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Should Brisbane aim to be like Vancouver? - the naked truth about a world class city

In the televised debate amongst three of Brisbane's Lord Mayoral candidates Greg Rowell, Jo-Anne Bragg and Campbell Newman, on Thursday 6 March Newman stated his wish that Brisbane eventually be like Vancouver on Canada's West coast. Vancouver also has a reputation amongst public transport advocates of being a highly livable city. How deserved is that reputation? (Also at Wikispaces)

In a letter to a friend, Tim Murray, an expatriate of Vancouver, who now lives in a more laid-back rural community on Quadra Island to the north west of Vancouver relates his experiences of a past visit back to Vancouver.

The naked truth about a world class city: Letter to a friend

Brishen, re. Vancouver, 17 February 2007

I have a lot to say about Vancouver. Walk away from it for just two and one half years and the change is phenomenal. The volume of cars is crushing. Rush hour is constant. It used to be that I could wait for it to subside to do my errands between 9 and 3pm--no more. Sure the city has many amenities, many choices, but the logistics of getting there make it nightmarish. I stayed in my highrise in the neighbourhood I grew up in. The building I worked in for 29 years and left in 03 is now solid townhomes. The house I owned and renovated so carefully is gone, in favor of a monster house with not a speck of grass or room for a single tree, worth close to a million. All this done in the last three years. I found the same situation with the house I grew up in. My father owned it from 1947 until we sold it after his death in 2002. It had a large yard with a garden and beautiful trees. Now it's a million dollar Italian palace of 8000sq. ft. and a huge garage in the lane---no yard visible. The local Safeway store was demolished in favor of a store three times its size. The 990 sq ft. condo I have that my nephew lives in is now worth $100,000 more than when I left it two years ago. That's capitalism. You bust your ass working for honest wages and it takes for ever to save $100,000. But you sit on wealth and in your sleep your money makes money. Sound fair? Yet this is the system everybody loves. Can you believe that this pitiful condo is assessed for more than my property on Quadra? The system thinks that living in an insane impersonal, hectic, crime-ridden, rat-race is more desirable than living here, hence my property there is worth more than my place here. Go figure. The rest of North Burnaby also looks like booming Shanghai. All along the Skytrain route highrises have mushroomed. The population level will explode. The irony is, the monorail was supposed to take people out of their cars, but there will be so many more people, the monorails will be filled to capacity and the roads will be choked as well.

Of course I spent most of my time at the multi-million dollar vet clinic--a huge facility with cutting edge technology. There are two billion people in the third world who have never seen a CAT scan, an ultra sound or even a doctor, but folks like my self are spending megabucks on their dogs for these diagnostic tools and the highly specialized staff. One night I took my dog out for a walk from the facility and discovered a man, obviously homeless, sitting in a doorway of a business. He commented that I had a nice dog. I brought my dog up to him so he could stroke him and began a conversation with him. I thought about the incredible boredom and loneliness of his predicament. No one talked to him. They avoided him. The police harassed him. He was an intelligent young man. I gave him all the cash I had explaining that I had just spent $800 on my dog so I should be able to give something to a human being. I know it would not solve his problem but at least it would make his day. I told him that I was disgusted by the fact that billions of dollars of development were being spent in this neighbourhood yet there were more and more guys like him living outdoors with nothing. He said there were no easy answers, thanked me, and I went. What I want to conclude from this is that Economic Growth does not, never has, and never will solve poverty. The mal-distribution of wealth is the result of a lack of political will, not resources. If anything, history shows that a booming economy widens the gap between social classes, not only between the very rich and the very poor but between various levels of the middle classes themselves. Once I sell my condo, and I will burn my bridges to Vancouver because I could never afford to buy back into it. Prices just keep rising. The case against Economic Growth is not just an ecological one--economic growth fails even by economic measurements.

Two more vignettes. One morning I took a blood test at a neighbourhood clinic. I brought my Quadra personality with me. I sat down next to a man and shocked the hell out of him by striking up a conversation. He was taken aback. After he answered he resumed his silence. I persisted with another question and another until I broke down his wall. After 15 minutes he warmed up to me and when I got up to go after my name was called he got up and followed me and grabbed my arm. He had something to add to his story. Where I live everybody chats with everybody.At the blood clinic on Quadra the whole waiting room becomes a forum. But at my condo when I got into the elevator people who shared my floor with me for two years would get in and look straight ahead without saying a word. City people think this way of relating to people is normal and besides, they have so many shopping opportunities don't they?

The other incident took place the very first time I came into Vancouver. I hit a wall of freeway traffic, arrived at the clinic, sat down. Then along comes this woman in her late twenties. She's wearing high-heels and those sickly long painted finger-nails. Yep. This must be Vancouver alright. These women by their dress and their cosmetics betray the fact that they are totally cut off from nature. Quadra women garden, hike, kayak and chop wood. Their clothes are functional and they have little time for fashion statements. Vancouver is a space ship. A bubble with its own environment. And the woman who sat across from me at the clinic is typical of the millions who are feeding the consumer economy with their addictive shopaholicism.

My sad impression of this growing cancerous necropolis is that it will not be stopped until its host--the environment--dies. The people who live there are sleep-deprived, workaholic, zombies fuelled on a caffeine-overdose fully committed to their artificial lifestyle because they can't foresee its provisional nature or imagine alternatives. We can lobby, we can educate, we can polemicize--but the great masses of Canadians we are trying to reach live in these urban fantasy worlds. What we mean by quality of life--what we know to be an authentic meaningful quality of life--has no meaning to them. When we tell them that a Canada of 40 or 50 million people would not be a pleasant place, that farmland and habitat would be lost to housing, how can that have meaning to people who don't mind living like sardines in a sardine can, as a tenant in 12 story highrise in a forest of highrises in a city of two million? Quality of life for them is not wildlife habitat-- its access to a Big Box store. I am returning then to a point I made a long while ago to you. I will make it again but this time I will borrow a line from Don Chisholm in his article The Growth Paradigm: "A sane world would be guided by our natural spiritual affinity toward nature and by science." Science is a powerful tool, and we must use our logical, rational mind to fight the system. But as Keith Hobson said, we have had a surfeit of scientific papers. The data apparently is not persuasive. What we have to do is tap into that other tool kit in our brain, our mystic understanding of the world, that Capra alluded to. As human beings we have had, until the Industrial Revolution tore many of us from the land, in Chisholm's words, a natural affinity for nature. That's why the World Wild Life Fund is able to make its emotional pitch. Our connection is still there. But for those living in the major urban centres it is tenuous, and that is, I think, our problem. How do you get zombies to buy into the concept that Canada has a carrying capacity when they think that their milk originally came in a carton or that the locally produced food they eat is not contingent on stopping urban sprawl?

Tim

PS Re my dog. After paying $800 on consultations and ultra-sound, the surgeon offered me the option of solving my dog's problem after I paid $400 for a biopsy and $1200 for CAT scan. If the biopsy did not reveal rampant cancer, he would perform radical surgery, relieving him of his left back leg and half his pelvis. Even then, cancer might be discovered. I rejected the option out of hand. A labrador retriever who cannot chase after balls and sticks and swim in the water for want of a leg and a pelvis would be like chopping off the hands of a concert pianist. I took him back home where he will live on until he is in obvious discomfort and then he'll be put down in my own living room. It will hurt me to see him go, but it would kill me to see him mutilated. Hopefully that was the last trip to Vancouver I will make in my life. I'm dumping the condo by remote control


This article has also been published on candobetter.wikispaces.com

Comments

I also heard the same b.s. about Vancouver, in Melbourne, at a lecture at the Fabian society, on the subject of improving urban transport. There was a panel of four on stage. It was the usual set-up, where the audience are expected to act as if they themselves know nothing, and those on the stage are treated as if their pronouncements were cutting edge from on high. They alway say more or less the same thing.

Some time into the questions I asked the panel if any of them had considered slowing down population growth by taxing land speculation windfalls. Surprisingly one of the speakers said, "I'm glad someone had the guts to say that! No-one ever talks about that." And they went right on not to talk about it.

Anyway, we also heard there about the wonders of Vancouver. It didn't sound very wonderful to me, but I wasn't surprised to hear this barren 'wisdom'. I find it infuriating that our planners KNOW NOTHING outside the anglophone country systems and wish to know nothing. And we all have to put up with it.

And Australian infrastructure and disturbance of nature are growing like tumours on a drying body which is losing all its natural fauna and flora. And most Australians are so poorly educated that they think this is normal, and they are told every day that they are having a great time.

Not only is it sad to live in a country which is dying, but to have to put up with all this lying is infuriating.