Dare to Dream in a City of Rebels
Dealing with the consumption and growth of cities is a fundamental 21st century dilemma in the era of climate change.
At the very least, the role of the citizen in contemporary political life is to amplify the periphery. In a city where less than half of the citizenry vote, where the wealthy participate in greater numbers on behalf of their own interests, where public policy debates are deliberated upon in rooms which are predominately white, where there are no election spending limits, where homelessness has doubled, where the political economy of party fundraising distorts the development of a public interest agenda, it would be accurate to say that we are, collectively, benign spectators in a farcical simulation of democracy which betrays some very basic precepts and preconditions of its very form - we are actively engaged in perpetuating something which approaches a bald-faced lie.
We suffer the shallow calamities of civic boosterism, where ideas seldom travel very far without reaching the natural limitations of the region's middling, parochial reality - banging the drum against the powers that be, in this city, is usually a hopeless task.
For there's a basic idea that exists in democracy - that we have the freedom to live our life, that we are all in this together, that no one gets left behind, that we have collective aspirations for the common good. Articulating that agenda is symptomatic of our contemporary social condition - how egalitarian are we, what do we value, what is the common good, can our liberty be protected while the common interest is advanced?
If public policy is the articulation of our shared values, why are we so exiled from the workings of government, its language and its processes of decision-making? Why is passivity the defining social reality of Vancouver?
There was a time in this city when the Vancouver Sun used to run sensational headlines that said junkies want shooting galleries. It took a long time and a lot of people to challenge that agenda, to put their jobs on the line and take it on the chin, to reposition that debate into something the broader public could understand: that human beings with an addiction need healthcare, that dead people don't detox, that development permits shouldn't be held up in the middle of a health emergency and that health and human rights should not be compromised for the sake of enforcement.
When it matters, this city is capable of compassion in a way that no other place in North America could compare.
Aboriginal reconciliation has been too slow to come, if it has at all, but there are too few people in elected civic life actively supporting that agenda.
We have set higher standards for ourselves which is why we are sometimes left disappointed. Here in Vancouver, the civil society sector, fearful of losing its government funding ties, has failed to articulate an agenda which has resonated with the public.
The business community still doesn't understand homelessness or social issues, nor have they displayed any kind of sophisticated nuance around these important public policy matters - they are often like an ostrich with their head in the sand.
In the absence of leadership, where are the bold strokes, the big thinkers, the vigorous debates? We don't move very far when we don't have something larger to believe in - we are listless when we have no aspirations.
Sadly, we have not yet developed a public sphere in this city which rewards considered debate or developed an economy around social leadership and social innovation. We live in a region where, too often, ideas go to die. Where are the internships and residencies where our creative activists can turn their ideas in to reality?
Political parties are not relevant to the vast majority of citizens because they are not places of ideas, but organizations which carry out the proxy agendas for special interests. Political communications has, unfortunately, turned politics in to a marketing charade disconnected from its intentions.
Art and cultural debate in the city has been distorted by the larger art and cultural institutions at the expense of smaller institutions which are the lifeblood of innovation and add to the character, identity, livability and vitality of the city.
The liquor rules in the city undermine the liberty of citizens and take away their ability to live a productive social life and to fully enjoy their friendships in a meaningful way. We should all be able to walk in to a restaurant and have our own bottle of wine uncorked for five dollars without having to get into shit from special interests.
The engineers and bureaucrats are saying we can't build a pedestrian and cycling bridge between Kits Point and the West End for technical and marine traffic reasons.
What about the value of adding something beautiful to our visual landscape that both citizens and tourists can enjoy for a hundred years?
We need to create public policy and taxation incentives for developers to build social housing. If they want extra floors of market rate units, the city should ask for more social housing units.
Why do we have a billion dollar property endowment fund that's been built up through property speculation, and yet it can't be leveraged with senior levels of government to build the 3,200 units of social housing right now before the Olympics even start?
We need to build our public transit system out faster with a 100-year time frame in mind for regional development. That is why we need a $10-billion public transit investment over ten years, if we really want to deal with regional congestion in a meaningful way. It will be cheaper if we build it now, rather than decades from now and we should amortize it over a longer period of time. It is the best investment we can make right now and the best legacy we can leave for future generations.
Making rent, paying the bills and just getting by isn't as easy as it used to be in this city - that kind of vicious cycle diminishes our ability to participate in democracy, undermines voices who should be at the table and destroys our opportunity to be beautiful and just.
French filmmaker Jean Renoir once said that all great societies are based on loitering. I went to Bologna recently where 3,000 people were out every night in the piazza during a Charlie Chaplin film festival for which a live orchestra played to a silent film every night. It was free, we drank outside, everyone was beautiful. I shouldn't have to go to Italy every summer to feel like that. Repression is a theme we impose on ourselves.
We need to build a city of rebels that can build a genuine citizen's agenda which unites the city in a bold platform for change.