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  1. VIEW TOWERS. It sat there, like a spaceship in a cow pasture, between Quadra and Vancouver, Fort and View Streets, a 19-storey heartbreaker silently announcing to everyone who walked or drove by: “Beauty is tricksome and fleeting, and Death awaits thee.”

    A description in the Islandist states: “The building, completed in 1968, has been locally notorious for much of its 50 year existence, having been the site of several murders, suicides, fatal overdoses, destructive fires, countless violent assaults and several hundred 9-11 calls besides. Its unflattering nickname of ‘Crack Towers’ has persisted since the 1990s.”

    (Crack’s so passé, don’t you think?)




    The building radiates that history out through its mercy-free concrete skin. If buildings convey messages and operate as narratives about human worth and destiny, View Towers is our Statue of Misery.

    The property owner/developer, George Mulek, had intentions, as I understand it, to put up a second, presumably twin or similar building, along the Fort Street frontage of his property, but was prohibited by a shocked and rueful city that curtailed his property development entitlements after the first building went up. Mulek, anecdote has it, left Victoria angry and frustrated and built nothing more here. Mulek is dead (I wish I could report that, in an attempt to restore moral equilibrium, he jumped; but no) and Edmonton-based family members now own View Towers, Orchard House (in James Bay) and numerous residential towers in Vancouver.

    I don’t know how the property acquired its original development entitlements; that is, why anyone thought twin 19-storey buildings in that location would enhance or benefit Victoria. Clearly, there are few enlightening lessons to be taken from the hard mind of the developer, but many from the effort to understand why people in the City of Victoria’s political and administrative circles thought such land use entitlements were a good idea in the first place.

    Progress? Need? Someone’s careless idea? Stupid season?

    Remember: Everything bearing on land use expression is someone’s idea, conceived to respond to an apparent need or exploit some opportunity or produce some beneficial social outcome. Of course, what often happens in the process is best described by a single word: “Oops.”

    Each individual land use outcome can be labelled a microscopic event in the city’s overall life, and we all want to believe the city is large and elastic enough to forgive and endure its mis-calls, but it doesn’t take too many ill-considered choices before a place becomes this instead of remaining or becoming that. All of which has special relevance now as Victoria slowly but surely, building by building, at Victoria scale, turns, either by design or accident, into this (both images Vancouver):




    And this:




    So, what’s so bad about that, you ask? After all, you go to Vancouver and it’s people just like us, not zombies or faceless automatons, right? And Vancouver’s dynamic, exciting, important!

    And this is the point at which you and I need to take a two-directional excursion into the recent past and near future, developing some ideas about current social evolution and how Victoria fits with all of that.

    In my next post, we’ll take that trip.

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.

  2. ON MY UPPER LEFT ARM, faint now after more than 70 years, is the white scar of a smallpox vaccination required before my entry into Canada.

    I am a visitor from the time before the last big North American smallpox outbreak. It began in New York City, now lashed by the coronavirus, not long after I was born, still in the first half of the last century.

    That event marked a signature response to the threat of pandemic. Authorities swiftly launched the largest mass vaccination in history—more than 6.3 million people in three weeks. The looming epidemic was snuffed out after just two deaths.

    In 1947, American public health authorities were ready, had a plan and a vaccine. A far cry from the 2020 response in which authorities were unprepared and leaders took refuge from responsibility in magical thinking, a fascination with voodoo cures, denunciations of science, and xenophobic scapegoating while the virus marched through America.

    I’m old enough to remember the fear of polio, the virus that left withered limbs and condemned paralyzed victims to life in an Iron Lung that did their breathing for them. The fear stalked parents taking their kids to summer swimming pools or sending them to camp and was a national crisis in the mid-1950s.

    My mother put on a brave front. She never talked about her concern except to caution her kids about proper pool and playground hygiene. But the worry simmered. Her own father had been partially paralyzed by polio. She’d long lived in its gloomy shadow.

    So I recall the sense of relief with which parents responded to a polio vaccine, the apprehensive line-ups for our elementary school inoculation and our sense of betrayal at our parents’ jocular enthusiasm. Now I read stories that ask the question: what if we get a vaccine for coronavirus and half the population refuses vaccination?

    I thought about this as I bid farewell to the journalism class I taught at Vancouver Island University this spring, sending them off to complete their assignments on-line from France and India, Wellington and Campbell River.

    What began for them as a classroom assignment in early January—find out what you can and write about this viral outbreak in Wuhan, China—had morphed into a major upheaval of their lives. Some raced to get home before national borders closed, others scrambled to find accommodation here before a possible lockdown, yet others worried about money running out.

    I thought about how a world had just ended for them and how they would now have to invent a new one.

    The principal ending was an assumed certainty. Most of them had never experienced a world in which existential threat lurks in the breath of friends or at restaurant buffets or on washroom door handles or in the seat next to them at a concert or a Mariners basketball game.

    Now they are urged to maintain distance even after restrictions ease, to wear masks lest they be a silent carrier of pestilence to grandparents—or to old men like their journalism instructor.

    This psychological shift represents a vast lurch backward into the near-forgotten. My own childhood of polio and, beyond that, into the pre-antibiotics childhood of my father—at 96 bearing his lockdown in assisted living with aplomb. Lethal microbes took two of his brothers, a sister, a step-sister, his father’s first wife and an uncle.

    We live in medicine’s golden age and yet this tiny virus disrupts everything we took for granted about the economy, the power of science to protect us, our social lives, the institutions that sustain our social order, how we conduct ourselves in public and private.

    Those students will return—those who do return—to a reconfigured education in a few months. Most classes will be virtual except for a few—labs, studio work—in which their physical presence is deemed essential.

    And that may be only a small element of how the pandemic transforms the world. How will schools cope with social distancing? The guidelines, rendered as a circle, require 12.5 square metres per person but standard classrooms normally allot 2.5 square metres per student. Grade six arithmetic suggests that either classes must be radically smaller or classrooms radically larger.

    Then there are the teachers themselves. If the plan is to open gradually while protecting high risk segments of the population, how will the plan address the fact that 38 percent of teachers fall into the high risk group more likely to suffer serious illness because they are over 50?

    And how does a professional hockey team that puts 19,000 fans into a 44,000 square-metre arena deal with the fact that under social distancing rules they’ll need a 238,000 square-metre arena?

    In this newly apprehensive social order, can air travel return to anything resembling normal? Airlines operate on minuscule profit margins earned by jamming passengers into fuselages which recirculate particle-laden air through passengers’ lungs many times on a long flight. Decreasing density can only mean ticket prices that return air travel to its niche as a luxury service for the very wealthy.

    Similar problems beset public transit. Packed buses and trains are the preferred norm. They keep fares low for low income commuters. In Metro Vancouver, public transit moved about 435 million passengers annually to and from work in the city core, university, college and high school campuses and to shopping districts. How travel at that density might continue in the age of social distancing and the coronavirus is a conundrum. And yet it seems impossible for those commuters to move to private vehicles without strangling the city.

    As air travel and public transit go, so goes tourism. It produced $1.7 billion in provincial taxes in 2018 and contributed $8.3 billion to provincial GDP. In Victoria, tourism generated about 17,000 jobs, close to $500 million in wages and almost $700 million in GDP. Changes to this sector promise huge impacts on the city’s economic health and well-being.

    Work itself seems destined for enormous upheaval.

    How many of those forced to work from home during the closing of office buildings, whose tight floor plans and closed ventilation systems work like giant virus distributors, will continue work at home? The arithmetic of social distancing suggests many won’t be going back to the office soon.

    That brings its own economic fallout. If corporations aren’t simply to offload office overhead costs onto home officer workers, tax structures must be reworked.

    The global economy itself is in the throes of transformation. The half-century mantra of Neo-liberal fiscal austerity in service of globalization seems dead. Governments everywhere suddenly rediscover the virtues of Keynesian spending powers.

    And assumptions about the efficiencies of bigness and vertical integration and the inefficiencies of small, local and dispersed now implode in the face of disruptions to global supply chains.

    If meat processing in Canada concentrates in three plants and they are contaminated with coronavirus outbreaks, the efficiency of size suddenly transmogrifies into a horrifying inefficiency for the national food supply. The small local and travelling abattoirs that were once common now look like not such a bad idea.

    Yes, pandemics change everything, and the world my former university students have just inherited will be extraordinarily different from the one they knew in their December break.




  3. May 22, 2020

    IN A RECENT Guardian column, Lucy Jones called being attentive to nature “a healthy form of escapism.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s the greatest gift we can get from lockdown, she notes; and the evidence that being in nature helps with healing, grieving, fear and loneliness is growing. (And that’s in addition to the vast ecosystem services nature provides, from water to carbon storage and well beyond.)

    My hope is that we try to “repay” nature for such gifts. The upheaval of life-as-we-knew-it does gives us an opportunity, not just to slow down and revel in near nature, but to save it as well.

    News sites and social media indicate more people the world over are taking notice and falling in love with nature right in their own backyards. Not just a glancing sort of notice but a deeper, longer, more contemplative type of awareness, one that leads to seeking out more knowledge about the plants and animals with which we share the Earth. The more we understand about our fellow creatures, the more we care about them—and the more we make connections between the health of those backyard biota and the need to protect the environment, including taking aggressive action against carbon emissions.

    One backyard creature I cannot help but notice right now is the Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). We have swarms of these feisty little jewels at our feeders—I just upped my daily sugar-water production from six to eight cups to meet their demands. These tiny “notably pugnacious” birds arrive here from points far south, making journeys of over 3,200 kilometres. Wintering in Mexico, some nest here on the Island, others head further north, right up to Alaska—further north than any other type of hummingbird.



    Female Rufous hummingbird


    Their populations have been declining, and with the climate crisis and the decline of insect prey due to pesticides, they will be faced with existential challenges. These globe-trotting birds must hit many different habitats at just the right moment to meet their needs. An interactive map at Audubon.org shows that even at +1.5 degrees C scenario, most coastal areas of Vancouver Island will not be suitable habitat for them. (Unfortunately, the planet is already at about +1 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures.)

    It’s terrifically sad to contemplate a world without these little jewel-like creatures. Yet such contemplation is a step towards saving them. Understanding how their survival depends on humans radically reducing their carbon emissions and pesticide use, helps motivate me on those fronts. It seems the least I can do to repay the many gifts nature provides. (I am pleased they appreciate my gift of sugar-water as well.)


    ON THAT OTHER CRISIS FRONT: In recent days, the BC government has reported fewer new cases of COVID-19. Ten yesterday; but other days, 8, 2, 15, 7, 9, 14. So we are flattening the curve.

    But we are still being admonished that we cannot go back to “normal” yet. Non-essential travel and large get-togethers are out. We’ve been officially urged by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Theresa Tam, to wear a mask in public. While many businesses re-opened starting May 19, they are operating with very non-normal restrictions in place—one at a time service, lots of extra cleaning, and the like. Business inspections are being made to ensure compliance. FOCUS clients tell me they are exhausted trying to keep their businesses alive. Late last week we learned that Dance Victoria, Pacific Opera Victoria and the Victoria Symphony have all cancelled their seasons through next spring. Over 8 million Canadians have applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, millions more are on the wage subsidy, and large businesses are now eligible for $60 million-plus loans. Oh, and Worksafe BC, the lead agency on getting us re-opened safely, lost close to $3 billion in the stock market collapse.

    There’s abundant evidence that we are far from normal.

    I welcome your response, either as a comment below or privately through the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of this page. If you are taking photos of native plants and animals, you might be interested in our Mapping Nature project, here.

  4. ON APRIL 21, the BC government organized a “virtual townhall” on the COVID-19 virus for the Island Health region. Given the extreme financial challenges that the virus poses for the government, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the vast sums in public funds being doled out to LNG Canada—through royalty tax credits, reduced hydro rates, a provincial sales tax holiday, a carbon tax ceiling, and cancelled LNG income tax—might be in jeopardy.

    Or might the handouts even be switched to support renewable energy?

    Sadly, the esteemed panel was unable to get to my question: “Given the likelihood that the climate crisis will kill even more people than the virus, should the $6-billion taxpayer handout to LNG Canada be diverted to renewable energy projects?”

    Fortunately, eight days later, the government’s PR wing did answer my question. Well, sort of. The following is the verbatim emailed response I got from the Citizen Engagement Team. You be the judge.

    • There is no handout.
    • The provincial government developed a framework to ensure natural gas development had a level playing field with other industries in B.C., allowing investment to move forward so jobs could be created.
    • This framework aligns with our climate commitments, as described in CleanBC. That plan has put us on a path to a cleaner, better future where we can continue to balance environmental protection with economic competitiveness and job creation.
    • The LNG Canada project fits into the climate goals of CleanBC and allows B.C. to build a strong economy—that is even more important today as we grapple with the economic challenges created by the COID-19 [sic] pandemic.
    • More details about the natural gas framework and the opportunity created as a result of LNG Canada’s investment can be found here.

    Thanks, Citizen Engagement Team. That clears up everything!

    Russ Francis worked as a political columnist and reporter for many years before becoming a BC government analyst. During his 10 years with the government, he worked in strategic policy, legislation and performance management for a number of ministries. He’s happy to be writing again from his home in the Southern Gulf islands.

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