Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Value of Comparative Studies

    Last month I took a two-week trip to Barcelona and Tarragona, Spain. Supposedly I was on vacation, but I couldn’t get Thunder Bay out of my head. It seems to be the prerogative of every artist to compare, to be aware, and to want change for the better. 
     Change for the better was for Northrope Frye, our once eminent literary critic, a key element in determining the value of literature as every writer (whether they were conscious of it or not) to improve society in some manner. Frye said one way you could determine an artist’s worth was based on how much positive change they made in society. Not easy to do.
     Thunder Bay has lots of advantages over other cities in terms of our closeness to nature, to the waterfront, to great parks, campgrounds, small lakes, great hiking, fishing, hunting and on and on. In terms of attracting tourists and keeping young people here and making our city more community based we could be doing better. We need more public spaces to congregate and interact. We need to better beautify our downtown cores. We have great waterfront property that could be put to amazing use with some thought and effort. Happily, Thunder Bay is well on its way. 
     Twenty years ago Barcelona was known as an unattractive port for the shipping industry. The port is still filled with thousands and thousands of cargo containers where massive cranes sit on an extensive rail systems. You can see it all from Monjuic’s castle. It’s an amazing sight.
     Everywhere in Barcelona I saw opportunities for Thunder Bay. Although Barcelona is a much bigger city, has a better climate (if you’re not a fan of long winters) and is much older (which attracts tourists), there are similarities to Thunder Bay. Like Thunder Bay, Barcelona is close to nature and has an extensive waterfront. Albeit the natural surroundings have different properties, the sea is warmer than our lake and pigs roam around like our deer on Mission Island (so you shouldn’t feed the pigs), we are like a mini-Barcelona of the North.
     My father was a professor of political science at Lakehead University and he did extensive comparative studies of northern health care systems in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia, in order to learn what might improve health care in our region. 20 years on his research papers are still studied by students at LU. When he got the job as founding president of the University of Northern British Columbia he worked with an architect to design a university that would be more appropriately suited for the northern climate. He had to ditch Joseph Cardinal’s design proposal because Cardinal was more concerned about aesthetics and his legacy than function, and my father, knowing first hand about a lot of the problems our university had in our climate had to hire an architect who was more open minded to actual weather conditions, and more, like women’s safety on campus, easy access from one building to the next (including residences) during winter, etc. The result is that UNBC is a fabulous little university specially designed for the north.
     So, there I was in Barcelona, supposedly on a vacation, but taking photos like mad, not so much because I was a tourist, but because I was thinking like an artist, and had inherited my father's understanding of the value of comparative studies. I was constantly wondering what could be transposed from Barcelona to Thunder Bay.    
     And man, what an explosion of crazy ideas I had. I think we should build a castle in Thunder Bay! Yes, a castle. And I'm serious. The surprise that you just had reading that last line is the surprise that most anyone would have when they found out that Thunder Bay was building a castle. There is no such thing around here. It would be a great attraction and useful if built with our community in mind. Or, we could have a massive and fun park, like Park Güell, a park designed by Antonio Gaudi. We have lots of artist who could come up with fantastic designs, sculptures, mosaics, etc. and have it as an add-on to Centennial or Chippewa Park. Barcelona even had a strange micro-city, Poble Espanyol, built in 1929 as part of the World's Fair. It's an open-air museum that could be emulated here in the North, maybe with a focus on first nation tribes in the area. Come to think of it, the castle could be a mix of European and First Nation influences. It could be awesome. 
     Anyway, crazy ideas aside, even the smallest and most practical ideas are worth comparing. How we live in comparison to others, and stealing ideas from anywhere we like could be a great thing for our city.

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