Q and A with Glen Murray

Glen Murray is passionate about his vision for urban planning, specifically culturally dynamic urban centres, an issue he addressed in his keynote address to the Lac Carling Congress this year. The former mayor of Winnipeg, spoke with Lisa Williams, senior writer with InterGovWorld.com, on why we need to make changes in our urban planning now, the ups and downs of being mayor and the striking parallels between global warming and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. You attended Concordia University, where you majored in Urban Studies in the School of Community and Public Affairs. How did you go from urban studies to the work you’re doing now?

A. After university I worked in corporate communications for Canada Post, and then got transferred to a job in Winnipeg from Ottawa. In Winnipeg I worked on trying to establish the community health centre dealing with AIDS and HIV, and then I worked on establishing the international association of AIDS service organizations and looking at how to advance community based care of AIDS. Then I got involved in politics and with issues such as Canadian cities’ quality of life, the sustainability of them, and their financial/fiscal policy. Then I ran for mayor (of Winnipeg), came to the big city mayors caucus (C5) which was a project that Jane Jacobs and I, and the mayor of Calgary…worked on…to form an action think tank which would put together ideas on how to cope with the problems facing major urban centres, and then how to drive those changes.

Q. What was the thing you most enjoyed in your work as mayor?

A. Making a difference. To be actually able to take city government and put it behind great things that happened in the community, and use that to help citizens have the ability to create change in their lives and their neighbourhoods, was just extraordinary. And the people, I met some amazing people when I worked there. The city government attracted people who were very concerned about the quality of life in the city.

Q. Why do you think there was so much controversy over the bridge you wanted (the Esplanade Riel footbridge) and had built?

A. It was considered a mistake to people who felt that the government should make things cheap and functional…it was seen as something extravagant by these people. At the same time it was seen as a legacy project that would rebrand the city…seeing the bridges and parks as expressions of the quality of life in the city. It was about something that was necessary could also be a beautiful thing, and building the kind of city that people wanted to visit…it was probably one of the more practical ways to get them to take better value in their city, and want to stay and live and build it. And it was also about building the kinds of bridges, streets and communities and parks that we deserve, rather than just building something cheap and ugly.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of being mayor?

A. Dealing with the provincial government, because it’s a terrible relationship. Cities have so little authority…every change they want to make, whether it’s to change the financing system of government, change the speed limit on a regional street, they have to go to the province to get permission. So we (the city) don’t like doing that, and the province says that every time they turn around, we’re (the city) there with our hand out wanting a change to do something or pay for something. It’s also a relationship that the province would never tolerate with the federal government, and trying to change that relationship between city and province for the better, giving cities authority for their areas of responsibility, and having the right to make choices – it’s just ridiculous. We wanted to introduce red light cameras at intersections, and we couldn’t do that without provincial approval…it’s absurd.

Q. Do you see that relationship changing?

A. No…that’s one of the reasons I left, it was the frustration of that…as mayor of the city I had no power to do that.

Q. Can you talk about the work you do with respect to creative urban planning? Do you think that’s an area where people need to be more open-minded; is it tunnel vision on their part?

A. No, I think it’s understanding how the economy has changed and understanding that it’s not about getting a new car plant to open up in your city…that it’s an innovation-based economy, and you can design and build a city to be very attractive and an exciting place for creative people to live and attract them, or you can build a city that repels people. Openness, diversity and embracing technology, all of those things are pretty critical determinants of whether a city is successful or not.

Q. You had mentioned the work you’ve done with HIV/AIDS. Is that something that you’re still involved with, and why is that something that’s of importance to you?

A. There’s a huge parallel between climate change and HIV/AIDS. I’m now involved with the Canadian Foundation for Aids Research, I serve on the board of directors. People knew what was happening in Africa, we knew that by the end of the 1990s there’d be millions dead and dying…we knew that people were sharing needles for vaccination and that when you share a needle you spread HIV. We knew the cultural demographic…nothing was done, changes in needle programs never happened.

Part of it is that parallel between the continents. In North America the disease is concentrated among gay men, and in Africa those with HIV/AIDS became outside people; not a lot of value is placed on those people’s lives, it was allowed to spread like a brushfire. Now we have all these humanitarian issues, with people like Bill Clinton taking on the issue, and having affordable drugs available for AIDS treatment.

Now fast forward to the early years of the 21st century, we know climate change is coming, we knew that we’d face major water shortages. We know that the very sustainability of the systems that keep human beings alive are all threatened, and could become increasingly threatened over the next 100 years, and we could all be planning our extinction as a race, as a species on this planet, that’s how serious it is. And we know exactly what to do to change it, we can massively reduce our energy use, and we can do that without compromising our prosperity.

We have to build our neighbourhoods differently, we have to transport differently, we have to reorganize the way we live, how we travel, how we use energy, how we grow food, and we can do it. We have the science and the ability to do it, and that’s what’s sad…and we have to do it now because carbon levels in the atmosphere take 50 years from when they’re emitted out of the back of a tailpipe of a car to when they actually impact on the hydrological cycle, on the water cycle, on ocean temperatures. So changes we make today have a positive impact on and will reduce the negative impact of climate change for 40, 50 and 60 years.

So what’s going to happen between now and 2040, we’re locked into that. And it seems to me to be a lot like AIDS, AIDS is asymptomatic. You can have the virus and be healthy for 15 years, and then all of a sudden overnight you have this massive epidemic, massive amounts of illness and global unprecedented levels of death in some countries. Climate change, by the time the symptoms show up as with HIV in the body of the planet – it’s too late. Then we’re locked into another 50 years of hell, because it’s going to get worse…it just becomes a horrific challenge.
And in 2050, if there’s some major international movement and the government acts with urgency, the first positive impact we could possibly have would be in 50 years, that’s the time delay from action taken to actually creating serious impact, and that to me is scary. I’ve seen this response before in my life with AIDS. It’s the way we live in our suburban communities particularly, low density, high energy neighbourhoods, that is really driving the fact that we’ll be losing our ability to live on this planet.

That’s where we have to start change; we have to start changing the way that people in urban centres live.

Q. It’s like you had said in your keynote – that it takes a crisis for people to wake up…

A. And then it’s too late…when the cancers metastasized is not when you want to start preventive treatment. Intellectually and with science we know (global warming) is coming, and we know it’s serious and we know it will have consequences for our survival on this planet. Yet we’re designing neighbourhoods as if they were intended for people to use as much energy as possible to live and undertake the simple task of shopping and getting the kids to school. It’s suicidal behaviour.

Lisa Williams (lwilliams@intergovworld.com) is senior writer with InterGovWorld.com.