May 1, 2014

Views on a Vancouver in Decline

Okay, PT readers, time to move on from the Spaxman piece before Godwin’s Law comes into play.  Here’s another chewy piece to get you going …


Exit, Voice and Loyalty for a Vancouver in Decline


Meg Holden, Urban Studies Program, Simon Fraser University (

Personal caveat: I believed in the prospect of urban sustainability before it was fashionable. The rise of environmental sustainability policy in the 1990s in B.C., when I was an undergraduate student – historic events and initiatives like the Commission on Resources and the Environment, the Land and Resources Management Process, and the Clayoquot Sound protests – were formative for me.

At the same time, rather than keep me in the woods, this all drove me to continue my studies in New York City, when poor graduate students could still afford to live in Lower Manhattan, when opting to cycle on the streets meant you probably did have a death wish, just like the drivers shouted at you from their windows. I came home to B.C. before Michael Bloomberg’s dreamweaving machine proved to the world that big, loud, and tough cities could also be green, provided sufficient pipes to pour the capital.

I raise this caveat to say that my readers have every right to be suspicious of my pro-urban bias on sustainability. But my reader, it isn’t what you think. I do not think our cities, not even Vancouver, are the solution to the problem we wealthy people have with limits, nor the problems we have living alongside more-than-human nature. At the same time, I don’t think that old saw about “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” applies to urban sustainability work, here or elsewhere.

The case I’d like to make is that: for a civilization in decline, as ours is, our cities offer us more opportunity to learn from our mistakes. That’s it. I don’t think we have much hope for much more. Nor do I think this is as pessimistic a stance as it sounds at first blush.

Vancouverites, our city is also in decline. I cringe to write this, knowing that most of you readers will have invested significant heart, years and material contributions to Vancouver’s success as a city. I want to say to all of you, head-on: the decline is not your fault. Most of it is not of our choosing or our making. And yet, here we are, with ever more to prove to ever more watchful creditors; making ever more frivolous and private demands of a limited, though rich, piece of our planet; and less patience, a lower margin of error for our experiments that may fail.

No, I’m not talking about the real estate “bubble” – I don’t have to, the sense of decline in our city is so much more tangible. We’ve lost touch with the idea of a clean green city when we are ready to accept a proposal for an expanded pipeline in which one graphically articulated possible scenario has oil gushing into the Fraser River from the Port Mann bridge to the George Massey tunnel. And a majority of us are nonetheless not sufficiently bothered to consider not driving in a car.

We are facing 1-2 degrees warmer temperatures in the same generation that will see a million new residents. We see declines in the vitality of all natural systems on which our lives ultimately depend, from the beleaguered bees to the acidified shellfish, to the foreshore and waters that suck up our pollution without us even bothering to monitor what all we are toxifying, most of the time. The air quality implications alone of becoming a major global hub for coal and tar sands oil transportation to fuel hungry shores – need I list the other risks and disastrous hypocrisies inherent in playing this ‘gateway’ role?

Declines in equity, with homelessness on the rise again at the bottom of the spectrum and reckless wealth burning rubber and plastic almost anywhere you cast a glance, responsible for that pervasive sense of confusion, betrayal, and distance from other people that so many of us carry in our gut. Declines in hospitality, particularly severe when you face the fact that we are not taking care of all our children, 1 in 5 of whom lives in poverty province-wide, the worst record in the country.

Declines in the place-specificity, the unique and creative local attitude that we once brought to setting and cementing our city’s plan, as we chase the bigger fish of international exchange, branding and recognition.

Declines in even the memory of the meanings of this place, when we boast mindlessly of #1 rankings on resilience and liveability indices made by itinerant power brokers who see the world as an unevenly distributed soup of soylent green, who care nothing for our specific fruit trees, lookouts, farmers, park benches, let alone ideas, heritage, children and old folks.

What do we know about organizations in decline? The brilliant American political strategist from a generation ago, Albert O. Hirschman, summed up the options for dealing with organizations in decline in three simple words: exit, voice, and loyalty. Both exit – voting with your feet, getting the hell out of Dodge – and voice – lodging a complaint, lobbying your representative, organizing a protest, speaking to management – are legitimate ways in which members of an organization take action when they notice decline.

But the more you care about an organization, the more you want to use the power of voice instead of the power of exit. The reason is straight forward: when people leave an organization in decline without first telling others why they are going, the organization loses important, timely information it could use to improve itself. Over time, this becomes a compounding problem as the only people left to speak for the organization in decline are those who weren’t able to recognize the decline in its earlier stages or who didn’t care enough about the decline to leave. It turns out that a move from exercising exit to exercising voice is also a move toward local democracy, which is important when the organization in question is your city.

The good news is there are signs of a shift from exit to voice in Vancouver. It is flawed and full of warts, but it is still an important trend to hang onto, certainly in the face of the flat-out race away from voice that we see at our higher order organization in decline: the Government of Canada. Put the Canadian people and the Government of Canada together on the beach in bright sunshine and you could hear the grains of sand weathering underfoot.

After World War II, that’s how we North Americans treated our cities, too. We abandoned them, we invented the suburbs, and many of us have been holding our tongues in the garage ever since. Most American cities have never recovered from this exit. Lucky, lucky us, Vancouver fared considerably better at that time.

Nowadays, across our whole region, a new idea is sinking in: the idea that there is no exit from the city. More and more, we are all in. The Translink Mayors Council, consisting of urban and suburban municipalities, is united in its advocacy for more, better public transit; our only true glutton for automobile dependency is the Province. A 60-storey tower is going up in Surrey City Centre; a 10-storey apartment building sits proudly in Pitt Meadows, comfortable that it belongs there. When all but one of Metro Vancouver’s municipalities is now building more multifamily than single family homes, the suburban/urban split of the last generation no longer applies. When you pop your head into a public meeting at any of the region’s town halls to find advocates for high-density housing and development on the same side as farmland advocates, the split no longer applies. Across the region, we are all coming around to a realization that a good city region is the best we might just get.

(The action of exit is out of favour, in our city, but we are nevertheless being “exited,” treated as an invisible, insignificant, ineffective populace by higher orders of government. We are being treated like no more than a logistical hub with some kinks in it by the Province and by the Government of Canada, when it comes to their priorities of managing the flow-through of fossil fuel resources out to international markets as quickly as possible.)

We are exercising voice when we get, and when we give, serious kinds of publicly-articulated goals and plans, solemn treatment to public participation in local governance and to other kinds of public displays and even private conversations about our city. I would even include as exercises of voice: new forms of partnerships, new roles and cross-over relationships. The exercise of voice is anything that draws out new participants and voices, new ways of turning voices into other kinds of actions, that we wouldn’t have thought of without the conversation.

It is of course almost complete cacophony, at present. Very literally babble, in the sense of many different languages speaking past one another, all at once. And sometimes hugely conflict-ridden, like when thousands converge in Langley against a proposed medium density housing development, when a youth organization experiments with growing wheat in the city using some public funds, or when a well-used road for cars gets converted into a sparsely-used road for bicycles. The key to the power of voice is the very fact that so many of us care enough about this stuff to reach up to pull out our hair and start hollering.

Loyalty is the third key to Hirschman’s framework, and it is what the outcome in our action to save Vancouver from decline really hinges upon. Loyalty, our feelings of attachment of self with our city, is what compels us to choose voice over exit in a spirit of hope. Loyalty can also interfere with the signals provided by the other two kinds of action – leading people to fail to recognize evidence of decline, to refuse to exit and to keep their mouths shut. Loyalty always plays some role in decisions about responding to decline in an organization that has personal meaning and value. The question is: to what idea, what version of Vancouverism are we loyal?

Are we loyal to the Vancouverist thinking that busts urban planning and policy conventions, like the notion that downtowns are not intended for “living first,” that land use and transportation are two separate planning issues, as are agricultural and green space planning, that a functioning metropolitan region has only one core, that social housing is a different animal than market housing? Or have we already settled for the piecemeal Vancouverist vision that gave us bite-sized brands like “ecodensity” and “Vancouver green capital”?

Are we loyal to a Vancouver that strives for equity, the outlandish idea of “revitalization without displacement” and 55% affordable housing in Vancouver’s False Creek South, that gives us an almost-legal, absolutely vital, subsistence economy street market every Sunday in Pigeon Park? Or have we shrugged this off for the aggressive green city that vaunts its performance on international green, livable, and resilient ranking lists regardless of the validity of these lists, and brand-conscious images of “resort city Vancouver” (try singing it to the Club Med theme: “hands up, baby, hands up …”)?

Are we loyal to strong, infrastructure-based, ground-up ideas of how to build an energy-efficient, non-polluting city that can continue to operate to our benefit and our children’s benefit even as sea levels, temperatures, energy and commodity prices, and populations rise, as shocks become normal, other orders of government sometimes hostile, and as disposable incomes shrink? Or are we willing to swallow the docile, nihilist, face-saving, voluntary checklist sort of approach, negotiating in the dark and aiming for no more than a zero sum game, winning a competition amongst a league of cities all sinking into a warming, churling, churning tide, becoming increasingly hostile to one another, losing real ground radically as the stakes rise?

Much depends on what piece of Vancouver’s vision and history we are loyal to, and how we gather our powers of voice to recognize and respond to our city’s decline.


A version of this article was presented at the SCARP Symposium Planning the Metropolitan Vancouver Region: A Critical Perspective, April 16, 2014.

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  1. A little negative, I’d say !

    Vancouver’s air is far better than the 80’s with less pulp mills, wood burning saw mills, derelict warehouses and cars without catalytic converters.

    We have many subways/sky trains now, not enough, but many.

    There is no real estate bubble.

    There is no effect of oil sands pollution in Vancouver.

    Plenty of clean beaches, clean water, plenty of hiking or skiing within minutes.

    Yes we have too many cars but that problem is easily solvable by just raising the price of car registration, road use and parking lot use, and closing or reducing for through traffic 50% of its roads. Yes we also have too many visible homeless people but that too is easily solvable if the city were more pro-business and collected more taxes so it could spend it on more social services.

    Why do so many folks want to move here, I ask, if it is so terrible ?

    Where else in the world can you go skiing in the morning, sailing in the afternoon and to a world class opera in the evening ?

    I have lived in many other cities over the decades but chose to live here now .. And apparently there is a few others just like me who could live elsewhere but chose not to because it is so beautiful here.

    And now, off to the beach …

      1. Indeed my friend. I heard the SAME arguments when I first lived here in the late 80’s. “Imagine, $250,000 for a bungalow in Burnaby. Who can afford it ? The prices have to come down. There is a bubble .. ”

        That same average Burnaby bungalow is $1M today and will be $2M by 2040, or likely, far earlier than that.

        Attractive cities, like Vancouver, or Vienna, or Paris, or New York, or Hongkong, or Singapore, or Monaco, or Toronto, or Calgary, or Munich, or Barcelona or … will always be expensive, especially single family houses in decent locations.

    1. Yes we have too many cars but that problem is easily solvable by just raising the price of car registration, road use and parking lot use, and closing or reducing for through traffic 50% of its roads. Yes we also have too many visible homeless people but that too is easily solvable if the city were more pro-business and collected more taxes so it could spend it on more social services.

      Hahahahahaaaa! Where are you from? Hey, how about we base tickets, parking and insurance on income? Lol. Otherwise aren’t you just stealing what the public built for a much smaller section of the population? Because you didn’t contribute to building that infrastructure, Thomas, so why do you feel so entitled? You say you attend church yet you think the problem with homeless is their visibility? How are you going to ski in the morning if we build up the mountains? By the way, the district of north Vancouver considered opening up a parcel at the forest line for development. They had a referendum and that idea lost. That’s democracy for you, well democracy, the problems of building higher than a thousand feet and bears, of course. They tend to break things, (like fences) scare people and poop all over the place. Puts off prospective buyers. Perhaps Vancouver just needs more bears, to erase the term world class from memory and to stop shamelessly, desperately promoting itself to anyone with a buck. You reap what you sow, so if you are whoring yourself, you are probably going to get….

    2. “…There is no effect of oil sands pollution in Vancouver…”
      Where do you think the gasoline that fuels our cars and pollutes our air comes from? And that is not to mention climate change.

      “Where else in the world can you go skiing in the morning, sailing in the afternoon and to a world class opera in the evening ?”

      Quenstown, NZ, Los Angeles…….

      1. You can go skiing in LA ?

        I am not advocating building up the entire mountain, just some.

        There always has been climate change, as the last ice age was what, 10,000 or so years ago, before hardly any human impact and has been warming ever since. Don’t believe all that fear mongering.

        As stated, to get more tax revenue Vancouver has to promote a more business friendly attitude, for example by lowering commercial taxes and in parallel increase price of car use and residential property taxes, I’d say by about 100% – phased in over perhaps 10 years. hen there would be enough revenue to deal with social issues like homelessness.

        New housing needs a %, say 10%, of below market subsidized housing. If every condo tower had that we could create thousands of rental units, below market or well below market for the needy.

      1. This real estate article is bogus since there is no Canadian nor a US real estate market. They are only local, i.e. city by city. Canada, unlike the US, has low debt and almost a federal surplus. Unemployment is low. Taxes are modest. House prices generally are higher than the US as it costs more to build due to weather i.e. higher envelope costs and higher water/sewer infrastructure costs due to frost. The US market was highly inflated leading up to 2007 due to excessive lending practices that never existed in Canada. As we can see now in many US cities, prices are approaching pre-2007 levels. If you look at major cities like Boston, New York, SanFrancisco or LA house prices are pretty high for good locations.

        Also, the average in the US is lower than in Canada due to their many war zones or trailer park like housing, that rarely exists in Canada.

        I repeat: there is no real estate bubble in most Canadian cities, although of course Ontario with their excessive taxation, high and rising debt levels and failed energy policies may see an impact here.

  2. This is a good example of why clear thinking needs clear writing. Granted as spoken remarks there were probably meant to be polemical and not to be taken seriously in detail. But what is the purpose of this doom and gloom nihilism? Is it meant to shock? Because if it is meant to shock, which can be quite useful, it needs to contain something shocking. Meaning something that is true, significant and new. Otherwise it seems like the self-expression of someone who finds depression to be an emotionally satisfying state.

    That the human species is headed for disaster is not something I totally disagree with. I don’t think anyone expects human civilization as presently constructed to go on for a long time, at least in geological time. Just a blink of the crocodile’s eye. The question is which disaster will be our undoing. It is possible that our current treatment of the environment will be our undoing, or it is possible that it will not. But gloomerism does nothing change the outcome. Take three scenarios:

    1. Environment not the making of a disaster = we live on

    2. Environment is the making of a disaster, but we can and do mend our ways = we live on

    3. Environment is the making of a disaster, and there is nowt to be done about it = we don’t live on

    We currently do not know which scenario we are in, but there is a scenario where positive action affects the outcome. But gloomerism is a call to apathy, not to positive action. You can’t get people to change if you tell them they are done for anyway. This is an important point – if it weren’t, I wouldn’t have bothered to post this post – it is possible that there is real harm in this line of thinking, however emotionally satisfying it might be.

    1. There will be no sudden environmental disaster (baring something on the cosmic scale) that wipes out the human race.

      It’s just going to be a slow decline for the foreseeable future.

      The rich will continue to get richer and fewer, the poor poorer and more numerous.

      The quality of the environment will continue to be degraded. Catastrophic storms will become increasingly common, and they will kill many, but they won’t kill the majority.

      Air and water will become more tainted in more places, but we will filter the water and wear breathing masks if needed. Clean water and air will of course be more readily available to the wealthy.

      Food and essentials will become even more expensive. Unneeded distractions will become ever cheaper.

      It’s not a particularly bright future, and things will continue to get shittier for the majority of the human population. But we won’t just roll over and die. Humans will keep on going and making more humans. We will expand to fill all available space, even as our living spaces constrict around us.

      Maybe in the far off future, we will start to turn that around. Maybe it will be a technological solution, maybe something else. But it’s a long way off.

      Things are going to get much worse before they get better.

      I don’t even see this as a doom and gloom thing anymore, it’s just the natural consequence of the human condition and the end result of unfettered capitalism (which may be one and the same.)

      Knowing that this is the way we are going, and that the forces behind these long term shifts are as massive and inevitable as the shifting of continental plates, we can find meaning in trying to make things better on a smaller scale.

      You can’t stop the tide from coming in, but you can build a wall of sand and hold it back a little while, in a little space.

      Rather than being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the inevitability of the great decline, we can find happiness and meaning in trying to make our own little changes, to slow the decline even in a small space, for a small time.

      1. I wouldn’t expect an environmental disaster to be sudden, which is why I don’t discount the possibility that we are lost. Human beings aren’t always so good at dealing with problems that aren’t staring them in the face. But it isn’t at all certain yet that we are lost. The CO2 thing for instance could be pretty well licked if we gave up coal fired power plants, a big job but not insurmountably so. But descending into gloomerism – of which I would count this as an example “Rather than being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the inevitability of the great decline, we can find happiness and meaning in trying to make our own little changes, to slow the decline even in a small space, for a small time” – does nothing positive.

        And this gloomerism also seems to be based on a distorted view of the world:

        “The rich will continue to get richer and fewer, the poor poorer and more numerous.” – In the rich world, the rich are getting richer, certainly a lot faster than anyone else, but in the rest of the world the poor are getting less poor and less numerous. Actually the decline in absolute poverty around the world in the last 20 years has been startling. Obviously China, but also India, Bangladesh and Indonesia have greatly reduced the number of people living in absolute poverty.

        “Catastrophic storms will become increasingly common, and they will kill many, but they won’t kill the majority.” – Actually with better flood control and just better weather prediction and communications the number of weather related deaths has fallen dramatically over the last last century.

        “Food and essentials will become even more expensive.” – Actually as a percentage of income, food prices have not increased when looking over a multi-decade time span, and for countries that have markedly improved their economies, they have decreased.

        “It’s not a particularly bright future, and things will continue to get shittier for the majority of the human population.” – Again, particularly for the poor, things have been getting remarkably less shitty. The middle class in the western work has been treading water economically, but in other aspects of life haven’t some things gotten better?

        “Humans will keep on going and making more humans. We will expand to fill all available space, even as our living spaces constrict around us.” – I don’t think that that prediction holds with the evidence from the rich world. As people get wealthier, they have fewer children. And most of the world’s population is getting wealthier. Our reproductory mechanisms evolved in a world without birth control, and they are easily short circuited.

  3. The title of the article is misleading/inaccurate; Vancouver is in decline only because the world as a whole is in decline. Indeed, this is incontravertible, and the only thing to be done now is to work hard at slowing down the decline and delaying the end. People’s “voices” can go a long way toward slowing the degradation, as Meg Holden duly suggests. And, without question we have a moral responsibility, at the very least, to accomplish this goal for the future generations.

  4. The world is in decline ? More people live healthier and far longer lives than ever before ! The middle class is the biggest that ever existed. Even kids in Africa now have iPhones, internet and fridges. More kids than ever go to school. Yes there are many problems in the world, but far fewer % wise on a population basis. I’ll dig out some articles and post them within the next few days.

    Due to 24/7 news channels and internet we just see more of the fewer problems faster and as if they are all huge. Many are isolated.

    1. Alas, yes, Thomas, the world is indeed in decline. There is not much point living longer if we are going to suffer Alzheimer’s. There is not much point to a burgeoning middle class with both parents working long hours and multiple jobs due to the inflated costs of living to support themselves and their children. Whatever happened to the concept of a quality of life? There is not much point being a kid in Africa with a cell phone if you are dying of Aids, disfigured by leprosy, or malnourished and orphaned. The world is in decline morally, environmentally, financially and culturally. Technology is advancing faster than our ability to learn and pay for it. Govenments, unions, bureaucracies and citizens’ associations conflate, delay or impede decision-making through size, policy and litigation, stagnating and bankrupting societies and nations.

  5. Sean Orr got it right: saying you were into urbanity and cycling before it was cool is just such a weird starting point. It reeks of an insecure need to posture and place the author as ahead of some thought curve – “I was into cool band X, before band X was even a band”.

    Another point: decline is a theme that is over used. To say that civilization and this city are both in decline, you have to also be saying that they used to be better. It’s an inevitable, fundamental, aspect of the definition of the word. You cannot say ‘decline’, without saying ‘used to be better’. So, when talking about city and civilization, by using decline as your theme, you have to be saying that back when: False Creek was more polluted, we lived in a less multicutlural, more overtly oppressive and prejudiced society (whether against those of colour, the LGBT community etc), when cars polluted more, things were better.

    A commentator says the world is in decline morally. When were our morals better? Before 1994, when apartheid was still in force?
    We are in financial decline? Was our economic system better when only WASPs could be lawyers? When labourers of different races made different wages?
    We are in environmental decline – this one, well, fair enough – though that’s not a universal experience. You are talking about cities, and many cities are profoundly less polluted than they once were.
    I am not saying these problems are solved. No greenwash here. But, if you think we are in decline, you must mean that at some point in the past things were better. When was that?

    When was the ‘concept of a quality of life’ viable for everyone? The mythic past you long for was a time when huge portions of the population were shut out of the middle class dream.

    I guess my point is, the ‘decline’ line necessarily implies a false narrative about some mythical time in the past – better to call our current problems what they are – real, palpable issues – rather than evoke false nostalgia.

    If decline means gay marriage, bike lines, the end of apartheid, a concept of middle class that doesn’t just mean ‘white people’, more people than ever with university degrees, then F it – I’ll take decline – with all our problems in hand.

    1. CA, the past had temporary setbacks and unresolved but resolvable issues. We were not in decline because we were working to improve the future and had the capacity and capability to do so; yes, the past was, therefore, better, and yes, we are in decline because capacity and capability are approaching their limits. It is not simply trading a past problem for a present one; you advocate almost exclusively that opportunities and increased freedoms to non-WASPS means civilization is not in decline. What about the oil shortage, 911 and the on-going threats of terrorism world-wide, the likelihood of World War III resulting in nuclear annihilation, our inability to protect ourselves against superbugs world-wide, nations going bankrupt due to political corruption, children committing suicide due to cyberbullying, children and adults open-firing for mass destruction in schools, universities, workplaces, malls, theatres, courts, etc? Just to name a few — these are universal present issues that we did not have in the past and identify a moral and global decline.