Look, dolphins! Greenwashing isn't just for corporations, but City Hall too
There has been a lot of talk (and media coverage) over the last 18 months or so regarding a number of symbolic gestures taking place at Vancouver City Hall. The most recent item was a front page above the fold story proclaiming Vancouver as a Fair Trade City. The Vancouver Sun’s reporter Jeff Lee even noted in his article that the designation was purely “symbolic,” yet despite this it was prominently profiled.
Since the last civic election, symbolic governance has ruled the roost at 12th and Cambie. In some circles it has become wildly popular, and in others not so much. The term symbolic governance helps to describe an administration caught up in reading their own headlines and lacking any interest in making tough political decisions that are in the city’s long-term interest. For what it’s worth, here are my top picks of symbolic policies that have come to define this new Vision Vancouver administration.
Symbolic Vegetable Garden: First Michelle Obama announced she was planting a symbolic vegetable garden on the front lawn of the White House. Then Vision Vancouver followed suit. They threw out the previous plans for a peaceful green oasis on the front lawn of City Hall in favour of handing over the land to a handful of citizens to create their own private vegetable and flower gardens. Costs for this project continue to mount, and whether it has actually helped to create food security for even one family is rather doubtful.
Symbolic Bee Hives: A few months ago the Mayor announced that his vegetable garden was going to be pollinated by a new bee hive on top of city hall. It was revealed that Allen Garr, the Vancouver Courier ‘s political columnist and Vancity Board Director, was going to become the City’s new beekeeper. Garr has since pulled out of the project, but plans for the symbolic bee hive are buzzing right along with another apiarist.
Symbolic Chicken Farms: This symbolic gesture has almost everyone clucking. Councillor Andrea Reimer (known to Coun. Raymond Louie as "The Chicken Lady”) introduced a motion that would legalize the raising of hens in backyards throughout Vancouver. Staff then came back and said this symbolic gesture would include a $20K homeless shelter for chickens. Who woulda thunk? This measure was aimed at helping to symbolically demonstrate that Vancouverites can raise their own food if need be.
Symbolic Affordable Housing: In a last minute motion to help divert attention from the fact they weren’t selling off the costly social housing units at the Olympic Village, Council moved a symbolic motion to allow first responders access to the rentals suites on a priority basis. Even some of Vision’s biggest supporters admit this symbolic measure means nothing and will do nothing to keep Vancouver secure during a natural disaster. It did cause them days of negative press trying to explain away a back-of-napkin policy decision that seemed to catch everyone off guard.
Long gone are the days when Vancouver’s politicians regularly made tough decisions that had meaningful and long-lasting impact. Some of those decisions included keeping our seawalls open to the public for everyone’s enjoyment. How about the decision to actually invest money to build the seawalls in the first place. Long before it was fashionable, previous councils decided to forge ahead and densify Vancouver’s downtown and support controversial policies such as the Four Pillars Drug Strategy. They also voted to support initiatives like EcoDensity, which although it was politically risky, ended up introducing the wildly popular city-wide concept of laneway housing.
Did I mention that a previous council actually wholeheartedly voted to endorse Vancouver hosting the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games? Or how about incorporating 20% social housing in all new large, mostly upscale developments? Or how about opposing freeways within the city?
There are times when governments need to make symbolic gestures to send a message and help clear a path for future policy making. However, when a government becomes caught in a vortex of making a series of symbolic announcements, it runs the risk of appearing hollow and, ahem, visionless.
Besides moving ahead with the Burrard Bridge lane re-allocation (something that was politically risky), this government has been quite timid in its approach to public policy. Some folks tell me it’s because they’re a bit gun shy, while others say they simply don’t have any new ideas. A few have noted that with the departure of so many senior staff, there is just nobody around left with the insight and institutional knowledge to bring forward any big ideas. Regardless of which theory you support, the time for symbolic governance has passed and it’s time to take real action on a number of policy fronts.
In short order the pilot will be coming on the air to advise his passengers that we've passed the mid-way point of this journey and we are beginning the slow descent toward the next civic election. Time is quickly running out for this government to define itself as nothing more than a series of symbolic gestures. My guess is if they tried, the descent downard might be met with a bit of unexpected turbulence.
- post by Daniel