This story is a creative output of an Applied Research Project submitted to Cape Breton University, the final requirement of a Master of Business Administration in Community Economic Development and Leadership. It bridges the voices of the project’s ten research participants, who together represent varied leadership environments across Downtown Victoria’s entrepreneurial, institutional and community interest spaces. Each leader tells their own story as they explore their urban relationship activities within a frame of sustainability and social inclusiveness. They do not know each other, but together they speak to shared values and barriers with respect to their professional aspirations and experiences with the city.
In Downtown Victoria, urban sustainability means we value collective intentions and collaboration, entrepreneurialism and innovation, and business operations focused on building a capacity to deal with the messiness of this increasingly complex world. For inclusiveness, we value self-expression, experimentation, acceptance, accessibility, social and economic diversity, and work/life balance. And of course there’s the ability to afford a safe place to live.
Some may say this is all talk, but I’m optimistic. I’m positively blown away by the change happening in my hometown. Everyone embraces the differences here; even the A-Types are pretty chill. People always wave as they walk by, walking dogs, and our shops know us. Not many places this size could have more than 20 coffee shops and only one Timmys downtown. We’re a foodie community: restaurants are a huge business. People dress the way they want; there’s been a lot of conscious effort to remove barriers based on race, gender, sexual orientation, income strata, creating a place where people are willing to try different things from business ventures to going to a pride parade. Most of our new shops are new entrepreneurs who were able to take a risk and start a business. Entrepreneurs find a way, knowing work is coming, we can stretch out of our comfort zone. The development environment is activated with lots of demand for infrastructure upgrades along with government grants. Change is happening underneath every crane. The vibrancy of our downtown attracts investment, feeding this amazing arts and theatre scene that many big cities can’t sustain. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, voted safest of 700 global ports. There’s always people, activities and events, you feel safe—I know if I needed help, someone would help me.
There are cautionary tales, like how Austin grew without control. I live in Victoria for a reason. But it is hard not to notice and feel resistance to all the change happening right now. My daughter asks, Why do adults care? I think it’s because people are scared of what they don’t know, and we get connected to places, emotionally. But no community stays the same forever, with or without development. An unexpected catalyst forces change, or pressure points build, and then services can’t meet demand. Amazingly most of the developers who build our city are local, but they often risk everything to spend over two years wondering if they will lose it all. Who’s got the capacity for that kind of risk? It’s a different switch. But spatial change affects mindsets, the culture of a place. Something will happen at everyone’s personal level, the only change that counts, and community engagement isn’t set up to deal with that. A lot of social space getting built right now favours certain behaviours over others, and there’s so much concrete, it’s difficult to find a place to hang out or sit comfortably without having to spend money.
So you ask, who gets to sit at the table? The table that ensures what we evaluate as priorities are addressed in the community. I’m at a table, but also not. Most of us have been sitting here for over 15 years, so we know people at tables need to avoid alienating their client and membership bases with ideas difficult to reconcile with the business risks they’ve taken. It’s impossible for businesses not to obsess over their own operations or they won’t have the physical space. So the New Era isn’t really at the table. Plus it’s difficult to imagine an equal spot at the table to discuss how the primary place people are dying is in their homes, because as people we don’t want to talk about our struggles, especially drug use—it’s hard enough to talk with housing providers about that. And affordable housing is very relative: a person on disability can’t access it with $400 per month. I ask myself, what’s it going to be like for my kid? What’s going to constitute a home in 20 years? You kind of need some basic things.
Tables are supposed to unite silos, but silos are everywhere. Social services manage crises on their own. Urban development includes a dynamic network of professional firms and city staff connecting regularly through events and projects, sharing information and memory, intentionally working to maintain trust with each other and dream about making stuff happen. But there is no real public connection. Consultation channels are there, but you can’t call what happens communication. Then there’s Technology: the most valuable sector in town, possibly the only truly collaborative group, connecting its people with resources and knowledge and space to work; a place from which to amplify. They occupy this key knowledge space that’s kind of the future, pretty critical for how you think development will happen here. But we don’t have those relationships about how knowledge happens with them, or what challenges they’re tackling. Technology isn’t an end in and of itself. They’re an unseen community outside their street-level coffee shop; literally an open door, but those of us outside wonder how to reach out and broaden their call to action. Time is valuable and you don’t want to waste others’ time either.
So? We are bleeding talent. Our universities and colleges produce this phenomenal employment base for all sectors but they are disconnected from the city and its needs. Graduates leave, thinking there’s no work, or that they can’t afford to live here. Nine of ten businesses will say their biggest issue is attracting the best people in their industry: law, medical, anything. Unemployment is under 4%; restaurants close because they can’t staff themselves. Demand for services is on the rise. The component parts are there for all sectors to come together and support Tech as an employment base, for example, but capacity is an issue. I watch city council live-streams and councillors need to have some balls. Some do, but short-term decisions and small budgets and intents result in small outcomes and impacts. I’ve made real effort to connect with people who hold the levers, everywhere, but there’s no follow up, or it takes months. It feels like there’s no support for common goals, no real appreciation for the work we do, work we can see is really necessary.
There has to be a desire to work together. Amidst all our local diversity, we don’t see much of it at the events we go to and we should. We bring projects to communities, set up foundations and donate our time and resources, and sometimes there’s a good relationship. But in general we lack the staff and resources to contribute the way we really want. People don’t tend to get together until there’s a need, but when our needs are so divergent we don’t even get together, you realize you need a relationship first… but still we ask, relationship for what? You don’t often form relationships for the sake of it, and collaboration gets old fast unless there’s a reason to be there. So I look back at what we value and wonder how together we achieve it.
Someone passed away on our doorstep here at work recently, which was stressful and sad. I’ve heard of training to deal with stuff like this, which is good because we all need capacity to not be afraid. It freaks people out to see the streets occupied with people acting out, struggling with vulnerability, misplacing who’s actually vulnerable. But the simple absence of fear isn’t enough; there needs to be a deliberate shift in culture. He died there, so no longer part of Victoria’s collective wisdom, new ways of knowing, or the change that’s to come. Where was his table? Our system is set up to empower someone else with that responsibility, so it becomes no one’s, when there are so many valid conceptions of what’s real. We need more people around tables speaking to the change that’s happening who aren’t me because who would even want me to try it alone.