The Sparrow Principle

 A new approach for achieving local democracy in Vancouver


 
Ned Jacobs

Part 1

One of the signal events of 1998 concerning public involvement in Vancouver was the citizen's forum hosted by SPARC of BC, which held its fourth annual Community Development Institute this summer at Britannia Centre. On the warmest evening of the year, an overflow crowd packed the school auditorium and heard local activists Hayne Wai, Shane Simpson, Helen Spiegelman, Grace Shaw, and Bob Everton give excellent and insightful presentations on a variety of issues, past and present, including the battles to save Strathcona from urban renewal and the Cross-town Expressway; the continuing efforts to create Hastings Park; reactions to the City's recent experiments in "Community Visioning"; the current controversy over the Granville Rapidbus plan; the rewards of participating in community groups - but also the frustrations of trying to deal with a city government that often seems indifferent or hostile to neighbourhood associations. Moderator Michael Clague provided a concise summary of Vancouver's past experiments in local governance, and members of the public joined in with penetrating questions and observations. It should be noted that the City of Vancouver provided assistance so that the event could be free of charge. No City Councillors were in attendance, but that is quite understandable, as they were occupied that evening at a critical Council meeting.

The forum was titled "The Death and Life of Great Vancouver Neighbourhoods," in honour of the guest speaker, Toronto resident Jane Jacobs, whose seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, has had a profound effect on town planning and how we regard cities and neighbourhoods, here in Vancouver and around the world. Jane, who had been touring the city for several days and was briefed on a variety of issues, drew upon her many years of experience as an activist and student of urban affairs to comment on the presentations and respond to questions from the audience. And yes, there is a family connection; she is my mother.

She touched on a number of topics, including the NIMBY (not in my backyard) dilemma, public housing policies, and the seemingly universal tendency of planners and public officials to manipulate public input to serve their pre-formed plans. These and other related topics will come up in the course of this essay, but my focus will be to expand on what she had to say in response to an audience question regarding the necessity of trade-offs. This question seems to be at the core of every planning problem and at the heart of every dispute that comes between neighbours, or between citizens and their governments.

She denounced the belief--widespread among planners, politicians, and much of the general public--that trade-offs are inevitable ("you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs"), and that issues involving "interests" that appear to be in conflict should be settled by finding the "bes t" or the "right" trade-offs.

In reality, this is an insidious doctrine, for it turns citizens into winners and losers, predators and prey. It destroys trust between neighbours, and between the public and their elected or appointed officials. When we accede to this doctrine, we spend our energies jockeying for position and making end-runs on due process instead of seeking real solutions. The doctrine of tradeoffs serves those with a fixed agenda--who pre-determine what they want (or genuinely believe is best), then use the doctrine to justify their actions. Public consultation is merely a means to determine which trade-offs are politically feasible. Not only is it paternalistic and patronizing of the public, it preempts creative problem-solving and promotes intellectual laziness. There has to be a better way--and there is.

A city and its economic region is a self-organizing system--an organism, if you will. Its principle subsystems are the neighbourhood and the district. It should be self-evident that as long as the irreducible constituents of the system (human lives) are held sacred, win-win solutions must continually be found to solve the problems and make use of the opportunities that change inevitably brings. The alternative is a downward spiral of decline and, eventually, collapse.

Jane mentioned that, in her experience, when an initiative or plan is met with widespread opposition from a portion of the public, yet forced through by government, the outcome nearly always ends up being regarded as a failure. An example that comes to mind is the forced evictions of tenants in the Downtown Eastside to provide accommodations for Expo 86 visitors. It came at a time when that dumped-on and neglected neighbourhood was beginning to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Is there any doubt now that this "trade-off" dealt a blow to the human fabric of that community from which it is yet to recover, and contributed to social problems that increasingly plague the entire city? The success of the fair was not at stake--it remains a tragedy and a blot on Vancouver's recent history.

There is an alternative to the doctrine of tradeoffs. Jane calls it "the sparrow principle". In 1961, the ethnically diverse, mixed-use New York neighbourhood where we lived was designated for urban renewal. Fourteen city blocks were to be razed and replaced with a high-rise project. Local residents and business people banded together and formed The Committee to Save the West Village. After a year-long battle, which seemed interminable and totally consumed the lives of my parents and their neighbours, we succeeded in stopping the plan. But the committee did not disband or go inactive. It became The West Village Committee, a neighbourhood association that in the succeeding years developed and implemented its own plan (despite numerous obstructions from the Planning Commission) for low-rise in-fill housing that displaced no-one. They were instrumental in converting a large unused industrial building to artists' lofts and studios. They stopped an expressway (for which all of Manhattan is now grateful), and experimented with traffic-calming measures that serve the entire district well. Success breeds success: Granville Island, Yaletown, and the excellent in-fill housing of East Fairview and West Mount Pleasant are descendants of early, neighborhood-driven initiatives that were carefully considered and worked out by citizens--not by the planners who were busy trying to justify failed theories with the doctrine of tradeoffs.

The West Village took as its motto "not a sparrow shall fall." They have stuck by it for the past thirty-seven years, protecting and improving the neighbourhood without resorting to trade-offs. And the city as a whole has benefited from this thriving, mixed-income community that was once declared a slum, and very nearly extinguished.

At first hearing, the sparrow principle could be dismissed by some as an impracticably idealistic philosophy--something dreamed up by a college freshman. Nothing could be further from the truth. Its first and greatest practicality is that it engenders trust, without which little that is useful can be accomplished. Those who commit to its use are, in effect, agreeing to work together to find win-win solutions and to do so without secrecy or deceit. If the doctrine of tradeoffs identifies us as stakeholders, then the sparrow principle says we are co-workers. In the larger scheme of things, the jobs we are doing together may seem small--finding practical ways to protect ourselves and our neighbours from high-speed traffic on our local streets, for example--but in the process we are also helping to sustain a continually evolving society.

The sparrow principle does not state that we can make everyone happy all of the time. It is not a panacea, but a sensible and democratic approach to decision making. Part and parcel to it is the first principle of medicine: above all, do no harm. Since we are not all-knowing, the decisions we make should allow us as many planning and financial options as possible, so that it will be feasible to remedy mistakes, should they occur. Small is not only beautiful, it can save you a bundle. This is self-evident to most of us, but anathema to the desires of developers, and all too often forgotten by planners in their desire to be productive.

The sparrow principle asks that we test for harm by distinguishing fundamental requirements and legitimate concerns from prejudice, minor inconvenience, or motives that are exploitative. For example: to exclude a family from a neighbourhood or building because their income is low enough to qualify for a rent subsidy, and thus they do not "belong", is not a legitimate concern, but an expression of class prejudice. But the building of public housing projects in any neighbourhood are a real concern because they tend to isolate and stigmatize the occupants, giving rise to a culture of poverty that is harmful to both the inhabitants and their neighbours--simply bad social planning. Therefore, subsidized housing and market housing should be thoroughly integrated, with subsidies applied to families, not to housing units, so that people are not forced to move as their income rises. This approach is at last being tried in some municipalities after years of beating their heads against walls erected by the doctrine of tradeoffs.

Citizens who oppose social planning initiatives in their communities are often accused of NIMBYism. As Jane so aptly pointed out, "Things that don't belong in my backyard probably don't belong in anyone's backyard". It's not that the intentions behind the initiative are wrong, but all too often the implementation in regard to the existing community has not been well thought out--it's almost impossible to do so without the help of the community. I would be surprised to learn of a neighbourhood anywhere that does not have a few resident bigots and paranoiacs, but accusing those who object to a drug treatment centre that may be too large or badly located of "selfishness", or tarring them with the NIMBY brush is not only unfair--it is a divisive and counter-productive strategy when used by those who would seek sustainable solutions to social problems.

Jane makes a distinction, though, between this and another type of NIMBYism. People will sometimes take up residence in a neighbourhood that possesses a special feature or attraction such as a large park, museum, or public beach, and then start complaining that normal activities associated with these features are causing them grief and should be halted or ameliorated at public expense. During the long dry spell this summer it became known that some of the residents at Kits Point had persuaded the Park Board to spend thousands of dollars hosing down Kits Beach with our precious water supply because air-borndust had become an annoyance. Now, I could be mistaken, but this sounds to me like a classic example of NODIMBY (no dust in my backyard ).

But even in cases such as this we shouldn't be passing judgement quickly; minor annoyances can incrementally grow or suddenly change into legitimate concerns that deserve public redress. What infuriates many Vancouverites is that, time and time again, it appears that residents of upscale neighborhoods get pampered while neighborhoods that are mainly working class are told that the budget is bare. This complaint, of course, is not unique to Vancouver, and the unfairness is rarely, if ever, intentional--but it is continuously reinforced by the elected-at- large system peculiar to Vancouver among large Canadian cities.

Identifying fundamental requirements and legitimate concerns is not as difficult as it might sound. Consensus exists for most of the big items: access to basic services, amenities, and infrastructure (including effective public transit); hospitals and schools that won't fall down without a lot of shaking (how about condos that don't leak?); standards to protect us from health hazards such as noise and pollution, and centres to provide support for neighbourhood activities.

Some requirements and concerns, though, are less easy to define. Exposure to natural light seems pretty clear, but a gray area surrounds the retaining of existing views. Attempts to satisfy both these needs have led to some imaginative solutions with beneficial side-effects: The narrow residential towers typical of the West End maximize sunlight (weather permitting) and views but, more importantly, when interspersed with lower buildings provide openness and a more human scale at street level than the wide, slab-style high-rises typical of too many cities.

Automobile use is an area where the distinction between requirement/concern and convenience/annoyance is in a state of flux. The CityPlan Directions pamphlet that I picked up at my local branch of the public library (another fundamental neighbourhood requirement) attempts to address this topic by stating: "CityPlan puts walking, cycling, and transit ahead of cars to cut down on traffic congestion and improve the environment... Cars will not be as convenient as they once were..." (Tell that to the residents of East 1st Avenue!). I have no problem with this, but traffic issues and view retention are bones of contention that people need to chew over in the context of their neighbourhood associations. Architects, engineers, and planners can certainly contribute useful ideas and information, but government imposed solutions usually fall short; win-win solutions can only come from the folks who have to live with the consequences.

Working under the sparrow principle we are led to practical and sometimes innovative solutions to specific real-world problems. The drafters of CityPlan endorse the idea that each neighbourhood has its own identity, which sounds great--but is their conviction more than paint-deep? The districts that they define (such as Kensington/Cedar Cottage) are sometimes simply bureaucratic conveniences that make no sense to residents. The people who live and work in these neighbourhoods are not interchangeable cogs either, but individuals engaged in a multiplicity of interactions. By insisting that not a sparrow shall fall we are acknowledging the combination of personal privacy and public engagement that can make city life workable and fun.

As fate would have it, while this forum was taking place, City Council was meeting to approve or reject the BC Transit Rapidbus proposal that had been sprung, fully formed, on the neighbourhoods of Marpole, Shaughnessy, and Fairview. I had tuned in Cable 4 that afternoon and heard what some of our councillors had to say. The general drift (and I paraphrase) went as follows:
"This has been a perfect example of how not to do public consultation. That is unfortunate, but changes have been made to the plan that should ease the inconveniences to residents and business owners. Our city and region badly need better transit, and on balance I think this plan should help. There are trade-offs, of course, but sometimes tough decisions must be made. I have agonized over this, etc..."

This was disappointing. I had (perhaps naively) hoped for more than lip-service to the principle of public involvement. How refreshing it would have been had I heard even one of them say something like this:
"It is clear that BC Transit intentionally avoided consulting with the Vancouver public because they knew there would be strong and widespread opposition to the plan on which they had already decided. It also appears that they were prepared to sacrifice pedestrian life along the central nervous system of several vital Vancouver neighbourhoods in favor of a plan that has all the earmarks of an expensive, gadget-based quick-fix for a problem that requires long-term integrated planning. The fact that our own city engineers advised BC Transit not to consult the Vancouver public is unconscionable. They have betrayed the trust of citizens and Council and should, at the very least, be reprimanded."

"I think the Vancouver public should be made aware of the double-bind that Council is in at this time. As you know, we are in the midst of negotiations with the Province and the other regional municipalities to create a Greater Vancouver Transit Authority. To reject this proposal at this time could upset, or even derail the process. Now, we could make promises and vote amendments that might help to ameliorate the disruption to neighborhood life that this plan entails, but they might never be expedited, for we will be turning over control of the Granville corridor to Translink, who will soon make all the important decisions regarding this and other arterial roads throughout the city."

"This controversy over the Granville Rapidbus proposal has been bitter, but perhaps fortuitous. We need to pause and think about what we are doing. We are being asked not only to trade off the legitimate concerns of our neighbourhoods, but democratic control of functions that are vital to our city, in return for a new funding formula that gives us the right to pay for roads and transit by instituting new taxes and user-fees . There has to be a better way--and I think we should find it."

"Therefore, I cannot approve this plan--it requires trade-offs that are not acceptable or necessary. I urge BC Transit to apologize to the people of Vancouver and begin again, this time working with the neighbourhood associations from the very start. We expect to receive a plan that is good for transit users, good for neighbourhoods, and cost effective. The Vancouver public deserves nothing less, and nothing less will be acceptable."

Alas, it was not to be. The doctrine of tradeoffs triumphed once again.

 

Part 2

The City of Vancouver has a big problem with public involvement. Let me clarify that statement: Vancouver has lots of top-down public involvement (don't call us--we'll call you), but the authentic bottom-up variety barely exists. It's not for want of trying. Many knock, but the door stays locked, and they're left trying to shout through the keyhole. You see, they're all "self- appointed". They book off work on Thursday afternoons to come down to City Hall--and these self-appointed citizens, many claiming to represent a neighbourhood association (a "special- interest" group), have the audacity to tell Council what to do. Some of them even complain that five minutes isn't adequate-time to convey their views! Council members, on the other hand, are elected by everybody--some even manage to garner the support of just over twelve percent of registered voters, which is why they are increasingly referred to as "the thirteen percent solution".

Public Involvement (P.I.) concerning development applications is typically a sham: Extensive talks take place between the developer and City Planning Staff long before the rezoning sign goes up. The planning department makes its recommendations prior to the public hearing where opponents of the project vent their outrage at the Councillors, who respond with contemptuous remarks and gratuitous comments.

The CityPlan Community Visions Program is a top-down proactive approach. The elaborate seven stage process includes a community liaison group, an ideas fair, workshops, developing alternative visions, and marketing-style opinion surveys. It's inclusive in an artificial way, for no recognition is given to the residents association--remember?--they're a "special- interest" group. The City-appointed Vision Staff Team are enthusiastic, conscientious, and highly skilled at explaining the terms of reference (setting the agenda), and facilitating (managing) the process, and in the end they will get out of it what they put into it. And public input? They'll find a way to make it fit nicely into CityPlan, for that is their mandate. In Dunbar, more than sixty people volunteered for the Liaison Group from which thirty were selected. By the end, more than half had dropped out. (Lotus-landers have the attention spans of banana slugs--if it weren't for those eleven mayors on City Council, whatever would we do?) From these, two were selected to report back to Council. They said the process worked to identify their needs and priorities and thanked Council for allowing them the opportunity to participate.

But listen to Helen Spiegelman, a long time member of the Dunbar Residents Association and a supporter of the CityPlan objectives: "The Seven-step Vision process has taught us nothing about how to make our Vision a reality, how to work with City Hall to carry our ideas forward, how to continue to shape it over time and how to manage the inevitable conflicts, when we get into the trade-offs and unintended consequences of our Vision Directions."

Participants reported that the process seemed rushed, despite the $600,000 spent in just two neighbourhoods. (The program was fast-tracked to meet the City's development timetable.) A careful analysis of the public surveys reveals that certain questions were combined, and replies re-grouped, producing results that would be more acceptable to planners and developers. Clearly, consumer-marketing techniques are not a trustworthy or appropriate basis for arriving at planning decisions. Though "corrupt" is possibly too strong a word, the process isn't on-going, it isn't community-driven planning, and it certainly doesn't substitute for an active neighbourhood association that has the respect and support of a district representative on Council.

Citizens who become actively involved in planning issues tend to develop an ambivalence to city planners. This is true, not just in Vancouver, but world-wide. They are leery of planners for two reasons. First, because of the many disasters the profession has visited on our cities in the recent past (timely citizen action saved Vancouver from the worst abuses) and, second, because close professional ties to developers often place them in a conflict of interest with the public. On the other hand, citizens understandably feel the need for the guidance and expertise of planning professionals. Cities are complex and mysterious things. Will the proposed shopping complex be a boon, as the developer claims, or will it mean a loss to our neighbourhood street life along with the loss of the hardware store and the pharmacy?

The truth is that planners themselves are just beginning to crawl out from under the rocks. Until the 1960s and 70s, town planning practices were largely based on a hodge-podge of theories derived from class prejudice, anti-urbanbias, and industrial revolution backlash (the Garden City), or social-utopian delusions of grandeur (the Radiant City). These practices had about as much science behind them as treating anemics by draining their blood. Their legacy is automobile-dependent suburban sprawl, industrial wastelands, urban expressways, high-rise ghettos, and dismal, residential-only "gray areas" that plague cities (even ours) to this day. In 1961, Jane Jacobs helped to start a revolution in city planning with The Death and Life of Great American Cities--a revolution that is still far from complete. CityPlan shows that some of Vancouver's planners understand that diversity within and between city districts is needed to sustain a city's social and economic vitality, but they (and their political masters) have not yet faced the reality that cities and their communities are essentially bottom-up creations--like ecosystems--and not malleable by top-down control.

And now, these post-Jane Jacobs planners find themselves in the position of having to deprogram a sizeable chunk of Vancouver's population who were successfully indoctrinated with that Great Law of Town Planning: high density--bad; low density--good (supported by irrelevant experiments involving rats in cages), and reprogram them with the New Law of Town Planning: low density--bad, high density--good (it's not the same as overcrowding, and it's natural to cities everywhere, because when it's done well it provides endless advantages to individuals and communities over low density sprawl). If trying to correct the errors of their profession is a principal motivation behind the Community Visions Program--why don't they just come out with it? "We're sorry to say that you've been fed a bowl of bunk. Here is our current thinking on mixed uses and density--does it make sense? What do you think?"

If there is a True Law for town planning, it might be the city is the plan. We can only work with what exists, and this includes our past planning mistakes, all of which looked wonderful in the renderings and were justified by utopian visions or the doctrine of tradeoffs.

Neighbourhoods are, first and foremost, people. We live where we do because we like it, we can afford it, it's close to our work, family, or friends--and often, all of the above. Some live their entire lives in the same place; some stay a month. Those who choose to put down roots in a neighbourhood (for whatever length of time) are essential to its stability, and they need to think about what makes the neighbourhood work for themselves and for others, as well as their fears and frustrations. Planners need to set aside their laws and theories to look and listen. Keen observation and awareness are needed, not visions--The term has a top-down flavour--a remnant from the mind-set that gave us the attractive-sounding but dysfunctional Garden and Radiant Cities.

Neighbours may squabble, but this is less destructive to the planning process than the career aspirations, office politics, and infighting of government bureaucrats. When planners (and schools of planning) come to realize that research is what's required of them--not planning, which is a job for the people--they will begin to put to bed their legacy of lies and illusions and regain the trust of those who pay their wages. A good start along this road would be for the City Planning Staff to formally endorse the bottom-up "vision" of the Mole Hill Living Heritage Society, a neighborhood that has lived by the sparrow principle for more than fifteen years, but whose existence threatens those who would rule by the doctrine of tradeoffs. Don't hold your breath, though, waiting for fundamental change to occur in town planning; this profession tends to attract individuals for whom the wish to do good is linked with a need to control others.

Council takes its top-down P.I. very seriously, and in response to persistent complaints that it isn't working (and some major screw-ups, such as the Oakridge Local Area fiasco, the Balaclava Mews morass, the Woodward Building redevelopment bungle, Blenheim St. traffic-calming snarls and Mole Hill madness--to name just a few), they hired a consulting firm to perform a Public Involvement Review. The consultants conducted several Community Conferences where citizens told them (over and over) that the City wasn't listening to its citizens, that developers were circumventing the process, and that we need a ward system. The consultant's report recommends a multicultural outreach and translation policy; increased use of plain language; staff training in PI; development of public process guidelines; establishment of a core group of staff public involvement experts; regular process evaluation; a community contact database; ongoing linkages with communities; continuity of staff involvement in neighborhoods; public training for City staff and Council; civics training for the public; provision of background policy information to the public; use of the media; survey research techniques and process feedback and closure.

Now, if any of this report manages to escape the mayor's wastebasket, it will merely mean more of the same; more training for more bureaucrats and more slick pamphlets through the mail-slot that contain less planning jargon but more dumbing-down and have more to do with PR than PI. This is the institutionalizing of public involvement, complete with civics training for the public--conducted by our rulers--paid for by ourselves. Citizens can squeal until The Big One shakes us down, but the thirteen percent solution isn't bound in any way by the public input it receives, and the millions of dollars now spent annually on institutionalized P.I. cannot compensate for a quasi-colonial system of municipal government that survives by its ability to neutralize the influence of neighbourhood associations. When public involvement is controlled from the top, it is always subject to being ignored. It certainly cannot be relied upon as a meaningful check on government decision making.

But Councillors do eventually have to face the electorate. True, and if enough voters in enough different parts of the city can remember how each of the ten incumbents voted on each issue that concerned them and are careful that they don't accidentally mark the wrong name when looking through the other fifty-odd names on the ballot, while trying to remember what each of the other candidates thinks on each issue that--are you getting the picture? Ah--you're one of the few who actually voted!

There is one last argument that Councillors and supporters of the elected-at-large system always fall back on. They remind us that with a ward system each councillor needs only to represent his own local constituency, which could allow the needs of the city as a whole to be sacrificed.

In theory this sounds plausible. But scratch away the surface, and reality tells a very different tale. Without a public constituency to keep them in check, even the most well-meaning councilor inevitably slips beneath the influence of a hidden constituency. Who are they? I don't know. That's the point. It could be the city's own planning and engineering staff, or an old friend from university. Developers are in the business of influencing politicians and public servants--but who will lobby for the public?

Neighbourhood associations are the people's lobby. They can influence public policy in a variety of ways, such as citizen delegations, letter writing and petition campaigns, public rallies and demonstrations; but the proverbial bottom line is that little box on the ballot. In towns and cities with appropriately defined districts (wards), councillors do not ridicule a citizen's presentation or dismiss neighbourhood representatives as "cranks" and "busybodies"--not if they're interested in re-election. A well-organized neighbourhood association is quite capable of galvanizing electoral support that can make or break a candidate's chances (and not just at the municipal level!). I should add that what I have to say regarding City Councillors also applies to the Park Board Commissioners. These Councillors-in-training are also elected at large and also have hidden constituencies. The result has been an historic imbalance in park area and services that is only beginning to be set aright by the unremitting pressure of East Side activists.

District representation provides a two-way incentive; there is not just someone to talk to at City Hall, but someone who had better listen. This encourages participation in neighbourhood groups. People will give much more readily of their time and energy if they know that their efforts are likely to bear fruit. It also promotes inclusiveness. People are more apt to engage their neighbours in discussion, break down language barriers and encourage their participation, because it is by finding common ground in sufficient numbers that they will have success. As a lad of twenty, I was recruited to serve on the board of Toronto's Annex Residents, not to satisfy some official requirement that they be demographically correct, but simply because they understood that they could benefit from a variety of perspectives. Some associations sponsor youth initiatives, and they can be very helpful to schools, advocacy groups and philanthropic organizations.

But sadly, the converse is also true. The at-large system not only emasculates neighbourhood associations, it discourages inclusiveness. Rather than meeting and sharing their concerns with neighbours, new Canadians in Vancouver tend to put their trust and energy into ethnic based advocacy groups that seek to influence government by becoming a hidden constituency. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of lobbying, but when it takes the place of contact between those who share a common neighbourhood, but have different cultures, it exposes another unfortunate side effect of this colonial-style at-large system, for it works to undermine the most fertile ground for meaningful contact between people of different language, religion, colour and culture. Council can break the budget with top-down P.I., but it can't create the authentic sense of community that naturally flows from a self-organized neighbourhood association guided by the sparrow principle.

Another consequence of neighbourhood fragmentation is that acrimonious and probably unnecessary disputes occur because the folks on block A don't know what the folks on block B are up to until the City works crew starts setting up, or they receive the Notice of Public Hearing two days after the hearing took place, all of which recently occurred in the Blenheim Street area of Kitsilano. (Top-down P.I. is inherently vulnerable to bureaucratic incompetence or sabotage.) It is not uncommon in Vancouver that one's first contact with a neighbour comes at a public hearing, arguing opposing views. If you had known each other for a while through the association, instead of hurling accusations of "liar!" and "selfish!" back and forth across the chamber, you might be co-presenting the neighbourhood's own plan.

But it is pointless to harangue citizens for displaying the same human weaknesses as their elected officials: ours is a system perfectly designed for bringing out the worst in both. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the political vacuum created by our unnatural system of city government is being filled, naturally, by bureaucrats instead of neighbours.

As for the notion that district representatives are somehow less capable of serving the city as a whole, I am pleased to say this is donkey-doodle--for precisely the reverse is true. City Councillors in Vancouver, despite their "non-partisan" affiliations (COPE, NPA) are, in effect, the leaders of independent parties. Every Councillor is in head-to-headcompetition for votes with every other Councillor. Council-watchers are all too familiar with the political one-upmanship games that go on both within and outside of chambers: "I'm so happy to be with you this afternoon at this very important event--I don't know where all the other Councillors are..." This is not a healthy rivalry, for distrust and jealousy don't contribute very much to finding solutions and building consensus.

For district representatives, this city-wide rivalry does not exist. Furthermore, the same incentive that makes a Councillor want to come through for her constituents, impels her to work at finding solutions that are satisfactory to the other Councillors and their constituents. Breaking impasses, when they occur, is the Mayor's job (and one is plenty). Direct conflicts between districts are relatively rare, and councillors can work with neighbourhood associations and each other to find win-win solutions. That's the sparrow principle working at the inter-neighbourhood and city levels.

I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on our City Councillors. To the best of my knowledge they are dedicated individuals doing their best to govern a city of more than half a million people spread across dozens of neighbourhoods. To possess an intimate knowledge of every city neighborhood and its history, to keep up with its current issues, and to maintain on-going, detailed discussions with individuals and community leaders is simply not humanly possible. (Is it any wonder that they get temperamental?) This is a job for Councillors who live within a district of manageable size, and have shown themselves to be builders of consensus in the hurly-burly of neighbourhood life. CityPlan proudly proclaims that we are "a city of neighbourhoods," but without local democracy the words are empty--and the plan is a fraud.

In the twenty-three years that I have made Vancouver my home, I have not heard an argument for the at-large system that bears scrutiny. It was instituted in 1934 for the sole purpose of serving a hidden constituency, and now, with the city's increased size and diversity, it has turned even that into little more than a crap-shoot. The huge advantage it gives to incumbents is its only reason for being; its cost is to drastically reduce participation in neighbourhood groups and at the polls. Surely, the people of Vancouver deserve better than this pitiful excuse for democracy.

 

Part 3

So what can be done to rid ourselves of the elected-at-large system, while strengthening and improving neighbourhood associations?

In 1994, Jenny Kwan, a City Councillor and ward advocate said: "We need a civic government that recognizes that real solutions begin at the grassroots level. This will ensure a future that is secure, affordable, environmentally friendly and truly sustainable over time. We need politicians who will provide residents with representation and the tools to participate in the process. It is my hope that CityPlan is the first successful step of community involvement in decision making. Rather than an end-all, be-all, it may be a stepping stone towards the development of local neighbourhood councils."

Jenny Kwan later became the Minister of Municipal Affairs in British Columbia. She brought forward legislation that would have provided local governments with greater decision-making authority. This is much needed and would have benefitted local democracy in the Province's smaller municipalities. But how about city-dwellers in Vancouver? Don't we also deserve municipal government that is accountable to the local communities that make up our city? Without district representation there is no reason to believe that our city government will use their new powers any more wisely, fairly, or with greater local accountability than has the Province. As long as the Constitution of Canada defines municipalities as being under Provincial jurisdiction, the Minister of Municipal Affairs would be justified in using the legislative powers of her government to guarantee British Columbians the right to democratically accountable local government. The fact that a clear majority of voters in Vancouver have consistently voted in favour of wards, whenever the question was posed as a straightforward choice between two clear alternatives, should assure the Minister (and the Premier) of the day that they are acting in the interests of democracy.

The problem with this approach is that what Big Brother (or Sister) gives, he can also take away. Even if such legislation was passed, it might be overturned or amended by a subsequent Provincial government. (Current premier Gordon Campbell was a big supporter of the elected-at-large system when he was Mayor, and he instituted the schedule changes that make Council meetings less accessible to the public.) Besides, it sets a bad precedent: In Ontario, the rural and exurb-based Harris (and now Eves) government has abused its power by grabbing taxes, downloading expenses, and forcing the Megacity amalgamation against the expressed wishes of over seventy-five percent of Metro-Toronto voters. There is nothing but local political pressure and, one would hope, human decency to prevent a British Columbia government from trying something similar to this in the future, which underlines the need to strengthen all local governments in the region.

Thirty years have passed since Marshal McLuhan said that you can't decentralize centrally, and I have seen nothing to dispute that wisdom, though decentralization sometimes comes about as an unintended consequence of central government policies. Bottom-up government only comes from the bottom up, so I think that we had better just do it.

What I propose is this: Representatives of Vancouver's neighbourhood associations meet, perhaps under an umbrella group such as Neighbour to Neighbour, and produce a ward plan for Vancouver. Next, the membership of the constituent associations ratify the plan and select candidates from each of the wards to run for Council in the upcoming election. Candidates pledge that, if elected, they will vote in Council to replace the at-large system with the new ward plan. That, and a commitment to the sparrow principle, would be the full extent of the platform that they share in common, though naturally, each would be free to express independent views.

I am not advocating a permanent political party, but an ad hoc city-wide movement for local democracy. A name for this movement might be We Are Revitalizing Democracy (WARD), which would appear on the ballot beside each of the candidate's names. WARD candidates would campaign within their own districts, not just for themselves, but also on behalf of the other WARD candidates. Their supporters, members of the city's neighbourhood associations, would work together to raise funds and canvas door-to-door on behalf of the WARD movement. At the same time, they would inform their neighbours about the association and encourage their participation. The goal would be to acheive a majority on Council. Given the unpopularity of the at-large system, I think this is quite possible, especially if all the candidates are persons of outstanding ability.

But even if we don't manage to elect a majority to Council, all will not be lost. A movement will have been born that provides authentic civics training for Vancouver's citizens and that establishes neighbourhood associations as a force to be reckoned with. If the WARD Councillors prove capable of serving the city and their constituents well, we will soon see the last of the at-large system. Local councils, composed of members, will co-ordinate a district's neighbourhood associations. They could also launch local initiatives and consider development proposals. These will not represent an additional layer of government or supersede the role of City Council, but provide a voice for accountability that is presently lacking at the local level.

For an effort such as this to be successful, and for local democracy to work well, Vancouver's neighbourhood associations need to undertake some reforms of their own. Many, though not all, are resident-only groups. Though the epithet "special interest" hardly applies (all but the homeless are residents), the term "limited interest" does. Neighbourhoods include owners of businesses and private and public employees who may not reside in the area, yet are integral to the real-life functioning of the community--and they too have fundamental requirements and legitimate concerns.

Residents tend to view area workers and businesses as services provided for and paid for by themselves. This would be partially true in a small town where commerce from outside the immediate area is limited. But a city is not a collection of densely-packed towns. Residents of neighbourhoods as different from one another as Kitsilano, Strathcona, Kerrisdale, Grandview, Riley Park, and the West End owe their interesting and colourful restaurants, galleries, and specialty stores to a daily influx of customers from the rest of the city--even the rest of the world. The restaurants that residents patronize on weekend evenings are supported at lunch time by the area's shop keepers, office and medical employees, garage, warehouse, and other industrial workers, plus those who work in community centres, parks, schools--the list goes on. The diversity that we take for granted is evidence of a complex system at work.

Remember the West Village Committee? They never could have saved the neighbourhood and gone on to make so many improvements without the special skills and support of local businesses and workers. Any neighbourhood association that is serious about serving the community needs to welcome their full membership and participation.

All of this points to the error of regarding ourselves and others as stakeholders. Our fates are so entwined, our lives so interdependent--to think that our "interests" can be successfully traded-off or even negotiated, when we may not really know what they are, is to chase a mirage. The stake we really hold is in learning to recognize and respond appropriately to the patterns of activity within our neighbourhoods and city, while observing how we, as individuals, contribute to the pattern.

The days when some could prosper on this planet by engaging in trade-offs are drawing to a close. If our civilization is to survive, we must evolve wiser ways. The continuing collapse of natural habitats from unsustainable resource extraction points out the futility of trying to find the "right" trade-offs, when what we require is an understanding of self-organizing systems, a continuous stream of accurate information, and the willingness to engage in conservation-based development. These principles also apply to the habitats where humans live and work, called cities. A well functioning neighbourhood association (unlike a bureaucracy) continually receives and responds to information from the neighbourhood, and is capable of timely and creative adaptations. Nurturing the sparrow principle is the essence of thinking globally, while acting locally.

The authentic beginnings of western democracy were not in the power-sharing arrangements of Athenian and Roman aristocracy or the Magna Carta (as we were taught in school), but in the towns and cities of Medieval Europe that had managed to get out from under the control of feudal lords. These centres of manufacturing and trade developed craft guilds-- ancestors to our merchant associations--and town councils with public meetings, where discussion and consensus formed the building blocks of their decision making. The legitimacy and effectiveness of our municipal, provincial, federal, and international decision-making bodies are based on foundations of local democracy. In other words, the buck stops here--in the neighbourhoods where we liveand work.

Twenty-eight years ago I hitchhiked into town and fell in love with Vancouver for the same reasons that others do; and in addition to the great natural beauty of the place, I felt welcomed by the warmth and naturalness of the people I met. Years have passed; Vancouver has grown and changed in many ways, but it's still a marvelous city, and it's still full of people who care about it passionately. People such as these have worked tirelessly and with great ingenuity (despite the obstacles of the at-large system) to make Vancouver a vital, interesting place and to maintain its charm and livability. But like other cities, large and small, we are faced with burgeoning social, financial, and planning problems that could easily overwhelm us in the next few decades.


Warning: Prolonged or habitual use of trade-offs will severely limit options!
Act now to break the cycle of dependency--or pay the consequences...


More and more I hear the excuse that we must accept trade-offs because of circumstances that are beyond our control. If this is true, we are really in deep--and digging ourselves in deeper. Yet, I have observed that these political and financial "realities", which always seem to preclude satisfactory solutions, and provide excuses for doing harm, are masks concealing assumptions that need to be challenged, and motives that need to be exposed.

We need bottom-up solutions--they are the only sort that we can rely on--and these will not be easily achieved with a crippled electoral system and weak or dysfunctional neighbourhood associations. Democracy is difficult; cities are complex, but here is a starting place--a straight- forward means for finding our way through the labyrinth of urban life. I call it the sparrow principle; you may call it win-win; others say first, do no harm: but we make our way together through the dark places, refusing to break the thread that connects our fundamental requirements and legitimate concerns.

The sparrow principle is too basic to be an ideology--or even a fuzzy, feel-good philosophy: It was adopted consciously by The West Village Committee and has been taken up, often instinctively, by other neighbourhood groups who do not wish to be sacrificial lambs for the whims of planners and developers. Forty-one years have seen a considerable turnover in Committee membership, yet the resourceful sparrow remains the guardian of both individuals and community.

I urge readers who have come with me this far to consider these ideas and their implications in the light of their own experience, to think of the ways this principle can be applied in our personal and public lives, and to pass these pages on to friends and neighbours--for the time has come to swear off tradeoffs--and feed the sparrow.

 

* Note: Sparrows, of course, are city birds and, like us, are highly adaptable and ingenious. We cannot recall which West Villager first proposed "not a sparrow shall fall" as a motto, or who first dubbed it "the sparrow principle." It seemed to spontaneously arise from the shared experience of a neighbourhood that refused to be divided or conquered. We're pretty sure that it derives from the children's hymn God sees the little sparrow fall, which is appropriate, since being a thoughtful witness and heeding conscience are prerequisites for coming to wise decisions.

Some additional resources: Jane Jacobs is also the author of The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and Systems of Survival (Random House), all of which are recommended to those who would gain greater insight into the workings of cities and their economic regions, their interactions with governments, and the connections between economic life and codes of conduct. There is also a biographical anthology, Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, edited by Max Allen (Ginger Press), which, among other things, chronicles some of her accomplishments as a civic activist.
Another resource is The Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Building Community in Vancouver, edited by Charles Dobson (The Vancouver Citizen's Committee). This useful volume contains helpful tips on organizing, descriptions of recent neighbourhood initiatives and, best of all, guidelines for decision making--some of the nuts and bolts that may be needed for applying the sparrow principle.