Once more, the streets

December 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm | In johnson street bridge, land_use, street_life, transportation, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

While I promised myself, for sanity’s sake, to forgo paying attention to city politics, the City of Victoria‘s endorsement last night of a transportation proposal has me back at square one. Meaning what? Meaning I’m scratching my head, wondering what’s in the water around here.

The endorsed plan – proposed by BC Transit – would do a couple of really bizarre things that strike me as undesirable. The plan involves putting either rapid transit trams or rapid transit bus lines along Douglas Street, which is the city’s main north-south street corridor. Douglas Street is actually part of the Trans Canada Highway – further north, outside the city core, it becomes the highway. But in the city itself, it’s also just another main street that runs parallel to Victoria’s two other main north-south arterial roads, Government Street on its west and Blanshard Street on its east. At Douglas Street’s southern terminus you find Beacon Hill Park’s Mile 0 and the Terry Fox Memorial, site of many tourist moments. Before reaching the park, Douglas Street traverses Victoria’s Central Business District. As it provides an artery for the city, Douglas Street has four traffic lanes (two north-bound, two south-bound). There is on-street parking along much of Douglas Street’s downtown stretch, albeit on alternating blocks and sides of the street; and there are several blocks where no parking at all is allowed because bus service is heaviest here.

In the proposed plan, all on-street parking would be eliminated. Traffic lanes would be reduced from four to two, running side-by-side along the street’s western edge. Along the east side of the street, there would be two side-by-side tram or rapid transit bus lanes, one heading north, the other south, again: side by side. In the middle of the street would be a two-lane bike path.

Here’s  a rendering, as it appeared in last night’s (and today’s) Times-Colonist online:

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I’m already getting into arguments with friends over this one. Some of my friends applaud the plan and point out that this is not new, and that BC Transit has been working on this since 1995.

To which I say, “it’s still a pretty shitty plan, sorry.”

I’ve never seen a tram arrangement like this, and really can’t understand why (in the case of this illustration) the south-bound tram should be orphaned away from pedestrian access. The only pedestrian access is via the sidewalk, and in this case the south-bound tram is removed from the sidewalk by a north-bound tram lane. I suppose if the trams don’t stop very often, you can build fancy stations to accommodate riders having to cross the tram tracks, etc. But shouldn’t the point downtown be that you have really frequent stops?

Nor do I get the logic of a bike lane down a median. In this scenario the cyclists will have to fight with cars and trams if they want to reach the curb/ retail frontage. That makes no sense. Maybe it makes sense for cyclists who don’t want to stop and are going to keep going until they reach …somewhere. But what if it’s a cyclist who’s hopping from one downtown store or venue to another? I guess he or she will be infringing on the pedestrian’s sidewalk space – and that always has the potential for trouble.

What I really dislike about this plan is how it suggests that if we could only get everyone into their proper slot (into the bike lane in the median, into the tram lanes side by side, into the car lanes side by side, and into the sidewalks – separated by an ocean of other transportation options) – if we could only get everyone to stay in their place, we could “solve” urban transportation issues. I’m not averse to that approach in areas where it’s imperative to clear the path for 50 to 60-kilometer per hour travel, but in a downtown, that’s not where (or how fast) we want to go.

I can’t help but think that rapid transit and cars are doing relatively well in this plan, but that pedestrians and cyclists aren’t. They latter two groups are asked to move like the former two: in straight lines, without stopping in any sort of way that could hold things up, without meandering, without trespassing or “jaywalking” – “jay-riding”? – into the other lanes of traffic. I don’t think that’s very urban. In every real city, pedestrians are constantly taking back their streets through everyday acts of disobedience: dawdling on the sidewalk, hitching bikes to parking meters (oops, I forgot we’re not even going to have parking meters under this new plan!), jaywalking, clustering, gawking, sitting around… Anything and everything in addition to “moving along” in an orderly fashion.

I dislike the extreme tidiness of this plan. There’s no mess here – probably because everyone is in their place. (And heaven help the poor fool who steps out of line…)

It looks suburban.

Finally, a word about the sad fate of the Johnson Street Bridge: those of us who fought to save the bridge suggested that one lane of the three traffic lanes on the current bridge should be given over to “multi-modal” transportation (read: bike lanes etc.). We were told by the rabid pro-replacement councilors around the table at City Hall that it would be impossible to reduce this tiny tiny bridge’s lane capacity from three to two. And yet these same councilors yesterday gave their assent to reducing the city’s main arterial road from four lanes of traffic to two, for a stretch of more than two kilometers. The hypocrisy staggers me.

Addendum: See also my post, Congestion is our friend (on, among other things, Gordon Price‘s talk on Motordom [<--slide deck on SlideShare]). From that slide deck, here’s an image (#26) of what an urban street (Commercial Drive in Vancouver) can look like – note the parked cars and general urban “mess”:

Dirty Wall Project: slums and cities

September 24, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In cities, guerilla_politics, housing, ideas, innovation, land_use, local_not_global, philanthropy, street_life, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off

I saw an amazing photograph in the temporary gallery Ryan Kane of the Dirty Wall Project has set up on Fort Street.

The photo is one of many that Kane is selling to raise funds for his venture: it’s a flat, saturated, picture-edge-to-picture-edge frontal view of one small piece of a slum in Saki Naka bordering the rail line. Its complexity makes Where’s Waldo look minimalist.

Monday Magazine published an interview with Kane last month. An excerpt from the introduction:

You’ve heard of guerrilla gardening and guerrilla marketing, but what about guerilla volunteering? The concept to “see a need and fill it” without worrying about paperwork, bureaucracy or religious bias is exactly what 28-year-old Kane Ryan strives to do with his one-person, not-for-profit organization called the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan just recently returned from India where he was working in the slums of Mumbai, organizing health camps, distributing tarps for the monsoon season, funding emergency surgeries and building a school for the children living in the Saki Naka slum community, among other initiatives. All of the money he raises—75 percent of which comes from here in Victoria through fundraising events, private donors and by selling his travel photography—goes directly to the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan pays for his own travel, food and accommodation out of his own pocket by working odd jobs during the months he returns to Victoria. The Dirty Wall Project is proof that one person can indeed make a difference. (source)

If you’re in Victoria, make sure you get to 977A Fort St (formerly Luz Gallery).

I can’t find an online version of the photo that grabbed my attention this afternoon. Here’s a substitute, which hints at the complexity:

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Visit Ryan’s site, or check out his photo book, Dirty Wall Project (on Blurb). See a need and fill it, make a donation.

Street music

June 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm | In street_life | Comments Off

Last day in Boston, spent most around Harvard Square in Cambridge. Came across some interesting street buskers – varied, different, fresh. (For each group, click on the image to go to Youtube clip I shot.)

First up, two young guys (age 17), the drummer (unfortunately obscured in my little film clip) banging rather well on upturned cans and plastic pails, with the vocalist and guitarist carrying the song. In my clip, they’re covering Jimmy Eat World‘s Big Casino.

The next clip is a quartet: classical and folk, great sound – unfortunately partially drowned out by fire engines (but they played on, nonplussed):

Finally, a great quintet playing Sonny Rollins‘ famous standard, St. Thomas. The saxophonist totally rocked it:

Guess what? Park Avenue used to be …a park

March 6, 2010 at 7:55 am | In cities, guerilla_politics, jane_jacobs, land_use, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism | 3 Comments

A gazillion years ago when I was 17 I traveled solo to Paris, as part of a 3-month sojourn in Europe where I took trains and hitchhiked (molto pericoloso!) if the trains didn’t run to where I needed to go. The fashion of the day was halter-tops, bell-bottoms, and platform shoes …which gives an indication of the era I’m talking about.

When I got to Paris, I was frankly disappointed. It was summer, therefore hot, and the city was choked to the gills with cars. Lots of cars. The automobile had absolute priority over everything else: no sidewalk cafe seemed safe from an intrusive bumper or stinking car exhaust, drivers “parked” on sidewalks, and basically the whole show was a mess.

At one point, I thought, “The car has killed this city.”

Paris, for pete’s sake. How could you not love Paris?

Well, cars are pretty intrusive. It takes training to tune them out, and I wanted to let the city in, not have cars run me over.

It’s so damn obvious that cars destroy a city’s street life, yet we’re only now getting policy-wise and serious about stopping urban death-by-car.

So, props to Streetfilms for this video, Fixing the Great Mistake: Autocentric Development. From the description:

“Fixing the Great Mistake” is a new Streetfilms series that examines what went wrong in the early part of the 20th Century, when our cities began catering to the automobile, and how those decisions continue to affect our lives today.

In this episode, Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White shows how planning for cars drastically altered Park Avenue. Watch and see what Park Avenue used to look like, how we ceded it to the automobile, and what we need to do to reclaim the street as a space where people take precedence over traffic.

Oddly, Manhattan traffic struck me as electrifying when I experienced it a couple of years after Paris: a kind of visceral thrum that drove energy into your bones. (Of course that might just have been NYC itself at work, its automobile traffic a white noise to the energy of its people.) But New York City with fewer cars is obviously a great idea.

When you watch this video and see Paul Steely White sitting on a tiny little strip of grass, the vestige that remains of the “park” in Manhattan’s Park Avenue, you really get an idea of what was …and what could be.

Added bonus in the video: a reference to Robert Moses, exporter of super-highways as well as mostly gracious Westchester parkways, but too often a destroyer of the urban street fabric, aka the man Jane Jacobs beat. (See Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint.)

Entitlement

March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm | In architecture, cities, green, homelessness, ideas, land_use, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

In yesterday’s post, Thinking out loud on social media platforms, I responded to a comment with an extended rant about Victoria, the pressing strangeness of its people and their often bizarre sense of entitlement:

Much of the strangeness comes from their huge sense of entitlement, which is weirdly crooked, and is based in large part on this crazy notion that, since we live in the best place on earth, we’re entitled to act with an attitude of entitlement – even though we have done nothing to earn it, for what can you do to earn the beauty of nature, which is our only saving grace? Yet the entitlement attitude persists. For example, at the downtown YMCA where I work out, women steal from other women in the membership-plus changing rooms. These are members who pay a premium for a “plus” membership, yet they steal from other “plus” members. It’s the sort of behavior locals might associate with “the big city,” except we’re not the big city. We just think we can get away with shit.

For those who are wondering why I know about thieving at the gym: because I read the posted notices about upticks in petty theft; because I make it a point to talk to people; and because I’ve seen women looking for items that, whoops!, went missing in the blink of an eye. What’s also interesting is that the women who steal don’t just steal from other women, they also steal from the gym. Who would steal from the YMCA, I wonder? It’s all small stuff (the facility’s towels, or other members’ high-end cosmetics, or maybe a $20-bill that’s left unattended in an open locker for a few minutes), but it adds up.

To what? Misplaced entitlement.

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Victoria BC

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Without a doubt, Victoria is one of the most naturally beautiful (urban) places in Canada. It’s the low-rise yin to Vancouver’s upright, high-rise yang. However, there is nothing, not a single thing, that the people who live here have done to create or to earn this beauty.

Our older residential core neighborhoods are quite pretty – they are densely built up (a good thing) and are incredibly leafy, festooned with an abundance of fabulous trees (which city workers strive hard to maintain), and of course year-round greenery. Some folks start mowing lawns in February. Aside from the bouts of landscaping mandated by the Ministry of Perpetual Gardening (that’s a joke, coined by David Burke), we haven’t, however, done anything to earn natural beauty: it’s just there, and it grows on, just as the Olympic mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait simply exist, just as the granite outcroppings simply are (when we haven’t blasted them to smithereens to build a subdivision), just as the ocean ebbs and flows.

What we have actually built – particularly since World War II and particularly where it really matters, namely in our downtown where the urban part of our urban existence should shine – is largely awful.

In Vancouver, the beauty of the recent built form is earned. People in Vancouver built it, they built it in the last 30 years, and it looks great. It looks even better set against the unearned majestic beauty of the landscape: looming close-up mountains (very yang and very different from our far-off and therefore yin elevations) and restless ocean, beaches and the thick forests of Stanley Park.

But in the past 75 years, Victoria’s downtown has earned little.

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

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Old Town (photo, above) and Chinatown are charming, but their structures were finished around the turn of the century before the last one. What was added last century is for the most part a dog’s breakfast – whether we refer to Centennial Square, to the uninspired commercial buildings that replaced older (and actually taller!) buildings, or to the wasteland of one- or two-story buildings lining what should be key shopping streets (which now sport far too many “for lease” signs).

Face it, Victoria’s more recent “pretty” parts aren’t downtown, they’re in the village centers of the older neighborhoods, from Oak Bay Village to Cook Street Village to Fernwood Square, to James Bay, and so on. (And even then, some of those areas would be boring white-bread toast if it weren’t for the trees.) Downtown has been left to languish, and aside from recent handsome Humboldt Valley developments (which the NIMBYs fought tooth and nail), there is little to please the eye.

Downtown as a whole has in fact turned into a slightly watered down version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (and yes, Vancouver isn’t perfect as it has a huge problem there), with panhandlers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill sleeping in the entryways of all those useless one-story buildings with the empty storefronts sporting “for lease” signs.

I can put a date on when things really changed: in 2005, seeing a trio of emaciated, hollow-eyed addicts tweaking (see def. #4 under “verb”) at 3 p.m. on the SW corner of Vancouver Street and Rockland Avenue was unusual enough to make me call a friend on the neighborhood’s community board: “Hey, I just saw a two women taking their clothes off, trying to hook passers-by, and there was a guy with them who looked like he was their pimp. All three of them seem totally strung out…”

In the five years since then, I’m not surprised anymore by anything I see in my neighborhood or along Rockland Avenue (on my way to the YMCA), even though this is a “nice” area. Junkies, people smoking crack in Pioneer Square (where a sign reminds me that I can’t walk my dog, even as the clean-up patrol daily comes ’round to pick up used needles), human feces, vomit, guys peeing against buildings, people tweaking.

Most mornings (and especially on recycling day), I wake (and fall asleep again) to the dawn-time jingle of “binners” pushing (stolen) shopping carts past my window, in search of bottles to take to the nearby Bottle Depot. In 2005 there was one single binner, “our” binner, in this neighborhood. Now there are dozens, competing for the scraps we might toss out.

I used to write blog posts about how awful this human misery is (looking for this post, I realize I published it as “private” in 2005, meaning that no one was ever able to read it; go read it now, and most especially listen to the singing iceberg, linked at very end). I used to support all the pious studies for how to end homelessness.

But I almost don’t care anymore. It’s so depressing to see this acceptance of drug use and destruction, and to see it wash over every block of your neighborhood and your downtown. Of course the homeless, most of whom have mental health problems as well as drug addictions, are left to fend for themselves by Federal and Provincial governments that have handed the problem to cash-strapped municipalities. The municipalities make all sorts of lovely noises about task forces and helping and asking Mr and Ms Jo-Shmo Citizen to kick in some extra money for shelters, but things have just gotten worse. At the same time, because the poor and the hard to house really are getting shafted by senior levels of government, everyone on the street (which tacitly includes us, the non-homeless residents) feels that they, the homeless, really are entitled to be exactly where they are: on the street, making everyone feel guilty or bad or fed up.

Because (the thinking goes) where else, after all, can they go, given that the services they need are located in the city?

You see where this is going? Here, even the homeless are entitled. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about entitlement, it’s that you don’t earn it. You just take it.

And all the while, we build nothing of beauty, even as those of us who have housing smugly think we’ve done something to earn the natural beauty that surrounds us. That’s why everyone likes to bleat on about the lifestyle here.

Gag me with the lifestyle already.

This isn’t Lotus Land, but we are surely Lotus Eaters: addled into feeling we’ve earned the natural beauty, we’re totally apathetic about actually creating a built beauty, blind to how cheap and ugly-looking Victoria, in particular its under-built and under-utilized city center, has become.

A retired city worker recently told me that much of Victoria’s downtown real estate is owned by families, some of whom have held the property for generations. They don’t need to sell it (they’d be penalized with capital gains taxes on the sale), they make enough from renting the ground floor out to some crap store that sells t-shirts to the tourists, and they don’t bother with a seismic retrofit of the upper story, they just leave it empty. In other words, it’s blood-sucking, half-empty, not-earning-its-keep, underutilized real estate that the trust fund kids can keep in their back pockets, collecting the monthly $5000 to $10000 in rent, all without doing a stitch of work or doing anything useful with the building. That, according to my source, is a big problem with real estate in the city.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d make it illegal to have property downtown that isn’t operating at a minimum of 5:1 FSR. That would put the fear of god into any useless leech who owns valuable land downtown but does nothing with it to improve the commonweal.

But then again, in this city of entitled Lotus Eaters, “developer” is a dirty word. The anti-development NIMBY crowd thinks that development contributes to the city’s ugliness. Oh kids, grow up. Our built city (not its natural setting) is ugly because it’s underdeveloped.

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Now, there’s a codicil to this rant…

I believe that the desire to have earned what is naturally given is what underwrites the burgeoning and absolutely exciting currents of outright biophilia that in our region finds expression in land conservation, in stewardship, and in the uptick in environmental groups and causes and projects. The Capital Regional District (that is, Greater Victoria and the surrounding municipalities from Sooke and Metchosin in the west through to Saltspring Island in the Georgia Strait to the east) and the Cowichan Valley Regional District just to the north of us are home to eco-living initiatives gaining world-wide attention. (More on those in a later blog post.)

The biophiliacs are trying to earn beauty through environmental stewardship – and they’re succeeding.

But as a fan of cities, I wish that my fellow urban biophiliacs would spend a bit of energy on fixing our built environment, so that we can earn an urban beauty worthy of the fabulous natural beauty that surrounds us.

I’m not sure whose “job” this is. As far as I can tell, the city’s urban planners are asleep at the wheel, as are the politicians. If I had a magic wand, I’d kick them all to out and do what Vancouver did: hire the best, hire people with imagination. The latter is nowhere in evidence in Victoria, and it’s also missing in our largest neighboring municipality, Saanich, judging by the atrocity of Uptown (a shopping center redevelopment) now under construction.

A new retail/ commercial/ mixed use development in Saanich, BC that just screams Fuck you to the humanity hurtling by

A new retail/ commercial development in Saanich, BC that just screams "Fuck you"

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So that’s my wish: I want us to lay off the Lotus Leaves that lull us into thinking we’ve earned the natural beauty that surrounds us, and to focus instead on earning a built beauty that aspires to be the best. And I want the NIMBYs who try to thwart development downtown to take a hike. Come back when you’ve earned the right to contribute, otherwise you’re just acting entitled.

Update, 3/5:

There’s an excellent photo of the Uptown development on Flickr, taken by Glenalan54. Check out the astute comments.

Canadian cities in a quagmire?

December 19, 2008 at 6:56 pm | In affordable_housing, canada, cities, housing, justice, social_critique, street_life, vancouver | Comments Off

We’re experiencing an exceptional cold weather spell in southwestern British Columbia, and last night a 47-year old homeless woman died in Vancouver.  She burned to death, trying to keep warm with a live fire; the police think her blankets must have caught fire. The story is all over the news of course, including here: Woman’s body discovered in burning shopping cart.  Like so many others, she kept her possessions – and at night, herself – in a shopping cart.  The cart, enclosed by blankets, became her pyre.  Unlike many people who are homeless, she was also a drug addict and shelter-resistant (someone who refuses to use shelters).

Regardless of where you stand on the issues surrounding homelessness, shelters, affordable housing, and what to do about people who are mentally ill or drug addicted, there’s one thing that struck me in the news item.  It showed once again that Canadian cities don’t have the autonomy they need, and that they will continue to face unique problems because of this lack.

I’ve written several times that it’s wrong that cities in Canada are “creatures of the Provinces” that don’t have real powers while simultaneously the senior levels of government have downloaded (or offloaded, the terms are used interchangeably) more and more responsibilities to them.  Trying to solve homelessness with the limited abilities to raise money that cities in Canada have is a huge challenge.  Compound this with problems posed by people who are seriously mentally ill or drug addicted, and you get a quagmire.

Quagmire, as in beyond “mere” crisis.

Tracey, the woman who died, was approached three times by Vancouver police and asked if she would come inside into a shelter.  She refused, and got quite angry by the third try, which took place around 12:30 a.m. Dec.19.  By 4:30, she had set herself alight.  What’s the city to do?

Here’s what the article says:

[Gregor] Robertson [Vancouver's newly-elected mayor] is considering other ways to remove mentally ill people from the streets in life and death circumstances.

“We can’t literally let people die on our streets that can’t take care of themselves,” he said. “That’s immoral in my mind.”

One of the options is a program called “Code Blue,” where outreach workers can forcibly bring people inside if they’re believe to suffer from mental illness. It’s used in New York when temperatures dip below -9 C.

“It is something to look at,” says Rev. Bruce Curtiss of Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission. “If someone is out there and not in a capacity for whatever reason.”

A final decision could not be made by the city and would rest with B.C.’s provincial government. There’s concern a Canadian version of Code Blue would be unconstitutional.

“The issue there really is ‘are we barred by the charter of rights and freedom from implementing that particular system or is there some other approach that our government could use to help someone like this individual?’” said B.C. Solicitor General John Van Dongen.

Yes, and while the B.C. Solicitor General studies the problem and the city consults with its lawyers, more people will die.

Remember that Vancouver, alone among Canada’s cities (at least in the West) has a Charter of its own, and therefore more autonomy than other Canadian cities.  (It’s a unique fluke that Vancouver has a charter, as far as I understand it. Lucky Vancouver.)

But even Vancouver is hog-tied, if not by the Province (of which, even with a Charter, it is still a “creature”), but also by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which seems to have been concocted at a heady time when all freedoms (especially in the abstract …sorry, do I sound jaundiced?) seemed like a great idea and no one considered that cities would be the refuge of people who are homeless – a difficult enough situation in itself – but who might also pose extra challenges if they are in addition mentally incapacitated or drug addicted to the point where they will simply die on the street unless forced to survive (by being sheltered).

Oh, and don’t forget: Canadian cities are supposed to “solve” all this downloaded misery with 8-cents from every dollar that Canadians pay in taxes, and with property and business taxes they collect from the folks in their municipality. They can’t float bonds and they can’t collect income or consumption taxes.

Quagmire.

Hugeasscity has me thinking about Victoria’s Centennial Square (again)

June 1, 2008 at 1:18 pm | In heritage, land_use, street_life, victoria | 3 Comments

(Note: might add some links/ photos later, but no time now — written on the fly…)

Dan Bertolet of Hugeasscity hits all the right points in his discussion of what makes a good urban plaza.  He includes a “wow!” photo of Seattle’s Garden of Remembrance, which, with its relatively steep grade, allows for steps oriented in such a way that they provide “natural” seating for people who want to “watch the action on 2nd Ave.”

This got me thinking about Victoria’s own piece of urban misery, Centennial Square: it’s very rarely used, and it’s really badly designed.  There’s no reason to be in Centennial Square, which was built by deleting a street, but didn’t replace the street with any reasons for people actually to cross the square.

What follows are my ruminations on Centennial Square, which won’t be of much interest to anyone not familiar with Victoria or the Square, but here goes.

If you’ve ever put on an event at the Square, you’ll know that a big chunk of it lies in the shadow of the old 3-story City Hall, a protected heritage building.  This is the “south-east” part of the Square.  Shadowing from City Hall makes being in that section of the square really uncomfortable, particularly since dank shade isn’t especially welcome anyway in a climate which never gets very hot, even in summer.  What this suggests to me is that this particular plot would be ideal for another building — although I can hear the howls of outrage should any section of City Hall’s north facade be covered up by a new building.  But there might be ways to work that problem, perhaps by incorporating the facade into the interior of an open-to-the-public glassy building.  At any rate, my hypothetical structure would have to be really low-rise, so that the sun could penetrate to the north of it.  A structure built on the edge of Douglas Street would, however, be able to draw more pedestrian traffic, and therefore bring people into the Square itself.

The Square’s north-east section gets full sun (when it’s out), but that section is taken up by one privately-owned lot, plus a string of ugly (and mostly empty) “arcaded” venues (offices, dead shops, dead restaurants) facing into the Square, which are also part of an increasingly decrepit city-owned parkade from the sixties.  The parkade is on the list of structures slated for removal/ replacement.  Douglas Street to the Square’s east is for the most part a thoroughfare, with lots of bus stops, but few reasons for pedestrians to linger on that strip of the block.  To the west, there’s the Royal McPherson Theatre, and the north-west has the new CRD Headquarters building, which isn’t set snug to the north-west corner, but unfortunately is set back quite a ways, with yet another large-ish and hugely underused “plaza” at the corner of Fisgard and Government Streets.

Thinking of Bertolet’s observation, that the Garden of Remembrance provides a vantage point for people- and action-watching, I started to wonder where you could sit in Centennial Square to do anything similar.  The answer?  You can’t.

The Square is resolutely and stubbornly inward-turning: it presents a slightly walled and therefore slightly elevated patch of truly useless lawn with one big tree in the middle on the east edge (Douglas Street).  (For a great aerial shot, see this flickr photo by thebugs.  South is at the top of the photo, north at bottom, east on the left, west on the right. The pink building near the center is City Hall; to the right you can make out the Square’s fountain; directly to the north of City Hall, you can recognize the grassy patch with its lone tree.)

There’s nothing to see from the open grass patch, as it opens up on a part of the block that people hurry along since there’s absolutely nothing to stop for except the bus stop.  And I don’t know about you, but watching people wait for the bus is really seriously depressing.  Vistas to every other street are blocked off, with only two small “enticements” to glimpse some street action on the south-west and the north-west sections.  They’re not bad, but neither are they enough.
Consider, however, that the parkade on the north edge is supposed to come down (in the bottom part of thebugs’s photo), and that perhaps the city could acquire the privately-owned lot on the north-east corner.  There has been talk of replacing those buildings with some kind of new central library and civic auditorium, but let’s think about how that corner might also be worked to create a view cone on to the Hudson project now under renovation (not visible in thebugs’s photo; it would be in the lower left hand portion: part of the roof is visible).  Once it’s fully built out (a conversion of the Hudson Bay department store into condos, plus 2 high-rise towers also for condos and shops), this project, which is a truly large undertaking, should inject a tremendous amount of life into this northern edge of downtown.

It’s just a thought, but:

  • if a glassy “civic” structure were built next to City Hall on its north (because no one wants to be in that dank spot anyway, so you may as well put a building there instead),
  • and the parkade on the Square’s north were replaced with something much better (a library, a civic auditorium),
  • and the private lot on its north-east were acquired, too, then:

It might be an opportunity to reconfigure the Square so that the Douglas Street frontage finally gets some “built interest,” while a clever view cone is opened toward the north-east, which opens onto the Hudson.  The Hudson is in itself a magnificent structure from The Bay’s grand old department store days that literally deserves a view point.  And furthermore, the Hudson will be a potential river of interest-producing activity worth watching once it’s finished and its ground-floor shops are open.  Plus, seen from Centennial Square, the new view would be of a corner, not of a stretch of interest-bereft Douglas Street.  Where things come together (corners) one  usually finds more interesting to see.

Connect the dots: two articles by Miro Cernetig and Bob Ransford that should be read together

March 24, 2008 at 10:16 pm | In addiction, affordable_housing, canada, cities, crime, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, social_critique, street_life, taxes, urbanism, vancouver, victoria | 1 Comment

The Vancouver Sun published two articles, nearly back-to-back, which make a lot of sense when read in conjunction: on March 22, we read Bob Ransford’s As cities become more complex, our taxes keep rising and on March 24 we read Milo Cernetig’s Approach to social woes a moral failure by all three main B.C. parties.

These two articles have to be comprehended together. One (Ransford’s) wants people to understand the economics of taxation that underlie municipal finance, while the other (Cernetig’s) wants people to understand how a certain kind of underfunding has produced the horrible social problems we see in our (BC) cities today. Cernetig references Vancouver, but Victoria has similar problems.

I have for some months now picked up on the criticisms of municipal infrastructure funding in Canada — even going so far as to publish a short piece on Vibrant Victoria on Dec.3/07, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question. The gist of Ransford’s article elaborates on the theme I also addressed in my piece: cities (in my opinion, Canadian cities especially, although Ransford argues that it’s a Western/ First World global problem) are too dependent on single sources of income, primarily property taxes, while so-called senior levels of government (state or provincial, and federal) receive funding from many diverse sources of income: consumption taxes, income taxes, and so on. At the same time, cities are in the front line of having to provide services on every level.

This is lunacy, especially when you take into account the fact that cities generate most of a nation’s economic activity and wealth, and that they also will typically attract the largest populations of people dependent on what is collectively referred to as “services”: supported housing, addiction treatment, food banks, welfare, etc. Poor people come to cities because this is where the services are. Very often, they are in a city’s downtown, which is why you’ll find neighbourhoods in downtowns that become magnets for the visibly needy.

The problem is that these services are underfunded or even non-existent, some having once been funded by one of the two senior levels of government, but now having been off- or downloaded to municipalities.

And there we are, connecting the dots.

The Feds “downloaded” to the Provinces those services that used to be Federally-funded. The Provinces in turn have downloaded Provincially-funded services to the municipalities.

And, …well, the municipalities have no one to download to …except us. And that, in a nutshell, is my argument: citizens — people who live in cities — are shouldering the downloaded costs of all the stuff that all the other levels of government, including the municipalities, used to handle. Beggars on the streets; addicts shooting up in broad daylight; mentally ill people freaking out on corners; homeless people in every nook and cranny of public and private spaces; human feces on the sidewalks and in doorways; used needles in parks and on sidewalks; drug deals transacted openly on downtown streets… The list goes on.

The police refer to the mentally ill who openly use illegal drugs and defecate on the street and sleep in doorways as their “clients.” It seems to have gone by the board that the police shouldn’t be dealing with people on that end of the spectrum of social disorder in the first place — the police should be dealing with criminals and with law enforcement. When the people on that end of the spectrum engage in criminal activity — and they do, because they steal to stay alive and to feed their addictions — the police act like social workers …because that’s the role that has been downloaded to them, too.

Criminals exploit this.

My neighbours, who came home at 11pm on a recent weekend night to find that their basement door had been kicked in by thieves while they were away, thieves who robbed them of various items and who apparently fled just as the family returned home, had to wait for over 12 hours before the police could come over. And why was that? Perhaps they were too busy taking care of “clients”…

We — citizens — are the bottom of the food chain in this story. We — citizens — are the last link to off- or download to. We — citizens — are supposed to feel guilty if we don’t express or display the appropriate level of compassion toward the marginalized. But the citizen might ask herself, “Whatever happened to the idea that I pay my taxes, and that they pay for services intended to ameliorate these conditions?” The citizen still pays her taxes — and pays and pays and pays, if she lives in Canada — and the senior levels of government boast of surpluses. The municipalities, meanwhile, relying almost solely on the property taxes she and the many other citizens in the urban area pay, find themselves shouldering the cost of upgrading ancient infrastructure (sewage, roads, parks, recreation centres, etc.), plus the cost of “helping” the growing pool of service seekers.

But there are no provincial mental hospitals anymore, there is no affordable housing or supportive housing being built by the province or the feds, and all the damage that accrues from this out-casting has been downloaded to Joe and Jane Schmuck, i.e., you and me Citizen Jim and Citizen Jill.

That’s the dot.

Let me just present a couple of extract from the above-mentioned articles. Here’s Ransford:

Am I getting value for dollar for the property taxes I pay to local government? Politicians and bureaucrats at city hall would argue that I am getting more for my dollar than I ever have. Despite the fact that the number of employees at my city hall has grown faster than the rate of local population growth, the people that work there will tell you they are doing much more with fewer resources.

The fact is that cities across the country have become much more complex organizations than they were in the past and they have taken on more and more responsibilities. The federal and provincial governments have downloaded a long list of responsibilities on municipal governments. They have also stopped doing things that they once did as governments and the municipalities have stepped in and taken over where a need had to be met.

Social or non-market housing is a good example. Providing housing for the truly needy used to be almost the sole responsibility of the federal government. They started backing out of this area in the late 1980s and have next to no involvement today in funding what most are identifying is a desperate social need in our urban centres
(…)

The role of municipal governments has evolved. No longer do you look to your municipality merely to fix the potholes in the road in front of your house or to build and maintain the pipes that dispose of the sewage when you flush your toilet..

As Ransford points out (on page 2 of the article), a key problem here is aging populations:

The concept of a tax tied to the value of your home is beginning to make less practical sense with an aging urban population that will soon be dominated by retirees on fixed retirement incomes with all of their equity tied up in relatively expensive homes.

There’s only one kind of civic taxpayer and one source of civic revenue. There is a looming danger that taxpayer will soon no longer be able to fund the full cost of what it takes to run a city.

I would further add to Ransford’s excellent summing-up that Victoria’s troubles are uniquely compounded by our balkanized political system, which splits Victoria into many separate un-amalgamated municipalities (the Capital Regional District, which is all of Victoria, is 13 municipalities, each with its own mayor and council, fire chief, police department, and so on). At the same time, the City of Victoria holds the region’s downtown, the place where everyone comes for services — social services that range from food banks, charities, needle “exchanges,” and plain old week-end partying — many of which require policing and various levels of clean-up. Who pays? The City of Victoria, not the surrounding municipalities, which merely take advantage of what the City offers.

Let’s look at Milo Cernetig’s article now. He gets a gold star (in my book) for slamming all the BC provincial parties — too often and for too long, the problems we’re facing have been presented in partisan terms: it’s the BC Liberals’ fault (note to non-BC readers: the BC Liberals are sort of neo-conservative, and have little in common with the Federal Liberals); or it’s the NDP’s fault, and so on. Yadda yadda yadda. Blah blah blah.

Forget about it. That partisan shit has to stop, because it’s obvious that none of the parties have covered themselves in glory here, and that whole partisan shtick is old beyond words.

Here are some excerpts from Cernetig’s piece:

…here’s the fast-rewind of the amazing arc of policy blunders — given to us by a melange of Social Credit, New Democratic and Liberal governments — that I tried to explain.

First, imagine progressively shrinking the province’s major psychiatric hospital, Riverview, to save money. Then, in a cruel twist, offer no safe harbour for many of those psychiatric patients, who politicians told us would benefit from being “deinstitutionalized” and put back into society.

Instead, let large numbers of these truly desperate souls fend for themselves on our streets. Let them line up for a room in those bedbug-infested flophouses our health inspectors, for reasons that mystify, somehow allow to stay open. While we’re at it, we’ll also slow down the construction of new social housing, too, since it’s too expensive.

(…)
So now we’ve got all these lost souls begging and wandering the city’s downtown, often in a schizophrenic or crystal meth haze.

But we really haven’t done much about it. We’re not good at the tough job of distinguishing between vagrants (who should be moved on by the cops), or chronic criminals (who should be put in jail by judges) and the truly sick (who should be taken to shelters or hospitals by good beat cops, if we had enough of them).

Nope. We somehow got used to the sight of people sprawled on sidewalks and inside the doorways of the world’s “most livable” city.

There it is: another dot: We somehow got used to the sight of people sprawled on sidewalks and inside the doorways of the world’s “most livable” city.

The “somehow” in that sentence is “downloading.” We have been worn down by senior levels of government absenting themselves from the business of governing (a big piece of which includes providing services in exchange for all the money we fork over), and in the British tradition (within which we exist here), we have taken it uncomplainingly up the rear end, “muddling through” and accepting it all as if it were an inevitability.

That’s why we put up with the sight of what Cernetig describes, put up with open drug use, criminal transactions in plain daylight, and lunatics on our streets. In the British tradition, we are, after all, but subjects of these governments, not its master. Just as every level has downloaded — until there’s no one left to download to except to you and me, so every level absolves itself of accountability, because of course there’s always a higher level to defer to. In the last instance, the senior levels can defer to “the Crown,” a cruel joke referencing Canadian impotence.

The emancipation of Canadian cities is a project so inextricably tied to emancipation from old ways of tutelage and subjugation that it will amount to a revolution if it is ever to happen.

Unfortunately, since there has never been a Canadian revolution, I don’t hold out much hope for the emancipation / empowerment of Canadian cities. Perhaps — counter to my current pessimism — we’ll eventually strike some sort of paternalistic bargain with the “higher” levels of government after all. Since they hold the power already, they might grok the problem and step up, if only to maintain their hold.

At this point, I almost don’t care as long as the downloading stops.

Photograph by Ian Lindsay, from Milo Cernetig’s article.

The caption reads “A homeless person sleeps on a Cordova Street sidewalk in February. Figures show that investing in social housing would save B.C. $211 million annually.”

Daily Diigo Public Link 01/29/2008

January 28, 2008 at 5:40 pm | In addiction, crime, links, social_critique, street_life | Comments Off

Boogie: Bleak Street Lifes (PingMag – The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things”) Annotated

tags: boogie, brooklyn, drug_addiction, gangs, interview, nyc, photography, ping_mag, street_life

Interview with “Serbian photographer Boogie [who] grew up in the war-torn region of former Yugoslavia, documenting protests and the disturbing portraits of skinheads. After moving from Belgrade to Brooklyn in 1998, he started observing New York’s bleak street side of life with monochrome shots. Distinctively, his work isn’t emphatic. He doesn’t judge. He is more reporting on a not so distant universe with a fine eye for detail – and a lot of guts. He showed PingMag his depiction of Brooklyn gang life and junkies.” Boogie notes: “‘This whole life is a bunch of choices you make and they just made a couple of wrong ones,’ says photographer Boogie about his series on junkies in Brooklyn.”

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