The Sparrow Principle

 A new approach for achieving local democracy in Vancouver


 
Ned Jacobs

Part 1

One of the signal events of 1998concerning public involvement in Vancouver was the citizen's forum hostedby SPARC of BC, which held its fourth annual Community DevelopmentInstitute this summer at Britannia Centre. On the warmest evening of theyear, an overflow crowd packed the school auditorium and heard localactivists Hayne Wai, Shane Simpson, Helen Spiegelman, Grace Shaw, and BobEverton give excellent and insightful presentations on a variety of issues,past and present, including the battles to save Strathcona from urbanrenewal and the Cross-town Expressway; the continuing efforts to createHastings Park; reactions to the City's recent experiments in"Community Visioning"; the current controversy over the GranvilleRapidbus plan; the rewards of participating in community groups - but alsothe frustrations of trying to deal with a city government that often seemsindifferent or hostile to neighbourhood associations. Moderator MichaelClague provided a concise summary of Vancouver's past experiments in localgovernance, and members of the public joined in with penetrating questionsand observations. It should be noted that the City of Vancouver providedassistance so that the event could be free of charge. No City Councillorswere in attendance, but that is quite understandable, as they were occupiedthat evening at a critical Council meeting.

The forum was titled "TheDeath and Life of Great Vancouver Neighbourhoods," in honour of theguest speaker, Toronto resident Jane Jacobs, whose seminal work, TheDeath and Life of Great American Cities, has had a profound effect ontown planning and how we regard cities and neighbourhoods, here inVancouver and around the world. Jane, who had been touring the city forseveral days and was briefed on a variety of issues, drew upon her manyyears of experience as an activist and student of urban affairs to commenton 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 oftopics, including the NIMBY (not in my backyard) dilemma, public housingpolicies, and the seemingly universal tendency of planners and publicofficials to manipulate public input to serve their pre-formed plans. Theseand other related topics will come up in the course of this essay, but myfocus will be to expand on what she had to say in response to an audiencequestion regarding the necessity of trade-offs. This question seems to beat the core of every planning problem and at the heart of every disputethat comes between neighbours, or between citizens and theirgovernments.

She denounced thebelief--widespread among planners, politicians, and much of the generalpublic--that trade-offs are inevitable ("you can't make an omelettewithout breaking eggs"), and that issues involving "interests" that appear to be in conflict should be settled by finding the "best" or the "right" trade-offs.

In reality, this is an insidiousdoctrine, for it turns citizens into winners and losers, predators andprey. It destroys trust between neighbours, and between the public andtheir elected or appointed officials. When we accede to this doctrine, wespend our energies jockeying for position and making end-runs on dueprocess instead of seeking real solutions. The doctrine of tradeoffs servesthose with a fixed agenda--who pre-determine what they want (or genuinelybelieve is best), then use the doctrine to justify their actions. Publicconsultation is merely a means to determine which trade-offs arepolitically feasible. Not only is it paternalistic and patronizing of thepublic, it preempts creative problem-solving and promotes intellectuallaziness. There has to be a better way--and there is.

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

Jane mentioned that, in herexperience, when an initiative or plan is met with widespread oppositionfrom a portion of the public, yet forced through by government, the outcomenearly always ends up being regarded as a failure. An example that comes tomind is the forced evictions of tenants in the Downtown Eastside to provideaccommodations for Expo 86 visitors. It came at a time when that dumped-onand neglected neighbourhood was beginning to pull itself up by its ownbootstraps. Is there any doubt now that this "trade-off" dealt ablow to the human fabric of that community from which it is yet to recover,and contributed to social problems that increasingly plague the entirecity? The success of the fair was not at stake--it remains a tragedy and ablot on Vancouver's recent history.

There is an alternative to thedoctrine of tradeoffs. Jane calls it "the sparrow principle". In1961, the ethnically diverse, mixed-use New York neighbourhood where welived was designated for urban renewal. Fourteen city blocks were to berazed and replaced with a high-rise project. Local residents and businesspeople banded together and formed The Committee to Save the West Village.After a year-long battle, which seemed interminable and totally consumedthe lives of my parents and their neighbours, we succeeded in stopping theplan. But the committee did not disband or go inactive. It became The WestVillage Committee, a neighbourhood association that in the succeeding yearsdeveloped and implemented its own plan (despite numerous obstructions fromthe Planning Commission) for low-rise in-fill housing that displacedno-one. They were instrumental in converting a large unused industrialbuilding to artists' lofts and studios. They stopped an expressway (forwhich all of Manhattan is now grateful), and experimented withtraffic-calming measures that serve the entire district well. Successbreeds success: Granville Island, Yaletown, and the excellent in-fillhousing of East Fairview and West Mount Pleasant are descendants of early,neighborhood-driven initiatives that were carefully considered and workedout by citizens--not by the planners who were busy trying to justify failedtheories with the doctrine of tradeoffs.

The West Village took as its motto"not a sparrow shall fall." They have stuck by it for the pastthirty-seven years, protecting and improving the neighbourhood withoutresorting to trade-offs. And the city as a whole has benefited from thisthriving, mixed-income community that was once declared a slum, and verynearly extinguished.

At first hearing, the sparrow principle could be dismissed by someas an impracticably idealistic philosophy--something dreamed up by acollege freshman. Nothing could be further from the truth. Its first andgreatest practicality is that it engenders trust, without which little thatis 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 withoutsecrecy or deceit. If the doctrine of tradeoffs identifies us asstakeholders, then the sparrow principle says we are co-workers. In thelarger scheme of things, the jobs we are doing together may seemsmall--finding practical ways to protect ourselves and our neighbours fromhigh-speed traffic on our local streets, for example--but in the process weare also helping to sustain a continually evolving society.

The sparrow principle does notstate 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 parcelto it is the first principle of medicine: above all, do no harm. Since weare not all-knowing, the decisions we make should allow us as many planningand financial options as possible, so that it will be feasible to remedymistakes, should they occur. Small is not only beautiful, it can save you abundle. This is self-evident to most of us, but anathema to the desires ofdevelopers, and all too often forgotten by planners in their desire to beproductive.

The sparrow principle asks thatwe test for harm by distinguishing fundamental requirements and legitimateconcerns from prejudice, minor inconvenience, or motives that areexploitative. For example: to exclude a family from a neighbourhood orbuilding because their income is low enough to qualify for a rent subsidy,and thus they do not "belong", is not a legitimate concern, butan expression of class prejudice. But the building of public housingprojects in any neighbourhood are a real concern because they tend toisolate and stigmatize the occupants, giving rise to a culture of povertythat is harmful to both the inhabitants and their neighbours--simply badsocial planning. Therefore, subsidized housing and market housing should bethoroughly integrated, with subsidies applied to families, not to housingunits, so that people are not forced to move as their income rises. Thisapproach is at last being tried in some municipalities after years ofbeating their heads against walls erected by the doctrine of tradeoffs.

Citizens who oppose social planninginitiatives in their communities are often accused of NIMBYism. As Jane soaptly pointed out, "Things that don't belong in my backyard probablydon't belong in anyone's backyard". It's not that the intentionsbehind the initiative are wrong, but all too often the implementation inregard to the existing community has not been well thought out--it's almostimpossible to do so without the help of the community. I would be surprisedto learn of a neighbourhood anywhere that does not have a few residentbigots and paranoiacs, but accusing those who object to a drug treatmentcentre that may be too large or badly located of "selfishness",or tarring them with the NIMBY brush is not only unfair--it is a divisiveand counter-productive strategy when used by those who would seeksustainable solutions to social problems.

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

But even in cases such as thiswe shouldn't be passing judgement quickly; minor annoyances canincrementally grow or suddenly change into legitimate concerns that deservepublic redress. What infuriates many Vancouverites is that, time and timeagain, it appears that residents of upscale neighborhoods get pamperedwhile neighborhoods that are mainly working class are told that the budgetis bare. This complaint, of course, is not unique to Vancouver, and theunfairness is rarely, if ever, intentional--but it is continuouslyreinforced by the elected-at- large system peculiar to Vancouver amonglarge Canadian cities.

Identifying fundamentalrequirements 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 (howabout condos that don't leak?); standards to protect us from health hazardssuch as noise and pollution, and centres to provide support forneighbourhood activities.

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

Automobile use is an areawhere the distinction between requirement/concern and convenience/annoyanceis in a state of flux. The CityPlan Directions pamphlet that I picked up atmy local branch of the public library (another fundamental neighbourhoodrequirement) attempts to address this topic by stating: "CityPlan putswalking, cycling, and transit ahead of cars to cut down on trafficcongestion and improve the environment... Cars will not be as convenient asthey once were..." (Tell that to the residents of East 1st Avenue!).I have no problem with this, but traffic issues and view retention arebones of contention that people need to chew over in the context of theirneighbourhood associations. Architects, engineers, and planners cancertainly contribute useful ideas and information, but government imposedsolutions usually fall short; win-win solutions can only come from thefolks who have to live with the consequences.

Working under the sparrow principlewe are led to practical and sometimes innovative solutions to specificreal-world problems. The drafters of CityPlan endorse the idea that eachneighbourhood has its own identity, which sounds great--but is theirconviction more than paint-deep? The districts that they define (such asKensington/Cedar Cottage) are sometimes simply bureaucratic conveniencesthat make no sense to residents. The people who live and work in theseneighbourhoods are not interchangeable cogs either, but individuals engagedin a multiplicity of interactions. By insisting that not a sparrow shallfall we are acknowledging the combination of personal privacy and publicengagement that can make city life workable and fun.

As fate would have it, while thisforum was taking place, City Council was meeting to approve or reject theBC Transit Rapidbus proposal that had been sprung, fully formed, on theneighbourhoods of Marpole, Shaughnessy, and Fairview. I had tuned in Cable4 that afternoon and heard what some of our councillors had to say. Thegeneral drift (and I paraphrase) went as follows:
"This has been aperfect example of how not to do public consultation. That is unfortunate,but changes have been made to the plan that should ease the inconveniencesto residents and business owners. Our city and region badly need bettertransit, and on balance I think this plan should help. There aretrade-offs, of course, but sometimes tough decisions must be made. I haveagonized over this, etc..."

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

"I think the Vancouverpublic should be made aware of the double-bind that Council is in at thistime. As you know, we are in the midst of negotiations with the Provinceand the other regional municipalities to create a Greater Vancouver TransitAuthority. To reject this proposal at this time could upset, or even derailthe process. Now, we could make promises and vote amendments that mighthelp to ameliorate the disruption to neighborhood life that this planentails, but they might never be expedited, for we will be turning overcontrol of the Granville corridor to Translink, who will soon make all theimportant decisions regarding this and other arterial roads throughout thecity."

"This controversy overthe Granville Rapidbus proposal has been bitter, but perhaps fortuitous. Weneed to pause and think about what we are doing. We are being asked notonly to trade off the legitimate concerns of our neighbourhoods, butdemocratic control of functions that are vital to our city, in return for anew funding formula that gives us the right to pay for roads and transit byinstituting new taxes and user-fees . There has to be a better way--and Ithink we should find it."

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

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

 

Part 2

The City of Vancouver has a bigproblem with public involvement. Let me clarify that statement: Vancouverhas 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 oftrying. Many knock, but the door stays locked, and they're left trying toshout through the keyhole. You see, they're all "self-appointed". They book off work on Thursday afternoons to come down toCity Hall--and these self-appointed citizens, many claiming to represent aneighbourhood association (a "special- interest" group), have theaudacity to tell Council what to do. Some of them even complain that fiveminutes isn't adequate-time to convey their views! Council members, on theother hand, are elected by everybody--some even manage to garner thesupport of just over twelve percent of registered voters, which is why theyare increasingly referred to as "the thirteen percentsolution".

Public Involvement (P.I.)concerning development applications is typically a sham: Extensive talkstake place between the developer and City Planning Staff long before therezoning sign goes up. The planning department makes its recommendationsprior to the public hearing where opponents of the project vent theiroutrage at the Councillors, who respond with contemptuous remarks andgratuitous comments.

The CityPlan CommunityVisions Program is a top-down proactive approach. The elaborate seven stageprocess includes a community liaison group, an ideas fair, workshops,developing alternative visions, and marketing-style opinion surveys. It'sinclusive in an artificial way, for no recognition is given to theresidents 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 theend 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 theirmandate. In Dunbar, more than sixty people volunteered for the LiaisonGroup from which thirty were selected. By the end, more than half haddropped out. (Lotus-landers have the attention spans of banana slugs--if itweren't for those eleven mayors on City Council, whatever would we do?)From these, two were selected to report back to Council. They said theprocess worked to identify their needs and priorities and thanked Councilfor allowing them the opportunity to participate.

But listen to Helen Spiegelman, along time member of the Dunbar Residents Association and a supporter of theCityPlan objectives: "The Seven-step Vision process has taught usnothing about how to make our Vision a reality, how to work with City Hallto carry our ideas forward, how to continue to shape it over time and howto manage the inevitable conflicts, when we get into the trade-offs andunintended consequences of our Vision Directions."

Participants reported that theprocess seemed rushed, despite the $600,000 spent in just twoneighbourhoods. (The program was fast-tracked to meet the City'sdevelopment timetable.) A careful analysis of the public surveys revealsthat certain questions were combined, and replies re-grouped, producingresults that would be more acceptable to planners and developers. Clearly,consumer-marketing techniques are not a trustworthy or appropriate basisfor arriving at planning decisions. Though "corrupt" is possiblytoo strong a word, the process isn't on-going, it isn't community-drivenplanning, and it certainly doesn't substitute for an active neighbourhoodassociation that has the respect and support of a district representativeon Council.

Citizens who becomeactively involved in planning issues tend to develop an ambivalence to cityplanners. This is true, not just in Vancouver, but world-wide. They areleery of planners for two reasons. First, because of the many disasters theprofession has visited on our cities in the recent past (timely citizenaction saved Vancouver from the worst abuses) and, second, because closeprofessional ties to developers often place them in a conflict of interestwith the public. On the other hand, citizens understandably feel the needfor the guidance and expertise of planning professionals. Cities arecomplex and mysterious things. Will the proposed shopping complex be aboon, as the developer claims, or will it mean a loss to our neighbourhoodstreet life along with the loss of the hardware store and the pharmacy?

The truth is that plannersthemselves are just beginning to crawl out from under the rocks. Until the1960s and 70s, town planning practices were largely based on a hodge-podgeof theories derived from class prejudice, anti-urbanbias, and industrialrevolution backlash (the Garden City), or social-utopian delusions ofgrandeur (the Radiant City). These practices had about as much sciencebehind them as treating anemics by draining their blood. Their legacy isautomobile-dependent suburban sprawl, industrial wastelands, urbanexpressways, high-rise ghettos, and dismal, residential-only "grayareas" that plague cities (even ours) to this day. In 1961, JaneJacobs helped to start a revolution in city planning with The Death andLife of Great American Cities--a revolution that is still far fromcomplete. CityPlan shows that some of Vancouver's planners understand thatdiversity within and between city districts is needed to sustain a city'ssocial and economic vitality, but they (and their political masters) havenot yet faced the reality that cities and their communities are essentiallybottom-up creations--like ecosystems--and not malleable by top-downcontrol.

And now, these post-JaneJacobs planners find themselves in the position of having to deprogram asizeable chunk of Vancouver's population who were successfullyindoctrinated with that Great Law of Town Planning: high density--bad; lowdensity--good (supported by irrelevant experiments involving rats incages), and reprogram them with the New Law of Town Planning: lowdensity--bad, high density--good (it's not the same as overcrowding, andit's natural to cities everywhere, because when it's done well it providesendless advantages to individuals and communities over low density sprawl).If trying to correct the errors of their profession is a principalmotivation behind the Community Visions Program--why don't they just comeout 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 townplanning, it might be the city is the plan. We can only work with whatexists, and this includes our past planning mistakes, all of which lookedwonderful in the renderings and were justified by utopian visions or thedoctrine of tradeoffs.

Neighbourhoods are, firstand foremost, people. We live where we do because we like it, we can affordit, it's close to our work, family, or friends--and often, all of theabove. 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 lengthof time) are essential to its stability, and they need to think about whatmakes the neighbourhood work for themselves and for others, as well astheir fears and frustrations. Planners need to set aside their laws andtheories to look and listen. Keen observation and awareness are needed, notvisions--The term has a top-down flavour--a remnant from the mind-set thatgave us the attractive-sounding but dysfunctional Garden and RadiantCities.

Neighbours may squabble, but thisis 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 requiredof them--not planning, which is a job for the people--they will begin toput to bed their legacy of lies and illusions and regain the trust of thosewho pay their wages. A good start along this road would be for the CityPlanning Staff to formally endorse the bottom-up "vision" of theMole Hill Living Heritage Society, a neighborhood that has lived by thesparrow principle for more than fifteen years, but whose existencethreatens those who would rule by the doctrine of tradeoffs. Don't holdyour breath, though, waiting for fundamental change to occur in townplanning; this profession tends to attract individuals for whom the wish todo 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'tworking (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 afew), they hired a consulting firm to perform a Public Involvement Review.The consultants conducted several Community Conferences where citizens toldthem (over and over) that the City wasn't listening to its citizens, thatdevelopers were circumventing the process, and that we need a ward system.The consultant's report recommends a multicultural outreach and translationpolicy; increased use of plain language; staff training in PI; developmentof public process guidelines; establishment of a core group of staff publicinvolvement experts; regular process evaluation; a community contactdatabase; ongoing linkages with communities; continuity of staffinvolvement in neighborhoods; public training for City staff and Council;civics training for the public; provision of background policy informationto the public; use of the media; survey research techniques and processfeedback and closure.

Now, if any of this report managesto escape the mayor's wastebasket, it will merely mean more of the same;more training for more bureaucrats and more slick pamphlets through themail-slot that contain less planning jargon but more dumbing-down and havemore to do with PR than PI. This is the institutionalizing of publicinvolvement, complete with civics training for the public--conducted by ourrulers--paid for by ourselves. Citizens can squeal until The Big One shakesus down, but the thirteen percent solution isn't bound in any way by thepublic input it receives, and the millions of dollars now spent annually oninstitutionalized P.I. cannot compensate for a quasi-colonial system ofmunicipal government that survives by its ability to neutralize theinfluence of neighbourhood associations. When public involvement iscontrolled from the top, it is always subject to being ignored. Itcertainly cannot be relied upon as a meaningful check on governmentdecision making.

But Councillors doeventually have to face the electorate. True, and if enough voters inenough different parts of the city can remember how each of the tenincumbents voted on each issue that concerned them and are careful thatthey don't accidentally mark the wrong name when looking through the otherfifty-odd names on the ballot, while trying to remember what each of theother 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 thatCouncillors and supporters of the elected-at-large system always fall backon. They remind us that with a ward system each councillor needs only torepresent his own local constituency, which could allow the needs of thecity 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 mostwell-meaning councilor inevitably slips beneath the influence of a hiddenconstituency. Who are they? I don't know. That's the point. It could be thecity's own planning and engineering staff, or an old friend fromuniversity. Developers are in the business of influencing politicians andpublic servants--but who will lobby for the public?

Neighbourhood associationsare the people's lobby. They can influence public policy in a variety ofways, such as citizen delegations, letter writing and petition campaigns,public rallies and demonstrations; but the proverbial bottom line is thatlittle box on the ballot. In towns and cities with appropriately defineddistricts (wards), councillors do not ridicule a citizen's presentation ordismiss neighbourhood representatives as "cranks" and"busybodies"--not if they're interested in re-election. Awell-organized neighbourhood association is quite capable of galvanizingelectoral support that can make or break a candidate's chances (and notjust at the municipal level!). I should add that what I have to sayregarding City Councillors also applies to the Park Board Commissioners.These Councillors-in-training are also elected at large and also havehidden constituencies. The result has been an historic imbalance in parkarea and services that is only beginning to be set aright by theunremitting pressure of East Side activists.

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

But sadly, the converse isalso true. The at-large system not only emasculates neighbourhoodassociations, it discourages inclusiveness. Rather than meeting and sharingtheir concerns with neighbours, new Canadians in Vancouver tend to puttheir trust and energy into ethnic based advocacy groups that seek toinfluence government by becoming a hidden constituency. There is nothinginherently wrong with this type of lobbying, but when it takes the place ofcontact between those who share a common neighbourhood, but have differentcultures, it exposes another unfortunate side effect of this colonial-styleat-large system, for it works to undermine the most fertile ground formeaningful contact between people of different language, religion, colourand culture. Council can break the budget with top-down P.I., but it can'tcreate the authentic sense of community that naturally flows from aself-organized neighbourhood association guided by the sparrowprinciple.

Another consequence ofneighbourhood fragmentation is that acrimonious and probably unnecessarydisputes occur because the folks on block A don't know what the folks onblock B are up to until the City works crew starts setting up, or theyreceive 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 orsabotage.) It is not uncommon in Vancouver that one's first contact with aneighbour comes at a public hearing, arguing opposing views. If you hadknown each other for a while through the association, instead of hurlingaccusations of "liar!" and "selfish!" back and forthacross the chamber, you might be co-presenting the neighbourhood's ownplan.

But it is pointless toharangue citizens for displaying the same human weaknesses as their electedofficials: ours is a system perfectly designed for bringing out the worstin both. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the political vacuum created by ourunnatural system of city government is being filled, naturally, bybureaucrats instead of neighbours.

As for the notion that districtrepresentatives are somehow less capable of serving the city as a whole, Iam 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 independentparties. Every Councillor is in head-to-headcompetition for votes withevery other Councillor. Council-watchers are all too familiar with thepolitical one-upmanship games that go on both within and outside ofchambers: "I'm so happy to be with you this afternoon at this veryimportant event--I don't know where all the other Councillors are..."This is not a healthy rivalry, for distrust and jealousy don't contributevery much to finding solutions and building consensus.

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

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

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

 

Part 3

So what can be done to ridourselves of the elected-at-large system, while strengthening and improvingneighbourhood associations?

In 1994, Jenny Kwan, a CityCouncillor and ward advocate said: "We need a civic government thatrecognizes that real solutions begin at the grassroots level. This willensure a future that is secure, affordable, environmentally friendly andtruly sustainable over time. We need politicians who will provide residentswith representation and the tools to participate in the process. It is myhope that CityPlan is the first successful step of community involvement indecision making. Rather than an end-all, be-all, it may be a stepping stonetowards the development of local neighbourhood councils."

Jenny Kwan later became theMinister of Municipal Affairs in British Columbia. She brought forwardlegislation that would have provided local governments with greaterdecision-making authority. This is much needed and would have benefittedlocal democracy in the Province's smaller municipalities. But how aboutcity-dwellers in Vancouver? Don't we also deserve municipal government thatis accountable to the local communities that make up our city? Withoutdistrict representation there is no reason to believe that our citygovernment will use their new powers any more wisely, fairly, or withgreater local accountability than has the Province. As long as theConstitution of Canada defines municipalities as being under Provincialjurisdiction, the Minister of Municipal Affairs would be justified in usingthe legislative powers of her government to guarantee British Columbiansthe right to democratically accountable local government. The fact that aclear majority of voters in Vancouver have consistently voted in favour ofwards, whenever the question was posed as a straightforward choice betweentwo clear alternatives, should assure the Minister (and the Premier) of theday that they are acting in the interests of democracy.

The problem with this approachis that what Big Brother (or Sister) gives, he can also take away. Even ifsuch legislation was passed, it might be overturned or amended by asubsequent Provincial government. (Current premier Gordon Campbell was abig supporter of the elected-at-large system when he was Mayor, and heinstituted the schedule changes that make Council meetings less accessibleto the public.) Besides, it sets a bad precedent: In Ontario, the rural andexurb-based Harris (and now Eves) government has abused its power bygrabbing taxes, downloading expenses, and forcing the Megacity amalgamationagainst the expressed wishes of over seventy-five percent of Metro-Torontovoters. There is nothing but local political pressure and, one would hope,human decency to prevent a British Columbia government from tryingsomething similar to this in the future, which underlines the need tostrengthen all local governments in the region.

Thirty years have passed sinceMarshal McLuhan said that you can't decentralize centrally, and I have seennothing to dispute that wisdom, though decentralization sometimes comesabout as an unintended consequence of central government policies.Bottom-up government only comes from the bottom up, so I think that we hadbetter just do it.

What I propose is this:Representatives of Vancouver's neighbourhood associations meet, perhapsunder an umbrella group such as Neighbour to Neighbour, and produce a wardplan for Vancouver. Next, the membership of the constituent associationsratify the plan and select candidates from each of the wards to run forCouncil in the upcoming election. Candidates pledge that, if elected, theywill 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 extentof the platform that they share in common, though naturally, each would befree to express independent views.

I am not advocating a permanentpolitical party, but an ad hoc city-wide movement for local democracy. Aname for this movement might be We Are Revitalizing Democracy (WARD), whichwould appear on the ballot beside each of the candidate's names. WARDcandidates would campaign within their own districts, not just forthemselves, but also on behalf of the other WARD candidates. Theirsupporters, members of the city's neighbourhood associations, would worktogether to raise funds and canvas door-to-door on behalf of the WARDmovement. At the same time, they would inform their neighbours about theassociation and encourage their participation. The goal would be to acheivea majority on Council. Given the unpopularity of the at-large system, Ithink this is quite possible, especially if all the candidates are personsof outstanding ability.

But even if we don't manage toelect a majority to Council, all will not be lost. A movement will havebeen born that provides authentic civics training for Vancouver's citizensand that establishes neighbourhood associations as a force to be reckonedwith. If the WARD Councillors prove capable of serving the city and theirconstituents well, we will soon see the last of the at-large system. Localcouncils, composed of members, will co-ordinate a district's neighbourhoodassociations. They could also launch local initiatives and considerdevelopment proposals. These will not represent an additional layer ofgovernment or supersede the role of City Council, but provide a voice foraccountability that is presently lacking at the local level.

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

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

Remember the West VillageCommittee? They never could have saved the neighbourhood and gone on tomake so many improvements without the special skills and support of localbusinesses and workers. Any neighbourhood association that is serious aboutserving the community needs to welcome their full membership andparticipation.

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

The days when some could prosper onthis planet by engaging in trade-offs are drawing to a close. If ourcivilization is to survive, we must evolve wiser ways. The continuingcollapse of natural habitats from unsustainable resource extraction pointsout the futility of trying to find the "right" trade-offs, whenwhat we require is an understanding of self-organizing systems, acontinuous stream of accurate information, and the willingness to engage inconservation-based development. These principles also apply to the habitatswhere humans live and work, called cities. A well functioning neighbourhoodassociation (unlike a bureaucracy) continually receives and responds toinformation from the neighbourhood, and is capable of timely and creativeadaptations. Nurturing the sparrow principle is the essence of thinkingglobally, while acting locally.

The authentic beginnings ofwestern democracy were not in the power-sharing arrangements of Athenianand Roman aristocracy or the Magna Carta (as we were taught in school), butin the towns and cities of Medieval Europe that had managed to get out fromunder the control of feudal lords. These centres of manufacturing and tradedeveloped craft guilds-- ancestors to our merchant associations--and towncouncils with public meetings, where discussion and consensus formed thebuilding blocks of their decision making. The legitimacy and effectivenessof our municipal, provincial, federal, and international decision-makingbodies are based on foundations of local democracy. In other words, thebuck stops here--in the neighbourhoods where we liveand work.

Twenty-eight years ago I hitchhikedinto town and fell in love with Vancouver for the same reasons that othersdo; and in addition to the great natural beauty of the place, I feltwelcomed by the warmth and naturalness of the people I met. Years havepassed; Vancouver has grown and changed in many ways, but it's still amarvelous city, and it's still full of people who care about itpassionately. People such as these have worked tirelessly and with greatingenuity (despite the obstacles of the at-large system) to make Vancouvera vital, interesting place and to maintain its charm and livability. Butlike other cities, large and small, we are faced with burgeoning social,financial, and planning problems that could easily overwhelm us in the nextfew decades.


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


More and more I hear the excusethat we must accept trade-offs because of circumstances that are beyond ourcontrol. If this is true, we are really in deep--and digging ourselves indeeper. Yet, I have observed that these political and financial"realities", which always seem to preclude satisfactorysolutions, and provide excuses for doing harm, are masks concealingassumptions that need to be challenged, and motives that need to beexposed.

We need bottom-upsolutions--they are the only sort that we can rely on--and these will notbe easily achieved with a crippled electoral system and weak ordysfunctional neighbourhood associations. Democracy is difficult; citiesare complex, but here is a starting place--a straight- forward means forfinding our way through the labyrinth of urban life. I call it the sparrowprinciple; you may call it win-win; others say first, do no harm: but wemake our way together through the dark places, refusing to break the threadthat connects our fundamental requirements and legitimate concerns.

The sparrow principle is toobasic to be an ideology--or even a fuzzy, feel-good philosophy: It wasadopted consciously by The West Village Committee and has been taken up,often instinctively, by other neighbourhood groups who do not wish to besacrificial lambs for the whims of planners and developers. Forty-one yearshave seen a considerable turnover in Committee membership, yet theresourceful sparrow remains the guardian of both individuals andcommunity.

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

 

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

Some additional resources: JaneJacobs is also the author of The Economy of Cities, Cities and theWealth of Nations, and Systems of Survival (Random House),all of which are recommended to those who would gain greater insight intothe workings of cities and their economic regions, their interactions withgovernments, and the connections between economic life and codes ofconduct. There is also a biographical anthology, Ideas That Matter: TheWorlds of Jane Jacobs, edited by Max Allen (Ginger Press), which, amongother things, chronicles some of her accomplishments as a civicactivist.
Another resource is TheCitizen's Handbook: A Guide to Building Community in Vancouver, editedby Charles Dobson (The Vancouver Citizen's Committee). This useful volumecontains helpful tips on organizing, descriptions of recent neighbourhoodinitiatives and, best of all, guidelines for decision making--some of thenuts and bolts that may be needed for applying the sparrow principle.