How do we build the city we all want?

Home Together_Sacks

NB If you want to skip the theory and go right to the call to action, join us Saturday January 19th to ‘Give a Day to Your City!’ and help shape the 2019-2022 Strategic Plan.

In the past few years, there’s been a growing body of literature published that outlines the degraded state of civil society and what we can do about it. I’m reading as many of these books and articles as I can in order to understand my role as mayor and the role of local government in addressing some of the problems facing us today. I’m also reading them because it’s a pleasure and an inspiring journey!

In a magnificently argued book, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society, drawing on a political reading of the Hebrew bible, British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a strong case for the reinvigoration of civil society. He talks about the need for a “covenant” among people with different religions, ethnicities, sexualities, points of view, etc. This will allow us to create a shared understanding and work across difference recognizing each difference as a gift that can be contributed to the common good.

“Liberal democracy,” he writes, “has tended to concentrate on the individual and one particular power, the power to choose. Courtesy of the market, I can choose what to buy. Thanks to the liberal state, I can choose how to live. Surely everyone gains in such a situation. True, but only up to a point. We gain as individuals; we lose as a society. There are, we feel, things so important to human dignity that they should be available to all, not just those with wealth or power. That is when the concept of covenant comes into play: the idea that all of us must come together to ensure the dignity of each of us. Covenant is the politics of the common good.” 1

The main argument of the book is that the common good can best be stewarded through civil society. In other words, we have a profound responsibility as human beings to take care of each other and not only to rely on the government and the market to do so.

Since last January in my 2018 New Year’s blog post, and throughout the year, I’ve been talking about, calling for, and striving to demonstrate with my own actions the importance of a more civil public dialogue. Sacks suggests that it’s more complex than this; listening deeply even when we disagree is important, but just talking and listening is not enough for us to rebuild society together.

Citing research from 1954, in a strong and moving revelation, he asserts that the key to remaking civil society and a strong social fabric is not dialogue; it is doing or building things together. It “is a paradigm-shifting insight,” he says. “Side by side works better than face to face.” 2

This is key wisdom for all of us involved and invested in building cities, neighbourhoods and public spaces together. While not abandoning a more civil way of speaking with each other, and working through issues – particularly as different perspectives and strong differences of opinion arise – we need to do much more. As individuals and as a community we must make a renewed commitment to the common good and work – side by side – to build it.

And we can start right now with the next four years. On Saturday January 19th we’re asking people to give a day to their city and to work, side by side, with fellow Victorians, Council and staff on the 2019-2022 Strategic Plan. From 10:00am – 3:30pm at the Victoria Conference Centre we’re hosting an interactive workshop on the draft strategic plan. You can roll up your sleeves and dive deeply into the proposed objectives and actions. Our plan is ambitious and far-reaching. It takes seriously the multiple issues facing Victoria and many other cities across the globe: climate change, affordability, economic prosperity and inclusion, and reconciliation. You can sign up here.

Beyond creating a strategic plan together, there’s wisdom in Sack’s approach more generally. As mayor I’ll be looking for opportunities over the next four years, as we bring the strategic plan to life, to build the city together whether it’s neighbourhood plans, improving a public space, or developing housing policy. We have a huge opportunity to address the significant challenges ahead by working together in this new way.

Inaugural Address 2018

It was an honour to be re-elected by the residents of Victoria. Today I was sworn in alongside my new council. Here is my inaugural address where I outline what we will do, why we will do what we do, and most importantly, how we will do this. Please pour yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine, and have a listen. Please feel free to share!

 

I want to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered this morning on the homelands of the Songhees and the Esquimalt Nations and I want to thank Councillor Gary Sam for the Blessing. And I want to thank the Lekwungen singers and dancers for drumming us and singing us into the chambers this morning. This blessing by the Councillor and the dancing and drumming and singing is evidence of the work of reconciliation that we’ve been doing over the past four years, and that we’ll continue to do for the next four years. Reconciliation is hard work, and it’s real work and it manifests in welcoming our friends from the Songhees into the Chambers this morning because we are always already on their land.

I’d also like to thank the outgoing Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer for taking my challenge and writing a poem for us for today; I appreciate that. And Dean Ansley Tucker thank you also for very very inspiring words about the importance of hope, faith and love, and indeed in my remarks this morning some of that will actually be reflected.

On the first day of orientation – so we’ve all been together informally for the last three days, learning about what it means to run a city, what it means to govern – and on the first day of orientation I had some time alone with Council, which I requested, and the first time we sat together I asked the Council, Councillors, each of them, what do you love about the City of Victoria? And we all love what you all love about the City of Victoria.

We love the people who live here, and how the people here are dedicated to making the community better. We love the natural environment. We love our great little neighbourhood streets, and we want to keep them that way. We love our small town becoming a small city. We love our small businesses. We love that our city is human scale, and that it’s easy to get around. We love downtown and we love Chinatown. We love that this is a place where so many people want to call home. And we love the potential. Our job, as a Council, working alongside all of you here today, and alongside those who have never set foot into City Hall, and everyone in between, is to nurture and steward all of these things that we love, at the same time as the city grows and changes.

So that was the introduction, the reminder of my address will be in three parts. The first part is what we will do, the second part is why we will do what we do, and the third part, and really what is most important to me, is how we will do what we do.

There are four key things that we need to do and we all heard this very loud and clear when we were out knocking on doors and listening in the community. The first is to tackle affordability in a meaningful way. We are, as we all heard and we all know, in the midst of an affordability crisis which means this is an opportunity, and indeed a mandate, to act. There are three main approaches to affordability that we’ll take.

The first is housing on all fronts. You will see bold ideas rolling out from this fine group of people behind me and I’d encourage you to question these ideas to make them better and stronger. Ideas like buying land for housing, larger garden suits, movable tiny homes, inclusionary housing policy, creative partnerships with other levels of government and other entities, doing more with the land we already have, co-ops, community land trusts and more.

But secondly, affordability is more than just housing. Affordability means things like affordable childcare for workers and families and that’s something you’re going to see us working on. And affordability also means making transportation more affordable. And the thing that I love, and I think most of Council, or probably all of Council, would agree with is that transit, walking, and cycling are not only low cost, they are also low carbon.

The third approach to affordability is making sure that taxes and fees are affordable so that we’re not asking our residents and our businesses to live beyond their means.

The second big challenge that we have as city, province, country and indeed as a globe, is climate change. Probably many of you in this room read the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – report when it came out midway through the election campaign, and it was a very stark warning to all of us and hopefully a motivational document, not just a warning, that we basically have twelve years as a human society to keep the temperature of the planet from not rising more than 1.5 degrees.

And this, as I said, is a serious warning and a wakeup call. So what does this have to do with Victoria? Cities around the world have a key role to play in terms of addressing climate change and cities contribute fully seventy percent of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Cities around the world are leading and Victoria must lead too. In our city, fifty percent of carbon emissions come from buildings, forty percent comes from transportation, and ten percent comes from waste. So like affordability, we must act boldly.

One of the things I’d encourage you to do is to read the City’s Climate Leadership Plan. Please read it and please join us. One percent of emissions in the city comes from the City’s operations. Ninety-nine percent come from the community. And so in order for us to truly succeed we need your leadership. One of the things I would like to roll out in the new year is a Climate Ambassador Program, where we, you, select one child, one youth, one adult, and one elder from each neighbourhood and they become the neighbourhood Climate Ambassadors, to lead and inspire change on their own streets, schools, and workplaces.

And there’s a real opportunity globally – we’re working with the City of Heidelberg in Germany – to potentially co-create a conference in Heidelberg in May 2019 on climate neighbourhoods. And again, we love our neighbourhoods, our neighbourhoods are the structure of this city and I think if we come together as neighbourhoods with this Climate Ambassador program we are really poised to lead. And with our human scale, compact city with people who care profoundly about the climate and climate justice, we know that now is the time to act.

The number three challenge and opportunity for us here and all of you is to ensure continued prosperity, inclusion, and wellbeing. We are so lucky in Victoria to have such a strong small business community, it is amazing. And the thing about businesses in Victoria that I love is business and community are two sides of the same coin. There’s nothing that divides us. And so we need to build on our current economic strength on our current prosperity, and at the same time as making sure that there is room in the economy for everyone.

And this is why in the past term, and hopefully in this term, the City will continue to play a leadership role in the creation of the Vancouver Island Community Benefit Hub, which really focuses on economic inclusion for marginalized people, as well as why the City will continue to play a role in the South Island Prosperity Project which we were a founding member of in 2016.

And it’s a key reason why the city needs a long-term jobs plan. When we got the five year report on the Official Community Plan from 2012 – 2017 we saw only a 2% increase in jobs, about 1100 jobs. Whereas by 2041 we need to create 10,000 new jobs that will be household sustaining jobs and so that’s one of the things we will be working on in this term. We have also heard from the business community that transportation and affordable housing are their key issues. So if we take care of the first two that I listed, we are also serving the business community and serving the community.

The fourth thing that we need to work on because we have a mandate from you, is a Citizen’s Assembly. People in Victoria and Saanich voted yes to exploring the potential – lots of exploring, lots of potential –  of the amalgamation of the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria and that’s going to be the interesting process for all of us. The Citizen’s Assembly will be a randomly selected group of citizens who will work independently and come together to make a recommendation to their councils.

So very broadly, that is part of the what that we will be doing in the next four years.

But why? Why will we do these things?  Interestingly, because this is the very purpose of local government. Our City Solicitor Tom Zworski read a section of the Community Charter to us, as solicitors do, in our orientation session. He read Section 7 and I’m just going to quote from one portion of it: “The purposes of a municipality include,” and there are four – I’m just going to read one, “Fostering the economic social and environmental wellbeing of its community.”

So our very purpose is to ensure that through everything we do, we’re enhancing community well being. That’s our job. And so, one of the key commitments this term is not only working to enhance wellbeing but also measuring. How are we doing? Are the actions that we are taking actually increasing individual and collective wellbeing?

Now, thankfully we don’t have to invent any measuring tools. The economists and others have been putting their minds to this; for a long time, the only way to measure progress was through measuring the economy. If the economy is doing well, everybody must be doing well. Well, we know that this is not true and so our commitment this term is to measuring wellbeing and ensuring we are making investments through the city’s budget that are actually going to increase peoples wellbeing and connections with each other and with this place.

So that’s the what, and that’s the why but most importantly is how, and the how is most important because if we get this wrong we are going to fail miserably at all of the important work that I already outlined that we need to do.

So how are we going to do this work? There are four things, four ways.

The first is to develop with you and the wider you, who are at work or school or not here today, a four year strategic plan just as we did last time that will clearly outline what you can expect from your Council in the next four years and what we’ll do this term. What I think we probably learned from last term, what we could have done last term (that’s why we have more terms so we can do more things) is to outline very clearly in the plan from its inception, what kind of engagement we’re going to be doing on which topic and how and when and why. And so Council already on Tuesday will be digging into the creation of our four year strategic plan, we’ll roll up our sleeves, we’ll work very hard to see if we can get it right and then in December and January there’s an opportunity for all of you to weigh in to share with us your thoughts and ideas because it’s really important that we get this plan right.

So that’s the first how and there’s an invitation there for you to join us.

Second important how, is really cultivating a sense that we are all in this together. That City Hall and the community have the same interest: to make life better for all of us in the community. And the we – who is this we all in this together? Council, staff residents, business owners, immigrants, refugees, visitors, all of us. And from our point of view here at City Hall, what we need to do, and again this is a lesson learned from last term – we need to look first from the perspective of the community and then from the perspective from City Hall. And we need to value the expertise of our staff – and we have fantastic staff here; I was reminded of this as they all made their presentations to the new council, we have fantastic staff here with a wealth of expertise. We need to value the expertise of staff alongside the expertise that people have from living on Linden street or living in Burnside Gorge or running a business on Wharf Street. When we co-value this expertise, it allows us to co-develop and co-create the city based on shared expertise.

The third how and I think probably you’ll all agree, this is one of the most important ones, is that we really need to restore civility and decorum to public dialogue. And I don’t just mean in election campaigns I mean always. I mean every day. I mean when Council comes out with what might seem like a wacky idea or one of your neighbours says something that you think, “Really?”, that we first always respond with curiosity and generosity. That we give each other, that we give Council, that we give new ideas the benefit of the doubt. That we assume the best of intention and that we show up to a consultation or an engagement session without our minds made up.  And that means all of us [gesturing to Council], as well not only all of you. Because if we cannot do this as a society – and this is not just Victoria, this is around the world – if we cannot do this as a society, we are not going to be able to solve the biggest problems that we have.

Now thankfully you elected an amazing Council and we are already working in this way together. I have to admit I was surprised and delighted that in three short sessions together, we have come up with a Declaration of Principles and Values about how we’re going to work with each other and how we’re going to work with you and even though it hasn’t been officially approved because we haven’t been official until just a few minutes ago, Council has given me permission to share this with you this morning. And I’d like to just stress to you that this document was arrived at through dialogue, deliberation and indeed by consensus.

So the Victoria City Council 2018 – 2022 Declaration of Principles and Values

“In order to create a culture of deep respect, to build the relationships we need to do the work, and to aspire to be our highest selves even when it feels hard and when difficult decisions could stand to divide us, we are committed to:

 

  1. Governing with integrity, transparency and an unwavering dedication to public service.
  2. Welcoming diversity and fostering a spirit of inclusion and equity in everything we do.
  3. Leading with creativity and
  4. Deep listening and critical thinking.
  5. Assuming that everyone is here with good intention to make the community better.
  6. Nurturing a culture of continuous learning with each other, staff and the public.
  7. Working collaboratively and cooperatively with each other, staff and the public while welcoming a diversity of opinion and thought.
  8. Practicing generosity, curiosity and compassion.
  9. Being patient, kind and caring.
  10. Bringing a spirit of open-mindedness and open-heartedness to all of our work.
  11. Keeping a sense of humour and light-heartedness with each other.
  12. Reviewing these principles once a quarter with the same humility, honesty and candour with which we govern.”

So that’s our commitment to each other and that’s our commitment to you and I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to stand in front of a group of people who in a very short time has agreed to this way of working together.

In closing, what do we require from you? We require the benefit of the doubt. We require powerful questions and generous challenges to the ideas we bring forward.  But most of all we require that you continue to be the people of Victoria that we identified at the outset that we love so much: passionate, committed and dedicated to making this place on earth that we all love, better … together … every day.

Thank you so much.

 

Two Key Platform Commitments

Since January Lisa’s been working with a diversity of community members to develop a detailed, future-focussed, community-based, four-year plan. Today, we’re releasing the first two of many platform commitments that will help to make Victoria safe, affordable, and prosperous.

Two Key Platform Commitments

Working with the community and Council, Mayor Helps will:

  1. Lower the default speed limit on all local neighbourhood streets from 50km/h to 30km/h and tactically enforce the new rules.
  2. Expand the city’s garden suite program to allow for larger, family-sized units on any of the 5,600 eligible plus-size lots.

Lowering Default Speed Limit on Residential Neighbourhood Side Streets

For the last two months, Lisa has been meeting with small groups of Victoria residents in their homes in neighbourhoods across the city. These “Kitchen Table Talks,” are hosted by local residents. Neighbours, friends, family, and from around the community are invited to attend and participate in a casual Q & A with Lisa. This direct engagement with the people of Victoria generated many insightful and collaborative solutions to make life in Victoria even better. One key recommendation that came up at almost every gathering was: make our local neighbourhood streets safe for our children!

Currently, the default speed limit on all city streets is 50 km/h unless otherwise listed. This is far too fast. Residential streets are on average far narrower than throughways, often have limited visibility due to street-parked cars and tree cover, and are frequently the site of play for school-aged children.

For these reasons, Mayor Lisa Helps will work collaboratively with City Council, School District SD61, the Provincial Government, the Greater Victoria Integrated Road Safety Unit, and community stakeholders to implement a default speed limit of 30km/h on all local neighbourhood streets. This change would be facilitated by a comprehensive education campaign and tactical enforcement.

This commitment of Lisa’s, like many others, is citizen-led. Many families with whom we spoke were already in the process of working with the city for a lower speed limit on their residential street. Many were already in the process of applying to the City’s “My Great Neighbourhood” grant program to fund “children playing” signs, new speed bumps, and other measures to keep their children safe.

To be clear, this new speed limit would only apply to local neighbourhood side streets, those classified as “local streets” in the City’s road classification system. For more information on the distinction between urban street designations and how they apply to roads safety, please hear here.

This commitment represents a core theme of Lisa’s platform: the actions we take now not only benefit the people currently living in Victoria but they also plan ahead to build a safe, sustainable city for the future — for our children and our children’s children.

Making decisions with the next 10, 20, or 50 years in mind does not mean we need to forego quality of life and well-being now. Rather, the present and the future work in tandem. Victoria’s residents have asked for this now and we will implement it as soon as possible. At the same time, this action will make Victoria’s streets safer for children for generations to come.

Allowing Family-Sized Garden Suites on Victoria’s 5,600 Plus-Size Lots

When Lisa was first elected Mayor of Victoria in 2014, she immediately recognized the great need for new homes in our city. With a rapidly retiring workforce and quickly expanding job market, the city’s previous inaction left the city’s housing market in a precarious position. Families and workers need homes, and housing costs have continued to rise while demand outpaces supply.

At the same time – as we heard loud and clear at kitchen tables around the city – protecting the character of Victoria’s neighbourhoods is of the utmost importance. It’s important to maintain what’s special and unique about Victoria’s neighbourhoods as the city grows.

After Council cut significant red tape from the City’s garden suite process making the approval process significantly quicker (4 weeks instead of one year) and cheaper ($200 instead of $4000), the number of garden suites under development increased rapidly. 22 garden suite units were approved last year alone, compared to only 18 units approved in the last 12 years combined.

Lisa has recognized the effectiveness of this low-impact, citizen-initiated development. There is room for significant growth in this program to accommodate the growing number of young families in Victoria. There are roughly 5600 plus size lots in Victoria that are eligible for garden suite development. Currently, garden suites are restricted to one-bedroom designation, but with Lisa’s proposed changes to the zoning process, plus-size lots would be eligible for multi-bedroom garden suites for families.

Wesley MacInnis
Communications Director
Lisa Helps for Victoria Mayor 2018
wesley@lisahelpsvictoria.ca

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

ImRight_Cat4inNEW2.jpg

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

IMG_6322.jpeg
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.

IMG_3010

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

IMG_2994
Thousands of people cross the bridge together as a community for
the first time after the ribbon is cut.

 

IMG_2983
The Island Chef’s Collaborative providing fresh snacks.

 

IMG_2818
Celebrating with a picnic lunch on the deck of Old Blue.

 

IMG_2803[1]
The Greater Victoria Placemaking Network in action, gathering people’s favourite memories of Old Blue.

 

IMG_2809[1]
A blue bridge mask-making table saw hundreds of kids go home
with a homemade momento of Old Blue.

 

IMG_2978
Two adorable kids who had just been to the mask-making table.

 

 

Why I’m Quitting Facebook

unnamed

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.

 

 

 

 

 

2018: Here’s to Civil Public Dialogue, and a Posture of Hope

Think Before You Speak
Poster by Julian Gibbs-Pearce, Grade 5

I’ve decided to run for Mayor for one more term. In the past three years we’ve accomplished almost everything in my 2014 platform. In addition to lots of doing, we’ve created detailed, forward-looking plans that I’d like to see through to implementation. These include:

But in the meantime, long before beginning a campaign for re-election sometime in the summer, I need your help with a more pressing issue: I need your help in restoring civility to public dialogue – especially about big changes, new ideas, experimental pilot projects, and bold innovations.

When asked in a year-end interview by a Times Colonist reporter what I thought was the biggest issue facing Victoria, I didn’t say affordable housing, lack of high-speed transit from downtown to the west shore, or preparing as a coastal city for a rapidly changing climate. There’s a bigger challenge that threatens us: we’ve forgotten how to have hard conversations, to really listen to each other, to allow each other the space to speak, without quickly deteriorating into name-calling, accusations, and dividing our community into “us” and “them.” This is hurting us all.

In order to meet some of the big challenges facing Victoria and all other 21st century cities – globalization, population growth, increased cyber-connectivity, income inequality, loss of biodiversity, climate change – we need to be able to talk about solutions with clear minds and open hearts. We need to engage in what Michel Foucault calls “ethical dialogue” which means we need to listen to and understand other perspectives and to be willing to be changed by what we hear.

I feel that what’s happened in the last few years, in particular on social media – but also increasingly in the real world – is that we vehemently agree or disagree with something before looking at the whole picture, seeing a wider perspective. And because we’ve staked a public claim in a Facebook post or a Tweet, we feel that we can’t back down from our positions, we become rooted in our conclusions – which we may have jumped to with only a fragment of information.

This posturing paralyzes us as a civil society, it impoverishes our public dialogue and it ultimately tears us apart from each other as members of a shared community. It also keeps us further away from addressing the challenges I outlined above.

In The Well-Tempered City, Jonathan F.P. Rose makes a compelling case for diversity. “For an ecosystem to thrive,” he writes, “it must be sufficiently diverse, providing opportunities for multiple connections … If the elements of a system are too similar, something ecologists call ‘limiting similarity’, the variety of its interconnections is reduced, and it becomes more vulnerable to stress and volatility. Just as a healthy ecosystem integrates diversity into coherence, so too must a healthy urban metabolism.”

Affordable housing, bike lanes, downtown development, parking, transit, public art – there is a diversity of thought in our community on these important issues.

The coherence part is easy, we all ultimately 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, to know that our children will have good futures, to have a general sense of well-being. And as humans, we’re hard-wired to want the same things for others. No one wakes up and says, “I want to do everything I can to make my life and my community worse today.”

It’s how we communicate our different perspectives that seems so hard sometimes. But what if we were to take a deep breath before pressing “Post”, or getting up to speak at a public hearing at City Hall, or making comments at the Council table or to the media. What if we were to take a deep breath during political conversations around the dinner table or at the pub.

And what if during that breath we were to ask: Is what I’m going to say True, is it Helpful, is it Inspiring, is it Necessary, is it Kind? This wisdom comes from the son of a friend of mine, “THINK before you speak”, his poster for school (pictured above) said. My pledge for 2018 is to try to practice this. I’d like to invite you to do the same.

Why? Because it will make us stronger and more resilient as a community that shares this 20 square km slice of paradise here in Lewkwungen Territory on southern Vancouver Island. Because it will make room for complexity and wholeness. But most of all because it’s necessary if we want to build a prosperous, sustainable, affordable and smart city – our future literally depends on our ability to listen to each other better. We must move beyond cynicism and division in order to meet the many challenges we face.

In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, “Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

Here’s to a hope-filled 2018 and to public dialogue that enriches us as individuals and as a community.

 

 

 

Help us develop one possible solution to the rental crisis

victims

In Victoria in the 1940s during WWII, Times Colonist headlines urged Victorians to open their homes and “Billet Homeless War Workers.” Victorians responded to the crisis and opened their homes to strangers recently relocated to Victoria to help the local war effort. They didn’t call it the “sharing economy”, they didn’t charge anything, they just opened up their spare bedrooms and invited strangers in.

Now we have a different crisis on our doorstep. For thirty years (1982-2012) there were no new purpose built rental buildings built in Victoria. And, in the last five years, nearly 6000 people have moved into the city. We’re facing a rental crisis. What if Victorians responded in the same way to this crisis? What if there was a way to connect people living in vehicles, in motel rooms, on couches, with seniors living in large houses all alone, with retirees with an extra bedroom, or even with families with large houses and extra rooms. Unthinkable? Victorians stepped up to help out their neighbours in the past.

Interested in exploring the idea further? I’m working with a group of citizens and businesses to develop one possible solution. We need three people currently living in vehicles, on couches, in woodsheds (yes I have heard that this is true in more than one case) AND three people who might be willing to open their homes.

We’d like these six people to join us for a short focus group session. There is no commitment required other than sharing ideas. We want to build a solution for the people who will use it – for those looking for a place to stay until the rental crisis subsides and for those wiling to billet someone.

Please email mayor@victoria.ca if you’d like to help us out. And please share this post! To read more on the current rental crisis and its causes please head here.

We stand together in love, against Islamophobia

imamspeaking1Thousands gathered today on the steps of Victoria City Hall and into the street to come together in solidarity with Victoria’s Muslim community after the horrific events in Quebec City on Sunday evening.

Ismail Mohamed Nur, the imam for Victoria’s Masjid Al-Iman mosque spoke courageously about the rise of Islamophobia around the world and in Canada. He said, “We live in a time when people try so very hard to divide us, but it only brings us closer and makes us stronger.” CHEK News covers his moving remarks.

To our Muslim friends, neighbours, sisters and brothers: We love you. We support you. We stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with you. You belong here. We are your community. And now, more than ever, it is important to stand here together, to say this and affirm this publicly, loudly and clearly.

screenshot-2017-01-31-19-24-38

In these uncertain times with the volatility that is happening in the United States, in Canada and around the world and with the rise of Islamophobia which Imam Ishmail spoke so courageously about today, we all have a big responsibility. Yes we can protest. And that is important. But we can and must also take a lesson from those at Standing Rock North Dakota who have declared that they are not protestors, they are protectors.

We have a responsibility, each of us, to protect our democracy, to protect our community and the values of difference, diversity and inclusiveness that define us.

But most of all, in these uncertain times, the most important thing we can do, the greatest responsibility we have is to treat each other with kindness and love each other well even when, and especially when it feels hard.

For those of you who asked at today’s gathering, “What’s next?” Here’s one workshop,
Anti-Racism & Anti-Hate Initiatives – Supporting the Integration of Refugees in Our Communities coming up that is now open for registration. There will be more opportunities to get involved, take action, and move from standing on the steps at City Hall to continued solidarity and connection building. Stay tuned here and on my Facebook page and I’ll share information as it is shared with me.

Thank you Victoria.

Local News Coverage of Today’s Gathering
I have proof my community loves me, says Muslim solidarity rally participant
– CBC.ca
Victoria sends Muslims message of hope with vigil at city hall – Times Colonist
Victoria holds public vigil in honour of Quebec mosque victims – CTV News
Thousands at Victoria vigil after mosque shooting – Globalnews.ca
Thousands show support for Victoria’s Muslim community – CHEK News

 

Inspired Community Conversation

My office was jam packed last Friday. Over the course of the two-hour Community Drop In about 40 people came through. Most stayed for the whole time. I was wowed, as I have been since I started doing these drop ins, by the wisdom, compassion, generosity and hard work of Victorians.

Here’s how it goes: People pile in, pour themselves a cup of coffee or tea, slap on a name tag and find a seat. First thing I do is ask, “What’s the agenda?” the agenda is set by the people who come.

Everyone introduces themselves and says why they came, then we go through the agenda. I keep things moving so every topic gets covered. I track action items so nothing gets dropped and I can do the follow up work I say I’ll do. People share ideas and ways to get connected on the whiteboard.

At 1pm promptly I run off to wherever I’m going next and people stay as long as they need to exchange information and connect with each other.

Some Highlights from Last Friday’s Community Drop In

A Pedestrian Mall is Not A Closed Street
There has been much talk about Government Street lately. Much of the talk has been about storefront vacancies and closing it to cars. The discussion on Friday was not about closing Government Street, but rather, about opening it up. Members from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and Walk On Victoria talked about their plans to work with the Downtown Victoria Business Association and Government Street Merchants to ‘place make’ Government Street. To open it up to more people this summer. I said that I’d be happy to help move their proposal forward once it is developed, with input from everyone affected.

Homeless in a Park
A woman came to talk with me about how distressed she was by homeless people sleeping in a park near her house. And the people there who were homeless said they were distressed because they had nowhere safe to sleep. No one even had to connect the dots. She spoke. Then they spoke. And a hush fell over the rest of us as they quickly developed a shared understanding that they had a common problem.

Then the generous and wise group set to work coming up with solutions. Someone from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network suggested engaging the Reserve Constables from the Police Department – who just had some training in this regard – to convene a conversation between the nearby homeowners and the people camping in the park to find some shared solutions. I said I’d make sure everyone gets connected. Someone else suggested that maybe City Hall needs to designate a permanent place for people to camp and provide facilities. I said I’d raise this with Council. Ben Isitt has also proposed this. One of the people who is currently homeless said it’s really hard if you’re sick and you just want to stay in bed and get well and you have to take your tent down at 7am. A third person – a homeless veteran – suggested that the armouries could easily sleep 350 people and that they should be asked to open their doors.

Small Business Struggles
A young entrepreneur wants to open a restaurant. He came just to let me know about the struggles he’s having, especially because rents are so high. The place he was looking at is 800 square feet. The base rent is $35 per square foot. The triple net (which a commercial landlord in attendance explained to the group was “all expenses related to the building, including property taxes”) is $17 per square foot, $11 of which is for property taxes. That’s more than he can afford to get his business off the ground. Everyone jumped in with names of building owners he could talk with, and ideas about how to help young start ups, including checking out the Young Entrepreneurs Society. Prosperity through Economic Development is one of the proposed objectives for Council’s Strategic Plan and is something that I would like to lead.

The Oath I Never Took
The final moment of the inspired conversation was when a First Nations woman, who had sat quietly for the most part stood up at the end to present a shawl to me that she had made. She had made it to thank me for not taking an Oath to the Queen but rather for focusing my efforts and attention on the people, and on her people. She explained that the design is a beaver with a rising sun. Her uncle said to her, “But a beaver is not a symbol for our people.”

She said she knew at that moment, when her uncle said this, that she was making the shawl for me – the beaver is a symbol of Canada, the sun, a symbol of her people, the First Nations and Canada working towards reconciliation. She said she had faith in me, that I have the courage that it takes to make the changes that are needed. There was no longer a dry eye in the room.

Join Us
I hold these Community Conversations every two weeks. Different people come every time. The schedule is here. When I started them in January I had no idea what would happen. Community is happening. Connection is happening. Happiness and belonging and the road to prosperity are happening. People are coming together, and leaving with more than they came with whether it’s a new connection, a new idea or a commitment to take some kind of action, big or small, that will make Victoria better.