The future: let's procrastinate until then

By Gene Miller, May 2011

Notes on the illusion of administrative triumph over the random and unknowable future.

It was a brilliant, crystalline moment. At the end of Saanich Councillor Vic Derman’s hour-long presentation called “The Natural City,” recently delivered to about 75 of us in a Reynolds High School auditorium, the first audience question came from a woman who noted: “When you asked us earlier about the most important feature of a single family home, I wasn’t thinking ‘the back yard.’ I was going to say ‘privacy.’” 

Vic had spent much of his hour logically building up the case for density. It was his point that carefully planned density represents victory over sprawl, that there are ecological and environmental imperatives for moving away from a car-based culture, and that nature and ecological design can be brought more fully into urban planning to produce an attractive arcadian urbanism.

His interlocutor though, unhappy with this theoretical vaporizing, made it clear that she wanted not more density, but less. “Isn’t that what we all came here for?” she asked, putting a very fine point on the paradise paradox.

I suppose it always goes like this. Folks in single-family homes are threatened by the possibility of nearby duplexes. Folks in 12-storey buildings are threatened by a 16-storey building proposed down the block. We feel it like a physical threat, and the prospect of greater density within our subjectively defined zone of self-interest awakens nothing short of animal alarm.

 

A FRIEND WITH NOTHING BUT MY BEST INTERESTS at heart pointed out to me that for the last several months, I’ve used this space to ankle-bite Victoria’s Mayor Dean Fortin, diss the regional transit effort, muss poor, defenceless Oak Bay’s hair, sneer (twice) at the US, and treat the Japanese earthquake disaster as an opportunity for standup.

I think the likely cause is mind-rotting mould spore syndrome. I just discovered a bruise-coloured mould bloom on my home-office wall, behind some tall bookcases. It had been watered by a leak within a wall cavity where a cracked cast iron wastewater stack had been weeping moisture for a very long time. 

I went to my doctor, hopeful that if the disease had a name, it had a cure. He asked me to sit on the examining table, back to him. He tapped and poked invasively for a couple of minutes, then said “Ah!”

“What’s up, doc? Did you find the problem?”

“Yes. You have a screw loose. Also a tumour.”

Tumour…and a screw loose. 

“Well, can you maybe grab a Phillips head and tighten the screw?”

“Nope. Threads are stripped.”

“What about the tumour?”

“You have too much irony in your system. You look like Jabba the Hutt, by the way. Sitting in front of the computer all the time isn’t a lifestyle. You get any exercise?”

“I use the bathroom a couple of times a day, and I never drive there, I always walk.” 

 

WALKABILITY REMINDS ME THAT we need to talk about the City of Victoria Official Community Plan Update, fully known as The Official Community Plan Update: Shape Your Future. (And I’m Gene Miller: Napping or Dead.)

I would have preferred Fight the Future or Flight From the Future or, with Telus’ indulgence, The Future is Terrifying. Or Yesterday Was Better!

Mark Hornell, are you into numerology? (Mark is assistant director of community planning with the City of Victoria)

There are 11 letters in your name, Mark. Those 11 letters have a numerological value of 55, and your destiny number is 1, whose characteristics are: initiating action, pioneering, leading, independence, attainment, individuality.

Your destiny number denotes the skilled executive with keen administrative abilities. You have the tools to become an original person with a creative approach to problem solving, and a penchant for initiating action. You have a good mind. On the negative side, you may at times become too optimistic, tending to scatter forces and accomplish very little. (My God, it sounds just like Victoria!)

In other words, you have great potential, Mark, so don’t blow it, okay? Right out of the blocks, the Draft OCP vision statement worries me:

Victoria is an urban sustainability leader inspiring innovation, pride and progress towards greater ecological integrity, liveability, economic vitality and community resiliency as we confront the changes facing our society and planet today and for generations to come.

I mean, I understand that while this rhetoric seems written in fire if you’re staring at it from the cheap seats, it’s actually constructed out of papier maché and packing-crate wood; but still, I’m worried about that word, “leader.” Like, does that mean we have to actually do something more than maunder on about Dockside Green? I hope not.

“Walkable neighbourhoods?” If people were meant to walk around the neighbourhood, they would have been born with feet instead of wheels. Victoria would be the size of a pueblo, or an Italian hill town, or Hobbiton.

Like, tomorrow? I have a 7 at Union Pacific Coffee, an 8 a.m. conference call back at the office, a 10 at Starbucks, an 11 out in Saanich, lunch with a colleague at J&J Wonton Noodle House on Fort Street at noon. Then, I promised to help a buddy move some crap out of his basement for a dump run, and I have to go dinner shopping. Plus sometime, I have to get to Rona in Langford to replace a cupboard door handle that pulled loose from its screws. Now put “walkable” in a sentence with any of that. 

Walkable neighbourhoods? Dude, is your world filled with 22-year-old yoga hotties coming and going from the Fort/Cook self-improvement nexus? If the answer is yes, I’ll buy you a beer so you can tell me about it in lurid detail.

And this village hierarchy concept? I can’t quite figure this one out. It starts with big circles for Mayfair and Hillside Shopping Centres (colloquially named town centres) and works its way down to something called the “May At Moss Village.” There is something wrong—some false note—with defining shoppertunities as towns and villages. It’s too rhapsodic, charm-ified, and it fosters a synthetic and spurious narrative.

How about this for a vision statement for the next 30 years:

Acknowledging that vision falsely augurs an outcome, and that Official Community Plans simply support the illusion of administrative triumph over the random and unknowable future, Victoria will create fewer lofty plans and put much more focus on execution. We will more intensively invest our very limited resources so as to finish what we start.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.