Published here September 2017


Musings Index

Project: A Simple Stairway to, Well, Trouble
A Case Study of an Actual Simple Project - Part 1

In some Canadian towns it is quite common for public-spirited, and often elderly, people to help the environment by sequestering pockets of unused and otherwise weed growing public land for purposes of growing local food and flowers. Mostly, the responsible individuals keep the products of their labors for themselves of course, but not always. This practice is very evident in a stretch of ex-railway land running south of Vancouver, close to where I used to live. In summer, these initiatives make the adjacent tracks for dog-walking, jogging and cycling, most interesting and attractive.

Something similar is evident not all that far from where I now live, just North of Toronto. However, apparently such progressive public participatory practices can be hazardous, and raise the ire of local officialdom. Here's a case in point. Part of a local city park was assigned to locals for growing vegetables and the like, and very productive that area seems to be. But unfortunately, a more convenient and commonly used access is off to one corner — down a rather steep bank.

According to the record published in one of Canada's National News papers[1], a local senior got fed up over some eight years with watching other seniors scramble up and down this slippery slope, especially in adverse weather conditions. True, at some time someone had set up some sort of rope guide for the slope's challengers. But clearly this was not good enough in the light of undignified descents — to say nothing of a few falls and even a broken wrist.

So, our bright and perceptive 73-year young senior suggested to the local council that they build a few steps on the slope. Nothing world-class you understand, just a few plain steps, say eight or nine, to stretch half-a-dozen feet down the somewhat steep earth bank. This would be not unlike the sort of thing that normal homeowners might create in their own backyards. The purpose would be to provide easier access to the vegetable garden for other elderly gardeners.

Well, it transpired that the official city department of the local council replied that this was simply not on. After all such, such a project might cost anywhere between $60,000 to $150,000. Of course, that's Canadian dollars, you understand. Needless to say, our 73-year senior was dumbfounded by the cost estimate, but not discouraged. Instead, he promptly went out and bought a few 2x4s, nails and other bits and pieces, hired a local homeless man for assistance, and built the set of stairs himself.

According to the record, that cost him around $550 and fourteen hours of labor. Assuming labor at the minimum wage of $15 per hour — that would amount to a total of about $760. Perceptive readers will immediately observe that his actual cost was a little shy of one-eightieth of the local council's lowest estimated cost.

Think of the saving to local taxpayers, to say nothing of the improvement of safety and enhancement of the local environment. Clearly, this initiative was a triumph of assertive project management.

But that's not the end of the story. Word soon got back to the local council of the execution and completion of this project. Needless to say, they were horrified — and then the Mayor got involved who opined: "We just can't have people decide to go out to Home Depot and build a staircase in a park because that's what they would like to have."[2]

Our reporter of the newspaper article went even further, putting it nicely by adding:

"Of course they can't. Letting citizens do useful and obvious things in their own neighborhoods, at extreme savings because that's what they would like to do ... what a horror. Why, that reeks of initiative, neighborhood pride, resourcefulness, enterprise, community spirit, and trimming the city's public works budget!"

A brief arm-chair project risk assessment finds that the continuing use of the slope, but in the absence of steps, represented a serious hazard. That is, there would be a big and highly likely risk of a serious fall by some aged person at some time in the future. Such an event, requiring hospital attention, could cost significantly more than even the highest council estimate.

But then, that cost would likely be a charge against a budget of a different government department.

1. The National Post, July 22, 2017, pA17
2. According to the newspaper report.
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