Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reply Received From
Social Planner John Horn

From: John Horn John.Horn@nanaimo.ca
Subject: RE: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Date: 19 December, 2011 1:50:43 PM PST

Good morning Frank

I know you wrote this email to me a long time ago (60 days L) so please accept my apologies for the tardy reply. There is so much rich material in your email that a quick reply didn’t seem right, and I felt you deserved a comprehensive response but at that point I didn’t have the time available to do that. So thank you for your patience and I hope to do your questions justice.

I read “Hungry Ghosts”, and I have had the chance to meet Dr Mate several times (though mainly in the context of his work on ADHD ) His book and his person reveals a man with considerable insight and compassion.

But that’s my social planner hat, and I’ll take that off and put on my urban planners hat for a moment as you suggest. The historical rise of the suburban neighbourhood parallels my own growing up in Nanaimo; when I was a child Nanaimo essentially ended at Country Club and North Nanaimo was trees and cabins, similar to other parts of Nanaimo that have since beencolonized.

The people who moved into these ‘empty spaces’ were remarkably coherent in their outlook, they wanted space (interior mainly), they wanted the suburban life shown on television, they had the income to realise that idea and they assumed the underlying principles of the age of the auto; mobility anytime anywhere. In planning terms I think also one of the more implicit appeals was the idea that the only land use surrounding a residential property should be other residential uses, and in social planning terms home buyers expected that when they looked out the window they would see people who were essentially a reflection of themselves; their values, income, way of life. Most of the subdivisions built post 1960 in Nanaimo reflect these ideas; no corner stores, even at a time when those were still economically viable, surrounding commercial land use aimed at consumption instead of production, uniformity of product etc.

Our experience with the Wesley street housing, even though it is identical to the other projects, was that there was a relatively high degree of acceptance by the neighbourhood. That may be because city centre resident’s idea of neighbourhood includes a wide variety of income levels and occupations, or that the homeless aren’t an imaginary group but rather people who they see every day, or because they are more confident in the ability of governments/NGO’s to provide services to the poor without detracting from the quality of the neighbourhood experience.

By the way, I agree with your comments on the benefits to having a master plan for Quensnell Square, unfortunately the school board, for various reasons, wasn’t able to engage in such a planning exercise and ultimately we had to proceed without their input.

Should we retrofit diversity into homogenous neighbourhoods? I would take my answer from Merv Wilkinson (the forester) who told me and others “ a healthy forest is multi age, multi height, multi species”. Time has proven Merv absolutely correct (hello pine beetles!) and I believe this holds true for the cluster of humans that make up our city; we need multi age (intergenerational) multi species ( diversity of beliefs and values) and multi height (differing income levels) neighbourhoods to achieve a healthy and robust forest. Some of this will happen naturally and over time (in the last five years more recent immigrants have taken up residence in the north end that any other part of Nanaimo), but land economics is a powerfull barrier to economic diversity in an area like Dover Bay (average household income $78,000 pa). In terms of what detracts from a neighbourhood - In the context of the broader community history would suggest that what detracts from a liveable community is spatial segregation, i.e. neighbourhoods open only to a specific socio economic class whether that be rich or poor. Examples abound, from Rio de janero in Brazil, to Detroit or the Bantustans of South Africa to Beverly Hills, which has been called a ghetto for the rich. Geographic segregation inevitably and always leads to a diminishment of trust and a rise in conflict, which erodes the quality of life for every resident of a city.

What contributes to a neighbourhood is a function of built form – “car-oriented suburbs with traffic a blur, walking a hostile, dangerous activity and instead of stopping by the corner store for smokes and chips and getting to know the let's say Vietnamese shopkeeper by name, and he or she you by name, your only alternative is the glossy alienating artifice of the palace of consumerism that is the shopping mall.” And also a function of the social compact – do we honour equality of opportunity while allowing for the diversity of outcomes achieved by individual merit? Is there a place for those who make different lifestyle choices to live in the same part of town I do? What are the social norms in a neighbourhood and to what extent is deviation from those norms acceptable? A good example of this last is the fact that some subdivisions have a covenant barring commercial vehicles from parking in residential neighbourhoods – so if you’re a self employed plumber with a truck that has your name on the side you can’t park your vehicle in your driveway. The implicit social norm is; “white collar people live here, blue collar entrepreneurs need not apply”. In my mind deviation from this norm is not only appropriate but a matter of principle; lawyers shouldn’t be privileged over plumbers, nor plumbers over lawyers. Imagine a neighbourhood where late model luxury SUV’s were not allowed! A neighbourhood can only prosper in the context of a robust and fair social compact, anything else is illusory, short term and subject to cataclysmic failure (did I mention the pine beetle?)

You’re largely correct in your assessment of the medical nature of the issues being addressed by the social housing projects, housing essentially opens the door to health, lack of housing effectively closes it. But while the goal of this initiative is to improve the health and functionality of individuals the general public reaction (outside of social workers, government & non profits) focused on broader societal issues; particularly addictions. While being addicted is a medical issue, becoming addicted is a societal one. We have created a culture where use of substances is normalised, encouraged, supported at many levels. So the folks under consideration for these housing projects aren’t outliers, they are in fact the logical extension and outcome of our culture.

So perhaps incremental progress looks like embracing the downside of our culture, or at least its victims, as well as celebrating the upsides.

I believe that by the time these buildings are up and running the present animosity will have dissipated, and that the residents will find themselves in a welcoming and supportive neighbourhood. I base this belief on experience with other housing and social services in our city, and also because most Nanaimoites are decent folks with compassion. These ‘true colours” will always show through at the end of the day.

Thanks for your email, if you have more thoughts throw them out and I’ll be happy to dialogue

John Horn
Social Planner
Community Planning Section
City of Nanaimo

No comments: