Posted by: Alvin | May 27, 2009

After a long hiatus…

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…Alvin returns with pie!

Ok, so not exactly insightful commentary on Vancouver policy and politics, I grant you. But I thought I would ease myself back into the saddle with a wonderful photo of my first (good) pie. With this out of the way, i’ll get back to more serious fare…I promise!

That said, pastry is damn serious, and hard, just ask my many failed attempts at pie. But I decided to go crazy on this last attempt and it paid off. Read More…

Posted by: Alvin | March 17, 2009

Does Gordon Campbell Hate You?

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So it just wouldn’t be election season without awesome YouTube content. We saw it first from the VoteStupid VoteSmart folks. Then there was the rebuttle from the NDP. And now we have this excellent offering from a group calling themselves “MoveForwardBC,” undoubtedly a play on the US group “MoveOn.org”.

The video is a hilarious take on Campbell’s decisions over his past two terms in Victoria. Take a look, hopefully we’ll see more as the weeks go on.

Read More…

Posted by: Alvin | March 11, 2009

Olympics as a Street Closure Warm-up

vanoc_transportMinutes ago, VANOC released their transport plan for Vancouver during the Olympics. Part of the plan was to create pedestrian-only sections of major streets including Granville and Robson. In the context of the Games, this makes perfect sense. There will be thousands more people in town, coming to take in the games, and enjoy the city (hopefully). Vibrant strips like Granville and Robson would benefit tremendously from being car-free, apart from the obvious benefit of reducing overall downtown traffic during the games.

What excites me most though is the potential this has to shift the thinking Vancouverites have about streets. Vancouver has an average amount of car culture, not as good as New York or Montreal, not nearly as bad as Calgary or Toronto. Despite how much we talk about walking, cycling, and transit, Vancouverites seem loathe to shut down streets (at least those that vote…damn car driving home owners). What the Olympics could do is serve as a test case to prove to people that shutting down streets can not only be fun and vibrant, it can be done in such a way that isn’t a headache for other commuters elsewhere and can still benefit business.

Vancouver, for a city of its size, has a disturbing lack of live outdoor music festivals. The single biggest reason for this is lack of large public spaces and arcane regulations around policing and permits. Another huge deterrent though is our unwillingness to shut down major strips like Robson, Georgia, or Pacific Blvd. Until we get moving crafting serious areas of public space into our urban landscape, we have huge swaths of land we can use in the meantime…our streets.

Hopefully everything goes well, and we have a council that responds by making it easier to apply for street closures and provides the necessary supports to foster a culture of outdoor celebration on our streets. Cities like Montreal, New York, Ottawa, and countless countless across Europe have no problems dropping a car-bomb (so to speak…) and shutting down streets. For all our talk of being a world class city, we need to back it up. The Olympics might just give us the kick in the pants we need to make it happen.

Posted by: Alvin | February 9, 2009

A Creative Budget for BC

creativeoutletToday the BC Liberals will table legislation allowing it to run a deficit budget, thus paving the way for the annual mudslinging at the leg over what BC should be spending its money on. Like I mentioned last week, I have no problems with deficit spending when times are tough, its a necessary and positive function of government (even Gordon thinks so now!). So what should this budget include? For starters, it shouldn’t mortgage our future without benefiting the generations that will have to pay this debt all back.

That means a budget very different from the federal one passed a week ago. The federal budget did nothing to build long-term human capital through university and other post-secondary investments (except for some small capital investments that may or may not be easily accessible, we’ll see). It also failed to invest in tomorrow’s emerging sectors (new energy technology, agricultural engineering, advanced transportation, and inter-urban transportation just to name a few). Finally, it did nothing to help re-skill and retool Canada’s backward looking manufacturing sector. At a time where auto sales are at record lows, and manufacturing capacity for autos continues to grow in India, China, and Southeast Asia, pouring money into trying to save North America’s auto manufacturing base is just stupid. In 10 years these cars won’t be made here anymore and then we’ll be stuck with empty plants (plants attracted to the country because of large tax incentives) and out-skilled workers.

Luckily, BC doesn’t need to worry about a huge auto manufacturing sector, but it does have other potential areas for blunder if the BC Liberals (and NDP) fail to look forward. The beauty of deficit budgets at a time like this is that you can use them to change course in a way that would be more difficult to justify when times are good. This budget should be seen as an opportunity to lay the foundation for the kind of BC we want our children to inherit. So here’s my five point plan for this budget:

No Tax Cuts: No, this isn’t an ideological statement. BC already has some of the lowest tax rates in North America. This combined with our cheap energy and public health care makes BC an investment friendly province compared to most other North American jurisdictions. Tax cuts will simply transfer even more debt to the future. Like I said earlier, if future generations have to pay for this budget, you have to make it worth while for them.

Education and Re-Skilling: In the short term, this means massively expanding BC’s student loan program and bringing back cancelled grant and debt relief programs for our students. BC post-secondary graduates are among the most indebted in the country. If you want to build a healthy, forward looking economy, you have to start with a workforce that is highly educated and is relatively free of debt. Why is this? The higher the education and lower the debt, the faster young people can enter the workforce and build families. Couples with mountains of debt can’t buy homes and start families. According to the latest Human Resources and Skills Development Canada data, life-course milestones are being delayed more and more. People are graduating later (because of expenses), meaning finding partners later, meaning moving out later, meaning buying a home later, meaning starting a family later…etc… As for those that are already in the workforce, the BC government should make it easier for people in certain industries and in certain parts of the province to go back to school or provide incentives for companies to provide on the job training.

Civic Infrastructure: The federal budget made it unnecessarily difficult for municipalities to access infrastructure funding. Sadly, their budget is passed and its the game we’re all left to play. As a result, the BC government should either divert money directly to cities for projects or pay for it themselves and gain matching funds from the feds. All projects should be related to sustainable transportation and inter-urban transportation as well as capital investments in universities, hospitals, and community centres.

Preferential Incentives for New Tech: Alberta missed the boat in building a Canadian centre for new energy tech, they had the money, the companies, and the talent. But sadly, they were too short sighted to notice the need to set themselves up for the future. BC shouldn’t make the same mistake. They need to put into place the right mix of tax and development incentives combined with a long term commitment to building skilled workers. There are a raft of new companies springing up all over the USA and Europe. States like Michigan already have a head start and have pushed this hard. What BC needs to do is one up them by building a long term and strategic plan involving partnerships with local and international universities, infrastructure and tax investments, and local technology pioneers. There is no doubt that this is a long-term strategy, but that’s the point.

The Creative Province: We’ve all heard of the Creative Cities theory from Richard Florida, the idea that diverse and inclusive cities attract the world’s creative elite leading to long term cultural and economic success. There isn’t any reason why BC can’t use this model for the whole province (Ontario is already doing it). BC needs to invest culturally and socially in order to compliment its financially attractive position as a place to invest and relocate to. The creative class, while cognisant of financial incentives, can’t be lured by money alone. The province needs to make sure that its education and health care sectors are healthy and well funded. But this is only a first step. BC should build a Quebec-style universal childcare program (making it easier for women to go to school or re-enter the workforce), encourage the teaching of multiple languages from a young age, open up venues for citizen engagement, revamp the electoral system, create preferential taxation regimes for artists, and fund rural technology infrastructure improvements.

So what can BC do without? Well, a lot of things. This post has already gone on for a while so I’ll pinpoint one simple thing the government can cut back on…advertising. Under the BC Liberals, the advertising budget has grown from $11.6 million in 2002/3 to $28.1 million in 2006/7. What about last year? A whopping $29.5 million. That’s an over 250% increase, and it’s shameful. While some advertising is understandable, such as health care advisories and forest safety campaigns, most is basically partisan ad spending. It needs to be axed.

Posted by: Alvin | February 4, 2009

New York City Purchasing Property to Avoid Blight

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I came across an interesting New York Times article that talks about a new strategy to buy up foreclosed properties that are not resold by the banks in an effort to combat neighbourhood blight.

New York City will spend $24 million in federal financing to rehabilitate and resell 115 foreclosed homes, one of the most aggressive steps city officials have taken in years to prevent vacant foreclosed properties from becoming a blight on neighborhoods…

Under the new program, the city will not take ownership of the properties, but instead will subsidize their rehabilitation through a third party, a nonprofit group called the Restored Homes Housing Development Fund Corporation. The group will purchase a majority of the 115 properties, hold title to the properties during the rehabilitation and then sell them at prices affordable to families making roughly $80,000 to $90,000 a year.

While the mortgage meltdown hasn’t had the same effects in Canada in terms of foreclosed properties (and also because mortgage laws in Canada make it much harder to simply walk away from a property), there may be lessons here. The article notes that a similar initiative was tried in the city back during the 70s and 80s. Back then the city became the landlord for thousands of units whose former owners were far behind their property taxes. The problem was that the city became deluged with failing properties and by the 1990s was “paying $220 million a year to manage and maintain them.

The current partnership model looks like a much more sustainable one. When you consider the costs cities bear in terms of policing, ambulance services, addiction and treatment costs, etc…it makes a lot of sense to do something like this even if it means it comes at a loss per unit for the city.

While there has been talk for a while in Vancouver about the government (whether it be the city or the province) buying up apartments and other buildings in disrepair, fixing them and making them available again, they haven’t been very well thought out. Much like New York experienced back in the 1990s, the civic level of government just doesn’t have the resources to do anything like this on a large scale.

What the city can do though is make use of other policy tools it has at its disposal in addition to purchasing properties. Imagine if Vancouver started to purchase buildings and rezone them to a new designation called ‘cultural/social’. This new zoning would come with significant tax incentives (something that wouldn’t cost the city much if anything since they aren’t deriving revenue from most of these properties in the first place). The city could then partner with housing groups in addition to members of the creative community, higher education institutions, and small business to buy into these newly purchased properties, lured by lower taxes and a stable ownership structure.

The benefit to the city would be numerous. In addition to simply fixing up heritage buildings that have been in disrepair for too long, it would also control the development and zoning applications wherever they did this. This would allow the city to manage who was allowed into these new “cultural zones” and prevent developers from coming into these newly emerging areas a few years down the road and kick start the eventual process of gentrification.

Vancouver City Hall could easily work in conjunction with housing groups as well as community champions and members of the local creative community to plan these neighbourhoods in a socially progressive way that could help save failing communities but at the same time protect swaths of land from runaway gentrification and all the negative side effects it brings with it.

Posted by: Alvin | February 2, 2009

BC Gov’t Announces Two Years of Deficit Budgets

BCSPEECHSo yesterday I wrote about the danger of being ideologically rigid. I said that it can lead to bad policy decisions, alienated stakeholders, and public disenchantment. I should have added that it can make you look pretty stupid too.

In late breaking news just now, Gordon Campbell and Finance Minister Colin Hansen have confirmed that they will be running a deficit budget this year and the next (this after announcing just a few months ago that BC would show a small surplus). Now they’ll have to recall the leg and ask to be exempt from the law the Liberals passed themselves making it illegal to table a deficit. So here we see an example of rigid ideology (the idea that deficit spending is always bad and always avoidable) making you look dumb. I understand that the Liberals like holding the torch of fiscal prudence, and deciding to run a deficit was a good call (what also would have been a good call though is not raising the wages of your top bureaucrats in the midst of a global financial meltdown). But guess what? Going off the deep end and characterizing deficit spending as NDP incompetence and making it illegal doesn’t look so good. And why is that? Because good policy makers and smart politicians know that the world is grey and they plan accordingly.

All this said, will the Liberals pay for this? No. The media won’t let them, plain and simple. The good news is that as long as the NDP doesn’t react with it’s own brand of ideological rigidity and instead behave seriously and sternly (as they should to demonstrate fiscal maturity) they stand to gain.

Posted by: Alvin | February 1, 2009

What Politics Should Be

It’s no secret that British Columbia has probably the most polarized political climate in the country, and in Vancouver it’s only more acute. It’s also no surprise that we live in some of the most challenging times we’ve seen as a country since the early 90s. So when I encounter people from both ends of this spectrum who have no capacity for pragmatism or respectful debate, I not only get disappointed, I get a little angry.

I’m not going to make any apologies for my politics, I belive in what I belive in, and I belive in it very strongly. At the same time, I resist the idea that you have to live somewhere on the political spectrum, occupy some sort of space that you let everyone else know about. The danger with this is that it doesn’t do much to solve complex situations, you know…the kind of situations you come across rather often in politics. Raw ideology works just fine when you’re debating the abstract. But in real life things are always shades of grey (and when you encounter situations where things seem to be black and white, it’s that much more important to actively seek out the grey lest you surrender to the easy way out).

The reality is that the sexiest political challenges, the ones policy wonks all want to come up with solutions to, are the most complex. So if you approach these challenges using a rigid ideological framework, you end up doing a lot of damage and alienating a lot of people in the process. Take social housing as an example. It’s not just an issue of roofs over people’s heads (as much as some politicians like to announce at rallies: “The solution is simple, build more housing!” just to get cheers from the crowd). It’s also not as simple as a business case. So when you have people on the ideological right claiming that market based solutions to housing problems is all you need, and people on the ideological left claiming that punitive taxation on development will solve the problem, you not only end up with bad decisions being made, you also end up with angry stakeholders and a disenchanted public. Housing is a complex situation involving land and development costs, opportunity costs, partnerships with all three levels of government, local neighbourhood planning processes, addiction and treatment issues, crime and safety, and future management challenges, just to name a few.

Its important as a good policy champion to understand where all your stakeholders are coming from, and to go one step further and help all your stakeholders to understand each other as well. Rigid ideology does the exact opposite. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and as much as we want to hate the party we didn’t vote for, or vilify people whose life experiences have shaped the lenses they use differently than ours, remember that its far more productive to understand than it is to attack.

So that piece of property you own on the ideological spectrum? The one you spent a lot of time carving out and the one you love so much? My advise: sell it. Become a drifter and couch-surf around the neighbourhood. It’s the only circumstance where it pays to be homeless.

Posted by: Alvin | January 30, 2009

It’s Been A While

I just wanted to quickly add a little note to let people know I’m back and will be writing again soon. Things have been hectic, midterms, the winter break, and then getting back up to speed at school…it caught up! But things have settled down and I’ll be writing more regularly.

Some news:

I’m now a member of the executive for COPE (The Coalition of Progressive Electors). So you can look forward to more detailed and thought out civic reengagement and urban policy posts. (Sorry, no juicy gossip about COPE though!).

I’m on Twitter and my tweets are now being fed to the blog.

I’ve also finally plunged into the world of LinkedIn and created a profile.

Some blog ideas I’m working on:

– Reaction to the budget, both personal and from the perspective of the city of Vancouver

– Canadian foriegn policy discussion in light of the new administration down south and other global changes

– Policy ideas about creative spaces in the city and developing the creative social community through innovative urban civic policy

Write to you soon!

Posted by: Alvin | January 5, 2009

Video of the Week: The Great Wall Street Swindle

This could be called the video of the month since I’ve been gone for so long, but I promise it’s worth it. “The Great Wall Street Swindle” is quite possibly the best explanation about the financial crisis I’ve seen so far and how much it will continue to impact all of us. The video is courtesy of CBC News’ “Sunday” program. It’s clear today how much of what happened was due to rampant deregulation and the accompanying lack of oversight mechanisms, and this video makes it all very clear. This is not a short term blip. It’s going to have massive ramifications and at the end of it all will have drastically damaged everyday people, their homes, families, and businesses. Sadly, instead of concentrating on protecting the human element in all of this, western governments (Canada’s included) seem more concerned with bailing out failing and outmoded corporations. I guess it really does always come back to Polanyi

Posted by: Alvin | December 18, 2008

Whopper Virgins

So I don’t like participating in marketing campaigns, but this one does a good job of blending in enough culture to be more than just an ad. Burger King has put together a video documenting their taste tests with individuals all over the world who they call ‘Whopper Virgins.”

Interestingly, they sought out people who had never even encountered a hamburger because staying within the United States for example would mean people were still exposed to hamburger advertising. They wanted to find people completely new to the idea of the hamburger. No surprise (since Burger King is running the campaign instead of shelving it) the Whopper comes out on top.

The most interesting part for me is how people decide to eat the burgers. As one person on the film explains it, we here in North America take eating burgers and burger-like things for granted because it’s part of our culture. Anyways, really facinating, check it out:

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