Compact living doesn’t shrink quality of life

Photos from inside a new apartment building in downtown Victoria. This building was approved in 2012 – the first new rental building approved in the City in the last 30 years.

There have been questions from certain corners of our community on the need for rapid densification – why do we need so many new buildings? Should we pull up the metaphorical drawbridge and protect Victoria from newcomers because we think it’s the only way to preserve the quality of life for people who already live here? There are many good reasons to answer no. I’ll highlight two and outline how a growing city and its neighbourhoods can be places where quality of life and well-being are enhanced, for everyone. I love my neighbourhood too.

At a recent talk in Victoria, the Governor of the Bank of Canada highlighted Canada’s aging workforce; as a result, currently two thirds of labour force growth comes from immigration. By 2025, he said, all labour force growth will come from immigration. This couldn’t be more true than in Victoria where we have an aging population with many people moving out of the labour force in the coming decades. These people will want to stay in Victoria and enjoy the quality of life they have here.

So, like the rest of Canada, though perhaps more rapidly, Victoria’s labour force will grow through immigration both from other provinces and other countries. This growing labour force – necessary to support those who are retiring – need places to live. That is a key reason that all this new building is necessary.

A second reason is climate change. In early March I was invited by Mayor Iveson in Edmonton to an urgent weekend meeting of mayors from around the world. The 800 scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were meeting in Edmonton the following week and Mayor Iveson wanted us mayors to help shape the conversation.

The materials provided in advance of the gathering and the speakers at the opening plenary made it crystal clear: We have little time to take radical action with regard to climate change or we lose the battle. And, cities are both the cause and the solution to the problem.

The president of the University of Alberta cautioned, “Cities need to change quickly; the window is closing.” Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements warned us that we are now 1 degree above the pre-industrial average and we have less than 15 years to stay below 1.5. Bill Solecki the Founding Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities put it starkly. “We have all the knowledge we need,” he said, “but at our core, we can’t acknowledge that we have to fundamentally change the way we live in cities.”

Changing the way we live in Victoria in order to take bold climate action means more compact living and more people living in all our neighbourhoods. This can happen without changing their character too much through gentle density, houseplexes, tiny homes, townhouses and more. It means more people living within walking distance of goods and services available in village centres, resulting in less traffic and pollution. It also means inclusion, diversity, new neighbours and a denser web of social relationships.

On major corridors and downtown the changes we make to how we live in order to save the planet are more visible. There are more tall buildings. But what we can’t see from the outside is that almost all of these buildings are being built with vertical backyards: playgrounds on the third floor, lush, green community gathering spaces on the roof tops, one building even has an multiple birdhouses!

We don’t need to trade in quality of life even as our city grows to accommodate a changing labour force and a changing climate. What we do need is to have real dialogue rather than name calling and finger pointing. “NIMBY” is not a helpful term as it doesn’t take seriously the concerns and fears that people have – we all want to maintain the incredible neighbourhoods we’ve built together. Nor is it helpful to have a drawbridge mentality – this makes young renters and others feel unwelcome, and prevents us from adapting to changing times.

As our city grows and changes everyone will win because ultimately we all want the same thing – to be happy and healthy, to be prosperous, to feel safe, to breathe clean air, to feel that we belong to something greater than ourselves and to know that our children will have good futures.  We’re all in this together.

A version of this article first appeared in the Victoria News here.

What is affordable housing in Victoria?

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Pacifica Housing’s Wilson’s Walk mixed income housing in Victoria West.

Affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges in Victoria. We hear regularly from the business community that attracting workers is a challenge because of the housing shortage. We hear from people living in units that are being redeveloped, worried about not being able to find another place within their price range. And we know people on income assistance only get $375 per month for housing.

An even greater challenge is defining what affordable means. The word is tossed around by citizens, the development community and Council as if we’re all speaking a common language. Until we clearly define affordable housing and agree on how many units we need and at what rent we need them to address the problem, we’ll be aiming in the dark.

In order to find our way out of the dark, two important shifts in thinking are required. First, we must stop thinking of affordability only as housing affordability. Second, we must address the fact that increased supply alone won’t solve the problem for those living on the lowest incomes.

The accepted wisdom from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and BC Housing is that no one should pay more than 30% of household income on housing. Yet the “Housing and Transportation Affordability Index” developed by Brookings Institute researchers demonstrates that it’s more complex than this.

This index is groundbreaking because, according to the researchers “it prices the trade-offs that households make between housing and transportation costs and the savings that derive from living in communities that are near shopping, schools, and work, and that boast a transit-rich environment.” As noted by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, “A cheap house is not truly affordable if located in an isolated area with high transport costs, and households can rationally spend somewhat more than 30% of their budget for a house in an accessible location where their transportation costs are lower.”

Emerging from this research is a new affordability standard that no household should spend more than 45% of their household income on housing and transportation combined. What this means is that, for example, if you live in Fairfield and walk or bike downtown to work, you have less transportation costs and could potentially spend more on housing. Data gathered as part of the Smart South Island submission to the Federal Smart Cities challenge shows that people living in Sooke spend on average 14.5% of household income on transportation; Fairfield households spend on average 9.5%.

With much of the development happening in Victoria concentrated along major corridors, within walking or biking distance of major employment centres, and with a safe cycling network underway, we’re building a city where – in the not so distant future ­– transportation costs will be even further reduced.

Yet even with transportation savings factored in from living in smart compact communities like Victoria’s downtown and neighbourhoods, increased supply alone won’t provide housing for households in the city that make less than the median income.

According to 2016 census, the median after tax income for a household in the City of Victoria is $46,804. Approximately 21,905 households make less than this. For one person households the median after tax income is $31,570 and for two people, $68,325. There are 14,910 households that earn less than $35,000 per year and cannot afford to rent anything at current market rates.

How do we address this? Create, attract and retain household sustaining jobs to raise median household incomes. Ensure – through the $90 million Regional Housing First Program, other government funding and an inclusionary housing policy – that by 2026 in Victoria we have the units we need. This includes at least 800 new units for households who live on less than $30,000, with rents between approximately $500 to $875. It also includes at least 450 units for families that live on less than $50,000, with rents between approximately $875 and $1375. These are the clear targets laid out in the Victoria Housing Strategy. This is what we need to aim for.

It’s only in adjusting our thinking about affordability to include transportation and housing location, and finding creative ways to deliver the supply that the market can’t that we will build the city we all want: a Victoria where people live close to work, school, shopping and recreation and where people are free from the stress of housing insecurity.

This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist here.

 

Neighbourhoods are for everyone

Screenshot 2018-06-01 23.15.30.pngAffordable Sustainable Housing (ASH) concept developed by Fairfield resident Gene Miller.

In the Gonzales neighbourhood, posters are popping up on poles with a picture of a single family home about to be demolished by an illustration of a bulldozer with a wrecking ball with the words, “City Planners” written on it.

The text of the poster goes like this: “Do you like the look of your neighbourhood? City planners are not happy with it! We have an award winning 2002 Neighbourhood Plan that is meeting the objectives of providing valuable housing opportunities and gentle densification. City Council wants to push through a number of aggressive densifying changes that will permanently change your neighbourhood’s character. Reclaim your power to plan the future of your neighbourhood. It has been taken away by city developers that supported your mayor’s campaign.”*

The “aggressive densifying changes” referred to in the poster are the addition of some three story buildings along Fairfield Road and the incorporation of townhouses into the Gonzales neighbourhood.

Above these posters another poster has been placed. It reads: “It’s easy to oppose densification from your single family dwelling. Got privilege? For every young family that doesn’t get to live here, one must live in Langford and commute. Let’s put an end to this NIMBYism.”

How do we resolve this conflict? In addition to townhouses, Fairfield resident Gene Miller has put forward one concept that might help. He calls it ASH – Affordable, Sustainable Housing. One ASH building is 2000 square feet and occupies about 40% site coverage on a standard city lot.  ASH is small-footprint living – ownership or rental – up to 12 suites, in a modest building that looks like a traditional two-and-a-half storey house with four units a floor (approximately 500sf one-bedrooms). With less units per floor, larger units could be incorporated to create homes for families.

ASH delivers up to 12 ‘front doors’ – 12 individual, private entrances distributed around the building.  This creates a sense of ‘arrival at home’ that lobby-and-corridor buildings of any size cannot provide. Each ASH building looks individual and distinctive, and the house-like scale and appearance go a long way to promoting neighbourliness and a sense of continuity and community on the street and within the ASH building.

Implementing the ASH concept and other forms of gentle density means there will be a significant increase in density in Gonzales. This will create new homes for families. At the same time, the look and feel of the neighbourhood can be retained. Here’s an idea Council might want to consider in the future: to save hundreds of rezonings, the City could create an ASH entitlement in the same way we have a garden suite entitlement – on any single family lot an ASH could be built, as long as there’s a mix of unit sizes and some form of clearly defined affordability in each building.

Victoria is growing. And as the single largest age demographic in the city according to the 2016 census – 25-29 year olds ­– start to have families, many of them will want to live in Victoria’s established neighbourhoods because they are amazing places. If we want a city that is inclusive and diverse, we must absolutely ensure that neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood residents make room for them.

*NB To put the statement in the poster in context, my 2014 campaign was funded 51% by corporate donations, 49% by individuals – the most even split of any candidate.

Originally published in the Victoria News here.

Please Vote Yes for A Citizen’s Assembly on Amalgamation

Learn all about Citizens Assemblies by watching this video! Peter McLeod facilitator of the Duncan North-Cowichan Citizens Assembly outlines the process.

In November 2014, the City of Victoria, along with many others in the region, put a question on the ballot asking residents about amalgamation. Victoria’s question was “Are you in favour of reducing the number of municipalities in Greater Victoria through amalgamation?” The overwhelming response was, “Yes”.

After the election we waited for the Provincial government to take some kind of action. The action was a long time coming; it resulted in a study and report that looked at the current state of regional services. Nothing on amalgamation.

Interestingly, it was the District of Saanich’s citizen-led governance review that has moved us a little bit closer towards an actual exploration of the topic, at least for Saanich and Victoria. Saanich’s citizen panel recommended that Saanich invite all willing municipalities to participate in a provincially-funded citizens assembly on amalgamation. So far, only Victoria has expressed an interest.

A citizens assembly is where a randomly selected group of people are brought together in a process facilitated by a neutral “process expert” to explore a difficult topic. Duncan and North-Cowichan recently convened one to explore the costs and benefits of amalgamation. A citizens assembly process in Victoria and Saanich is a good way to address the advantages and disadvantages of amalgamation.

Citizens assemblies are a good way to work together in a deep and meaningful way. Peter McLeod, the consultant who led the Duncan North Cowichan process said, “The problem isn’t that we ask too much of people, it’s that we ask too little.” A citizens assembly that explores the costs, advantages and disadvantages of the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich will create a genuine opportunity to harness the intelligence, energy and goodwill of the community.

But it will do more than this. The larger benefit of a citizens assembly is that while it will contribute to settling the amalgamation question – at least between Saanich and Victoria – it will also give us a new tool for citizens and governments to work together to solve complex problems in an efficient and effective way; these processes never last more than a year at the very most.

Finally, a citizens assembly is an chance to practice more civil public dialogue when discussing heated issues. It’s a true opportunity for deliberation. It requires listening to other points of view, putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. A citizens assembly is an opportunity to remind ourselves as a community that compromise does not mean capitulation and that changing one’s mind after listening to another perspective is not a sign of weakness.

The next step in the process is for Saanich and Victoria to meet together and determine a clear ballot question that will be asked by both on October 20th. My hope is that we’ll get an overwhelming “Yes” and that the citizens of our two communities can begin a rich, deliberative, thoughtful process and make some recommendations on the topic of the amalgamation of Victoria and Saanich, one way or another.

Originally published in the Victoria News.

New housing for Indigenous women facing homelessness

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This is a project I’ve been working on with the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness for a very short time! It’s good to see it come to fruition so quickly.

The Government of British Columbia is partnering with the City of Victoria, Atira Women’s Resource Society and the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, to build new modular housing for Indigenous women, with 24/7 support services.

“Having access to a safe, stable place to call home is crucial for anyone who is experiencing, or is at risk of, homelessness,” said Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. “Indigenous people are over-represented amongst the homeless population. And homeless women, especially those who are Indigenous, can face tremendous risks. That’s why I’m really pleased to see this project moving ahead.”

Once operational, each of the 21 homes will include a bathroom and kitchen. Residents will also benefit from:

  • 24/7 on-site staff support, including daily meal services, employment training, and culturally specific and life-skills programming;
  • Health and wellness services, including mental-health and addictions treatment;
  • A shared amenity space and access to laundry facilities; and
  • Custodial and maintenance services.

“Indigenous women are the strength of their communities, families and culture, but for too long they have also been victims of violence, homelessness and poverty,” said Scott Fraser, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. “By providing a safe, secure home and culturally appropriate support services, as we are with these new supportive homes in Victoria, we are sending the signal that government and its Indigenous partners are here to help Indigenous women in the spirit of reconciliation, and ultimately, in respect for their culture, history and traditions.”

“The need for housing in Victoria has reached a critical level,” said Rob Fleming, MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake. “These new modular homes will provide Indigenous women in need with an affordable and safe place to call home, while accessing the support services that they need to reach their potential.”

Neighbouring residents and businesses will have an opportunity to learn more about the project at an open house. Open house details will be announced in the coming weeks.

The temporary housing will be operational for approximately five years, and will be on the 800 block of Hillside Avenue, as part of the Evergreen Terrace complex.

“Indigenous women are more likely than other women in Canada to experience both violence and homelessness,” said Lisa Helps, mayor of the City of Victoria. “This housing at Evergreen Terrace provides the opportunity to interrupt those trends, and bring culturally responsive, safe, and affordable stability to the lives of Indigenous women in Victoria, while building community.”

“We are thrilled to be involved in this critically important project that we believe will help address the root causes of homelessness for Indigenous women, which are the loss of children and connection to culture and land,” said Janice Abbott, CEO, Atira Women’s Resource Society. “In addition to providing the immediate safety and security of stable housing, we will work with the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and the female tenants to help rebuild those connections. We truly believe that if we can find a way to support women in parenting their children and provide children with the opportunity to be raised in their families, we can help eliminate homelessness and violence against Indigenous women.”

Pending municipal approvals, construction is anticipated to begin in fall 2018, and will be complete by March 2019.

“The Aboriginal Coalition currently supports Indigenous women through a program called the Indigenous Women’s Circle, geared towards strengthening Indigenous self-identity, providing life skills and food security and building a sense of family and community. We are very pleased that through the modular housing project, we can now also offer a safe space for the women to call home,” said Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, executive director, Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness. “The women we support face multiple barriers, are often caught up in the chaos of domestic violence, and are at high risk. Culturally supportive housing has the potential to transform lives. I am optimistic and excited about the possibilities.”

Once the facility is operational, a 24/7 contact line will be available to answer questions and address neighbourhood concerns. In the meantime, questions and comments can be submitted to: communityrelations@bchousing.org

Our Thoughts Are with the Esquimalt Nation upon Chief Andy Thomas Sinoopun Passing

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Today, we lost a great man and leader, Chief Andrew Thomas/Sinoopun of the Esquimalt Nation.

Chief Thomas was a champion for his people. Grappling with the ongoing legacy of colonialism, he became dedicated to ensuring a prosperous future for the youth of his community.

He was also a very personable, funny and committed man who will be greatly missed by everyone on Victoria City Council and the entire community.

I have been honoured to know Chief Andy Thomas over the course of my time on City Council and particularly through our Witness Reconciliation Program and City Family. He was an inspiration to me and to Council, and his legacy will live on as we continue to walk together on this new path of truth and reconciliation.

Chief Andy said to us “Reconciliation is your work, your responsibility. We will work with you, guide you and share the labour but it is your burden to carry, and you must do what is needed to put that burden down, piece by piece.”

As a City and as a community we will continue to do this work in this spirit.

On behalf of City Council and the City of Victoria, I extend sincere condolences to the entire Thomas family at this difficult time.

“I’m Right and You’re an Idiot” – April 9 Lunch Time Lecture at City Hall

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Are you discouraged about the state of public dialogue? Do you want to be inspired and learn about how to move past this way of relating? Join us for the April 9th Lunch Time Lecture at City Hall as James Hoggan talks about his book and the process of writing it.

Just as we pollute the natural environment we pollute the public square, not with chemical toxins but with our warlike approach to public conversations.

Passionate public argument is healthy, but unyielding one-sidedness undermines the pluralistic, reasoned debate at the core of healthy democracy. The middle ground disappears, problems seem unsolvable and people turn away from public discourse.

Best-selling author and communication expert James Hoggan interviewed thought leaders around the world to learn how to transform this social pathology and engage in higher-quality public conversations.

The series is free and open to the public. Hoggan’s lecture is Monday April 9th from 12-1pm in the City Hall Council Chambers. Bring your lunch and join us! And please share with your friends and neighbours who might be interested too.

Bridge to the future

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For more photos of the bridge opening celebration, see the end of this post.

It began early Friday morning. A small group gathered with Esquimalt elder Mary Anne Thomas and Songhees elder Elmer George on the new bridge at dawn. The elders called on the ancestors as they blessed the bridge and asked for protection for all who pass over it. As they did, I thought about all the other public infrastructure in the City, here on Lekwungen territory, that hasn’t been blessed. The City is in a process of reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt nations; honouring their ancient tradition was the right way to prepare to open our new bridge.

When I arrived at the bridge site before the opening ceremony, I hadn’t expected to see such a crowd. It had taken us a long time to get to opening day, the road had many bumps, and the project had been controversial. But there were Victorians, some 10,000 strong, ready to mark the day together.

I learned something important about our community yesterday. The community scrutinizes (keeping a close eye and criticizing as the project budget increased and the timeline extended) but when the time comes, we are able to look to the future and to move forward together. This is a remarkable quality that will serve us well as we grow and change over the next hundred years.

As a community we collectively persevered to ensure that we have a safe, functional and extraordinary piece of infrastructure that I felt proud to present to the public. The bridge is a manifestation of the dedication and hard work of the people in both China and Victoria who built it. It’s an emblem of pride of workmanship. It’s a testimony to years of local work on site and especially local work in the last eight months since the bridge arrived, getting it ready for opening day. There were a number of local apprentices who trained on the job; they are the workforce of the future. And, they’ll be able to visit the bridge with their kids and grandkids and to say, “I built this.”

There was another key reason to celebrate: through the lessons learned on the bridge project, City Hall has turned a corner on project management and now has the capacity to deliver large scale infrastructure projects; both the Fire Hall Project and the Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre Replacement Project will demonstrate this. This new way of doing business is what the public expects and deserves.

An afternoon long, 10,000 person community picnic, festival and celebration might have been enough.  But the old bridge had been decked out with a disco ball and lights. As dusk fell, it became a festival of light. I joined in with the hundreds of people that had started an impromptu dance party, music blaring from speakers left behind from the day’s events.

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I felt like I was in a different city for a moment, but then I realized, this is the new Victoria emerging. It’s a Victoria that believes in spontaneity, light, laughter, well-being,  and connection. This is Victoria in the 21st century.

 

Bridge Opening Day Photo Gallery

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Thousands of people cross the bridge together as a community for
the first time after the ribbon is cut.

 

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The Island Chef’s Collaborative providing fresh snacks.

 

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Celebrating with a picnic lunch on the deck of Old Blue.

 

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The Greater Victoria Placemaking Network in action, gathering people’s favourite memories of Old Blue.

 

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A blue bridge mask-making table saw hundreds of kids go home
with a homemade momento of Old Blue.

 

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Two adorable kids who had just been to the mask-making table.

 

 

City of Victoria Council Highlights – March 23, 2018

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From a new fire hall to new childcare spaces, to a new micro brew tasting room, it’s been a busy few weeks at City Hall! Council Highlights provide a snapshot of the progress made on City programs, initiatives and on Council decision-making. If you’d like these highlights sent right to your inbox please email engage@victoria.ca.

Victoria Fire Department Headquarters Replacement Project
Council approved allocating $35.9 million from the City’s Debt Reduction Reserve for the procurement of a new Fire Department Headquarters to be located at a new parcel fronting Johnson Street, near Cook Street. A new Victoria public safety building will be built downtown under an agreement reached with local developer Dalmatian Developments Limited Partnership, a Jawl Residential and Nadar Holdings Ltd. Venture.

The new facility will house fire and rescue services and Victoria’s first purpose built Emergency Operations Centre. In addition, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) has agreed to lease 3,200 square-feet of space from the City to operate a stand-alone facility for paramedics and four ambulances under a planned 20-year co-service agreement. The agreement is subject to Dalmatian Developments bringing their overall project through the rezoning process, which includes the construction of the new public safety building. Read the report here.

Project Update: Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre Replacement Project
The Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre Replacement Project is currently in the pre-construction, stakeholder engagement and design phase. Feedback from the community, along with best practices and trends in aquatic and recreation centre design, will advance the building and site design toward construction-ready documents later this year. You can learn more and share your feedback here. Read the Council update here.

Fairfield & Gonzales Neighbourhood Plans
City Council provided guidance to staff on changes to the neighbourhood plans and the engagement process for both Fairfield and Gonzales.
Motions on the Fairfield Neighbourhood Plan
Motions on the Gonzales Neighbourhood Plan
Based on Council direction, the City of Victoria will be engaging further on Cook Street Village, Ross Bay Village (Fairfield Plaza) and the gentle density model in both neighbourhoods.

David Foster Harbour Pathway Extension – Johnson Street Bridge Underpass
Council has directed staff to finalize detailed designs and proceed with procurement and construction of the proposed Johnson Street Bridge Underpass. A project budget has been set at $544,000 for the extension of the David Foster Harbour Pathway under the new Johnson Street Bridge, consisting of $444,000 from the Harbour Pathway Capital Budget from the deferred pedestrian bridges and $100,000 contribution from the Trans Canada Trail Foundation. Read more here.

National Cycling Strategy
Council has requested that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) advocate to the Federal government to create a National Cycling Strategy to advance cycling and active transportation across Canada. Read more here.

Victoria Housing Fund Application for North Park Manor at 875 North Park Street
Council has approved a $30,000 Victoria Housing Fund grant to the North Park Manor Society to assist in the construction of three bachelor units of housing for low and medium income seniors at North Park Manor. Read more here.

Updated Emergency Plan
Council approved recommendations regarding the updated Emergency Plan which reflects legislation governing emergency planning in British Columbia. Read the report here.

2018 Micro Grant Applications
Council approved $3,500 in 2018 Micro Grant funding for seven urban agriculture projects. Read the report here. You can learn about the grant applications here.

Festival Investments Grant 2018 Allocations
The 2018 Festival Investment Grant applications were approved for a total of $222,380 cash grants and in-kind grants of up to $107,000 including the $15,000 in-kind contribution for Car Free Day previously approved by Council. Read the report here.

Annual Parking Services Review
Council approved recommendations regarding the annual parking services review including an increase in daily maximum rates for parkades to take effect June 1, 2018. Daily maximums for Centennial, Johnson, View and Broughton parkades will be $16. The daily maximum for the Yates Street Parkade will be $17.50. Read the report here.

Sightseeing Vehicle Parking Stands- Management Review Update
Council directed staff to amend the procurement process and approved a new fee structure for the allocation of bus sightseeing stands, with incentives towards zero emission. Read the report here.

Parking Stand Allocations for Horse Drawn Carriages
Council approved extending for five years the parking stand allocation for horse drawn carriage parking stands designated under the Vehicles for Hire Bylaw. Read the report here.

Street Vending Review Project
Council agreed to extend the seasonal bicycle street vending pilot program for 2018, to run from May 1 to December 31 and extend the limit to stay in one place to one hour. Read the report here.

Rezoning Application and Development Permit with Variances Application for 540 Discovery Street and 2000 & 2010 Government Street
Council approved an application for a tasting room and relocation of liquor retail sales area for Phillips Brewing. Read the report here.

Rezoning Application and Development Permit Application for 323 Skinner Street
Following a Public Hearing, Council approved an application for a childcare centre with capacity for up to 32 children in Vic West. Read the report here.

Rezoning Application for 2612 Bridge Street (Burnside)
Council declined the rezoning of the property located at 2612 Bridge Street to allow for the retail sale of cannabis. Read the report here.

Why I’m Quitting Facebook

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Disclaimer: Tech is the number one industry in Victoria with amazing, innovative and entrepreneurial people working in that space. This post is not a rant against technology; it’s about putting social media in its place. 

I’m quitting Facebook. Before the cry begins about how will the mayor be in touch with her constituents, let me count the ways: email me mayor@victoria.ca, call or text me at 250-661-2708, send me a note on Messenger, follow my blog, call my office 250-361-0200, call CFAX any Friday between 3pm and 4pm where I’m on air taking your questions, attend a Lunch Time Lecture at City Hall, or come to a Community Drop In .

It’s this last venue, the Community Drop In, that’s my favourite. I hold it in my office every two weeks. We put the kettle on, get great coffee from 2% Jazz and the community drops in to share ideas, concerns, and solutions. There’s always a diversity of people that show up. And it’s a place where we listen to each other, hear about amazing events and programs being led by citizens, and we solve problems together. Sometimes it’s hard and people come in really angry. And through conversation and connection that anger fades to understanding.

And this points directly to the first reason I’m quitting Facebook. When I became mayor, Facebook was still a civil place. It was a place where I could share ideas and get good feedback, where dialogue happened. I remember getting off Facebook and saying to a friend, “That was a really good conversation.” But all of this has changed.

In an article in the Guardian, Paul Lewis interviews former Facebook, Twitter and Google workers. Lewis writes that according to James Williams, an ex-Google strategist, social media manipulation “is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive.” As Williams says, “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage.” The site Time Well Spent, founded by Williams and others and focused on how to make tech more humane, puts it this way: “Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.”

Facebook peddles in outrage. According to Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, “Algorithms that maximize attention give an advantage to negative messages. People tend to react more to inputs that land low on the brainstem. Fear and anger produce a lot more engagement and sharing than joy.” 

I have felt this evolution online over the past four years. Facebook has become a toxic, echo chamber where people who have anything positive to say are often in defense mode against negativity and anger. And, as McNamee notes, “The use of algorithms … leads to an unending stream of posts that confirm each user’s existing beliefs. On Facebook, it’s your news feed … the result is that everyone sees a different version of the internet tailored to create the illusion that everyone else agrees with them. Continuous reinforcement of existing beliefs tends to entrench those beliefs more deeply, while also making them more extreme and resistant to contrary facts.”

I think we need to take this really seriously as a community. And I’m quitting Facebook so I stop contributing in any way to this cycle of psychological violence where fear and anger get more air time than joy, where opinions become hardened in the absence of facts or dialogue and where division rather than much-needed connection is the norm.

What is worse is that the effects and impacts don’t seem to be remaining on the screen. We are experiencing a Facebookization of public discourse in community meetings, in engagement processes. People sometimes show up angry and outraged before they’ve even received any information. The community is unnecessarily divided. Facebook is of course, not entirely to blame. But I wonder what would happen if we did a grand social experiment where people put down their phones, or at least took a Facebook break for a month, and engaged in more face to face conversations.

Except that we can’t put down our phones. And this is the second big reason I’m quitting Facebook. I’m worried about our individual (read my!) and collective ability to focus. And focus is exactly what is needed to fix the big issues that face us in 21st century cities – globalization, population growth, increased cyber-connectivity, income inequality, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.

Dscout, a web-based research platform, did a study where they put an app on the phones of a diverse sample of 100,000 people and tracked their every interaction for five days, 24 hours per day. By every interaction, they mean “every tap, type, swipe and click.” They called them “touches”. The authors reported that what they discovered was “simultaneously expected and astonishing – and a little bit sad.” The average user touched their phone 2617 times per day. As noted by Justin Rosenstein, inventor of the Facebook “Like” button, “Everyone is distracted. All of the time.”

It’s not a question of us a humans being ‘weak’ or something being ‘wrong with us’. Social media is designed to suck us in, to keep us distracted. It’s called the “attention economy”. Social media companies are competing for scarce minutes turned hours of our time. This is contributing to fragmenting our attention spans so that we no longer have the ability to focus individually or collectively on the big issues that desperately need our attention. This isn’t good for the state of our democracy in Victoria where what we need is to be able to talk with each other and listen to each other about the challenges we face as a community.

Finally, though and most worrying, and my third reason for quitting Facebook, is that social media use and cell-phone distraction is actually shriveling our brains.

According to Dr. Paul Mohapel at Royal Roads University, citing a study from Sussex, device-driven multitasking can shrivel the prefrontal cortex specifically the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the part of the brain used in executive function, cognitive processes, emotional regulation and evaluative processes.  Our brains are shriveling in the place we need them most – to reason, to have empathy and most importantly to have the emotional intelligence to connect with others.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been weaning myself off Facebook slowly, just like when I quit coffee. I first deleted the Facebook app from my phone. Then from my iPad. And finally, I changed my web browser home page. The final step is to close down my Facebook account … It makes me nervous just typing this.

I wonder how quitting Facebook will impact my relationship with my phone? My time? My sense of self worth? I look forward to more face to face conversations, less distractions, and keeping my noodle intact.