What’s Next in the City of Victoria – COVID-19

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We know Victorians are feeling anxious about the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. As a city government, we are too. We want to do everything we can to protect Victorian’s health and well being. That’s why we’re relying on the advice of Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer and Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer to guide our actions.

We’ve received calls today to close recreation centres, libraries, restaurants, schools, casinos, to stop the Clipper and Coho coming from Washington State, to mandate and monitor social distancing. Some of these things we as a city government have power over, many of them we don’t. We need to act rationally, calmly and thoughtfully and to ensure there are no unintended consequences to our actions. We also need to take time to put in place proactive measures to take care of our most vulnerable residents and find ways to keep people connected even as we all practicing social distancing.

Tomorrow morning, the federal government will be giving an update at 10am and the provincial government will give an update at 11am. We hope that both levels of government will give clear direction and take all the necessary measures to #flattenthecurve After receiving the advice of the federal and provincial officials, we will keep Victorians up to date on any new proposed actions, directives or requirements here on the City’s website.

 

 

Our Local Businesses Need Us: Let’s Show Them Our Love

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NB We have received new information from the federal and provincial health authorities since this was posted originally on Saturday afternoon. Extraordinary social distancing measures should be put in place. The Prime Minister is encouraging people to stay home if possible to help flatten the curve.  Instead of visiting your favourite restaurant right now, considering buying a gift card (this can often be done on line) to help them through a cash flow crunch right now so they’ll be here for the long term.

NB This post was written after the update from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Medical Health Officer at noon on Saturday. Her next update is at 10am Monday. We can adjust our behaviours then as needed according to her advice.

The City of Victoria has been following all the health protocols required by the Provincial government and keeping our residents up to date by email, website and social media. We hope that all Victorians are following the advice of Dr. Bonnie Henry to keep themselves, their families and our communities healthy. She’s calm, measured and thoughtful.

We know that in addition to worrying about the health of themselves and their employees, some of our small local businesses are starting to worry about their survival. We’re already seeing a massive slow down in visitors to Victoria. People aren’t traveling, conferences have been postponed, and the cruise season is delayed until July 1st at the earliest, taking another swath of potential customers away.

I’m starting to get emails from small businesses. I got this one just now:

“I am hearing a great deal in the media about the growing fear among the public.  This is despite the fact that there are currently no health advisories against participating in many of the tourist activities in Greater Victoria—only those of gatherings of greater than 200 people.  Yet, we are seeing the public reacting with fear and making irrational decisions, such as not patronizing local businesses or cancelling existing bookings for activities.

“What I am not hearing is any of our government officials or local community leaders using their voices to help calm those fears and encouraging individuals and local businesses to support one another in order to help us all weather this storm—particularly in light of the profoundly negative impact decisions, such as cancelling cruise ships, is having on the local tourism industry.”

Let’s support this business owner and others through these hard times. Let’s eat out. Let’s drink some great local beer. Let’s stop buying online. Let’s shop local. Heck, let’s even do some of our holiday shopping now, really, really early.

As a city government, we want to provide as much certainty and hope as we can to our small business owners. That’s why Councillor Loveday and I are bringing an emergency motion to Council this Thursday asking staff to “examine all of the City’s fiscal, legislative and legal powers to support small businesses and jobs, arts and culture, and the visitor economy in order sustain the local economy during the pandemic and recover stronger and more resilient than before.”

For sure, senior levels of government have more tools at their disposal to support jobs and workers and we will continue to advocate to and partner with them. However, it is also incumbent on local governments to take action to support our local economies. There may be small things the City can do – or not do – to stimulate and sustain the local economy so that we can prepare for economic recovery in a sustainable and resilient way.

While we’re debating these issues and looking for solutions at City Hall, I hope we see Victorians out in the city, enjoying all of the wonderful experiences our small businesses have to offer – of course practicing the social distancing that Dr. Henry recommends. Now’s the time to show them our love.

Victoria 3.0 – Pivoting to a Higher Value Economy – 2020-2041

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Expedition leader Adrian Round (left) and ocean operations staff member Jonathan Miller carefully monitor remotely operated vehicle operations on the seafloor more than 2 km below the vessel. Photo by Ed McNichol. Ocean Networks Canada

Today the City of Victoria released Victoria 3.0, an economic action plan that accompanies the City’s Official Community Plan to 2041. It’s a long-term plan and vision for a sustainable, growing city that will create high-value jobs now and for the future. The vision of Victoria 3.0 is that as the Capital City, Victoria is future-ready and globally-fluent. We use our status as a small powerhouse to build a high-value economy that meets our needs now and anticipates the future.

This action plan was developed based on the input of residents and business owners who participated in the fall economic roundtable sessions hosted by myself and city staff. And it has been shaped by the latest research and thinking in 21st century city building and economics.

We are making this plan now in order to:

  •       Stimulate and support innovation
  •       Build on the economic stability offered by our  public sector employment base
  •       Diversify our economy
  •       Respond to the big changes that will have an impact on sustainable economic
    growth, including automation and climate change

What if we told, and sold, a compelling story of Victoria’s high-tech sector nationally and globally? What if we had a large area of our downtown dedicated to innovation and we were solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, creating high-value jobs at the same time? What if we were globally recognized for pioneering solutions in the ocean and marine sector? What if we turned the Victoria Conference Centre into a facility that can hold more and larger conferences and also developed its international reputation?

And what if by 2030 everyone working in Victoria were making a living wage, not because this was mandated by any level of government, but because of an increase in high-value jobs and a strong, inclusive high-value economy.

Victoria 3.0 answers these questions with a resounding, “Yes!” and with a series of clear actions that the City and its partners will undertake over the next two decades to achieve these objectives.

A high-value economy has a diversity of household sustaining jobs available in a range of sectors, and the skills and training available for those jobs to be filled. It’s an innovative economy that develops solutions to pressing local and global challenges, sells these solutions globally, and brings the money back to Victoria. Developing this kind of economy will enable Victoria companies to attract talent from around the world to fill the high-value jobs being created, drawing a wealth of experience and diversity to the city.

Victoria 3.0 also takes seriously the reality of our existing small businesses. We heard from roundtable participants that some of our small retail businesses and restaurants have begun to struggle. In response, a whole section of the plan is dedicated to addressing their needs – from mitigating the impacts of city construction projects on business operations, to creating a Downtown Ambassador program to increase a sense of safety and welcoming in the downtown for all. Small businesses are key to providing the amenity-rich lifestyle that will help Victoria to attract and retain the workforce of the future.  

In addition to actions that the City can take to continue to support small business, Victoria 3.0 lays out a few big moves.

One is to establish an Innovation District in the north end of downtown. An Innovation District is a hub of cross-sector collaboration, a place where ideas are commercialized (turned into products and services), and where new high-value jobs are created. The vision of the Innovation District is to honour the current industrial land uses and to build for the 22nd century.

A second is to create an Ocean Futures Cluster. A significant and under-realized opportunity for Victoria is our location as a coastal and island community on the Pacific Ocean. Victoria is close to the shipping gateway to Asia-Pacific markets and a critical transit point to the Arctic Ocean.

The Ocean Futures Cluster and Marine Innovation Hub takes advantage of our geographic location and combines the region’s significant and emerging strengths in marine and maritime industries, ocean science, technology and environmental innovation. This will enhance the competitiveness of our region and of British Columbia in the global marketplace.

Taken together these big moves and others lay the groundwork for a strong, future-focussed economy in the city and in the region. If you’d like to learn more and provide input on the plan by January 30, please head here.

Victoria 3.0 is the work of many hands. And it will take many more hands, working together, to bring this plan to life over the next two decades.

 

Affordable Housing: Watershed Moment of Community Support

These are my closing comments from the public hearing for Fire Hall #1 and Affordable Housing.

Something really remarkable happened at our City Council meeting last week. Or rather, it’s what didn’t happen that is remarkable and it gives me hope for the future of affordable housing developments in our city.

Last Thursday we held a public hearing for a new fire hall, 130 units of affordable housing for people living on very low, low, and moderate incomes to be run by Pacifica Housing and three additional market condo buildings. The proposed development borders Yates, Johnson and Cook.

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New Fire Hall #1, commercial space and 130 units of affordable housing on Johnson up from Cook.

The Council Chambers were packed. For some, it was a controversial development proposal because of the substantial amount of new density and height proposed on what is now a parking lot and one-story car dealership.

But the remarkable thing is that it wasn’t controversial because of the proposed affordable housing. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From Pacifica tenants, to business people, to students, to neighbours, person after person came up to the microphone and talked about how much needed this affordable housing is and how Council should support it.

It was only about halfway through the hearing that I realized something really special was happening. At every other public hearing we’ve held on new proposed affordable housing developments, there are people who come out and express their opposition precisely because of the affordable housing.

“We don’t need more housing of that kind in this neighbourhood.” “The crime in the neighbourhood is going to go up.” “This is a family neighbourhood.” And once, someone came and insinuated that all poor people are pedophiles and that there shouldn’t be affordable housing overlooking an elementary school. It’s gotten pretty nasty.

But last Thursday there was no discrimination expressed towards low-income people who need housing. Why was it different this time?

It could be because we’re starting to realize as a community that it’s good for everyone if people have the housing they need. There are at least 300 people sleeping outside in our city every night. And this is even with some of the seasonal shelters starting to open.

When people live outside they are vulnerable, get sick more easily, die younger, and have a terrible quality of life – not to mention the stigma and ill-will they face as people walk past them taking down their tents in the morning, or sitting with all their belongings on the sidewalk with nowhere to go. It’s good for all of us if people get the housing they need.

The other thing that was different, as was pointed out by one of the speakers, is the unique three-way partnership between a private sector developer, BC Housing, and Pacifica Housing. The developer is building the building. BC Housing is buying it. And Pacifica will own and operate it. So maybe the fact that all the parties are delivering the project together, based on their own unique expertise makes this different than a non-profit housing provider going it alone.

It was a watershed moment. And I hope we turned a page as a community that evening in terms of how we think about and talk about affordable housing, because there’s a lot more affordable housing to come. The Regional Housing First Program still has 1100 more units to build. The City of Victoria is buying land to partner to build housing. And the provincial government will be rolling out more money for housing in the spring.

All this housing is a good thing. One of the most poignant presenters at the hearing on Thursday was the Housing Placement Coordinator at Pacifica Housing. She told us that there are over 300 people on her wait list, that every day she has to say no to someone, and it’s heartbreaking. “This building,” she said, “is 130 yeses to the people on my wait list.”

Victoria joins U.N. Challenge with 5,000 Tree Pledge

Today in New York City, I participated in the launch of the United Nations Trees in Cities Challenge hosted by the U.N. Executive Secretary, Under-Secretary-General Olga Algayerova.

As part of this initiative, the City of Victoria will work with the community to plant 5,000 trees on public and private land by the end of 2020. Victoria is the first city in Canada to join the pledge.

We know there is a climate crisis and we’re committed to doing everything we can as a City to mitigate the impacts. Participating in this U.N. Trees in Cities Challenge allows Victoria to join in a global movement of cites that are embracing nature based solutions to climate change. City staff are currently designing ways in which we can harness the power of our community to meet this goal.

Algayerova wrote to me in the summer; somehow she had heard about Victoria’s Urban Forest Master Plan and our renewed commitment to the urban forest in the City’s 2019 budget. “I believe there is a lot we can learn from the progress your city has already achieved in this area,” she wrote, “and I would like to help you share this achievement with other cities and allow them to learn from it.”

The City’s Urban Forest Master Plan identifies 26 recommended actions for the improved management of trees on public and private lands over the next 50 years. A new investment of $1 million annually will expedite implementation of the Urban Forest Master Plan, to maintain the trees we have and to plant new trees. In 2019, a total of nearly $3 million will go to maintain and enhance the urban forest.

The wonderful and dedicated folks at the Community Trees Matter Network are exctied about the City’s commitment at the United Nations.

“We hope all Victorians are proud of our city’s leadership on the urban forest and we are delighted the City has accepted this challenge,” said Frances Litman, a spokesperson for Community Trees Matter Network. “Since three-quarters of our urban forest is on private land, we will certainly do all we can to spread the word and encourage homeowners to plant trees. Planting season is coming up soon – late fall is a great time to plant trees in Victoria!”

Trees are a critically important community asset providing a wide range of benefits, from positive mental health impacts, to environmental attributes such as regulating temperature, mitigating stormwater runoff, and providing wildlife habitat. The value of the urban forest will continue as the city adapts to climate change.

Planting more trees in urban areas holds a considerable potential to tackle effects of climate change. The United Nations has invited mayors around the world to join the Trees in Cities Challenge by making a pledge to plant trees in their city.

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Shaking hands with Under Secretary General Olga Algayerova at the announcement in New York today.

 

 

Victoria is a City that Looks to the Future

This blog post is short. The real meat is in this video. Please watch it!

Last Thursday evening, City Council held a public hearing for a 20-unit townhouse development at 1712 and 1720 Fairfield Road. Many people who live in the neighbourhood spoke with Council and shared their perspectives on the project. While more people were in favour than against, it was not only the opinions of the people who came out to speak that I considered when making my decision, but also what kind of city we want to be.

I believe that Victoria needs to be a city that looks to the future, readies itself for the future and builds for the future. In order to do this, we need to make sure that there’s housing for all. As you can see from the changing skyline in the downtown, there are lots of rental and condo buildings under construction, but what’s missing is the “missing middle.”

Missing middle housing is everything between single family housing and high-rises. It includes townhouses, row houses, multiplexes, garden suites, co-housing and probably more. Missing middle housing isn’t just an issue in Victoria, it’s a North America wide phenomenon.

As we learned at the public hearing from project proponent Luke Mari of Aryze Developments, less than five per cent of the city’s housing is townhouses. And in the Gonzales neighbourhood where his development was proposed, less than 0.8% of homes are townhouses, even though the neighbourhood accounts for nine per cent of the City’s land base.

Those are the facts. But it’s the stories beyond the facts that we need to listen to to shape the future of our city. We heard that night from people who were making enough money to buy a townhouse but simply couldn’t find one. So they’re renting and taking up a rental unit that someone who can’t afford to buy a home could move into. We heard stories of people leaving the city for the suburbs because their families are growing and they can’t find homes with enough bedrooms. And most moving of all, were the stories of parents whose children are leaving the region altogether and won’t be able to come over for Sunday dinner anymore.

As I said that night, I believe that Victoria is a place where everyone deserves a good job, a good home, and a sustainable community. The way we’ve been building the city – and the way cities across North America have been built for the past 100 years – is not sustainable. I’m so proud of Council for approving these 20 townhouses and signalling that we are a city – and that we are a Council – who looks to the future.

If you’d like to watch the full hearing and listen to the public and councillor comments, please head here and click on item F3.

For those who want to dig in more deeply, here’s a great article on exclusionary zoning and the need for missing middle housing in Seattle.

 

Ambrose Place: Love and Decolonizing Housing, Health and Wellness

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I had an incredible experience earlier this week that I’m really excited to share. I was in a situation where I was expecting one thing and something completely different happened. In the space between expectation and experience, there was inspiration, love and great deal of learning.

I was invited by Fran Hunt-Jinnochi, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, to tour Ambrose Place in Edmonton. She invited a dozen of us from Vancouver Island to join her to learn about the Indigenous-informed, culturally supportive housing site which includes a managed alcohol program. She wants to start a similar program on Vancouver Island, hopefully in the capital region, and she invited us to learn and to witness.

I was expecting a conventional facility tour and a series of PowerPoint presentations with governance models and funding charts. Instead, we began on Monday evening in circle with a local elder. He shared his songs with us and spoke for three hours about the importance of connection to one’s own spirit. “Human and spirit,” he said over again in many different ways as the sage burned and the day faded to night.

Tuesday, we learned about love and how a decolonizing approach to “harm reduction” works. Carola Cunningham, the CEO and founder of Ambrose Place said about the residents, “We just keep loving them. We’re all related.” Her staff who were there to share their experiences, echoed this. A staff member shared a story of a resident who told her that he was almost 50 years old and no one had ever told him they loved him. So now every day, at the end of their one-on-one meeting she says, “I love you.”

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Another staff member recounted her experience working at a hospital before coming to Ambrose Place. “The thing I love about working here is that we love our residents. When I worked at the hospital you weren’t allowed to love your patients. Here we are allowed to love them.” Another staff member told us that when she started working at Ambrose Place she had to get used to residents hugging her.

This tenderness, this Indigenous-centred, love-based approach continues through to end-of-life care. Ambrose Place was not originally set up for palliative care. Early on, one of the residents very close to death had gone to the hospital. He wanted to come home to die but they weren’t prepared. After he passed, Carola was determined that people should be able to die at home. And – just like much else that happens at Ambrose place – Carola made it so. “Now we do palliative care,” she said. “And we love people through to the spirit world.”

“In the regular system, at the hospital,” one of the staff members said, “when there’s a death and you cry, you’re seen as weak. Here we’re told, ‘Cry, let it out, tears are medicine.’ We accept our residents where they’re at. As staff we’re also accepted where we’re at.”

The longer people stay at Ambrose place, the more opportunity they have for sobriety, the closer their trauma comes to the surface. The residents work through their trauma in ceremony, in circle, and with an “Elders Review” – a practice where they walk through their lives chronologically with an elder and decide which parts they are ready to work on. What’s truly moving is that the trauma work doesn’t stop with the residents. Carola has created a social enterprise catering service and she uses the money to reinvest in trauma support for her staff.

Ambrose Place is remarkable. And it’s working. As it turns out, love and a decolonizing approach are saving the Alberta government a lot of money. In the first two years they were open, they saved $7 million in health care costs. Their residents have reduced their hospital days by about 90%. There has been a significant decrease in mental health and addictions emergency room visits. And this takes only health care into consideration. There’s currently a study underway to quantify the savings in policing and the justice system.

Niginan Housing Ventures, which runs Ambrose Place, has big plans for what’s next. Ninety-three percent of kids in care in Alberta are Indigenous. So Niginan is going to create a building for kids and parents together. Instead of removing the kids from their parents, they’ll remove the parents – but only to another part of the building. They’ll have “kookums” (grandmothers) and elders around to care for and love the children as well. By keeping everyone under one roof, they’ll ensure that the kids stay connected to their parents until the parents are ready to move back into a suite with their children.

A disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria are Indigenous. A disproportionate number of Indigenous children are in care in this country. Conventional approaches are not working to address these issues and are likely just making them worse. My key takeaway ­– and my reflection to the group in our closing circle – is that the decolonizing practices and loving ways of Ambrose Place have the power to transform the whole health and housing system, if only we are open to new ways of knowing.

 

Cecelia Ravine Playground Grand Opening and How Parks Make Healthy Cities

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All photos provided by Derek Ford of Derek Ford Studios

Last Saturday I was so happy to stand with members of the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood and city staff as we officially opened the expanded park and new playground. It’s an amazing place and it’s been a long-time coming. A park is more than just a park – it’s critically important well-being infrastructure that helps to build a healthy city.

In 2009, the City of Victoria sold the Ellis Street Park in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood to make way for the Rock Bay Shelter. At that point, Council made a commitment to use the funds from the sale to create a new park in the neighbourhood. In 2016, the City purchased the land where the new playground is now sited, with the funds held in reserve. The purchase of the property expanded the Cecelia Ravine Park to just over four hectares.

As soon as we bought the land, city staff began work with neighbourhood residents to design the park. I love that the park you see today was literally designed around the needs of the neighbourhood. One of the most important elements requested by the neighbourhood was an accessible connection from the Galloping Goose trail right up to the park. This allows access to the park from a highly used active transportation route.

In response to requests from neighbourhood residents and the creativity of our staff (while staying within the budget that Council allocated for the project) we now have:

  • A larger, more accessible, playground
  • Community gathering areas and open green space
  • Outdoor fitness equipment
  • Enhanced furnishings, including bike racks, shade structure, pathway lighting, and seating
  • A new public washroom
  • An accessible pathway connecting the park to the Galloping Goose Regional Trail
  • 21 new trees!

It’s a beautiful park and playground as you can see in the photographs. But it’s much more than this. In her groundbreaking 2017 report, “Designing Healthy Living,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer writes that, “We do not yet know how to quantify the extent to which the built environment affects healthy living, but we know enough to say with confidence that neighbourhoods that are built with health in mind are important for making healthy choices the easiest choices.” She also points to emerging research that makes a connection between the built environment and mental health and wellness.

Burnside Gorge is one of the most diverse and lowest income neighbourhoods in the city. The new park provides fitness equipment for adults who may not have extra money for a gym membership. There’s the gorgeous playground and lots of space for kids to run and play. It’s connected to a bike path so you can get there safely without the expense of a car. And it’s got an accessible picnic area and play equipment so people using wheelchairs can also have easy access. There’s also lots of green space to gather, dwell, and connect. And when those 21 trees grow up there will be lots of shady spaces to take refuge on hot days.

Parents I spoke with at the opening said they were proud to have the best playground in the city in their neighbourhood. I was moved close to tears during my opening remarks by the overwhelming joy and the deep gratitude of the parents and kids in attendance. I am proud to be mayor of a city that is helping to create health, well-being and inclusivity as we continue to build the city.

More photos from the park opening.

Climate Action, Active Healthy Transportation, and the Heidelberg Challenge

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Heidelberg where I attended ICCA 2019, an international conference on Collaborative Climate Action. The conference focused on the role of cities in the lead up to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Climate Action Summit in New York this September. It was an honour to have been invited to Heidelberg to help shape the global conversation on cities and collaborative climate action.

Over 700 people from 90 countries attended the conference. It was heartening to learn that from Kenya to Sweden, from China to California, cities are taking climate action. Cities are ready to be strong partners to provincial and federal governments and can help federal governments meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. But, in order to do so, cities need more resources and more delegated authority from national and provincial governments. This is the key message from the conference that will be forwarded to the UN Climate Action Summit in September.

Another theme from the conference is the need for creative transportation solutions to decrease emissions in cities. Mauro Petrcionne, European Director General for Climate Action, was asked to sum up what he heard at the Mayors breakfast meeting, at which I was a panelist. He said that many people see individual cars as linked to individual rights. “Will we abolish this perception,” he asked. “No, but we can adjust it. In order to do so, we need to rethink the way our cities are organized.”

Petrcionne observed that if people are asked to choose what matters most, the end of the world or the end of the month, they will choose the end of the month ­– their own interests and survival – believing that someone else will take care of the end of the world. The advice he gave us was to avoid putting people in the position of making that choice; create climate solutions that also benefit people’s pocketbooks and their health and well-being.

Heidelberg is one city we can learn from when it comes to matching individual interests and quality of life with addressing the climate crisis. And they’ve done this by focussing on how people move around.

Heidelberg is currently where Victoria needs to be by 2030. Victoria’s Climate Leadership Plan aims, by 2030, to have 55% of trips made by walking and cycling (we are currently at 39%) and 25% of trips by transit (currently at 12%). This means that by 2030 only 20% of people will get around using a car. Sound impossible? Today in Heidelberg, only 22% of trips are made by car. Fully 38% are made on foot, 26% by bicycle and 14% by public transit.

They’ve achieved this by organizing the city around active and healthy modes of transportation. Almost every main street has as much space dedicated to transit, walking and cycling as it does to private vehicles. Walking and cycling are privileged. There are many pedestrian-only zones. And cyclists are allowed to ride both ways down one-way streets making them de facto bike streets; cars have to go slowly and yield to bikes going in both directions.

Side streets are narrow and have a maximum speed limit of 30km/h. I visited a brand new passive house neighbourhood (where all buildings are zero emissions) and the new streets there are as narrow as the streets in the 800-year-old city centre.

“Why did they make these new streets so narrow,” I asked former mayor of Heidelberg, Beate Weber-Schuerholz, who was kind enough to show me around. She replied, seemingly surprised by my question, “To limit cars so that children can walk safely to school of course.”

In Heidelberg it’s not bikes versus cars versus buses. It’s about the freedom for kids to get to school safely on foot, and for seniors to stay connected to their communities. The city is organized for better health outcomes, more money in people’s pockets and a stronger local economy. Heidelberg is alive, prosperous and thriving and their streets are for sharing.

Can we join them? This is the Heidelberg Challenge. Let’s step up our ambition as a community and work to overtake Heidelberg long before 2030. Will you join me? It doesn’t mean necessarily ditching your car (although car sharing is cheaper and gives more options) – it just means thinking differently about what it’s for and when you use it. And it means continuing to build a city that puts people first.

This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist here.

The Future of Government Street and Other People Places

IMG_4979.jpgPhoto taken standing on the edge of the Hauptstrauss (highstreet) in the centre of town, Heidelberg Germany. 5:15pm on a Thursday evening.

I’ve recently returned from trip to Heidelberg where I attended ICCA 2019, an international conference on Collaborative Climate Action. The conference focused on the role of cities and was a key step in the lead up to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York this September. It was an honour to have been invited to help shape the global conversation on cities and collaborative climate action. I learned a lot and will spend the next few blog posts sharing.

In addition to attending the conference, I had an opportunity to study the city while I was there. I made a particular study of the town square and the streets surrounding it. I did this both during early morning runs and in the late afternoon sunshine – between the conference ending and dinner meetings. And, if I squinted hard, I could see the future of Government Street and maybe the rest of old town too.

Cars aren’t banned from the area. It’s just that they aren’t the priority – people are. It was remarkable to see people in cars, people riding bikes, people walking, people drinking beer, all sharing the same space so gracefully. Jane Jacobs calls this kind of urban activity a “sidewalk ballet.” But amazingly in Heidelberg this ballet takes place in the middle of the streets. I sat and watched for a while and here’s what I saw:

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A young child walking her bicycle.

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Two young boys kicking a soccer ball. I didn’t get my camera out until they were a bit far away but they literally walked right past my table, there in the street passing the ball between them.

IMG_4983.jpgA catering truck delivering food to City Hall (building on the left).

IMG_4992.jpgA woman, child and dog standing in the middle of the street.

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A bike and a car sharing the road where only moments before the woman, child and dog had stood.

IMG_4989.jpg A server carrying a tray of beer across the road where only moments before a car had driven.

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And look, she made it without incident!

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I even spotted the mayor! Before our evening event, taking a break in the sunshine.

Remarkably, when I returned to this space one more time to see how it would be used at 9am on a sunny Saturday morning, I was in for a surprise. I expected to find tables full of people drinking their morning coffee. What I saw instead, where the night before had been a crowded street and square full of Friday evening revelers, were parked cars! The town square and streets surrounding it could even function as a surface parking lot if needed.

Businesses are flourishing. People are everywhere. The city centre feels alive! Heidelberg isn’t even a large city – the population is approximately 150,000. Their regional population is larger than ours at around a million people, but they get less tourists per year than we do. So what are we waiting for?

We don’t just need to “close Government street to traffic”, which is a 2020-2021 Action in Council’s Strategic Plan, we need to rethink the whole purpose of Government Street and maybe other streets too. Streets are for people. They are for kids kicking soccer balls and grandmothers bending down tenderly to their grandchildren without any thought of being run down by a car. Streets are for commerce – for the exchange of goods and services, for afternoon coffee, evening beer, for sharing a meal. Streets are for connection and joy.

The most remarkable and moving thing of all – considering the climate crisis we are in – is that running down the Hauptstrauss in the mornings, there were so few traffic noises that I could hear the birds singing, right there in the city centre. Streets can also be for nature.