COLUMN: Toronto and Halifax provide inspiration

Councillor Anna Purcell wants to move in to the Halifax public library.

I’ve been out of town for the past few weeks taking care of some family business — a wedding, and, sadly, a funeral — and am still getting caught up on the goings on in our fair city while I was away, so I don’t have any municipal news to report that you wouldn’t have already read in the paper.

However, while I was away I did take the time to arrange meetings with two city councillors in Halifax, and one in Toronto. I was curious to hear about their successes and challenges, and to see if any of their strategies or achievements could be tailored to fit Nelson.

Many cities are at the forefront of innovation around social justice issues (poverty, access to health services etc.), environmental initiatives (transportation, energy use reduction, recycling, etc.) and participatory democracy — and we benefit from learning from each other.

Toronto is, of course, a universe unto itself. It’s the largest landlord in Canada and fastest growing city in North America. With that momentum and budget comes the ability to make some bold decisions — like the one that requires developers looking to demolish affordable housing in order to build new condos to provide the same number of rental units within their new building as had previously existed at the site, and at the same level of affordability.

Toronto also has policies that require the city to buy goods that haven’t been tested on animals, made by children or in sweatshops or other exploitative circumstances, and have been made in an environmentally responsible way. They also must hire contractors who pay their workers fairly, encourage diversity amongst their work force, and use subcontractors who do the same.

In Halifax I marveled at their new public library. Occupying a chunk of prime real estate in the heart of downtown, it took nearly a decade to build, and involved significant public input at several stages, including the physical design of the building.

It was an expensive and worrying process for many people who thought the land should be more lucratively used and who saw it as a potential white elephant. In spite of the struggle and doubts, the result has been a resounding success.

Stepping into the new library is like stepping into the future: bright, modern and exciting with Escher-like stairs criss-crossing the interior, and floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides, two cafes, couches and study nooks, a maker-space, recording studio, an amphitheatre, multi-media spaces, kids’ play areas, a sun filled baby room, multi-purpose rooms, all made of glass and light, and aside from borrowing books, you can borrow games — board and computer — and play either of them right there. I wanted to move in. All it lacked was showers.

The city anticipated 900,000 visits in the first year, and they’ve had more than a million in the first three months, plus usership of all the other smaller, older libraries in town has sky-rocketed as people remember what gifts libraries are. The new library is an exceptional public, democratic space, and worthy addition to the commons.

I’m home now, ready for council business …with a head full of good ideas and an inspired heart.

Nelson city councillor Anna Purcell shares this space weekly with her council colleagues.

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