by Aaren Madden for Focus Magazine. Reprinted with permission., posted on 9:14 AM, November 17, 2010
(Victoria, January, 2010) The path to a sustainable city demands addressing multiple community needs with every step the local government takes.
Every once in a while, you’ve got to take a chance. That’s what urban planner Angela Evans did in the spring of 2008, when she fashioned a book exchange box and placed it in front of her house on Clare Street. Some predicted vandalism, but on the summer day we first met a few months later, it was full of fat tomes and the buzz of use. People were fascinated, and new friendships emerged. So, can recycled plywood, an old window, a disco ball and splashes of paint actually build us a better city? “I think a city would be much healthier if we had a strong sense of community wherever we lived— in apartment buildings, townhouses, seniors’ centres. There is certainly not one simple answer about how that happens, but actually, a planner’s role is to ensure that we don’t sterilize everything that gets built,” she says of her chosen field. Evans worked with Saanich as an environmental planner until October 2007, when she began a private practice. She has taught courses in community building and sustainability at UVic and a year ago was hired as one of five sustainability facilitators for the Fraser Basin Council. In this role she helps municipalities and First Nations undertake sustainable initiatives by connecting people and providing expertise, resources and funding information.
“We [shouldn’t] make cities perfect and hard-edged and immaculate,” she says. Meaning, we need to take into account simple, basic human needs. People need places to rest, to get a drink, to go to the bathroom when they are out in the world. Say you are a senior with a dodgy knee. One well-placed bench (she loves the cob ones in James Bay and Vic West) may mean the difference between walking to the market and limited independence. We exchange horror stories about being denied much-needed washroom access at downtown locations while pregnant or with small children in tow. Blanket, fear- motivated policies to prevent vandalism or drug consumption sent us both racing home, feeling unsupported. Not a way to build community. And yet, “If people on a street or business area know and trust each other, there’s going to be less vandalism on that street. It kind of goes together.”
“If we can send people to the moon, maybe there’s a way of working around this,” she muses. She suggests part of the budget for green- housing palm trees over the winter to plant in boulevards in the summer and impress tourists be shifted to maintaining more user- friendly public spaces. As to public urinals, she salutes those tackling the problem.
Says Evans, “The devil is in the details about how we will provide amenities that support people taking more time in their communities—shopping locally, bumping into people you know, stopping to admire things, noticing a change of seasons.” The California cantaloupe basking accusingly on her sunny kitchen counter catches her furtive eye, and she’s compelled to explain that a gap in her local fruit supply necessitated the purchase. So begins a discussion of local possibilities, of encouraging civic policies that support urban food growing as a viable livelihood.
She’d love to see multifunctional, multipurpose landscaping in the city. Think shade, wildlife habitat, food, even fibre—paper for news- papers, wood for fences or those handy benches. Evans’ ideal urban forest would “take every opportunity to layer on more value, more amenity, instead of having a tree that just looks OK for most of the year, blooms for one week, and then everyone takes photos to send back to Ontario to annoy the relatives.” (Guilty.)
“Whether it’s a building, a program to help people with their health and well-being, or just how you manage a park, there are so many opportunities to do things differently than we have in the past,” she says. Which is why when I first met her, she was so excited about the job she was about to begin as a sustainability facilitator. The initiative was motivated in part, as Evans explains, “by a requirement in the federal-provincial gas tax agreement that local governments engage in sustainability planning.” The province’s Bill 27 requires local governments to address greenhouse gas emissions reductions in their Official Community Plans and gives them new authorities to do so, such as using parking variance monies to support alternative transportation.
Working with community groups from here to Mount Waddington, Evans is helping them figure out how to move towards sustainability. Recently she did a presentation to the regional district of Nanaimo on sewage treatment options, like hand-buildable solar aquatic systems or package plants such as Dockside Green uses. She happily indulged a self-described obsession with the subject that began early in her career in Waterloo, when she connected rising housing costs with diminishing land availability due to requirements for septic fields— not one, but two per home (a backup for the inevitable failure of the first). She’s been researching other options, like composting toilets, ever since—all the while strengthening her conviction that, “in my dream city, we wouldn’t be using our precious, limited, treated drinking water to flush away our human waste. It wouldn’t be right.”
Neither have Evans’ views on accommodating basic human needs altered a year into her new gig, which means she thinks downtown’s pissoiris great—her sources even say plans are in the works for a women’s version (Mike Hill, the city’s Downtown Coordinator, confirmed this).
By talking to other cities, she has learned new ways to layer value onto endeavours. Calgary, for instance, has an ethical purchasing policy that addresses homelessness: In Request for Proposals for city work, a catering company (for example) with training programs for street youth gets extra points. “Every time you engage in an activity, whether it’s waste disposal or purchasing or investment in roads, every time you are about to invest taxpayers’ time and money, you look for opportunities to address some of the things that might traditionally never have been considered,” she says. Another example she cites is Summerland, which has a snow removal contract with a local nonprofit working with developmentally disabled people. They sorted out the liabilities and such, work gets done, and folks in the community get support.
“Sharing the good news stories I find really powerful,” she says, but adds, “for many people it’s a new way of thinking, the ability to integrate a number of values through one project.” For cities that traditionally work in silos, it can be a real stretch: who maintains the natural stormwater system—parks? Engineering? “We’re going to have to break that down, I guess, and be creative in the future,” suggests Evans. And we’re going to have to take a few chances—with everything from washroom access to urban farming to sewage treatment.
Being in Evan’s neighbourhood one recent wintry day, I drew a volume of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food from Evans’ book box, replacing it with a book on childbirth that had been useful to me, all the while thinking about how, into 2010, this whimsical gesture towards trust and community continues to add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Victoria writer Aaren Madden was pleased to discover not one but two open daytime public washroom facilities on a recent walk with her two small children: one in the Railyards, and one at Vic West Park, and she appreciates the many accommodating businesses in her ’hood.