Sunday, June 17, 2007

Richter Report - June 17, 2007 - Should Councillors Travel? “There are none who are so blind as those who will not see”.

There’s been a lot of hot air blowing through Langley web space lately about Councillors who travel to conferences and the costs of doing so. Being old enough to understand that I don’t have all the answers (or even all the questions) and being wise enough to appreciate that significant time and money can be saved in the long run by learning from other communities’ examples, I think Councillors who travel for the purpose of learning is a very good thing for Langley. It is money well spent and it has resulted in several notable advances for this community.

Thanks to Councillor Kositsky and his earlier involvement in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), the Township of Langley is a partner in Canada’s international development program. We have shared our expertise with a city in the Philippines for the past 6 years and are now actively involved in Tsunami reconstruction efforts. Also thanks to the FCM and its initiatives, Langley Township has a fully functioning Community Safety Commission which is chaired by Councillor Kositsky.

Councillor Long has carried on Councillor Kositsky’s initiatives by being the first elected representative from Langley Township (and the Lower Mainland outside of Surrey, Burnaby and Vancouver City) to the FCM Board of Directors. Councillor Long is also the newly elected President of the Lower Mainland Municipal Government Association which includes municipalities from Hope to Pemberton including Vancouver. When Langley Township representatives attend these activities, Langley Township is well known and well respected.

Langley is the first municipality in Canada to have an environmentally LEED Silver Certified township hall. This is a direct result of the municipal environmental initiatives reinforced by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). Councillors Ferguson, Kositsky, Long, Ward and myself have been regular attendees at these annual conferences which are held at different cities across Canada.

This year’s conference was in Calgary and one of its major foci was on affordable housing.

We learned at this conference that this is an issue in all major cities in Canada and that according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) standards, the group most at risk are those in the 40th percentile or lower income bracket. Depending on the area that you live in, this equates to about $50,000 to $60,000 annual income per year. CMHC uses a 4:1 ratio which means that a person/family with a $50,000 per year annual income can afford a $200,000 home. (Good luck finding one of these in Langley).

This Council likes to think it’s providing “affordable housing” with the new developments it is approving but I don’t think it’s even close which I suspect is one of the reasons that most new developments have unregistered secondary suites which in turn is doubling the density and the car/traffic problems in these areas.

At FCM, we were told of the Langford, BC model. In Langford, one in every 10 new single family homes being built is “affordable”. This means that they are integrated into existing developments and the price of these homes is capped at $160,000 for 25 years. To be eligible for these homes, several criteria are used such as age, length of residency in the community, annual income, number of children, disabilities, etc.

The Council and planners at Langford have observed that these homes are integrated into each subdivision. Developers are using a higher standard of building materials than they have to and so these homes are indistinguishable from their $360,000 neighbours. Langford City planners have also observed that the residents in the affordable units have great pride of ownership and are often the first on the block to have flowers planted and landscaping done.

I was so impressed with the Langford model that I have put forward a notice of motion for discussion at tomorrow’s Council meeting (June 18, 2007) asking that Council authorize staff to investigate and incorporate the Langford model here. Hopefully Council will agree as I think this route is much better than building separate affordable “projects” in Langley. They will blend in better with the community and avoid the problems of low-income developments experienced in other cities. Kudos to Langford for thinking this one up and making it a reality!

After FCM, Councillor Ferguson and I attended the 45th International Liveable Cities Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Portland is regularly held up as one of the most sustainable cities in North America and I can now see why. They stopped building major highways into their downtown in the 1970’s and transferred all their highway funding into transit funding. As a result, they now have a light rapid transit system that extends 18 miles to the west and 15 miles to the east. They are currently in the process of extending it north and south. Greater Portland has a 2.2 Million population and a geographic area which is equivalent to the GVRD. Essentially, they have light rapid trains that run from North Van to Chilliwack every 15 minutes! Furthermore, travel in the downtown core is free.

The majority of Portland’s system is paid for by annual payroll taxes equaling $6.52 per $1000 of gross payroll. All employers pay including not-for-profits and charities. This was accomplished through State legislation and makes a lot more sense to me than paying for the system through property taxes like we do here.

Portland also has the highest per capita number of hybrid vehicles and cyclists. Cyclists take priority on their roads including the right to sit in front of cars at all intersections. No one speeds downtown because of the number of cyclists.

Having seen what Portland has accomplished, I am now wavering on my former stance concerning twinning the Port Mann. I have heard it said that the expression “Build it and they will come” applies to cars and roads. I can now see why. Portland (a city of 600,000) appears to have successfully stopped this trend whereas in Everett, Washington (a growing community like Langley with a current population of 91,000), I sat on the I-5 highway (which they are expanding) for 2 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 9 miles for no apparent reason other than volume of single occupant vehicles. There was no construction, no accidents, no emergency vehicles, no reason for bumper-to-bumper traffic at 2:30 pm other than volume and suburbs.

While Portland is clearly a pioneer in sustainability measures, it does have its problems. Homelessness is one of the big ones. Portland does appear to be a very safe city (for the US) but there were many homeless people camped out in every doorway and park in their downtown. This is a major problem in the US. One of the speakers at the conference was a planner from Los Angeles and he indicated that the homeless population in Los Angeles was 90,000 (essentially the size of Langley Township). He said that dealing with this was a very complex issue that they have worked on for many years. Homeless shelters alone do not appear to be the solution for the same reason as mentioned earlier for cars and highways (i.e. “Build them and they will come”). One of the problems with shelters is that people must vacate at 8 am and they have no place to go but the parks.

Councillors from other parts in Canada confirmed this saying that what is really needed is “2nd Stage Housing” where homeless people can stay for longer than one night, where they have access to a telephone and can use this as a stepping stone for employment. Based on what I heard at this conference, I think we should rethink the need for a homeless shelter in Langley and move instead towards providing 2nd Stage Housing.

One of the topics that really captured my imagination concerned agriculture. For the past 6 years, a New York City Professor has challenged his classes to think about how to feed the 2.8 Billion new Earth residents expected over the next 50 years. He defines sustainability as "behaving like a true ecosystem" and that a human being's basic rights include the right to 2.3 litres of safe drinking water and 2000 calories of safe food per day.

He thinks we need to start thinking about “farming up” instead of “farming out”. He says that cities should be able to feed themselves without going beyond city limits. He asks his classes to figure out how to do this and their very interesting results are all posted on a website called . Fascinating concept!

His classes have determined that that there are 13 acres of roofs in Manhattan which is not enough roof top garden space to feed NY. According to them, one 30 story vertical farm could feed 50,000 people per day. This farm would take up one NY city block (or 5 acres). NY City would need 160 such towers to feed its population and this would save 60 million acres of flat land. At present, they calculate that NY City eats the equivalent land value of the entire state of Virginia.

Prior to this conference, I had never thought of farming up but it seems to make a certain kind of sense and certainly captures the imagination! We would need two such vertical farms to feed our current population in Langley. Perhaps our Langley Agriculture Advisory Committee and the GVRD Agriculture Committee should consider this.

Another concept that I learned about at an earlier “Liveable Cities” Conference in Santa Fe was the idea of designing our communities around children and their need to grow up in safe surroundings. As a result of that conference, Langley Township adopted a Child Friendly Impact Assessment analysis that developers are now required to undertake (June 2005). We have also incorporated a Children’s Bill of Rights into our Township corporate goals and objectives. We were 2 years ahead of Portland in doing this.

The latest advances on this social sustainability front in the US concern “Health Impact Assessments” for new developments. These have been adopted in California and have been pioneered by a UBC Professor. I think we should be adopting his revolutionary development principles a little closer to home than California (like in Canada) and I intend to make a Notice of Motion about this. I think this should be another “first” for the Township.

At this year’s conferences, I met many people including the Mayor of Westmount, Montreal where the average property value is $1.1 Million and the transit system is $32.0 Million in deficit. I met the Mayor of Portland who starts every Council meeting by asking how the children of the city are because these children are the future of a sustainable city. I met a fellow “blogging” Councillor from Windsor, Ontario ( who has family here in Langley. Alan is the first to pioneer blogging in his city and is under scrutiny from his Council colleagues for doing so. In fact, they’re even thinking of employing an “Ethics/Integrity Officer” to screen his postings. I think this is a totally unnecessary and frightening form of censorship and I encourage you to visit his blog to offer your support for his efforts (as well as to learn what’s happening in that part of Canada).

The preceding is just a “relatively” brief summary of the many ideas and concepts that I have been exposed to in the last month while attending these conferences on behalf of the Township. I have brought back file folders of information which I have given to the Township’s Administrator for distribution to the appropriate departments. I know he has passed them on because I have just recently heard from the Director of Finance about a new website concept that I brought back from FCM.

In conclusion, there is such a thing as penny wise and pound foolish. I don’t often agree with Councillors Ferguson, Kositsky, Long and Ward but I think they’re right in trying to expand their horizons. Council members who have not bothered to attend conferences before passing judgment on the advantages to the community from doing so fall into this category: “There are none who are so blind as those who will not see”. How unfortunate that we have such myopic individuals on the current council.

Should Councillors travel? Based on all the ideas that I have heard/seen in different communities across Canada and the US and based on all the ideas we have been able to successfully implement in Langley, I think the answer is a resounding “Yes”. In fact, I think travel to at least one conference per year should be mandatory for every Township Councillor to ensure that they are thinking in the broadest possible terms when they are evaluating new ideas and making development decisions.

Bottomline: You decide if it’s worthwhile. You’re the taxpayers. (However, I do think that expecting Councillors to provide written reports on what they’ve learned at conferences would probably be a very good idea and an excellent accountability measure).

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