Students in each year at the McEwen School of Architecture take on a project. This year the Third Year Studio is about designing an Event Center for downtown Sudbury. Saturday morning the class presented preliminary research and started in on the design process for three sites.
In the process of collecting facts about the downtown, the students ran into a surprising barrier: The City of Greater Sudbury. Apparently the City of Greater Sudbury charges anyone – including students — for any data it provides. It is hard to imagine a dumber policy for a city that hopes to attract people and grow. Council is charging students who want to provide free design services to the City.
The City’s practice is the opposite of open government. Democracy depends on public access to information. Good government depends on an informed people, and when data is freely available, the people get involved in solving problems for the City. Instead of attending the event and learning about the downtown, council members, whether they know it or not, are collaborating in hiding the truth from the citizens of the region. The truth may be utterly boring, but charging for data this way is a guarantee of poor government and could be a way to hide serious mistakes or even crimes. The City is out of date and out of touch about making data available.
One of the details that the students did turn up is that 40% of the downtown is covered by roads and an additional 23% is used for parking. This is far more than comparable cities, apparently. Not surprisingly, the City also spends a larger share of its budget on roads than comparable cities.
It isn’t surprising that the department with the most money runs the city, and that goes a long way to explaining how Council got conned into wasting $150 million on the Maley Drive Extension.
But getting back to the weekend event, in the afternoon the students started to work up three different downtown sites. For each site about 20 students will work up designs as their term proceeds. To start, each group gathered around a big table with a huge map of the downtown core. Ironically, the only building missing from the map provided by the City was the new School of Architecture itself.
The studio instructors led brainstorming sessions about the features of the site and the way the site relates to the downtown and the requirements of an Event Center. A number of locals threw in history and raised issues about the three. Watching students taking on the problem, asking questions, throwing out suggestions, making notes — deeply engaged and thinking hard — it was clear we were seeing a crash course in how to make Sudbury better.
The sites they have decided to look were the current Arena site, the parking lot across the tracks at the west end of Larch and the Rainbow Center. We won’t see the result of their work for a while, but there is no question that the best thinking going on about Sudbury’s downtown is happening in the McEwen School of Architecture right now. It really is a shame that Council members are not participating in the process.