Sprawl buster

By Aaren Madden, January 2012

With a vision of environmental and social justice informed by travel and history, Ben Isitt is keen to shake things up at City Hall and the CRD.

As we sit in the warm, wood-panelled glow of Ben Isitt’s partially renovated kitchen, it becomes clear he has wasted no time embracing his new positions as Victoria city councillor and CRD board member. Six days after the civic election, he has already pored over the 2008 orientation manual for new councillors, last year’s finances, and this year’s operating budgets for both the City of Victoria and the CRD. He’s met with numerous community and business groups, colleagues and the mayor. He is, he says, “trying to get my head around the numbers, seeing the whole range of projects and policies that are being undertaken right now.” 

As he comes up to speed, he searches for ways to “see some savings and make some changes to address social and environmental goals.” In their bottom lines, he believes, the City and the Region District have to account for not only economic concerns, but social and environmental ones as well. And though he allows that this is happening to some degree, Isitt plans to bring that lens to every single issue that crosses his desk. “There is no other option in the 21st century than to integrate social justice and the environment into every decision we make,” he declares.

Isitt’s family moved to Victoria from Winnipeg when he was in high school, where he remembers arguing for socialism over capitalism in a debate class. Though he found himself in the vast minority, something clicked. Then, at 18 years of age, he backpacked solo through Canada and the United States and witnessed abject poverty for the first time. “Certainly in the large North American cities, seeing the gap in wealth crystallized my commitment to social change,” he says. He has since been to over 51 countries, and is planning an overland adventure from Shanghai to Singapore, hopefully with his now-five-year-old daughter. However, he smiles, “I will have to see how that fits in the City council agenda.”

While feeding his love of cultural diversity and the unique human relationships that emerge on any journey, these days Isitt’s travels are in the service of his academic research. He studies and has taught the history of social movements in British Columbia and Canada and is now a research fellow at UVic, pursuing a PhD in law that examines the relationships between social movements and the state. “It’s a reflection of the academic job market,” he says of his decision to become “a double-doc” (his first is in history). 

He has been active in the NDP and ran for mayor twice previously, once in 2002 and again in 2005 as an NDP-backed candidate with a strong second showing behind incumbent Alan Lowe. He sought a council seat this time to accommodate demands of work and fatherhood, and to gain experience for future aspirations, which he will determine farther into his first term, he suggests. 

Seeing the results of civic policies world-wide has taught Isitt what kind of city he wants to help create. In Heidelberg, Germany, hundreds of years of industrial development (not to mention war) have done little to hinder the natural beauty of the medieval town and its environs. Contrast that with Athens, Greece, where ancient hills and mountains are paved over with concrete and housing, or Vladivostok, Russia, where privatization has brought rampant and unchecked development of “condos for the rich.” It taught him “the good life should be within everyone’s reach. In all the countries I have been to, there is more than enough wealth. So it becomes a question of how resources are being distributed or not distributed to keep the good life out of reach for people.” 

For Isitt (who was nicknamed “Che” by one reporter in 2005), the good life is one in which we take care of each other and the environment. Isitt sums it up in the platform he ran on: a “fair, safe and green” Victoria.

One of his first steps toward fairness will be convincing his council colleagues to support a $25 housing levy at the CRD level similar to the ten-dollar-per-year parks levy implemented ten years ago. It would spread the burden beyond the City of Victoria and “raise about four million dollars annually, which could then be used to leverage federal and provincial money to build everything from new co-op housing to supportive housing for the hardest to house,” he explains. 

The latter includes those dealing with addictions, and a safe injection site is a must to mitigate health and safety concerns for them and their neighbours. “Victoria needs to apply very quickly for an exemption from Health Canada to open a safe consumption site like Vancouver’s InSite,” he insists. “We have to treat addiction as a health issue, rather than a policing issue,” he says, adding, “I know many police officers share my view.” 

Urban sprawl is another problem Isitt intends to tackle. In 2007 he wrote a 32-page report on the Bear Mountain development that provided a history of how the controversial project had come into being. That report subsequently helped gel opposition to the hilltop development. In 2008 he took an active role in protests to stop the Spencer Road Interchange, which has now been sitting unfinished for over three years.

While many share his concerns on sprawl, he warns, “There are groups in this community who would like to pursue more Bear Mountains. One of my major priorities at the CRD level is to prevent that from happening…If you look at all of the low-lying buildings and parking lots between Downtown and Uptown, there is a huge area there where we could densify with low-rise buildings and mixed-use development. We could house tens of thousands of people without going one inch further into our farmlands or forested lands. That’s just a policy choice.”  

If this drives some business away, he says, “so be it. Other, more forward-thinking developers will fill their boots. I don’t believe in the maxim of ‘growth at any cost.’ Citizens and public office holders have to push back against that mentality and ensure future growth happens in existing built-up areas, because once we pave over our paradise, it’s very hard to get it back. I sat in a CRD meeting the other day, and some of the other directors and planners do these gymnastics trying to justify why the development makes sense. I want to bring a common-sense approach to it. There’s more than enough land to build on without having to destroy these finite natural attributes and undermine food security,” says Isitt.

On transportation issues, Isitt has recently written that he supports “commuter rail between downtown Victoria and the Western Communities (and eventually Cobble Hill/Duncan). I think the best location for resuming rail operations quickly is to use the existing E & N corridor, which would help to contain costs while avoiding the issue of cars vs trains (as is the case with the proposal for LRT along Douglas and the Trans-Canadian Highway).” He also wants the new Johnson Street Bridge to be “structurally capable of accommodating track and passenger trains.”

As one of three new faces at the council table this term, Isitt feels the tide shifting toward policies like these. That’s partly why he’s hit the ground running. “There’s a real window of opportunity we can seize to start making some substantive changes in how the City and Region operate,” he says. “I certainly don’t want to miss this opportunity.”

Aaren Madden salutes all councillors, new and returning, for their commitment to our city. She also hopes, next time, there will be more than 26 percent of eligible voters at the polls!