Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces

By VPSN

May 5, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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The B.C. election: Surveying the public space issues

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2017BC Election ver2

It’s May! The days are getting longer, and there’s a stir in the air. It’s a time of verdant renewal, with new shoots poking out of the muck and a gentle fragrance floating on the breeze. A pleasant cacophony of birdsong fills the air, voicing the same eagerness and abandon as the new bikeshare members who cruise the seawall on a daily basis. It’s a good time to be in Vancouver.

Into this rich tapestry of seasonal change comes the provincial election, just under a week away now. Here too are equally enthusiastic calls from both incumbent and prospective candidates alike, and you can spot the orange, blue and green plumage everywhere these days.

We at the VPSN tend to spend a lot of time focussing on municipal politics, because so much public space-related activity happens locally. But the truth is that there are important public space issues and discussions that take place at all levels of government. Most pertinent to the impending election is that cities are, on a constitutional basis, “creatures of the province.” This means that the decisions made provincially will have considerable importance for our city as a whole.

For example:

Transportation

Probably the most easily identifiable public space issue in the current election. Public streets and public transit are key forms of public space, and the Province of B.C. plays a significant role in both. This election, in particular, sees a lot at stake. The federal commitment of funds to support the Mayors’ Council Transportation Plan – and in particular the proposed Broadway subway and Surrey LRT – will be functionally pointless without a substantial matching investment from the Province (something we reported on earlier this year).

Millenium Line Broadway Extension. Map courtesy Translink

Millenium Line Broadway Extension. Map courtesy Translink

Similarly, Translink, as a provincial entity, plays a key role with the City’s major road network, along with other key transportation assets like the Knight Street Bridge and biking routes like the BC Parkway. Key election issues here include tolls, congestion charging, and funding for the George Massey Tunnel replacement.

  • Where they stand ~ platform snapshot: NDP has indicated full support for the Mayors’ 10-year Transportation Plan. BC Liberals and Greens have both indicated partial support. BC Liberal track record is a sore point when it comes to this issue, as the regional transit discussion was severely hampered by the 2015 transit referendum, itself a seemingly off-the-cuff promise in the during the previous provincial election.

Housing, social and community services

The nature of investments made in social housing, welfare rates and other forms of social infrastructure have a direct correlation with, among other things, the number of street-involved individuals, the extent of child poverty in the city, the availability of treatment for mental-health consumers and the depth of response to the current fentanyl crisis. In addition to being complex and substantial in their own right, each of these issues also manifests itself on our public streets and laneways, in our community centres and in our gathering areas.

  • Where they stand ~ platform snapshot: Difficult to compare platforms easily. The Greens are proposing a 30% tax rate on foreign investment, a 5-year capital gains tax and $750m a year to create an annual increase of 4,000 new housing units. The NDP has indicated that it will deliver 114,000 new housing units, along with a 2% “absentee speculation” tax. The BC Liberals have pledged $700m in mortgage assistance and various tax incentives.

Education

Public education is critical for the well-being of the city’s children, youth and adult learners. Beyond that, schools are vital community hubs, playing a variety of roles within the city’s neighbourhoods, both as brick-and-mortar facilities and as important greenspaces. Many of these facilities hold significance for architectural heritage as well. While there is some legitimacy to looking at enrolment numbers and the operational viability of schools as schools, it is also fundamentally important that these facilities remain within the public domain.

Britannia Secondary School, one of several schools that had been considered for closure in 2016. Photo: Arnold C., Wikipedia

Britannia Secondary School, one of several schools that had been considered
for closure in 2016. Photo: Arnold C., Wikipedia

The whole conversation about school facilities in Vancouver is riddled with uncertainty. In 2016, the current government fired the elected school board, amidst a discussion of potential school closures. While the process has been suspended, no one yet knows how this will be resolved or, if it is on the table again post-election, what that will mean for these important community hubs.

Electoral reform

Just because the Prime Minister back-pedalled doesn’t mean the notion of electoral reform is dead. On the contrary, there’s a very active movement focussed on electoral reform at both the provincial and municipal levels. While discussions of election financing rules have received most of the attention (see here, here and here), there’s actually another burning issue that remains largely unreported: electoral reform. Earlier this year, the City of Vancouver’s Independent Election Taskforce released a key report advocating changes to the way we cast our ballots in the local election. In the process, the taskforce raises some pretty compelling arguments. The challenge? Implementing almost any of the recommendations, even on a local level, will require provincial approval.

  • Where they stand ~ platform snapshot: This issue isn’t mentioned in two of three platforms, and only the Greens have a stated position, indicating that they support proportional representation. That being said, 123 Vancouver has polled candidates to get their own take on the issue. You can see the results here.

Provincial parks and protected areas

These make up a significant form of public space in B.C., accounting for almost 15% of the province’s land base. How the parks are created, funded and managed plays a critical role in determining how well they perform as spaces for recreation and, importantly, as critical habitats and ecosystems. Certainly, from an ecological perspective, there is a need to increase the amount of protected land in the province. Yet it’s not just the amount of land that matters; it’s also ensuring that this is done in a way that supports the environment first, while also providing for an array of cultural values.

To give credit where credit is due: the recently released BC Parks Future Strategy makes some promising if sometimes ambiguous commitments. On the other hand, the Park Amendment Act, passed in 2014, has been criticized for opening the door for “industrial-related” research to take place (read: studies related to pipeline initiatives). Clear support for expanding our parks and protected areas is key. Also needed: a means to convey their significance to newcomers and future generations of urbanites who may never have set foot in a protected area.

  • Where they stand ~ platform snapshot: All three parties have indicated support for some aspects of the issues identified above, and all attach some dollar commitments to this. The Greens have committed “up to $28m over four years” for recreation and tourism facilities in parks. The NDP platform identifies restoring funding for parks and hiring park rangers – among other promises – and costs these at $25m. The Liberal platform covers parks in more detail and lists the new BC Parks Future Strategy, but then quotes a few different figures ($21m, $26m and $36m) – it’s not clear why – in terms of its commitments. Equally unclear is how much of this consists of new money or of commitments made previously to the start of the election. 

Pipelines and the Vancouver (and B.C.) coastline

Speaking of pipelines, the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline proposal was given conditional approval by both the National Energy Board and the Province of B.C. This proposal has been a major source of contention for Lower Mainland municipalities, with the City of Vancouver currently requesting a judicial review of the decision.

Sunset over English Bay and Burrard Inlet. This significant public space would be affected by increased tanker traffic proposed as part of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Photo: VPSN

Setting aside the fact that the whole proposal is premised on the continued extraction and offshore sales of a crude, non-renewable and environmentally damaging resource, the pipeline also has the potential to increase tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet sevenfold. This has significant implications for marine safety and the visual impact on one of our most precious public spaces. Will these approvals be revisited after May 9? If so, what will the larger implications be across the country? That’s a significant question for the next government.

  • Where they stand ~ platform snapshot: Both the NDP and the Greens oppose the Trans Mountain project. The BC Liberals initially put a series of conditions on the Kinder Morgan proposal but approved the project in January 2017.

Reconciliation

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission laid out over 90 “Calls to Action” directed at all levels of government as well as other agencies and stakeholders. These recommendations aim to respond both to the historical injustice inflicted upon Aboriginal communities through the residential school system and, more broadly, to the ongoing and problematic legacy of colonization.

While many of the recommendations are aimed at the federal government, meaningful provincial attention to these calls to action would also be important in righting past wrongs. It would play a key role in honouring the immense contributions of B.C.’s many First Nations and urban Aboriginal peoples. Certain specific public space measures are part of this, including a call for changes to health, education and social services – all core services occurring in the public realm – as well as a call to commemorate reconciliation through the creation of a “highly visible, Residential Schools Monument” in Victoria.

Municipal finance and authority

Behind many of the issues mentioned above is a larger concern, and not one that has been particularly well addressed by any of the candidates. It’s the nature of the authority that the Province grants to B.C.’s municipalities, which includes the jurisdictional authority to create certain kinds of bylaw to raise funds through particular types of taxes and levies.

Cities like Vancouver are considered “creatures of the province.” Despite the important role that cities play, municipal powers and financial tools are constrained by provincial controls.

The challenge is this: while cities are immense generators of wealth, they’re also expected to take on an ever-increasing array of roles and responsibilities. And yet their ability to manage day-to-day affairs, or to see a commensurate level of benefit from their wealth creation, is often quite compromised by the limited powers granted to them by provincial governments. Cities get only eight cents on every tax dollar but own over 60% of the infrastructure. They also deal with a disproportionate level of social service need. Pair these issues with the fact that the relationship between larger cities and the Province has often been strained (at times you might reasonably describe the Province’s perspective as “anti-urban”), and you begin to see the depth of the challenge.

To be sure, this is a problem with the Canadian constitution, but it’s also one that the Province has the power to alleviate, if it so wishes. The provincial government’s character and its disposition towards municipalities play a significant role in all aspects of urban life, including public space.

* * * * *

So there you have it: a survey of some of the many public space-related challenges facing B.C. at election time. Whatever your issues, we hope you’ll take the time to look through the platforms of the parties: Greens, Liberals and NDP. Get informed and, most importantly, be sure to cast your ballot next Tuesday, May 9 (or at one of the many advance polls prior).

If you haven’t yet registered, not to worry. Check out the Elections BC website for details on how you can cast your ballot on May 9.

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