November 5, 2019

No Days Off for Sarah Blyth or the Downtown Eastside

Sarah Blyth first started to see the spike in drug overdoses in the Downtown Eastside community in 2016.

From her vantage point as manager of the DTES Market, she couldn’t help but see it. People were literally dying in the street.

So she decided to do something about it. Rob sums it up: “You saw the need, set up a tent, and tried to save lives”. Yup.

Blyth’s role as founder and Executive Director of the Overdose Prevention Society is the latest in a series of contributions to the city by a person who, as much as anyone here, can speak to having lived a life of privilege, marginalization, social entrepreneurship, leadership, selflessness, and grace under extreme pressure. (And she’s not even halfway through.)

Blyth, the former skateboard advocate, Park Board Commissioner, and City Council candidate, fields the tough questions from Gord — specifically on the question of safe supply and induced demand. They circle around housing insecurity and authority in Oppenheimer Park, tangle on addiction, and there’s a quick tease about Tyndall’s machine.

And of course, the big question — will she run again? Maybe she should.

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It wasn’t that long ago that British Columbians were saying, “What the hell is going on in Maple Ridge?”

In 2014, voters elected Nicole Read as mayor of the region’s eastern outpost …and then subjected her to a virulent strain of online harassment which, after two years, resulted in threats that prompted an RCMP investigation, and ultimately her decision to not rerun in the 2018 election.

The reason for the harassment? The appearance of a homeless camp in an empty lot at a cul-de-sac on Cliff Avenue within six months of her election, alongside Mayor Read’s apparent desire to project empathy for those occupying it, and efforts (fruitless for some time) to work with the provincial government to house them permanently in the ‘regular city’. While that work was underway, the camp at Cliff Ave begat one at Anita Place and, well…it’s still a work in progress. But this time, despite sustained inner conflict amongst the city’s leadership, Maple Ridge is doing the work in cooperation with Coast Mental Health, BC Housing, and the Province of BC.

The problem with the ‘protest camp’, says councillor Ahmed Yousef in this wide-ranging interview, were the three types of people thwarting progress. First, the ‘sympathy brigade’ in Maple Ridge took it upon themselves “to be so righteous” in providing sympathy for the homeless, many of them “aggressive panhandlers”. Next was the ‘revolutionary brigade‘ — non-residents who came into the city “to do away with capitalism and private property”, and espouse free everything to everyone. Then there were those behind the ‘so-called treatment centres’, who he felt were not there to help individuals, but to go after government contracts for the funding (“as long as you have a body in the bed,” was his view of their motivation).

While homelessness and criminal behaviour in Maple Ridge may reflect the impact of the lack of non-market housing, poverty, and social and health challenges afflicting the most vulnerable of the city’s 80,000-plus residents, Yousef — who experienced hard times and homelessness himself in Maple Ridge, at one point sleeping in his car — is skeptical that housing is a moral right in Canada. A resident since 2010 and a citizen for 3 years, Yousef claims there’s a difference between people who have fallen on hard times and deserve the social safety network (like himself), and those with mental health issues, who legitimately require medical care, but perhaps not a home, and certainly not to be warehoused.

It is perhaps for this reason — the tyranny of being lumped in the same category as those who, for some reason, lacked the bootstraps, or the will to pull them up, or the necessary medical support needed to learn how to pull bootstraps — that he dislikes the term ‘homeless’.

What else do we learn about Yousef? That in his journey from Egypt to Nebraska to Kuwait to Canada, the well-educated, interfaith-curious anywhere person found a home in Maple Ridge, and has slowly become a community-oriented somewhere person. That his initial sense of the community, and eventual inspiration to run for public office, came from a shared, neighbourly love of pick-up trucks. And that more recently, he experienced the weaponization of Twitter against himself, and also for the ugliest of reasons.

But he saves the best for last — something about electric boats serving local transportation needs along the pristine highway of the Fraser River.

Forget Maple Ridge…Yousef may well represent the changing face of politics in Canada.

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What does it mean to change a street name? What does it mean to be able to fish? What does it mean to have title over the land upon which you, and your people, were born?

This line of questioning may not immediately resonate with the majority of Canadians going to the polls today, intent on electing (or re-electing) the next Prime Minister. But it matters a hell of a lot to Indigenous people, to the Musqueam Indian Band, and specifically to Wade Grant.

In this long-awaited discussion with the UBC alumnus, former Musqueam council member, 2018 Vancouver city council candidate, and current Chief of Staff to Musqueam band Chief and Council, Grant entertains some direct questions from the settlers in the room (Gord and Rob) on issues we’re still only beginning to understand in mainstream Canadian society.

Beginning with some essential background — that, first of all, First Nations peoples didn’t even gain the right to vote until 1960, they couldn’t go to university unless they gave up their status as Indian, and the residential school system which has been the source of unimaginable cruelty and injustice was alive and desperately unwell until the 1990s — Grant steps us through some of the key factors that have led Canada, and BC, to this time of reconciliation. Whatever that means.

It’s actually meant different things at different times. Perhaps it started in 1982 with Section 35 in the Constitution. There’s no question the R v Sparrow decision is part of reconciliation. In fact, any measure that has specifically supported the health and welfare of people like the Musqueam — now numbering close to 1,400 people, after the smallpox epidemic of the 1860s reduced their population from 30,000 to just 100 people — could be considered a form of reconciliation.

Or…does love belong in the process? It’s a meaningful consideration and holds some currency to Grant, in that it allows him to consider himself Canadian, even while working to forgive those who have historically ground down the rights and resolve of First Nations peoples. Love, in fact, could be one of the key factors tempering the natural inability to forget the atrocities settlers committed, or simply endorsed (either way, we’re looking at you, Joseph Trutch).

Land, of course, is the other essential factor. Grant speaks about MST Development Corporation, a partnership between the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and which fully or partially owns many valuable parcels of land in the Lower Mainland: Jericho Lands, Heather Street Lands, and the former Liquor Distribution Branch site on East Broadway in Vancouver, Marine Drive Lands in West Vancouver, and Willingdon Lands in Burnaby.

There’s the promise that all this land might make something greater than the sum of their parts, just as Grant himself represents as a product of many ethnic backgrounds. Such fabric comprises the blanket that is Confederation today.

It’s a conversation that might have promised, as Gord suggests, some quicksand and a land mine or two. Yet, perhaps thanks to Grant’s deft approach to defining and discussing reconciliation, it’s all very Canadian. Have a listen.

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The latest in our Passing the Torch series introduces us to Thomas Bevan, a Millennial who’s already left his mark on Vancouver.

From his youth in Kitchener, Ontario — and a “difficult relationship” with a downtown that wasn’t quite the hotspot it has since become — to his graduate studies at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning (“a dreamland…a beautiful place”) and current work with BC Housing, Bevan stepped into the world of urbanism with a naturally intuitive sense that the economics of the land, as we have historically recognized it, had to change.

More specifically, Bevan was looking for public recuperation of land value, in the form of social purpose real estate. Like 312 Main — the cornerstone of Bevan’s young career, and the focal point of his first collaboration with torch-passer Bob Williams.

How Bevan and Williams met has almost become the origin story of 312 Main itself – Bevan the ideator, Williams the mentor and connector (and Vancity Community Foundation as the project enabler and social purpose rainmaker).

Of course, with Williams, this is hardly the only story to tell. With a 54-year advantage over Bevan, the narrative weight of this podcast tilts conspicuously towards Williams, President and Chair of the Jim Green Foundation.

An east side boy, Williams is our connection to Depression-era Vancouver, and one of the city’s first housing crises, just after WWII. He represents an earlier, simpler time, when connections and character alone could earn you a place in civic bureaucracy (albeit as a draughtsman in City of Vancouver’s sewer department). He speaks to the early days and thin soup of the SCARP program.

And he presents an undeniable legacy — as two-time former MLA, among many other titles and accomplishments — in having established protections for BC’s wilderness, civil service capacity for resource management, and a doubling of the province’s park space. Oh yeah, and a little something called the Agricultural Land Reserve. (There’s so much more; you are hereby dared to review an abbreviated list of Williams’ accomplishments).

Regarding the ALR, he didn’t necessarily want to do it, and he explains why. And in talking about the stark dualism between the unlimited potential of this great province, and the need for people in power to be subject to immense constraints in the exercise of power, there’s a message for Bevan — you can be a Dave Stupich. You could even be a Glen Clark. Or maybe you can just be you.

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One thing is proven without a doubt in this wide-ranging, deep political dive with Gord, Rob, and return guest George Affleck — these guys don’t know their Tolkien.

And while there was no cranky, right-wing guy in Middle Earth, there is a central character whose very rigid way of thinking begins to soften. If that seems to be the case with Affleck, it may be with the benefit of retrospect, especially with an eye to the performance of current council, and specifically in contrast to its predecessor.

That’s because Affleck’s behaviour while serving in opposition to Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver juggernaut was largely the result of him seeing the majority votes walking into the council chamber every day, “knowing exactly what they were going to do”. Idealogical alignment can be like a wall; in the form of a political caucus, it’s a brick wall.

Contrast that with today; by Affleck’s count, there are just two parties in Vancouver Council, the NDP and the BC Liberals (and 1 or 2 predictably dogmatic, even irrelevant votes). So these decisions should be, well, decisive — consistently predictable and relatively quick. But, as he notes, “it’s 100% not working like that.”

Affleck talks about the splintering sound coming from the NPA corner. He talks choo-choo trains. And he talks bike lanes (remember, he’s not anti-bike lanes, just pro-process).

Lastly, Affleck makes a startling admission, perhaps revealing that aforementioned soft spot, one which may represent the rotting core of traditional NPA preservationist ideology — that the current political trend towards framing the decision-making process around community consultation (rather than incorporating and contextualizing it into decision-making) is a great way to give anti-growth, naysay perspectives platform and influence. And that it’s probably incorrect.

He sees it in West Vancouver, in White Rock, in Surrey, and even in PoCo. He sees pragmatism, he sees populism, and it seems he has a pretty clear view of the line to be drawn between the two.

Which leads to some interesting speculation on the nature of political campaigns of our not-too-distant future — those of Kennedy Stewart, the NPA and, yes, Affleck himself.

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A tale of two city-makers — one, a son of the working poor, who showed an early knack for creation and collaboration, in part through the use of polyhedral dice; the other, a world-renowned urban planner, with a Twitter following as large as the populations of some of the cities he now calls clients.

The two are, of course, the same man. Brent Toderian arrived in Vancouver in 2006 as the new Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, stepping into the role jointly held by Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee. In addition to being part of the team of “mad geniuses” at 12th & Cambie, Beasley and McAfee were already legends in the planning community for having presided over the era which introduced Vancouverism to North America.

In explaining the trajectory that brought him here — an early passion for law, a degree in environmental science from University of Waterloo (major in urban and regional planning, natch), and early success managing city centre planning and design in Calgary — Toderian plots and connects a few new dots in his life story.

That’s the opening flourish, however, to a more fascinating and controversial narrative, one which to this day still casts a shadow on the political makeover initiated by Vision Vancouver in the early days of their first majority on council (2008-2011). An administrative shake-up of epic proportions placed Toderian — halfway through what might have otherwise been a legendary tenure of his own at City Hall — in a very, very difficult position, one which ultimately became untenable.

If you know anything about Toderian, whether personally, by reputation, or by Twitter feed, you agree with his self-assessment: he has zero tolerance for boredom, he believes planners aren’t (or perhaps shouldn’t be) neutral, and he’s unafraid of speaking truth to power (both the act, and its potential consequences). All of which might explain why he only lasted three years into the reign of then-City Manager Penny Ballem, who replaced her much-venerated predecessor Judy Rogers in 2008 to the chagrin of, …well… almost everyone. It’s an act of political interference still bemoaned for both its immediate and long-term consequences.

But in case that’s still not enough of an explanation, Toderian speaks for himself — perhaps more candidly than you might have expected — as to the impact of that personnel change, and why he couldn’t stay at CoV. Whether due to the mellowing effects of time, fatherhood, or his subsequent success as an urbanist consultant and celebrity with Toderian UrbanWorks, Toderian opens up about this exciting, fraught time of his career, in a fast-moving discussion with Gord.

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It was 2009, Vancouver was about to become the largest metro region to host a winter Olympic Games, and the city faced a challenge of similarly grandiose proportions — how to accommodate a 30% increase in downtown transportation trips alongside a 30% reduction in road network capacity, thanks to Games-related operations.

For Lon LaClaire, a transportation planning engineer at that fraught moment in the city’s history, it was an experiment that would prove to be the ultimate litmus test of the city’s potential to lead North America in the prioritization of efficient, effective, and (still) decidedly unsexy transportation modes — walk, bike, transit.

It happened of course (turns out snow was the issue — go figure), and that experiment’s success paved the way for the past 10 years of a transportation paradigm shift in policy and investments that is indeed now recognized across the continent, if not the world. And it’s due in no small part to LaClaire’s leadership on the City’s transportation engineering team, not to mention a certain je ne sais quoi….translation: “How is this guy so calm?!?

Today, he’s Director of Transportation with the City; if you’re part of Twitter’s #vanpoli urban wonk mob, you heard Cambie Report’s interview with LaClaire a month ago. And if you’re one of the many visitors to Vancouver for next week’s 25th Annual Rail~Volution Conference (considered by some as the Olympics of urban planning), Gord gets LaClaire to chip out a few new gems.

Such as his ‘what if?’ moment about Vancouver’s transportation history, to complement a plethora of our real-life ‘aha‘ moments. Or his explanation for why, over the last 25 years, our streets are moving less traffic, even while population and commuting trips has grown. Better yet — LaClair’s compelling reason why anyone concerned about transportation in their backyard should run, not walk, to VanConnect to report street issues and concerns. Most worrisome? His prediction of the problem many of us will face on opening day of the Broadway Skytrain extension in 2025.

All that, plus the secrets of grid resilience, the transit hub where City’s motto comes to life, and what to do with unused asphalt. Only the best for our 50th episode…

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Every child is full of questions. And while the science is fuzzy, it seems that children who ask questions about the future — not how things work today, but how they could work better tomorrow — tend to make great planners.

Michael Gordon was one of those children. And his legacy as one of the most important planners of Vancouver’s Golden Age (thank you, Larry Beasley) has been built by finding answers to the most difficult of questions about the growth of inner cities. Namely, is it possible to make exponential leaps in urban densification — doubling or tripling the number of people living in communities — and maintain quality of life, even (or especially) their character?

Growth and stability. Heterogeneity and heritage. They’re almost impossible dynamics to manage, being both deeply personal and matters of public interest. Yet, somehow Michael Gordon has made them work.

Like supporting a doubling of the West End population over the last generation, while allowing its Robson, Davie and Denman ‘village’ communities to remain desirable, even improving by most measures. Or masterminding the slow but sure transformation of Granville Street (especially the 900-block) into a downtown entertainment district extraordinaire, without sacrificing the existing retail mix and transit hub activity.

He also showed his peers — at the City, as well through his extra-curricular dabblings with UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and the Planning Institute of BC (PIBC) — that you’re never too old to be an effective planner for new tricks. Like skateboarding, which he took up at age 47, and added to his portfolio of planned placemaking via the Downtown Skateboard Park, tucked under the Dunsmuir Viaduct at Quebec and Union streets.

So…since he now has a lot of the answers, Gord Price and co-host Rob McDowell started asking the questions. Have engineers displaced planners as the creative forces in cities? Will the City-wide Plan solve everything? Did he, along with everyone else, miss affordability as a factor in community planning?

And how do planners plan for the future — plan for change — when the communities themselves seem not to want it?

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There’s nothing like listening to a gifted speaker riff on culture and politics; especially when the riffing is concise, with a judicious use of words, and an almost complete absence of hyperbole or bafflegab.

Sure, that sounds like Peter Ladner. But in this edition of Price Talks torch-passing, it also describes Vivienne Zhang, the successor to Ladner’s predecessor.

Zhang is a UBC grad, currently en route to the Paris Institute of Political Studies (‘Sciences Po‘) to begin her Masters in international security, with an eye to a future career in politics. Born in Beijing, with years spent between the Chinese Mainland and the Lower Mainland, Zhang has, over time, become very self-aware of the richness of her bicultural perspective — two ways of living, two political systems, two views on the role of the individual in society.

Ladner, also a UBC grad, can tell her a thing or two about politics on Canada’s west coast; the former journalist and co-founder of Business in Vancouver was at the forefront of municipal politics in the early 2000s as an NPA councillor and mayoral nominee, and has a brand name in local retail politics that’s literally on the map. Now a decade removed from political life, Ladner remains active in governance and policy as Chair of the Better Transit & Transportation Coalition, and past-Chair of the Board of the David Suzuki Foundation.

And, like the host of this podcast, Ladner also remains interested in the evolution of the liberal democratic model, the sustaining legacies of certain political and institutional norms, and of the collective (or perhaps majority) mindset of the new generation of leaders who will be in the thick of it. Zhang, for Ladner, is one of those emerging leaders to watch, to listen to.

Who does this generation trust? Are they integrated with the world they’re stepping into, or are they shaping it? Do they see problems with liberal democracy, and how are they dealing with it?

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According to Vancouver Green Party councillor Pete Fry, consultation won’t build us the city of the future.

“Where we’re going, we don’t need sticky notes on a wall,” he said (kind of). To Fry, consultation simply means, ‘the plan has already been written’ — not the right approach for the city-wide plan. Ironically, it was a lack of consultation that almost resulted in a freeway blowing through his Strathcona neighbourhood, but that’s a story for another time.

He wants co-creation. Neighbourhoods helping to design their communities. And if people — like, any people we assume, but at the very least highly organized people, unless he literally meant all people, but honestly we’re not entirely sure about any of this — if these people see something planned for their neighbourhood they don’t like? Council could, Fry suggested, “consider veto feedback on its merit”. (Really.)

That should go well.

This idea of co-creation, whether belonging to Fry alone, Vancouver’s Green Party, their fellow councillors, or (just maybe) staff themselves, is either a brilliant new way to govern, or a new word for old tricks. It could also be a moot point, as it is likely doomed to fail, though in principle we see it working already; certainly, one could interpret the recent rejection of the Granville Street townhouse development as one outcome of co-creation. No surprise to Green-watchers, of course, that all three Green councillors confoundingly voted against the application (“I stand by the Shaughnessy vote,” says Fry).

As he chats with Gord — and meat ‘n’ sizzle co-host Rob McDowell — Pete Fry is crystal clear on one thing: as keen as he is to co-create with his fellow citizens, there are still some hills upon which he’s willing to fight, and we presume die.

Like the pending Georgia and Dunsmuir viaduct removal. Or what we do with the city’s existing zoned residential capacity. And why reconciliation is part of decolonization.

More important, though, is what Pete Fry thinks Elizabeth Murphy really doesn’t get about our housing crisis…

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