Maybe we start with a vision of 40,000 people living urbanely and comfortably Downtown…
REMEMBER nice? I have some older friends, people about my age (500 years) who are still nice.
I didn’t realize that nice was just a cultural season, a social garnish, in civilization’s march toward oblivion but, like bell-bottoms or cufflinks, the Twist or 45’s, it is. Reminisce with me that for a while, the appropriate response, the nice response, to someone’s “Good morning!” was “And to you! Everything’s well, I hope?” instead of “Fuck you.”
I see your eyes are moistening. Best dab ‘em with your hankie.
I bring this up because I’m in a reflective—okay, an especially reflective—meaning-of-life mood these days, attempting to weigh recent progress and human accomplishment. Right now seems like the definition of ‘risky times,’ what with: Russia-Ukraine (the war Putin cannot lose); enormous changes globally to food production and the reliability of material supply chains basic to manufacturing economies everywhere; very scary prospects in China (food, productivity, political rule, etc.); the collapse of globalization and its geopolitical implications; the spread of autocracy and the growing re-subordination of women (Roe Vs. Wade, anybody?).
My wife, who’s a lot more tech-savvy and competent than I am, recently programmed my Apple watch. I hate watches, so why am I wearing an Apple watch in the first place? Because my doctor thought it would be useful for me to wear a device that could monitor my heart rate, brain activity and other related systemic performance.
Why do I need any of that? Let’s just say that I am less spring chicken, more autumn roadkill.
So, she set—sorry, programmed—the watch accordingly, and now it informs me, with a vaguely parental ping or vibration and a screen message, if my heart rate falls below 40bpm, or if I need to complete some exertion to meet an un-invited (and unwelcome) exercise goal, or if my oxygen intake is worryingly low, or if I seem sad or abstracted or assailed by existential fears or beset by life’s tragic qualities.
I know that somewhere in that fucking watch there’s a password to a function that flashes: “Solve all world problems? Yes 🔲 No 🔲.” But in some inexplicable embrace of perversity, my wife won’t let me near it.
Such matters seemed particularly pressing after I read a report in the Daily Dither about the vulnerability of downtown streetfront businesses and ground-floor residences to the angry, the crazy, the drug-addicted and the predatory. The story, about a rash, or epidemic, of broken windows and thefts, included a shopkeeper’s observation that things haven’t been the same Downtown since Covid: fewer strollers and shoppers, and more people working from home, less in downtown offices; and business owners’ thoughts of relocating out of Downtown.
Well, damned if I didn’t learn from “The Delicate Downtown Future,” a report in Governing.com, that because of Covid, every city in North America lost a significant percentage of downtown office workers to remote work, and that things are likely never to return to pre-Covid levels.
Life is chess, certainly at the business level. If you wish to survive, you can’t strategize or behave oblivious of your opponent’s bishop; the price of such disregard is lethal.
Just one of the many problems faced by Downtown: developers who, with their neo-brutalist, Soviet slabs, contribute new square footage but add no charm, character or appeal.
Downtown has long been assailed by “traditional” challenges like the malls; suburban distances; parking inconveniences and cost; cultural shifts and social preferences dis-favouring (or outright rejecting) Downtown; and so on. And now there are new and emergent issues like online shopping; remote office work; the unknowable impacts of AI and robotics on social behaviour; the under-managed downtown presence of the addicted, mentally damaged and violent; the necessary but necessarily slow and incremental effort to build a new, economically captive downtown residential population; developers who, with their neo-brutalist, Soviet slabs, contribute new square footage but add no charm, character or appeal to Downtown; concerns about personal safety in a Downtown less safe than presumed; and on top of all this, Victoria’s patented indisposition to meet reality head-on, to, if I may borrow the phrase, call a spade a fucking shovel—itself an enormous handicap because it blocks war-footing sensibility.
When I write “war footing,” I don’t mean wage war on the homeless. I mean the scale of the challenge to Downtown’s viability calls for the widened intellectual boundaries of emergency and what-if thinking.
Have you gathered from sources other than this column that we, all of us, are currently living in an “Age of Emergency,” and that the last 75 years of relative stability is at least on pause, more likely over?
Hmm, what to do?
How’s about we plan and hold a vast, all-stakeholder-inclusive, well-prepared, expertly-informed week-long Downtown blueprinting session, framed by the recognition that what was ain’t what’s gonna be. We are in fundamentally changing times, and any visioning and planning must start by acknowledging that.
What people need to bring to such a session, I suspect, is a structural mindset: nothing off the table. But Victoria doesn’t do structural, doesn’t think structural thoughts. Victoria prefers icing. Structural pieces are too big and you have to move a bunch of presumed ‘certainties’ to the ‘who knows?’ column. Pieces like real estate uses, values and long-term viability, which speaks backhandedly to tax income. Or the viability of much of the downtown retail/service base as online shopping and commerce expand. Or the downtown employment base (thousands of jobs) which, beside its economic impacts, is also a cornerstone of social stability and community coherence. Gives you sudden insight, doesn’t it, into why there’s so much actual stalling and hope-and-pray in the reality sandwich. These are incredibly hard things to focus on, especially when others are yammering on about preserving heritage curbstones in Bastion Square like that was the most important thing in the world.
It’s my point that the poetic and romantic reasons, the cool reasons, the reasons based in cultural conceit, the reasons Victorians love, for Downtown’s appeal were always—but never more so than now—subordinate to functional reasons: buying and selling, commerce and service, cultural exchange, community coherence and social safety. If Downtown has a future, its crafting must start with engagement with such ideas and with a vision of Downtown’s functional relevance in the years to come.
Maybe we start with a vision of 40,000 people living urbanely and comfortably Downtown— Burdett to Bay, Wharf to Cook—accompanied by a checklist of what such a residential population needs close at hand (food, services, clothing, furnishing, other stuff, health services, cultural resources, recreational resources, and so on).
Maybe the entire missing middle thing could be re-expressed in a housing format appropriate to Downtown, and senior governments could pour in a zillion bucks. Comprehensive, sustained block-by-block beautification, in which the entire public realm is treated as a canvas. Education, education, education—millions of people are going to be seeking fresh training and new skills development and creativity cultivation programmes/institutions to help them adjust to and succeed in this rapidly transforming world. An evening/ nighttime block watch plan to ensure personal and property safety (and to assist Downtown stakeholders to act/feel more like a community).
You cannot respond to tomorrow’s challenges thinking they are yesterday’s challenges with a different hemline. If you go with yesterday’s tools—outmoded sensibilities, rules, policies, civic structures and culture—you’ll never catch up, you’ll always be a step behind, reinforcing a debilitating and toxic culture of unsuccess that leaves everybody feeling failed and crappy.
During that proposed week-long visioning exercise, it might help to hang banners throughout Downtown: “3...2...1.”
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently 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.