War between worlds

By Gene Miller, September 2015

A city’s urban character and authenticity are never to be taken for granted.

If you need further evidence purposeful forces govern the universe, there was Victoria City Councillor Pam Madoff at a June meeting hosted by the Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association in its space just uphill from Sir James Douglas School, near the corner of Fairfield Road and Moss Street.

Fix that intersection in your mind: the school on one corner, Fairfield United Church on another, and a bit of retail/commercial fungus on the other two.

The flyer attracting Fairfield people to the meeting was portentously captioned: What is happening to our Village? The village in question, however, was not the crossroads described above, but nearby Cook Street Village, whose welcome banner reads: “Cappuccino and a ricotta-quince brioche while we finish blessing your yoga mat?”

The association had invited two of the city’s senior planners—one with responsibility for the Official Community Plan (OCP), the other a planner for Fairfield. It was the usual interspecies encounter: vernacular but heartfelt questions and concerns from citizens, volumes of professional, well-intentioned explication from the planners.

More or less at the heart of the discussion was that evocative and elusive term village, defined by Wikipedia as “a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area.”

Omigod, village alert! Strike up the crumhorns! Violas da gamba, over here, please! Dancing milkmaids and blacksmiths, enter left!

Village, to the planners, unsurprisingly, appears to be part of an extensive urban nomenclature, somewhere mid-point on the scale between pasture and megalopolis. In the alphabetical glossary of terms in Victoria’s Official Community Plan, though, things jump village-lessly from “Urban Form” to “Visitor Accommodation.” Still, on page 47, the Official Community Plan captions the street view and perspective illustrated as a “Large Urban Village.” Some folks, looking at the visuals, might argue they were looking not at a village but at a highly compressive Downtown setting—Douglas Street at Fort, say—and ask: “If that’s a Large Urban Village, what’s Cook Street?” People!

Large Urban Village

I don’t by my tone mean to charge the planners at the meeting with ill will or disinterest. Quite the opposite. They were attentive listeners and their answers were generous. But, it struck me that the visions or sensibilities of the planners and those of the community attendees sailed past each other with barely a wave.

It’s really important to talk about why. 

To understand the discussion in that small Fairfield meeting space, it was less important to listen to the voices of the planners or the residents than to look at the large shadows moving on the wall. Two great and opposing forces were battling that evening: put glibly, the Past against the Future; more evocatively, the “nostalgic” appeal of community with its heady promise of relationship, human scale and social sanity against the rational system of professional urban planning practice—the one, by its nature, approximate, subjective and, unfortunately, generally on the defensive; the other imposed, formalistic, simulated.

I can’t overstate the importance, the meaningfulness, of this urban design tussle and its outcome. On the surface, it appears to ask minute questions about land use; beneath, it asks what kind of world do we want. 

Let’s step back for a moment and note a strange fictional quality to our post-modern and hyper-pluralistic life right now. It spices the air and none of us is missing it. Normally guided by our cultural memory and customs—our stories—we find current times delivering anything but the familiar. Instead, it’s a non-stop rush of chartless change and rapidly shifting cultural narratives. Disconcertingly, everything feels familiar, yet far away. It gives life a dreamlike edge. We just can’t get our feet under us, and can’t believe with certainty that our values and choices are anchored to social bedrock any longer. 

We’re being run all around a surreal economic and social landscape like a pack of panting hounds. Yes, the times have also been emancipating, but it’s hard to know exactly what has been set free. Technology and automation are killing work, we’re killing the planet, the rich are grabbing all the marbles, and geopolitically it feels increasingly like Cold War II with a garnish of Middle East Dark Age. Are these the valid new stories, the new road maps? Oh-oh! 

Social critic James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, who spoke in Victoria in 2006 at the first Gaining Ground Conference, calls our neighbour to the south “a nation of places not worth caring about...a tragic landscape of highway fast-food strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities.” In other writing, he extends this vision of cultural bankruptcy with fabulous if ominous hyperbole: “Most sickeningly you see it in a population of formerly earnest, hard-working, basically-educated people with hopes and dreams transformed into a hopeless moiling underclass of tattooed savages dressed in baby clothes devoting their leisure hours (i.e. all their time) to drug-seeking and the erasure of sexual boundaries.”

Victoria has, so far, kept that ripe doom at bay (or Bay, more relevantly), but threats to structure are always looming. People here would never invoke Kunstler’s imagery (this is Canada, this is Victoria), but social trends are airborne and some abstracted strain of what he writes about is, I think, the concern that residents at the Fairfield/Gonzalez meeting were trying to articulate to the planners.

Let’s make practically everybody angry with this observation: Believe it or not, Victoria isn’t only that thin, protective rind of wonderfulness—let’s call it what it is, a coastal crescent of trendy cultural liberalism and pricey real estate—running, notionally, from Esquimalt’s Saxe Point in the west, through Songhees and Vic West to downtown and the funky neighbourhoods that surround it, then following the coast through James Bay/Fairfield/Gonzales, taking in Oak Bay, and out to Ten-Mile Point and Queenswood.

Urbanized regional Victoria north of, let’s be generous, Paul’s Restaurant on Douglas, just a long spit past downtown, is mostly a vast, undifferentiated suburbs, a car-dominated Shitsville that could be Prince George, or Red Deer, or Timmins, or a thousand other places. 

If all you want to do is dream-spin about community gardens, cool, fair-trade coffee shops, artisanal bakeries, heartbreakingly lovely, treed residential streets, buildings that foster social engagement, neighbourhoods with a strong sense of place, and village-scale good vibrations, that kind of “special” stops well south of Bay Street; and if you want to study reality for, at a guess, 75 percent of the regional population and a vast percentage of the developed regional land mass, plant yourself for a couple of sobering hours at Tillicum Mall, or Millstream Road at the Costco turnoff, or the Hillside/Shelbourne nexus.

This column began with a reference to Councillor Madoff, because if any local community leader’s spirit hovers over this entire battlefield, it is Pam Madoff’s. She has had an extraordinary public career spent in informed defense of Victoria’s urban character. 

She draws mutters of frustration from the development industry for her interventions and, for a fact, she hasn’t batted a thousand, but she’s a careful thinker, an enemy of the bad, not the new, and a champion of good urban form and character. She personifies the axiom that you lose a city’s character and identity one bad building, one bad land use decision, at a time. 

Offhandedly, we all say we’re here in Victoria for the lifestyle, the quality of life. Buried far beneath that banality are the complexities of sustaining and steering a civic society and retaining and replenishing civic identity. The blessings of a good location, good urban bones, strong civic culture—such assets always hang in the balance. Cities are social experiments: human arrangements, really, expressed as built environments. Their nature is fragile, and urban character and authenticity are never to be taken for granted.

Actually, I’m waiting for Victoria’s new mayor, Lisa Helps, to season enough to tackle the city’s Official Community Plan, which, in my opinion, needs a completely fresh strategy for “gentle density” in the neighbourhoods and appealing, area-wide residential intensification throughout Downtown to salvage (and transform) the commercial core—somewhat at risk, if shop vacancies and proliferating “for lease” signs are any indication (you might want to add industry buzzword “overstored” to your vocabulary).

Helps is a master of intelligent listening, a getter of both (or all) sides, and a profound thinker on her own terms. She may be the one mayor who can braid these challenges into a promising new vision; and given such complex demands, the voters should commend themselves for executing a brilliant hire in the last election.

Considering the concerns of this column, I’m drawn, in a complete non sequitur, to the content of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical and its memorable quote: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” 

Columnist David Brooks, in a NY Times piece entitled “Fracking and the Franciscans”, faults Pope Francis for not being a “moral realist,” and adds remarkably: “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.”

And lost on the landscape, the rest of us ask: “Who does?”

Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.