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  • Highrises and homeless—how big city of us! 

    Gene Miller

    People protect what they value, and the evolution of Victoria’s Downtown is challenging that value.


    IT WAS 5:30 ON A DARK, DRIZZLY TUESDAY MORNING. I was heading south on Douglas and coasted to a stop when the light turned red at Broughton. Not another vehicle in sight. There I stayed, growing a minute older, briefly toying with the fancy of driving through the red—an idea immediately followed by an image of some 4X4 materializing out of nowhere, barreling across Broughton on the green, and crushing my car and me in a life-changing second.

    Gaaaaaahh! My foot stayed on the brake.

    That’s how it works, isn’t it? We all agree to stop on the red. That’s what the welcome sign says: “Welcome to Victoria. We stop on the red.” 

    We all agree: it’s a good idea, a reasonable curb on absolute freedom. What’s behind agreement is the principle of mutuality: you behave in a way that protects/benefits me, I’ll behave in a way that protects/benefits you. Small compromises—no more than courtesies, really—in support of social calm and civilization. The very essence of the under-celebrated idea of co-operation. The balance may not square at any particular moment, but what goes around comes around a hundred times a day. 

    Elegant, yes?

    What’s aggression, then? The blinding urgency of self-interest—a messy but admittedly energetic and appealing triumph over mutuality. And with some regret I assure you there’s no sense clucking about how nice the world would be if all was mutuality, because it isn’t, it can’t and won’t be. Yes, Trump’s an asshole, but he didn’t create this. Mutuality and self-interest have entirely different energetic signatures, and each appears to have its own role in the course of things. And analogues exist everywhere in nature; the principle of friction, for example, or forest fires caused by lightning strikes. That is, wishing for one without the other will get you as far as wishing you were born with angelic wings. 

    A timely question, then: how do we ensure that there’s enough mutuality, enough good will, framing all differences, to sustain a society? In the absence of autocrats and dictators, is any of this subject to anything more durable than voluntary social enforcement, a tissue of written agreements…a handshake, really?

    I pull, almost at random, a paragraph from Colin Clarke’s ominous January 21, 2021 opinion piece in the New York Times, “A New Era of Far-Right Violence” (Clarke, an authority on domestic and international terrorism, is a fellow at the Soufan Center): “The turbulence of the next several years should not be underestimated. Record-setting firearms sales, looming economic calamity and the continued fraying of America’s social fabric—exacerbated by declining mental health, rising domestic violence and worsening substance abuse during the pandemic—make for a worrying combination.”

    Government is the social tool through which mutuality is managed (or imposed), but newspaper headlines now project an image of governance, its legitimacy challenged, stalked by climax just waiting to pounce; and if the timing is uncertain, the outcome isn’t. History provides the proof with a long roster of expired civilizations and cultures. Strange to be living in such a “moment” of ubiquitous social threat (joined, for the first time, with the profound risks of global ecological collapse), and to realize there must have been earlier times when, like us, Romans and Aztecs, with little care, got up, brushed their teeth and prepped for a day at the office.

    All of the above was invoked in a recent Times-Colonist contribution by Victoria city councillor (and mayoral aspirant) Stephen Andrew entitled “Victoria is facing a public safety crisis.” 

    Andrew paints a picture of an overworked, disrespected and sometimes even threatened police force facing an increasing number of assaults, as if simply wearing the uniform and projecting civic authority was signal enough for some people to flip out.

    The TC’s Jack Knox dittoed Andrew in a long November 14 profile of an overworked, stressed-out, understaffed Victoria police force.

    So, do you hire more cops? The police chief says yes. Does that make the problem go away?

    If you live in Victoria right now, you are witness to, and an actor in, a vast if quiet local drama. For a long time, Downtown seemed in social, economic and urban design terms to be the centre of it all: offering a cheerful “Good morning!”, linen and lace, Eaton’s and The Bay. 

    Now? That Downtown is vanishing.



    Homeless citizen camped on Pandora Street


    High rises proposed by Starlight for the Yates/Quadra/Vancouver Street area.


    And all these Downtown highrises, that collection of ice-cold towers? It’s a gamble that, as the wider shopping public disperses to the malls, and commerce, culture and community move online, eventual thousands of new highrise occupants will become tomorrow’s Downtown spenders, culturati and community, keeping things lively, inviting and viable. Some re-urbanizing trends seem to favour this outcome; others, like online commerce and electronic community, don’t. We’ll see.

    In Victoria, as in other places, certain social assumptions—you might call them hopes—are baked into land use; assumptions about citizenship, social engagement, community—that is, about what it takes for people to experience themselves as parts of and players in the civic project. 

    If, due to social change, those assumptions are no longer, or less, valid, more social artifact than fact, the results won’t be some renaissance, but indifference and alienation, privacy instead of rare and wonderful publicy; that is, a table set for hardness, indifference and crime.  

    I wonder if the City has given thought to the connection between how a place looks and how people feel in it and what they do with it; that is, Downtown public realm urban design and private building architectural niceties (whatever enhances the sense of welcome) intended to elicit and support the feeling of “this is mine, this is my home.” 

    When visitors used to come to Victoria, the expectation was “a little bit of Old England.” Ever thought about exactly what, beside tea at the Empress, Fort Street junque shoppes that meant, what it stood for?

    The place was maternal, protective, containing. Victoria projected civic and social order. You took a ferry to get here—“toot-toot,” for God’s sake! Governance, as square footage and culture, was everywhere; the city was the home of ceremony, ritual, order. When I first got here in 1970, there were two panhandlers. Two. Godfrey and Cliff (“I work around your house for a dollar.”). 

    Homeless, in 1970? What’s that?

    Things are looser now and it’s more of a free-for-all. Highrises and homeless—how big city of us! Victoria contemporized. Had no choice, likely. And here we are: cops getting mauled on the streets. 

    Can this council and the City’s urban design leadership conceive of and impose public and private realm design and architectural guidelines that might deliver warmth and help to inspire citizenly feelings and behaviour (and remind the cops they have a thousand friends)?

    It’s no mystery; people protect what they value and love, so give ‘em a Downtown with lots of things to love.

    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, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.

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