The Time Has Come For The “Art” Of Community Building

By Chris Fields, Community Builder

Election season springs anew. Along with it, the debate about hard-earned taxpayer dollars stirs itself into frenzy in social media. “Hold the line on taxes.” “Government waste has to go.” “Focus on basic services only.”

We don’t trust our institutions these days, so government is “wasteful.” “Waste” is defined as anything other than basic services. Government dollars are never “investment,” they are “spending.” We don’t want to spend on the nebulous – like the talent required to achieve performance – by paying more than an average. We don’t want to pay more period so we starve the future for the present in boiling everything down to a status quo tax bill in a world where inflation is the norm, never mind getting ahead by making hard – even inspired and inspiring – choices that position for the future.

It’s natural to want to invest in the motion of what we have known in the past. It’s a comfort zone. And so our arena becomes a flash point. We want another one, or to re-invest in our crumbling one. It’s Canadian….like maple syrup and thick socks in the winter. But imagine a more multicultural future, or our societal need to transform into a more creative economy that innovates, or our aging population. Change suggests we broaden our considerations….even make different choices. However we are stuck in a paradox; because the future can’t be known we conclude it’s a dangerous game to plan for it.

Do we enable the future or hold on to our past? How do we define the pragmatic that politics and taxpayers crave while considering that making bold new steps into the future – in action – is almost never considered to be pragmatic?

Case in point: If you survey people about what they want their government to provide, they will always say “more/better basic services” (water, sewer, roads, emergency services). Recreation (typically a range of sports, and pathways) will be next. Culture always falls to the bottom of the list. It’s a “nice to have but not necessary” people say – as a matter of public expenditure.

Without discounting the utmost importance of providing excellent basic services, the irony is that the communities we think of as being inspired and inspiring aren’t just great water suppliers. They are creators and innovators. They wear culture on a sleeve – local food, performing arts, artists, public art, recreation as an expression of culture, quality of place and civic amenity in a downtown, digital innovators online, etc. These stand-out communities are colourful rainbows on the map in the world of black dots. In pursuing the more difficult path of elevating cultural presence these communities leave their mark in more profound ways. We find the meaning of life itself – where connection to people and place feeds our soul.

It’s funny how we will spend millions on a hockey rink but debate a performing arts centre expansion – or even a more basic concept like how to enable our creativity to set the stage for the future – for years, if ever. A hockey rink and a performing arts centre is one and the same….just different kinds of people pursuing their aspirations. While we’re psychologically wired to value one over the other, should it be this way?

A brave community determined to forge its distinct and compelling future will also invest in its creativity. It will become more vital over time as we continue to shift to a knowledge based economy, where innovation becomes our only competitive advantage as a country. There’s no question that vibrant culture unleashes the imagination that is a necessary ingredient of innovation. Creative culture is an increasingly desired locational criteria as a matter of corporate location – particularly in the digital space. Our ability to nurture imagination in all forms should be of interest to all of us…for the sake of both the vibrancy of our community, and the legacy we leave for our children and grandchildren.

And so while recreation – and clinging to the romance of our arenas – dominates our conversations, leadership is about having the bravery to commit to the less comfortable path.

If you can’t see a path to get there, give us a call. We know . . . There’s Always a Way.