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Teaching City has big plans for the year ahead

Mayor John Henry speaks during the launch of the Teaching City initiative in June 2017. Following budget approval, several projects connected to the initiative are now moving ahead.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

With a dedicated chunk of cash, a new city program is hoping that community collaboration is the name of the game in order to position the City of Oshawa to be a model municipality in the country in terms of urban innovation.

The Teaching City’s Initiative is a partnership between the city and a number post-secondary institutions, aimed at studying and discovering ways to improve the future of municipalities. Involved in the partnership along with Oshawa are Durham College, Trent University Durham, UOIT, the University of Toronto and the Canadian Urban Institute.

In June of 2017, the city signed into the memorandum of understanding with the partnering organizations with the stated concept of “establishing Oshawa as a centre of urban innovation.”

According to a recent city report, the main initiatives for the project to date have been opportunities to share the idea with others. In 2017, the city presented the collaborative effort to the Durham Summit, the Council of Ontario Universities through an event hosted by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, and a presentation at the second annual Intelligent Cities Summit.

In terms of practical programs, the first initiative undertaken involved a partnership with UOIT to create the city’s first Diversity and Inclusion Plan, a document that was presented and approved by council in late 2017.

The initiative received a bit of discussion from councillors during budget time as they debated the $130,000 budget for the program over the course of 2018.

During deliberations, Councillor Amy McQuaid-England attempted to put extra resources toward the program, proposing an addition of $30,000 in order to create a study to look at the city’s growing issues around the number of rats and rodents and to add further partners to the project.

“The whole purpose of the teaching city initiative is to be open to the partners that want to come on board and do things for our city,” she said. “This is something that could be very innovative and help us deal with the rat issue in our city.”

However, other councillors weren’t so sure, fearing that the added scope would take away from the projects already slated for the coming year.

“If you try to be everything, you’re nothing,” said Councillor Rick Kerr.

And while McQuaid-England’s proposal was eventually voted down, with only Councillors Doug Sanders and John Neal throwing their backing behind it, there are a number of things slated to become part of the teaching city program in 2018.

According to a report from city manager Jag Sharma, the $130,000 budget will be used for a research project on the quality of the water in the city’s stormwater management ponds, along with participation in a pair of national programs, including the World Council of City Data, and the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI).

This involvement in the MNAI is the most costly item on the teaching city to-do list, coming with a $40,000 price tag. The MNAI is an organization that provides expertise to support the work of municipalities and guidance on ways to identify and value their natural assets. Oshawa, selected as one of five cities in Canada to take part in the project in 2018, will be deploying assets to study Oshawa Second Marsh along with adding natural assets to its asset management plan.

The study of the city’s stormwater ponds, coming with a $25,000 price tag, will involve work alongside UOIT and possibly the University of Toronto, and will focus on the water quality in approximately 15 of the city’s stormwater ponds.

“The findings of this research will be used by staff to help inform future maintenance requirements and design criteria,” a city report reads.

In terms of cost, the city will provide in-kind support for the research, along with the fee to support graduate students to undertake the work and any monitoring equipment required.

Finally, as part of the program, the city will be hosting a “Hackathon” this Saturday, March 3.

The Hackathon will be a chance for post-secondary students with numerous educational backgrounds to discover “real work experience all while enriching their educational experience and offering creative proposals for the city,” says Mayor John Henry.

“This project embodies what the teaching city initiative strives to accomplish, continuous improvement and innovation as a way of meeting its challenges and the needs of the community.”

Throughout the course of the Hackathon, students will be looking for solutions to a number of issues, including looking for ways to ease access to city-approved/inspected rental housing, improved enforcement and licensing of suitable housing, ways to encourage more responsible landlords and tenants, and looking for better ways of educating landlords and tenants on their rights and responsibilities.

The Hackathon is set to take place March 3, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., starting in the Gordon Willey Building at Durham College.

A number of other projects are currently sitting on the table, but haven’t been stamped for approval to date. These items include an air quality analysis along the urban streets of Oshawa, participation in the Future Cities Network, and the creation of a teaching city “innovation lab” pilot project.