Friday, July 21, 2017

Etobicoke "park stairs" story is a perfect example of the crass, reactionary, anti-regulatory nonsense that led to the Grenfell disaster

Photo from twitter via Shannon McKarney‏ 
By now almost everyone in  Toronto would have heard the story of newly minted Etobicoke folk hero  Adi Astl and how he built stairs quickly in a park for only $500 when city officials said building the stairs would cost $65,000 or more.

Astl allegedly hired a "homeless person" and in just a few hours presto! There were stairs down to the community garden. Take that "bureaucracy".

And, of course, all of the reactionary local media and pundits, as well as many members of the general public, scored this as a victory for the little guy that showed if we just got rid of all the "red tape", let folks like Astl and the private sector take charge, we could have all the things the city needed built faster and cheaper and he just proved it.

Except, of course, he did no such thing. All he proved is that anyone who paid no regard whatsoever to important safety or accessibility regulations, to such minor details as making sure the stairs have a proper foundation so that they won't collapse after a few months while being used by someone, to the stairs' longevity, or to the use of proper building materials for a public stairway, could build a visibly crappy and unsafe set of stairs in a short period of time for a relatively small sum of money.

The stairs he built are not remotely akin to an acceptable set and this is transparently obvious with even a cursory look at any photos of them. If a contractor built those for me in my backyard I would refuse to pay them.

The media pictures were kind to these stairs (they had their ideological reasons for this I suspect) and even in those they look like junk. If you turn to sources that provided more revealing reporting and photos of the stairs, such as a thread posted by Shannon McKarney‏ on twitter, you see that the stairs are clearly dangerous. They would not pass any number of essential city codes that, you know, want to ensure you are unlikely to permanently injure yourself or die using them.

They would also be totally impossible to use for people with accessibility issues and you have to step over a parking barrier to get to them! They are a total joke.

In spite of this Mayor John Tory actually thanked Astl for "taking a stand on this issue" and he was also de facto applauded by his local Councillor, the singularly ineffective and forgettable seat warmer Justin Di Ciano.


Right wing politicians and the mainstream media love stories like this that they can frame as showing that "initiative" and "getting things done" are being strangled by regulations, unions, bureaucrats, etc.

After all, if the city would allow folks like Astl and private companies to use the ultra cheap labour of "homeless people", ignore all the "red tape" and "just do it" we could have dangerous stairs to everywhere tomorrow and they would cost the taxpayers so much less money.

Wouldn't that be great?

There is a direct line from this thinking to the agenda of deregulation that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster that killed so many in London last month. In the United Kingdom governments waged war on so-called "burdensome regulations" for a generation to lower costs and "free" the private sector. As the New York Times noted:
Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.

George Monbiot put it even more clearly in the Guardian:
For years successive governments have built what they call a bonfire of regulations. They have argued that “red tape” impedes our freedom and damages productivity. Britain, they have assured us, would be a better place with fewer forms to fill in, fewer inspections and less enforcement.
But what they call red tape often consists of essential public protections that defend our lives, our futures and the rest of the living world. The freedom they celebrate is highly selective: in many cases it means the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit their workers, landlords to exploit their tenants and industry of all kinds to use the planet as its dustbin. As RH Tawney remarked, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”
When politicians, columnists and the media in Toronto applaud the construction of a visibly incompetent set of stairs in a park this is the agenda that they are doing it to reinforce.

Should properly constructed, safe, accessible, concrete stairs in this specific park that meet regulations and that are built using experts and properly compensated workers cost $65,000 or more? To be honest I don't know as I am no more an expert than the mayor or any number of pontificating columnists are. But I do know I would rather have them cost that than have substandard, inaccessible stairs installed that end up killing or harming someone just to save the city an amount of money that in the scheme of things is tiny.

And make no mistake that if these folks had their way costs would absolutely be cut through the elimination of such pesky things as safety and accessibility regulations. If they could combine this with slashing labour costs by destroying the city's unions and paying workers substandard wages or by contracting work out to companies with dubious labour practices (and there are lots of these in the construction or building sector) all the better.

Sadly, they also convince many members of the public with simple-minded narratives that the regulations meant to protect them are actually somehow a bad thing.

Heed Tawney's warning. Freedom for the pike is, indeed, death for the minnows. If these political forces succeed they would not just be cutting regulations for park stairs. And that should worry us all.


  1. There's so much room for a middle of the road view on this (Yes, those stairs are dangerous & Yes $65k is way too much) but I haven't seen one yet.

    1. ... but that is Tory's position. He states that there is a need for the city to do it right to ensure safety, but that the original estimate was way too much.

    2. I strongly suspect that thanks to political pressure and the desire of the Mayor for a photo op they will build some temporary staircase that will be opened with much political fanfare in a few days (diverting crews from far more important projects) and then with NO fanfare when no one is looking anymore spend the amounts needed to comply with legal accessibility requirements, likely closing it for "repairs" soon after etc. But it will be allegedly completed for that cost in record time no matter the cost to other projects and likely with a disregard for proper planning and accessibility.
      I call that obvious political interference in what is supposed to be a non-political process.
      We will see what gets built and for how much.
      Why anyone would take seriously what some nobody city councillor with an overt political agenda says about what a project will ultimately cost (he claims $10K) or what private contractors with no knowledge of public safety and accessibility regulations say it will cost is beyond me.

    3. Here is a quote from someone actually involved in public projects in the US:
      "Going by pictures makes it difficult to gauge the terrain, though they make it blatantly obvious that those stairs were constructed using substandard materials for even a residential application, and with complete disregard for any sort of safety. Not to mention they are REALLY narrow. And that "handrail" is a broken wrist waiting to happen. There is a reason most building codes require railing built to that style, to be closed on top.

      But the terrain. Not knowing what the city planned, or what the area off that parking lot looks like, it is hard to say whether or not the original price tag was reasonably justified. I do know that a basic accessible stair case and landshaping to make an approximately 7' (sorry, I'm American and we use anachronistic units of measurement here - a bit over two meters) rise accessible from a parking lot at our local park, cost almost $70k *U.S.* This included a retaining wall, and building up the side of the hill above said retaining wall, a couple of short flights of stairs out of concrete, with a landing the width of the stairs, which were make wide and the treads deeper than might normally be strictly necessary, because the stairs take you to the top of a sledding hill in winter, so these steps get a lot of use when they will be particularly dangerous to use - thus our city designed them with that in mind. And it includes removing a LOT of earth to create a wheel chair accessible slope to a sidewalk to the top of the hill, where there is a picnic shelter and bathrooms (not from the same budget). And the retaining wall has a safety railing along the top edge, to ensure people in wheel chairs, on bicycles, and any other wheeled conveyance are unlikely to roll off the top of the hill and over the edge of the retaining wall.

      Concrete is expensive. Concrete stairs, over a hill that takes on a lot of water, require a LOT of material. There needs to be footings from the top of the stairs, that go at least as deep as the height of the staircase, and there may need to be multiple sets of footings. And that is just for the staircase. An accessibility ramp can be a pretty major challenge when you're trying to get over a steep incline, requiring the movement of a great deal of earth, and a hell of a lot more concrete. This isn't a residential application, this is presumably going to take on a LOT of foot traffic. Even assuming it needn't be nearly so elaborate as what I described above and it sounds like it needn't be, Building a safe, durable and accessible set of stairs *should* run at least $12k U.S. per meter of rise and that is for construction only. It doesn't include design and engineering.

      And other alternatives either are going to be even *more* expensive, or will not have the durability and low maintenance costs associated with concrete. Sure as hell not in Canuckistan!

      Could they do it for less than $65k? Almost certainly, and it could be built reasonably safely and would be quite long lasting. But there is no way in hell they are going to achieve it for a whole lot less than that. As much as we might like to complain about the costs of planning, planning is important.

      And as someone who works in an industry that was associated with a LOT of workplace accident fatalities before we started regulating the hell out of it, I am ALL about a hell of a lot of the regulatory structure we operate under. It is a thing that is absolutely just as important for consumer health and safety, as it is for construction workers."

    4. He also noted:
      "The stairs I described in my comment above have an expected lifespan of over 50 years and excepting general grounds upkeep type expenses, cleaning, painting railings and the like, the *only* major expense during that period will be replacing the railing once or twice and that is a fraction of the cost of the stairs or replacing them with any viable, less expensive alternative. You can't even begin to beat the savings over time."

    5. As John Oliver explains, though, the Middle of the Road view between reality and nonsense is nonsense.

      Freedom for the pike is indeed death for the minnow --- and neither the opposing view nor any compromise is grounded in reality.

  2. Here is an aspect of this story I feel is being ignored.

    There exists access to these gardens but people deciding that it was too inconvenient carved out a shortcut of their own.

    Having done this they discover that this shortcut of theirs is a tad unsafe so start to demand that the city remedy this.

    They now say the cost of making their preferred route safer is outlandish.

    To me this is more a story of entitlement than waste

    1. Very good point. Thanks for making it.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. It's not about entitlement; it's about how people use public space. The official entrance has been blocked off for months BTW, and shortcuts and footpaths are the marks left behind as testament to how city spaces actually get used outside of the formal/official ones. Eventually these need to become official uses. There's also just the practicality that Astl is trying to reach his allotment garden from the parking lot, that's a pretty natural desire. And since it seems everyone has an opinion on this here's mine in which I explore what I said above:

  3. I love me some. Buenos Aires, but I haven’t been anywhere that proves this argument better. For some crazy reason, the SIDEWALKS are privately maintained by the land owner agacent, leading to a crazy quilt of different materials and maintenance. The result is, you have to keep your eyes glued to the walk in front of you to avoid killing yourself (or stepping in dog shit, but that’s another issue).

  4. I posted this in the comments on a few of the news articles about this (like CTV)as well as publicly with links to an article.

    1. These stairs are no where near being code for someones deck, let alone public access for a park. Unless you want to pay tax dollars to lawsuits.
    2. City stairs don't get lifted from some cookie cutter blueprint. Soil Engineers have to check the quality of the ground to see what kind of foundation is needed, Environmental assessments have to be performed to ensure we don't alter the local biome through something as simple as diverting water flow.
    3. A structural engineer has to review and stamp the designs for the stairs. No one builds something for the city without ensuring their Lawyers have someone to point the finger at should ANYTHING happen.
    4. Permits have to be received.
    5. Equipment has to be rented, fencing erected closing off the area from access, a safety board needs to be posted, and a site trailer might even be deemed necessary.
    6. Formwork takes time, and multiple trades. At least three. Four if you want the stairs lit. You need to excavate and form your foundation, lay your rebar, pump water out if it rains, re-excavate if the rain collapses the excavation, redo layout if its accidentally disrupted.
    7. ICI - Industrial, Commercial, Institutional trade work ALWAYS costs more than Residential. It requires higher calibre workers, higher qualified workers, and workers able to deal with more expensive jobs than the average front steps to a house.
    8. Fair wage agreements ensure if its not being done by qualified trade Union trades, that who ever is doing it is equally qualified and equally compensated for their effort.
    9. WSIB rates are highest for Formwork Carpenters, and other trades heavily involved with formwork. Why? Silicosis. Look it up, I know the clock is likely ticking on me.
    10. Any left over concrete can't just be dumped on the ground to harden and then thrown in a bin, most Government jobs requires proper wash out bins with allow water to filter out but keeps the corrosive concrete from harming the local environment.
    11. Stripping forms, waste material removal, back filling, restoration. All things which take a bit more oomph than just throwing down sod. Especially since the city will make sure you're coming back to redo it if the sod doesn't take.

    This is why it could cost at least $65,000. There are so many more factors for a job that isn't for a private homeowner.
    And this doesn't even allow for studies into how much traffic should these stairs expect, how big should they be, do we want to have fancy stairs or a typical design.

  5. Whacking material for Sun "readers." Wanna bet the comment section over there is a perpetual hategasm?

  6. Yes the $65000 job could be done for less than $1000, but people forget that the regulations that inflates a $1000 job into $65000 prevents a multimillion dollar liability lawsuit. The math seems pretty simple to me - spend $64000 more than you "need" to up front, or spend millions when no one expects it.

    These "useless" regulations exist for a (usually) good reason.