Monday, May 25, 2015

Truthiness reigns in newsrooms

The London Free Press article claims the reflective markers found on fire hydrants in London, Ontario, are shaped like the Maltese cross. One look at a picture of a Maltese cross confirms this isn't true. Without a doubt, the blue marker shown is not shaped like the Maltese cross. What cross, if any, inspires so many of the firefighter emblems in North America? The answer: the cross of St. Florian.

The cross of Saint Florian, used by firefighters, is often confused with the Maltese cross; although it may have eight or more points, it also has large curved arcs between. The cross of St. Florian is widely used by fire services to form their emblem. -- Hudson, New Hampshire, Fire Department and others and others.

When I read the questionable reference to the Maltese cross in the paper, I immediately contacted the paper. I posted my correction as a comment below the story. All comments must be vetted before being published. I thought the comment would make the newsroom aware of the confusion and the story would be corrected

London Professional Firefighter Association
Why did I believe the cross was misnamed? Because, I used to work at The Free Press and I used to visit local fire halls to take pictures for the paper. It was on one of those assignments that I learned it was a common myth that the firefighter symbol is the Maltese cross. Simply not true, a London firefighter told me.

Think about it, he said, the Maltese cross is sharply pointed. The cross in question is gently curved. The London symbol is based on the cross of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, he said.

And the London Fire Department is not alone in using the cross of St. Florian. Numerous fire departments across North America use a form of this symbol. Even the International Association of Fire Fighters is on board.

Which cross do you see in the IAFF emblem?
The funny thing is many of the fire fighting organizations don't know their St. Florian cross from their Maltese cross. It is a common error.

I believe the London firefighter. Despite the claims of others, I'm sure he is right. The reflective markers in use in London are not the Maltese cross but the cross of St. Florian.

Admittedly, there is a connection between the Maltese cross and firefighters. There are badges in use that are decorated with the true, sharply pointed Maltese cross or a clear derivative. Many of these are in use in Canada.

Did the newspaper remove the questionable history lesson from the article? No. And they didn't post my comment either. Somewhere there is a London firefighter shaking his head.

Left to right: Maltese cross, reflective marker in London, cross of St. Florian

Why is the wrongful identification of a firefighter symbol worth a blog post? Because this is about more than one very small mistake. This post touches on a very big problem affecting newspapers and all other media outlets: truthiness.

Mark-A-Hydrant reflectors in shape of cross of St. Florian.
This is a word coined by comedian and former host of the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert. A news story with the quality of truthiness rings true. But being truthy doen not mean it is necessarily facty.

Something that has truthiness seems true, it feels right, it may even have the support of some trusted sources⁠—but dig deep and it will become clear that the statement is not true. In fact, it might be complete balderdash.

"Facts" that are actually balderdash crop up all too often in the media. Once an error is reported as truth and then reported again and again in newspaper article after newspaper article, repeated on television newscasts and radio reports, the error takes on a patina of truthiness.

For an example, think of the UFFI scare. Today it is known to have been balderdash. Yet, the myth is stronger than the truth and even newspapers that have carried the opposing view at one time or other, still fall back on the myth. Colbert was quite right: truthy wins over facty.

I contacted the paper on the weekend about the neither-here-nor-there error of misidentifying the cross of Saint Florian. The common error is still in the story and it is in my Monday morning paper. Sad, but no big deal.

Newspaper columnist admits fear and anxiety overblown.
But the UFFI error is a big deal. At the time the original UFFI story broke, I had proof the story was wrong. On one assignment a scientist from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment told the reporter I was with that my take on UFFI was correct. The scientist backed me up.

Did folk at the paper look at my documents? No. Did the professional journalists examine any of the evidence I gathered? No. The adherence of the media to truthiness and not fact financially damaged thousands of innocent people across North America.

Some months back the local paper ran an article on rebranding. The article illustrated the strength of rebranding with a story on rebranding in action. The illustrative story was nothing more than truthiness.

When I confronted a reporter from the paper about this, the reporter told me that the illustrative story didn't have to be true; it only had to illustrate something that we all know to be true. Stephen Colbert would be proud.

Truthiness causes big problems and that's the truth.

If you are thinking of sending a comment and getting into an argument over the correct name for the cross that inspired so many of the firefighter symbols in North America, please click the link and read the post titled The Maltese vs. Florian cross: Which one is correct?

FireRescue1states The Florian cross is often confused with the Maltese cross. But it is the Florian cross that is used by the majority of fire departments in the States.

Whether it is claims about UFFI or claims about the symbolism of a cross, it seems a claim does not always need to be true. Far too many journalists believe a good story should never go unreported but it can go unquestioned.

I will leave the last word to the American Township Fire Department:

  • Look at the shape of the ATFD patch. Many call it the Maltese cross when in actuality it is known as the cross of Saint Florian, the Patron Saint of Fire Fighters.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Celebrating the Thames

Even without a working dam, Londoners enjoy visiting their river.

Years ago I wrote a feature for The London Free Press called Celebrate the Thames. At the time, the move to have the river declared a heritage river was gaining traction and the folk running the paper were in favour. They thought this assignment was tailor-made for a photographer willing to write as well. I was a staff photographer and, as luck would have it, I was given the assignment.

In the time I wrote about the river I came to appreciate not only the Thames but all rivers. Furthermore, I came to admire the enthused folk who were pursuing the dream of having the Thames honoured with the heritage designation. Today, those visionaries have seen their dream realized: the Thames is a Canadian Heritage River.

The Thames River is not a large, mighty river. In fact, just an hour outside London, the river is small enough that a young boy can straddle it. Yet, its small size can be deceiving; it meanders some 270 km through Southern Ontario before emptying into Lake St. Clair. Originally the river ran through rich, and rare for Canada, Carolinean forest in which tulip, pawpaw, Kentucky coffee, and sassafras trees could all be found. Some of the wildlife and fish species in the Thames watershed were equally rare in Canada.

To celebrate the Thames is to respect its true nature and the important role the river plays in the unique ecology of Southern Ontario. A dam, like the one temporarily out of commission at the west end of Springbank Park in London, does not belong on our heritage river. A damn like this says residents living alongside the river are out of tune with nature and have turned their backs on the river.

According to The London Free Press:

The (Springbank) dam plays no role in flood protection, instead it keeps water levels higher in the river during summertime, which is a crucial part of the city's new Downtown Master Plan focusing on many riverside amenities. (Like canoeing, I assume.)
"For it to be that attraction, and be that experience, that higher water level really is important," says John Fleming, city planner.

Clearly, the City of London plans on turning the river in its core back into a reservoir but acting as if it is celebrating the river. In truth, the city and city planners like John Fleming are celebrating a reservoir. They are celebrating the presence of high water backed up by the dam and sitting almost stagnant, thick with algae at the forks.

Kayakers paddling on Thames inspite of damaged dam.
I would encourage the city planning department to get their thinking out of the past and into the present. Dams are no longer seen as win-win structures. There are environmental prices to be paid and these can be steep. When a free-running, more natural river is dammed, its flow impeded, water quality, fish numbers, and wildlife composition can all suffer.

The failure of the Springbank Dam some years ago has made it very clear that the river is much healthier without the structure. It is time to consider the alternative to the dam: a free running river.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Warning: Contactless Credit Cards Not Completely Secure

My wife and I use a credit card with the PayPass feature. Tap the card on the reader, the green lights glow momentarily, there's a beep and the purchase is paid for. Fast, easy and possibly not secure.

My wife was paying for a purchase today and the the card reader flashed and beeped while my wife's card was still inches distant. The clerk said that the store card reader was more powerful than most and was causing some customers a little grief. Occasionally, the reader would complete a transaction while the customer's card was still in the customer's purse. If the customer has two cards and both have RFID, radio frequency identification, sometimes the wrong card is activated.

The clerk told us she knew a lady who, after pumping gas, got her card out to pay for her purchase. When she walked by the next pump, her card connected with that pump's card reader. She almost paid for a stranger's gas.

If I hadn't seen my wife's card talk almost remotely to a store card reader, I'd have found the gas pump story more urban legend than truth. But after what I witnessed, I'm not so sure how secure these RFID cards really are.

Check out the story posted by CBC News: New credit cards pose security problem.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Balderdash weakens Brian Meehan claims

Was discarding river-blue colour an act of cultural heritage vandalism?

A few years ago, The London Free Press carried an opinion piece by Larry Cornies examining the Back to the River project: a move to reconnect the river to the city and to celebrate The Forks of the Thames. The claim is that this is something that has not been done in the recent past.

Have they forgotten the thinking behind the Raymond Moriyama-designed art gallery erected at The Forks in the late '70s and opened in 1980. Based on comments by Museum London executive director Brian Meehan, the short answer is "yes"; they have forgotten.

View of The Forks from the Moriyama art gallery in London.
Cornies reports, at the launch of the Back to the River design competition, Meehan claimed the present museum and gallery was built with its back to the river. It was designed to face the city, he said.

He was wrong. It wasn't designed that way at all.

Meehan went on to reveal the museum’s board is contemplating how to best accomplish an institutional about-face in terms of the building’s symbolic and physical orientation.

In truth, the present design was the result of public consultation. "Hundreds of questionnaires were distributed," according to an article in The Free Press published at the time of the opening. "In many ways, the gallery is a physical manifestation of the people and the process," said famous Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama.

For inspiration, Moriyama did a lot of walking about The Forks. One result of those walks was the original water-blue colour of the structure, inspired by the oh-so-near river. The design of the building and its site placement was driven by the need to recognize and enhance the beautiful location, The Forks itself.

Wolf Garden above Forks at gallery.
According to Randy Richmond, an award-winning reporter for The Free Press, the art gallery/museum was "designed to bridge The Forks of the Thames to the edge of downtown. It was a gateway from downtown to the river . . . " Moriyama himself said he made a conscious "attempt to erase any sense of front" from the design.

So much for the executive director's claim that the gallery was built with its back to the river.

Is any of this important? Yes, if London's built heritage is important. The wonderful Moriyama building didn't turn its back on The Forks and on London; London turned its back on the building.

Randy Richmond said it very well when he wrote:

Raymond Moriyama's original design evoked the river, the historical significance of the forks and the buildings around. The large arches were painted blue to evoke the river and inside was an airy fan design.
A reflecting pool in the lower gallery extended outside to a fountain and the water was to flow from the fountain to a stream that led to the river.

Citing finances, the city rejected the fountain and stream. The reflecting pool was built, but eventually filled in. After the blue panels atop the aches rusted, they were replaced with grey aluminum ones. (The dynamic fan shapes in the arches disappeared, as well.)

With the release of The London Plan, the city planning department is promising to "protect our built and cultural heritage." Despite being but 35 years old, the Moriyama art gallery/museum at The Forks is part of London's built and cultural heritage.

Heritage properties don’t have to be old. There are newer buildings and structures all across the province that have cultural heritage value because of their design, cultural associations or contribution to a broader context. 
Strengthening Ontario's Heritage: Identify, Protect, Promote (page 7)

I don't understand how those operating the art gallery, running a safe house for culture, can change the colour of a work of art, and make no mistake about it, the Moriyama building is a work of art. Possibly Meehan and the board should be contemplating making their own about-face when it comes to their thinking concerning the now pavement grey art gallery.
The gallery/museum was previously featured by this blogger in a post titled simply: The Gallery.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

First floor commercial adds walkabilty

Commercial on first floor of Arlington apartment buildings adds walkability.
Although it must be admitted that not all apartment buildings in Arlington, Virginia, have commercial on their first floors, it is not unknown. Mixing commercial and residential in one building was common in the past.

I recall one building in Detroit had a massive theatre on the ground floor mixed with some retail businesses. Above there were offices. There was even a dental office. Finally, the top floors contained some apartments.

A similar mix can still be found in Arlington, Virginia, and it works as well today as did decades ago. The area pictured above garnered a Walk Score of 95. This is a walker's paradise.

Yet in London pure apartment buildings are still being erected with retail businesses located nearby but not within.

There are two new luxury apartment towers on Southdale Road east of Colonel Talbot. In a place like Vancouver where land is valuable, the first floor would be commercial.  In London, where land should be valuable but isn't, the building sits in the middle of a commercial area but is not truly integrated into it.

The result is more sprawl than necessary and a lower Walk Score. When last I checked the Walk Score was only 50 for these new buildings despite being located near banks, drugstores, restaurants and more

I expect this number to climb as more businesses are opened in the strip malls surrounding the apartment towers but with a few changes these towers could have been world class places to live. As it is they are simply very, very nice for London, Ontario.

Sidewalks not always found on the most walkable streets

Many equate sidewalks with walkability. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sidewalks are nice, no argument, but putting new sidewalks where there are no destinations -- like stores, schools or parks -- does not transform the street into a wallker's paradise thanks to the addition of the pedestrian pavement.

Note the residential street above in Leeuarden, Netherlands. This street rates a Walk Score of 92 despite lacking sidewalks and dedicating a huge amount of roadway to parked cars. Space for walking is tight.

Why does a street, clearly unfit for walking, rate such a lofty score? Location, location, location. Almost everything a person needs is within a 20 minute walk -- even sidewalks.

Maybe the urban planners in London, Ontario, could learn from the Leeuarden experience.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Almere New City, Netherlands: ReThink in action

This street in The Hague, Netherlands, lacks sidewalks.

It was called ReThink London. It was a bust. All that was new was the moniker. So far it seems the new London, Ontario, will simply be more of the old London, Ontario. The changes to the city, and there will be some, will be the ones to be expected. ReThink contained no surprises.

If one wants to view a city with a true ReThink approach, check out Almere New City in the Netherlands. It has been reported that Dutch planners and architects consider the Almere New City plan and its urban form to be unique. There is little unique in London now or on the drawing board for the future.

If interested in knowing a little more about Almere New City, please click the link. The author of the piece, Mirela Newman, contends that Almere could be used as an example to follow by both new town planners throughout the world, and for the development and redevelopment of old and new subdivisions and districts already in existence.

Be warned, a tour of Almere New City using Google Street Views did not convince me that the designers of Almere had it totally right. Oddly enough, I personally still see the South Walkerville neighbourhoods developed in Windsor, Ontario, in the early part of the last century as just about perfect for the time. The area was very walkable with some streets bordered by sidewalks and others left totally without. Some streets originally lacked curbs but over the years curbs have appeared almost everywhere in the area.

If the neighbourhood in which I now live, Byron in London, had sidewalks through the wooded areas to link commercial shopping areas with residential areas, Byron would be a very fine example of good urban design. Sadly, Byron is being developed more in the style of a '50s suburban neighbourhood but with the addition of some box stores and some highrises on a major thoroughfare.

Woonerf fine downtown but not outside the core

Art showing imaginary curbless street in downtown London.
Three years ago The London Free Press interviewed Bob Usher, president of the Downtown London Business Association and Joel Adams, a Downtown London board member. Both were in favour of making Dundas Street a "woonerf" or a shared street.

A shared street integrates pedestrian activities and vehicular traffic. No segregating sidewalks and no curbs are allowed. The shared street approach has proven to be very adaptable and examples can now be found around the globe.

Fast forward to today and the paper is reporting that a quiet street, where kids play road hockey, where car traffic in an hour can be counted on one hand, a street that has existed for decades without sidewalks and without complaints, must now lose some trees, some front yard space and some driveway length to make room for a sidewalk. This is happening over the protests of the residents.

A suburban street with neither curbs nor sidewalks in action.
The neighbourhood ward councillor, Stephen Turner, is pushing for sidewalks. According to the paper, he believes the city’s newest urban planning approach, ReThink London, demands walkable streets, and to Turner walkable mean sidewalks.

If ReThink London was about anything, it was about thinking outside the Southwest Ontario urban planning box. True ReThinking leads to thinking about woonerfs, home zones, naked streets. Mr. Turner is missing the core ReThink message.

Studies show a drop in the number of traffic accidents when a naked street replaces a street with curbs and sidewalks. Installed in suitable locations, naked streets are both walkable and safe.

What will the sidewalk on Auburn Ave. cost? What would a naked street tailored to the needs of Auburn Avenue residents cost? Let's put on those ReThink London thinking caps and come up with an original solution.

One final caveat: a successful naked street demands consultation. Naked streets are not created over the objections of residents.

Roads without sidewalks can encourage a rich mix of uses.

Comment left on Shift London Website: Moving London Forward – Time to ReThink Mobility