Riverfront fire

I’m hearbroken.

That’s about all I could tweet last night, typo and all, in true Twitter style.

At the time, I was walking back down from the middle of the Pattullo Bridge with Councillor Nakagawa, hoping like the many hundreds of people in downtown New West to get a better view. Not for prurient fascination; just trying to account what we were losing, to support our hope the flames would end. And the loss started to hit me.

When we got to the site after exchanging frantic texts, the W was engulfed in smoke and flames as firefighters tried desperately to get water onto the site. This was a shocking vision. Love it or hate it (and few are indifferent), WOW New Westminster has become iconic – a vital part of our skyline and our brand as a City. Still balanced there, thin steel cables holding it up, it seemed only a matter of time before it was gone.

We were able to catch peeks from Columbia Street or the Parkade as the flames moved along the aged creosote timbers to the Urban Beach, creeping under the deck, veiled in its own oily smoke, then surging out of gaps with unbelievable intensity, so orange as to be red. We could see the firefighters tearing through the fence, but water was not going to stop this, not with tar-soaked wood capped by asphalt.

It became clear the best possible outcome was the fire being stopped at the end of the “timber wharf”, and that the decking change under the grass field and the gap between sections will give firefighters a chance to stop the downriver spread. Even this was uncertain, as the fire at the gap was substantial and burning fiercely. If it didn’t stop there, it seemed all would be lost.

Former Mayor Wayne Wright was in the growing Parkade crowd, looking on. He was visibly shaken. It was Mayor Wright and the Council before me who made the brave move to buy this land, to dream big and complete a City-defining vision against some vocal and sometimes malicious opposition. We shared a few words, but I know if my heart was breaking, his must have been tenfold.

I chatted on the phone with Ruby Campbell, former City staff member who did so much of the hard legwork of getting the funding model together, the partners onside, and managed to get bitter Federal and Provincial political opponents together for a friendly Grand Opening event to celebrate the achievement of all – and God did it rain that day! So many stories were made in this park between that day and now.

I sat in the Park on Saturday, slightly cooler than I might have liked under the sepia skies as I worked on my Council package on a laptop and watched people of every age, shape, and size use the park. Of course I took a picture, the picture at the top of this post, because you always want to show this park off to your friends.

This loss is for the entire community, but it is also personal.

Before I went home last night to shower the tire fire smell off, I stopped once more to check that the W was still there. The fire at that end had been pretty tamped down, more white smoke than black, and the W was indeed still standing. Amazing.

I got home, and a friend was raging on Twitter about 2020. A friend with a big heart who has felt many of the impacts of this year’s compounding disasters more than some others. He asked “is it okay to be crying over a park?” That is how much this place is part of our home. It is our living room, a parlor and a back yard and a playroom. Friends replied – he wasn’t the only one crying. People around the region sent us notes sharing our grief for the loss of a park.

It’s hard to put things in any kind of perspective this year. So much strife and anger in the air. Death is around us in a way generations have forgotten. This very weekend, our eyes have been watered and lungs scratched by the smoke of entire communities lost down south of us, tens of thousands of homes burning to the ground. But that doesn’t make it wrong to feel a personal loss, to remember the things that matter to us every day, and mourn still if they are taken away.

This morning news was more reassuring. Thanks to the firefighters working in incredibly challenging conditions with limited access, unknown deck conditions, needing SCBA to protect them from the creosote smoke, the fire was indeed contained to the Timber Wharf, and damage to the western half of the park was limited. We all owe a thanks to the New West Fire Department and crews from across the region who faced these challenges, and limited the loss to our community.

The Riverfront still belongs to New West. We will make it a place for people again. Of course the deck is still burning, and we don’t know what this looks like yet, but I cannot imagine our community turning its back on the river again. When the fire is out, we will get to work.

Projections

I want to talk about this picture.

Because it triggered for me something that has been banging around in the back of my head for a few years, and I have not really known how to relate it. When it arrived a few years ago thoughts like this were too catastrophic to fit into our world view. Maybe our world view is changing, but I’m not sure about it.

At the time, I was on the Metro Vancouver Utility Committee, which is a committee of local elected officials that get together to discuss the operations of the water and sewer infrastructure of the region and review capital plans for the Metro Vancouver Board. (This has been replaced after the 2018 election with separate Liquid Waste and Water committees). As was our mandate, we were doing long-term planning for the region’s water supply. Really long-term, like 50 – 100 years.

This is important, because major water infrastructure like our three big reservoirs, the dams that support them, and the pipes and pumps and stuff that move a billion litres of water around every day is really expensive stuff. Once installed, it may be in the ground for a century or longer. In a rapidly-growing region with land constraints like Greater Vancouver, big decisions about how, where, and when we invest in this infrastructure are important.

To inform that planning, we needed to include projections about climate change. Beyond just being hotter in the summer, and the potential for less snowpack, we need to consider impacts on ENSO and other global climate systems that may drastically shift when and how much rain falls in our watersheds so we are capable of storing the right amount. We had science types who study this stuff in universities for a living providing models for us.

The subject matter experts were able to, I think, provide a pretty good summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know about the climate are we project to 2100, about 80 years in the future. There were several chuckles around the table from comfortable elected people “I’ll be dead then! Har Har!” which is its own telling moment, but I digress.

Scientists being science types, they spent a lot of time talking about uncertainty. There are a variety of models, none of them perfect, and subtle adjustments of what we put into the model can have big impacts over decades. Will the world meet the Paris Agreement goals? Will the economic growth of the last decades continue? Will Elon Musk invent the Mr. Fusion? All of these are external things climate scientists cannot predict, but they can make projections based on different amounts of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere. From those they can infer the impact on temperatures, sea and air circulation patterns, feedbacks positive and negative. They have several different models, and into each they can add several emissions scenarios, and they end up with scores or hundreds of different results.

These projected results are not random, though. They cluster. They reinforce each other as often as they differ. In the report we were given, there were three distinct clusters in projecting the temperature impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Greater Vancouver. As is the wont of planners and engineers, they hope for the “best case”, plan around the “middle case”, and have contingencies for the “worst case”.

Looking at a “middle case” for 2100, they made some iterations around our watersheds, how the hydrology of them will be impacted, how spring rains vs. summer rains impact storage need. All to figure how we will assure we can supply water to a City of (I can’t remember the number now, but for the sake of moving the discussion along let’s say it was) 4 Million people. Great, we put our stake in the ground, and have something to plan around. If things change, we will adjust, but this is the point we adjust from.

I put my hand up. “If the annual temperature increases by that much, what does that mean for the trees we are protecting in the watersheds? Can they tolerate that change?”

The answer was “outside of our current scope”. Not the topic of this discussion. We moved on to reservoir design options.

But it doesn’t take much research to discover that, even in the “middle scenario” provided, we are looking at temperatures that are outside of the habitat range of the Douglas fir, the western hemlock, the sitka spruce, the red cedar. The trees will likely die.

Sitting in Metro Vancouver’s offices, you could look over at the North Shore Mountains. It was hard to imagine what Vancouver will look like in 2100 with those trees dead or dying. To most of us, those green mountainsides reaching to rocky peaks define Vancouver. So much so that the City has expensive and complicated “view cone” programs to assure that people’s view of that green expanse is protected by policy. I’m not sure anyone is really thinking about what it means if they are gone.

Maybe it’s too hard to imagine. Just another bummer on the pile, and I’ll be dead by then. Or maybe our current sepia-toned sky should prompt us to imagine why we have made this choice.


Thanks to Mr. Mathew Bond for permission to lament over your photo.

#BestNeighbourhood

This summer a few of us engaged in a bit of fun radio hijinks, as local CBC reporter datacruncher and ranker of all things Justin McElroy let loose his most recent bracket-style crowdsourcing campaign to determine, once and for all, the Best Neighbourhood in Greater Vancouver.

Of course, empirical data clearly puts the Brow of the Hill at the top, making the entire enterprise redundant. But this is not about empirical data, it is about framing a conversation about the neighbourhoods where we live, where we would like to live, and what we value in our communities. Though most people likely voted for their home because of civic pride and the tendency is to cheer for the home team, there was also an idealization of other places where we don’t live. What is it about Steveston (where the vast majority of the voters don’t live, and most rarely even visit) that made it our collective favourite?

The bracket form of the competition caused most of us to change the horses we were riding several times, as each week more neighbourhoods were eliminated. I (of course) voted Brow early on for both the empirical reasons and because of my homer tendencies. But I also felt the need to vote for the two neighbourhoods for which I am the designated City Council representative – Glenbrooke North and Queensborough. Gotta support the team. This did not go well for me, or them, as my support seemed to the quickest path to elimination in the contest. But I did learn along the way, and the more I thought about it, the more I found myself making the case for Sapperton.

I made up a very short mental list of the things I want in a neighbourhood. Walkscore, local shopping, services and employment, housing variety, socio-economic diversity, access to transit, low risk of car reliance, closeness to a curling club, a local pub, access to local green space, and mindful and engaged community members. Sober reflection had be considering Sapperton meets or beats the Brow on most of these measures.

But there is the less tangible. A couple of weeks ago, we went out for an evening walk on a Saturday and dropped by ABC Brewing for electrolytes, then found ourselves on East Columbia at 9:00pm. It was vacant. Most of the restaurants were closed or closing and there was just no-one out and about. We grabbed a (great!) donair from a take-out spot and chilled in the Parklet as the evening cooled off, but East Columbia was a quiet as our backyard. One part I love about being in a City is seeing other people, the energy that comes from sharing the evening streets. Downtown New West is not Bourbon Street, or even South Main, but a few patio drinkers and people walking to the theatre or home from the sunset at Pier Park make it feel alive most pleasant evenings – otherwise why not just go live in the woods? Or Pitt Meadows? Being in the Brow makes Downtown a 5-minute walk away on a Saturday night.

Thing is, this is *my* list. Other people want other things. I don’t have kids, so school catchment isn’t important to me. Some people want quick access to the freeway so they can drive to… wherever all those people on the freeway are driving to all the time. Some want to have a 4-car garage facing a cul-de-sac, others need to be on the beach, or want to be surrounded by Victorian and Edwardian houses. There are a million measures, some tangible, some not, that make up Neighbourhood Character*, making the search for the “Best” a fun distraction, but ultimately meaningless.

That said, I thought the paths the polls took were interesting, and there may be some insight to be found in how we as a larger region (or at least, the CBC-listening cohort in our region) view our communities. Queens Park was the longest-lasting New West neighbourhood, likely because it has a familiar name and aesthetic to the 95% of voters who do not live in New West. I mean, no-one in Burnaby or Surrey knows what the hell a Brow of the Hill even is.

When the contest got down to the Final Four, I rode a bike to the neighbourhoods to get some real-time input on what the appeal of each may be. I am aware I may get sounding petty judgy in the next paragraphs, but these are my opinions, based on the measures and persona filters I admit to above.

I honestly find very little to distinguish between Steveston and Fort Langley. Both are “historic” town centres that lean heavily on that colonial heritage as a means to define themselves. Though both have pleasant walkable commercial centres that are bustling on a sunny weekend, you know that the majority of people having fish and chips or ice cream cones came here as regional tourists, and don’t live in the neighbourhood. These are neighbourhoods where battles for neighbourhood character are fought fiercely. The still-vacant-a-decade-later “marine” retail spots in Steveston, and the recently-razed-by-a-city-Councillor properties in the Fort Langley are evidence that idyllic doesn’t come easy, and not everyone agrees on what defines the space.  Ultimately, both are great places to ride your bike to and stop for coffee or lunch, but it’s not long before I’m ready to ride home.

Pitt Meadows is a fast-growing auto-oriented suburb sprawling from the crossroads of a regional highway and an archetypal stroad. There are beautiful polders and dike trails and access to nature, and there are endless 3,500-square-foot 2-car-garage houses on cul-de-sacs with alphanumeric names. The core of the community is densifying with increasing housing diversity, but it is clear that the automobile rules the shape of the neighbourhoods and shopping centres. It is wide-open, pretty green, and very tidy looking, but with a walk score in the 30s, not my jam.

Mount Pleasant was the surprising Vancouver finalist, which may reflect McElroy’s craft-beer-data-oriented fan base, or may be the result of people down-voting the more obvious alternatives like the Drive or Kits out of spite. But I pass through Mount Pleasant regularly on bike commutes, and have always loved the vibe. An interesting mix of housing, easy access to commercial streets on Broadway, Cambie, and Main and ample breweries thereabout. Mount Pleasant Park on a sunny Sunday is a chill green oasis filled with picnicking people hipper than me, the food truck right there. There is no beach, and density increases still cause local angst, but this may be as Lotus Land as anywhere else in Vancouver. Given the choice of the final 4, this is the neighbourhood I would choose, for all the urban amenity reasons that make me love the Brow and Sapperton.

And it may not be your thing. If one thing is clear, it’s that what we value in a neighbourhood is as personal and varied as the neighbourhoods themselves. Some fetish built form, some the vibe of the denizens. Some want big back yards, some want active front porches, some want balconies with views…

But the Brow is the Best.


*“Neighbourhood Character” is a phrase we hear at every Public Hearing, and it eventually arrives whenever there is a discussion of zoning and land use in the community. The point that there is no clear definition of it, or that everyone has their own unique definition of it, makes it equal parts a powerful idea and completely meaningless.

RCH, TDM, LOS. Oh My!

I raised some concerns about the Royal Columbian Hospital expansion project in Council this week, and I thought it would be worthwhile expanding on the issue here. This is a unique development in the City, and that takes a bit of unpacking what a rezoning really is to explain where we are now. So background before gripes:

Usually, a rezoning in the City is a negotiation between a private land owner (commonly a development company) and the City. They want to build a building that doesn’t meet current zoning, usually bigger than permitted or a different use than permitted. The City looks at a rezoning proposal as an opportunity to negotiate value to the community. We ask what the benefits to the community may be (housing, affordable housing, amenities, tax revenue, infrastructure renewal, etc.) and what externalized costs may be involved (traffic, sewer capacity, green space loss, etc.). The job of the rezoning process is to maximize those benefits to offset those externalized costs. If we ask too much, the developer can’t pay the cost, so they take their ball and go home. If we ask too little, we are eroding the community and passing costs on to future generations.

Clearly, RCH is different than other “developments”. This is a provincial government project, a significant health asset for our community, and an important development for the entire region. RCH is also the City’s largest employer and the heart of the Sapperton community. The City wants an expanded RCH, the expanded health care capacity, and the good jobs that come with it. We want the spin-off economic effects of health services and support businesses in the neighbourhood. To balance that a bit, Fraser Health has a significant investment in the physical assets on site, and moving the hospital out of Sapperton is not something anyone would seriously consider. so this is already a torqued negotiation.

On top of this, it is important to remember that Municipalities, and our Bylaws, exist at the pleasure of the provincial government. Fraser Health (as an agency of the provincial government) is going through our rezoning process because that is the community expectation codified in bylaw, and it is the right thing to do to assure their work addresses the needs and wants of the community. However, they don’t strictly need our approval. They can grant themselves an exemption to our bylaws and build what they want. But I take on good faith that their desire is to meet the needs and expectations of the community they serve, and going through the rezoning process is an example of that.

In the review of first and second reading of the rezoning on Monday, I expressed my opinion (speaking for myself, not all of Council, of course) that Fraser Health failed to meet the expectations of the community, and indeed their own policy goals, in how they designed the transportation realm around the new hospital. Along with the rest of Council, I voted to support First and Second reading, but I added an amendment making some specific asks of Fraser Health, and tried to make clear my support for further readings will be contingent on how they address these serious concerns.

OK, on to the gripes.

Royal Columbian Hospital is the only hospital in British Columbia built immediately adjacent to a rapid transit station and on a regional Greenway. Beyond that, it is located in a City that has made serious commitments to Climate Action, has signed onto the Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, and has both an Official Community Plan (OCP) and a Master Transportation Plan (MTP) that speak to moving us past motordom. Yet, the largest employer in the region has brought us a plan that serves to entrench the private automobile as the primary form of transportation to a facility meant to serve the region for decades ahead. That is a failure to set a building into appropriate context, a failure to design, and a failure to lead.

It is 2020; we need to do differently.

Since Fraser Health first brought plans for the hospital upgrades to us a couple of years ago, the City has pointed out a fundamental design flaw. The building literally turns its back on the Skytrain station. Though the project team as tried to address this issue by creating a somewhat uninspired back entrance plan where pedestrians can go through a parking garage entrance and find and elevator to a back hallway, the plan for access shows pedestrians and transit users are an afterthought to the transportation plan.

Indeed the hospital is being built immediately adjacent to a SkyTrain Station – less than 30m from the weather-sheltered exit from the transit station. However, a pedestrian walking or rolling  to a primary entrance must travel 500m, up a hill, around the entire bulk of the building, and through a parking lot. Attempts to make this route universally accessible (with a grade less than 5%), would add significant distance in the form of switchbacks to this route. It also involves an at-grade (non-signalized?) crossing of a road that is both designated a truck access and a vehicle access to the parking garage. So it is on Transit, but turns its back to transit.

I have also spent a couple of years relating concerns about the potential impacts this project will have on East Columbia if we don’t do it right. The City’s clear and long-established plans call on East Columbia through Sapperton to serve as a “Great Street”. According to our Master Transportation Plan “Great Streets require planning and design that goes beyond the typical street function of supporting through traffic. Planning and designing Great Streets means providing characteristics that make streets destinations – places for people to be, instead of places to move through”.

I appreciate the work Fraser Health and City Staff did to assure the streetscapes along East Columbia are mixed mode and modern, but that is spackle over a flawed foundation. We need to re-align this map to assure that Brunette Avenue – acting as the regional road and regional truck route it is and is meant to be – becomes the primary connection to the Hospital for large trucks bringing goods to the hospital, and for drivers who choose to drive to the hospital from the wider region. Simply put, East Columbia cannot achieve the goal of being a Great Street if it is expected to carry the bulk of this regional traffic.

That means we need to change Brunette Avenue, and that is something that will require partnerships with TransLink (who should get this) the Ministry of Transportation (who will need to be dragged kicking and screaming), as this part of Brunette is both Major Road Network and a regional truck route. Senior Government transportation staff are going to say that installing a safe intersection at Brunette in the vicinity of the Hospital will impact Level of Service for all the through-traffic that the route serves. I do not doubt that, but wonder again whether we are using the right measures to assess the function of our transportation network. Fraser Health should be making this case to these provincial agencies, not the City. But here we are.

With all of this in mind, I asked that the City ask Fraser Health to commit to three things before adoption of the rezoning:

• A seamless and universally accessible connection to the SkyTrain Station befitting a primary entrance to the hospital as part of to the current design;
• Developing a plan to shift all transport truck access from E Columbia to Brunette Avenue; and
• Developing a plan to shift the primary access for regional automobile traffic onto Brunette Ave instead of E Columbia.

Now, an argument could be made (indeed was made in Council) that this was all too late and we cannot ask Fraser Health to change course on such a major project at this late stage. If we are unreasonable now, are we jeopardizing the entire project?

Allow me to retort.

Nothing I said at the meeting should be a surprise to the Project Team, or to Fraser Health. Every opportunity I have had to talk to Fraser Health about this project over the last few years – at ACTBiPed consultations, in the Transportation Task Force, at Council presentations, in their open houses, I have made these points. They have heard it reinforced by our Advisory Planning Commission and through our transportation planning staff. This policies driving this are baked into our City’s planning and transportation documents. We have been banging this drum all through the consultations, Fraser Health has been dancing to a different beat.

This is doubly frustrating because this is also at odds with Fraser Health’s own direction in regards to the role of motrodom in Public Health. Fraser Health knows that climate change is a public health challenge that is exacerbated by automobile dependency. As the region’s leading trauma hospital, RCH is fully aware that automobile dependency is a leading cause of traumatic injury, and automobiles are the #1 cause of death for young people in Canada and around the world. Sedentary lifestyles, asthma exacerbated by air pollution, urban heat island effects, the direct and indirect health impacts of the social and economic harm posed by automobile dependency, etc. etc. That cars are bad for public health is not a controversial idea.

So what role does such a large employer and a large service provider in the community have in moving past motordom?  When it comes to a rezoning and developing a new asset for the next century, they should look at the clear goals set out in Official Community Plans and Master Transportation Plans and try to address those. When that developer is a provincial government and provincial Health Agency, they should also determine if their plans address the Provincial Government’s own stated goals about climate, about auto dependency, about smart growth and sustainable communities. When they all coincide, we shouldn’t need a pipsqueak council using zoning laws to force/cajole community investments towards those goals.

I do recognize that Fraser Health has made some commitments to Transportation Demand Management (TDM) related to the hospital expansion project. However, those seem to have been driven by a need to address the cost of building parking, and making the case for parking relaxations. I fully support those TDM measures, and appreciate to commitment, but the design of the building and surrounding transportation network does not enhance these TDM measures, and undermines their ultimate effectiveness.

They can do better, and we need to do better. It is 2020, and the planet is in peril. This is the decade we change the status quo to address climate, or the decade where we abandon future generations to their fate. If we choose the latter here, we are going to need a bigger hospital.

Protectors

There is something else that has been going on in New West (and right next door in Burnaby) for several weeks that is not getting nearly enough attention. There have been a small group of people, led by Dr. Tim Takaro, leading a peaceful occupation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline right-of-way through the Brunette River riparian area. If you live in New West, or if you are concerned about the role your federal government plays in addressing Canada’s shameful climate change legacy, you should care.

It is possible in 2020 that many of us are feeling “protest fatigue”. After the Climate Strikes of last fall, the actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en in the spring, the seemingly unstoppable 24-hour news of protest and counter-protest around Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights movements, the nation south of us in such a downward spiral, all while we are living under the fogbank of a global pandemic – how many people have capacity for another call to action or protest against injustice right now? For anyone who even gives even the littlest shit about the state of the world and future generations, it can all feel crushing. Not because this doesn’t matter, but because everything freaking matters.

Some people I talk to about this are lamenting (or sometimes celebrating) that the pipeline is fait accompli. The Federal Government has dropped its your money into it, the pipe is bought, the court cases are exhausted. Even as the dark reality of questionable financial viability dawns on us, and the guy who bought the pipeline slinks from office to find other opportunities to mess with global capital, the sunk cost fallacy is pushing us forward into a $12.5 Billion investment in stranded carbon assets. But that’s global macroeconomics and climate denialism, what does that have to do with us here in little old New West?

As I have talked about before, the new Trans Mountain pipeline is going to move more than half a million barrels a day of oil products through the Brunette River, just meters from the New Westminster border, and just before the Brunette flows into New Westminster and discharges to the Fraser immediately upstream of our waterfront. I say the new Trans Mountain Pipeline, because here in the Lower Mainland, they are not “twinning” or “expanding” the existing pipeline, they are routing a second pipeline kilometers from the existing one (which will still pump away as it always does). The new route passes through the most sensitive riparian area of the Brunette: a river that a small group of underappreciated local heroes spent decades bringing back from an industrial sewer to a place that hosts spawning salmon again. The new pipeline is proposed to dig through the very riparian area that supports those salmon and a rich diversity of other flora and fauna, one of the few remaining natural streams in the urban sprawl of the Burrard Peninsula.

So here we are again, another small group of dedicated people protecting a legacy for generations. With time a’ticking and construction equipment staging, they are occupying the space in the hopes that their presence will prevent the felling of trees and clearing of brush and digging of trenches. There has not been much mention of this protest that has been going for more than a month, aside from a couple of early news stories when Dr. Takaro initially went into the trees.

The protest came to the attention of New West council as the occupants were using lower Hume Park for staging some of the activity, it being the nearest open public assembly place to the protest site. Although the actual occupied site is in Burnaby, the crossing of North Road and the Brunette River is a jurisdictionally-challenging spot, where Burnaby, New West, and Coquitlam meet and the federal railways have some policing powers (don’t start with me about how multinational corporations have armed policing powers in Canada –that’s another rant for another time). So it is worthwhile to point out that the three municipalities have taken varying approaches to the TMX expansion.

New Westminster was an intervenor in the Environmental Assessment, strongly opposed the project and its re-location to the Brunette watershed, and have supported legal challenges to the project. Burnaby’s opposition to the project has taken them to the Supreme Court of Canada. Coquitlam has said “show us the money”.

As a City Council, we have received no formal correspondence from the pipeline project team since the federal government took over the project. After formally opposing it for a list of technical reasons in 2017, we received a letter in response from (then) Minister Sohi in 2018 letting us know they received our letter, but they had just bought the entire project, so they are moving ahead.

My reasons for opposition to this project are informed by my participation in the original Environmental Assessment process in a technical role, and honed by my role as an elected official in an impacted community. I have been at this long enough that I remember the Harper-led federal government listening to our concerns before telling us they don’t care, then tearing up the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Fisheries Act to prove the point. In hindsight, that seems more honest than the Trudeau-led federal government lying to us about accountability, promising to end subsidizing oil and gas, and then throwing our chips down on the biggest oil company bailout in Canadian history. I wonder where Minister Sohi is now, after so much was invested in trying to protect his lonely Alberta seat.

Anyway, I’m ranting.

The protest is ongoing in the woods just west of the North Road, south of the Highway 1 overpass, but you may see a few people spending time staging or handing out information in lower Hume Park. Drop by and say Hi if you are in the area, send them some support if you like. Maybe you might want to let your elected representatives know if you think building a pipeline to expedite bitumen sand development in the face of a Climate Emergency is a thing you want them to spend your money on in 2020, or whether you value healthy salmon habitat in your community.

Back at it

Back at it!

We had our first Council meeting today after a shortish summer break. We have yet to get through the Labour Day weekend, but back to work we are.

I want to use this blog post to point out a couple of things that happened in August that we kinda fun. For me, anyway.

I had a great chat with Christine Bruce, who runs a radio program called “Totally Spoke’d” on CICK radio (and the interwebs, or course, because it is 2020). The program is about cycling and active transportation advocacy. Christine invited me on to talk about the increased fines for dooring recently applied by the BC Government, which I talked to the New West Record about here.

Christine was an informed and fun person to chat with, and I think the conversation was a great introduction to the issue and the reasons the province made the changes. It was also a launching point to a bigger discussion about the tonne of work we have yet to do to make cycling spaces – and all active transportation spaces – safe and comfortable in urban areas. Have a listen here!

I also had a long chat with Dean Murdock (which he artfully edited down to a tight 20 minutes) who produces and hosts the Podcast Amazing Places. Dean is a former City Councillor from Saanich and is leading conversations in Greater Victoria about making public spaces better. He wanted to talk about the original capital’s Streets for People initiatives, and the efforts New Westminster is making to re-balance our public space allocation between storage-and-movement-of-automobiles and all the other uses the space can be used for. You can hear that conversation here, or wherever your favourite Podcasts are cast from. And unless you are my Mom, you will probably find more interesting episodes of his show than mine, Dean is definitely worth a follow.

Finally, I couldn’t help but stick my nose into the CBC’s Best Neighbourhood conversation/competition. Along with my fellow Browhillian Councillor Nadine Nakagawa, we made a compelling case (I think) for the Brow of the Hill. Enough that after we lost to much less worthy places, we were back on CBC to talk about the Brow. We were there to talk about how we define a great neighbourhood, and what we value in the pace that we live. It was all in good fun, but I think I’ll dig into a longer conversation about this “contest” for a follow-up Blog Post.

Declaration for Resilience (Part 4)

I have to wrap up my mid-August long read, as labour day is fast approaching. It’s been so gloriously nice outside, as it always is after the PNE rains pass, I have really been putting this off. I have some more time this week, so here we go. This is Part 4 of the City’s response to the Declaration for Sustainability in Canadian Cities that Council approved early in the month. The final section are ideas that arose during local discussions that seem to be gaps in the original declaration, or are particularly relevant to the Metro Vancouver / New West context. As these are not part of the original text, this section will only have the staff-suggested additions, with my comments after – as always, speaking for myself and not on behalf of Council or the City.

Provide funding, land, and regulatory environment to increase the supply of affordable rental housing and non‐market housing in all neigbhourhoods, particularly in transit‐oriented locations.
I expressed a bit of concern with us opening this section (and others below) with “funding”. In the plainest language I can offer – non-market housing is a senior government responsibility to fund, and municipal governments, with less than 9% of all tax revenues and already suffering from a significant infrastructure gap in everything from roads to sewers to recreation facilities and parks, municipalities cannot take on the financial burden of providing housing because senior governments got out of the business of building it in the Great Austerity Shift of the 1990s. If paying for building housing falls on us and property tax revenue, it will be inadequate and ultimately a failure.

That said, I do not think Cities can turn their backs on the desperate need for supportive housing, and we have a supportive role to play – assuring our regulatory and policy environment doesn’t prevent the building of affordable housing in all of our neighborhoods. Most of us can also provide public land (which New Westminster has been doing, even with our severely constrained land base), and we have been stepping in and providing capital funding and a tonne of staff resources, both of which are a financial burden on the City, but one where we have to step up if any supportive housing of any type will get built in the City. We also need to cajole and/or shame (whatever works) the provincial and federal governments to bring some of their significant resources to the table to address this ongoing crisis.

Increase housing supplement though income assistance or implement Universal Basic Income.
This is 100% outside of municipal jurisdiction. We are limited to advocating to senior governments to make this happen.

Require all municipalities to provide shelters and other services and supports to homeless populations.
Again, our role in the City is to assure we have space and coordination to provide shelter support to all of our residents. As we are on the “front line” of the living experience of the unhoused in our communities, we are probably best positioned to do this. But until senior governments provide the housing and health care supports to address the problem, this will continue to be an inadequate approach.

Develop culturally sensitive and inclusive policies to protect tenants, maintain and enhance existing purpose‐built rental housing and non‐market housing
This is an area I think New Westminster has truly showed leadership, both before I joined Council and in the last few years. The first step in addressing homelessness is to prevent people from losing their current housing. We have aggressively taken action on demovictions and renovictions, have created and supported a rent bank program, and have dedicated, hard-working staff in City hall coordinating the efforts of local non-profits and provincial programs. We have also brought a region-leading number of purpose-built rental on line in the last few years, and are leveraging non-market supportive housing in new developments.

Support the provision of mental health, and addictions services in all communities.
I’m going to stay on my picky point here and say support: yes; provide: no. Again, as the front line for many residents needing these supports, the City has a role to assure health care and services are available in the community through coordination, assuring our policies and Bylaws support them, and even providing space if needed. However, the services themselves are primary health care services that must be provided by the provincial government through the local health authorities and funded through the Health Act. Municipalities do not have the authority, the staff, the expertise, or the funds to provide this kind of primary health care.

Take action in responding to the provincial overdose crisis and require all municipalities to provide overdose prevention sites and safe drug supply programs
Again, this is a health care issue that fits squarely within the Provincial mandate – they have two ministries funded and staffed to address this. The City should support and absolutely not get in their way. These are primary health care concerns that we clearly need much more of in our community. We have been in a crisis state with a poisoned drug supply for too long, and we need accessible safe supply and provision for safe consumption in New Westminster immediately. We also need to advocate both levels of senior government to make these things happen.

Support the development of local and sustainable food systems including improving local distribution systems.
Support the development of long‐term food security plans that build capacity in the faith‐based and non‐profit sector, who are on the front line in supporting the food insecure.
Food security systems are things we rarely think about except in crisis, and COVID was one of those crises that demonstrated how tenuous our food supply systems are, and how many people’s personal food security is tenuous. I could go on at length about this, and have in the past and have a detailed answer when people ask why we pay more for domestic milk and butter in BC when there are cheaper alternatives across the border, and why we need to support Farmers Markets and local food systems.

Require new buildings to utilize low‐emission building heating and hot water systems including district energy and heat pumps. &
Require existing building retrofits to utilize low‐emission building heating and hot water systems including district energy and heat pumps.
In our Bold Step #3 (Carbon Free Homes and Buildings), we set the goals for 2030 for no new fossil fuel heating in new buildings or retrofits. We currently cannot mandate this, because we don’t have the authority in the Local Government Act. What we can do is require for any building going through rezoning, incentivize it for other buildings and retrofits, and finally, advocate to the BC government to include it in the Building Code or give local governments the authority to mandate it. We are working on all three.

Incentivize new buildings to utilize low‐emission cooking equipment &
Incentivize existing building retrofits to utilize low‐emission cooking equipment.
This is another big step. The era of the fossil-fuel stove may be coming to an end. Yes, there is nothing quite like “cooking with gas”, and FortisBC is looking at ways to bring non-fossil source methane and boosting hydrogen content to get the fossil out of fossil gas, but with new technology (induction stoves are pretty cool), but we are a long way from people replacing all of their household appliances. We can, however, incentivize in new builds and retrofits.

Invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure for use by the general public.
We have been doing this. I am the Chair of a significant Not-for-Profit that does a lot of this work. But I wonder if incentivizing the auto industry should really be a high priority action for Government when that same industry continues to proactively make our Cities less safe, less livable, and less sustainable. I’m going to chew over this one for a while…

Adopt circular economy practices to reduce waste.
Sure. But I’m not sure what the role of local government is here. We collect recycling because it is the “right thing to do” despite most of it going to the landfill or incinerator because there is inadequate economic incentive built into our supply chains to promote recycling. We have no regulatory authority to change how packaging occurs (the source of most of our recyclable waste) nor can we force local manufacturers, suppliers, or retailers take responsibility for the single use products and packaging they sell. We collect your trash, we are allowed to charge you for that service, we can cajole you to separate or comingle to create more distinct waste streams, but the recycling system is broken at a fundamental level, so we are pissing into the wind – and spending way too much money being cheap about it. But hey, we all feel better if our peanut butter jar goes in a blue box instead of a black one.

Support the creation of more waste‐to‐energy sources.
There needs to be a big caveat on this one. In the context of a Climate Emergency, Waste-To-Energy only makes sense if it is not reliant upon the conversion of fossil carbon to atmospheric carbon. Burning waste plastics is no different that burning coal if the source of the hydrocarbon is fossil fuels. I have talked about this in the past, and still feel strongly that WTE solves the wrong problem. There are forms of WTE that do not rely on fossil fuels, but the technology is pretty raw, and some local companies have gone broke trying to make it work. Sewer heat recovery and waste wood gasification are operating in the region as district energy sources, and are the types of WTE that should be supported.

Develop a plan to protect 50% of the land base of the region from development (currently 40%).
This is an interesting, if regional, goal. The City of New West is already developed, depending on how you define it, between 80 and 100%. There are simply no Greenfields for us to expand into. However, we have a role to play in curtailing regional development in assuring out Transit Oriented Development areas provide housing alternatives and livable communities that take the pressure off of undeveloped greenfield spaces in other communities.

Integrate natural assets into conventional asset management and decision‐making processes.
This topic was going to be the theme of a conference I was helping organize with the Lower Mainland LGA, until COVID shut us down. I could write quite a bit about this, but maybe it needs to go in its own blog post. In the meantime, look at the great work that is happening on this front on the Sunshine Coast.

Provide opportunities for voices of the marginalized to be empowered and advanced, inclusive of Indigenous people, racialized populations and lower‐income workers, ensuring all residents in the region are educated, aware and invited to participate. &
Develop a framework to ensure diversity, inclusion, equity and anti‐racism informs all government actions
These are two sides of the same coin, one outward looking (how do we get a more diverse cohort of our population to take active part in decision making in the community?) and one inward looking (are we actually listening and understanding the diverse voices of our community?). These are both things the City is supporting in policy and in practice.

So there we are, that’s the Declaration. Now all we need to do is measure up to our best intentions.

Declaration for Resilience (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of my reporting out the City’s response to the Declaration for Sustainability in Canadian Cities that Council approved earlier in the month. Part 1 on land use planning is here, Part 2 on transportation is here. Part 3 covers the Built and Natural Environments. As in the earlier parts, I provide the original Declaration Text, followed by the adaptation for NW/MV context provided to Council by staff, all followed by my comments (not necessarily speaking for the City or Council, but my own take on it) for each clause of the declaration.

Embracing Sustainability in our Built and Natural Environment
15. Require that all new government‐owned buildings (federal, provincial, and municipal) be carbon neutral.
Require all new buildings that are government‐owned (federal, provincial, and municipal) or built using public dollars to be energy efficient and carbon neutral over their lifetime.
The City has previously set a LEED standard for new buildings, but we have started to move beyond LEED and reviewed other rating/evaluation systems for new buildings. We are currently on pause with the Canada Games Pool replacement due to COVID uncertainty, but the plans as developed included upgrading to a zero-carbon building and energy generation on site. It makes sense when we own our own near-zero-carbon electrical utility, and when lifecycle costs of higher efficiency buildings are usually lower in the long run.

16. End the dumping of untreated sewage outflows into lakes, streams, and waterways.
End the dumping of untreated sewage outflows into lakes, streams, and waterways.
Some may think this sounds like a simple or even archaic goal in 2020, what with our modern sewers and big sewer treatment plants, and we should spend our time in debates about the value of secondary vs. tertiary sewer treatment and resource recovery at sewer plants. However, New West is one of several cities in the Lower Mainland that still has “combined flow sewers” in some areas. As a result, we sometimes still discharge untreated (but highly diluted) sewage to fisheries habitat in the Fraser River. There are complex historic reasons for this, and the City is continually working on (and investing in) sewer separation, but at the current pace, it will be 2050 or later before we achieve this goal. Much of this is a cost issue, as doing this work is very expensive – we have about $25M in the current 5-year financial plan to do this work at that done-by-2050-or-so pace.

Whether we beat or meet that timing is contingent on a few things alongside our tolerance for high utility rates or debt financing. Much of the separation will be funded by and timed on growth, as it is generally older single-family-detached neighborhoods that still rely on combined flow sewers. There is also a direct cost to land owners for this work, as property drainage must be separated to match the upgraded municipal system, which we require homeowners to do (at their cost, usually in the tens of thousands of dollars) when replacing their house or doing major renovations.

So we are working on it, but it is not going to happen soon, though recent support from senior governments has helped the City accelerate their program, which is good. Arguably, the environment would benefit more from federal government funding aggressive sewer separation programs in Vancouver, Burnaby, and New West than it does from the feds funding tertiary treatment upgrades in the sewer treatment plants the diverted sewage goes to, but that isn’t how politics works.

17. Enact a funded, detailed plan to achieve a 40% urban tree canopy.
Enact a funded, detailed plan to achieve a 40% urban tree canopy, within the context of competition for new development, recognize trees as city assets with parity to other city assets and incentivize tree retention and large tree species planting with development.
A 40% tree canopy is ambitious for any urban area. To put that in perspective, New West’s current canopy city-wide is about 18%, and our “greenest” neighbourhoods are on the order of 33% (Queens Park and Glenbrooke). Our Urban Forest Management Strategy calls for aggressive tree planting and preservation of existing trees (including the new Tree Protection Bylaw), and we have a goal to get to 27% tree canopy by 2030 as Bold Step #6. I am OK with 40% as an aspirational goal, and indeed there is some research suggesting this is a best practice level to aim for (Halifax is one of the few significant Canadian cities that has this level of canopy), but for now we are enacting a funded, detailed plan to get to 27% City-wide, which will put us among the greenest communities in the Lower Mainland.

18. Ensure 100% of municipal operations are powered by clean energy sources.
Ensure 100% of all government operations are powered by clean, renewable energy sources.
We are fortunate to be in British Columbia where most of our electricity is zero-carbon, or at least very low carbon. That means the easiest way to move to clean energy sources is to plug everything in. It is easy for buildings, a little tougher for pools and ice rinks (the type of heating and energy needed lends itself more easily to gas), and really problematic for a lot of equipment. Even as electric cars are becoming ubiquitous, you simply cannot buy an electric pickup truck in Canada in 2020, never mind an electric dump truck or backhoe. Back-up electrical generators (important to many of our critical systems), firetrucks, street sweepers, cement mixers, vac trucks, etc., etc., are all seemingly decades from being available in fully electric forms. And then we need to talk about the infrastructure needs for our electrical utility to be able to provide power for all of these needs.

We have already made a commitment to get there in our Bold Step #1, and are picking the low fruit right now, while making bold choices about new buildings by no relying on fossil gas, but we are quickly approaching the bleeding edge. We need every community, and more businesses, to demand that the market provide electrical alternatives for many of the equipment choices above. Though I would love to blog some time about the City of Oslo is taking this a next step – forcing all construction sites to be electric-driven, but that is a big digression.

19. Require every new building in Canada built using public dollars achieves LEED status.
See #15 above
As mentioned above, we can go beyond LEED, but it is not currently within the City’s jurisdiction to (for example) force a brand new hospital being built in 2020 to go zero carbon, despite the fact it will be the largest point source emitter of Greenhouse Gasses for decades ahead in our community. But we can ask.

20. Require all new large office buildings to be emissions‐free.
Require all new large commercial, institutional and residential buildings to be energy efficient and carbon neutral, resilient to local climate change impacts, and located in Urban Centres or in appropriate locations along the Frequent Transit Network.
This is a similar thing, there is only so far we can go as a Municipality in adopting aggressive energy efficiency under the Step Code, and we are one of the more aggressive communities in the Lower Mainland. Vancouver is mandating an end to fossil fuels in buildings, but have their own Building Code that allows them to take that extra step. This item specifically says “large office buildings”, and it is a good idea to expand to all larger buildings that would likely go through a rezoning process, which gives the City an extra lever to pull, as we have lots of flexibility to make demands during rezoning.

I’m curious about adding energy efficiency as a shared priority with carbon neutrality, and I’m not sure I agree. If we have a relatively inefficient building that uses 100% renewable carbon-free energy, that is a clear win over a carbon-intensive by highly efficient building – burning no carbon is better than burning a little carbon. Every step towards efficiency increases up-front cost, and carbon neutrality may increase lifecycle costs (a gas is really cheap right now), so of the choices of which to require or incentivize, I’d err towards carbon neutral. The efficiency addition muddies this water a bit, I think.

Finally, the addition of Urban Centres and Frequent Transit Network leans back on the sustainable city planning aspects already covered in Part 1, but it is worth noting, if you have the most energy efficient office building in the world, but if it is out in an exburb and everyone has to drive a car to get there every day, you are kinda missing the point. This is getting me to think I need to write a critique about some of the decisions around the RCH expansion.


OK, this covers the entirety of the Declaration in its original form, but Metro Vancouver and City of New Westminster staff identified some gaps that would make this Declaration more meaningful to our specific context, and i will write about those in Part 4. But it is August and the sun is out, so I gotta get out there. You should too!

Declaration for Resilience (Part 2)

Further sunny-days blogging on New Westminster’s response to the 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities that was endorsed by Council on August 10. I wrote previously about the Land Use items; this section is on transportation. Once again, each item will start with the original Declaration Text, followed by the staff-recommended adaptation for NW/MV context, followed by my comments:

Decarbonization of our Transportation Systems

7. Prioritize the immediate transformation of existing streets and roadways for active transportation – both for the immediate, post-pandemic recovery period and as permanent measures – by adding additional space for pedestrians and protected bike lanes in a contiguous ‘everywhere‐to everywhere’ network that makes cycling a safe mobility choice for every resident, in every neighbourhood.
Prioritize the immediate transformation of existing streets and roadways for active transportation and high quality public realm – both for the immediate, post‐pandemic recovery period and as permanent measures – by adding additional space for pedestrians and protected bike lanes in contiguous ‘everywhere‐to everywhere’ network that makes cycling, rolling (i.e. mobility devices) and walking a safe mobility choice for every resident, in every neighbourhood and without impeding transit operations or goods movement. Capitalize on opportunities to improve public life on streets (i.e. seating/social areas, event spaces, public art, outdoor retail and street trees).

This action links directly to the City’s Master Transportation Plan, the Bold Steps for Climate Action, and the Streets for People motion, and we are on our way towards making it happen. This year there are a lot of “pilots” going on around town, much like in Vancouver and other communities on the Lower Mainland, and we are receiving both positive and negative feedback on them. But nothing can be clearer than the goal: less public space for cars, more public space for other uses.

We are not close yet to having the “everywhere-to-everywhere” bike network that we need, and this will require some significant shift in how we invest in roads infrastructure in the City. We have already made significant shifts towards walking and accessibility investments, cycling has lagged behind. With the advent of so many “new mobility” technologies (scooters, electric mobility aids, e-bike, and who knows what is coming next week), we need to be thinking about how they impact pedestrian spaces, and how we prioritize transit operations along the curb space. We need to fundamentally re-think the infrastructure we are building if we agree that driving a private automobile (which is only used for half of trips in the City) is not the centre of it.

My main push-back here against the revised wording is the way “goods movement” was lumped in as something we need to not impede. We all agree goods movement is an important part of our transportation realm, but this reads like we are not going to expect goods movement providers to aggressively adapt their practices, but will instead work around their status quo. If we are relying on larger and larger diesel semis to provide basic supplies to our City centre, if we are going to allow our surface streets to remain through-fares for moving containers from port to terminal, accept diesel trains idling and having ultimate right-of-way through our communities, then we are not going to meet our other goals around livability and safety on our streets. We need to bring the Goods Movement sector along and help them adapt to the new reality of decarbonized cities, not build these new cities with an asterisk around one sector of the economy.

8. Enhance bus service levels, recognizing that interim social distancing requirements will demand high levels of public transit service on existing routes, since passenger limits on buses will be required.
Enhance bus service levels, recognizing that interim social distancing requirements will demand high levels of public transit service on existing routes, since passenger limits on buses will be required.

This is not 100% on the City in our TransLink region, as we do not directly allocate funds or service levels for Transit, however, there is one thing we can do to improve service levels: give buses more priority on our streets. Queue-jumping lanes, transit-only lanes, and adapting our signals and other systems to assure buses are not stuck in traffic created by people who in cars. Alas, the bigger question about funding and building a more sustainable transit funding mechanism is bigger debate, and though we are (arguably) better in the TransLink region than any other transit region in North America, this is hardly a certainty going forward. We still have a lot of work to do towards truly sustainable long-term operational and capital funding models for the system.

9. On major arterial roadways, transform curbside lanes to dedicated Bus Rapid Transit Priority Lanes, to offer a higher level of service and to incentivize public transit usage as economies transition to normal.
On major arterial roadways, transform curbside lanes to dedicated Bus Rapid Transit Priority Lanes, to offer a higher level of service and to incentivize public transit usage as economies transition to normal.

As mentioned in the item above, dedication of priority lanes is something local government can do to make transit more reliable and efficient. There are not many opportunities for this in New Westminster, but even a few subtle planned changes around New Westminster Station may significantly impact reliability, and are being worked on now. I could go on a long rant about Queensborough transit service and bus queues at the freeway off-ramp, but maybe I’ll save that for a future blog post.

10. Enact an immediate and permanent moratorium on the construction and reconstruction of urban expressways, including those in process.
To avoid inducing new single‐occupancy vehicle demand, enact a moratorium on urban highway expansion, including those in process, and instead focus on Transportation Demand Management strategies including growth management.

This is really a provincial issue, as only the Ministry of Transportation has the financing to build new “urban expressways”/”urban highways”. However, I think this declaration should be used ot inform how we continue to engage on the Pattullo Bridge Replacement (where MOTI has essentially designed an urban expressway interchange smack in the middle of an Urban Area), and the ongoing- but not-seemingly-going-anywhere discussions of a Brunette Interchange replacement. What can we imagine these pieces of infrastructure looking like if they are to put into an urban context?

11. Enact congestion pricing policies, and dedicate 100% of the revenues to public transportation expansion.
Enact congestion pricing policies, and dedicate 100% of the revenues to public transportation expansion. Include consideration and mitigation of equity concerns.

This is long overdue, and a complete political non-starter. Road Pricing does everything that people across the political spectrum want done about traffic – it measurably reduces congestion (it may be the only thing that actually does), it funds alternatives, it internalizes the abhorrently externalized costs of driving. However, it doesn’t matter that it is clearly the best public policy solution, especially at this time, because no provincial government in British Columbia will have the guts to make that case and make it happen, because Bruce Allen and the AM radio angertainment industry will hate it.

12. Mandate a conversion timetable stipulating that 100% of taxi and ride‐sharing vehicles will be electric.
Mandate a conversion timetable stipulating that 100% of taxi and Transportation Network Service (TNS) vehicles will be zero‐emission.
This is again a provincial jurisdiction thing, and as I have lamented in the past, we have not even been successful at asking for more a more accessible Taxi and TNS fleet (yes, the change from “ride sharing” to “TNS” is important, there is nothing “sharing” about the TNS industry). The Passenger Transportation Board just doesn’t want to go there, and I am willing to bet that the Taxi and TNS industries will push back hard, as it may limit the number of hours in a day that a vehicle can be utilized, and that pushed back against their business model.

13. Commit to fully electrify public bus fleets.
14. Require the full electrification of public sector vehicular fleets
Commit to zero‐emission public sector vehicular fleets (including buses)

We don’t really buy public transit fleet vehicles as a local government, but we do have some influence over the operations of TransLink through the Mayor’s Council, and TransLink is working on increased electrification of their fleet.

That said, municipal governments have significant vehicle fleets – engineering and parks vehicles, police cars, firetrucks, and a variety of run-around cars. New West has set dome aggressive goals as part of our Bold Step towards a carbon-free corporation.


Following this will be Part 3: Sustainability in the Built and Natural Environment, when I get to it.

Declaration for Resilience (Part 1)

At the August 10 Council meeting, we endorsed actions addressing the 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities.

This is a pan-Canadian (but admittedly very “urban”) movement that calls for a post-COVID recovery that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the last century of city planning, but instead imagines a greener, cleaner, decarbonized economy, built on the foundation of how we build and operate our Cities. It is signed by people across the political spectrum and from local government politics, city planning, business, academia and environmental activism.

The report New West Council received also included some re-framing of the original 20 proposed policy changes to fit better into the Metro Vancouver / New Westminster context, and included some additional policy directions coming out of staff discussions at Metro Vancouver and within the City of New Westminster.

I thought I would take a bit of sunny summer time to go through this declaration and pick out some of the sometimes-subtle changes that local staff suggested, along with my own comments (speaking, as always, for myself, not for all of Council). This might get a little long, because there is a lot here, so maybe make a cup of tea and I’ll break it up to several blog posts (divided up by the major themes of the Declaration). Each section will start with the original Declaration Text, followed by the staff-recommended adaptation for NW/MV context, followed by my comments. I’d love to hear feedback about this.


Ensuring Responsible Use of Land

1. Update zoning policies to allow more households to access existing neighbourhoods by permitting appropriately scaled multi-tenanted housing, co‐housing, laneway housing, and other forms of “gentle density” to be built, as‐of‐right, alongside houses in lowrise residential neighbourhoods.
Update zoning policies to allow more households to access existing neighbourhoods by permitting appropriately scaled multi‐tenanted housing, co-housing, laneway housing, and other forms of “gentle density” to be built, as‐of‐right, alongside houses in low‐rise residential neighbourhoods, especially along the Frequent Transit Network and in Urban Centres.
Apply the principle of equity to land use decisions so that the appropriateness of land use is determined on the basis of its impact on society as a whole rather than only the applicant or immediate neigbhours.

I think it is appropriate that this is first in the list of actions, because zoning impacts how we allocate use of land across our Cities, and the way we do it now is failing to address equity, is failing to address climate impacts or housing form, and is 100% within the power of Local Government to change.

I want to start be addressing the phrase in scare quotes – “gentle density”. This is a code word, and one I have used myself in the past. It means “slightly more housing, only to the extent that it doesn’t cause too much opposition from the people already comfortable housed in our community”. I think inserting that phrase alone calls into question the commitment to applying the principle of equity to land use decisions. I’ll just leave it with that social justice trick of questioning the implied agency and ask “gentle to whom?”

That said, I had another problem with the local context re-framing of this point. It is clear from the original text that we are talking about single family detached housing here, and large neighbourhoods in urban areas where this is currently the only permitted form of housing. The Declaration says we need to challenge that assumption if we are to meet our sustainability goals, and I agree with that. To change this by inserting “Frequent Transit Network” and “Urban Centres” as the only places appropriate for this change, undercuts the actual intent. In its original form, this is challenging the paradigm that high-traffic corridors are not the only place for multi-family housing, and the change softens that call. We need to break the mindset that the only appropriate use of density is to buffer as-right single family detached houses from the noise and pollution of traffic corridors.

Recent discussions around development of 12th Street in New Westminster are a good example of this thinking. Some folks feel that commercial-at-grade with a few floors of housing above is appropriate to support a secondary commercial district like this. Others feel that there is simply too much commercial as is to be supported by the relatively low residential density of the neighbourhood, and more commercial will simply mean more vacant commercial space where housing would be more appropriate. I would argue that the problem is not the density on 12th Street, but the lack of business-sustaining density within that all-important 5-minute walk shed. Walk three blocks back from a health pedestrian-sustained shopping street in Montreal (for example), and you find moderate-density housing, not SFD suburbs in the middle of a City.

Walkable, functional, equitable neighbourhoods cannot be car-reliant neighbourhoods. And Frequent Transit Networks rely on a density to be supportable just as commercial districts do. So let’s expand our thinking to beyond “along Frequent Transit Networks” to “every neighbourhood within walking distance of a Frequent Transit Network”, and we are onto something, which brings us to the next item:

2. Commit to the creation of 15‐minute neighbourhoods in which it is possible to live, work, and shop, by among other things permitting corner stores, local retail, and live‐work housing, and by adding more local parks in all areas of cities
Commit to the creation of 15‐minute neighbourhoods (ie: complete communities) in which it is possible to live, work, play and shop, by among other things permitting child care, corner stores, local retail, and live‐work housing, and by adding more local parks equitably throughout cities.

This idea behind 15-minute neighbourhoods is that residents should be able to access most of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk, or within about 1,200m of their home. This could mean a 5-minute bike ride, a 10-minue roll in a mobility scooter, or a 15-minute walk, but the idea is that it reduces automobile reliance for most trips. Yes, people can and will own cars, yes, not everyone can live within 1,200m of their job so there need to be commuting options, but if shopping, schools, libraries, rec centres, parks and “third places” are close enough by, stronger communities are built. Of course, this also means there need to be enough people within that 15-minute walkshed to support the things we want to see there, which brings us back to density.

3. Restrict short‐term rentals to ensure that rental homes are not once again removed from the rental market post‐COVID‐19.
Regulate short‐term rentals to ensure that rental homes are not once again removed from the rental market post‐COVID‐19.

The shift from “restrict” to “regulate” is a subtle one, perhaps. I have been banging the drum about the need for us to address AirBnB/VRBO/etc. in the City for several years, but it has just never been seen as a priority for New West staff or Council. It is a bit challenging to enforce, and we do not receive a lot of complaints about it, so perhaps the urgency is not there, and the COVID situation has probably delayed any eventual STR crisis, but the impact on the affordable rental market is pretty clear. Add this to the pile of better rental regulation we need in the province, but this one is 100% within the power of local governments to enact – we can’t pass the buck on this one.

4. Remove all mandatory minimum parking requirements for any new building, to both signal a shift in mobility priorities, and to remove the costly burden of parking, on housing.
Remove parking minimums, enhance visitor parking and bicycle parking supply and include vehicle sharing option for any new multi‐family and mixed‐use building particularly along the Frequent Transit Network, to both signal a shift in mobility priorities, and to remove the costly burden of parking on housing. Consider the introduction of parking maximums in transit‐oriented locations.

I think the changes here are again subtle (removing “all”, then adding other qualifiers that may soften it a bit), but reducing the requirement to build off-street parking for new multifamily developments has been an ongoing process in the City, and one Council has asked staff to advance recently. There is no doubt about the data: we are building way more parking than we need in transit-oriented developments, and there are real costs related to this overbuilding – cost to the housing, and costs to society. I think the one part missing from this is the acknowledgement that off-street parking policy needs to be coupled with properly allocating and pricing on-street storage of cars, and one again, planning policy and transportation policy overlap.

5. Prioritize the use of existing municipally‐owned land for the creation of affordable housing that remains affordable in perpetuity, and for strategic public green space that supports increased density.
Prioritize the use of existing municipally‐owned land for the creation of affordable housing and non‐profit childcare that remains affordable in perpetuity, and for strategic public green space that supports increased density.

This is another area New Westminster is already moving on. We do not have a great legacy of City-owned land compared to some jurisdictions, but we have been successful at getting two small-lot affordable housing developments built in the last couple of years, a TMH supportive housing project just opened in Queensborough on City land, and we are looking at two other sites for upcoming projects. We have also been successful at leveraging childcare space with new development. The greenspace issue is a bit of a harder nut to crack in some of our neighbourhoods, but I hope the Streets for People motion and our Bold Step #7  on re-allocated road space will provide some unexpected opportunities here.

6. Enact stronger restrictions on urban sprawl, including moratoria limiting additional, auto‐dependent, suburban sprawl developments
Enact stronger restrictions on low density, auto‐dependent residential, commercial, and employment developments.
This doesn’t speak directly to New Westminster, as we are already a built-out community, and growth will generally be through density increases and towards less sprawl. However, it does induce us to move towards less car-dependent and sprawly communities as we look at new master-planned communities like Sapperton Green and the future of the 22nd Street area in Connaught Heights.


The next section will be on “Decarbonization of our Transportation Systems”, whenever I get to writing about it.