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2012 in Review (and 2013 in Preview): A List of My Favourite Things

With 2012 coming to an end, it’s a good time to reflect. While I usually spend time over the holidays planning for the new year, I also like to think about some of the things I’ve enjoyed and valued. Last year, I posted a list of some of my favourite things and some things I’m looking forward to, and I want to continue and do that again for 2012/13.

Cities

Petco Park and the East Village in San Diego.

Petco Park and the East Village in San Diego.

San Diego – I visited for the first time, and ended up making two trips. one for the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in February, and again as part of a Southern California baseball trip, where I also ran the San Diego Rock and Roll Half Marathon. I enjoyed the distinctiveness of the different neighbourhoods, the natural landscape, and many of the attractions (Petco Park is great, and the artists’ village at Balboa Park has great work for sale).
Philadelphia – I think this city gets overlooked due to its proximity to NYC and Washington, both prominent and attractions in their own way. I’ve visited family there three years in a row, getting to see and appreciate many places. The Art Museum is top notch, as are many of the historical sites. There’s an excellent food scene too beyond the cheesesteak.
Montreal – This has been my favourite city for most of my life. I used to visit pretty much every year as a kid, and spending time exploring the old city was one of the major influences in forming my interest in urbanism. I went back for the first time in 6 years this November, and was happy to see it was vibrant and enjoyable as ever. I need to go back again, soon and often.

For 2013 – Few firm plans yet, but will be back in Portland in March, and I hope to return to Chicago and actually be in form to run the Marathon this year. Also looking to continue my trend of netting one new city and one new major league ballpark by visiting the Bay Area.

Politics/Ideas/Issues
Canada – I’ve started to think more about my concept of the country, and what I value about it. Much of this, admittedly, has been prompted by a decline in many of the things I value. Bilingualism and the role of French (Canadians) in institutions feels less central than in the past (and some institutions – such as the Parti Quebecois), are contributing to a polarization, environmental regulations are being rolled back, and it feels like there is a growing disconnect between regions. We have a pretty amazing country, and it would be tragic to lose some of the things – bilingualism/multiculturalism, pristine nature, and a common sense of purpose – that make Canada great.

Ending Homelessness – a worthwhile goal that I’m privileged to be a part of, and one that hopefully won’t be lost as more governments and institutions turn towards austerity.

Tactical Urbanism – I love this concept for small-scale actions (as opposed to mega-projects) that can make a city better.

For 2013 – hoping that #IdleNoMore leads to meaningful action that improves the lives of Indigenous Canadians; hoping to see more cities (including my own!) avoid the lure of mega projects and invest in small-scale projects that make a big difference. More meaningful action from government, civic institutions, and citizens to ameliorate poverty and inequality. Doing my best to contribute to all of the above.

Sports

Nationals Park on a sunny July evening.

Nationals Park on a sunny July evening.

#Natitude – I’ve had something of an affinity for the Nats, being an Expos fan as a kid, and really bought into them at the start of the year by adding a few of their players to my fantasy team. They were a ton of fun to watch, especially Bryce Harper once he got called up, and exceeded almost everyone’s (including my) expectations. The Game 5 NLDS loss to St. Louis was an all-time heartbreaker, but they should be a World Series contender for the next few years at least.
Vin Scully – the best announcer in the game. Any game. I ended up watching a lot of Dodgers on MLB.TV, and listening to him call a ballgame is the main reason why.
The Pistol Offense – I’ve enjoyed the NFL less and less in recent years, finding the product less enjoyable to watch than the college game (often, the players are almost too technically good, resulting in a boring product). The emergence of spread offenses, and the pistol formation, has made the game much more enjoyable to watch again. I highly recommend reading this longform piece on the pistol offense’s evolution and move to the pro game.

For 2013 – Natitude, redux; the launch of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Music/Pop Culture/Entertainment Recommendations

Bruce Springsteen performing at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Bruce Springsteen performing at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Bruce Springsteen (Music) – The Boss has been one of my favourite artists since I was a teenager. This year, not only did he release Wrecking Ball, a terrific, important album (how many artists do this 40 years into their career?), but I finally got to see him in concert with the E Street Band. My dad and I caught his Toronto show in August, where he kept 40,000 fans on their feet through an electric 3h40m set. As for other music, I also liked the Japandroids and Alabama Shakes albums. CBC Music’s online player is fantastic, and my usual soundtrack at the office.
Veep (TV) – Most of the TV I watched was HBO shows through Air Canada’s On-Board TV. I got through all 8 episodes of Veep, which is a fun political comedy. I’m also through 7 episodes of The Newsroom. I enjoy it for the first part, but feel like there’s something missing. This might be high expectations around any Aaron Sorking show, though. Episode 7, about Bin Laden’s killing, is oustanding.
Sports Documentaries (TV) – I’ve really enjoyed the episodes of TSN’s Engraved on a Nation that I’ve been able to watch. Playing a Dangerous Game and Western Swagger capture the geo-political relationship between sports and society at large. Ghosts of Ole Miss is the only of the new 30 for 30 episodes I’ve seen, but it’s up there with the best of them.

Movies – I don’t watch many, but Lincoln and The Dark Knight Rises are both excellent.

Good Books I Read – Two biographies of Robert Baldwin: John Ralston Saul’s book on LaFontaine and Baldwin, and Michael Cross’ The Morning-Star of Memory. Laura Vanderkam‘s 168 Hours and What Successful People Do Before Breakfast are both good works on how to more effectively use your time. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is the best fiction book (non-Chabon division) I’ve read in years. Someplace Like America is a must read on the growing problem of poverty and the decline of the working class.

For 2013 – Catching up on the current seasons of 30 Rock and Parks and Rec (TV). Reading Richard Gwyn’s 2-part bio on Sir John A. Macdonald, Tim Cook’s books on Canada in World War I, Ken Greenberg’s Walking Home – and many other books on my overflowing shelves.

Websites
Cartoon Machine – Mike Winters is getting well-earned recognition for his Wonderdick comics, a brilliant satire of overly self-serious urbanists, but every one of his strips is worth a look.
Grantland – Bill Barnwell, Katie Baker, Jonah Keri, and Rany Jazayerli are all amongst my favourite writers on any sports site.
Quartz – The Atlantic’s new business website has excellent coverage, and a different perspective from many outlets. For that matter, the Atlantic main site and Atlantic Cities (which I plugged last year) should be regular visits too.
Next City – I’ve been a reader of Next American City for many years, and in 2012 they undertook many changes. It began by discontinuing the print magazine in favour of weekly long-form writing on the web, and ended by launching the new brand – and name – of Next City.

For 2013 – writing more blog posts of my own.

Lifestyle/Other
Foot Traffic – This Portland-based retailer organizes the Holiday Half Marathon and the Flat Marathon/Half Marathon (4th of July race). I ran the Holiday Half for the second consecutive year, and had a blast once again. They know how to throw a good race (and party), and the downtown location at least has a solid selection of running gear. I rarely leave empty-handed.
Simons – I’ve long been a fan, visiting regularly since I was a kid whenever I’ve been in Quebec. They launched their first location outside the province in West Edmonton Mall, which is excellent, excellent news.
Vegetarian Food – I’ve cut down my meat intake substantially over the past year or two. This isn’t a principled or ethical decision. Rather, I’ve found that I feel much better physically when I do so. I cook at home a lot (being celiac encourages this), and have come to embrace a vegetarian-heavy diet while doing so. Meat is still delicious, but for me best enjoyed in small doses.

For 2013 – getting into cross-country skiing, Foot Traffic’s new Easter race and other runs, using my many cookbooks that are presently collecting dust on my bookshelf.

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How Cities Can Help Take Back the Stanley Cup

Three months into a lockout, NHL labour talks appear to have hit another impasse this week. I think the differences are exaggerated – more negotiating tactics than anything – and we’ll have labour peace by the new year. That said, on the chance that this is a serious blow, it’s time to revisit the idea of awarding the Stanley Cup to a non-NHL club.

Colby first raised this in an excellent column this summer. Stop, read it, then come back to this. He provides justification, both legally and morally, for the Cup to be contested, and a roadmap to secure it as a public asset should the Cup’s trustees not comply.

I strongly support this idea, and here is my idea for what a Cup competition, sans NHL, could look like.

The Cup Before the NHL
It’s likely not well appreciated that the Stanley Cup precedes the NHL (or organized professional hockey, for that matter). In the early years, amateur or semi-pro clubs contested the Cup through a Challenge series, or were awarded it for winning their league.

In fact, 3 organizations who played for The Cup in the Challenge era still exist – unsuccessful challengers Queen’s University and the Winnipeg Rowing Club, as well as Club Sportif MAA (Montreal Amateur Athletic Association), parent organization of the 5-time champion Montreal Hockey Club.

The Stanley Cup Challenge
Running a parallel league is impractical, and would deter both NHL players from participating, and owners/supporters from jumping on board due to a large commitment. What I suggest instead is a one-time challenge tournament, with the winner being awarded the Stanley Cup.

Between 8 and 16 teams (or 24, on the high end), would compete in either a round-robin or a group stage, followed by a 4-8 team knockout round. Think of the format used in soccer tournaments like the World Cup or the UEFA Champions’ League.

This could span 2-3 months, depending on format, and at the very most a team would play 25-30 games in that period of time.

The old Montreal Hockey Club. Is it time they reform and challenge for another Stanley Cup?

The old Montreal Hockey Club. Is it time they reform and challenge for another Stanley Cup?

The City Connection
Now, this would face many challenges in getting off the ground. Chief among them are buy-in from the players, and resources. The former could be won over by communicating the opportunity to play for the Cup against serious competition, and the money they stand to gain through being granted the vast majority of the revenue (which would be drawn from ticket and merchandise sales, and PPV or other TV rights to games).

The resources side is where municipalities come in. Not just civic governments, but civic institutions, and their well-heeled members/supporters, would be crucial for organizing start-up funds, and providing logistical support. In many cases, municipalities would be key for negotiating access to arenas.

More importantly, they would provide legitimacy to any effort to reclaim the Stanley Cup. Legitimate governments and civic institutions would be standing behind the effort to hold a Cup competition.

To further the local connection, teams could be organized around players suiting up for their hometowns (either birth or established residency prior to their junior or college career). Similar to how the CFL allows a certain number of imports, teams could also be allowed to carry a handful of players who do not qualify, but also do not have a hometown club of their own. This would ensure opportunity for those players to participate, while retaining the local character of clubs. Few cities would be able to ice a full 20 of established NHLers, so minor leaguers, other professionals, or juniors would round out the rosters.

Who Would Compete?
Using this map of 2011-12 NHLers by city of birth, we find 18 metro areas in Canada with at least 6 NHL players.

15+: Toronto (62), Montreal (35), Vancouver (27), Edmonton (26), Ottawa (22), Calgary (17), Winnipeg (16)
10-14: London (14), Regina (11), Niagra (10), Saskatoon (10),
6-9: Windsor (9), Kitchener-Waterloo (8), Oshawa (8), Kingston (7), Quebec City (7), Thunder Bay (7), Belleville (6)

Toronto could conceivably field multiple teams; Montreal, Vancouver, and Edmonton too.

If you invite American cities to compete, you’d add another 10 possibilities in Minneapolis-St. Paul (29), Detroit (22), Boston (15), Chicago (10), New York City (9), Pittsburgh (9), Anchorage (7), Buffalo (7), Madison (6), and St. Louis (6).

All of a sudden, we’re looking at a potential pool of 20-35 teams, depending on if American cities are included. Out of these, surely 8-16 could get their act together.

How Would Teams Get Organized?
The start-up cost, compared to buying a franchise, would be low, so private investors would be key, though not the only possibility. Thinking back to the Challenge era gives some other suggestions. It would be unlikely that universities like Queen’s would enter a professional team, but private athletic clubs such as the Winnipeg Rowing Club and Club Sportif MAA would have the infrastructure and well-heeled membership to bring resources together, and provide logistical support. These types of organizations exist in every city.

Some cities also have community-owned sports franchises, like the Edmonton Eskimos Football Club. They could resurrect a hockey cousin, which existed in the previous incarnation of the Esks early in the 20th century and played for the Stanley Cup three times between 1908 and 1923.

Civic leadership in government could support these organizations, or step in where no one else can. In return, a share of the revenue could return to charitable initiatives in the city (say, supporting youth hockey for kids in need).

Arena access would be the most difficult thing to achieve. Many cities only have one pro-caliber arena, and it’s either owned by or fully leased to the NHL club (Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal). About half of the NHL cities listed above have a second arena in the metro or nearby, while the Junior Hockey cities would all have (smaller) arenas. Vancouver has the Pacific Coliseum, Toronto could use the Ricoh Coliseum or the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. Ottawa has the Civic Centre. There may even be potential to play a few outdoor games early in the tournament. Add in ~15K seat arenas in Saskatoon and Quebec City, and while not perfect, you have an infrastructure that could easily support this format.

South of the border things look much better. Detroit has The Palace of Auburn Hills, St. Paul has the Target Center, Boston has the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Chicago has the Allstate Arena, and New York City has the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

How It Would Play Out
The group stage would see teams split into groups of 4, playing 2 games against each opponent (6 in total). This stage could be compressed (2-3 games per week) or spread out to allow players to keep up a minor or junior league schedule too. The top 2 finishers in each group would advance to a 4-team (out of 8) or 8-team (out of 16) best of 5 or 7 elimination rounds. Games could either be neutral site, or arranged so that teams have a designated “home ice” in a nearby city, if one isn’t available in their own. My ideal schedule would see designated match days, like the Champions’ League, where every team plays Tuesday/Wednesday and Saturday for three weeks.

Following this, 4-5 weeks of the playoffs would ensue. With the Cup removed from the throes of the NHL, a former All-American college hockey player would award the Cup to a deserving champion. This would be the culmination of a 2-3 month period where the Cup challenge captivates the country Tournaments like the Canada Cup have done this for a shorter period. I think that enthusiasm can be replicated on a scale to support this tournament.

Imagine some of the following, all of which would be possible in this scenario:

– Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter convince NHL teammates like Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick to sign up with for their London club so they play for a second consecutive Cup together.
– Jarome Iginla finally lifts the Stanley Cup, as captain of an Edmonton team.
– A Regina team, lead by Ryan Getzlaf and Jordan Eberle, challenges bigger markets in front of a rabid home crowd that resembles a Riders game.
Montreal HC is resurrected, and goes for a 6th Stanley Cup, which would tie them with the contemporary Montreal rival, the Boston Bruins.
– Torontonians team up to create a super-team, like the Miami Heat in the NBA, assuming the role of villain throughout the tournament. Nash, Stamkos, Cammalleri, Spezza, Tavares, Skinner, Seguin, and Subban are just a few of the names that would be eligible.

The Cup challenge would serve players well by providing a revenue source, and allowing them to compete for the sport’s greatest prize. It would serve fans well by providing a competitive tournament with some of the world’s best players. It would serve communities well by creating clubs that they could identify with and rally around. A Cup Challenge would reclaim the Stanley Cup as the domain not of private interests, but that of public good. Government, cities and civic institutions can help make that happen.

The Problem with “Best of” Cities Lists

Over the past week, my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, has been abuzz about the Quality of Life rankings released by Numbeo, which put Edmonton 3rd in the world, and provincial counterpart Calgary 5th. In a city where civic boosterism runs high, and a share of civic leadership (if not the general population) craves external recognition and ‘world-class’ status, this is like crack. There are level-headed exceptions, but if you’re plugged into the local social media scene, it’s been inescapable, despite the fact that nobody in Edmonton had probably heard of Numbeo two weeks ago (the Huffington Post story had been liked over 8,000 times as of posting this).

Downtown Edmonton Skyline
The 3rd best place in the world to live?

The problem with this, of course, is that these quality of life rankings are in a sense meaningless. Sharon Lerner wrote a good piece on this for Good last year, titled Why “Best Place to Live” Lists are Kind of the Worst. Key passage:

But the problem, or one of them, is that taste varies wildly. Another is that, because they attempt to incorporate an entire nation’s desires, these one-size-fits-all features tend to showcase a version of life as we’d like it to be, a version that glosses over the things that truly make a difference to most people: community, services, and policies that ease their daily life. Idealizing places means being ignorant of their inevitable flaws. Graduation rates and crime stats, on which many of these lists are based, are important to consider. But allowing them to define a place is like falling in love with someone’s online profile.

Now, before I’m accused of being critical of my hometown, I should note that I do believe Edmonton, in general, offers a high quality of life. So, however, does nearly every Canadian city. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can generalize and compare cities as apples to apples. To Lerner’s points, I’d add a few general problems:

Quality of Life Indicators Can Vary Throughout a City
Indicators such as pollution and crime often come up on lists (as they do on Numbeo’s). They are also, however, rarely uniform. Pollution may be a bigger problem closer to any industry or major traffic points. On crime, any city has both problem and safe areas.

Traffic Times Are Deceiving
Really, so is every metric that takes an average. Traffic is a relative non-factor if you work at home, or if you have the means and ability to live within walking distance of work and major amenities. Further, different modes mean a longer commute isn’t the worst thing. Access to effective public transit can also make longer commute times more attractive than spending a few less minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

People Have Different Interests and Circumstances
Many of the measurable aspects don’t apply equally to everyone. If you don’t have kids, you’re probably less concerned about the quality of schools. If you don’t run/bike/walk, access to trails probably isn’t a consideration. Depending on hobbies, you may either love or hate a long winter, such as that in Edmonton, where snow can cover the ground for 5-6 months. If you like sailing, a landlocked city is not for you.

Someone’s experience of a place will depend on availability of jobs in their field, relevant volunteer/recreational activities, and proximity of family and friends. A University of Alberta grad who is an avid skier and has family roots in Alberta might feel right at home in Edmonton. A person born and raised in the Lower Mainland who enjoys watersports and mild weather might not so much.

On What Makes a City “Best”
Lists can be useful for measuring many things about cities, but quality of life varies too much from individual to individual to sum up as a generalization. Cities are good and bad for different people. A person would be best served to find a good fit, and work on making it better, no matter what any list says.