As a fan of fiction writing, it has been hard to resist spending time in recent days with the 371-page City of Vancouver staff document on the climate emergency.
This, even though I’m not much of a fan of sci-fi, nor of the fantasy genre. I prefer authentic, grounded characters and scenarios – people I might have known or things I might believe are or were or might become real.
That being said, this prose was recommended, and I was told not to dismiss out of hand the vision without first absorbing the plot and assessing the narrative. My review proves unkind.
Author Matt Horne, the city’s general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability and general manager of engineering services (a tough title to affix to a book jacket, by the way), takes us down the rabbit hole and through several black ones.
His is a vision of nine of every 10 trips from our homes and work – 90% of them! – walked, cycled or attached to the public transit system in the next decade. By 2030!
His is a vision of five of every 10 trips in our vehicles from our homes and work – half of them! – coming from emission-free electric vehicles in the next decade. By 2030!
His is a vision of emissions from buildings and construction projects down 40%.
Of low-carbon (but high-dollar) materials in building.
Of city-wide parking permits with carbon-emission surcharges.
And in his vision, people would pay – what money remains, given the unseemly extra hand in our pocket at the moment – to bring their vehicles, those horrible gas-powered ones, into the city. The province thinks this is its job, but no matter.
Horne takes us into an effortlessly efficient world that the Jetsons and their moving sidewalks excited the older among us about as children. Convenience aplenty, the death of distance, prosperity dripping from the trees.
Who wouldn’t love to smell air as it was meant? Who wouldn’t want vehicles that don’t rumble and growl? Who wouldn’t love the time and physical capacity to cycle or walk to our shopping, our restaurants, even our workplaces? And especially, who wouldn’t crave the financial model that pays for all we wish for the city and derives all we wish from the city?
But have we even started to develop our neighbourhoods, our transit system, our civic economy with these objectives in mind? Have we a solution, beyond taxation, of our combustion engine compulsion?
His vision, which seems destined for a rewriting by second printing, feels at a grotesque remove from the world we occupy – one of current struggle, likely for years housed in a pandemic and its afterlife that cannot abide surcharges or surtaxes and has a surliness about any attack on our old-school measures to keep ourselves whole. It is a classic income redistribution model cloaked by the virtue signal of saving our planet.
His underlying storyline reflects a values-based city without evidence-based credibility. It mistakes the options of available technology for the choices we must make in our stress, misses the point that an aging society is going to be less mobile by 2030 and that the infrastructure that might conceivably assist will not materialize in time without massive outlay. Good luck on that.
As an inveterate reader, I kept wincing at the assumptions in the ambitious work. What is pictured is not what I see, the people it envisions are not those I know, the systems it visualizes are not in my horizon.
That being said, there is an audience for this genre. This is the aspirational world that Vancouver craves but cannot possibly deliver in these or foreseeable circumstance.
To stretch the book analogy, this is but the screenplay; for the movie to come to life, it will take a budget of $500 million of direct public money and much more in the way of public and private expenditure.
We feel better feeling better about the future than in encountering our problematic present, grinding through our troubles, resisting the allure of a doctrinaire and distant mirage. We are governed by the illusion that our sacrifice in the city to address climate change is somehow significant, more than the infinitesimal contribution science tells us is ours within the country, within the continent and within the planet.
The proposition to council is a significant step out of step with our current challenge of saving ourselves before we save our sphere, an abdication of making our city functional before we overreach into global duty.
As for this tome: don’t buy it. •
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media