined solution, being off the mark for every distinct view that may be out there.

In my opinion, a truly effective solution needs to be extreme, needs 100% supporters on one hand and those that hate it on another, and likely with a whole lot of ambivalence in between. Short of that, it makes no remarkable impression on anyone, local or visitor alike. As I said, a failure to achieve what was aimed for, which should be ‘a clear statement’.

It’s like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that physically all fit together, no matter how you lay them down, but they don’t produce a legible picture, just a jumble of parts of images, none of which are sufficiently intact to be recognized for what they represent. Each piece represents one puzzle piece, an incomplete fragment of one person’s view. Each participant’s view is a compilation of ideas, of individual pieces of their own puzzle that, when assembled by the participant, produce a picture of that person’s whole perspective. But, taking one or two pieces from each and trying to assemble them into a larger compilation of a recognizable image or concept is highly improbable and nigh impossible. You simply end up with a mosaic of sorts with no clear message of what is being attempted. Like I said, a failure to achieve the objective. I don’t like saying that but it’s true, it’s the final product. It’s why these exercises tend to be repeated every so often, because they haven’t achieved the objective, but the effort is so taxing, it can only be repeated after some time has elapsed and until some argument can be made for a review and re-evaluation of how the mosaic has lost its current relevance and fallen into disapproval over that time. I think setting an ‘ultimate objective’ is a wrong strategy, one that can only derail or fail altogether.

For me, this meeting exemplified the essence of my concerns about such projects. It appears to be looking for some direction, some comprehensive solution, and more to the point, some corroboration of the thinking that something has to be done, that something can indeed be done, to alter the state of perceived weakness in our “Downtown”. Engaging some “experienced intervention” in the form of a design expert is supposed to, I think, provide the direction for the “physical portion” of the project. Again, I hate being so judgmental but the direction is simply going to take the project in a direction that produces another copy, perhaps a bit personalized for Cobourg, but nevertheless, a copy, of what so many other places have done or are working on, to get to their place of what they think they should be in the great competition of being “different”. In the end, that just seems so “same” to me. The inspiration behind that choice of direction is a common element among all of them. Besides, if that’s what is being pursued, just dust off the “C.A.U.S.E. Report” of a few years ago and get to it. That work is already done and it is predictably similar to what is being looked at today, apart from a little updating perhaps.

In my opinion, the essence of a downtown is much more than the visual appeal, but the visual is the easiest target to identify and revamp, leaving an easily understood impression that things have been “improved”. Look at other “downtowns”, or maybe better defined as’ distinct community centres’, ones like Kensington Market, for instance. Does that “compare” to our downtown on a physical plane? Does it succeed because of a rigid code of what’s acceptable and appropriate for a cultural centre? My thinking says no to both, but it does succeed on its own levels and therefore succeeds all on its own merits instead of on predefined criteria set out by a collection of partial visions that just don’t come together in any successful assembly. There is a very clear message in that success. BE SPECIAL IN YOUR OWN WAY.
First and foremost, I’m never particularly inspired by these projects because right from the outset, there is, to me anyway, an absence of clear definition of terms, particularly the “downtown”. It seems in many cases, that definition is unique to the individual speaking at that moment. If there’s going to be any coming together of opinion it has to be for the same piece of real estate. I would insist on a hard and fast outline for that area termed “downtown”. Only then can the scope of the objectives be identified.

At the moment, I’m focussing on the physical part of the Vitalization project. The plan appears to be to develop and present a comprehensive proposal for the physical aspect of revitalizing the downtown, based on the collaboration and compilation of a number of individual visions into perhaps 2, 3 or 4 proposals for consideration by the public, after taking their input into the process. That’s the way these things are done these days, engaging the public, however superficially that may end up to be. But, I think the ones that have the most profound influence on this kind of process are the front line participants on a day in day out basis, the business/property owners who live it and breathe it, and understand better than anyone else removed from the day to day involvement, the intricacies and dynamics of what makes the whole thing tick, what gives it its pulse. These are the true experts because if they’re wrong, they’re gone, plain and simple. They have a perception of what makes it work and they practice it day after day, in bad times and good. They experience the ups and downs and they do what feels right to get through it. The problem as I see it, the overall problem that’s too big to see all at once, is the impediments that are placed before them which keep them from doing the things that work. Those impediments include the arbitrary visions of benign grandeur imposed to make it something that belongs in a picture but doesn’t have the 3rd dimension of viability. I am convinced that the answer to whatever it is that the vitalization project is looking to solve, is in the minds and expertise of the businesses that make it up in the first place.

If I were King, my first act would be to demand all copies of the numerous ‘rule books’ and then tear them up. Then I would charge each member with the sole responsibility for their business, to conduct their business within a limited set of parameters and without interference from anyone else. That’s the place to start an overhaul if you want to make long-lasting improvements. As we have it now, every issue and concern in the past was “fixed” one at a time, like using a piece of duct tape over the problem,  and over time, the whole thing became covered in layers of duct tape, leaving no clue as to what is the real heart of the thing, the pulsing downtown. All that tape restricts its pulse, its breathing ability and makes for a rigid mass with no identity of its own. How do you revitalize something like that? I say you strip off the tape and start over, but when necessary, using band-aids instead.

We talk about “strength in our diversity” and yet we essentially reproduce, in a broader sense, other apparently successful decisions. We apply solutions designed for unique problems to substantially different problems, under different conditions and influences, and expect them to have similar results. That seems like a bit of wishful thinking to me. Diversity, if it indeed is a foundation of strength, needs to be nourished, not quenched with an arbitrary sameness. Diversity should be encouraged, allowed to flourish amid a sea of staidness. I see the bags and carts of purchases come out of the Bargain Shop and Liquidation World and I ask what influence the architecture and colours of their building had on those buying decisions. I truly think that the economics of business is not as dependant on its built environment as some would insist. I also think that there has to be a choice made between economics and architecture when it comes to priorities. Rules for the benefit of one will most likely stifle the other. I do not think that you can do both full justice at the same time when one often suffers at the hands of the other. If indeed a choice must be made, no solution can be devised to do both at the same time. You have to pick one to support, over the other, and try to protect, and to hurt the other as little as possible as you proceed. Trying to do both will fail them both. That’s a painful prospect to consider but if it’s seen as a challenge instead of a threat, there can be successes achieved to that end. It certainly wouldn’t be easy or for the faint of heart.
Just for a moment, let’s consider ANY great city. Its fabric consists of an almost endless diversity of styles and activities. What would they be if they had been constrained to evolve along very rigid and specific paths of thinking and behaviour. We marvel at their complexity and how it all seems to coexist in such vibrant and dynamic interaction. We are drawn to them to experience that very diversity, sometimes because of the sameness we live in back home. Why then do we think the opposite is our holy grail?
I’m definitely supportive of retaining our sense of history but I don’t limit it to a specific time in our past. After all, we’ve come through a lot of history, just like everyone else, for that matter. It’s all around us and we’re not unique. In the end, there’s only so much attraction to be had from that aspect and interest in our town can quickly wane as that appeal is seen to be the only highlight on offer. Diversity of existence is crucial to ongoing and sustainable interest and prosperity that could emanate from it.

At this point, I see it as boiling down to this. A preferred objective has to be chosen. A decision to UNDO has to be weighed against one of DOING even more. In today’s world, diversity rules. Success has to have its own definition for every distinct problem. Solutions have to be designed specifically for the problem and not drawn from a bank of popular solutions. Trying to manipulate a solution in the face of indeterminable influences is folly. Dynamic situations require dynamic solutions as opposed to fixed ones. That cannot be dictated, rather, it has to be allowed AND supported. That means the option to react to changes as they occur has to be as close to paramount as is practical and wise. Freedom trumps unnecessary regulation spawned by the religion of thinking in rigid concepts.

Not being delusional, I expect this view will be quickly discarded but the reasons for that kind of reaction are at the heart of serious impediments to achieving anything of substance that might have some impact of significant duration. It will demonstrate the rigid perspectives that produce failed strategies time and time again. They leave little room for the flexibility of thought that’s crucial to dealing with the dynamic forces that determine the prevailing state of any economic entity, be it a corporation, a small business, a committee or a town. A lot of what I’ve said is hard to swallow on the whole but if you chew on it a bit, it gets easier, and maybe even somewhat interesting because of its different taste and texture.

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