Captains of local government plotting new course?
By Rob Wipond, April 2011
A recent conference of municipal planners in Victoria revealed a surprising undercurrent of sustainability radicalism.
Fifteen minutes in, the discussion on “Engaging Your Community in Sustainability Initiatives” at a conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities took an unexpected turn. And suddenly, everyone became much more engaged. The Capital Regional District, currently trying to engage politicians and the public in its own Regional Sustainability Strategy (RSS), would do well to take note.
It wasn’t that the first speaker that February morning in the Victoria Conference Centre had been boring. In fact, delegates to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ “Sustainable Communities Conference” attending this forum—about 200 of them—had seemed quite attentive. Satya Rhodes- Conway, an alderperson from Wisconsin, had spoken with thoughtful bubbliness about local governments taking the lead on making buildings energy efficient, handing out cameras to schoolkids to document a city’s most unappealing areas to walk, and giving mini-grants to non-profits to do education and outreach. “If you engage the people,” she said, “they will make it happen.”
Then Sevag Pogharian took the stage. Immediately, bursts of raucous laughter and spontaneous applauding were ripping off the veneer of polite optimism we’d all evidently been holding onto.
An architect, Pogharian described struggling for construction approvals from anxious regulators and battling conservative, NIMBY-ish neighbours while building an award-winning “net zero energy” home in Quebec. He kept peppering his story with caustic observations that framed his accomplishment as a tiny drop in the oil-refinery-sized tanks our society needs to be regularly filling with rainwater to become sustainable.
“Working on this project made me realize that the level of stupidity and wastefulness inherent to what we’ve built as a civilization is staggering,” Pogharian said. He called us “stupid, fat and lazy,” wished he could “take a machete” to unprogressive complainers who “suck the joy and energy” out of green initiatives, bemoaned how “modern, hyperventilating capitalism” has “crushed labour and reduced governments into frightened little puppies in the corner,” and pleaded that we all start taking back our democracy and citizenship.
The whole audience came alive and was eating it up. As soon as he took the microphone next, Yellowknife councillor Mark Heyck commented to approving laughter, “I just realized that in some ways I can’t wait until I’m no longer an elected official, so I can tell people what’s really on my mind.”
This mesmerized me. One would naturally assume that such a conference would draw the greenest of Canada’s mayors, councillors and municipal bureaucrats. Still, most of the talks were about using carbon offsets and improving wastewater systems. Was there an unspoken undertow of intense radicalism bubbling just beneath the surface?
The afternoon session provided an interesting opportunity to find out. The CRD hosted a talk, and subsequent roundtable about its own regional sustainability strategy, titled, “Sustainable Community Planning: An all-inclusive Princess Cruise or the Titanic?” It was billed as a CBC radio “The Debaters” playful style of talk, where we would explore the question, “Is the right course one that is incremental, inclusive, long-term and pragmatic—or are planners currently just ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,’ when what is really needed is a radical transformation and much quicker, deeper change?”
After describing the severe environmental crises bearing down upon us, the City of Victoria’s Director of Sustainability, Kim Fowler, continually screamed into the microphone about “the cracks in the hull” in an annoyingly shrill voice. “I have to deal with gushing water from the cracks, and with only a pail and sponge and perhaps a draft resolution to increase property taxes!...We’re sinking folks!...I need people down in the engine room with me; we need a complete overhaul!”
HB Lanarc senior planner Mark Holland’s leisurely bass provided hilarious counterpoint.
“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to welcome you to the cruise to sustainability...We don’t need to panic...The cruise to sustainability is the cruise of curves; you know, the one where you start fat, then you learn how to eat right, exercise, and eventually you achieve your goals...We have to do it in healthy, realistic ways; we know those fad diets don’t work...” Fowler, he said, “is going to try and persuade you to run a marathon on New Year’s Day simply because you feel fat after Christmas.” As a contrasting example, Holland outlined the long process of retrofitting thousands of homes and added, “Have a cocktail, enjoy a laugh, start by walking around the boat every morning, then we’ll get to jogging, and finally we’ll get to running, and by the time we get there, we’re all going to look awesome.”
From a theatrical point of view, it wasn’t even close to a fair fight.
Holland’s character had more pragmatic ideas and was consummately appealing, especially with his many droll lines, like recommending a de-stressing visit to his ship’s “massage of meaning parlour” where sustainability was defined as “a combination of local organic booze, fair trade, shade-grown caffeine, and Viagra.”
Nevertheless, when the final vote was called, the audience overwhelmingly supported Fowler’s grating character—to the surprise, it seemed, of all of us present.
Once again, radicalism was striking a chord.
Unfortunately, that fierce energy hasn’t made it into the CRD’s own regional sustainability strategy—at least, not yet.
The regional sustainability strategy is currently nine “policy briefs”—general backgrounders including a page of options for “Moderate Change” and “Significant Change.” The brief on Food Security is by far the most well-developed. Options for significant change include, “Establish targets to increase designated farmland…Support initiatives that create access to land for farmers, e.g. a farmland acquisition levy or enabling community farms...Encourage the development of local agricultural cooperatives and marketing boards...”
Contrast that with the vague, feeble proposals for “significant change” in Economic Sustainability, like: “Provide incentives to industries that align their business with sustainability principles.” Or in Transportation: “Work with BC Transit and municipalities to expand policies and programs that promote a mode shift.” The Social Wellbeing brief doesn’t even mention needs for significant changes in how we think.
The reason for these differences? Take your guess. But it’s worth noting that VIHA helped design the wellbeing brief, and the Chamber of Commerce-dominated Greater Victoria Development Agency the economic brief. Meanwhile, the Community Social Planning Council’s Capital Region Food and Agricultural Initiatives Roundtable helped with the food brief. One of those groups is exponentially more engaged with independent experts, activist groups and the general public in ongoing and constructive ways than the others.
So when Margaret Misek-Evans, the CRD’s manager of Regional and Strategic Planning, tells me that a March “Council of Councils” meeting saw Capital Region municipal representatives be “relatively supportive” of taking the regional sustainability strategy to the first draft stage over the next year, it’s difficult to stifle my yawn. Apparently, the regional sustainability strategy may sink amidst lots of polite deck chair rearranging and government-speak guided by top-heavy organizations and our notoriously uncollaborative municipal governments.
That’s where the public could come in. The public input phase for the regional sustainability strategy closes in early April (http://sustainability.crd.bc.ca). Yet the next seven months provide an opportunity for us to float more specific options for more significant change—and work to elect politicians from Sooke to Sidney in November’s municipal elections who would support the ongoing development of a more visionary regional sustainability strategy.
Anyone out there ready to help launch such a regional sustainability initiative? Personally, I’d love to hear more expressions of deep concern, and screams of alarm.
Rob Wipond would be willing to help with a regional sustainability initiative. Contact him at rob (at) robwipond (dot) com