Here’s an article I’d like all candidates for the upcoming Victoria municipal election in November 2010 to read: Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning (September 2008 – link goes to Scribd). I wrote this for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the 2008 municipal election. Oh, how prescient – yet also how optimistic – I was. I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of FUBAR we ended up with.
Below, the full text of the article as it appeared in FOCUS:
Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning
This fall, we’re electing new local governments, and the people we elect in Victoria will shape our city’s development. We need to be talking about leadership, teamwork, and our collective attitudes toward winning, success and failure.
If you read Victoria’s “alternative” publications (for example, Sid Tafler’s Monday Magazine opinion pieces) or listen to some of the candidates emerging from Community Associations, you’ve probably noticed a rhetoric of heightened partisanship. In some ways, this is to be expected. After all, if you stand on a street corner and shout, “Sunshine!”, no one will pay much attention. But shout “Fire!” and everyone comes running – even if that “fire” is the sun shining up in the sky. Wolves, fires, bad news: they always get attention. And as surely as newspapers need attention to sell, candidates need attention to get elected.
Incumbent politicians know this, too. At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff warned that the current Council has developed (pardon the pun) a reputation for being developer-friendly – as if this were a dirty and dangerous flaw. The message was that some councillors weren’t doing enough to protect Victoria from developer predation. Rifts on council – and possibly among staff itself – are becoming painfully obvious.
It’s easy enough to repeat the meme of “pro-development” councillors rubber-stamping proposals. But how can you draw attention for positive discourse that strengthens respect, listening, teamwork? Local papers report on council meetings where development proposals fail to pass, and the stories are peppered with quotes from community association members who skewer the city for even considering these proposals. Their solution? Prevent proposals from ever reaching council in the first place. Declared candidate and Fairfield Community Association rep Wayne Hollohan, responding to a recent tabling of a proposal to develop the Crystal Court Motel site, stated, “I don’t know what policy exists that this [building] doesn’t violate.” (Times-Colonist, Aug.15/08) This is a language that brooks no conciliation or teamwork. “Violation” draws a curtain on conversation, for it suggests that some councillors collude to violate an undefended city.
Cities should, however, be robust enough to venture forth unchaperoned. But what’s a city? We must address that question and figure out what we are as a city. I’ll reveal my hand by stating what to me is obvious: a) we are a Canadian city of significant size as well as this province’s capital city; and b) failure is not an option for cities today.
Cities compete. This is why they must be robust.
They have to compete regionally, nationally, and internationally. Victoria shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge or get out of the game, as cities are far too important to regional and national economies. They are productive hubs where large numbers of people of all ages, with complex needs and contributions, gather, live, and work. This also means that their built form must maximize resources and extract the best efficiencies in land use, so that ecological benefits consequently are a byproduct of density.
Density in turn supports complexity. That’s what cities do best, and it’s how they contribute to the well-being of economies and ecologies. For cities, change (as a function of complexity) is a constant. If they’re smart, change means they develop; if they’re dumb, they stagnate and decay.
As a voter, I have to ask how comfortable our municipal leaders are in addressing urban growth and creative development. How familiar are they with the work of Jane Jacobs, who argued against centralized planning and in favour of organic growth as well as “webby” or networked economies that deal flexibly with import replacements and growth? Or the work of Alan Broadbent, who writes about the need to fund Canadian cities properly and to give them the tools that allow them to run with greater autonomy and independence? Or Richard Florida or Ed Glaeser, who make the case for creative economies? Consider, for example, that your purchase of gadgets like iPods validates not the metals and plastic in the device, but the design — its embodied creative, intellectual value. What this means is that the “creative class” or “knowledge workers” who create that value are more important than the raw resources that went into the product. These knowledge workers live in cities, including Victoria, as our growing technology sector proves.
As a voter, I want to know what sort of competencies our elected municipal leaders demonstrate with regard to understanding regional economic contexts; understanding information and knowledge economies; understanding the potential of the creative classes, green urban development, and the need for density? How many are stuck in yesterday’s thinking, which says that density is equal to “slum” or “blight”?
During a meeting between mayoralty candidate Dean Fortin and the Downtown Residents Association, Councillor Fortin declared that each additional storey on a building raises the crime rate and social problems. When pressed, it turned out that his opinion was based on reading just two University of Toronto reports about an out-of-date public housing project – hardly the stuff of contemporary urbanism! Councillor Fortin then volunteered Councillor Sonya Chandler’s opinion that high-rises are not a workable urban form because Peak Oil means that elevators will grind to a halt. This rather fanciful, and hardly realistic, view of urbanism just isn’t helpful. A more creative, versus fear-mongering, approach would foresee elevators running on alternative energy sources, generated by the high-rises themselves.
One wonders: have some of our municipal leaders missed the message that densely built-up cities are in fact far “greener” and better for residents than low-density development?
It seems that the provincial government “gets it,” as shown by Bill 27 (see my August 2008 article), which explicitly asks cities to encourage density and compact growth. Unfortunately, in BC there’s always the danger that if “they” get it, then “we” have to oppose it, because partisan politics rule. But the fact is that at the local government level, partisan politics are simply stupid, and not smart at all: if you want to run a city, grow up and leave partisanship at home.
And yet, consider our culture. Victoria has always attracted eccentrics. Whether they’re newcomers or homegrown entities, the city has attracted its fair share. That’s a good thing if you believe that eccentricities contribute to a city’s vibrancy, and that our ability to attract them speaks volumes about Victoria’s potential.
But, and this is a huge but: Victoria fails to nurture respect for team-players. Look into our history and note how many creatives ended up leaving Victoria because the climate here wasn’t supportive. If someone wants to build a winning team, he or she will likely run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground. The cheering section for failure in this town is huge, and that needs to change.
What’s wrong with winning, anyway?
Well, winning usually means increased complexity and change. It’s that simple. Losing, on the other hand, means simplification, stasis, stagnation. Obviously, my support goes to complexity and change, which is why I would ask those who want to win in our next election whether they’re certain our city won’t lose.
What I wrote about “Victoria fail[ing] to nurture respect for team-players,” and that people who want to build a winning team have to “run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground” because “the cheering section for failure in this town is huge,” still stands. I was referring to the difficulties encountered by change-makers, not to Old Boys or to partisan politicos – those guys always seem to “work together,” albeit not for change, but for the status quo. Then I wrote, “and that needs to change”; three years on I doubt it will.
This is Part 2; read Part 1 about my foray into the archives here.
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