It’s a bird, it’s a plane…it’s greenwashing!
g·ca·tas·tro·phe (jÄ“-kÉ™-tÄƒs’trÉ™-fÄ“): n. A complete failure; a fiasco: The mayor said the city would be greener, but what we got instead was a gcatastrophe.
Almost as if she wanted to provide a live demonstration of what it means to be a nanomanager, Penny Ballem leapt behind the podium to conduct last week’s GCAT update to City Council. For the bulk of the 45-minute presentation the City Manager was either dancing past slides, or seated behind other speakers fumbling through pages of notes. She trotted out subordinates and the Chair of Vancouver’s Economic Development Commission to confirm that, indeed, Mayor Robertson’s promise to be the greenest city on Earth by 2020, is "making rapid progress."
Ballem stepped in for someone who couldn’t direct the meeting, but it was a strange occurrence nonetheless. No one can remember – EVER – former City Manager Judy Rogers presenting political policy to Council.
The frenetic Council session hinted at a sense of panic within the Vision caucus. What indeed were we promising by being the greenest anything? How is a symbolic veggie garden make us greener? How is this any different than the work of the Sustainability office?
GCAT was an invention of Vision Vancouver to pull together the so-called blue ribbon executive to brainstorm some actions that might give meaning to Robertson’s greenest city boast. They’ve met in secret a handful of times since the committee’s inception in February. After CityCaucus.com FOI’d their meeting minutes, staff posted the notes from the first gatherings, but no update has been provided to the public since last March.
The first action item virtually defined GCAT right from the start as an exercise in environmental symbolism and public relations. A community garden was built on City Hall’s front lawn, arguably the worst spot in the city, next to the middle of Stanley Park, you could locate it. The City Hall precinct is surrounded by single-family homes and office buildings. Traditionally community gardens, according to the very clear policy document created by the Vancouver Park Board, are placed where there are a dearth of backyards, and with suitable population density to satisfy local demand for garden plots.
It didn’t seem to matter that none of the appropriate conditions for a community garden actually exist at City Hall.
One of the important criteria of community gardens is that the costs of building them are carried by the community. Whereas in the case of Gregor’s Garden, the taxpayers are carrying most of the financial burden. According to an FOI submitted in July, the budgeted cost of Gregor’s community garden at City Hall is over $50,000.
Over $7000 of these costs were for staff time and a new water hook-up for garden irrigation. The original FOI response included several timesheets of internal maintenance staff at City Hall who were devoting significant time to the garden project. Those dollars came right out of the facility maintenance budget for the Hall.
$25,000 was drawn from the City’s Olympic and Paralympic Legacies fund toward the garden project. This $700,000 fund was originally approved by the NPA council in December 2007, and it was meant for creating a significant digital legacy of Vancouver’s Games for posterity. The Vision council revised the amount to $580K last February. It now appears that the Mayor’s office nicked $25K for their pet project, despite the fact it doesn’t really fall under the "Olympic Legacy" designation.
An additional $22,000 of the first year budget was provided by Evergreen, from their private donors. Evergreen has a mandate to promote urban agriculture, and their major funding comes from corporations. You can thank Toyota, Wal-Mart and Starbucks in part for kicking in on Gregor’s symbolic garden.
The costs do not end there. The MOU suggest that Evergreen will be on an annual retainer to teach courses on gardening, provide publicity, and maintaining the garden itself. A garden coordinator is to be assigned at a $28,000 annual salary.
There are echoes of the $350 tomato plants Allen Garr reported on last winter. Whatever the harvest that actually comes out of Gregor’s Garden, it will be some of the most expensive veggie matter in town. The sheer cost of this project makes it completely unsustainable on a large scale throughout the city.
Other actions that GCAT lists as their accomplishments are so far pretty unimpressive. The City is proposing that efficiency upgrades will be required as a permit condition for renovations for one and two family dwellings. The idea that homeowners will be forced into additional costs by City Hall is already causing controversy, and raised the hackles of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the building industry. There goes that broken promise on improving public consultation again.
A promise to promote green building technology has us also scratching our heads. Whatever happened to the City’s EcoDensity program? This intiative resulted in five nights of council public hearings, and several open houses. EcoDensity had perhaps one of the most thorough public consultations next to CityPlan, yet GCAT are turning a blind eye to the Charter developed through this process?
Another GCAT priority is "advocating for immediate investment in public transit." Gregor Robertson has fired off a few Scud missiles at Victoria, like suggesting that carbon tax incentives be directed into Translink. So far nothing has left the launchpad.
Eight months in, GCAT is looking like a confused mess of half-baked policy and PR stunts. For the public, it will always be about Gregor’s Garden. And not one molecule of carbon has been spared from the atmosphere yet.