Time for city hall to start acting locally before posturing globally

I have seen the city’s future, and it is expensive.

Full disclosure: I lament my generation’s failure worldwide to earlier adequately mitigate climate change, and I know we have to turn more of our attention to that giant task at hand. I am not in the denier camp, and I know the most serious consequences of our inertia will be felt after I am gone.

But look: right horses for right courses, right time and right place.

If I have a prime, principled, prioritized role for our elected city officials to play – as opposed to a role for our hefty senior governments – it is to apprehend and subdue our immediate challenges. As a taxpayer and voter, I want my city officials to first fix what ails us locally before we focus on what also alarms us globally.

That being said, the two most recent administrations appear smitten with shiny objects, the latest last week being a piece of science fiction that peers into the years 2030 and 2050 and prescribes social engineering on the environmental road to self-assured self-satisfaction.

Rather than proffer theory and map out strategy beyond the horizon, it would be a relief to see city council occupy reality and implement tactics to deal with what stares us in the face.

The extra-territoriality of the city council would be fine if the streets were first clear of garbage, if the Downtown Eastside had a charted path to stability, if we were housing and transporting and taxing and developing with any kind of congruent line of attack.

Instead, we invite distractions from the fundamentals the way I have used my smartphone in recent weeks in my annual aversion to filing my taxes. We no sooner drummed the last tilting-at-windmills crowd out of council chambers than we found ourselves dealing with our city’s chief resilience officer, climate policy manager, and OneCity’s Christine Boyle calling for “Big Moves” to respond to the “climate emergency.”

It is unclear how much of this theorizing will materialize, but here’s a real emergency: our small businesses within walking distance of our non-empty homes are buckling under brutish tax regimes. A mere 7% of our commercial properties in Vancouver finance 45% of our property tax revenue.

But our city staff – our unelected staff, whose jobs ought to be accountable to the politicians, for crying out loud – is telling us not to even modestly rebalance the tax load. There is the most tepid of provincial studying underway to tinker with the time bomb on small business that will be years before a meaningful change might be made, if ever.

But rather than a quick fix in the interim, our city is letting our small businesses shudder and shutter. Want another environmental problem? Try destroying business districts so that people drive their popular F-150s to their shops.

The state of the city’s affordability is what the British soccer commentators routinely call shambolic. The Big Move plan would only make it more so, adding to the cost of home ownership and infrastructure and socking it to consumers.

It is a grand conceit and delusion that Vancouver is leading the climate change conversation. Travel and you will find we are snickered at in this country; travel further and you will find that the hollow national leadership on climate change has taken the edge off Canadian credibility. We are clothesless emperors in our pursuit of a moral economy because we snub too much of what matters in our midst.

What would be more immediately moral would be greater economic opportunity and affordability to keep people here and happy, greater clarity and accountability on how our dollars are spent, and greater coherence and consistency on how we develop the city. Feed hungry children, roll up sleeves on reconciliation, conquer our opioid crisis and provide safe and reasonably priced child care. Before we make these screwy commitments to the future, let’s cease screwing up the present.

But that takes elbow grease, not PowerPoint prognostication. It is always easier to direct the far-off future than to tackle today, and to date there is little suggesting that immediate heavy lifting is in the city’s skill set. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media