Saturday, June 16, 2012

Email to Mayor, Council, City GMs re: Vancouver Urban Forum

Date: June 16, 2012 11:59:00 AM PDT
Subject: Vancouver Urban Forum

Mayor Ruttan, Nanaimo City Councillors and General Managers,

Last week I attended former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan's Vancouver Urban Forum. It was as former Vancouver City Councillor Gordon Price said, a feast of ideas. Here's 3 that stood out for me.

1 Municipal government reform. The level of government not only closest to us but the one with the most immediate impact on our daily lives, municipal government should be more inclusive and representative. The forum was subtitled the "Fourth Wave of Urban Reform", the first 3 dating back to Confederation followed by reforms, one in response to the other, in the 1910s and 1960s. 

UBC's Prof. Max Cameron, head of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, made a point which gave me pause: the concept that dates back to Aristotle of the separation of the judicial and legislative powers of a governing body. He points out that elected municipal officials are asked to participate in the Public Hearing Process as both the people who wrote the law and those who adjudicate disputes or applications for variance. A fundamental time proven principle, the separation of these responsibilities at the municipal level might offer a good place in moving toward reform. Sullivan asks the question: "Can we design our democracy better by implementing the separation of powers?"

2 The (mostly) single occupant car vs public transit. Cities around the world are realizing, even from a constitutional equal rights of all citizens perspective, the correct hierarchy of mobility in the city is 1. the pedestrian, 2. the cyclist (and other folks on all manner of self-powered wheels), 3. transit and 4. cars and trucks. I think it's fair to say we're continuing to plan and develop Nanaimo in about exactly the reverse order. I found very interesting, in TransLink's presentation, the insight that one of their proactive contributions to successful transit is the promotion of well designed, more densely populated, walkable neighbourhoods, where both work and amenities are located close to home.

3 Economic development. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (keynote presenter and author of The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier) examines the American Sunbelt cities, where the greatest, sprawling growth of the last 50 years and the worst of the devastating damage of the 2008 economic crisis occurred. (As have many others, notably Richard Florida in his The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity) These  economies, booming prior to the real estate crash, were based on 2 elements: appealing climate and the self-generating construction and marketing of residential housing at very low levels of population density. Insufficient attention to  more sustainable economic development along with the prohibitive costs of infrastructure made these economies vulnerable to an inevitable shock: if it wasn't the economic crisis it would have been the rising costs of fossil fuels or any of a number of other factors. In the end they were little more than a Ponzi scheme. Surely a warning a city like Nanaimo should heed.

A fascinating forum and as I'm sure you agree, from where you're looking at it, it's an exciting transitional time for cities large and small.

Frank Murphy

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