Policy & Planning
August 10, 2007

Strip Search

My current colmn in Business in Vancouver (unabridged):
B.C. Towns Seek New Vision

After a tour by rail and road through southern B.C., I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of small towns – the stripped and the constrained. And while that may be a tad simplistic, the communities of this province seem to be choosing to develop in one way or the other.

Cranbrook is a town that has been stripped. This Kootenay community of 18,000 is best known for the commercial sprawl that lines the Crowsnest Highway to its east:

I used to think no one would be able to top Kelowna for the sheer extent of malls, big boxes and fast-food joints that line Highway 97 out to the airport:

 

Not that there weren’t precedents: the Island Highway through Nanaimo and Duncan, Skaha Lake Boulevard and Main Street through Penticton, the Trans-Canada through Kamloops. Often they’re reinforced by the in-your-face advertising that is the public front of many First Native reserves.  Westbank, leading into Kelowna (soon to be our newest municipality), captures it all, from big box to billboard:

But I’d give the prize to Cranbrook. For its size, it’s the strippiest.

In this auto-obsessed world, you’d think that sprawl was the only realistic choice for growing communities. But some small towns, typically constrained by geography or land reserves, have chosen a more compact alternative. They’re building on their existing assets, particularly a still-viable downtown main street and close-in neighbourhoods, and they’re trying to avoid being stripped.

The best example is not that far from Cranbook. The Kootenay town of Nelson may have the best intact downtown in the province, better even than Victoria, and is building on that vitality.

 

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Do you have to be rich to be green?
Sustainability, it seems, is associated with affluence – at least if the projects proclaiming their green-ness is any indication. And it isn’t just because the cost of green technology is that much greater. (Indeed, if a project is well planned from the beginning, recent research indicates, there’s no necessary surcharge to be a LEEDer.)
At the Gaining Ground conference in Victoria last week, developer David Butterfield gave a stirring talk on his Loreto Bay project – a vacation spot in Baja California. He was rightfully proud of its commitment to sustainability, and also aware of its paradox: most people will fly there, many to their second homes. By any standard, this is a project available to only a minescule fraction of the world’s population, whose carbon footprint will be comparatively gigantic.
How many times is it pointed out that Al Gore flies around the world to give talks on global warming? Having flown to Australia myself to speak of sustainable urban development, I’m aware of the 8.5 tonnes of carbon allocated to me as just one passenger (and the $154 Australian dollars needed to mitigate it.) But I’m rich enough to afford it. – and aware that the rest of the world would like my options. I know what is more sustainable, and it’s not mitigation and carbon credits. It’s staying at home.
It may be that at this stage, the rich will lead the way by modifying their high-consumption tastes, and thus provide a model for others. But the trend so far seems to be to modify the technology, to spend even more to buy the Prius, than to do with less. The tough choices are thus avoided.
Phillipe Starck, possibly the world’s most high-profile designer of luxury goods and interiors, spoke, well, starkly, about this dilemma the other day in Milan, according to Reuters:

The designer, who decorated the private apartments of former French President Francois Mitterand, said people should only buy essentials.
“The most positive action is to refuse…to buy. But if you need to, the minimum is ethical. To go back to the essence of things and ask myself: do I need this?” he said.

He still designs luxury yachts, even as he speaks to their uselessness. But he is “keen to turn other accepted views of what is luxurious on their head.”

“In the future, there will be two choices: luxury as it exists, mostly linked to the crazy rhythm of fashion, and also new brands with … time value considerations, based on ecology, progress, timelessness.”

Presumably, the value added for these new brands will be expressed in the price. But is this really any closer to the solution?

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Are you better off? Cascadia Scorecard 2007 gives British Columbia its annual check-up.
Sightline’s annual state-of-the-region report finds some big wins in the Pacific Northwest, but shows that we still struggle when it comes to energy efficiency, economic security, and curbing sprawl.

See how BC stacks up in the 2007 Scorecard.

Here are some of the Northwest stories you’ll find in the Scorecard:

  • Northwesterners ease off the gas. We’re using less gasoline per person than we have since the late 1960s, and we’ve cut back almost 10 percent since 1999. Find out about our energy use.
  • We’re adopting smart policies that can improve life here now and in the future. From ambitious climate policies to increased insurance coverage for low-income children, Cascadia is making some good choices. Learn about local solutions.
  • Measuring what matters helps us decide where to put our attention and energy next. The Scorecard shows that the Northwest needs to improve economic security for middle- and low-income families, and that electricity use in our home and businesses remains stuck in high gear. Knowing where we stand today helps us choose the right solutions for tomorrow. More from the Cascadia Scorecard 2007.

Download a free pdf of the report
Tell a friend about the Scorecard

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 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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