“You have a problem if regional sustainability is not a priority for this area!”
So said former BC Premier Mike Harcourt during his keynote address at the second Greater Victoria Greatest Conversation event this week. This was the second installment to the first event held in February, and I was curious to learn more about what residents from other CRD communities are talking about when it comes to local issues related to a provincial study on amalgamation. I was reminded that more than half of CRD municipalities had an amalgamation question on their ballot in the November 2014 municipal election, since then, other communities (Central Saanich, Sidney, Colwood, Victoria and Esquimalt) have agreed to contact the Province requesting consideration of a study.
As a former municipal councillor, I learned that unless you have opportunities to sit at the CRD Board table, it can be challenging to get a sense of the region and to understand issues in other municipalities. So I took the opportunity to attend this gathering of people in one place, from all across the CRD. I also wanted to hear keynote speaker Mike Harcourt, now recognized as a thought leader on urban sustainability and cities.
Born and raised in Oak Bay, Mr. Harcourt expressed his support of citizen-led change initiatives, stating about meaningful change, “Don’t wait for politicians because it will take a long, long time.” He congratulated the organizers and the audience for making efforts to determine their own future by starting the conversation about regional governance. He went on to stress that changes in the way we govern ourselves, plan the future and mitigate our footprint on the earth are especially important in light of the current trends to urban living. According to Mr. Harcourt, in 1930, only 2 billion of us lived in cities but by 2000, 6 billion of us lived in cities and it is predicted by 2050, another 1 billion people will be city dwellers.
He believes that such population migration to cities poses huge challenges related to such areas as water, housing, sewage, taxes, energy and transportation, estimating that the costs will escalate as populations in cities squeeze services and resources. This is a far cry, he said, from the Canada of 1867 when, for example, only 20% of Canadians lived in cities. Today, 90% of Canadians live in 120 cities across the country but Mr. Harcourt says that we are struggling with urbanization. He argues that we should “flip the way we govern in Canada,” that there is a “cooperative national role to help cities and urban centres address emerging needs, such as child care, addiction treatment and affordable housing.” Touching on the future of housing, he stated “Give up the idea of a single family dwelling,” and emphasized that other forms of housing are needed to accommodate people living in cities. Mr. Harcourt went on to say that city infrastructure is “in a state of neglect” and needs replacing. We know this is true for Oak Bay and probably for other local communities too.
Mr. Harcourt suggested that 21st Century problems cannot be solved by 19th and 20th century governance models. He said that “sometimes, we just have to tackle the tough issues” and encouraged work on a proposal to change the way in which the Capital Region is administered. He suggested only three municipalities rather than the current 13, sparking a lot of audience questions. He also asked the audience a few questions of his own, about the current governance environment here: “Do you want the status-quo? Does your region have an overall energy sustainability plan? Do you have a regional transportation plan?” Mr. Harcourt suggested that governments and politicians should be “looking beyond the next election cycle…we should be solving these problems, not our kids,” and encouraged “a good process that would lead to good results.” He went on to say that a “well done public engagement process would lead to success” and the ideal for governance is what he called “a guided democracy.”
As for describing next steps in the Greater Victoria conversation, Mr. Harcourt urged the audience to have a referendum question ready in time for the next municipal election. In the meantime, he advised the audience to develop a common set of objectives (“not too many so as to overwhelm”) to take to the Province, suggesting that an amalgamation study should be completed by the provincial government within the next “two and a half years.” His key message seemed to be one about finding synergies and motivating others. As local municipalities, he said that we should not be “competing for excellence with each other but, instead, Greater Victoria should be competing with other Canadian cities such as Saskatoon.”
He concluded by giving the audience his description of what makes a “creative, innovative city.” “It’s the ability to attract and keep talent.” I watched as heads all over the room nodded in agreement.
(Update and Possible Correction: According to further information brought to my attention after my article was posted, apparently Mr. Harcourt is not originally from Oak Bay. I have been unable to confirm this formally, despite the fact that he stated in his keynote that he was from Oak Bay and attended Oak Bay High School).