Just before our book launch started in August of 2018, Melissa took time to interview her then colleague, Shoni Madden for a Women in Urbanism profile. Now that life has settled down a full eight months, one cross-Atlantic move and one birth later - between the two ladies respectively - here is the result of that interview!
Anyone who becomes involved in efforts to improve the quality of life in their cities often begins their journey with a revelation that builds into a passion. For Shoni Madden, a Sustainable Transportation Planner at Urban Systems Ltd., her story starts with just that. As a co-op planning student for the City of Winnipeg, working for the Red River Valley Clean Energy Coalition - a non-profit bringing together organizations working in alternative fuels and vehicles for knowledge sharing - Shoni connected with a number of talented and knowledgeable professionals. “The experience really solidified it in my heart my love for the transportation side of planning,” she reveals.
But it was following graduation, when she joined Climate Action Connection to help communities develop Community Climate Change Action Plans where she realized the power for change that can be held within even a small group of people. Her work was focused on helping communities identify actions they could take - setting up composting, transportation related ideas, etc. - to help reduce their carbon footprint and turning them into plans. Seeing how people would come together for a positive goal helped her realize the potential she could have in her own community.
Changing How Winnipeggers Move
“I think working in the government and for non-profits pushed me to really want to do something that would actually create change in my city,” Shoni explains. “Being involved in the car share I learned that you don’t have to wait for government to do something for you.”
Not having a car herself, Shoni already knew it was possible to get around Winnipeg through a combination of walking, biking or taking public transportation, but she also knew that for some journeys, a car makes the most sense. But she didn’t want to own one herself, understanding the financial burden that often comes with car ownership. So she came together with seven like-minded volunteers to begin planning a cooperative car share business in her city. “I knew it had the potential to completely change the way people travel in Winnipeg - and it really has!” PegCity Car Co-op has grown from 3 to 30 cars and 1000 members since it’s launch in June of 2011.
Several year, and three children later, Shoni and her husband Sean are practicing what they preach, living car-lite and reaping the intangible rewards of traveling around their city sustainably. “Because we don’t have a car we are on foot or on bike a lot and I feel like our girls already have a very strong sense of local landmarks,” Shoni reflects of her routine walking daily with her eldest and middle daughter to school and day care. “It may not seem like a lot to some, 3 blocks, but it takes me about 25 minutes with my two year old. It’s kind of like a spiritual journey for me thought. It teaches me a lot about patience,” she muses, “but there’s also a lot of important conversations that happen to and from school and I feel like it’s a good decompressing time at the end of the day and I hope it’s something that we can keep up as they get older.”
Safe Transportation for Our Most Vulnerable
Perhaps foreshadowing her life as a parent, back in the early days of planning PegCity, Shoni moved from Climate Change Connection to the Green Action Centre (GAC) and turned her focus to School Travel Planning. An international program focused on improving sustainable options for school children’s trips to and from school, Shoni was the Manitoba representative for the national pilot program, adapting a model used in places like the United Kingdom and Australia for the Canadian context. She split her time between working with colleagues across Canada to develop the national plan and working wit twelve schools within Manitoba in rural, urban and First Nations communities, each with unique challenges.
“The first thing you notice are the subtle differences between a suburban community and working in a more grid like community with sidewalks on both sides of the street,” Shoni acknowledges. “I saw how families got involved differently and how the initiatives they wanted to take on were quite different.” She quickly realized that finding parents to volunteer is easier in more affluent communities, with larger numbers of stay-at-home parents, whereas in other communities, it was important to partner with groups like the local Boys and Girls Club or event the church in more rural communities.
“We always tried to find local partners to help support the program. Every case is unique so you’re always going into your back of tricks to see which one is going to work,” Shoni admits. “But I still haven’t found two communities that want the same thing – of course there are similarities that most schools want like bike parking and setting up walking groups – but the mechanics of setting that up are really different”
She found the work exciting, having the opportunity to create something new and evolving and adapting it as they went along. “It was a really empowering process to be involved with. I really loved it so I stayed on for another six years trying to help find funding and do that work in Manitoba, something other provinces were not able to do.” In 2017, her work locally connected her with Brian Patterson at Urban Systems, where she has been able to continue her work with schools while exploring new ways to bring sustainability to cities looking to change.
Temporary Transformations for Lasting Change
Some her latest work has delved into the world of tactical urbanism, a movement she had first explored at the GAC, participating in the international PARK(ing) Day, rain or shine. “I remember one year in particular that we found out the day before that it was going to be pouring rain for the event and we quickly changed our set up into a fishing hole – we had a portable radio and a pool with some play fish in it and fishing rods and we just made a go of it.”
Seeing the reaction to the transformations she has worked on over the years, Shoni has seen the immense potential that comes from showing people what is possible for otherwise underutilized spaces. She has heard the conversations that are sparked, and the relationships that are forged, simply by making a temporary change to a space. This seemingly culminated in a project she organized with her colleague Mike Wakely and members of 880 Cities during the 2018 CIP Conference in Winnipeg.
Together, they ran a workshop explaining the potential tactical urbanism can have for the public engagement process in showing rather than just telling people what has been proposed for their city. Then in the afternoon, they quickly transformed a parking lot in the historic Exchange District into a temporary outdoor lounge, creating a gathering space not just for that evening but also used for the conference gala the following evening. “I always feel good on those days when I can get my hands dirty creating a temporary space and then take people through what something like a pop-up bike lane or a transformed space can look like. It’s really empowering.”
Whether school travel planning or tactical urbanism, Shoni recognizes that in order to sustain the changes she is helping communities to realize, they can’t just be one-offs. It’s what drives her to keep pushing her colleagues and her city to think differently.
“What I’ve learned is that if you really want to transform a space that has a long-term vision it can’t be just a one-time event. You want to be involved in rethinking and planning the future of your city,” Shoni emphasizes. “There are a lot of conversations happening here in Winnipeg right now because of the amount of surface area that’s dedicated to parking. In our prime areas of the city, what does that say about us?”
For that reason, Shoni believes she will always be an ambassador for positive change in her city, volunteering wherever she can to inspire the potential she knows is there. She has learned about the power even a small group of volunteers can have through the creation of PegCity and through all her work since then, and she isn’t stopping anytime soon. “Now I know that I don’t have to wait for politician or for an enthusiastic client to line up with these ideas. I know I can reach out to people in my community and actually make change. I’ll always be a forever-volunteer in my city!”