Yesterday, Part I of our exit interview with District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton covered issues demonstrating the typical range of concerns acknowledged by mayors in other cities.
Such as the appearance of traffic backups from the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge to Lower Lonsdale in 2012, within days of the opening of the Port Mann Bridge…25 kilometres away. The critical, cross-jurisdictional piece of North Shore infrastructure that he believes everyone has forgotten about. And the reasons why mistrust and resentment are brewing away in one District community, on the basis of new developments, lack of housing affordability, and traffic.
Check it out, and read Part II below — on North Van being caught in the missing middle, on engaging the community on change, and what that change may need to look like in the near future.
Have people had to leave the district, or do you believe they’re creating alternative housing arrangements?
I’ll use North Vancouver District Hall as an example —with retirements, we’ve had 50% staff turnover in five years. We’re doing everything we can to retain our younger folks. They’d all love to live on the North Shore. One of my assistants was telling me she lives in east Vancouver in a house with five or six other people, and every weekend they love being really close to the Ironworkers [Memorial Bridge]; all their recreation is done in the [Mt] Seymour area and Grouse [Mountain]. They love the parks. The challenge for them, of course, is getting to work everyday and getting back.
At the end of the day, it’s a crapshoot. People want to get across the harbour, and they’re not right on a Skytrain line. So it’s a lot more basement suites, people sharing houses. We’re building a lot of housing, and shifting into more non-market housing, we’re finding the demand is constantly outstripping the supply. Which of course has not enabled prices to come down. Prices are actually going up, along with supply.
We see more people living in Burnaby and Vancouver in condos and townhouses,for example, and as a result they don’t have a backyard, they don’t have a garden. When the weekend comes, they want to recreate. And where do they recreate? All you have to do is look out your window and see the North Shore.
So we’re finding that traffic is often as bad in Seymour and the Deep Cove area for example — it’s an area that’s been under siege the last few years. These are very often people who just simply live in other areas of Metro Vancouver who want to get out and spend some time in the country for fresh air and green space. And we’ve got areas that aren’t local anymore on weekends, they’re major tourist destinations.
What advice would you give to an aspiring candidate for public office?
One is, it takes several years to really understand the complexity of the relationships to serve effectively in a larger community as councillor or mayor. And I think it’s really important to come in to be prepared to listen and learn.
A lot of people run for office, as I did, with preconceived notions. It’s very easy to point out what’s wrong; it’s much harder to work with six other people on a council and come up with collective solutions. And those collective solutions will be second-guessed by an interested and passionate electorate every step of the way.
The second thing is admit mistakes. Admit to them, and you need to develop a thick skin and rise above the fray. Facebook and Twitter can become such a distraction that you literally become a slave to the moment. I would strongly caution people about getting to heavily involved with Facebook and Twitter. On the one hand, it does make you accessible and does let you listen and develop close relationships with the public, which is critical.
At the same time, often vision is created by looking years ahead. And in order to look years ahead you have to do a lot of outside reading, you’ve got to have a lot of discussions with other people, and sometimes the vision and the solution to the current litany of concerns and complaints is challenging. Connecting the two takes an awful lot of time. So I would strongly caution against getting absorbed too heavily in Twitter and Facebook.
Read voraciously. There’s so much good material out there and news online — newspaper and magazines. The Economist, the New York Times…I read probably about seven or eight hours a week just to keep abreast of all the various issues that could affect us as a council.
And one thing I say is people tend to not differentiate between the symptom of a disease and the disease itself. People will focus on traffic, and they’ll talk about traffic, saying “Build another bridge.” But in reality building bridges is not the disease. The disease is often the way we live, the fact that we’ve created open boundaries in our school systems, where people are driving their kids to school. The fact that we vote down transit referendums that will put more money into connecting us better. Very often it’s easy to say, “Traffic is a nightmare. If I get elected, I’m going to solve the traffic problem.” But you need to understand what caused the traffic problem before you can come up with a solution.
I find often it takes time to dig deeper and understand the issue at a more visceral level. That does take time, and again that’s where Facebook and Twitter sometimes pull you away from that deeper understanding.
What should citizens understand about governing?
One of the challenges I mentioned is that often decisions on policy can evolve at a glacial pace. And better communities do it involving their citizens in discussions about solutions.
For example, our OCP took four years and I think we had something like 5,000 of our residents involved in attending meetings over the years. It took probably three years longer than we thought, because of the level of engagement we thought needed to happen. So the thing people have to understand is the more you want to engage with your community — and we do a very good job with engaging here — it does take time and it does take money. It takes a lot of staff time and money to go out, engage, collect information, synthesize it, go back and check in.
People do need to understand that we can’t make a lot of decisions quickly. Again, I come back to TransLink. Funding from four levels of government. The amount of buy-in to get where we are with our transportation policy is massive.
What’s the greatest challenge regionally?
We are going to have to compromise our lifestyles in the future. There’s no question, because people at this point with busy lives, they’re struggling to pay the bills. They say, “Give me more road capacity. I need to get where I’m going quickly, I need to be efficient.The economy needs it.” The challenge is very often that most of the cities in the world are growing more quickly than you can solve problems just by building more road capacity. And Metro Vancouver is one of the most complex regions in the world.
Rivers, inlets, pinch-points, the cost of building bridges —there’s limits to building an auto-centric culture. We have to get used to modifying our lifestyles, and potentially demand management pricing, in order for us to make sure that people are getting through those pinch-points at critical times. Transit doesn’t offer them an option. They may have to end up paying, and the only way you can do that is because you need to get some of the people who do have options to look at carpooling. To look at taking a little longer to get to work. To look at working one day a week from home.
Those kinds of things have to happen. And government is going to have to intervene more with demand management policies in order to offset the costs of just building more infrastructure.
Will you stay involved in politics in any way?
I don’t know.I certainly don’t think I’ll run for office again at the municipal level. I’ll stay involved, but that doesn’t necessarily mean running for elected office. I think it’s important to lay the groundwork.
I think there are only seven mayors running again; two-thirds of the mayors are going to be replaced. I’ll continue to be interested, and I’ll continue to help people when they ask for my advice, and hopefully I’ll add some value.
And I think I’ve had a good long run, and it’s time for other people to do it.