10 Tough Questions with Raise the Hammer's Ryan McGreal

Ryan answers 10 Tough Questions (+1) on Cal DiFalco's The Hamiltonian blog.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 10, 2009 in Essays (Last Updated November 10, 2009)

This piece was originally published on The Hamiltonian

Ryan McGreal has been a pioneer of sorts in promoting the use of social media in Hamilton. His successful blog, Raise the Hammer, has become a staple for helpful discourse in moving our city forward. When I first started The Hamiltonian, Ryan was one of the first to provide words of encouragement and support as well as tips on blog do's and don'ts. He's a class act! It is with great pleasure that I introduce him as a guest on 10 Tough Questions. Ryan has elected to answer all 11 questions posed to him. Enjoy! Comments encouraged.

Ryan adds, "RTH is a collaborative exercise among a large group of volunteers, from the core writers to a larger group of occasional contributors to the many readers and commenters who make the site worth visiting. I'm proud of RTH but I can't by any means take full credit for it."

1. Raise the Hammer has certainly earned respect from bloggers and citizens. Have you achieved what you set out to do with the blog? What are the future directions of the blog?

Our original mandate was to encourage more public discussion around what we regarded as distinctly urban issues of downtown revitalization, sustainable development, land use and transportation, and so on in a city that has suffered several decades of suburban sprawl and a corresponding hollowing-out of the core.

Cities are engines of economic development and productivity growth,but Hamilton's engine has long been stalled by its low population densities, poor transportation connectivity, and unsustainable growth model based on low-value, single-use residential development.

We certainly haven't achieved our objective of transforming the public discourse, but I think many issues near to our hearts have moved from the fringes onto the front pages and we can take some credit for expanding the bounds of the mainstream discourse.

It also helps that recent history is fast catching up with us. It became a lot harder, for example, to dismiss peak oil theory after the summer of 2008, when a super-spike in oil prices squeezed family budgets and triggered a sharp, deep recession. The utility of endless sprawl comes into question when you see pictures of exurban subdivisions full of abandoned houses.

As for our future direction, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that RTH needs to move beyond a traditional news model to become a real platform for civic participation - a way for Hamiltonians to organize around important issues and start making a real difference. I've read too many comments over the years saying variations on, "This is awful! What can we do about it?" That's my next goal: to provide tools that make it easier for concerned citizens to get together and do something rather than just reading in frustrated isolation.

2. What was the most memorable interview, or dialogue that occurred on Raise the Hammer. Why have you selected this incident?

I would have to go with the recent "Mad Connaught" phenomenon. RTH's Jason Leach broke the news that the city had selected the Royal Connaught as the top choice to redevelop with public funds via the Canada-Ontario Affordable Housing Program, and all hell broke loose. A series of articles and blog entries over the next couple of weeks drew a remarkable discussion involving hundreds of comments - nearly all of it civil and respectful.

A few themes emerged from the discussion that are worth teasing out because they exemplify what we're trying to do at RTH:

  • There was a strong, palpable sense of outrage at how the decision was made, coupled with a deep mistrust that council and the developers actually have the best interest of the downtown at heart and will ensure that the development is done properly. The promises of economic revitalization, real mixed income housing, a future grocery store, and so on were met with extreme skepticism.

  • The emerging story was extensively crowd-sourced, in that readers provided a lot of the information that contributed to the emerging story, including the serious questions about Council's process (e.g. the decision made in camera), the dubious legal information they acted upon, and so on. Some of the information was first reported in other local news media, but the platform on RTH allowed all the pieces to come together and be considered in a larger context. (Aside: It continues to amaze me that so many newspapers don't interlink their vast archives. Each article exists in its own little void, with no connection to other related articles. The result is an atomized, ahistorical set of data points - there's no easy way to form a bigger, more coherent picture of events by referring to reports in the context of other, related reports. It says a lot about the corporate structure of newspapers that they can't manage to implement something as basic as hyperlinks on their websites.)

  • Readers were determined to do something about the issue rather than merely grumble. They used the site not only as a news source but also as a platform for democratic participation - a medium through which to organize, plan and carry out civic advocacy and action around the Connaught issue. For me, the exercise sharply revealed the limits of the current comment system and suggested a future course of extending RTH into a real platform for organizing around issues.

3. How important would you say blogs and other social media are to Hamilton politics? Do you believe that our elected officials are up to date with how social media is fast becoming an invaluable vehicle for discourse?

There are really two parallel discourses happening in this city: a primary discourse among what we might call the political and economic elites who effectively decide the course of the city; and a secondary discourse among engaged citizens trying to effect change from outside the circle.

Much of the primary discourse takes place behind closed doors and among interested parties. Those of us on the outside are in the position of having to interpolate a lot of what goes on through a cumbersome, time-intensive effort of trying to reverse-engineer political decisions that defy the city's own stated goals and mandates.

Raise the Hammer is part of the secondary discourse, trying to influence the primary discourse through the power of evidence-based arguments and popular support. In this context, I see our mandate to be twofold: to help increase the size, participation and quality of the secondary discourse; and to find ways to link the two discourses together so that citizens actually become a significant factor in making political decisions.

The electronic media format allows us to leverage our very limited resources far more effectively than if we had to compete for attention via a newspaper or broadcasting station. Our capital costs were nil, our operating costs are around $20 a month, and the writing is entirely volunteer-based. On that last point, people are willing to write for free because they know someone isn't exploiting their contributions to make money.

It also means we can write what we want, since we're not tied to any interests. Because they're beholden to their advertisers, the mainstream media are desperate to sell as many eyeballs as they can. That means they have to dig up controversy: a restaurant owner who believes a light rail transit stop outside his store will be bad for business; a sports team owner musing about moving the stadium to Aldershot; and so on.

In what are supposed to be straight news stories, the paper is stuck emphasizing the most controversial aspects to provoke an emotional response. This kind of trolling for outrage cheapens the debate and sidetracks what ought to be evidence-based arguments. The city ends up making decisions based on fear rather than on good information and a sound understanding of the issues.

In terms of our impact on the city, I'd say we've had a few successes here and there. In one memorable case, we managed to change Councillor Terry Whitehead's mind about converting our downtown one-way expressways back to two-way. We got his attention through a satirical campaign to convert the West Mountain thoroughfares to one-way, and that turned into a public discussion in which we presented Whitehead with arguments about livability and recent peer reviewed studies finding that one-way streets are far more dangerous - especially for children.

To his great credit, he was willing to listen to evidence and to change his mind in the face of new information. I would argue that most councillors are fundamentally reasonable. The trick is to expand the discourse so that Council has the opportunity to hear a wider range of arguments and to see public support for change so that they have an easier time stepping outside the status quo.

4. How far away do you think we are from Light Rail and how critical do you think it is to our success as a city?

We're very close now, but ultimately it comes down to: a) whether Metrolinx, the provincial body coordinating rapid transit across the GTA+Hamilton, decides that light rail is the right choice for Hamilton (I am quite confident that they will make this conclusion); and b) where the Hamilton LRT fits into the provincial priority list. Because Metrolinx doesn't have long-term funding in place beyond its initial provincial-federal capital commitment, light rail delayed might well mean light rail denied.

The successful Pan Am Games bid seems to work in our favour. Hamilton will need more high quality transit than it currently has, and the event will be a great way to showcase the province's success at building valuable public infrastructure. The 2015 deadline is ambitious but achievable, and can serve to focus the city's and the province's energies to get the line built in a timely fashion.

As for how critical it is, we need high quality transit in Hamilton. It's essential for the city to achieve the urban economies of density, diversity, and scale that generate value and wealth. Hamilton absolutely cannot become a great city with a transit system running on buses.

5. Would you agree that efficient and affordable transit in Hamilton is crucial to all, but more so to those who cannot afford, or are unable to use alternates? How can we address this?

No. Transit is a public good, meaning everyone benefits from it whether or not they use it personally. It's like education: when you live in an economy that educates everyone, you benefit even if you don't have children yourself, because an educated workforce is tremendously more productive than an uneducated workforce. For example, if you're a business owner, universal public education is worth the higher taxes you pay because you benefit from more productive employees and wealthier customers.

Transit is analogous, in that it boosts the productivity of society as a whole when people and goods can move around more quickly and effectively. However, like public education, some of the benefits of transit are external to the people who use it - if I'm driving, I benefit when more people use transit because I have less traffic to contend with (and the air is cleaner).

Because transit is what economists call a positive externality, people tend to under-invest in it personally and everyone ends up worse off, spending more money on cars to sit in traffic and breathe polluted air that causes heart disease. When jurisdictions invest in high quality public transit - fast, convenient, well-connected - the economic growth that results more than offsets the higher cost of providing it.

The GTA+Hamilton has done a poor job of building a high quality transit system, and our sluggish economic growth reflects this. Just last week, the OECD released an economic study of the Greater Toronto Area and one of their major conclusions was that the region's poor transit connectivity is a major drag on productivity growth. We lose billions of dollars a year in productivity because people and goods are stuck in traffic instead of cruising along on high speed rail.

It gets worse: because everyone has to drive everywhere, we squander enormous amounts of land on lanes and parking, which further push destinations apart and require still more driving. At the same time, we lose out on economies of density and scale, as well as the innovation that comes from bringing productive people into close contact with each other.

6. Amongst our locally elected municipal politicians, who (you can choose more than one), would you say are the most attuned to the criticality of Light Rail, bicycle lanes, pedestrian walkways and the like?

Among all the councillors, the only one who really seems to have a deep grasp of how cities work is Brian McHattie (Ward 1, West Hamilton). He has a background in urban planning, and it shows in his keen understanding of how issues connect, his shrewd questions and requests to staff, and the balance he manages to achieve between close attentiveness to ward issues and a sustained focus on the bigger picture. (Disclosure: McHattie is my ward Councillor, and I campaigned on his behalf for re-election in 2006.)

His detractors often accuse him of being "left-wing" - a catch-all pejorative in this city - but that doesn't make much sense to me. The policy proposals he supports and endorses are the very things that economically successful, business-friendly cities are already doing. Is it "left-wing" to support high quality transit when the Chamber of Commerce also supports it?

7. What must Hamilton do to move from being on the 'cusps of greatness', to being on the road to greatness?

Hamilton needs to stop thinking of itself as a big suburb and start thinking of itself as a city. That entails getting the city's political and business leaders to understand how cities work - economically, socially, politically - and prioritizing the kinds of public investments that support urban development. We need to:

  • Stop subsidizing sprawl, which produces little value and actually costs the city money to provide public facilities to low-density subdivisions.

  • Removing unreasonable regulatory and financial barriers to urban investment (like the ridiculous cash-in-lieu-of-parklands charge for infill development).

  • Establish simple, clear, form-based building standards and enforce them consistently. (Toronto's King-Spadina Secondary Plan is a great model to follow.)

  • Expand the downtown residential loan program to provide bridge financing for brownfields remediation.

  • Establish a firm urban boundary so that cheap rezoned farmland stops artificially undercutting infill development.

  • De-politicize the approvals process (right now, too much city business is conducted in backrooms in a conflict-of-interest haze of entanglements).

  • Ensure that high quality public services like transit support economic growth (e.g. through zoning for transit oriented development).

  • Work closely with our university and college to encourage better co-operation with industry and new business development in Hamilton. (McMaster Innovation Park is a step in the right direction.)

One further note in this regard: young creative professionals coming out of school don't want to live in the suburbs the way their parents did. They want to live in cities. At the same time, aging Baby Boomers are starting to return to cities so they have closer access to civic amenities and high quality health care. If they can't find what they're looking for in Hamilton, they will go elsewhere. Hamilton stands to gain - or lose - both the most creative and the wealthiest cohorts in the Canadian economy.

8. If you had the undivided attention of every Hamiltonian for 5 minutes, what message would you want them to hear?

Let's be honest: the status quo isn't working. I know change can be scary, but we need to stop reacting in knee-jerk fashion to new ideas and start forming our opinions based on real evidence. Hamilton is not so different from other cities that we can't learn from their successes and failures - so enough with the tired excuse, "But that can't work HERE!" Instead, let's position ourselves for greatness by discovering what works and following best practices established in great cities around the world.

9. Do you think we can make the Pan Am games a huge success for our city, or do you have reservations. Please explain.

The city will lose money directly on the Pan Am Games - there's no way we will earn back in tourist revenue what we spend on facilities. The only way we can make the Games successful is if we invest strategically in facilities that will continue to generate value after the games are over.

The stadium should be in an urban location with close integration to its surroundings and high quality transit connections so that it can spur neighbouring investments. A stadium in a suburban location surrounding by parking will generate no spinoff value for the city. (See, for example, "A Tale of Two Stadiums: Comparing the Economic Impact of Chicago's Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field", by economists Victor Matheson, Robert Baade and Mimi Niklova.)

Beyond that, the Games are an opportunity for the GTA+Hamilton to establish high quality transit - fast, frequent GO Train service connected to urban light rail - that will serve our economy for decades to come. That would indeed pay for itself many times over in productivity growth, urban intensification and improved quality of life.

10. How would you evaluate the present council? Have they been effective?

That's a big question, and it goes far beyond assessing how this or that councillor has performed. The problem is mainly structural, and a possibly intractable consequence of the forced amalgamation of Hamilton with its surrounding communities. We have a council split sharply between urban and suburban/rural representatives.

Worse still, the number of councillors is wildly unbalanced by population; the half of council that represents the urban wards represents one and a half times as many residents as the half of council that represents suburban/rural wards.We saw this in the recent vote to increase transit fares: seven urban councillors representing around 300,000 people voted against it, and eight suburban councillors representing around 200,000 people voted for it. (The mayor broke for the suburban councillors.) The increase passed 9-7.

Meanwhile, Hamilton is the only city in Ontario in which different wards pay different tax rates toward transit. For example, people in downtown Hamilton pay a transit tax rate five times as high as people in Ancaster. This area rating system costs the HSR $7-8 million in lost revenue a year, and results in minimal service for suburban residents, whose representatives are consequently reluctant to support increased funding since they don't see much direct benefit from it.

A proposal is in the works to fix the area rating problem, but it has gotten caught up in the notion that any change should be strictly revenue-neutral - meaning that suburban transit tax rates would go up while urban transit tax rates go down. In other words, the proposal would further deepen the conflict between urban and suburban ratepayers without generating any new money for transit, and it would effectively force the HSR to redistribute its already inadequate resources across an even larger area!

This is wildly dysfunctional, and it flies right in the face of the recent HSR operational review that Council received from IBI Consulting. The study concluded, "[A] paradigm shift [is] needed in City thinking and decision making to make transit a priority - recognition that transit and other City department goals are interdependent." Yet the structure of our municipal government all but ensures that such a paradigm shift cannot take place.

11. Upon reflection and consideration of other options, do you think we made the best decision when we opted to renovate the existing city hall? Please explain.

To be honest, much as I respect City Hall for its architectural significance, I rather like the idea of staying in the City Centre. The biggest benefit is strictly geographic: it forces city employees and councillors to walk around the downtown core and notice what's going on.

Aside from that, I've been disappointed in Council's failure to show leadership in the renovations. At the same time that the emergency and community services committee was recommending that council mandate energy-efficient green roofs on new buildings, Council voted to drop a planned green roof from the City Hall renovation. Then Council voted to replace the marble facing with precast concrete to save a lousy $3 million over the cost of replacing the marble with limestone.

In both cases, short term capital savings will result in long-term operating costs, in heating/cooling and necessary facade maintenance respectively (the concrete needs to be power-washed every couple of years to avoid staining, but Council has a poor track record on building maintenance, which is why the renovations are so expensive to begin with).

Worse, when asked whether Council ignoring its own heritage regulations would reduce the city's moral authority to enforce such regulations on private owners, Councillor Ferguson approvingly agreed. ERA Architects, the city's heritage consultant, actually resigned in disgust over the City's disrespect for the most basic heritage considerations.

Now we're supposed to feel grateful about an expected $2 million kickback to the developer because the project is coming in under budget.