Sometimes, you really should read the comments.
Sure, there are armchair politicians and professional complainers, drama llamas and unhappy souls who seem to read online material simply to push negativity into the world. But there are also great conversations and stories that emerge, contextualizing issues in a way that is nearly impossible to replicate.
I’ve been a comments reader for a long time. Years as a journalist, always searching for a good story, has morphed from skimming through classified ads into scrolling through comments on Facebook posts. It’s also the online version of a piece of advice I received years ago from John Ralston Saul: observe people’s reactions, not the action. When all eyes are on the speaker, watch the audience to gauge the true impact and interest in what’s being said.
This week, Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold shared details of a Youthful Cities report, indexing the elements in various Canadian cities that make a community attractive to residents aged 15 to 29. It’s billed as the “first public national comparable urban index, measuring 121 indicators spanning all 20 youthful infrastructure areas.” The index can help youth choose a city best suited to them, and show municipal leaders ways in which they can improve and attract young residents.
(Anyone can use the online tool to determine what your ideal ‘youthful’ city might be, based on what’s most important to you. I got Toronto, which I admit was a city I truly enjoyed calling home, especially in the pre-kids stage of life.)
Moncton scored fairly well on the overall index, ninth out of 13, but first in the index’s ‘work’ category (all elements are broken into live, work, or play, with sub-categories such as transit, affordability, creative arts, etc). We have the “highest secondary school graduation rate … [and] the highest youth full time jobs as a percentage of total employment,” along with low monthly transit costs and the third-lowest cost of rental housing of the cities measured. Our car-dependant culture is a major negative on the index, as is the lack of young voices on our city council or within municipal advisory groups.
It’s that last point that really stands out to me – and was perfectly reflected in the online comments on the Mayor’s post. There were a few ‘yay we’re great’ comments, then a few questioning the local job market. One young Monctonian, a 25-year-old college-graduate husband on his second home, observed that “any government Facebook post” becomes inundated with “negative comments from older people.” He shared his frustration with trying to remain positive in this environment. I’m no longer in the youth category, but I stand by his comments and the findings of the index: Moncton has not been a city that appears to be prioritizing and respecting our young residents.
Our region has long focused on how best to serve the needs of our aging population, which is a valid concern, given demographics on the East Coast. I’d argue that a similar focus on youth and young families should have been happening simultaneously, though. And I’d go so far as to say we’ve not only been lax at creating and promoting municipal and provincial initiatives that serve young adults, but also we have been dismissive of the concerns and the needs of this very important group of residents.
There is a subtle shift happening, which gives me great hope. And it’s not just at the government level. That young Moncton man who commented on the Mayor’s post? He ended up in a thought-provoking exchange with another Moncton man, with a similar background, now in his 50s. The discrepancies and the similarities between these commenters was quite interesting, as was the realization the only place these two men would have this exchange of ideas was online.
The Youthful Cities Index – and the comments – shows Moncton’s potential to be a leading destination for young people throughout Canada. Let’s pay attention.