Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cultural Conversations

I spent this past Thursday in Saskatoon, attending the Municipal Cultural Planning Workshop.  I thought that this was a good use of my time, since Prince Albert is currently in the process of trying to develop a cultural plan, and this day offered not just theories on how to do this from a consultant, but actual case histories from Maple Creek and Humboldt.

The premise of cultural planning is that culture is an integral part of a community, and is essential in building healthy, attractive communities.  We also have to recognize that a healthy culture doesn't just happen - as a city, planning and development has to consider the impacts of decisions, both good and bad, on a community's culture.

When we think about culture, we often think in terms of the arts - concerts, art galleries, theatre.  But this workshop emphasized that culture is much broader than that - culture includes not just those traditional concepts, but also includes recreational and entertainment opportunities, social gathering opportunities, open and accessible public spaces, and even safe, affordable housing options.  Using that perspective, one can see that Prince Albert already has a very diverse culture, with a good variety of sports facilities, art galleries, concert and theatre venues, and parks.  What we need to do now is look at a couple of things - more equitable distribution of these cultural opportunities, and how to ensure that the city is spending its money most efficiently and effectively.

The consultant that conducted the workshop was probably one of the worst public speakers that I've ever heard, but fortunately the case studies were well-presented, and I found the one from Humboldt the most informative part of the session, and probably the example with the best potential to be applied to Prince Albert.

What Humboldt has done is to list all of the services that the city provides - everything from street paving and water treatment to sports facility subsidies, and ranked them according to how valuable they are to the community.  They then use this ranking to set priorities for funding.  This seems fairly straight forward - some things are legislated requirements, like zoning or record-keeping, but some things are more optional, so setting their value is more subjective.  This is how they're starting their new budget process - everything is looked at, and has a value attached to it.

I'm not saying that this kind of decision-making is easy.  If you have a very vocal minority that is willing to speak up and complain if their favourite activity is going to be reduced, or have the user fees increased, that can certainly complicate the process.  But I think that setting core values for what the community should provide helps to make those decisions.

I've been advocating for this kind of budgeting for years - it's quite different from our practice of assuming that we continue with whatever we're doing, then add new things.  Rarely do we evaluate what we're currently doing, and make changes there.  You may recall the fuss a few years ago when I asked what we were spending on floral decorations, because the assumption from administration was that we would just continue to spend what turned out to have been $40,000 annually, for a total of $240,000 over the previous six years.  We could instead have put that money into waterslide maintenance, saving the community from a year without waterslides - that's what happens when you don't look at the whole picture when setting priorities, and when you assume that just because you're doing something now, you have to continue doing it forever.

I will once again be pushing for this kind of budgeting, and I would expect each department to look at their spending not from the perspective of what more can we spend money on, but from the perspective of what is the value to the community of what we're spending money on.  And we have to look at the community as a whole, not just certain segments that have enjoyed more services over the years.  For a community to have a healthy cultural component, everyone has to benefit, not just a select few.

"Culture is the interaction of people and life itself.  It's how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment...all of that is expressed in culture." - Wendell Pierce

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