Change vs Development: Is there a difference?

April 15, 2010 at 11:41 pm | In authenticity, heritage, jane_jacobs, land_use, urbanism, victoria | 3 Comments

Some remarkably outrageous statements by one of Victoria, BC’s leading heritage preservationists once again made it into the local paper, and it got me thinking about change and development.

Everyone seems to agree that Victoria is famously resistant to change. One old light-bulb joke, told by Joe Average back in the day when we were in high school together, goes like this: “Q: How many Victorians does it take to change a light bulb? A: None. They like the old one.”

This, in other words, is an old-old trope.

But the guff retailed by the heritage preservationist suggests to me a different way of thinking about change. The newspaper article, Heritage lost on the street by Vivian Moreau, begins as follows:

One heritage  home a week is being lost in Greater Victoria, says the head of the Hallmark Society.

Developers are snapping up large properties with small houses on them, demolishing the houses and putting up new structures that don’t fit with the neighbourhoods, said Nick Russell, president of the group dedicated to preserving heritage in Greater Victoria. (source, front page of Vic News, Oak Bay News, and Saanich News print versions)

When I read this, I wondered what, exactly, Mr. Russell is protesting. Is it change? Or development? I’ll explain in a sec why I think there may be a difference, but first consider the (to my mind) outrageous conflation produced by Mr. Russell in the article’s conclusion:

“The sense (in Victoria) was ‘there’s a lot of old houses here, let’s put up some nice new things and increase the density,'” he said. “They were whacking things all over James Bay [a neighborhood in the City of Victoria] and putting up 20-storey towers.”

That came to a halt when Victoria mayor Peter Pollen put a stop to it, Russell recalled.

“Oak Bay [a separate municipality to the east of the City of Victoria] hasn’t come to that point. There is a sense there that the supply of houses is endless.” (source)

Peter Pollen was Victoria mayor from 1971 to 1975, and again from 1981 to 1985: he’s hardly a recent memory. The strategy of building high-rises in James Bay died in the 1970s when Victorians decided that they didn’t want a Vancouver-style West End (meaning: a true urban peninsula) in that core neighborhood. And any heritage houses (actual or so-called) that are “whacked” in the mostly upscale Municipality of Oak Bay are meeting that fate because wealthy property owners want to upgrade their standard of living, not because of moves to increase density.

In other words, the outrageous conflation is Russell’s suggestion that Oak Bay is on the verge of high-rise development, which is complete BS. It’s even BS to suggest that Oak Bay is trying to densify, except perhaps around its village nodes (for example, Estevan Village) – and even then, it’s a tooth-and-claw battle with the anti-change crowd.

Or is it the anti-change crowd?

Maybe it’s the anti-development crowd.

What’s the difference, you ask?

Well, I’ve noticed that despite all the hand-wringing over change, change does come – even to Victoria. It’s inevitable.

What’s resisted is development, which is actually a much slower process that occurs over time.

In nature, we don’t flip a switch to “change” from winter to spring: the latter develops over time. A tree isn’t bare one day and fully leafed out the next: that happens over time. Development is what we undergo or experience over time. An exception is when what Jane Jacobs called “catastrophic money” comes flooding in (say, in the form of “urban renewal,” “slum” clearance, or the building of single-purpose street-block-sized “centers,” whether sports or entertainment or civic / government centers). Catastrophic money sweeps in like a tsunami and creates flip-a-switch change – but nowhere is Victoria in danger of that happening.

Unlike development, which happens over time, change is change: that is, sudden. And sometimes it’s a change into the opposite of what was intended. You can ignore all the factors leading to that flipping of the switch until suddenly you notice, “Oh, the light went on (or out).” Then you react to change, which means you’re in a position of weakness. Development is different: it happens in such a way as to allow you to participate in its changes (plural). Every gardener knows that you can direct development, and decent urbanists know this, too.

By pitting themselves resolutely against development, however, the status quo crowd (and I include Victoria’s Hallmark Foundation) are actually facilitating change. Instead of allowing us (and themselves) to undergo and experience development, they resist it until something happens anyway (change), except there was no way to undergo it, and it comes not as something planned, but as a surprise.

Change can mean a building that should have been taller and more splendidly finished ends up under-built, with the developer skimping on materials. Change can mean the economy tanking because all we ever do is resist development. Change can mean a good thing (as when, for example, a surface parking lot is developed and we get a great new building in our downtown core).

Change happens. That’s a variant of “shit happens.” It just does. There’s no stopping it, good or bad.

The way to make sure absolutely that all you ever get is utter crap change is to resist development at every turn: that’s almost guaranteed to deliver nasty surprises.

Instead of talking about change, try instead to work positively with development – like a good gardener, a good stakeholder, a good urbanist. Imagine a garden that’s not allowed to develop, an ecosystem that’s suppressed; a city whose economy is kept artificially restricted; an urban fabric that’s deliberately kept mono-cultural and thin. Then imagine the negative change that befalls that garden, that ecosystem, that city, that urban fabric.

Development is good, especially when it allows for planned change that’s beneficial; development is also much more encompassing, touching all the little and sometimes unseen changes that affect the ecosystem as a whole.

Victoria’s anti-change crowd really is a joke, just like that old light bulb pun. They might think they’re preserving something, but their relentless opposition to development just facilitates bad change.

Remember: shit happens. (And it always flows downhill.)

3 Comments

  1. Exactly. Change and development can live comfortably with the preservation of buildings. Your point about “planned change that’s beneficial” is right. Correct me if I’m wrong but in the past I think that meant something different to decision makers and urban planners. There is an urban ecosystem that is fragile and I think many people recognise that now. They didn’t ‘get it’ then.

    Comment by Christina Mitchell — April 16, 2010 #

  2. […] up on my post from yesterday, Change vs Development: Is there a difference?, a couple of additional […]

    Pingback by » Follow-up thoughts on Change vs Development Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — April 16, 2010 #

  3. Thanks for commenting, Christina. Yes, no one these days is talking about building high-rises along the harbor waterfront, or adding clunky towers to James Bay. Development can (and should) be beneficial on all fronts, yet there’s a tendency here in Victoria to demonize it, and also to try to make all development “fit in,” that is: be the exact same size of everything that’s around it. That’s a screwy view of development, by my lights, since it suggests development that’s no development. It doesn’t compute.
    .
    Anyway, I added a couple of more thoughts in a blog post today.
    .
    My distinction between change & development is artificial, but the point remains that if we continue to oppose development (or try to force it to look like it didn’t really happen – like nothing has changed because we force it to “fit in,” which means stay underdeveloped), then what we’ll get is change, but change we don’t like.

    Comment by Yule — April 16, 2010 #

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