Design & Development
June 3, 2007

Sustainability as National Defence

 My Business in Vancouver column this week:

Leaders need to view sustainability as a policy of national defence
More than ever, politicians are confounded by the Gap. And I’m not talking jeans.
Between the outer edge of what is politically possible and the inner edge of what is necessary, that’s where you find the Expectations Gap.
Leaders, of course, have always been aware of the difference between what people say they want and what they’re prepared to do.  A good illustration was the Vancouver Sun poll on how British Columbians would personally respond to the challenge of climate change. Over three-quarters said they’d be prepared “to make significant changes in lifestyle”; less than half would pay an extra hundred dollars a year in income tax.
Because taxes are the sincerest form of commitment, few politicians want to be that sincere. But not much is left, after the lightbulbs have been changed, that would make a difference. Still, damn it, nature didn’t get the memo. And now that planetary systems are becoming less predictable, the Expectations Gap could narrow too, in unpredictable ways.

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George Monbiot asks the question in The Guardian that we should be asking about Gateway:

… it should be pretty obvious that more roads and more airports will mean that our rising use of transport fuel becomes hardwired – the future health of the economy will depend on it. So the government must have examined this question. If our economic lives depend on continued growth in the consumption of transport fuels, it must first have determined that such growth is possible. Mustn’t it?

Can you guess the answer?  Here.

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I’ve often wondered what sort of worldview comes from being raised on Vancouver Island. Thomas Homer-Dixon is its most thoughtful native at the moment, and he has an important piece in today’s Globe and Mail.
Here if you subscribe.

Prepare today for tomorrow’s breakdown

What causes societies to collapse, and are our modern societies at risk of collapse themselves? Many of us, today, have the intuition that things are out of control and that our societies could crash. We see headlines about extreme weather, impending oil shortages, avian flu and horrible terrorism in distant places. Some people, especially those of a religious disposition, even think we’re entering end times. Parallels with ancient Rome are common; images of doom abound in preaching and fiction.

Not cheery reading on a day like today.  But worth it.

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It’s taken awhile, but finally some in the media have made the connection between climate change and the Gateway Project.   Saturday, the Sun’s Suzuki issue.  Today, from the Globe and Mail ….

Campbell’s expansion plans at odds with going green

GARY MASON
VANCOUVER — Only a few short months ago, he was the toast of tree huggers everywhere.
Gordon Campbell had pledged to do his bit to save the planet, and even British Columbia’s notoriously skeptical greenies felt compelled to raise a glass of carrot juice in his honour.
But that was February, this is May. Now some of the country’s leading voices on climate change are coming out against the Liberal Premier. The shift in wind direction has been astonishing.
Behind the mood change is the provincial government’s Pacific Gateway initiative. Under the $3-billion plan, highways in the Lower Mainland will be expanded and a bridge twinned to alleviate the worst traffic congestion in the country.

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No doubt the Minister of Transportation, Kevin Falcon, would like to thank all those who criticized TransLink for its failings and lack of accountability.  That provided the necessary cover to ‘reform’ an organization which had few defenders.  And to turn it over to an unelected board dominated by business interests.
Though there’s not been a lot of coverage in the major media, the proposed governance model is not going uncriticized.   Most effectively, Johnny Carline, the CAO of the GVRD, weighed in with a report that was affirmed by the Board.
You can read the whole report here.  But here’s the critical thrust:

… the Panel Report recommends that the new TransLink Board be composed of appointees with a strong emphasis on business expertise. That expertise is important in any governance model. It is usual to assume that senior staff will bring many of these skills to an organization and that it is desirable that a body of elected officials on a governing body includes business expertise amongst its skill set.

But to make ‘business expertise’ the central focus and overwhelming emphasis of what will be the effective governing body for transportation within the region is to take a dangerously narrow view of transportation as a ‘business’ divorced from its broader, vital public policy role.

If, however, it is to be argued that the new business Board will in fact be responsible for making the public policy decisions centrally involved in urban transportation decision making, and that having an ‘expert’ board unaccountable to the electorate is an appropriate model for such a role, then it would appear that far more than amending the governance of TransLink may be happening. The whole concept of what is considered to be politics and democracy versus what is considered to be business may be under reconstruction.  (My emphasis.)

In other words, the new TransLink is fundamentally undemocratic.  To turn the future of this region over to those whose allegiances will be suspect doesn’t pass the smell test. 

But will people in this region raise a stink?

 

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The Minister of Transportation is turning TransLink over to a special-interest group. One board member will be appointed by the Province, another by the Mayors’ Council, and the rest put forward by:
o Institute of Chartered Accountants of BC;
o Vancouver Board of Trade;
o Greater Vancouver Gateway Society.
No transit users, no community-based groups, no cyclists, no land-use planners, no one but business.
Hence, no legitimacy.

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The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman talks and writes in sound bites: clever distillations of his thinking that, at worst, are fatuous catch-phrases, and, at best, enter the global vocabulary because they effectively sum up in a memorable way the currents of our time.  Some think “the world is flat” is both.
He just wrote an extended essay in the Sunday magazine this weekend – “The Power of Green” – that is chock full of Friedmanisms.  Here’s a sampling:

…. the three major issues facing every American today: jobs, temperature and terrorism.

How do our kids compete in a flatter world? How do they thrive in a warmer world? How do they survive in a more dangerous world?
… these problems are so large in scale that they can only be effectively addressed by an America with 50 green states — not an America divided between red and blue states.
We don’t just need the first black president. We need the first green president. We don’t just need the first woman president. We need the first environmental president.
The next president will have to rally us with a green patriotism. Hence my motto: “Green is the new red, white and blue.”

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Last November, I wrote a post (here) on the dilemma of the three-storey walk-up, the plain stucco boxes that proliferated in the apartment districts of Vancouver from 1945-55:

For the last three decades, these buildings have been a reserve of lower-middle-income affordable rental housing….
When the real-estate market was hot in the late 1980s, … low-rise apartments were being replaced by highrise condos with less units. Result: population density reduced, housing affordability lost, views compromised, tenants distressed, neighbours angry, politicians unhappy. Pretty much a lose-lose all the way around.
The Council responded by imposing a rate-of-change condition on vulnerable neighbourhoods like the West End, in addition to a rezoning that took away much of the incentive to redevelop. More positively, developers were redirected …
This combination took the pressure off, rents remained stable, evictions were almost unheard of, and, as they say, the dog didn’t bark…. (But) if there’s any significant loss in the affordability of the three-storey walkup, then, believe me, the pit-bull of politics will be unleashed.

So … who let the dogs out?

As regular PT reader Sungsu noted in a comment, a just-released report from City Hall tallies up some of the recent damage:

In Kerrisdale, an issued development permit allows 41 strata units to replace 67 rental housing units at 5951 Balsam (Bermuda Manor). The sale price for the new units is almost $900 per square foot. A second approved development application at 2260 West 39th allows the replacement of 23 rental housing units by 12 strata units … (The city has already had to issue demolition permits for 260 rental housing units this year alone.)

In the Sun today, Frances Bula sums up the recommendations from staff:

…. any demolition or conversion to strata would have to come to council for approval. While the door is left ajar for developers who come to the city with creative proposals to build replacement housing, it would be shut for anyone who simply wants to tear down old rental apartment buildings to replace them with strata-title condominiums.

Next Tuesday, Council will be asked to approve a recommendation to go to a public hearing – effectively freezing any further development applications.

I don’t think Council has much choice on this. As the report notes, the city no longer has large (or even many small) development sites to take the pressure off the existing rental stock. And another story in the Sun explains why that pressure is so excrutiating:

(Relator Bob) Rennie thinks prices may level off, but doesn’t see any dramatic drop.

It can’t keep going up as fast as it has been,” he says.

But we watch for what levels it off — interest rates, if we’re not working, or there’s an oversupply. You just watch those three things, and none of them seem to be visible on the horizon.”

The other factor, of course, is that a substantial amount of Vancouver real estate sells to people who don’t live here. Some are from Europe and Asia, some from the U.S., some from Alberta. Rennie estimates 15 to 20 percent of downtown condos are sold to non-residents. And he sees the 2010 Olympics as a $5 billion advertising campaign for Vancouver’s high quality of life, which may attract more international attention.

The thing that nobody likes to admit is that Vancouver at a certain level is looked at as a resort city,” says Rennie.
“Nobody likes to talk about it, but we are.”

I hesitate to use the cliche ‘perfect storm,’ but there are a lot of heavy breezes blowing – and any local politician who fails to respond could well be blown away.

The problem, of course, is that stopping change rarely achieves any solution. Some way has to be found for the aging housing stock to be replaced without sacrificing the lower-middle-income renters.

Over 50 per cent of Vancouver households, and over 80 per cent of younger households, are renters. They face a triple whammy: Rapidly rising condominium prices price low-income earners out of home ownership; redevelopment of rental buildings is eroding the housing stock; and income growth is not keeping up with increasing rents.

That’s a lot of voters.

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Speaking of convenience stores (below), here’s another take from Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain.  (There are some books you know from the first page are going to be good reads.  This is one of them.)
A gas station owner with a convenience store can make more money selling water than gas – at least if the water has sugar in it.
Markup on gas: 7 percent, and falling.
Markup on sunglasses: 100 percent.
Markup on ice: 60 percent
Markup on candy: 43 percent.
Markup on cigarettes: 19 percent.
Best of all is what’s in the ‘vault’ – the coolers, always opposite the door, that bring in a high percentage of the store’s profits.
Impulse buys make up three-quarters of the $132 billion (US) Americans spend in convenience stores.  After driving around, looking to save a few cents, complaining loudly about the price of gas, we happily blow it on sugared water.

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A Price Tags reader was reading Michael Geller’s blog entry on Australia’s Gold Coast, and one of the things that jumped out at him was this:

There is a 50-per-cent cap on the number of foreigners who can buy into any new multi-family building in Australia.

“Very interesting,” he thought, “particularly given the apparently high rates of foreign/absentee ownership in our downtown core.  …. There are fears that we are becoming a “resort city” of sorts.  Could the City actually legislate a restriction on foreign ownership?  Or tax foreign investors with multiple homes differently…. and perhaps use increased revenue to fund more social housing?”
So how much foreign ownership is there?  He asked a numbers guy who works with census data (and since I haven’t asked whether he’d mind seeing his name in print, we’ll keep calling him Numbers Guy):

For the first time this census includes numbers of permanently occupied and total numbers of dwellings (by block) so it’s possible to see the ‘occupation rate’ of city blocks.  

Among the lowest is Coal Harbour, which you’d expect, and even there 60% of the dwellings are occupied by permanent residents. Concord Pacific runs at between 75% and 90% occupied by permanent residents. Some of the vacant units will of course be just that, those being sold or bought or rented, but empty on Census day. Some of the ‘absentees’ are Albertans, so until we make them leave Canada and join Texas as a confederation, we can’t really penalise them. Of course, they already pay more tax as they’re not able to get the homeowners grant (and they consume very few city services when they’re not around).

That won’t settle the issue, of course.  But it certainly reflects the difference between Canada and Australia on immigration policy (5.85 migrants per thousand population for Canada; 3.85 for Australia) and acceptance rates for asylum seekers  (36 percent for Canada; 20 percent for Australia).

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