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Annual Data Is Not Enough!

I confess. I am a bit of a geek for data – meaningful data to be precise. Often I come across reports that provide only annual data. While I typically find such reports to be interesting and well done and well-representative of the year in question, I find the impact of such data to be lacking more times than not.

I prefer annual data to not only capture the year’s activity but to be compared to previous years. Comparative data allows us to see what has changed, if progress has been made or conversely if the comparative data points to troubling news.

A while back I sat in on session of stakeholders trying to help an organization write their annual report of work and progress. Unfortunately, one year’s data tends to be silent on progress. One annual data set spoke to activities and impacts of a program I knew quite a bit about, including its historical data.

The annual data did identify strong information about the accomplishments of the program in that 12 month period. Folks lauded the program for its innovations and how it was helping disadvantaged people and there was a but of back patting going on. While being proud of annual accomplishments is not a bad thing in and of itself, I asked this question: How does this data compare to previous years?

No one knew. Due to my familiarity with the program, I knew that this year’s data identified a decline in the numbers of people helped and offered no insight into any material changes in the program itself. Had it changed its intake criteria; were the costs increasing and/or was the funding provided up or down? I had a host of other questions that required a look at past years, but you get the gist.

Given that this group wanted to demonstrate its effectiveness and impact, I think it would have been prudent (and transparent) to identify the trends that one typically can identify from data collected over time. Understanding where impacts had increased and where impact was declining are fundamental to community change aspirations. Without such comparable data, the risk is we just celebrate whatever it is we did in the given year.

I had been invited to the table as an advisor. So, I first acknowledged how important the work of this program was and then suggested it also deserved comparative analysis so that we could make sure we retained what was working and then devote attention to where things were not improving.

The group facilitator thanked me for my input and then turned to the person next to me for his comments. His remarks celebrated the success of the program. More pats on the back about a great program that was not advancing but rather declining in impact. The next person and the one after that joined the celebratory bandwagon. It was, for me, disheartening.

Not only is comparative data necessary to assess progress or change, we also need to look at more than one data set to truly understand what is going on. Let’s look at some data charts from the Edmonton Social Planning Council’s Tracking the Trends 2020, which typically offers strong comparative data.

There is a lot of data in this report about trends related to Cost of Living, Income, and Poverty, and in each data chart the Council does a pretty good job of describing the trends. Users of this data need to go further though if we are serious about fully understand what is going on.

“Since 2002, the average weekly cost of a nutritious food basket
for a family for four increased by $110.73, an increase of 83.8%” (page 40)
“The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Edmonton CMA in October 2019
was $1,257. That is an increase of 109.2% since 2000″ (Page 41).

Both carts indicate significant rises in the cost of food and housing, which many of us have first hand experience. What is not evident, though, is if this data has been adjusted for inflation and been displayed in 2019 Constant Dollars. As well, the charts do not speak to the actual impacts of different cohorts of income earners.

“From the years 2000 to 2018, the median after-tax income after inflation increased by 24.9% for couple
families, 31.9% for lone-parent families, and 27.1% for single adults” (page 56).

In constant dollars, these gains in after-tax income demonstrate at best marginal progress. For Couple Families the overall percentage gain over 19 years represents an average gain of 1.3%; for lone parent families, 1.7%; and for Single Adults, 1.4%. Is that good? Does the data represent a vibrant economy?

“After adjusting for inflation, the top 1% of tax-filers saw a 27.6% increase in the real after-tax incomes
compared to a 7.0% increase for the bottom 99% of tax-filers from 1982 to 2017. The top 0.1% of tax-filers experienced a 56.8% increase in their real incomes from 1982 to 2017, compared to a 4.3% increase for the bottom 90% of tax-filers, and a 3.2% increase for the bottom 50% of tax-filers” (Page 62).

As you can see the average income data in the chart before this one paints a simple picture. In reality, the chart above indicates significant gains in wealth for those already wealthy. For the bottom 99%, their gain of 7% can hardly be identified as a gain in wealth. What does this data say about equity in what many would call a vibrant economy?

The questions continue to mount when one considers the Living Wage data (below) that indicates a decline in the living wage. Does the data mean that despite the steady increase in housing and food, living wage earners are getting by on less income?

“Edmonton’s living wage for a dual-income family of four in 2019 is $16.51.
This is up $0.02 from 2017, but down $0.85 from the first calculation in 2015″ (Page 48).

Then there is all the poverty data that indicates that the numbers of people living in poverty has decreased since 2000 (although it has increased since 2013)? Given the previous data sets, how can it be that poverty is not increasing more profoundly? Are we using the right cut off lines for poverty? Have transfer payments increased markedly

If we look at the poverty rates by family type, the data indicates Couple Families in poverty have decreased from 9.6% of the population to 6.9%. Single people saw a fraction of improvement since 2000, and Lone Parents have the same rate of poverty in 2018 as they did in 2000 (Page 73). And yet another chart indicates “the child poverty rate is down 6.5 percentage points from 22.7% in 2000” (Page 77).

That said, declines in percentages may not indicate a decline in numbers. In 2001, Edmonton’s population was 657,000 people and the number of people living in poverty was 98,600, a poverty rate of 15%. In 2019, the poverty rate had decreased to 13%. Good news, right? In 2018 Edmonton’s population was 972,000. The poverty rate of 13% indicates that just over 126,000 people were living in poverty in 2019. That’s an increase of 28,000 people or 28%. Not good news, is it?

Could it be that our desire to decrease poverty directs our eyes to the data that tells us we are winning the battle when the reality is the number of folks in poverty has increased markedly?

Average incomes are rising yet poverty is actually increasing. Those who have done well in the past financially are doing even better 20 years later while 99% of the population appears to be just getting by. And then there is the limitations on our thinking when we just look at the poverty- line. The Canadian Payroll’s annual survey indicates that in any given year between 45 to 50% of workers are living pay cheque to pay cheque and that losing that income for even a few weeks can spell ruin for them – causing homelessness or increased credit card debt, not to mention the mental health stresses of not having enough money to live on. Half the population living pay cheque to pay cheque indicates that there are hundreds of thousands of Edmonton workers living on the edge, living with significant economic vulnerability. What are we going to do about that?

My analysis provides more insight than just looking at chart by chart in isolation, but more analysis is required to fully understand what is going on. We may wish to consider breaking through our annual mindset and our desire to confirm our own biases about the progress we are making.

Data can help us get real about what we need to change.

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Perseverance

My grandmother cooked on an old wood burning stove. I was always excited to visit her. She would be waiting on the front porch, her long gray hair tied up in a bun, her house dress stained from cooking and working in the garden.


I raced from the car as she walked down the stairs, opening her big arms she would wrap around me and then lift me up into the air.


She squeezed so tightly I could barely breathe. She smelled of bread and earth and of love.


I’d find my grandfather at the dining room table, writing mathematics in a tattered note book, his wire-rims slanting down his nose. His hugs were circumspect, but his smile, while small, was kind. I can’t recall the sound of his voice and only can remember one thing he ever said to me, “Go help Grandma in the kitchen.”


My grandmother let me knead the dough, showed me how to grease the pan and then taught me the patience of waiting for the reward. She taught me how to split logs and make kindling. I was ten years old.

Every day I would grab the tall pail and fetch water from the well two blocks away. It was so heavy I had to stop along the way to rest. One time she saw me from the window and opened the front door.


I tripped on the first step and the water went everywhere. I skinned my knee. I felt clumsy and dumb, but Grandma waved off my apology. She looked at my knee.


“You’ll live,” she said. Then she set the pail upright and added, “Now off you go. Be more careful this time.”


Grandmother used my mistake as an opportunity to mop the front porch. It was gleaming by the time I came back with a fresh pail of water.


I stepped inside and found grandfather playing the piano. I wondered how he could do that with his eyes closed and a missing index finger he cut off years earlier on a band saw.

He kept a garden. If he hadn’t they would not have had food to eat. Still, half the garden was devoted to flowers: pansies and poppies and sunflowers and marigolds.


My grandparents were no-nonsense people living a hard life with flowers on the table that blended with the aromas of their perseverance.


Some lessons are unspoken. They manifest in open arms and are scratched into notebooks like secrets.


I still remember the first time my axe split through a birch log.


I have been splitting logs ever since. And writing down my own secrets.


And playing my music with eyes closed. It’s how I pray for the strength to carry on, despite everything that would have me surrender and sit in the shade nursing a skinned knee.

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Time to Break Some Rules

Change happens when rules are broken; when an upstart group of people rebel against broken systems and rote habits and try something radically different or  brand spanking new; and when people have the courage, if not the audacity, to throw away failures and seek a better way to frame and reshape, if not reinvent,  how we live together.

Yeh, I know we need rules. I am not an advocate for anarchy. But I am not keen to nod up and down like the proverbial bobble head grinning from ear to ear and surrender my ability to think critically and creatively for the sake of preserving the myth of an orderly, predictable life.

Actually, if you think about it, anarchy  as a way of thinking resembles how we see and define innovation, especially disruptive innovation.

Setting aside the negative imagery of anarchy, its definition, “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority,” could be applied to the process of disruptive innovation.  Disruption upsets the status quo and can create a lack of order. To think and act in new and better ways, is it not often the case that those in authority, the ones who make and enforce the rules, are obstacles to such efforts?Continue reading “Time to Break Some Rules”

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Reflecting on a Creative Life


Visit my music page.

My musical life seems so long ago now. I guess because it is. In the early 1990s I won a song writing contest which allowed me to play a featured stage and two workshops at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. That honor led to other performances on CBC radio, on a telethon, and a music video through Project Discovery, which I don’t think exists anymore. I have that vid somewhere, but it is likely buried in a box in the basement.

My band, Early Warning, was featured in See Magazine (or whatever it was called back then). We made the front cover – a picture of us along the railroad tracks off Whyte Avenue. I had hair down to the middle of my back and was sporting gigantic wire rim glasses. I had the mien of a middle aged hippy yearning to look like some sort of geek.

Some said we were one of the hottest bands in Edmonton at the time. We played all the venues, did our thing at the North Country Fair and started to get offers to tour. Then I hurt my voice and what began as a hiatus to heal extended into just stopping. At the time I had a family,  a thriving consulting practice and with writing music, rehearsing and gigging, I had no time for much else. I was busy 15 to 20 nights per month. I was forty, not 20. I made more money consulting in one day than I did gigging three nights on a weekend, far more.

I think my band mates were disappointed, but in reality they were committed to other lives. My guitar player, Randy Reichardt,  was a research librarian. Our percussionist, Andrea Rabinovitch, was a dancer first and committed to that life and then in a few years became a mother. My back up singer, Dorothy Henneveld,  also had other aspirations. The only full time musician was the bass player, Jon Towill, who I called Mister Smooth. If you have seen him play you know what I mean.

I don’t regret the decision to stop, but I admit sometimes I miss the life. I miss those magical moments on stage when we hit a harmony that sent chills down our spine or when one of our instrumental leads (usually Randy’s)  hit new highs and was met with thunderous applause. I miss reaching the audience with a song that touched their hearts and caused eyes to well or lips to turn up into smiles of joy.

I have always been an artist. I have published poetry and fiction in numerous publications and on radio, did my music thing (had two independent releases), and for years I have dabbled in digital art. That dabbling resulted in a few shows, one at the Citadel as part of IMPURE.

I still create. I write songs now and again. A few poems still find me when a quiet time sneaks into my life. While not as prolific as I once was, I still do the occasional piece of digital art as well. Being creative is not a hobby: it’s in your blood. Unfortunately for most artists, the practice of art and music is typically not sustainable economically unless one is willing live poor.

But to be creative and to continue to hone the gift is not really something one can just stop. It just changes. We use it in our work, our relationships, and in our personal quests for meaning and contentment. Musicians and artists generally understand the power of collaboration and co-creation. Imagine if we could collaborate like musicians do in a orchestrate in our work to end poverty and its many manifestations.

I still know my songs. I remember writing them and I have many wonderful images of performing them on stage, wonderful memories of a crowd sitting on the grass on the knoll of the Festival grounds, looking at us, listening to us, accepting our expression, our interpretations, our calling. How can one regret such rich experience?

Most people I know today did not know me back then. They have no clue about me. Sometimes they ask about my musical life, my art, my writing. I might say a bit about that past, but I don’t really like talking about it.

I would rather pluck my dulcitar from its guitar stand, sit back on my performance chair and do some finger picking while my mind searches for a lyric to gets lost in.

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Livable Income IN a Livable Economy (Part Two: the Impacts of AI)

I wrote this after I wrote part one which is HERE.

Living Wage and Livable Income are not synonymous. The latter includes the former and ensures we are considering those who do not earn wages and rely on pensions and/or government income security programs.  A livable economy is one that benefits society as a whole, not just those at the top of the income scale.

One of the biggest threats to a livable economy and the chance for people to have a livable income is technology and in particular Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reducing the need for human intelligence and interaction. Systems and processes are fast becoming less reliant on human presence and more dependent on technologies that eliminate human error and/or just make things cheaper and faster to do.

There are those who suggest that the disruptions caused by technologies are dramatically improving:

  • health for people; witness how much longer people are living (in the Western world in particular);
  • learning and education;
  • how we network and communicate;
  • convenience as in “Siri, how do you spell, perpendicular?” while offering us more choice (e.g. Skip the Dishes or Uber instead of just taxis);
  • the quality of products and services by eliminating human error; and
  • the bottom line by reducing labour costs and increasing profits.

We could debate the points above, but let’s assume all of the above is markedly accurate. Perhaps these are primarily positive impact of AI and other technologies, but the question for me has to do with the yin and yang of technological advances and their disruptive nature.

Technology proponents will point to the job creation that techno-firms provide and suggest that those jobs will replace the jobs lost because of technology. Some will admit there will be a structural skills gap in the workforce for a generation or so, but that everything will even out in the long run but I am not sure there is evidence to support that. But what else would pro-AI voices offer other than at a favorable long-run picture?

Maybe this evening out will happen over time, but it is hard to imagine that technology firms will be leading the way to structural reform that benefits workers who are being replaced.

Overall, it appears that much of  technology is about the reduction of human workers in the market place. Currently much of this displacement is focused on low-skilled jobs, but don’t fool yourself. How long will it take robots to take these jobs:

  • Insurance underwriters and claims adjusters
  • Bank tellers and representatives
  • Financial and marketing analysts
  • Researchers
  • Inventory managers
  • Taxi drivers and truck drivers
  • Bookkeepers
  • Lawyers
  • Pharmacists
  • Manufacturing workers
  • and more

If you believe technology will benefit you economically, you might be right, but overall the evidence to date indicates things don’t look so rosy down the road. Consider the following US data, based on a report about the impact of digital technologies on productivity and job growth —  in the MIT Technology Review.

The chart is a bit difficult to read but basically until 2000, the gap between productivity and employment in the United States has been fairly consistent and representative of a connection between jobs and productivity.  Since 2000, productivity has increased while jobs have pretty much remained at 2000 levels. That might be great news for big business, but far less so for workers.

Not only has the job trend not kept up with productivity, we can see a longer trend of significant GDP growth in the United States while household income has remained relatively flat since 1990. This chart indicates more economic achievement for the economy that is not benefitting workers at a corresponding rate, which frankly is one key factor in the significant income inequality that exists in the United States.Continue reading “Livable Income IN a Livable Economy (Part Two: the Impacts of AI)”

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Living Wage IN a Livable Economy

In Edmonton, approximately 140,000 workers are identified as low income earners (earning below $16.31 per hour), according to the Edmonton Social Planning Council (source, page 79). Four in five of these workers are over the age of 20 and 60% are women.

The Canadian Payroll Association’s annual survey of Canadian workers identifies that in any given year 45% to 50% of workers across our nation are living pay check to pay check and would face significant hardships, including the loss of their residence, if they went without their pay check for one or two pay periods.

These two sets of data are not indicative of an economy that is working for the majority of Canadians. While businesses may report continued increases in profits and gains for shareholders, this data questions those who laud our economy as strong, vibrant, and sustainable.

For more than a decade, communities across Canada have been setting a “living wage” for their community and advocating for employers to adopt the “living wage” as the minimum hourly wage that they pay their employees. Key players in the development of the fledgling living wage movement have included the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Tamarack Institute’s Vibrant Communities Canada, Vibrant Communities Calgary, Vibrant Abbotsford, the Living Wage for Families Campaign, and Living Wage Hamilton.

A “living wage” is different than the “minimum wage”. The minimum wage is legislated by governments, while a living wage is voluntary and based on what workers in a family must earn to pay for the “basic cost” of living in their community. The primary focus has been on identifying a living wage for two parents (both working full-time) who have one child in full time day care and one child in before and after-school care.Continue reading “Living Wage IN a Livable Economy”

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Collective Impact as Uprising

I have written in the past about what I call the pendulum swing or the bandwagon effect. I think this is what has happened with respect to collective impact over the past 10 years. I suggest it also occurred in the late 1980s when outcome measurement rode into town on its stallion named Logic Model. And it is also happening with the word, “movement.” Today, just about everything is a movement. Also see Collective Impact: Watch out for the Pendulum Swing (click image below for the paper), a piece I wrote for Tamarack in 2015 while I was the CEO of Bissell Centre.

Click Image for Paper

I am simultaneously a proponent and opponent of collective impact. I do not think large-scale change efforts have to embrace the CI framework but also think CI can help create large-scale change. It all depends on how committed folks are to truly changing themselves and their organizations and how well they design and execute their collective efforts.Continue reading “Collective Impact as Uprising”

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My Basketball Coach

I have always been tall and husky.  I was my current height, 6 foot 7 inches, in my freshman year of high school, and I was a basketball player and I was pretty good at that game. Back then a guy my size was automatically assigned the center position.  And that’s where my coach put me – in the center of the action. Today most guards in the pros are taller than I am.

I was a good passer and had a half decent hook shot and turn around jumper, but I felt out of sorts as the team’s center. I really wanted to play the forward position. I dribbled rather well for a big guy and I could shoot well from a distance.  In fact, I could hit from three-point range before there was a three-point rule. I knew I could score more and pass even better as a forward, but I said nothing.

Continue reading “My Basketball Coach”

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Upside Down Thinking: Funders should be Rebels

Funders should apply to community agencies to fund them.

Can you get your head around that?

What would that look like?

Why would that approach be more impactful and cost-effective than current practice?

Would this upside down version of funders foster more partnerships?

Would there be a transformative power-shift?

One of my favorite upside down thinking heretical proposition is that funders should apply to organizations to fund them.

Yeh, imagine that. What funder will step up to lead that rebellion?

I am as certain as you are we will never have a ubiquitous funding system where funders write proposals to community groups hoping to be chosen to invest in their work. But perhaps innovative ideas have more of a chance when we suspend certainty and embrace a wild idea or allow ourselves a bit of time to consider a heretical proposition.Continue reading “Upside Down Thinking: Funders should be Rebels”

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Data and Wisdom

When we look to another for wisdom, it is not data that we seek.

We want more than information; we need more.

We deserve more.

Data sends signals, whether standing on its own before us or alongside of  its counterparts on a trend line or a scatter diagram.

Data may be objective, though I tend to think not. Data on its own is just data; for it to have meaning requires our engagement of it. How could it be “objective”? Data just is.Continue reading “Data and Wisdom”

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Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking has a relationship with Disruptive Thinking and Disruptive Innovation, but they are not merely different descriptors of the same thing. You can read a previous posting I did a while back on Upside Down Thinking; this posting is about Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has its roots in the private sector. The concept was first articulated by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen in 1995 who defined it as “an innovation [that] transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.” [1]

According to Christensen, there are two fundamental aspects of a disruptive innovation. It either provides a low cost alternative aimed at a segment of the market that the dominate players are not focusing on; or it actually creates a brand new market that is also typically a lower cost alternative in the market place

Consider the disruptive innovation that changed how we “rent” movies. Remember Blockbuster?Continue reading “Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking”

Why do we love bad stories about charities?

A recent headline: “Charity watchdog urges donors to think twice before giving to Calgary Flames Foundation.” Read it here if you haven’t already.

The article does not paint the Flames Foundation in a positive light. That said, I am not here to debate if the foundation is a cash hoarder or an expensive charity. I am wondering why this is the article the Edmonton Journal chose to write.

There are so many incredible stories to tell about the lives changed by charitable work. Stories about people who overcame racism, homelessness, violence, abuse, and on because they received support from a charity.

Often the people helped by a charity live in conditions most of us would find abhorrent. How many us have been beaten up for being any other colour than white? How many of your children go to school hungry? How often have any of “us” charitable types been homeless?

But it appears we like dirty little exposés about charities that frankly become rationale for many to no longer give to charity, though one does wonder if such people ever really gave before. So, a foundation that, according to a charity watchdog, performs below the average of other charities – that’s newsworthy, not the charities that are on the top of their subjective lists of attributes and qualifications.  That is so disappointing.

If you judge charities solely on financial data, ask yourself if that’s how you evaluate for-profit businesses? You don’t care about the quality of their products or services? You just want cheap, cheap, cheap, right? You want low utility prices and would be happy if they were so low that you had unreliable power in your home or business – right? Who cares if your home falls down as long as you got it really cheap, right?

Why is it so many people think charitable work is not worth much? Why is it people who do jobs most of us would never consider doing are supposed to earn the lowest wages possible? Do you not care about them? But want them to care about the homeless and the disenfranchised so you don’t have to?

Some years ago, a colleague working at a major corporation informed me that her business wanted to fund the organization I was leading at the time.  She told me it could be as high as $50,000 but then added, “Of course, we won’t want any our money paying for administration or rent and stuff like that.”

Of course? Really. That should be the norm? Did she want us to go good without lights or heat or the ability to have an accountant or fix the old boiler when it broke down?

That made me angry, the viewpoint and the attitude. I checked myself, took a breath and said to my colleague, “Let’s say I am a customer of yours and you send me your bill and I send it back to you and say, sorry this bill includes your administrative costs. Please resubmit so I am only paying for your service. No rent, nothing else. Would you be amenable to that?”

I got a smile and she nodded her head. “Okay, I get it,” she said.

Maybe she did. Maybe not. But that $50,000 apparently went elsewhere. I was not even invited to submit a proposal. Of course proposals take time and expertise and no one should pay anyone to do that – well, only if you work for a charity, that is.

Charity watchdogs do not measure impact. They do not measure impact because they can’t. They don’t know how, and if they did, it would cost them too much to do that and then we all would have to hope the Edmonton Journal might write a piece about those extravagant charity watchdogs spending all that money on useless stuff. That would be fair, right?

 

The Way of Innovation

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The word “innovation” conjures up positive imagery. We see it as something we want to be known for. It’s creative, desirable, inspiring, and we sense that if we can do it, if we can achieve it, we will lift ourselves up above the status quo, not to mention those who are quite comfortable in the box of convention.

cavefiguresHow to be innovative is of course the question and that is what this little article is about: the way of innovation and a call for the kind of leadership that fosters innovation throughout the organization.

Anticipate Tomorrow
This is both a mindset and a discipline and require that a leader accept that anticipation is rife with uncertainty. In other words, at the same time as a leader must try to plot the future course of the organization, he or she must also understand it is impossible to do so with certainty.Continue reading “The Way of Innovation”

Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements

Cross posted – also available at http://www.edmontoncdc.org
Please consider following that blog if you want to keep up to date on my work at the Edmonton Community Development Company.

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Strong Towns is an American movement that a colleague turned me on to the other day,  and it is not only a provocative movement, it offers an array of new thinking about the rules that cities and towns have when it comes to development, whether housing and business development or the inclusion of city services in an area like a recreational centre.

One thing that really caught my eye was the case made by Strong Towns to abolish parking requirements for new development.Continue reading “Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements”

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