My latest Business in Vancouver column:
The NPA has lost the last two civic elections. It’s time for a new approach.
In 2011, the strategy was one of ridicule for the Visionista’s green agenda: chickens in the backyard, wheat in the front. In 2014 it had a more presentable candidate and a more subtle approach: dog-whistling key words to base. With bike lanes, for instance, the requirement for “community backing” could be interpreted as “no more of that annoyance” without actually having to say so.
But Kirk LaPointe did one thing well: he restored the NPA’s credibility. He worked with a good slate of candidates, and they worked well together – with leadership and funding by some key business people. Even if he wasn’t likely to beat Gregor Robertson, he might have taken away the Vision majority. But in the end, the NPA came up short on council, sadly losing the 10th spot. (Ian Robertson, who missed by a narrow margin, might have been the NPA’s next best shot at the mayor’s chair.)
So NPA, what now? (Disclosure: I was an NPA councillor from 1986 to 2002, under mayors Gordon Campbell and Philip Owen.)
First, recognition that the NPA base is no longer big enough, even with a fractured political spectrum on the left. The NPA reflects the worldview of those who mostly have it made – homeowners in particular, whether on the Westside or Southeast. But it doesn’t have an aspirational vocabulary for the young and insecure, who have a different view of Vancouver than those from the aging single-family neighbourhoods.
Second, it has to embrace – not just begrudgingly accept – that lifestyles are changing when it comes to how we get around. Those annoying bike lanes are a manifestation of something that’s neither trivial nor temporary.
The NPA failure to get it was articulated by LaPointe in two words: counterflow lanes.
It was a minor promise in the scheme of things – “create counterflow lanes and utilize technology to reduce congestion on major arterial routes” – and the appeal was understandable, particularly for someone like LaPointe, who lives in the University Endowment Lands and works in North Vancouver, and no doubt has to battle traffic on that route. Why wouldn’t people want an easier way to drive through the city?
He clearly did not grasp that those two words meant the reversal of two generations of policy, mostly by NPA councils, with respect to auto capacity in this city. LaPointe would have been the first Vancouver mayor in memory to say to suburban drivers: Come on back. All is forgiven!
It wasn’t a serious proposal. But it was a kind of code, along with more free parking, that was meant to signal a return to the city that Vancouver was in the 20th century, not the city it was in the process of becoming – albeit with some surprising clumsiness on the part of the Vision council. The NPA, if it expects to govern, has to depart from the comfort and convention of that past.
“Transparency,” “consultation” and “conversation” are not substitutes for a real vision of the this city, one that resonates with the way of life being adopted by the people who want to live here but know that it will be under vastly different circumstances than those who have paid off their mortgages and get to cash out.
When it comes to contentiously symbolic issues, the NPA has to embrace not just bike lanes but the entire strategy of active transportation and lifestyles, with actual proposals and policies to expand their reach.
And fortunately, it has the opportunity.
The NPA now has control of the park board, a traditional place for the next generation of municipal leaders. And it’s the place that will have to finally figure out how to design and build bike routes through major parks, primarily Stanley, and connect to the network that surrounds and joins up its entire system. No park board in the last three decades has provided the political will and funding to resolve it.
And of course, there’s the outstanding question of what to do about Hadden Park at Kitsilano Point.
The NPA park board can now provide leadership; it can demonstrate how it more effectively works with the community – the cyclists, the residents, park users of every kind – to resolve conflict; it can provide vision for the future; it can change its image and back it up with real projects and commitments.
The NPA park commissioners can demonstrate that the NPA itself is the party of an aspirational future, not the declining voices of a begrudging past.