Comments to Victoria City Council, April 11, 2019. Four minute read.
I’ve lived downtown for 10 years in a condo I was lucky enough to buy when I moved here.
For a longer time, I’ve been a bit obsessed with how development leadership happens in a place, and why in spite of best efforts, economies everywhere seem so disconnected from social livelihoods.
I’m talking about more than just your leadership as councillors. It’s about the leadership continuously emerging throughout this beautiful evolving urban ecosystem we call Victoria.
It’s the perspective that “inhabitants, not governors” contribute to the leadership conditions of a place. Governments govern but so do corporations and every other business and organization and person with some kind of mission to accomplish in our city.
I want to put a few definitions in our minds (and notice that all but the last contain the word “interact”):
First is Development: the set of processes that interact to create wealth and income, improve livelihoods and reduce poverty.
City: the foundational structural opportunity for people to be accessible to each other, to interact and be creative and innovative.
Place-based Leadership: the overall context of forces that interact to frame the political power of a place, bounding what leaders can accomplish in their actions.
And finally, Place-less Leadership: people who can enact means to shield themselves from, or are not expected to care about, the consequences of their decisions for particular places and communities.
Land developers are foundational place-based leaders. They build our city. So are inhabitants, specifically land owners. So watching local land development happen, and community conflict happen, and the same urban dynamics happening elsewhere, skyrocketing land values are turning cities into places of placeless leaders — ironically, many who local to their given city.
This is about access to home ownership, as well as the obligations that property owners have to their communities as de facto place-based leaders. Aristotle advocated private ownership, and had the philosophy, “private in possession, common in use,” a perspective urging private owners to share their resources with the city in some way.
Because land is power. It stands squarely at the intersection between individuals and communities. It basically underwrites our economy, making mortgages a central influence in our community relationships. Mortgages transfer resources from savers to borrowers, giving homeowners more meaningful access to the economy at large.
But we’re in a land value crisis. In this climate, a mortgage becomes more important than a person, or a relationship with a neighbour; renting is no longer a stepping stone to ownership. And renters are being left “socially, economically, and legally weak, dependent, and vulnerable.”
Landowners are incentivized to retain property they don’t live in to extract rents out of trapped renters instead of selling their land to someone who may actually take the opportunity to contribute to a flourishing city, as Aristotle would have seen. It’s a recipe for undermining and dividing our communities. (And imagine a tall building without a foundation.)
Meanwhile: the epitome of urban leadership has become the ability to act in land development. Urban planner, architect and anthropologist Nilson Ariel Espino from Panama wrote a book called Building the Inclusive City.
He writes: “…it will be mostly in cities that human societies will ultimately succeed or fail… [which] will depend, to an important extent, on how cities… integrate their populations with their development processes.”
If development leaves unresolved social disenfranchisement or displacement, we directly contribute to segregation and isolation. And economic insecurity. And addiction. And in general, all of the conditions that make a neighbourhood or downtown feel unsafe. (And we all know the complexity of transformations we’ve seen our own downtown go through.)
This is why the courage to reframe a rigid development system is so important — because we can all taste this threat and fear of isolation.
Recall the purpose of a city to empower interaction and innovation amongst people. We have to keep in mind that global-level injustices both start and end in these small-scale interactions between people in cities.
Victoria is in a position to be a global leader.
I implore local leaders to challenge the status-quo of development economics that says it’s not viable if bound by strong inclusionary housing policy. Provoke leadership in development, finance, labour, everywhere — to break out of our rigid silos to figure out how together we create an inclusive development ecosystem that creates wealth and income, improves livelihoods and reduces poverty in our city.