Sunday, January 16, 2022

Going Up The Country


There were two surprises for most B.C. homeowners as the year began; yet more snowfall after already enjoying a white Xmas, and a dramatic increase in their property value. In Vancouver itself the increase in property values was between 7-16% on average depending on whether you owned a condo or a house but as you moved out to the suburbs the increase was much more dramatic with 12-26% in Coquitlam, 18-34% in Surrey, 23-37% in Maple Ridge, 21-38% in Abbotsford and 40% in Chilliwack. Leaving the lower mainland it got even crazier with increases on the Island between 22-47%, in the Thompson Okanagan it was 17-42%, in the Kootenays it was 17-53% and in the North it was 6-58%.

The increase in property values is driven in large part by thousands of people leaving Vancouver for the hinterland to avoid the congestion and high prices but to also take advantage of being able to work from home. But is the grass really greener on the other side?

This past summer there were forest fires that ravaged the Interior for the 4th or 5th year in a row and many people lost their homes. Added to that was the smoke everyone had to put up with for weeks on end. Then to top things off this was followed by the torrential rains that washed out entire communities and all of the major roads in and out of the Interior.

With the atmospheric rainfall the Province experienced this past autumn, the idea of living anywhere near the lower mainland floodplain around Abbotsford and Chilliwack surely must make a person think twice. The wretched condition of the dikes along the Fraser River isn't going to improve anytime soon and every year there's a chance of flooding with the annual spring run-off. 

Yes, the Okanagan with its lakes and vineyards seems to offer an idyllic place to live, especially in summer, but these past summers haven't been without some severe challenges, including a record setting heat wave that claimed hundreds of lives, and in winter it's very cold.

There's a reason people continue flocking to Vancouver, quite a few in fact. Besides all the cultural attractions of a big city (restaurants, sports, theatre, universities) and job opportunities, it is surrounded by ocean and mountains that can be enjoyed year round. It's never too hot or too cold, there's no humidity, and there are no bugs or poisonous snakes. Vancouver also has plenty of water, unlike the Sunshine Coast or Vancouver Island that experienced a Level 4 Drought this past summer. 

But while Vancouver is an attractive place to live it unfortunately hasn't been very good at providing affordable housing for people wanting to move here. Thanks to zoning that hasn't moved with the times most of the city is still single family dwellings so, with the exception of downtown, there is no way to increase the density and no place for new residents to live. As a result, most of the population growth has been in the suburbs where, over the past 25 years, more than 80% of the million people who have come to the Lower Mainland, have settled.

This has resulted in horrendous traffic jams that have now made Vancouver the most congested city in Canada and the worst in North America, even edging out Los Angeles. This urban sprawl eats up farmland, hillsides and forests and robs residents of the recreational opportunities these areas could have offered while putting even more pressure on existing parks and waterfront. 

Metro Vancouver sub-region map: Yellow – North Shore; Red – Burrard Peninsula; Green – South of Fraser West; Blue – South of Fraser East; Purple – Tri-Cities; Orange – North East. (Metro Vancouver Regional District)

Over the next 25 years Metro Vancouver is projected to add another million people, an average of 35,000 people a year. Over 400,000 will be settled south of the Fraser River but the Burrard Peninsula will still add 340,000 residents. How the regional land use and transportation planning proceeds will determine if this growth will make for a more livable lower mainland or add to the unpleasantness.

But maybe there is another way of handling population growth and making a more livable city and for inspiration we can look at Paris.  Both cities are roughly the same size, 100 square kilometres within city limits, but Paris has a population density of  20,300 per square kilometre vs. 5,400 for Vancouver. While Vancouver may have the highest density of any city in Canada it's only a quarter of what exists in Paris and they do it without high-rises. Instead, Paris has a more or less uniform building height of mid-rise apartments spread across the entire city, and there are no single family dwellings. They also have an excellent subway system to move people around.

To further improve on what is already one of the most attractive and desirable cities in the world the mayor has articulated a new vision for Paris called the 15 minute city. This means creating self-sufficient communities within each neighbourhood where essential services like grocery stores, schools, health centres, cafes, bakeries, and parks will be just a short stroll or bike-ride away from people's homes. Unlike Metro Vancouver which is focused on urban sprawl that is dependent on cars for getting around, vehicles in Paris will eventually be phased out and bike lanes will be established on every street.

Maybe if Vancouver borrowed a page from the Paris playbook the stress of living here could be reduced and we could have more time to enjoy the beauty and advantages it has to offer. Housing prices would come down to Earth, air pollution would be reduced, and traffic jams would become a thing of the past. Life would be simpler, the environment would thank us, and the lure of going up the country would disappear. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Social Contract

The year started off with rioting in the U.S. capital as deluded Republicans stormed Congress to protest an election they thought was rigged. With the former President Trump egging them on and spreading misinformation, they trashed offices, assaulted police officers, and threatened to kill the Vice President for presiding over the official handover in the Senate. For a country that likes to portray itself as the leader of the free world it was acting very much like a typical third world dictatorship or banana republic. For a country with the world's highest standard of health, education and living to be demonstrating such utter ignorance was truly unbelievable.

But the ignorance wasn't limited to the United States, all over Europe and elsewhere people were protesting against the vaccinations and restrictions brought on by governments desperately trying to fight the COVID pandemic. Nourished on a diet of conspiracy theories, fake news, and pseudo science being pushed through social media, they refuse to acknowledge the evidence of health experts and scientists that masks and vaccinations are the only way to stop the spread. Many don't even want to admit that a pandemic exists despite the fact millions have died already.

In Canadian cities the ignorant anti-vaxers and anti-maskers were even protesting outside of hospitals, intimidating the health care workers and blocking access to ambulances. These are the same hospitals that are now overcrowded with COVID patients that haven't been vaccinated and are now taking up space that should instead be going to people on long wait lists for elective surgery. In addition to stopping the spread of COVID, wearing masks has almost completely stopped the spread of flu and colds this past season but not wearing one isn't freedom it's simply selfishness.

Of course there's also a lot of self-righteousness going on behind all this protesting and a lack of respect for anyone's opinion if it doesn't agree with your own. Another nasty example of this was during the federal election when protesters started throwing gravel and debris at the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Just because you don't agree with someone doesn't mean you have the right to assault them. What happened to manners and respect?

What it all points to is a breakdown in the social contract that we have all been a party to since the Age of Enlightenment. Ever since Thomas Hobbes pointed out that if we really wanted to live in a state of nature our lives would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short and without government and laws everyone would be free to plunder, rape, and murder, we have traded absolute freedom for the security of government protection. This consensual contract between the government and the people, as defined by other thinkers like Rousseau and Locke, also provides us with our societal rights and responsibilities. 

Clearly there are people today who either are blissfully unaware of the social contract that has been forged over the years or they would like to tear it up. To not accept the results of an election or the health directives of the government is really a repudiation of the social contract and brings with it all the disruption of a lawless society. "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose" to quote Kris Kristofferson and, if we persist in this behavior, it will be the end of whatever civil society we have enjoyed for the past few hundred years.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Don't Worry Be Happy

In spite of all the things that were going wrong this past summer there were a few things that were going right and one of them was the sighting of some killer whales in the floatplane area of Coal Harbour. From their markings it was determined they were transient killer whales who have increasingly been coming into the waters of the Salish Sea these past few years. Unlike the well known resident killer whales which only eat salmon, these transient killer whales mainly eat seals and dolphins and their presence points to a healthy ecosystem.

Fishermen and others wrongly suspect an abundance of seals means a shortage of salmon but this is just as false as blaming the wolves for the caribou decline. Nature has a way of regulating predators if there isn't enough for them to eat and, in the case of the seals, if there are too many then it's good news for the transient killer whales whose numbers are also increasing because there is plenty to eat.

And speaking of killer whales there is also the good news story of Springer the rehabilitated killer whale who was released back into her original pod in 2002 and later gave birth to her first calf in 2013 named Spirit. In 2017 she had her second calf named Storm, and this past summer a very pregnant Springer was photographed being ready to give birth to her 3rd calf. Part of the Northern group of resident killer whales, this group continues to thrive while unfortunately the Southern group is declining due to polluted waters, shipping noise, and a shortage of Chinook salmon, their principal food source.

However, to help mitigate these stresses on the Southern resident killer whale population, the government finally brought in some changes to protect the whales from ships and whale watching boats and, most importantly, closed off areas to fishing that are critical for the whales as they follow the salmon that are returning from the open ocean to spawn. Hopefully, these strategies will lead to some improvements for the whales as well as bring about greater awareness of the serious nature of their precarious condition.

And while we are still on the topic of whales there were also two humpback whales that were spotted in late September next to the ferry dock in Horseshoe Bay. From near extinction in the 1960's, when a ban on whale hunting was put in place and until 1997, when the first humpback was spotted in our waters there are now approximately 500 humpback whales making the Salish Sea their summer vacation place every year before returning to Mexico and Hawaii to mate and give birth. Another sign of things improving in the ocean environment.

And finally, the combination of COVID closures in community swimming pools and the unusually warmer summer weather led many Vancouverites to the open waters of English Bay for the first time to go swimming outdoors and meet the seals. A whole new group of swimmers started meeting regularly at Jericho Beach, Second Beach, English Bay and Bikini Beach to go for their morning dip and many more could be seen swimming throughout the day. It was wonderful to see people experiencing the simple pleasures of the ocean which in turn helps develop and foster a greater appreciation of the importance it plays in each of our lives. While it's hard to find positive events amongst all the depressing news, sometimes you just need to stop worrying and be happy.

Harbour seals photo by Junie Quiroga

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Go Their Own Way


It was a tough year for good old Wile E Coyote with 11 of his peers caught and killed in Stanley Park thanks to the mindless actions of Instagram followers who got caught up in yet another Instagram frenzy trying to get a selfie with a coyote. The coyotes have been living harmoniously in Stanley Park and the West End for a 100 years with each side keeping a respectful distance but all that changed this past summer. Instead of leaving the coyotes to go about their nocturnal activities such as taking out the trash and mowing peoples lawns in the West End before retreating to Stanley Park at dawn to digest and have a good sleep, some early morning residents thought it would be cute to entice these normally reticent animals with sweet meats and cat food in hopes of getting a photo.

The coyotes were only too happy to change up their diet of squirrels etc. in exchange for posing for a nice photo and the word quickly got out to others who came bearing packaged snacks and cookies. So far so good but, when regular people started showing up empty handed, the coyotes got a little confused. Not able to distinguish between walkers and joggers who think it's cute to feed wild animals and those who realize this is not a good thing, the coyotes started demanding a cut from anyone in the Park and giving those who didn't comply a little nip or worse.

By putting up signs the Parks Board tried to get people to stop feeding the coyotes and other creatures in the Park like raccoons, skunks, and grizzly bears who wanted in on the action, but of course nobody knows how to read anymore and the shakedowns on the trails and along the seawall continued.

The Parks Board then tried to convince people to stay away from the seawall and Stanley Park itself during the early morning hours and after dusk but nobody paid any attention to these suggestions either and the Parks Board was forced to then close everything from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. and put signs and fencing around the entire Park.

Finally the Parks Board enlisted the help of some B.C. Conservation officers to trap and kill the remaining members of the Coyote Soprano gang of extortionists, and the Park was deemed safe to reopen 24/7 to all the Instagrammers who now had to content themselves with Canada Geese photos.

One can only imagine what all this fencing and signage cost and whether it was an over reaction, but you can be sure the Parks Board didn't care because they are fearless when it comes to wasting the taxpayers money. While all the coyote fuss was going on the Parks Board was also busy erecting permanent lane dividers throughout the roadways of Stanley Park to separate the cyclists from the motorists. Never mind these two groups have also lived in peaceful co-existence for over 100 years, the Parks Board has decided that, before motorists start feeding the cyclists and get them so habituated to handouts they start biting, it was time for some preventative action.

The fact that these dividers now closed off most of the pay parking and thus cut off one of the Parks Board's main sources of income made no difference. Neither did it matter that the restaurants that pay considerable rent to the Parks Board went out of business because, again, the Parks Board doesn't think about these things which are too capitalist in nature and of no interest to cyclists who prefer handouts from motorists rather than a decent meal.

Stanley Park may now be a little bit safer but it's also a lot less fun and you have to wonder if there wasn't a better way to have handled things, like throwing people in jail who feed the animals and cyclists, and otherwise leaving the Park alone. Next time the Parks Board has its hand out for money someone should bite it and, in the meantime, let everyone go their own way.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Summertime Blues


As the Baby Boomer generation enters its final phase now that the first half are already on the retirement rolls, there were a few defining events this summer that offered a chance for us to reflect on our contribution to all the upheaval and our own mortality. The first of course were the massive wildfires. It has now been established beyond a doubt that our carbon consuming lifestyle has made the planet warmer and this of course has made it easy for fires to start. 

The second was the panicked withdrawal and evacuation of Afghanistan that all too clearly looked like a replay of the panicked withdrawal and evacuation of Vietnam. Once again a nation was left to suffer after years of destruction, betrayal, and chaos. False hopes have given way to corruption, persecution, and indescribable loss.

How has this happened? The Boomers were supposed to make the world a better place. We were going to eliminate injustice, stop the wars, and look after the planet. Hundreds of songs of love, peace, and happiness were written by our favourite musicians outlining the changes to come, and we sang along believing it would happen. Songs like Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Crystal Blue Persuasion, and Imagine defined our beliefs.

But the day to day struggle was a more powerful force than idealistic dreams and after college we all got married, settled down, and focused on our careers. We still listened to the music, sang the songs, and enjoyed reminiscing but time kept marching on as one by one our idols and their messages disappeared. It was the music makers, much more so than the politicians, who kept us grounded in time and place and, as they keep fading away, we begin to realize how fast we are aging.

In just the past 5 years alone we have lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Leon Russell, Prince, Chuck Berry, Greg Allman, Glen Campbell, Walter Becker, Tom Petty, Marty Balin, Ric Ocasek, Ginger Baker, Spencer Davis, Little Richard, Neil Peart, Kenny Rogers, Eddie Van Halen, Bill Withers, Dusty Hill, Gerry Marsden, Phil Spector, B.J. Thomas, Mary Wilson, and this summer Charlie Watts.  

But there are a trio of boomers who are determined to take the singularly most impressive human achievement of all time, landing on the Moon, to a new level. Branson, Bezos, and Musk have been demonstrating impressive technological advancements in space travel over the summer in spite of all the world's problems and this may be the new frontier that lifts us out of our doldrums. We need this because we are all getting older, the world's problems aren't going away, and there just ain't no cure for the summertime blues.