The Editorial Board of the Star Tribune has recently pointed our attention to a few cities that we should look to as comparisons for our future development, specifically Denver and Seattle. Let me suggest that there are better examples for achieving a better community.
After 100 days of traveling Canadian waterways, highways and sidewalks, I have returned with observations that contrast the Twin Cities with communities to the north, namely Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec. These observations, the result of simply walking around with open eyes and an open mind, concern how our government could make a difference in the quality of our lives.
To borrow a device, here are the Top 10:
1) These three Canadian cities are pedestrian-friendly. To enjoy them, get out of your car and walk around. Open-air markets, sidewalk cafes, sculpture, street musicians, and open spaces with flowers greet the pedestrian. Montreal boasts 240 miles of bike trails, most with safety curbs to separate cars from bikers.
2) The public-works departments are the unsung heroes. You see very little trash or graffiti. Street corners are clearly marked for safety. Nor do you see drivers talking on cellphones. Why? Because it will cost you $350, on the spot. Cleverly disguised public-works people spot violators and call ahead to a waiting police officer.
3) Big vs. small: These cities don’t boast major league sports with billion-dollar stadiums built at public expense. Rather it’s clear to see that the public dollars have flowed into countless improvements to make city life attractive for people. This sounds revolutionary, but it’s so simple. For example, in Montreal, the canal that once brought supplies into the city is now a favorite boating experience for thousands. And in the winter, the canal freezes and becomes the world’s longest skating rink — groomed by a Zamboni.
4) A Minnesota politician observed that if we didn’t have professional sports to give us special cachet, we’d be just a cold Omaha. Fooey! Tens of thousands of people, from tourists to lock tenders, line up every day to visit Montreal’s botanical garden. Each year, exhibitors from around the world compete to create extraordinary sculptures that are 50 feet high and composed of flowers and green plants. There was a two-hour wait to see the Chinese exhibit.
5) Little things stand out, like park benches sporting a coat of varnish, surrounding open green spaces, fountains and public art.
6) Exhibits on street corners proudly tell Canadian history, a part of which is how the country repelled American invasions in 1774-75 and in the War of 1812. These are wars that we don’t like to talk about, but ask a Canadian and you’ll get an earful.
7) It may be an unfair comparison, but viewing Ottawa’s government buildings instills a sense of grandeur. Minnesota’s capital city is, well, to be kind, “underachieving.” In Ottawa, the cameras are out. And pedestrians are encouraged to walk on the lush green lawns to encounter sculptures of former prime ministers, suffrage leaders and explorers. Have you ever seen a person taking pictures in public spaces in St. Paul?
8) Safety: Women sense it first. Even at night, you wouldn’t think twice about going out for a walk. Yet, you don’t see police cars or uniformed officers. Nor do you see adolescent boys with pants slung down to their derrière. You do see a few panhandlers, but cleverly, there are signs that say “It’s OK to give … wisely.” Classical music drives many street urchins away from the bridge and pedestrian areas.
The next few observations stray into national issues, but touch people every day.
9) Have you seen Canadian currency? It’s really cool! Twenty-dollar bills have see-through parts. Try counterfeiting that. And they have done away with pennies. How long will that take us in the United States?
10) Our favorite question to ask Canadians was: How do you like your health care system? Without fail, the response was positive. Or as one man said, “It ain’t perfect, but it’s better than what you have.” Ouch.
As for long delays in seeing a doctor, there are walk-in health clinics, no appointment necessary. I personally stopped in and was seen by a very professional physician in order to get a prescription refilled. The cost at the drugstore was less than my copay back home.
Every time we encountered a public official, we were treated with respect and professionalism. Lock-and-dam tenders were most helpful and often gave maps or guides as we passed through.
So it was a sad day when we pointed our boat southward to reenter the United States. At the border, we stopped to clear customs, and a Homeland Security officer literally tossed a clipboard and a form to fill out. “But this is in French,” I protested. “Yah, we ran out of the English version.” Above his desk was the warning that “failure to comply will result in a $10,000 fine or imprisonment.”
Which brings me to one last observation: Canadians have a government that actually operates. It delivers services. It makes life better for people.
We in Minnesota don’t need to chase the latest world-class blah-blah-blah. Minnesota’s elected officials could make a difference by enacting public policies that improve everyday life. For inspiration, look north.
Paul Olson, of St. Paul, is a former president of the Blandin Foundation. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.