Three little things

In the middle of miserable March, there were few events that could have motivated me to haul my butt out of my nice warm house to spend two hours sitting on an uncomfortable chair in a jam-packed conference room.
But when Naheed Nenshi, the well-spoken, charismatic mayor of Calgary dropped in on Halifax for a day of speaking engagements, it seemed like I should make the effort, if only to find out for myself why Nenshi is so popular.
The event was the annual Carmichael Lecture, which honours Kate Carmichael, a former executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, who died in 2001. The focus was on urban planning and development, but, as I gather often happens with Nenshi, his speaking topics veered all over the place, from seniors’ housing to poverty to taxation. He also spoke passionately about the unmet financial responsibilities of federal and provincial governments toward municipalities.
His lecture was illuminating, his charm unmistakable, his humour, cheesy but endearing.
I have to admit I drank the Nenshi Kool-Aid. His vision of livable, workable cities built around healthy public transit, affordable housing and community engagement made sense to me. And since that evening, one particular idea he mentioned has stayed with me: the “3 Things for Calgary” campaign.
The beauty of this campaign is that it’s so simple. Every year, citizens are invited to do three things to make their city better. These can be small things, like picking up up a piece of litter. They can be bigger things, like taking a neighbour to run errands, or helping to build a new playground. And they can be more involved, like setting up a community group or taking a cause you’re passionate about to city council.
It’s such an uncomplicated concept that even Nenshi admitted he didn’t think it would catch on. His sense was that if you don’t ask for something specific from people, you won’t get any action at all. He pointed out that the number-one reason people don’t volunteer is that no one has asked them. Eventually, though, he came to see that the initiative was not just about doing those three things: it was about creating a lifetime pattern of service.
“Not telling people what to do is one of the strengths of the program,” Nenshi told us, “because people ask themselves, ‘What am I good at and what am I passionate about?’ If they can find an answer to both questions, they just go off and do it.”
I tend to be skeptical of causes built on rah-rah “let’s all make the world a better place” oversimplifications, but I like this idea because it’s easily doable, yielding immediate tangible results.
Nenshi said he is more than willing to share the idea with other cities. “Steal it at your leisure,” he told the crowd, which included a number of Halifax municipal councillors and mayor Mike Savage.
I think we should take him up on that, so I asked Mayor Savage what he thinks of the initiative, and whether he’s considered implementing a similar program in Halifax.
“Mayor Nenshi mentioned this to me when he was in town, and I like the idea,” Savage tells me by email, “but I would also be interested in doing something that is uniquely Halifax. We are fortunate to be a city with tremendous pride of place and a citizenry that is always eager to pitch in.”
He added that Halifax has tried to get residents involved through things like, and by encouraging volunteering and community leadership via
So I guess Halifax won’t have its own official campaign. Still, there’s no reason Haligonians can’t just take this idea and run with it. I’ve already ticked off a couple of items on my own “3 Things” list.
Here are some of the things Calgarians are doing. One family is building a bench on their front lawn so neighbours can sit and chat on their way to the nearby elementary school. (“We’re hoping our front lawn becomes a bit of a small gathering space”).
Some folks are encouraging their kids to say hello to people they meet in the neighbourhood. (“This contributes to a safe neighbourhood where people can recognize when something isn’t right”). Another Calgarian has started a free library, lending books out of a box in front of her home.  You can find a long list at
You get the picture. It’s the little things. Lots of Haligonians are already doing great grassroots things like these. And if every Haligonian were to do three, it would add up to more than a million actions, all aimed at making the municipality a better place to live.
Not a bad idea, even if it did start in Calgary.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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