COVID Place making
May 27, 2020

The biggest non-story of the covid emergency

When I first saw the news report in early March, I was astonished: the City and Park Board, in conjunction with the Coastal Health Authority, would be using two community centres to temporarily house the otherwise homeless from the Downtown east Side.  What was jaw-dropping were the locations: in the centre of two of the most affluent communities in Vancouver, one less than a block from an elementary school – the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the other in Coal Harbour.

In normal circumstances, that decision would have been explosive. In non-covid times, it just would not have happened.  There would have been an immediate pushback from Yaletown and Coal Harbour residents and businesses – a call for more process, for community meetings, for public hearings and delegations.  And those would have been the polite responses.  Sides would be taken, the media coverage relentless, the politics divisive. A risk-adverse Council would have found a way, in the name of community consultation, to deep-six the proposal.

And yet, here it is, the consequence of a crisis most clearly not wasted.

The spaces at Roundhouse and Coal Harbour will be allotted by referral-only and staffed 24 hours a day. Vancouver Coastal Health will provide health guidance and B.C. Housing has appointed non-profit operators to manage the centres.  (The Sun)

But that wasn’t all. Those housed would also be provided with ‘safe supply’ – drugs and their substitutes to stabilize the addicted, in addition to distancing them from the virus in what would otherwise be a powder-keg in the Downtown East Side.  (That a covid outbreak has so far not occurred is another surprising non-event.)

Remarkably, this was all public knowledge:

(Mayor) Stewart said the federal government has allowed for a safe supply of drugs for residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Beyond the health consequences, the stakes were huge.  If this real-time, real-life exercise failed, it would set back any prospect of locating a similar facility anywhere else in the city, as well as negating the ongoing experiment of safe-supply.  And it wouldn’t take much: a single adverse incident, open needle use, an exchange of threats much less an actual incident.  On the other hand, if successful, it would deny precedent for an endlessly repeated bad example.

It’s only the end of May; the emergency continues, the community centres are still blacked out.  As an experiment that set out to do what it has so far accomplished, it succeeded – a word rarely associated with the DTES and homelessness.  Indeed, many activists are adverse to acknowledging that the actions they espouse, when implemented, achieve their goals.  Fearful that success might lead to complacency, a loss of commitment, a reduction in budgets, they might begrudgingly admit that an initiative, a new housing project, a raise in funding was a good first step, but there’s so much left to do, so many homeless still on the streets, and the filthy streets themselves an indictment of an uncaring society.

The Roundhouse and Coal Harbour experiment remain, so far, an unacknowledged success.  Friends in the neighbourhood report that until recently there was seemingly community acceptance of the circumstances – perhaps because the locations are only temporary.

But of course, that was unlikely to last.  Further uptown, things were changing.

(More to come.)

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Okay, after that downer (below), here’s something upbeat: the boldest, most imaginative ideas for American cities in the coming year, as assembled by Will Doig for Salon.

It really is a great collection of transformative ideas that will, if pursued, provide inspiration for us too.  Here are the two I really like:

BIKE SHARE IN NEW YORK

New York is making up for being late to the bike-share table by serving itself a portion bigger than any other U.S. city. How big? Ten thousand bicycles at 600 stations clustered throughout Manhattan and northern Brooklyn — and that’s just in the first phase.

Will Vancouver be able to get a bike share up in time for the VeloCity conference in June?  Hell, will it even get a proper seawall connection between the convention centre and Coal Harbour through the never-departing floatplane terminal?

LOS ANGELES RIVER

Seventy years ago, as the city around it grew, the Los Angeles Riverwas lined with concrete to prevent urban flooding. Much of it was completely enclosed, and efforts were even made to build a freeway over it. But the tide appears to be turning: … the city council approved a waterfront development plan for the river …

… but local river lovers aren’t waiting. This year, the city got permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to allow a limited number of kayakers onto the river, and the 280 available spots (at $50 bucks each) sold out in less than 10 minutes.

As a one-time whitewater kayaker, I can only imagine how thrilling it would be to find warm-water rapids right in the heart of a dense metro area.  And what Hollywood would do with that.

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