I admit that I am not a heritage specialist but, as an elected representative and new Council Liaison to the municipality’s Heritage Commission, I know that I will spend time, along with Council colleagues, dealing with a variety of challenges related to land use/community planning, chief among them, the future of Oak Bay’s built and natural heritage. I believe that heritage, just like health and safety, is a quality of life issue in Oak Bay.
I recently searched the definition of the word “heritage” and learned that it originates in the 12th and 13th Centuries in France and Britain. It means “something that has been or may be inherited…anything transmitted from the past or handed down by tradition…evidence of the past, such as historical sites, buildings and unspoiled natural environments, considered collectively as society’s inheritance.”
Certainly Oak Bay’s heritage fits this definition. It is indeed collective and provides us with a valuable inheritance, one that has a rich and often compelling history of people, families, events, places, natural environments and buildings. Oak Bay’s heritage weaves unique stories, reflected in its houses, streetscapes, neighbourhoods and natural and cultivated spaces that are enjoyed today and that many of us call home.
It’s true that the heart of a community is shaped by its people and its history and that our understanding of the present and future may be clouded when we fail to recognize and appreciate the past. The history embodied in Oak Bay’s heritage is a community asset that is recorded, catalogued and promoted by concerned and committed volunteers who work on behalf of all of us to make sure that Oak Bay’s past serves to inform our future.
Heritage forms part of our community well-being and, in my view, without a distinct land use planning process that incorporates heritage recognition, preservation and education, then we remain vulnerable to the pressures of high land values and ongoing losses of historically significant places, buildings and habitats.
Further, the issue of housing accessibility becomes very real when Oak Bay continues to lose smaller bungalows, many of which were built between the 1920s and 1940s. I also recognize that some homes are no longer efficient or environmentally sound but I still believe that upgrading, based on a balanced financial evaluation of such costs, can sometimes be preferable to demolition.
Ideally, a balanced approach to land use and heritage planning should not only accommodate the property rights and needs of Oak Bay’s residents but at the same time, provide opportunities for heritage conservation. Informing residents about the differences between heritage registration and designation takes a commitment on the part of decision-makers and the community working together.
In a community where housing affordability for single family dwellings remains an ongoing challenge, especially where land values continue to climb, shouldn’t we as a community be willing to explore options that preserve heritage and provide reasonable housing?
Perhaps Jean Sparks, well known Oak Bay resident, volunteer historian and archivist, says it best: “Consider our built and natural heritage features as community building blocks. The continued loss and erosion of these special places, built or natural, eventually contributes to the loss of community memory, neighbourhood character and pride of place.”