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  • End of an era. Neo-medievalism here we come

    Gene Miller

    Climate change will make zoning issues and social equity seem like quaint cultural artifacts.


    What Man’s hand may make,

    Man’s hand may undo.

    —A wise-sounding old saying, maybe


    IN A RECENT COLUMN titled “NDP needs to rein in its wild horses or see a repeat of 2001,” Times-Colonist resident tub-thumper Lawrie McFarlane wrote about the provincial government’s intent to eliminate the statutory provision requiring municipalities to hold public hearings before making zoning changes. “The argument is that this will speed up home building. Perhaps it will. But there’s more here than meets the eye,” he wrote.

    The objective, he states, is not just to build more houses, but to end “exclusionary zoning”—in particular the single-family zoning of the suburbs that some believe “confers an unfair advantage on those who can afford to live in such exclusive districts.”

    “End public hearings, and it becomes possible for municipalities to radically alter the character of residential neighbourhoods in the name of social justice, with no input from those most affected,” writes McFarlane, who is against such a policy being “rammed through in a manner that pays no heed to community sentiment.”

    McFarlane accurately identifies the ever-diminishing exclusivity of single-family areas, though I’m a bit confused by his marriage of “exclusive districts” and “suburbs.” I mean, Victoria’s suburbs are filled with people who take the wax out of their ears with their thumbs, and practice their rebel yells in the Canadian Tire parking lot. Exclusive? Hmmm.

    Also, it might have better served the rules of objectivity if McFarlane had balanced his worry-spinning with an inquiry into the market factors that now make a Fairfield home worth $1.5 million and new condos priced to sell at a $1,000/square feet. That’s right: twelve inches by twelve inches, a thousand bucks.

    I have no doubt that McFarlane is saving that for another column and will, given his lights, discover that somehow the poverty groups, in cahoots with government, have engineered the extravagant pricing—probably to embarrass and undermine the virtues of the market system, comrade. If right-wing ideologues can blame January 6th on the Democrats, nothing’s off the table.

    Anyway, with that kind of real estate pricing, it seems to me that the “character of residential neighbourhoods” is being altered by factors more potent, pervasive and pressing than anything related to the social justice agenda. 

    I digress slightly to make another point, one likely to become thematic in this column (if it isn’t already): climate change-driven planetary ecology is shifting, and it will affect all human systems and conventions, all our flimsy social constructions including the single-family suburbs (and the economy that undergirds them, the energy source that enables them, the systems required to sustain them). How can we miss the message of COVID? It is a primitive event, not a “modern” one, not a parenthesis in the modern project, but a foretaste; it has upended “normal” human protocols—social, cultural, economic—in a heartbeat. 

    The force of it!  

    And now, more than two years in, we wonder when it will finish, when (and if) normalcy will return; or is this like some horror movie that just won’t stop? For godssake, the credits are rolling and the creature’s still chewing on her leg!

    And will opinion writers in the near-future still be harrumphing and raising points of order when wholesale climate refugee-ism and general social chaos are the conditions of the day, and countless thousands, rendered jobless by AI and robotics, or by a climate-damaged economy and made homeless by climate impacts, swell the ranks of the street pop on Pandora, and we’re all bunking with each other, and the single-family home is little more than a cultural artifact, a memory?

    In other words, it could be time to dislodge the idea that a man’s home is his castle—if for no other reasons than that these days a man’s home is his mortgage, and honestly, it’s so hard to find qualified moat-cleaners any more.

    After all, what do we think the less in “living with less” means—living with everything we have now, in everything we have now, but thinking nice less thoughts? We can’t hide from God. We can’t trick Nature.

    Which brings me to a cousin-thought: all the bitching about the Victoria bike mobility network is a clear display of how significant a change it is, how much of a lurch from peoples’ routines, how much of a collision with their sensibilities. And that’s just some painted lines, bollards, curb-juts and traffic signal adjustments intended to improve co-existence between bikes and cars; really, the smallest of social gestures designed to meet the now-arriving future. 

    Considered as social change, the imposition of the bike lane system must be seen as an extraordinary political accomplishment and, I suppose, as a measure of the, uh, imperfect local appetite and capacity for adjustment to ecological imperatives. Maybe the public anger has less to do with the traffic adjustments than the deeper social messaging: end of an era.

    Climate change will prove to be a great democrat as we are forced to adopt a neo-medieval lifestyle. Single-family homes? Poverty groups? Social equity? All of that, I speculate, is yesterday’s conversation.

    Most single-family-zoned areas in Victoria are not exactly lush arcadias like Uplands. Rockland used to be Uplands, and look at it now: a mix of single-family homes, low-plexes, suite-ed mansions (former single-family homes now operating as house-plexes), apartment buildings. In other words, the transformation of which McFarland writes happened of its own accord—driven not by social engineering but social evolution: economic change, need change, change in family size and composition, and so on. Policy didn’t impose reality, it followed reality.

    But if you don’t have the luxury of time on a generational scale, it takes not modest changes in zoning, but a complete transformation in land use, to achieve any serious expression of economic democratization in housing. That is, I’m not sure that waiving rezoning accomplishes very much.

    So, you slam in a fourplex next to a single-family house, and that’s a blow for social justice and housing affordability? What, did the owner donate the property? Is Acme Construction working for free? For that matter, did the city forgive all of its normal fees? No. The property was a million-two, the construction and soft costs came to $325,000 a door, plus financing costs, plus developer profit. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see the social justice/housing affordability angle in a fourplex each of whose units sells for three-quarters of a million or more.

    Affordability hopes based on such market realities, as local social critic Doug Curran puts it, is “magical thinking.”

    We may be short of moat cleaners but, it appears, magicians still abound.

    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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