Seize the moment to advance Trust vision

By Dave Steen

This story first appeared in the spring 2009 GIA newsletter.

Islands Trust is well positioned to become a world-leading local government model in its preparations for a leaner future less dependent on oil and more vulnerable to climate change.

Its unique preserve and protect mandate allows it to easily adopt the best ideas from progressive movements that promote slower growth and high maintenance of authentic, rural communities.

And the new Trust Council says it’s ready to roll up its sleeves. It has committed to focusing on its core services such as land use planning, mapping and bylaw enforcement while reducing pressures on island taxpayers.

The Trust’s new executive committee says ‘local and global economic instability’ has also influenced the selection of work it will tackle such as ‘affordable housing, food security, climate change and improved communications with constituents.’

Council can march forward aggressively on two fronts: legislation and education.

While development pressures fizzle, the Trust can devote more attention to such chores as plugging loopholes in bylaws, increasing setbacks from high tide lines, limiting house sizes, upholding short term vacation rental bylaws, discouraging time-share housing, and planning transportation systems that cater to pedestrians and cyclists and discourage fuelled vehicles.

But a cold, strict legislative strategy will fail unless islanders are persuaded the unique vision for the Gulf Islands is desirable and achievable. The Trust must do much more to reach out and tell its story. Its success depends on winning hearts and minds to the idea that the islands are so precious they must be saved from unplanned, exploitive growth.

It’s okay to think big, to see that what we do counts just as much as what others are doing elsewhere to help or hurt the world. Our fate rests not just on how well we treat each other, but on how we treat our environment.

This scary economy seems to have softened some people and made them more contemplative. With the stock market and their net worth under attack, they’re looking in other places, such their families and communities, for human warmth, safety and meaning.

The rapidly expanding field of sustainability studies trumpets some of these traditional values along with the multiple benefits that flow from land and resource conservation and biodiversity.

Here’s a quick look at some of those ideas.

The ‘transition town movement’ is taking hold in parts of Britain and the U.S. Rob Hopkins in his book The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience says communities must prepare for economic contraction and hardships. With dwindling global energy, minerals, usable water, food-production and forestry resources, it’s impossible to predict what social and economic strife lies ahead. But, the economic meltdown – it has robbed some people of their homes, jobs, and retirement security and increased our self-dependence – is pressuring us to reduce our consumption and simplify our lifestyles. Coincidentally, environmentalists have long espoused these conditions as desirable; now they are becoming a necessity.

The Transition Town movement instructs us to act collectively now to ‘build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet.’ Persuading doubters and pessimists that change is essential and achievable is a job for bold and practical visionaries. A community’s resiliency and sustainability are measured in part by the percentage of food and goods produced and consumed locally, traffic volume on local roads, the number of businesses owned by local people and the proportion of the work force employed locally. Hopkins suggests that within the energy/climate change crisis ‘is the potential for an economic, cultural, and social renaissance … a flourishing of local businesses, local skills and solutions, and a flowering of ingenuity and creativity… At the other end, we will not be the same as we were: we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled, and ultimately, wiser.”

A December story in The Tyee by Nick Smith described the Citta Slow movement, started in Italy 10 years ago and now taken up by almost 100 communities in Europe, Asia and Australia. Not a ploy to promote tourism, it’s a guide to civic planning. Citta Slow applicants must promise to adopt criteria to address the unique quality of their town, the sustainability of its infrastructure, the preservation of its history and the maintenance of local ways of doing things. Its general goal is to counter the ‘proliferation of uniformity.’ A group in Cowichan Bay, resisting pressures to turn their quaint seaside village into a ‘cookie cutter community’, has applied to be a slow town. If successful, it will be the first in North America.

A story in the Revelstoke Times Review in December reminded us that tension between residents and ‘weekenders’ in vacation areas isn’t exclusive to the Gulf Islands. The Weekender Effect: Hyperdevelopment in Mountain Towns by ecological historian Robert William Sandford focuses on the effects of rapid, poorly planned growth in his hometown, Canmore, Alberta. Formerly friendly neighbourhoods were turned into faceless subdivisions on weekdays and party destinations on weekends. Property prices soared so that many were only affordable as second and third homes for the wealthy.

Canmore is more than a lesson for everyone who wants to preserve the mountain communities of western Canada.

It’s an example of what often happens when a beautiful place is ‘discovered’ and attracts a growing crowd. When it gets too crowded the place is no longer beautiful.

So, instead of being lured by tourist dollars and the convenience of fast food joints and strip malls, our communities’ greater value as places to live and enjoy our social and natural environments must be protected, Sandford writes. He doesn’t dismiss all growth as bad, nor is his argument with wealthy weekenders.

In fact, he thinks enlightened weekenders can be recruited to work towards the common goal of recognizing and countering the havoc they can, otherwise, wreak.