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Columnist Stephen Quinn. (The Globe and Mail)
Columnist Stephen Quinn. (The Globe and Mail)

City Limits

A caustic attitude isn’t going to bring Vancouver together Add to ...

Let’s be clear: Snark is pretty much my resting place. These days, I’m not alone. I blame the Internets. They get meaner and more sarcastic with each passing day.

But the hostile reaction to the first report from the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force has puzzled even me. Yes, there’s much to poke fun at. Low-hanging fruit like the proposed creation of a storytelling session featuring city hall staffers:

“So I looked at the plans, and told him no accessory building can exceed 3.7 metres in height, measured to the highest point of the roof, the deck line of a mansard roof, or to the mean height of the level between the eaves and the ridge of a gable.” Wow, what a story. Applause. Thanks for sharing, man.

See, that’s easy.

But for the moment, set aside the touchy-feely stuff that makes you roll your eyes and feign vomiting, and instead look at where we are.

Vancouver is a city where people feel increasingly isolated in their own neighbourhoods. It’s a city where people generally don’t know their neighbours – especially if they happen to live in a high-rise. And we have a few of those.

I know people feel isolated because the Vancouver Foundation said so.

Also, I live here. We’re generally polite, but we’re far from friendly.

It’s a city where people aren’t sure how to change the things they would like to change, or how to make their neighbourhoods better.

It’s a city where people are convinced that because a developer made a model of a proposed development and rented a room to talk about it, it must be a done deal.

And it’s a city where voter turnout in the last election was less than 35 per cent, which was a significant improvement over the previous election. With numbers like that, it’s hard to argue that anyone is engaged.

These are all issues worth talking about, and while the first report of the task force isn’t perfect, I also don’t think it strives for anything more grand than the beginning of a conversation.

The task force wants to make it easier for citizens to let council know what they think. It wants neighbourhoods to help decide where money ought to be spent. It wants city councillors to take an interest in neighbourhood issues.

That’s a touchy one. Assigning councillors to listen to the concerns of specific neighbourhoods? I think they call that a ward system, don’t they? I’m pretty sure we’ve rejected that idea twice before.

Still, this proposal makes sense: Keep the “at large” system – but let councillors take on neighbourhoods in the same way they’ve taken on issues. It’s a big city. There are only 10 councillors. Give them two neighbourhoods apiece, and draw straws for Marpole.

But any effort to take the public process out of city hall and into the neighbourhoods would be an improvement. It might even mean that councillors could hear the opinions of people who aren’t generally available to sit through hours of proclamations and slide shows between nine and five on weekdays. You know, people with jobs.

Moving on to block parties – I know. This specific bullet point in the report has drawn the ire of critics.

What kind of nanny state do we live in? Do we really need the mayor and council to tell us to have a block party?

Well yes, we do. Because we keep talking about it and we still haven’t done it. And now the city is going to make it easier. Who knows? Your kids could end up playing with those other kids up the street and you could end up being friends. And I know, it’s a slippery slope until you’re trading chicken coop plans or dreaming of a compost collective. I’ll roll those dice.

On development, the task force thinks it might be a good idea for developers to float their notions in the neighbourhood for which a development is proposed before taking expensive renderings and flashy models to city hall. That way, the community could have its say early on, and maybe do away with the predictable accusations of rubber-stamping. Again, it’s something that just seems to make sense.

On the final point, well yes, allowing people to register to vote online might increase voter turnout – though I’m not holding my breath on that one.

So is the first report of the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force an evil attempt by Gregor Robertson to remake the city in his own image? No.

Is it a bit hokey in places? You bet.

But really, a block party is what’s getting everyone upset? Come on; it could be fun. And we could all use a little craic.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

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