Opinion

Make Vancouver the World’s Slowest City: A Manifesto

The Greenest Action Plan doesn’t seem to be making Lotus Land happier. Here’s a new vision.

By David Beers and Patrick M. Condon 9 Dec 2016 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Patrick Condon is chair of the Master of Urban Design program, UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Tongues were in cheeks when we wrote the following, but the intention is serious. We hope to raise some friendly questions about the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan and what the city is quickly becoming under its guidelines.

Are we really being very green as we rush headlong towards being richer, more exclusive, and faster-paced?

Does being “greenest” rule out other aspirations, just as noble, we might hold for Vancouver?

Are we too constrained in how we define what is psychologically, as well as ecologically, sound?

Thus we give you the “Slowest City Action Plan” — a plan to let this flower of a city bloom safely, sanely, languidly. 

THE SLOWEST CITY ACTION PLAN

“Odysseus and his crew finally escape, having lost six men per ship. A storm sent by Zeus sweeps them along for nine days before bringing them to the land of the Lotus Eaters, where the natives give some of Odysseus’s men the intoxicating fruit of the lotus. As soon as they eat this fruit, they lose all thoughts of home and long for nothing more than to stay there eating more fruit.”

Vancouver was once widely known as North America’s Lotus Land, a place that intoxicated its visitors with its mild climate and sheer ease of survival. Jittery anxieties about status — about being the fastest, the smartest, and the slickest — melted away, leaving inhabitants to pursue deeper satisfactions and notions of well-being. Much like the crew of Odysseus’s galley, arrivals became drunk (some massively stoned) with the pleasures of low-anxiety living.  

Fellow citizens, why does it feel we now are so strenuously rowing in the opposite direction? Why have we become so willing to leave behind our paradise? It must not be lost.

Therefore be it resolved that Vancouver will, by the year 2050, become the World’s Slowest City.

We seek to be a model. People from all over the globe will see here was tamed the soul-sucking scourge of scurrying around ceaselessly to pay the bills. Here, a different ideal of the good life was held up and lackadaisically pursued. Here, through creativity, civic action, and conscious will, an urban society slowed itself to a state-of-the art crawl.

To achieve this Lotus Land 2.0, the City of Vancouver has set out four measurable goals:

These are the new encompassing benchmarks to chart our progress toward redefining what we really mean when we talk about progress. Below we slowly, even painstakingly, explain what we mean.

Pause. Breathe. And now...

OUR FOUR GOALS

Goal #1: Transportation (Slow motion)
Slogan: What’s your hurry?

582px version of Sleeping on transit

Currently we seem fixated on speed to the detriment of our need to chill. Our streets and transit system are a screaming cacophony of steel and stress. And, bizarrely, we are spending unnecessary billions on a subway system that saves only about six minutes on a crosstown trip compared to other available transit types. The Slowest City Action plan commits to saving money, lives and sanity not just by killing the subway plan, but also by having all other transportation modes lower commuters’ blood pressures instead of travel times.

For the same money we are spending on one subway, we could have a city-wide system of frequent, GHG-zero trolley buses and trams spiffed up to afford grace, dignity, wireless internet access and a cup holder for each rider. Spend those extra six minutes riding transit meditating, reading trashy novels, or figuring out how to solve cold fusion nuclear energy. That’s up to you.

Lotus Land 2.0 chooses to see time spent getting from one place to another not as a collective waste but as a resource. Thus, we will incentivize and enforce the slowest ways to do so: Drivers, rather than roar through, will putt along. Bicyclers and joggers will maintain a pace that produces a smile rather than grimace of pain. Walking will be much encouraged, perambulation particularly.

Target:

By 2050, a city-wide speed limit of 30 kph will be imposed and enforced (city streetcars in dedicated lanes occasionally exempted). Crazy? Not at all. New York, the “city that never sleeps” is already instituting such a rule. This speed, akin to a horse trot, will make our streets safe again for walking, for biking and for just relaxing. Bikes, too, will be slowed to normal speeds now typical in Amsterdam. As a result, helmets and spandex will no longer be required. Everyone from six to 80 will be able to safely pedal or stroll. Neighbourhoods will be designed to include good jobs and a good school, making commutes short, even if snail-paced.

Policy Tools Used:

A city-wide change in engineering and traffic bylaws that can, by 2050, fundamentally alter the form and function of city streets. The goal would be to make the car the guest on the street, not the dominant and most dangerous force. Copenhagen streets currently work this way and ours can, too.

Financial Tools Used:

In addition to slow speed limits for cars we propose a car tag tax of $2,000 per year (with exceptions based on mobility challenges) and tax-incentives for developers and employers who promote car sharing and bike storage. An analysis would likely show that between this and the on-street parking tax (discussed under “housing” below) car ownership numbers would drop by more than half, freeing up street space for trams, walking, and biking. 

Goal #2: Housing (Grow your own homes)
Slogan: Let’s get hive!

582px version of Sleeping on rug

By 2050 every Vancouver citizen willing and able to work will be guaranteed a decent crib, as will Vancouver residents incapable of being employed. (Ours is a slothful yet just society.) Lotus Land 2.0. will apply a soothing balm to the damaging anxiousness felt today by our younger citizens about whether they can afford to live here.

Such a goal is not naive. Singapore, for example, today accommodates four out of five of its generally well-heeled citizens in publicly owned housing. Vancouver today, even as it becomes more “world class” is home to fewer children. That trend must be reversed. A two or three-bedroom dwelling should not cost a family more than 40 per cent of the parents’ income. But two factors, low interest rates here and the global rich in search of high-yield investments, conspire to relentlessly widen the gap between what locals can put aside and what a mortgage requires. So steadily adding pay cheque savings into a growing bank account brings not bliss but gut-wrenching despair.

It’s like this in other cities at the moment, too. Let those cities respond by just revving the treadmill for earners to a crushing speed that eventually flings them off. Vancouver will hit the brakes!

This starts by recognizing our impoverished catalog of housing types amounts to just two: the tower and the bungalow, which unfortunately afford ideal investments for the world’s One Per Centers pushing our market out of sight.

The Slowest City Action plan will reverse this trend through “hiving.” Hiving is a way to give local owners the power to transform the more than 100,000 nominally “single family” lots in this city. The structures on these lots, over the next generation, will be reconfigured into appropriate “cribs” — units designed for singles, couples, and families. Houses built in the early years of the last century for families of six or eight (common sizes then) will be “hived” to accommodate four, five and six adaptable units for families of one, two, three and four (current family sizes). This strategy will repel the international investor (they seem only to love towers and single family homes) while re-calibrating the city to make room for any and all new residents wishing to help come and build the drowsy dream of Lotus Land 2.0.

Target:

By 2050 we will “hive” our housing existing housing stock for more homes, preserving original structures but reconfigured for up to 400,000 added units, distributed in relationship to actual income ranges of citizens, such that no part of the city is without decent homes for ordinary income earners.

Policy Tools Used:

Limit or eliminate parcel assembly. Relax zoning otherwise to allow rebuilding by right for up to six dwelling units per parcel, conditional only on preserving (in most cases) the original structure. Zoning bylaws will be restructured in coming decades to shift away from investor-oriented building types (towers and single family homes) to types specifically suited to citizen income earners.

One of the fast and furious aspects of Vancouver today is the way we knock down buildings and pour greenhouse emissions-intensive concrete where they stood, a dubious way to achieve “greenest” city status, and a recipe for endlessly stressful upheaval in our neighbourhoods. Lotusland 2.0 bylaws will promote adapting detached existing buildings into restored and expanded buildings. On-site parking requirements will be eliminated. Parking passes for on street parking will be available at 2,000 dollars per year. Proceeds will be poured back into the housing fund and/or for free bus and tram passes for all citizens. 

Financial Tools Used:

The city will use its ability to tax development to capture 80 per cent of the increased land value attributable to development, not just in the case of spot rezoned projects as is presently the case, but throughout the city. These captured funds will be recycled to insure that income earners making below threshold incomes have options (such as co-op, rent to own, multiple ownership mortgages, etc.) in all city neighbourhoods.

Naturally it would be only fitting if the provincial government would participate, given it is a provincial responsibility to ensure a decent place for all its citizens to live, and to return some of the taxes it collects for same.

Goal #3: Jobs (That are actually workable)
Slogan: Serving up something new every day!

582px version of Woman with flowers

Let’s face it. Jobs are vanishing. We are in year eight of a jobless recovery and year 30 of stagnant wages. The only ones making any dough are the ones who figure out how to use a computer server to vacuum up your money (Uber, Amazon, AirBnB, Facebook, you know the rest). So, short of a revolution we are stuck.

Vancouver’s current Greenest City Action Plan imagines a flood of “green jobs,” conjuring images of tech factories where lab coat clad workers grow omega oils in limpid vats. Jobs like that are exotic and hop borders at a twitch of the exchange rate. The only real growth now is in “service” jobs, which is why the only way for the city to come close to their green jobs target was by including home builders and food truck owners in their green jobs count. Indeed, construction and food services saw Vancouver’s biggest green job growth at over 40 per cent of total. This caused some embarrassment at city hall.

Truth is, as fewer people are employed growing food (less than two per cent) or manufacturing (less than 15 per cent and falling), as robots take over more and more jobs, work as we once knew it will have to become optional. The collapse of jobs is so dramatic that even the World Bank and the Wall Street Journal are giving serious consideration to providing a Universal Basic Income to all citizens while Green MLA Andrew Weaver proposes a pilot project right here in B.C.

The logic: There are not enough “good jobs” to go around, yet corporate profits are high; at least right now they are. But if all of us poor consumer schmucks end up automated out of the work force, we won’t have any money to buy all the crap they want to sell. Most economists are already petrified at the persistence of our current global “lack of demand.” And why is demand so low? Because most of us have less money these days.

What is a city to do in these circumstances? Well, what we are doing now is trying to compete with San Francisco, and we can see how well that is going. Even if we were to succeed, how is that working out for the average Bay Area renter? Not well at all.

Vancouver’s Slowest City Action Plan rejects all that. Our city refuses to speed up competing globally for elusive “innovation sector” jobs. We are realistic. We know that 80 per cent of all jobs are service sector jobs, and that proportion is still growing. Service jobs may not pay a lot, but in this age ruled by algorithms they retain a human connection. The service sector is your teacher training you to be a nurse to take care of someone’s mom whose son works keeping the school in shape. It’s the bus driver and the accountant and your dentist and the barista. Yes, it’s the food trucker and the people who build your house.

Let’s stop madly chasing the next tech bubble and its hyperactive, unstable and inequitable job culture. The Slowest City Action Plan means having enough time to serve and be served.

Target:

By 2050, Vancouver will be famous for its full embrace of the service and craft economy. We will have the most brew pubs, food trucks, local bistros, dentists, accountants, nurses, teachers, artists, furniture builders, carpenters, transit drivers, music producers, graphic novel authors, disc jockeys, painters (fine and house) and home-stay purveyors in North America.

Policy Tools Used:

Zoning will change to not only allow but encourage and in some cases insist on spaces for entrepreneurial activity. All new housing units on arterials will be required to supply first floor commercial space, intentionally oversupplying commercial space to bring down costs. Understanding service jobs don’t pay a lot, Vancouver’s municipal government will spearhead lobbying by a coalition of cities and provinces to create federal policy assuring an income floor for all Canadians.

Financial Tools Used:

City property taxes on commercial space will be imposed on a graduated scale with spaces under 200 sq. feet untaxed.

Goal #4: Public life (More hang time)
Slogan: C’mon. Have a drink! Or whatever!

582px version of Seals

The colourful history of Lotus Land has not been without conflict. A key battle for the soul of this place was waged between the ruling class’s desire for order against the working class’s equally strong desire for a good time. For a while the ruling class won by imposing restrictions on the activities of Vancouver’s public houses. Now with the relaxation of these strictures, and the appearance of hundreds of establishments for the self-administration of cannabis variants, the time is right for an updated and improved public house culture in Vancouver.

At the heart of the Lotus Land 2.0 vision lies a network of social gathering spaces for true communion. Today we note the rising popularity of brew pubs and other convivial dispensaries of alcohol and digitized sports violence. However, it does raise a question: Can we do better? Can we improve on bars at one end of the spectrum, and, at the other, the stale self-betterment of community centres? Can we make magnets that mix all manner of citizens? We dare to imagine, as building blocks for our hassle-free civic culture, places that combine pub, community centre, seniors social club, yoga studio, art gallery and coffee shop cultures. Places where the absence of our octogenarian friend Joe for more than a day would ring alarm bells.

Life in Lotus Land 2.0, ultimately, will not be a lazy life, really. But it will be a life much different from what we are told must be Vancouver’s frenetic future. Every day we are encouraged to believe that the “greenest city” must be a city where residents are locked into a fearful and exhausting competition just to stay, much less thrive... not to mention daydream like a sated Lotus Eater. What is the virtue of achieving a city run purely on green power if its residents are drained of their own energy by the struggle to rush around and pay the bills? Why should Vancouverites fight harder and harder to live in a global hot spot that, by design, keeps turning up the competitive heat on its own citizens?

Cool it everyone! That is the counter-message we deliver here today. Fellow Lotus Eaters! None of us should get busy doing anything! (Except, of course, implementing this, the Slowest City Action Plan for Vancouver.)

Peace out.  [Tyee]

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