Clearing the Fog Over the Fence

Harbour Fence Diagram - St. John's Port Authority

With the public debate about the harbour fence continuing on call-in shows, editorial pages, and casual conversations, a common thread has (understandably) been a desire for more information, especially from the Port Authority. That information is beginning to emerge, and it's very important to give it a read.

First, the Port Authority has released correspondence it received from Transport Canada indicating that there are deficiencies in their security arrangements. You can see that letter, which dates from last week, here [PDF].  It refers to marine security regulations, which are available in full form here. They've also released some more detailed renderings both of the fence's design [PDF], and its exact extent [PDF]. They also included an excerpt from their own security review that notes that "The temporary fencing along piers 8, 9, and 11 form a security concern, as observed during this assessment, due to their temporary question and temporary nature."

Also emerging this morning was correspondence from Transport Canada to the CBC indicating that "In this case, Transport Canada is satisfied with the Port of St. John's current security plan and did not instruct the port operator to erect new fencing." The first part of this statement would appear to directly conflict with the letter received by the Port Authority on December 10th - some clarification from Transport Canada would be very helpful here.

Much of what is emerging can be seen quite positively from a city-building and dialogue perspective. Transport Canada's December 10th letter to the Port Authority outlines the relevant regulations - which do require the port to designate "Restricted Areas" - but say nothing about the form that these restrictions have to take. On the face of it, it would seem like security cameras, guards, or even posted notices might be enough to meet this requirement, without building a physical barrier. There is clearly recognition in the regulations that local contexts will differ. We need to know what other options were or could be considered.

So where to go from here? This debate, unfolding chaotically (as these debates often do) has brought to the surface a number of issues that should matter to all of us:

  • There are still plenty of unanswered questions about the issue, which has become quite polarized. Happy City continues to urge everyone involved - the Port Authority, the City, port users, and citizens - to sit down together in a cooperative format (not a standard "public meeting") to build some common ground. We'd be happy to facilitate this at any time.
  • Our governance model for the harbour could clearly use some thought. How can we strike a balance between the commercial requirements of a working harbour and a recognition that it is both a critically important public space and a deeply cared-for piece of cultural heritage for the people of the city? Dismissing either side of that equation only creates frustration and anger - can we build a different governance model (or refine the existing one) in a way that might get us to a smarter place?
  • St. John's is a uniquely democratic community in many ways - but often a reactive one. We are a small enough community to still have something of a "public square" on call-in shows and the internet, and the voices in that square were loud enough to make this an ongoing issue. Unfortunately, we now risk a situation in which the city becomes divided into sides who feel like compromise means "backing down" - and that's precisely the type of atmosphere Happy City is working to minimize
  • As difficult as it is, we need to have a rational conversation around security and risk. Without it, we can't seriously think about how the harbour - and many other public spaces - fit into our vision of life in St. John's. The dialogue around security - as Gwynn Dyer pointed out in his inimitable way during this interview about the fence - is often tinged with paranoia. Once someone suggests a possible threat, it becomes very hard to dismiss even the most unlikely of possibilities. This needs to change.
  • We need to spend more time thinking about the integration of the harbour with the city. One of the reasons people are so upset by the possibility of being fenced off the harbour apron is that harbour drive itself is a pedestrian-hostile environment: a wide street full of fast cars, with narrow sidewalks and no storefronts or amenities, only parking lots and the backs of buildings. A fence and a few viewing areas won't fundamentally change that. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, there's clearly public desire for a conversation here. Let's have it.
  • Hyperbole doesn't help. If built, the fence won't cut us off entirely from our harbour. If not built, thousands of jobs won't disappear - and framing the debate in terms of these extremes does a disservice to the many people willing and able to offer thoughtful suggestions.
  • Happy City needs your help! We would love to have understood earlier the implications of this discussion (which, as the Port Authority notes, has come to council twice already). Quite frankly, it took until recently for the full scope of it to hit home - and by then, people were forced to react. We'd welcome more volunteers to help us dig into the details of things like this - seemingly small decisions that deeply affect how our city lives.

While the current dialogue isn't exactly ideal, it is happening. Let's keep it happening - but let's keep it civil. It's not at all clear yet whether there is any will to make substantive changes to the plans for the harbour - let's make it as easy as possible for those changes to happen by continuing to inject as many facts as we can into this. And let's not be afraid to think big.

Written by Josh Smee at 18:00

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September 27, 2016 04:55
Thank you for this, Happy City. I agree with your points. Here's to cooler, more rational thought, prevailing in this instance and in future development issues in the City of St. John's.
December 16, 2012 10:51
Brian Carey said...
Thanks for this information and forum. It's great we can have more information on this and some time chill. I'm sure we can come up with a balanced outcome on this issue where all concerns are addressed. Brian Carey
December 15, 2012 08:01
Thanks Dave and to Happy City for attempting the dialogue. My efforts as City Councillor to rethink and open up this issue after insufficient information was given to both Council and the public. Again, I will state that I feel hoodwinked into the original decision, more information came forward after the fact and there was little or no information granted on the extent of the fence, the permanence of it and evidence of the real need for this particular type of security. Is this a 21st century solution to improved security? That dialogue has still not happened. What about a balance, a vision for the harbourfront? I am being ridiculed within City Council for both exposing this issue, discussing it openly and frankly I feel that the public need to know what is going on. At present, this Monday, Dec.17th at 4:30 p.m. I am tabling a Motion to rescind Council's decision to contribute $425,000 of our citizens taxpayer dollars towards the costing of this fence. The St. John's Port Authority is a financially self-sustaining , commercial enterprise under Federal jurisdiction and the public should not have to contribute their tax dollars towards a fence that will lock the public out from their own harbourfront. Perhaps needless to say if you have been following the media on this, but it is being met with hostility by many of my colleagues. I have also been inappropriately ridiculed by a colleague via social media. Having said all that, I will continue to do what my elected position dictates, which is to represent the needs and desires of the public that voted me in. I kindly ask that the CBC radio's "On the Go" interview with the Mayor of Owen Sound also be posted on the Happy City site, as it demonstrates a very similar situation that their Mayor describes as a big mistake and a waste of money. Information is only forthcoming as John H. has referenced because it is being solicited and demanded at the 23rd hour. There is nothing in any of these documents that dictates that we need a permanent fence. Thank you for your public engagement efforts! Keep up the good work. Cheers, Sheilagh
December 15, 2012 07:39
Dave Hopley said...
Thanks to Happy City for your ongoing efforts at creating a balanced dialogue on this issue - and especially for pointing out the need for St John's to create a viable vision and plan for the harbour in its entirety. Keep up the good work, Dave Hopley
December 15, 2012 06:16
Mark Wilson said...
Guys, Keep researching.....
December 14, 2012 03:55
Joy Hecht said...
I find it rather interesting that the date on the letter from Transport Canada to the Port Authority is December 10, 2012 - six months after we first heard about the fence. Clearly it was solicited as a response to the furor over the fence, rather than being the reason for the fence in the first place. I'll be happy to help you folks with digging into the documents. Please contact me offline - you've got my email address.
December 14, 2012 03:05


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