Maintaining Vibrant Communities Under the Glare of Efficiency
Ottawa, Canada, may be perceived by many Canadians as sleepy hollow, due to it being a government-dominated city in terms of employment. But come summer this city of 800,000 comes alive with music festivals, which run almost constantly from May to the end of August. For the past week and a half, I was a volunteer with the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, a medium-size event (in contrast to Montreal’s huge, world renown festival), but which draws world-class acts.
The weather certainly could have been better, but Ottawans and visitors to the city still came out in large numbers to listen to a smorgasbord of incredible talent. In August I’ll be volunteering for my 10th year with the Ottawa Folk Festival, a small yet energizing event that draws musicians from as far away as Australia. And in between there will be North America’s second largest blues festival, which starts this week. Indeed, one of my favourite music festivals is in the small town of Perth, 45 minutes south of Ottawa. Held mid July, this festival brings people together for an enjoyable and intimate three days.
Music festivals add significantly to a city’s culture and dynamism, producing a certain ‘aliveness’ and energy. They’re amazing events, when one considers that the vast bulk of those who plan, organize and deliver them are volunteers. The number of paid staff are extremely small. And yet they create a huge amount of energy that radiates throughout. Another example is Fredericton’s Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, where I was a volunteer before moving to Ottawa.
When hard times hit, the activities that help define a city’s culture are often on the chopping block as the result of budget cuts. Music festivals in Ottawa, for example, have faced relentless financial pressures for the past many years as the City of Ottawa has debated whether to contribute funding. Often, it has not been until the last minute when festival organizers have learned of what will be their funding.
The issue of efficiency becomes the overriding principle as administrators strive to eliminate activities that appear frivolous to some or non-quantifiable: culture is frequently front and centre. In her 2002 book “The Cult of Efficiency,” Janice Gross Stein (University of Toronto) speaks eloquently to North Amercia’s fascination with efficiency. She examines how people come together in public spaces and the language they use to express common concerns. She looks at education and healthcare, in particular, and the roles of the state and markets.
My point in making reference to Stein’s book and the topic of efficiency is that as a society we risk losing sight of what contributes to making our cities and towns more human and livable, creating spaces where people come together to share experiences.
We’re in a very difficult economic period currently, one that will take several years to improve. Efficiency will maintain its necessary role, but along the way we’ll need to remain vigilant that the character and vibrancy of our communities are not compromised.