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Municipal Cognac

This week we’ve got an opportunity to join a federal pilot project on circular economies, the end of garbage blankets, exciting new food options for visitors of Bannerman Park, and a reminder to be good and participate in the census. 

But first—the site of the old Waterford Manor (lost to arson five years ago) is getting new connections for water and sewer, and the establishment of a Building Line setback, for a new single family dwelling. 

This pulled on my heart strings a bit. When I was a kid, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon at the Manor (a bed and breakfast by then), which my extended family rented to celebrate my grandmother’s 75th birthday. It was the first and last time I was ever inside a heritage home like that. I remember playing on the grounds with my cousins. It was such an idyllic property to have available to the public. But those days are gone.

Cllr Korab, and reportedly the neighbours, too, are “happy to see something going in there, and that it’s an R1 [low density residential], which keeps it within the character of that neighbourhood, so.” Sigh.

Getting St. John’s Looped In On Circular Economies — An Application

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has launched their (funded) Circular Cities & Regions Initiative, whereby 15 lucky municipalities from across the country (who’ve applied) will be selected to join a Peer to Peer Network. Participants will “exchange ideas, lessons learned, and best practices about circular economy” with direct access to national and international circular economy experts. There will also be facilitated workshops and additional guidance in developing a circular economy roadmap, for participating municipalities. 

City Council has passed a motion for St. John’s to apply. If you’d like to learn more, register for this free webinar.

What is a circular economy, you ask? According to a direction note from City Staff, it is a systematic approach to economic development that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible. These can be productively used again and again, creating further value, and reducing waste to a minimum. For more information, check out the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Dr. Nick Lynch over at Memorial University’s Geography Department did his Post-Doctoral Research (sandbox style, with chemical and structural engineers, psychologists, historians, geographers, and more) five years ago at the University of Oxford on all this stuff. He was (and still is) looking at the interdisciplinary impacts of circular economies specifically on the built environment. I caught up with him to get his take on this initiative brought forward by the City. 

So, what could all this look like in St. John’s? One example that Lynch illustrated for me is the business of deconstruction. (Which shouldn’t be confused with our good friend Jacques Derrida.)

Traditionally, when a building reaches the end of its useful life, a company comes in with a backhoe and a pulverizer and they demolish a building. They scoop up all the bits and pieces and put them in a landfill. Deconstruction, on the other hand, embodies the circular economy alternative by separating building materials intentionally, salvaging them, and re-using them in new builds. Unbuilders, a Vancouver-based company, is championing this approach and proving its value since 2018. 

How cool would it be if we had a deconstruction industry operating in the St. John’s metropolitan area (and the province at large)? How much more time would that buy on the lifespan of the Robin Hood Bay landfill? How many tonnes of carbon would not be sent into the atmosphere through the decomposition of timber products? What kind of impact would it have on the cost and accessibility of lumber and other building materials, particularly during this time of supply-chain interruptions due to the pandemic? How much money would it tether to our local economy and job markets? Just imagine.

From Lynch’s vantage point, Canada is really behind on applied sustainability compared to China and Western Europe. In an effort to catch up, circular economies here are being rolled out while the players are still learning how they work. 

This is cause for concern for researchers like him. In the sector’s rush to implementation, key socio-political understandings seem to be missing, and are summed up by questions that he posed to me: 

  • What can we do to make this equitable? 
  • What can we do to make this accessible? 
  • What can we do to make this so that it’s not driven by Google and Sysco and IBM? 
  • What can we do to offer new ways of thinking about a more democratic circular economy?
  • Is the circular economy radical enough to actually make change or is this capitalism 2.0?

I hope that the Circular Cities and Regions Initiative will dig into these questions, and be able to frame-up how efforts will incorporate their answers.

Garbage Blankets are A Garbage Idea: Cllr Hickman

A Decision/Direction Note was brought forward by staff to make amendments to the Sanitation Regulations By-Law this week. Sound familiar? That’s because they just did this in January. But they “inadvertently” left out two things: 

  1. Defining Regulation Net as “any other covering, such as a blanket, which is clean and maintained so as to provide adequate coverage of Regular Garbage placed on the Curbside.”
  2. A slight tweak to the maximum dimensions of Fibre Products (cardboard etc.) bundles.

Cllr Hickman was having none of it. “Somebody else is going to have to propose this, I can’t support this. I’ve got nothing else to say about that, except, it would be regressive,” he said. 

This would bring us back to 15 years ago, he continued, when Council was first able to pass a motion requiring garbage be covered however people saw fit. Bit of a mess. 

Cllrs Skinner, Froude, and Deputy Mayor O’Leary agreed. 

The City Solicitor explained that blankets were previously allowed under the by-law because of affordability. Taking this option away would leave some residents having to spend money on purpose-made nylon nets, who may not have the means to do so. This is something the City has heard directly from residents.

Cllr Hickman (very fired up) countered the City Solicitor, “Let’s be clear, this is an environmental issue. Not a legal issue. […] I’m not going to stand for this, this is totally anti-environmental, and we are too far advanced in the green economy etc., whatever buzz words you want to throw at it. Doesn’t even make sense. Net, or nothin’.” He also suggested that the City look into providing nets for people.  

Mayor Dan came in with the cute acknowledgement, “Net-Zero, I think you’re sayin’.” Lolz. The puns continued, with ‘blanket statements’ and ‘net effects’.

Cllr Korab reported that from his first hand experience, “garbage nets don’t really work. I’ve fought with seagulls—not physically, just if PETA’s watching—[…] I’ve had my grandfather make up a bunch of different nets. They rip ‘em off, they poke through it.” He was in support of garbage blankets. Cllrs Hanlon, and Collins were, too. 

The motion was split, to allow voting on each piece individually. Garbage blankets lost, fibre bundling adjustment carried. Deputy City Manager, Ms. Windsor, is looking into the cost of providing the 20% of households currently not serviced by City-owned garbage bins, with nets. Excellent.  

(In case you’re wondering, the limits on Fiber Products bundles are now: 22 kg/50 lbs, in weight; and, 60 cms by 60 cms by 30 cms, in dimension.) 

New Eats at Bannerman Park

Cllr Korab mentioned in the go around that the city has awarded a contract to The Nickel Café to operate from the canteen formerly occupied by Beaver Tails. This is a locally-owned company that will offer a variety of hot and cold food and beverages, such as coffee, picnic kits, mini charcuterie boards, ice cream, slushies, and even sunblock in case you forget! 

In addition, a very cool thing is happening with the food truck/mobile vendors community, at the park. About a year and a half ago, the City started looking for proposals from food trucks to park near the pool house, as another refreshment option for park-goers. I caught up with Brad Gover, from the Mobile Vendors Association of Newfoundland (MVAN) board of directors (and co-owner of Saucy Mouth) to talk about it. 

He explained that originally, the City wanted to put out a request for proposals, select a qualifying submission at random, and let that truck use the space until they didn’t want it anymore. 

This didn’t quite sit right with MVAN, so they decided to apply for the permit on behalf of their membership, and creatively take turns sharing the space, to bring different food options to people at the park. This also ensures a reliable operating standard, because in order to be a member of MVAN, your food truck has to have the proper insurances, permits, etc. in place. 

Gover also told me about how food trucks typically have to pay for the installation of a 30 – 50 amp electrical service at their permitted parking space, which can run these small, fledgling businesses a bill of $10,000 or more. Plus, once installed, these services become City property. This, too, didn’t sit right with MVAN, so they suggested to City staff that the City pay for the installation up front, and then prorate it out to food trucks availing of the service over 15 or 20 years through a repayment structure.

The City agreed to both suggestions. Such big wins for this community of businesses! 

Decisions haven’t been made about the schedule of food truck offerings at the park, but Mr. Gover tells me that it’ll be like a hockey draft, with members getting a chance to pick their preferred blocks of time in rounds. 

MVAN is now working with the City to bring more food trucks to the Water Street Pedestrian Mall, with the hope of filling some of the ‘dead spots’ where there aren’t any restaurants or pubs. 

“All the research that we’ve done in other parts of the country and in the US indicates that food trucks actually bring business to other restaurants and businesses, rather than compete.”

At the end of our chat, Gover made a point to say that St. John’s, “definitely has room to grow in terms of these spots around the city, and we don’t necessarily think that they all need to be downtown, either. But I think under this new model, it feels like this is a great prototype to continue doing this into the future, as a partnership with the City.”

These new school business owners are ones to watch, especially in the context of a post-pandemic economy. Getting creative, banding together, and working in partnership with municipalities is the way to go, in my opinion. 

Municipal Brandy

This week, Patrick Warner read us his poem, The Particulars, about the passage through time and space between two picnics—one in Ireland (past) and one in Newfoundland (present). Poet Laureate Mary Dalton told us that we’ll be able to find this poem soon on Flahoolic: A Poetry Podcast (she’s the host, and it’s produced by the City, and CHMR-FM). 

Lastly, IT’S CENSUS YEAR, BABY! I am legit very excited. Yes, I am a huge nerd for data, and I’m not gonna hide it. We need this information to develop sound policy and investments, and track our progress on goals over time.

The stats geeks working for the feds are so much in their glee that they have a big countdown clock on their website— “There are 3 days before the 2021 Census.” (it begins on Monday, May 3). Statistics Canada has adapted the collection process to ensure that all Canadians remain safe through this vital national exercise, and the City encourages all residents to complete their census questionnaire online. Phone and paper surveys are also available.

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Jess Puddister is The Independent's Municipal Correspondent, writing a weekly column titled, So Moved, St. John's. She's been working with Newfoundland and Labrador municipalities since 2017 mainly on climate change response strategy, eco-asset management planning, and sustainable development advocacy.