Yesterday evening I attended a community meeting hosted by the Sault mayor and our local community college. The guest speaker was Gil Penalosa who is the voice and driving force behind a Toronto based not-for profit called 8-80 cities. The organization’s philosophy is simple, if you can create a city that is safe and attractive for both an 8 and and an 80 year old then you’ve created a city that works for everyone. So, what does an 8-80 city really look like? Chances are it will be people centre, which means there will be a focus on human interaction, there will be plenty of space allotted for people to be outdoors and to be physically active in all weather. These places will promote healthy and inclusive lifestyles, where age, ethnic background or socio-economic status should not limit or impede on one’s quality of life.
I laughed to myself throughout this presentation, not only because Gil’s speaking style was fantastically entertaining, but because many of the photographs he showed of successful cities were either places I had lived or visited and fell in love with: Victoria, Vancouver, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The really funny part was that after living in all these great places – I ended up here. I live in a city where I am ashamed to walk to the grocery store. Like today walking home, I felt like a real dork carrying all my shopping bags and I could feel people stare, mockingly, at me through the window of their Ford trucks as they drove by. It’s a city where riding a bike in the winter is practically suicide and the only people who do are a few down and outs with no other means of transportation, who probably like the freedom and are too broke to take the bus. Then there is me. I walk firstly because I want to put some money away by saving on the cost of a car and secondly because it’s good for my mental and physical health and oh yea it’s not bad for the environment either.
On the one hand I came away from this meeting feeling inspired, feeling like Sault Ste. Marie is on the cusp on something really great. I fantasized about the mayor who is young and positive and most importantly seems to have the political gusto needed to make some changes happen in this city. On the other, as I hopped in my boss’s car, who drove me to and from the meeting, and as I considered my situation and the city around me, I started to get down on the mentality of the people who live here. While I can see the benefits of change because I’ve travelled all around the world and seen all the amazing, functional, fun and healthy ways that people live, many of the people who live here have not. For a lot of them the furthest they go is from the Sault, to their camp in the country, to the lakes, to the states: Michigan, Florida, Georgia, all places where cars rule the road. It’s not that I am against the concept of locality. I am all for investing time and energy in to the place and the community where we live, but why not make this community a place that works for everyone. I hate that I don’t feel safe walking, that the most beautiful part of the city right by the St. Mary’s River where you’ll find the Art Gallery, the Public Library, the Museum, some great coffee shops, decent restaurants and a national historic site all within a few block of each other, is totally dead.
Gil seems to have the solution, but is it the solution that people in this city really want. Or, are they truly happy with living life just they way things are. As much as I love my job, the people I’ve met and the quality of life and the potential for outdoor living here, I know that some key aspects would have to change if I were to stay and then there is the thought that no one would really miss me anyway. Things would just keep on going the way they always were.