No policy …no strategy, either

April 27, 2010 at 11:57 pm | In advertising, black_press, facebook, free_press, local_not_global, media, newspapers, social_critique, times_colonist, victoria, web | 13 Comments

Tonight I attended the 14th meeting of Victoria’s Social Media Club to listen to five panelists from Victoria’s mainstream media (MSM) talk about how new media (including social media) is affecting their business.

Panelists included Bryan Capistrano (promotion director for radio station The Zone); Amanda Farrell-Low (arts editor for weekly paper Monday Magazine); Dana Hutchings (producer/ host for “Island 30” on TV station CHEK News); Sarah Petrescu (reporter and webmaster at daily paper Times-Colonist); and Deborah Wilson (journalist for CBC Radio-Victoria “On The Island”). The panel was moderated by Janis La Couvée.

blog might render photo cropped – click on picture to see original

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The setting was the gymnasium of a former elementary school (now used as the University Canada West campus), hence the …well, gym-like setting.

But the setting wasn’t really the disappointing bit: it was the panelists. They all came across as very sweet people, but I left wondering just what the hell they’re doing.

The panelists (representing local heavy-hitters CBC Radio, Monday Magazine, CHEK News, The Zone Radio, and the Times-Colonist) all stated that their organizations have no specific social media policies in place.

Maybe that’s fine – but what was striking was the absence of clear thinking around social media strategy. The one glimmer of an exception was Dana Hutchings of CHEK. In the summer of 2009, while on vacation in Sweden, she received an email from her boss, letting her know that the owners were about to shut down the station.

CHEK had orders from its owners that forbade the station to report on its own troubles. In his email, Dana’s boss wrote (and I’m paraphrasing): “You’re on Facebook! What can we do?”

First, a brief digression on the history of CHEK News, which is worth knowing: see this wikipedia page for details. In brief: CHEK launched on December 1, 1956, which makes it a venerable local institution. Over the decades, CHEK underwent various changes in ownership, and by 2000 it was owned by Canwest, which happens to be the media conglomerate that owns so much of Canada’s media – including most newspapers, the Times-Colonist among them. Canwest, however, was in deep financial trouble by the middle of the decade, and by late 2009 it had to file for creditor bankruptcy protection. Leading up to this, Canwest tried various downsizing moves to save itself, including pulling the plug on CHEK in August of 2009. But by September 2009, the employees had managed to put together a scheme to buy the station and keep it in operation as an independent in Victoria.

Social media played a huge role in CHEK’s turnaround. Dana Hutchings answered her boss’s question (“You’re on Facebook – what can we do?”) by starting a Save CHEK News fan page, which in turn galvanized the local community who learned about the true goings-on at the station through the Facebook page. Before long, the page had thousands of fans.

The employees at CHEK, spurred by the support they saw pouring in through social media, worked feverishly around the clock for over 46 days, and in the end the station was saved – bought by the employees and contributors.

The point, however, is that without the resonant support from CHEK’s fans – support that would not have found a gathering spot without social media because of Canwest’s gag order on what was happening at CHEK – the employees wouldn’t have been able to muster the energy and enthusiasm to save the station.

But when asked how social media was affecting their business models, the other panelists relied on the old separation between “editorial” and “management” to absolve themselves of any strategic thinking around how the new media might save their old media bacon.

“I don’t know, I’m editorial, that doesn’t concern me,” was the gist of it. The panelists also seemed to think that the new media folks in the audience were trying to find ways to “pitch” to them, the arbiters of media truth. It was laughable.

First, people in the audience weren’t trying to figure out how to “pitch” to the MSM – they were trying to sound out the MSM to find out how they could get it to listen to them, the community.

Second, the panelists repeatedly told the audience that what would work – what they would be willing to retweet or run a story on – would be semi-sensationalist crap, like “there’s a house on fire on X Road,” or “the ferries are running late,” or “it’s snowing on the Malahat.”

Aside from sensational “news” like this, the MSM wants “human interest” stories: “how I found my true love on Twitter,” or, “my child survived bullying on Facebook,” or similar stuff.

This is truly sad. There must be more to MSM than burning buildings and true romance, no?

There were other annoying contradictions, and then also outright delusions. For the latter: the belief that bloggers are just the rumor mill, while the MSM are the arbiters of truth. Hahahaha. If anyone still believes that what is written in the daily paper is the truth, I feel sorry for them – I know for a fact that it isn’t. I know plenty of bloggers who are more assiduous about fact-checking than so-called professional journalists – and bloggers don’t mind correcting themselves. Try getting a newspaper to do that.

At the same time, every single one of the panelists belly-ached about being underfunded and understaffed, which was their main excuse for no longer doing investigative journalism.

Ok, so which is it? You can’t do investigative journalism because you’re understaffed and underfunded? Or you’re the arbiters of truth because only you are the professionals who can get at the truth?

You can’t have it both ways, kids.

While thumping their chests to claim truth-telling status, the panelists also begged “social media” to “spoonfeed” them potential news items (because, remember, they’re underfunded and understaffed and can’t get their own stories – the news are “thin” these days, as one of them put it). In other words, please spoonfeed us, but don’t think you can pitch us.

Are they nuts?

Which is it?

I could go on, but this entry is already costing me dearly in a town where everyone has to play nice and not step on anyone’s toes – and besides, it’s almost midnight and I’m on a deadline here.

Update, April 29: a follow-up post here (also noted in comments).

Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge scandal just keeps going

April 22, 2010 at 10:18 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, scandal, victoria | Comments Off on Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge scandal just keeps going

It’s mind-boggling. The scandal of how the City of Victoria has tried to bum rush the historic Johnson Street Bridge into oblivion just keeps growing.

If you’re interested in questionable municipal shenanigans as a spectator sport, check out FOCUS Magazine‘s latest issue (May 2010), now available online as a PDF download, and go to page 26, where Sam Williams dissects in excruciating detail the FOIed email exchanges between City of Victoria engineer Mike Lai and his colleagues at Delcan Engineering, specifically Mark Mulvihill.

I am ashamed to live in such a banana republic of a city.

The current council and mayor (imo lame duck, with the exception of Geoff Young); from L to R, standing: Chris Coleman, Phillipe Lucas, Pam Madoff, Dean Fortin, Sonya Chandler, John Luton, Geoff Young; seated: Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Lynn Hunter

Oh, the island…

April 2, 2010 at 6:04 pm | In just_so, local_not_global, vancouver_island, victoria | 5 Comments

The theme of the day is choice, or lack of it. Choice(s) in traveling, choice(s) in getting from point A to point B. Turns out, our choices are getting more and more curtailed, and when bad weather strikes, they’re practically wiped out.

Let’s look at money-related choices… Now that BC Ferries has jacked up its fares once again, it’s becoming very dear to get on and off “the island” (Vancouver Island, that is).

The fare between the cities of Victoria (on “the island”) and Vancouver (on “the mainland”) for an adult walk-on or vehicle passenger ticket is now $14. And a regular passenger vehicle (without driver) is $46.75, which makes a car and driver ticket come to $60.75.

That’s one-way, of course. Return costs $121.50. And if you’ve got a couple of passengers, your fare just jumped to about $180.

Yikes – and this, for what was supposed to be our “highway” connection to the mainland: the ferry system seems practically designed for cars and drivers, but at those prices, it’s hardly affordable. The trip takes a long time, too, not because the crossing is long (only 90 minutes), but because BC Ferries wants you there long before the ferry departs, even if you have a reservation (which costs more money, incidentally).

The “choices” offered by BC Ferries are not satisfactory. The choices, such as they are, consist of being able to choose between a buffet or a cafeteria once you’re on board, and soon you’ll be able to enjoy a massage, pedicure, or manicure during the 90-minute crossing.

But that’s not the sort of consumer choice I had in mind. I’m looking for more choices in rates and in crossing options.

Right now, everything centers on very large car ferries. Not much choice for getting to the ferry terminals efficiently if you’re not driving, either. One private bus service has a monopoly, and the public bus service takes forever.

I didn’t really intend to bitch about BC Ferries, but it’s top of mind right now since that’s what the daughter ended up taking in the wake of flight cancellations. Since she only has a short weekend to visit us at home, we opted to get her over here on the downtown-harbor-to-downtown-harbor float plane service (considerably more expensive than the ferry, but also only 35 minutes travel time). But during the night, a significant windstorm moved into our area, and poof!, that grounded the float planes.

It also did a number on the ferries. Everything got delayed, and her trip from Vancouver to Victoria ended up taking seven hours, all told.

As a student, she does get a much better rate on the ferry-and-bus combination she opted for, so the money isn’t the point.

Rather, it’s the hassle of getting on and off “the rock” (that’s the other name we have for this place), and it’s the absence of choice(s).

The choice(s) that do exist are getting dearer all the time: for convenient flights, it’s $149 per person for a one-way float plane ticket; some deals are possible if taking the fixed-wing aircraft from airport to airport, but generally, it’s a pricey proposition to fly, especially for a family. And as I wrote, the ferry rates keep going up, with more trivial choice(s) within the existing ferry system (buffet v. cafeteria; manicure or pedicure, etc.), but no choice(s) at all over the actual ferry mode – it’s all the same type and style of ferries. For what we pay, there should be more options.

As for the weather: well, there’s no choice about that. Storms are like atmospheric earthquakes that last for hours, and this one was at least an 8.0. But at least the ground held firm, even if the skies shook.

Rug Badgers rule

March 29, 2010 at 11:56 pm | In business, just_so, local_not_global | 2 Comments

So, here’s a first for my blog: I’m endorsing a local rug-cleaning company that provides an absolutely stellar service: Luv-a-Rug, headed up by Steve “Dusty” Roberts, has perfected a device called a Rug Badger, which cleans rugs like nothing else.

I found Luv-a-Rug through the company blog, written by Ruglover Mary. Without the blog, I’m not sure I would have paid more attention to this rug cleaning company than any other. But because of the blog, I thought, “Hmm, I think I’ll take a closer look at this.”  (And I found Ruglover Mary‘s blog in the first place because I make it my business to be on the alert for local area blogs to include in MetroCascade, our blog and news aggregator.)

When I called the store, I got Mary on the phone. (I felt like I already knew her!)

And then of course there’s Steve “Dusty” Roberts.

That’s a photo of Steve (“Dusty”) on the right, taken from an Australian Clean Expo site.

Steve and his Rug Badger have “badgered” their way across North America and beyond – it’s another one of those “little” Victoria BC success stories that make you go “wow!” Here‘s a page on the Rug Badger site full of testimonials – it spans many different locales.

When I was little, my mother used to beat rugs “out back.” You had to get out of her way when it was time for this onerous chore, which happened about twice a year.  When we lived in Duesseldorf, the twice-yearly rug beating meant going to the courtyard behind our apartment building; when we moved (briefly) to the sticks, it happened behind the house. In either case, the work (and it was hard labor) involved hanging the rug over an iron bar and then beating the crap out of it with a wicker rug beater.

This is what the “machine” of the day looked like – human-powered, and just awful to do.

When “Dusty” came to my house to pick up the rugs I wanted cleaned, he told me that when he was a little boy, his grandmother had let him try beating her rugs clean with one of those wicker rug beaters. But not only was the work impossibly hard, he was also covered in dust in no time, choking for air. “There’s got to be a better way,” he thought.

Many years later, he studied the existing rug beater-style machines out there and decided to build his own. BADGER stands for “Bugs, Allergens,Dirt, and Grit Extracted from Rug,” and it works. (There’s a video demonstration here.)

If you live in Victoria, you can use Luv-a-Rug and meet “Dusty” himself (internet fame as Rug Badger promoter notwithstanding, “Dusty” still cleans rugs, personally picking them up at your place and returning them). If you don’t live here, do yourself a favor and make sure your rug cleaner uses a Rug Badger. Or else hand him one of those wicker rug beaters. Anything else just won’t do as good a job.

(Full disclosure: I’m not getting paid in any way to write this, no discount on my cleaning bill or anything like that. I’m just really happy with how well my rugs turned out – they look fantastic. And I’m not turning this blog into a product or service endorsements site either, but I just love this Rug Badger story and that Steve Roberts is taking his invention/ modification around the world like this. Way to go, Steve!)

What is Victoria saying?

March 10, 2010 at 7:01 am | In just_so, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, victoria | 2 Comments

The City of Victoria is trying to gauge public attitudes as part of its efforts to come up with a renewed Official Community Plan (OCP). There’s a website dedicated just to this endeavor, Shape Your Future Victoria. There are surveys to fill out, questionnaires to answer, …and opportunities to be a jackass on camera.

I won’t be filling out a single survey anymore. I’m done with Victoria.

It finally came home for me just how royally and Victorially we are screwed when I bothered to watch one of the videos on the city’s site. It’s on the right sidebar, introduced as follows:

We Asked Victorians

Posted February 05, 2010

We walked the streets of Victoria one fine February day and asked random Victorians what they loved about Victoria and what they’d like to see improved. Listen to their thoughts. We’d like to hear yours.

The first speaker, a middle-aged woman, responds with “I love everything about Victoria, I love the weather, I love the beauty of the city…”

The second part of the nearly 2-minute video poses the question, “What does your Victoria look like in 30 years?”

The same woman answers, “First of all, stop anyone else from moving here because it’s big enough…”

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Let me repeat that:

“First of all, stop anyone else from moving here because it’s big enough…”

Right.

I get it now.

Could I just say that keeping people out is at best a Plan B? It’s not and never will be a Plan A.

The respondent’s attitude is what I have repeatedly called “the Island DNA,” that vicious kudzu of the soul, a sort of entitlement (“I’ve got mine and I’m alright, Jack”): I moved here, but now that I’m here, don’t let anybody else come here! Pull up the drawbridge!

It starts with an island mind-set: no bridge to the mainland of course, no connections to “outside,” no one else allowed in our little paradise.

And it perfectly sums up why Victoria will never be a happening place. It is an island, and that island mentality of keeping the outsiders out is exactly what retards development here, including and especially good development.

There are a few other voices that make more sense on this video, but the “stop anyone else from moving here” sentiment informs far too many people here.

Let me just close with this: I have never, ever lived anywhere else where keeping people out was turned into a virtue. Not in Vancouver, not in Montreal, not in Munich, not in Berlin, not even in Boston. But in Victoria, Plan B, a.k.a. keeping people out (excepting the tourists in tourist season, for fleecing purposes), is the Official Community Plan.

Follow up on entitlement

March 3, 2010 at 7:30 am | In 2010_olympics, local_not_global, politics, social_critique, victoria | Comments Off on Follow up on entitlement

Quick follow up on my earlier Entitlement post (which is already generating lots of good conversation via backchannels, comments, Facebook, etc.).

When the world descended on Vancouver for the Olympics, the NBC Today crew took a day trip to Victoria. They went to the Empress of course – a breakfast tea, served as an afternoon tea? – but then they went to eat a late lunch or early dinner at Red Fish Blue Fish.

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I love that they visited Red Fish Blue Fish, one of the funnest, innovative, and most delicious seafood restaurants in Victoria. Ok, it’s not really a restaurant, it’s a food outlet in a converted container, and you have to eat outdoors (or take your dinner home). But it’s so delicious – and it’s the restaurant the city didn’t want. This business was stymied and thwarted for over two (2!!) years before they finally got permission to operate.

Red Fish Blue Fish earned its reputation – against the odds put up by the city (which, in a sane world, should be in the business of supporting businesses like this). Luckily, “the world” validated the enterprise and its earned reputation with international coverage.

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On the other hand, here‘s an example of entitled brats acting like a-holes: Vancouver’s Anti-Olympics Movement Falters as Local Activist Hero David Eby Gets Pie in Face From Black Bloc Supporters. Yep, way to go, show the world that temper tantrums are so …effective (not). It takes entitlement superiority of epic proportions to act like this. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon in these parts.

Entitlement

March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm | In architecture, cities, green, homelessness, ideas, land_use, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

In yesterday’s post, Thinking out loud on social media platforms, I responded to a comment with an extended rant about Victoria, the pressing strangeness of its people and their often bizarre sense of entitlement:

Much of the strangeness comes from their huge sense of entitlement, which is weirdly crooked, and is based in large part on this crazy notion that, since we live in the best place on earth, we’re entitled to act with an attitude of entitlement – even though we have done nothing to earn it, for what can you do to earn the beauty of nature, which is our only saving grace? Yet the entitlement attitude persists. For example, at the downtown YMCA where I work out, women steal from other women in the membership-plus changing rooms. These are members who pay a premium for a “plus” membership, yet they steal from other “plus” members. It’s the sort of behavior locals might associate with “the big city,” except we’re not the big city. We just think we can get away with shit.

For those who are wondering why I know about thieving at the gym: because I read the posted notices about upticks in petty theft; because I make it a point to talk to people; and because I’ve seen women looking for items that, whoops!, went missing in the blink of an eye. What’s also interesting is that the women who steal don’t just steal from other women, they also steal from the gym. Who would steal from the YMCA, I wonder? It’s all small stuff (the facility’s towels, or other members’ high-end cosmetics, or maybe a $20-bill that’s left unattended in an open locker for a few minutes), but it adds up.

To what? Misplaced entitlement.

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Victoria BC

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Without a doubt, Victoria is one of the most naturally beautiful (urban) places in Canada. It’s the low-rise yin to Vancouver’s upright, high-rise yang. However, there is nothing, not a single thing, that the people who live here have done to create or to earn this beauty.

Our older residential core neighborhoods are quite pretty – they are densely built up (a good thing) and are incredibly leafy, festooned with an abundance of fabulous trees (which city workers strive hard to maintain), and of course year-round greenery. Some folks start mowing lawns in February. Aside from the bouts of landscaping mandated by the Ministry of Perpetual Gardening (that’s a joke, coined by David Burke), we haven’t, however, done anything to earn natural beauty: it’s just there, and it grows on, just as the Olympic mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait simply exist, just as the granite outcroppings simply are (when we haven’t blasted them to smithereens to build a subdivision), just as the ocean ebbs and flows.

What we have actually built – particularly since World War II and particularly where it really matters, namely in our downtown where the urban part of our urban existence should shine – is largely awful.

In Vancouver, the beauty of the recent built form is earned. People in Vancouver built it, they built it in the last 30 years, and it looks great. It looks even better set against the unearned majestic beauty of the landscape: looming close-up mountains (very yang and very different from our far-off and therefore yin elevations) and restless ocean, beaches and the thick forests of Stanley Park.

But in the past 75 years, Victoria’s downtown has earned little.

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

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Old Town (photo, above) and Chinatown are charming, but their structures were finished around the turn of the century before the last one. What was added last century is for the most part a dog’s breakfast – whether we refer to Centennial Square, to the uninspired commercial buildings that replaced older (and actually taller!) buildings, or to the wasteland of one- or two-story buildings lining what should be key shopping streets (which now sport far too many “for lease” signs).

Face it, Victoria’s more recent “pretty” parts aren’t downtown, they’re in the village centers of the older neighborhoods, from Oak Bay Village to Cook Street Village to Fernwood Square, to James Bay, and so on. (And even then, some of those areas would be boring white-bread toast if it weren’t for the trees.) Downtown has been left to languish, and aside from recent handsome Humboldt Valley developments (which the NIMBYs fought tooth and nail), there is little to please the eye.

Downtown as a whole has in fact turned into a slightly watered down version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (and yes, Vancouver isn’t perfect as it has a huge problem there), with panhandlers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill sleeping in the entryways of all those useless one-story buildings with the empty storefronts sporting “for lease” signs.

I can put a date on when things really changed: in 2005, seeing a trio of emaciated, hollow-eyed addicts tweaking (see def. #4 under “verb”) at 3 p.m. on the SW corner of Vancouver Street and Rockland Avenue was unusual enough to make me call a friend on the neighborhood’s community board: “Hey, I just saw a two women taking their clothes off, trying to hook passers-by, and there was a guy with them who looked like he was their pimp. All three of them seem totally strung out…”

In the five years since then, I’m not surprised anymore by anything I see in my neighborhood or along Rockland Avenue (on my way to the YMCA), even though this is a “nice” area. Junkies, people smoking crack in Pioneer Square (where a sign reminds me that I can’t walk my dog, even as the clean-up patrol daily comes ’round to pick up used needles), human feces, vomit, guys peeing against buildings, people tweaking.

Most mornings (and especially on recycling day), I wake (and fall asleep again) to the dawn-time jingle of “binners” pushing (stolen) shopping carts past my window, in search of bottles to take to the nearby Bottle Depot. In 2005 there was one single binner, “our” binner, in this neighborhood. Now there are dozens, competing for the scraps we might toss out.

I used to write blog posts about how awful this human misery is (looking for this post, I realize I published it as “private” in 2005, meaning that no one was ever able to read it; go read it now, and most especially listen to the singing iceberg, linked at very end). I used to support all the pious studies for how to end homelessness.

But I almost don’t care anymore. It’s so depressing to see this acceptance of drug use and destruction, and to see it wash over every block of your neighborhood and your downtown. Of course the homeless, most of whom have mental health problems as well as drug addictions, are left to fend for themselves by Federal and Provincial governments that have handed the problem to cash-strapped municipalities. The municipalities make all sorts of lovely noises about task forces and helping and asking Mr and Ms Jo-Shmo Citizen to kick in some extra money for shelters, but things have just gotten worse. At the same time, because the poor and the hard to house really are getting shafted by senior levels of government, everyone on the street (which tacitly includes us, the non-homeless residents) feels that they, the homeless, really are entitled to be exactly where they are: on the street, making everyone feel guilty or bad or fed up.

Because (the thinking goes) where else, after all, can they go, given that the services they need are located in the city?

You see where this is going? Here, even the homeless are entitled. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about entitlement, it’s that you don’t earn it. You just take it.

And all the while, we build nothing of beauty, even as those of us who have housing smugly think we’ve done something to earn the natural beauty that surrounds us. That’s why everyone likes to bleat on about the lifestyle here.

Gag me with the lifestyle already.

This isn’t Lotus Land, but we are surely Lotus Eaters: addled into feeling we’ve earned the natural beauty, we’re totally apathetic about actually creating a built beauty, blind to how cheap and ugly-looking Victoria, in particular its under-built and under-utilized city center, has become.

A retired city worker recently told me that much of Victoria’s downtown real estate is owned by families, some of whom have held the property for generations. They don’t need to sell it (they’d be penalized with capital gains taxes on the sale), they make enough from renting the ground floor out to some crap store that sells t-shirts to the tourists, and they don’t bother with a seismic retrofit of the upper story, they just leave it empty. In other words, it’s blood-sucking, half-empty, not-earning-its-keep, underutilized real estate that the trust fund kids can keep in their back pockets, collecting the monthly $5000 to $10000 in rent, all without doing a stitch of work or doing anything useful with the building. That, according to my source, is a big problem with real estate in the city.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d make it illegal to have property downtown that isn’t operating at a minimum of 5:1 FSR. That would put the fear of god into any useless leech who owns valuable land downtown but does nothing with it to improve the commonweal.

But then again, in this city of entitled Lotus Eaters, “developer” is a dirty word. The anti-development NIMBY crowd thinks that development contributes to the city’s ugliness. Oh kids, grow up. Our built city (not its natural setting) is ugly because it’s underdeveloped.

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Now, there’s a codicil to this rant…

I believe that the desire to have earned what is naturally given is what underwrites the burgeoning and absolutely exciting currents of outright biophilia that in our region finds expression in land conservation, in stewardship, and in the uptick in environmental groups and causes and projects. The Capital Regional District (that is, Greater Victoria and the surrounding municipalities from Sooke and Metchosin in the west through to Saltspring Island in the Georgia Strait to the east) and the Cowichan Valley Regional District just to the north of us are home to eco-living initiatives gaining world-wide attention. (More on those in a later blog post.)

The biophiliacs are trying to earn beauty through environmental stewardship – and they’re succeeding.

But as a fan of cities, I wish that my fellow urban biophiliacs would spend a bit of energy on fixing our built environment, so that we can earn an urban beauty worthy of the fabulous natural beauty that surrounds us.

I’m not sure whose “job” this is. As far as I can tell, the city’s urban planners are asleep at the wheel, as are the politicians. If I had a magic wand, I’d kick them all to out and do what Vancouver did: hire the best, hire people with imagination. The latter is nowhere in evidence in Victoria, and it’s also missing in our largest neighboring municipality, Saanich, judging by the atrocity of Uptown (a shopping center redevelopment) now under construction.

A new retail/ commercial/ mixed use development in Saanich, BC that just screams Fuck you to the humanity hurtling by

A new retail/ commercial development in Saanich, BC that just screams "Fuck you"

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So that’s my wish: I want us to lay off the Lotus Leaves that lull us into thinking we’ve earned the natural beauty that surrounds us, and to focus instead on earning a built beauty that aspires to be the best. And I want the NIMBYs who try to thwart development downtown to take a hike. Come back when you’ve earned the right to contribute, otherwise you’re just acting entitled.

Update, 3/5:

There’s an excellent photo of the Uptown development on Flickr, taken by Glenalan54. Check out the astute comments.

Bamberton, Public Participation, Design Thinking

February 20, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In ideas, innovation, land_use, leadership, local_not_global, politics, real_estate, vancouver_island | Comments Off on Bamberton, Public Participation, Design Thinking

This afternoon I attended a forum on land use and public participation, Competing Values: Land Use and Public Consultation. The forum was sparked by an installation, Bamberton: Contested Landscape by Cedric and Nathan Bomford, at Open Space. That installation is itself informed by the redevelopment of Bamberton.

Situated to the north of Victoria, Bamberton lies on the shores of Saanich Inlet, across from Butchart Gardens. It used to be a cement manufacturing plant, founded in 1912. Operations ceased in 1980, and in 1982 the property was sold. Various redevelopment plans have come (and gone); the most recent is described here. Oh, and here.

This afternoon’s forum dealt with development and land use issues outside Victoria, many of which I’m not familiar with, especially as they relate to forest lands (including Crown lands – I confess that I have a lot of difficulty wrapping my head around the idea of “Crown” land) and greenfield development / sprawl. (Bamberton is a brownfield development)

I came away with the sense that development outside the city of Victoria tilts heavily toward benefiting developers, who don’t appear to be legally obligated to consult with the community before crafting proposals that are generally not publicly presented until it’s time for a public hearing (which only happens if the project requires rezoning or variances).

The question, then, is how do you get public participation that’s timely, and how do you structure a collaborative process – versus a stand-off (which is what seems to happen too often presently).

Guy Dauncey was one of the participants this afternoon and as usual his comments struck me as the most incisive and progressive. While most of the other participants and audience members seemed willing not only to embrace but also to propagate an adversarial narrative (that it’s impossible to work with the current BC government, that developers are all just greedy SOBs out to make a killing, that all developers are liars who can’t be trusted, that the human footprint is in all instances bad, that development must stop, that we already have “too many people” on Vancouver Island, and so on and so forth), Dauncey chose to think about how development can actually be beneficial and – by extension – how the process for public participation might actually be made to work.

Which brings me to design thinking. In The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is The Next Competitive Advantage, Roger Martin distinguishes two approaches or mind-sets to solving problems: one favors validity, the other reliability. Today’s forum allowed me to think about how Martin’s concepts apply to real life situations, such as NIMBYism and public participation, which too often seem downright intractable.

Martin posits “design thinking” (based on abductive reasoning) as the basis for moving forward productively when caught between the contradictions of validity and reliability. At the risk of bowdlerizing Martin’s concepts, here’s some what I took away from his book and how it might apply to public participation around community planning and land use issues.

People who operate from the principle of reliability use the past to predict what the future will bring. This means that they will reject “vision”-based and “unproven” value-based ideas (unproven because they can’t “prove” their validity through past successes). Obviously, a truly new vision (for the future) isn’t based on a past success (otherwise it wouldn’t be a vision, it would be hindsight). Reliability-oriented thinkers want quantifiable values, they want good odds, they want to meet budgets and face bean-counters with confidence.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who want valid outcomes. Reliability doesn’t figure too strongly because what’s most important is that a project or an outcome is valid. That means it has to feel right, it has to ring true, and it has to meet needs that might not even be fully identified yet. While reliability predicts the future based on the past and has a strong quantitative bias, validity can’t base itself on the past and has a strong qualitative bias.

In a corporate business that’s traditionally reliability-based, it’s very difficult to let validity get anything resembling an equal footing. In land use decisions and development, there’s clearly a very strong bias toward reliability, which makes all attempts at introducing validity seem airy-fairy and touchy-feely.

This is where the community-based activists and others who are striving to create a climate of positive public participation face an uphill battle. The people who live in a given community want validity – they want validation of their way of life, of the place where they live, of the dreams they have for the future. Their vision can seem creepily backward to reliability-driven business people, while the business people’s focus on reliability appears short-sighted and at best unimaginative, at worst greedy (hence the notion that developers have horns, a tail, and cloven hooves) to “the community,” however it’s defined.

The “reliable” model of development for the most part has assumed that the past is the best guarantor of future successes, and if in the past we developed land in a certain way, then in the present we must do the same. After all, there are bottom lines to be met and accountants and shareholders to face.

What communities in the path of reliability-driven development are instead saying is “our concerns are valid, we have needs and visions of our own, and we want to be heard.” This is not to say that the community is always right. As Guy Dauncey pointed out, every single railroad in Great Britain was opposed by community members who wanted no part of a railroad, and preferred the horse and buggy instead. Today, we (rightly) laugh at the backwardness of opposing rail, given that cars not only swept the railway aside, but contributed to bad land use and sprawl. (We should be so lucky as to have a great rail system…) So, while the community wants validation, it cannot expect to be validated in all aspects …because, frankly, it might be wrong on some points. (This is important to point out, because “community” has become a sacred cow in many ways, and it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest that community might actually be wrong. But indeed it can be.)

When reliability and validity go head to head, we too often seem to get either a stalemate (a protracted fight that gets progressively nastier), or nothing happens (the developer gives up, which can leave the community with a Pyrrhic victory if the result is loss of economic growth), or “reliability” wins (cookie-cutter / sprawl development, lost farmland/ greenfield, etc.).

In turn, public participation itself becomes more self-selective: seeing validity thinking trumped or sharpened into an anti-development sword, people who actually want good development or who prefer to avoid confrontation opt out of public participation entirely. Why bother, they reason, if it’s only for extremists?

That’s where design thinking can help – to bridge the gap between reliability and validity, and to design a process for public participation. It seemed to me that this was the point Dauncey was making in one of his comments. While many of the other speakers suggested that it’s already too late to parlay with developers, Dauncey’s idea of involving the reliability-driven developer much earlier in a conversation with the validity-driven community made a lot more sense (unfortunately, he was in a distinct minority at the forum, and his idea was not pursued by any of the other speakers). But as Roger Martin noted in his book, design thinkers need to understand and speak the language of reliability and validity if there’s to be any hope of having a positive conversation to resolve the problems we face.

Judging by today’s discussion, it’s a challenge that clearly applies to land use, development, and public participation. I’d prefer any day to work with Dauncey and those like him who can meet the challenge of design thinking than to limit myself to a validity that remains only a vision …or devolves into a stalemate.

Mr Softie is still missing, as is Democracy

February 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm | In advertising, guerilla_politics, ideas, local_not_global, politics, scenes_victoria, victoria | 1 Comment

I got a huge kick out of a funny poster that playfully references the ubiquitous “missing cat” notices in my Fairfield neighborhood. (For an earlier note, see Darren Barefoot, who wrote about Mr. Softie, a “heavier set” cat gone missing last year in our ‘hood.)

Today’s poster is truly brilliant. Check it out…

Democracy: lost!

Democracy: lost!

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Just for the record, I’m taking no political sides myself (and yeah, go ahead and hate me for that) – just sayin’ that (aside from the misplaced semi-colon) this is a damn good place-specific political poster that hits all the right notes for this particular neighborhood.

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