Thursday 28 July 2011

Sean Shaw: The opportunity to make a difference

Sean Shaw (, the senior environmental geochemist for a Saskatoon-based mining consulting firm, moved to Saskatoon in 2004 to obtain his PhD in Geochemistry at the University of Saskatchewan. He is already playing an active role in shaping the city’s future. He ran for City Council in 2009, chairs the City’s Environmental Advisory Committee and the Board of Directors for Quint Development Corporation, and is the founding president of Saskatoon Cycles.

Politics in full sentences
Sean is an admirer of Don Iveson, an Edmonton city councillor, and Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary, because they practise “politics in full sentences.” Sean explained what this means in a recent article on his blog.

“The idea of ‘politics in full sentences’ is to engage voters in an actual conversation about the state of their city and how best to collectively improve the parts that need improving. Both of these civic leaders understand that decisions made by City Hall cannot be made in silos, that there is an inter-connectedness between roads, mass transit, neighbourhood revitalization, and lower property taxes (among many others!) and each decision has a ripple effect on the effectiveness and efficiency of other decisions.”

Sean believes that residents have tuned out politicians because they haven’t been engaged – witness the low voter turnout (27%) in recent municipal elections – and he believes we need to turn that around. “People have the willingness and capacity to understand the concepts,” says Sean, “so why wouldn’t you talk to them? It resonates with people when politicians ask questions rather than talking at them.”

Sean points to a recent City report estimating that it will cost the City $117 million over five years to return the existing roads to a state of good repair. As Sean explains, this isn’t an isolated topic and needs to be considered in terms of other issues, such as public transit and urban planning.

As the City expands outwards, it requires more and more roads so people can move around. City planners have been making an effort to design more compact neighbourhoods, but Evergreen at 8 houses per hectare 8.6 units per acre still doesn’t stand up against Calgary, which won’t accept a density of less than 10. Similarly, research has shown that investing in public transit will lead to lower infrastructure costs because there is less pressure to provide more roads for more cars.

Leadership role for municipalities
Sean strongly believes that municipal politicians and administrators can and should play a leadership role in designing livable cities. He points to the Warehouse district as an example. The City has stated that they want to see this become a lively neighbourhood with lots of street-level interaction beyond the 9 to 5 work day. But they have approved new construction which is not conducive to this philosophy. The new Holiday Inn has 4 or 5 stories of above-ground parking, presenting a blank fa├žade that discourages street-level activity.

“We need regulations, not guidelines,” says Sean, “if we want to have underground parking and store fronts and facilities that will attract local residents.”

Saskatoon Cycles
So long as there isn’t any ice on the ground, Sean cycles to work. He feels comfortable cycling in downtown traffic, but not everyone does. “It’s hard to get my wife to go out cycling with me,” he says. “She doesn’t feel safe.” He points to research that was carried out in Portland that clearly indicated that safer streets policies, such as separate bike lanes, lead to large increases in the number of cyclists.

After participating in Ice Cycle 2010, a group of cyclists were sharing their concerns about local bicycle safety. Sean suggested that they do something about it, and Saskatoon Cycles was created. Saskatoon Cycles is an advocacy group that is speaking out for cycling as a safe, year-round mode of transportation for people of all ages. Their goal is to engage municipal decision-makers, both politicians and administrators, in a conversation about improving the cycling infrastructure in Saskatoon.

“We try to be constructive,” explains Sean. “We want to work with them and suggest solutions.”
Public response to Saskatoon Cycles has been extremely positive. By summer of 2010, they had over 300 members and they now have well over 1000 members. “I’ve never seen this level of excitement and commitment,” says Sean. “People are really excited, and they want to come out to meetings. And it’s not just students. The average age is around 45, and the group includes a large number of working professionals.”

Next year, the group hopes to start collecting statistics and quantitative research in order to back up their recommendations with evidence.

A good place to live
Sean is a passionate advocate for Saskatoon. He loves the trails along the river and the summer festivals. But most of all, Sean loves the people. “There’s a broad group of people who are 35 and under living here,” he says. “They know what kind of city they want to see, and they’re actively doing something to achieve it. It’s not mainstream, but those things that will make Saskatoon a more livable city are already happening.”

Sean points to core neighbourhoods, such as Caswell Hill, where young people are fixing up old houses or designing interesting infill projects, as well as to changes in the types of restaurants and bars around town.

“Saskatoon is almost a blank slate,” says Sean. “We haven’t yet made the mistakes of larger cities. We have the ability to apply what they’ve learned and avoid making their mistakes.”

And Sean believes that all of us have the opportunity to make a difference. “You can get to know people quickly in Saskatoon,” he says. “If you want to be involved in making decisions, you can.”