Would amalgamation lead to the creation of a place we care less about?
WHICH DO YOU PREFER: Saantoria or Vicnich?
Me? I’m voting for Shitsville.
On a Wednesday evening in April, in a nearly subterranean, acoustically reverberant gym at Vic High—chosen, I assume, to make an idiotic proposition sound braver—invitees Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell and two out-of-area panelists spoke before an audience of a hundred about Victoria/Saanich amalgamation and the mandated process required to approve such a consolidation.
The presence of the two mayors at the event, organized and promoted by local initiative Amalgamation Yes, lent an ambiguous but undeniable propriety to the prospect of such a merger, even though Helps more than once was careful to blunt expectations with the quip, “Amalgamation Maybe.”
While both mayors appeared, thankfully, to have their wits about them, there was a nutty tang in the air, the kind of true-believer, I-drank-the-Kool-Aid vibe that automatically sends oh-oh juice coursing through any sound mind, same as happens when you’re among folks who gather in stubble fields awaiting the arrival of wise aliens in flying saucers.
So, why all the craziness here? Why is this place becoming InSaanitoria? Maybe it’s atmospheric, and all the local oxygen molecules have picked up another electron, turning air into ether and conking people’s reasoning function and common sense.
Let me state yet again: I’ve read the studies, and they are there for you to read. Amalgamation, in spite of the reductive logic of “one mayor’s cheaper ‘n two,” generally doesn’t save taxpayers a dime and doesn’t produce operating efficiencies, even though these are the two pillars upon which the amalgamation idea rests. It’s as flawed as its cousin belief: “greater density will produce affordable housing.”
People love to hear sober-sounding lingo purling from their tongues, like “efficiency of scale,” but if analytics counts for anything, they might as well crazily utter “fish and kale.” Amalgamation, instead of delivering real benefits, boils down to nothing more than feelings, as in “I feel Victoria would be a better place if it was amalgamated” or “I think it’s stupid keeping all these small, adjacent municipalities.” That is, the amalgamation argument is entirely non-evidentiary and offers a logical quantum roughly the equivalent of “I like pizza” or “blue’s a pretty colour.”
The amalgamation idea seems to trigger some murky, bigger’s better impulse in mental adolescents who obsess about the heft of their package and wail how this place doesn’t have the testicularity to be a real city. You know, like Switzerland’s problem: it’s not Germany.
And at the head of the small’s-a-disease/amalgamation’s-the-cure parade is the Chamber of Commerce leadership, drum-beating and banner-waving with absurdities like “We’re Better Together!” “A Remarkable Core City For Our Region!” and so on. And if you timidly ask “But, doesn’t the region already have a remarkable core city called Victoria? You know, the Inner Harbour, Empress, Legislature, tall buildings, lots of talent, energy and thousands of people moving in?” the answer you get is “We’re Better Together!” “A Magnificent New Metropolis!”
Citizens: dare to keep your Chamber off drugs.
In spite of the 501 words you have just read, this is not a column about amalgamation, but about the worldview—the philosophy of society, you might say—that allows people to believe that amalgamation is a good idea.
The genius of this place, so apparent that it’s almost invisible, is the beautiful, precious localness fostered by the multifarity of municipalities in the region. It isn’t some idiosyncrasy, deficiency or flaw that needs correction. It’s not an embarrassment, our “shame,” some quirk or retrograde behaviour, but one of our great strengths. It reinforces the scale, values and protocols of human community at a time when community (not to mention humanity) is at risk everywhere; and it reminds our various mayors and councillors that the number one job we hire you for is not sound municipal management, which a skilled administrative executive can provide, but the care, protection and well-being of your publics; that is, the quality and reality of the “conversation” between citizens and elected.
In too many places, social values have become grievance-driven, tribal (identitarian) and defensive, at great cost to the human family, the community. There is enormous stress in the world right now. Victoria is one of the remaining places where the formulation “if my community does well, I do well” operates functionally, if imperfectly. In my view, this is the powerful “something” that people pick up when they visit here—not simply our harbour vistas, rich historic architecture, cute streets, intact neighbourhoods, and verdant tree canopy, but their semiotic promise, what these things are code for: a place of human balance and comfort, the tantalizing promise of heaven on Earth.
And what this asks—no, requires—of local political leaders is that they be social innovators, constantly searching for new opportunities for community expression, new ways to vitalize the individual/community connection.
The think-big types can be remarkably dismissive of “dotty” locals—people, that is, with their all-too-human preferences, tugs and pulls, hopes and worries—as if the purpose of life was not human well-being, but some dehumanizing abstraction like “Progress!” or “Growth!” or “Making Victoria Great!” In my experience and my reading of history, such abstracting has ritually come with a cost…and produced a sorrowful (and repeatedly unheeded) postscript.
Fascism, neo-Nazism, systemic racism, anti-Semitism, follow me-autocracy, flag-waving national tribalism, economic aristocratism, and other dark and disturbing social tectonics are on a sharp rise globally. Worldwide, the number of democratic states has diminished—a “democratic recession” in the words of Stanford sociologist Larry Diamond.
“Never again” is yet again yielding by dangerous increments to “here we go again.”
These emergent conditions are accompanied by a trending ecological violence—violence to one’s home. Under such conditions, the geography of human community—literally, the place and space for healthy social functioning—is changing, diminishing. This is a time less of place-creating than place-abandonment and destruction, forced cultural forgetting and the collapse of memory. Humanity is culturally molting, here, everywhere, preparing for some convulsive Big Next.
Such generalized fungibility—where anywhere is anywhere else—has already slithered into town and turned Victoria (I don’t know about Saanich) into a devil’s playground for all the smoothocrats in local government, as if memory were a plaything with the value and durability of a Cracker-Jacks toy. Look for telling cultural shifts. Used to be “Five Points” at Moss and Fairfield? Now, it’s a “Small Urban Village” or SUV (big-sistered, of course, by LUV’s) to planning practitioners. Says the City, in essence: “No, no, we’re not proposing the removal or elimination of place, simply the substitution of authenticity with, well, er, jargon.” However unintended, this is civic organizational sociopathy cleverly packaged as professionalism.
Back in the good old days, when something reeked it was greeted and treated with revulsion. Now, jaws agape, we citizens—increasingly re-cast as “stakeholders” in some “all-gain” “community engagement” process—just stupidly watch it happen, witnesses to the ruin of hope. It’s practically Orwellian.
It’s our own fault: we give up, or give up on, memory, our past, the third dimension. What’s that classic stoner line? Oh, right: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you can’t know where you’re going.”
A key purpose of memory is to give direction, a true north, to our moral compass as we steer into the future. Now, as memory evaporates, we are adrift.
Policy—vital and rich with social intention in its moment of creation, then quickly forgotten—takes on a life of its own, a target for unintended consequences, accumulating un-challenged ideas, un-tested assumptions, lingo, precedents nobody thought of, all of which favours an impenetrable professional culture and a social engineering bias. Flashing yellow lights, my friends.
Zoning and related land use policies are, in fact, a kind of massive paraphrase of the life we intend for ourselves. But zoning is a tricky tool, and it requires us to be perpetually mindful of the risk of bad outcomes and of the need to course-correct. I’m reminded in this moment of social critic James Kunstler who spoke at a Victoria conference long ago and remarked how we North Americans are, as expressed in our social practices and in our urban design and land use policies, creating “places that are not worth caring about.”
Very much in line with Kunstler’s concern is the contemporary idea of solastalgia, which describes ecological grief brought on by the experience or anticipation of ecological loss. This includes the loss of meaningful landscapes, familiar built forms, human communities and sustainable environments, and is reinforced by a sense of powerlessness to hold back the loss.
Oh, and amalgamation? Think of it this way: 40 communities in one consolidated municipality are less important, meaningful, individual, attention-worthy than 20 each in two. Call it the first lesson in the solastalgia handbook.
It is an imperative: we cannot allow technocrats or technocratic “solutions” to define the terms of response to what are ultimately existential and moral concerns…social concerns. We need our local political and civic leadership to read the horizon for risk, and to invoke all the means (land use not least, but not alone) by which Victoria can remain a place of communities, a place of places.
Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, is writing the book Futuretense: Robotics, AI and Life in a Jobless World.