It has only been 157 years since the morning of March 14th 1843, when the Hudson Bay Company’s Chief Factor, James Douglas, stepped ashore at Clover Point to begin the permanent presence of white settlers on Vancouver Island, pushing aside the Island’s native inhabitants onto patchy reserves.
In this short period of time, as well as cutting down most of the old growth forest, we have created quite a mess of urban and suburban sprawl, from Victoria to Campbell River – and the buildings keep on coming.
In spite of that, we still live in a relative paradise. By the wisdom of some early planning and the protests of some vociferous residents, Victoria has preserved its Inner Harbour, its Dallas Road and its downtown neighbourhoods. Compared to most North American cities, it is a jewel.
The world will experience many changes, but there is nothing to indicate that humans will not be living here in a thousand years, or ten thousand years time. In geological time, the Egyptians and Sumerians were just yesterday. The future will arrive, even if we find it almost impossible to conceive. New people will continue to arrive on Vancouver Island.
It’s not as if there’s a shortage of space. The Island’s 750,000 people live on 32,000 square kilometres. Wales’ 3 million people live on 20,000 sq km. The problem is not one of population: it is one of values, lifestyle, and planning. We can generate our own energy renewably from the sun, winds and tides; we can grow far more of our own food in our 12-month growing season; we can learn how to recycle our water and sewage; we can become a zero-waste society, producing the goods we need without trashing the ecosystems they come from.
But can we live here in beauty and grace? What do we need to do today, to ensure that Victoria, Duncan and Nanaimo will be beautiful, civilized, graceful places in a hundred years time, surrounded by nature?
The basic principles should be cast in stone.
1. Create a firm green belt around every settlement, and only review it every 25 years. Allow for higher density inside the settled area, and downzone the land outside it, creating a clear dividing line between urban and rural. This is the principle that most European countries follow, which makes their cities so attractive and their landscapes so pleasing to the eye.
2. Plan a comprehensive network of greenways for cyclists and pedestrians, connecting every community. In Britain, the ‘Sustrans’ initiative aims to create a greenway within a ten minute cycle ride of 80% of the population; the first 5,000 miles is already in place. www.sustrans.co.uk
3. Plan for a major expansion of transit, with small connector buses and rapid busways on all major roads, as the Brazilian city of Curitiba does. (See www.busways.com and www.curitiba.pr.gov.br) The German city of Freiburg (pop’n 300,000), as well as laying 250 miles of bicycle paths, has introduced a single transit pass covering 90 different train, bus and tram routes, and slashed the price by 30%. Yes, we need a single unified Transportation Authority, as Greater Vancouver has.
4. Strengthen urban villages, creating greater density, more greenery and more pedestrian areas, as Victoria is doing along Yates Street. The downtown core and the urban villages create the heart of a city, where poets mix with realtors.
5. Turn residential streets into pedestrian priority areas, where cars must be on best behaviour. Invite local residents to get together to make local traffic reduction plans, and prohibit commuters and cars-in-a-hurry from cutting through residential areas. Give residents the authority to redesign their streets, narrowing the roadway and introducing parks and ponds, if that is their wish.
If we don’t do these things, the volume of traffic will cause people to flee to the suburbs, creating more traffic as they drive in each day. To our city legislators: now’s your chance to lay the foundations that people will speak proudly of in 100 years time. Please, don’t miss the opportunity.