Governance & Politics
January 26, 2007

Denigrating Mr. Sullivan

The most circulated article around City Hall yesterday was Gary Mason’s column in the Globe and Mail. (Here, if you’re a subscriber.)

While Mayor Sam Sullivan’s Eco-Density initiative hasn’t produced much excitement locally, it’s drawing attention elsewhere.
The program, which promotes increasing density as a means of reducing our collective impact on the planet, is the subject of a lengthy and mostly positive examination in a recent issue of Planning, a highly influential magazine put out by the American Planning Association.

Around here, not only hasn’t Eco-Density generated much excitement, it’s been generally denigrated – rather like the Mayor himself.
Even ostensibly neutral articles about Sam Sullivan often start with the assumption that he’s been a disappointment. And I can’t figure out quite why. A third of it is just the lazy cynicism of our times, opposition grousing and a hostile columnist or two. It comes with the territory. Another third of the negativity may be that, on one hand, he lacks the charisma and glad-handing bonhomie we expect of public figures – and, on the other, nervous reaction to the eccentric persona revealingly displayed in the recent biopic, Citizen Sam.
But the other third mystifies me.
People are accusing him of lacking leadership and failing to put forward policies. Or putting out too many blue-sky ideas and grandiose visions. Of not providing enough detail – or too much. Of moving too quickly – or not fast enough. It’s hard to take this too seriously, since it mainly comes from the chattering class, in which I include myself.
But what I absolutely do not get is criticism of Eco-Denisty by those who should be roundly supporting the concept and cheering from the sidelines when a politician is courageous enough to even mouth the “D” word.
The notion that this is simply retread policy already implemented by previous councils is full of bull. When the APA figures it’s news, it’s new.
And so does the Director of Planning. When Brent Toderian was taking his PowerPoint on the road to introduce himself and present his intial thinking, it didn’t take him long to make a few unequivocal statements about Eco-Density. Don’t believe what you read about Eco-Density being business as usual, I recall him saying. The Planning Department will be reporting back to council with policy that will break with the status quo. What council chooses to do with that is up to them – but they’re going to get what they asked for. And Toderian knows how unusual it is to get a Mayor to ask for it.

There is no question it’s gaining traction,” Mr. Toderian says. “The ideas of livability and sustainability have been two things that have for a long time been very subjective.
“The power of the ecological footprint is that it takes away some of that subjectivity. It gives us a way to measure and quantify things. You can now calculate your own personal footprint and I can tell you it can be shocking when you see it.”
Vancouver is experimenting with many options to eco-densify, including converting single-family houses to three-dwelling units without changing the facade of the home. Otherwise known as invisible density. The city has appealed to residents for their own ideas of how to densify intelligently.
“I don’t think there is a city better positioned to have this discussion,” Mr. Toderian says. “Vancouverites, better than most, can make the connection between their living patterns, density patterns and issues like climate change.”
Which is an issue that seems to be framing every discussion we have these days.

Sullivan was prescient. What he did, by staking his office on densification, was courageous. Whether it was foolish and naive is yet to be seen, and we’ll only know when citizens react to the policies that respond to his mandate. But anyone who is criticizing him for lack of vision, action or originality isn’t paying attention or simply doesn’t like him.

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In a comment to “Car-less in Vancouver,” Seattle reader Patrick McGrath asks:

Are societal ills like those mentioned in the Sun articles (here and here) part of your calculus when you teach about increased density, nonmotorized transport, etc? If so, how do you address the intersection of your work with those issues?

A tough question, and one I’ve struggled with over the years, both as a writer and politician. Given the recent headlines and letters in the local papers, the subject of street disorder is one a lot of Vancouverites are struggling with today. In Alan Durning’s comments referenced in the previous post, he notes that the city’s mayor Sam Sullivan “sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance.”
So let me add some perspective.

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