Nicole Benson of Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver is campaigning for hyper-local democracy.
Vancouver council candidate Nicole Benson: How NIMBY is NSV? Photo by Jack (Red) Salmon.
When Nicole Benson posed for her official campaign photograph, she removed her steel lip stud. But it's back in when she's on Vancouver's streets campaigning for a seat on city council. The piercing just reinforces what Benson wants voters to know about the political organization she represents, Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV). "None of us are career politicians," she says.
"What unites us," adds Benson, "is our passion for community-level decision making, participatory democracy and freedom from any undue influence -- from big development companies or anybody else."
Benson and NSV arrive on the election scene as the Occupy movement villainizes ties between wealthy businesses and political parties who must raise serious money to stay in the game. In Vancouver, winning that game has proven nigh impossible without cash from the realtors, marketers and builders who are in the business of transforming neighbourhoods. But with their focus on hyper-local decision making, Benson and her NSV colleagues are hoping the public is eager to see the game played by new rules.
The Oaxaca connection
She may proudly declare herself inexperienced in matters of official party politics, but Benson is hardly new to political involvement. Sitting on the board of directors of the human rights organization, CoDevelopment Canada, she also volunteers for CIPO-Van -- an organization supporting indigenous land rights in Oaxaca, Mexico.
After obtaining her degree last April and embarking upon a career as the owner of a small Spanish language school, Benson began to take a keener interest in local politics. Here she says she found an unlikely similarity between southern Mexico and Vancouver.
"There's very much a parallel between communities in Oaxaca that want to have their own say and a voice and a seat at the negotiating table -- between those communities that are being completely ignored -- and here."
The parallel shouldn't be overstated, Benson admits. Protesters of Vancouver's zoning policy are not receiving physical threats from municipal bureaucrats. Instead, Benson says she sees a familiar aversion on the part of city hall to fostering an open dialogue with local communities around issues of development.
"There's a lack of consultation," she says. "I don't have faith in the current council to consult with Vancouverites about the future of the city."
From EcoDensity to STIR
Tracing its genealogy back to the Sam Sullivan administration, NSV was formed when a network of residential tenants associations and other neighborhood groups banded together in opposition to the former mayor's EcoDensity plan. Endorsing Vision and COPE before the last election, NSV has since fallen out with the mayor and his party over what Benson calls a continuation of Sullivan's pro-development policies.
What Sullivan's NPA once tried to achieve under the trademarked brand of "EcoDensity," Benson says, Robertson has continued with various rezoning initiatives, bylaw changes and, most reviled of all, the Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program.
STIR, which provides tax breaks, fee waivers and other incentives to developers of rental units, is based on the logic that more rental supply of any kind will drive down rents across the market. But with no requirement that STIR-supported units be rented at affordable rates, Benson calls the program little more than a tax-subsidized giveaway and further incentive for property developers to demolish affordable housing and heritage buildings.
"STIR simply allows the city to override community plans in the name of density and affordable housing," she says. "We need to have more participation and involvement in what happens in our communities."
In practice, more participation and involvement would mean city hall opening permanent lines of communication with community groups and giving precedence to local development plans in all matters of civic planning.
"This is about changing the culture at city hall," says Benson. "There are already community plans, many of which were made in the '90s. But the ideas just get ignored."
Not in my backyard
The NSV mayoral candidate, Randy Helten, got his start as a community organizer against "spot rezoning," heritage building demolition and highrise development in Vancouver's West End. Helten achieved an odd kind of prominence last year when he and his group of like-minded activists, the West End Neighbours (WEN), were infamously badmouthed by the mayor during a late night council meeting. Speaking to his fellow Vision councillors before an inopportunely live microphone, Robertson gave Helten's WEN what is inarguably their more widely recognized sobriquet -- those "fucking NPA hacks."
More articulate critics at the time dismissed Helten's West End anti-condo crusade as NIMBYism cloaked in progressive social values. As Vision partisan Ross Jonathan wrote in the Vancouver Sun at the time, "No neighbourhood should have the unilateral ability to opt out of contributing to a healthy, sustainable and inclusive city."
Or, to offer a specific example: Once the city acknowledges the need for additional social housing to shelter those recently off the street or out of prison -- which Benson does -- which neighbourhood will volunteer to be the host?
But according to Benson, there is no necessary trade-off between community empowerment and smart planning for the entire city.
"We trust in the people of Vancouver to understand that we have diversity here and that we need to make room for people of all different walks of life," she says. "Any kind of community plan would have to be within certain parameters. But even the development of those parameters is something we would want public consultation on."
Communities may disagree, she admits. What's important is that no one interest group has disproportionate sway over the decision making process. She is, of course, not speaking in the abstract. She is talking about developers.
"We're not anti-development at NSV," she says. "We just think that developers need to be one member at the table among many."