Get to Know Who's Running: Steven Townsend (Ward Métis)
There happens to be a Municipal Election coming up in Edmonton on October 18, 2021, and I think it's important for locals to get to know the City Council candidates running for their particular ward (as well as their Mayoral candidates, of course). I chose to get more involved in the election this year and so wanted to give each candidate a chance to tell us a little about themselves, their vision, and why you should vote for them. I have sent a 10-question questionnaire to each of the 2021 Edmonton Municipal Election candidates and will post their responses (100% as written) here as they come in. With that said, let's get to know...
"Steven is a dedicated community builder, entrepreneurial innovator, and proud born and raised Edmontonian. A true entrepreneur at heart, Steven opened The Briefing Room on Whyte Avenue in 2012, and eventually expanded to four locations. With the success of The Briefing Room, he was able to give back to the community through charity work with The Bissell Centre, Camp fYrefly, Fruit Loop, No Woman Without Period, and other worthy causes. While juggling the busy schedule of a small business owner, Steven still finds the time to give back to his community through volunteer work. He has dedicated his time and expertise to several organizations and nonprofits including Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Alberta Avenue Revitalization Initiative, Sexual and Gender Minorities Community Liaison Committee of the Edmonton Police Chiefs Advisory Council, Rat Creek Press, Parkdale-Cromdale Community League, and more. Steven understands firsthand what many business owners and community members are facing in these unprecedented times. Steven believes that through innovation, fiscal responsibility, and our community spirit we will once again come back stronger and more resilient than ever before. Steven is excited to embrace the opportunity to bring his tireless work ethic and innovative initiatives to the people of Ward Métis."
I♥E/ Why do you want to run for City Council?
Steven Townsend/ I have an absolute passion for the City of Edmonton! Growing up in Edmonton, I came from not having much in terms of material wealth. Edmonton is the kind of place where people can build a dream with our can-do spirit, and Edmontonians are supportive and genuinely want to see each other succeed.
As a small business owner and operator, I understand the importance of staying on budget. I am always finding niche ways to make things work, looking for more efficient ways to do things without cutting corners. Over the years, I have been involved in my community in various capacities, from starting a community garden to being the President of my Community League. Working with community members, I have spearheaded many transformative projects and initiatives. I have also dedicated a lot of my time working with members of the community to find creative solutions to challenges and issues and identify opportunities based on community assets. I believe that as we are coming out from the pandemic, we need new and innovative ideas and a councillor with their ear to the ground in the community.
Specifically, I believe Ward Métis folks need a councillor who shows up to their events and is engaged in the community so they can bring the community voices and capacity to council. I believe one of my greatest strengths as a candidate is that I am accessible and down to earth. I also have a passion for problem-solving that I would like to put to work on such issues as development and problem properties in our neighbourhoods, where I believe a balanced approach is necessary. I would also like to help find innovative solutions to diversify our economy based on my business background.
Beyond business and development, I believe it is of paramount importance that we continue to support the tremendous arts, culture and festival scene in Edmonton that really puts our city on the map and unites us as Edmontonians.
I♥E/ Can you tell us about your past or current experiences that you think could possibly benefit/ translate to your position as a member of City Council?
ST/ My experience as a small business owner has given me an understanding of what other small business owners are going through currently. I have also been President of my Community League and involved in numerous community initiatives and projects aimed at creating a better city. Through community work, I have had the opportunity to work with people from all walks of life, who sometimes hold opposing viewpoints. However, I have found that we still have shared values and goals that we want to achieve, and I believe that through those shared values and goals, we can come together and make a difference in this city.
Some examples of initiatives I have been involved in include: spearheading a solar project at my Community League, as action is needed to bring forward our energy transition goals in the City. Working on the Alberta Avenue Revitalization steering committee project. This experience has taught me how to leverage community capacity to work together for a common purpose. Working on the Police Chief Advisory Council to bridge gaps between the police force and community.
I♥E/ What do you think are the 4 or 5 biggest issues facing Edmonton right now that you want to focus on most?
ST/ Housing & homelessness:
I think we need more supportive housing to address this issue, which really affects us all. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, rough sleeping and homelessness are not just a housing issue, it is also a public health issue. Especially in the context of our harsh winter, housing in Edmonton is often a life and death issue. I have visited and talked to some of the staff from the Bissell centre, and supportive housing, in their view, is the number one need when it comes to tackling homelessness.
We need a long term funding framework for our housing responders, so they can adequately plan ahead, and not have to react to the often knee-jerk impact of the budget cycles. This is a complex issue. There are different stages on the housing spectrum. We have temporary shelters on one end and permanent housing on the other. While the City of Edmonton has a role to play, we can’t do it alone as we don’t have jurisdiction over some of the stages of the housing spectrum. For example, social housing is part of the provincial government’s jurisdiction, but the City of Edmonton owns the land on which the province might build the social housing. We need all three levels of government at the table to tackle homelessness so folks are not falling out of supportive programs as they choose to move on to the next stage on the housing spectrum.
We need to take a look at what's not working in our shelter system. With the number of homeless people sleeping rough, I thought our shelters were at capacity, but I was wrong. Some of the shelters are actually under-capacity. I later found out that some of the shelter spaces do not provide sleeping accommodation for couples. Most of them don’t offer secure storage space for their clients to store their personal belongings. I was also told that some users don’t feel safe staying in a shelter space, particularly Indigenous people. We need to take a hard look at our current shelter spaces and work with the province to make sure our shelter spaces provide the intended services that our homeless population needs.
It is very inconsiderate for the city to place a high concentration of temporary shelters in certain neighbourhoods without considering the community capacity. I have no doubt from the numerous conversations I have had with community members at their doorsteps that people are genuinely compassionate and want to be helpful when it comes to tackling homelessness. However, we need to think about how much shelter space each neighbourhood can support without posing a significant impact on people’s everyday lives. Take my home neighbourhood of Parkdale-Cromdale for example. At one point, we had several different shelter spaces within a few minutes of each other: The Expo Centre, The Commonwealth Rec Center, the Coliseum Inn, the Bridge Housing at the old jockey dorm, and recently at the Spectrum, the old Northlands racetrack grounds.
When City administration considers placing a shelter in a neighbourhood, they really need to also consider the additional resources that might be needed to support these neighbourhoods, and the community members. Whether it’s garbage collection, park rangers, outreach social workers or the police. Community members shouldn’t have to call and email every day to fight for more resources. Our city should have the foresight to anticipate and mitigate some of the negative impacts to the neighbourhoods before another shelter is placed there.
I grew up in Edmonton with my mother, who was disabled and receiving AISH. I know what hard times are like because I have lived it. I know what it’s like to be priced out of the place you live because you are on a fixed income. I know how hard it can be to find a place to live on a fixed income and just how important real affordable housing is, not this 10% below market value stuff that our City classifies as affordable.
Energy Transition and Environmental Issues:
Our overall impact on the environment is one of the key issues we must address as a city. Energy transition will be a major part of lessening our carbon footprint. Energy transitions should be viewed, however, also as cost-saving initiatives and economic drivers. To be truly sustainable, energy transition must make environmental and financial sense. We need to implement climate interventions that give us the biggest “bang for our buck” with respect to operating costs and upfront investment. Based on studies done by Goldman Sachs, Mckinsey and Boston Consulting Group, making buildings more energy-efficient (upgrading insulation or smart cooling and heating systems) is the best way to optimize spending on energy transition. These studies show that retrofitting buildings will save consumers money through cheaper bills. Energy monitoring could also play an important role in managing our energy consumption (here's a fun example from schools in Bath UK). It is important to set measurable targets to ensure we are accountable and on the right track to meeting our energy transition goals. Carbon accounting will make it much easier for our city to stick to our goals.
Community Consultation & Empowerment:
Too often, projects in the City are implemented without considering local context. The recent bus system redesign is an example that community members have been mentioning as I have been going door to door to speak with them. I am hearing that when the city removed bus routes, they were not considering how people in the neighbourhoods actually use them. I heard various issues such as:
Issues around safety while waiting for buses on 118 avenue
No drop curbs in Ottewell
Now having to take multiple buses for school or work
Connections are not appropriately timed (a big issue in the winter)
The City’s consultation practice could use some work to reach different demographics (time, location, accessibility to consultation). For example, working moms can’t attend a 10 am consultation meeting downtown and childcare is often not arranged for those who want to bring their children to engagement sessions. When community members are invited to provide input, but this input doesn’t filter up to actual policy, design or programming, it is a missed opportunity for the City and frustrates citizens.
I have first-hand experience and have heard from many community members concerns about City of Edmonton departments operating in operational silos. This often results in oversights, inefficiencies, and mismanagement of taxpayers’ dollars that need to be addressed. At my Community League, we recently installed an extensive array of solar panels (partially funded by the city) only to have another city department come along and plant trees in front of them, which in the end, will render the solar virtually useless. Had they asked the community, we could have told them some great places in need of some trees. Recently we have seen so many overlapping construction projects downtown that some businesses, after making it through the Covid restrictions, might not make it through the construction. Business closures could be prevented if each of the departments coordinated their construction projects. Business closures should never be an acceptable cost of construction.
I♥E/ What do you think are some of the issues/struggles affecting your particular ward that you would like to focus on most?
ST/ The Ward is large, so depending on the neighbourhood, the issues/struggles are somewhat different. In this light, I think making decisions without considering the local context is a major problem. This can apply to many issues such as problem properties, inadequately designed infill (grading issues, foundation damage to adjacent properties, infill that does not promote community building, especially when the design doesn’t incorporate public/social/gathering spaces.
I also feel that expenditures on capital projects are an issue. For the better half of a decade, we have been focusing on mega infrastructure projects, which means funding is not being allocated to local amenities. Neighbourhoods and citizens feel left out and not heard because of the focus on large-scale projects.
I♥E/ What are some of the city/community initiatives that you loved and would like to expand upon?
ST/ I would like to see the Abundant Community Edmonton initiative continue and expand to more communities. In conjunction with our cities Community Leagues, I believe that this program helps create connected and engaged communities. An engaged and active community is one that actively takes part in the decision-making process and helps shape our future.
I also support traffic calming measures. Instead of doing expensive research, local residents can provide valuable local context (saving money and time) to decide on the locations of such measures.
In general, I think we can do more to build community capacity. The City needs to be close to the ground and recognize and support community-led initiatives. We see many examples of community capacity in our neighbourhoods, and we can do more to support such initiatives. Some examples include:
Covid response - communities mobilized and took care of vulnerable populations in the neighbourhoods.
Save Gold Bar Park
Friends of Kinnaird Ravine
Arts on the Ave
I♥E/ What are some of the city/community initiatives that you are/were against, and what would you do differently?
ST/ I think current consultation practices are often not working well. An example of engagement done better is the Rural Development Network example. They used early engagement to encourage community buy-in and involvement, working with the community to figure where the best spot to develop is. This engagement was carried out BEFORE they purchased the land.
I♥E/ Do you think elected officials, such as City Councillors, should be able to block people on social media sites like Twitter?
ST/ I believe in free speech, and that people’s opinion matters. At the same time, I do not think that anyone should have to tolerate harassment and bullying. I believe that elected officials should be able to block hate speech, as this affects not only themselves but others reading such posts.
I♥E/ When it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, what do you think we got wrong (if anything) as a city or province, and is there anything you would want to do differently (municipally OR provincially)?
ST/ I think that hindsight is 2020, but that the City of Edmonton did the best job with the tool they had.
I♥E/ What is your favourite thing about living in Edmonton?
ST/ I love the City’s can-do spirit. It really is a City where the average person can accomplish great things with hard work and initiative. I also love the diversity & unique identity of the City. People are generally open no matter what type of background you have or where you come from and people can still be friendly even though they might not agree all the time. Of course, there are instances where this is not the case, and we need to address discrimination in our City as well.
Finally, I absolutely love our river valley, festivals and how we embrace winter in Edmonton. I could literally go on forever about all the things I love about Edmonton It is was to hard to just pick one.
I♥E/ Can you describe yourself in 5 words or less?
ST/ Real, open, community-builder, entrepreneur, go-getter.