The Livable Region
December 16, 2006


I think we just had a Katrina Moment.
Weather so sudden, so severe, it scares you.  
The TV News called it the ‘wicked wind’ – a haunting scream at 3 am in the morning. 
The damage wasn’t just physical – though the losses will be deeply felt.  I just saw a downed catalpa, majestic and aged, ripped up by the roots in Stanley Park. 
Maybe the wind storm exposed more than the usual fear, that our technological web is vulnerable.  There’s also the fear of retribution, that nature’s roaring back as a consequence of our actions during the last two and a half centuries.  What’s next?  Because it sure seems likely, as we personally experience what is happening to our planet, that something else is in the works. 
More and more people wonder: How are our leaders going to respond to our anxiety.  One or two Katrina Moments and the agenda changes.  It already has, if Marc Jaccard’s op-ed in the Sun today is any indication.  The author of “Sustainable Fossil Fuels,” an SFU prof in resource management, confronts our provincial politicians: “What did you do for the Atmosphere, Daddy?”

 … my bet is that B.C.’s cabinet ministers will avoid telling their children about the difference they could have made.

That’s a pretty tough charge.  ‘You don’t care about your own kids?  About our future?’
Jaccard is looking at their decision to allow coal-burning power plants with no carbon capture.  He argues that the technologies exist, so is the Provincial Government really going to allow two coal-burning power plants without requiring carbon capture and storage?  That’s like saying, ‘I’m not taking climate change seriously, even in this new climate of anxiety.’
“Climate of anxiety” were the words used to headline Pete McMartin’s column, also in the Sun today.  He too got the spooky implications of our Katrina Moment; he even connected it to that “End of the World” headline a few weeks ago – with a McMartin twist.  Mother Nature is more a ‘vengeful bitch.’
It really isn’t surprising that politicians would prefer to avoid addressing climate change, given that they have to balance all the issues, find a way to respond credibly to the science, craft policy, approve legislation and allocate dollars for a danger that is distant.  But Katrina Moments require that our leaders respond, that they find the right words, and lead us at a time when we don’t know what the wind will bring.

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Author Karrie Jacobs – the keynote speaker at mid-October’s Affordable Housing by Design conference – has some nice things to say after her tour of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver:

In these three Pacific North­west cities, the progressive power of urban planning is taken very seriously, and concepts like livability and sustainability dominate the local civic culture to such an extent that to visit all three in rapid succession, as I did in October, is to drop in on another country. It’s not the United States or Canada, but a more highly evolved combination of the two.

In her Metropolis Magazine column – Revenge of the Small – she was impressed with how Vancouver came up with a “a new menu of housing variety,” potentially creating 20,000 additional units.  Approved styles here and in Portland seem too traditional for her contemporary taste, but she recognizes the signficance of the move to smaller homes:

In an era when ever-bigger houses are the norm, Portland and Vancouver’s carefully vetted plans might help other North American cities and towns promote domestic downsizing. That would be no small accomplishment.

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December 14, 2006

Toronto Star urban-design critic Christopher Hume weighs in on one of his favourite topics: how bad TO’s planning process is – and how (relatively) good Vancouver’s is. Key quote:

The fact is that in Toronto, local councillors have more influence than the planning department. But because their main focus is getting re-elected, they tend to do what they think voters want, not what’s best for the city. This has lead to a system that favours NIMBY concerns over civic interests.
As former Vancouver chief planner Larry Beasley pointed out, “You (in Toronto) are in a system that is more prone to political interference and politicians’ tastes.”
Beasley blamed the ward-based system that turns local representatives into ward bosses. In Vancouver, voters elect councillors-at-large. That city has also eliminated politicians from the development process.
“We keep negotiations out of the hands of politicians,” he explained. “Government leads, not individuals.”
Given the unseemly closeness of politicians and developers throughout southern Ontario, the Vancouver approach makes obvious sense.

The complete column is here.

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December 14, 2006

The worst drought in Australia’s recorded history continues  – as does the annual mayhem of bushfire season.  So regular an occurrence is this that Aussie newspapers host a kind of contest, as readers send in their best photographs, such as these from Melbourne’s The Age:

Some of the most surreal scenes show no sign of the fires themselves, just the sense of a smothered world transformed.

On the other side of the planet, from today’s Guardian:

Britain is on course for the warmest year since records began, according to figures from the Met Office and the University of East Anglia yesterday …
The record year has astounded scientists. “What’s phenomenal about this year is that some of these months have broken records by incredible amounts. This year it was 0.8C warmer in autumn and 0.5C warmer between April and October than the previous warmest years. Normally these records are broken by around one tenth of a degree or so,” said Prof Jones. 

Meanwhile, back home: business as usual.  Don Cayo in today’s Sun reports on the ‘New West’ conference at which Gordon Campbell was at “his business-boosting best,” pushing the Gateway Project and apparently leaving the issues of smarter, cleaner technologies for energy use to others. 
I’ve been asking others why, in the face of dramatic and accumulating evidence with respect to climate change, Gordon Campbell has nothing to say.  It confounds others too, who assume that there is no support in a cabinet moving to the right, with an agenda of job creation and revenue enhancement from fossil fuels, to address this inconvenient truth.
But then, beetle-damaged pine forests don’t make for good photo opportunities.
UPDATE, Dec 17, 2007: In addition to reporting on bushfires, Aussie newspapers also have to cover storms – “the biggest we’ve ever seen on the Sunshine Coast in years.”

The Sunshine Coast resort of Noosa is expected to run out of water by the end of today if power is not restored to the area’s only water treatment plant.
Power failed after a series of devastating storms in the state yesterday.
Heavy rain and wind gusts up to 120km/h brought down trees and power lines, damaged buildings and ripped roofs from homes on the Sunshine Coast, at Toogoolawah and Esk, west of Brisbane and at Tiaro, north of Brisbane, late yesterday afternoon.

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As a member of the Sightline Board, I always like to share insights from Alan Durning. Here’s a link to his piece on the latest development in car-sharing:

The typical moving car in the Pacific Northwest has a driver and no passengers: it has four or more spare seats. (If you doubt this, do a quick visual census on the roads. Seeing even two people in a car is unusual.)
So, if someone can figure out how to broker the rental of some of those unused seats, she or he will be rich, and the driver and rider will save money by the oil barrel.
Up to now, the biggest obstacle to such a market has been information. How can drivers and riders find each other? How can they know whether to trust each other? How can they ensure payment?
That’s where the Seattle start-up Goose Networks comes in. Goose has built a real-time ridesharing system that links riders with drivers by combining text-messaging mobile phones, mapping software, a clever database, and a billing system for splitting the cost of fuel.

Follow the link for the rest of the piece.

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What are we supposed to make of this:

This story came and went in the Sun three weeks ago, and no one seemed to think it unusual.

Nearly three-quarters of british Columbians believe life as we know it will end in another two or three generations unless drastic and immediate action is taken to curb global warming …

The headline is clearly overwrought. But the story is significant: people really think climate change is a big deal.
There are two kinds of leadership these days. Bush, Harper and Howard represent the school that hopes, by ignoring the underlying anxiety, action can be deferred. Unfortunately, Nature is not cooperating.
Blair, Gore and Dion represent the school that believes it’s time to get serious. But they haven’t put forth proposals or plans equal to the threat.
The danger is that this vacuum will be filled by apocolyptic charlatans, those for whom the end of the world offers a wonderful opportunity for power.
Or am I missing something?
Update: According to Gristmill: A 72% of majority of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa say they consider global warming to be extremely (32%) or very (39%) serious — while another 15% say it is fairly serious. Only 11% dismiss it as just somewhat (9%) or not at all serious (2%).
What is it about 72 percent?

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If you like Google Earth, you’ll love VirtualCity – a pedestrian view of Toronto (or at least a good portion of the central city).  This beta version allows you to see streetscapes lot by lot, image by image, with a very user-friendly interface.  Check it out.  If you’re knowledgeable about TO, expect to spend some time.

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December 10, 2006

Timothy Thomas, regular PT reader, sends the following plea:

Here’s a piece on the superb new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, with instructive parallels for Vancouver. It is hoped that this building, its compelling design matching its dramatic harbour-side setting, will spark a re-birth of progressive architecture there, in a city not not for its creative contemporary architecture.

Boston has done for brick what Vancouver done for sea foam green glass. Enough already! This kind of architectural kick-start is a fond wish many of us have for the much-rumoured possibility of a new site for the VAG. (Wanted: bold elegance. Please: no more polite pablum!). Any update on the plans for the new VAG (and the other new cultural sites in the offing, if possible). Is it still planned for False Creek?

I’ve recently heard that the cultural precinct planned for the old Larwell Park site (between Cambie and Beatty) is on hold. Any news anyone?
Update: Sources from City Hall say the project is still on track – but no details.

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This shot is taken from a window on the top floor of the Dominion Building, looking east of course, towards Burnaby Mountain, with all the ridges in between.  (That’s what distinguishes East Van: ridges and vales, creating micro-neighbourhoods of special character.) We were waiting, camera in hand: within the hour, the old Woodward’s building, a block away, would be imploded.

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  Check out this interview with Michael Kluckner by Charles Campbell in The Tyee. 
Here’s a clip:

On density as an excuse for redevelopment:
“If the current [Vancouver] council collectively had a brain, they would realize that eco-density is an area like South Granville. These walk-up apartments — that to me is eco-density. There are 10 suites on a 66-foot lot. They’re affordable suites. If you tore that place down, and replaced it with a building that was in theory more environmentally friendly, it would take you about 40 years to pay back the energy that you used in building the new place. Plus you would lose affordability, which is another aspect of what I think of as eco-density. These are the people that walk, that tend to use transit, that are supporting the local businesses.
“We may come back in five years and find that the neighbourhood has changed because the buildings have been torn down and replaced by wildly ostentatious crap that people are building — the ‘limited collection of fine residences’ — and I think you’ll find that the net density will not really have gone up and affordability will be out the window. The place will work in a less environmentally friendly way, and you’ll lose heritage.”

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