Coal port planned across from Quay

As you may or may not know, Fraser Surrey Docks wants to build a full coal port on the Fraser River, directly across from the Quay. The coal facility would eventually move ~8 million tonnes of thermal coal from the U.S.  to power plants overseas every year. This is nearly a doubling  of the amount of American thermal coal shipped through B.C. ports.

Photo: David Hadgkiss
Photo: David Hadgkiss

A coal port across from the Quay would not only be an eyesore in an important tourist destination (and a place many New West residents visit daily for recreation), but it will also contribute significantly to global climate change and local air pollution. Exporting coal overseas while attempting to meet province-wide climate targets is duplicitous and hypocritical.  Health concerns about breathing in toxic coal dust and diesel fumes are serious and real. Vulnerable groups like kids and seniors spend time on the Quay everyday (including mine, pictured above).  The Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities and the province’s chief medical officer have all called for a comprehensive health impact assessment, but it hasn’t happened to date

There is no benefit to BC from this coal port aside from maybe a few dozen jobs. If approved, our communities would bear the health and environmental risk while the profits will accrue to the US companies that own the mines, rail companies and Fraser Surrey Docks. On top of that, it’s likely to become a stranded asset: demand for imported coal in China is tanking as the country is getting serious about cutting down on pollution from coal-fired power plants.

My objection isn’t just a knee-jerk NIMBY response as a parent who lives in downtown New West. I don’t think this coal port should be built in anyone’s backyard.  We should not be making any investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. If we start building now, Canada could get 100% of our energy from renewable resources by 2035. As a parent, I think opposing this coal plant is just as important as the decisions I will make about where to put our kid into daycare. The more fossil fuels we let burn, the more different our kid’s future will be, and the evidence is strong that that future will be worse.

Despite local opposition and lacking a proper assessment, the proposal so far has the approval of Port Metro Vancouver,  an unaccountable decision-making authority with no local representation. But the Fraser Surrey Docks still needs additional permits before operating, so all is not lost. Our City, at least, recognizes the coal port is not in the interest of New Westminster (or any community). New West City council officially opposes the proposal and has signed on as intervenors in a court challenge.  Ecojustice is taking Port Metro Vancouver to court on the grounds of procedural fairness and failure to consider climate impact.

This video from the event held in New Westminster in the spring nicely summarizes what’s at risk, and why you should care:

The official link to the proposal is here. I recommend this FAQ if you want to learn more, especially for more detail on the status of the proposal. How to get involved:

The ill-defined line between ‘sexy’ and ‘seedy’

Sex & Our City

It sells, it titillates, it outrages. Sex, or the promise of it, is a primary motivator for a tremendous amount of human behaviour from baby-making to bar fights. From the moment that puberty rears its hormone-y head, only asexual folks seem to be immune to the madness; busying themselves with far more sensible things than those of us caught between surging desire and a spinning moral compass. Few things on earth are as heavily contested as sexuality – be it the concept as a whole, or the individual experience and expression thereof.

Even within Metro Vancouver, New West is hardly first on the list of scandalous locales, but our little city does a fine job of demonstrating the strange and ill-defined gulf between what is culturally acceptable sexuality and what is taboo. Continue reading “The ill-defined line between ‘sexy’ and ‘seedy’”

Free land! New West responds to affordable housing crisis

For many years, New Westminster has been an overlooked haven of affordable urban housing within Metro Vancouver. Lower rents and housing prices are one of the big factors that drew many new residents here in recent years (although most soon found better reasons to stay).

But at the peak of this latest affordability crisis, even New Westminster’s home prices have climbed beyond the reach of many. It’s a problem that weighs heavily on the minds of New West’s progressive-minded city council and new Mayor Jonathan Cote, who launched a task force on housing affordability immediately after his inauguration.

That task force has proposed an audacious plan: if the high cost of land is what is inhibiting development of new affordable housing, what if the City were to remove that barrier and offer the land for free? Continue reading “Free land! New West responds to affordable housing crisis”

New West kids deserve fair lunch policy for all

Lunch standards vary significantly from school to school in New West, as shown in this page from the Superintendent's report on the subject.
Lunch standards vary significantly from school to school in New West, as shown in this page from the Superintendent’s report on the subject.

The children in my daughter’s kindergarten class, like most in the district, are given 15 minutes to eat their lunches before they are sent outside to play. But it’s not really 15 minutes to eat.

That 15 minutes includes two dozen children lining up and washing hands at a single sink in the class. It includes the time to file into the cloakroom to fetch their lunch kits. It also includes the time to clean up their desks and put their lunch kits away. Talking and socializing are necessarily forbidden. Continue reading “New West kids deserve fair lunch policy for all”

The first New West parklet goes to …. Sapperton!

Today on Twitter, Mayor Jonathan Cote announced the city’s first parklet will be built in Sapperton near Fratelli Bakery and the new Bloom Bloom Room flower shop.

If I didn’t know how long it takes to get things done at City Hall, I’d think the Mayor of New Westminster must be reading my blog.

The first of five parklets planned for the city over the next five years, the East Columbia parklet is expected to be finished this summer. The City’s goal is to create one new parklet per year over the next five years.

New West blogger Brad Cavanagh revealed he actually watches council meetings, beating me to the punch on his blog with a pretty great summary of what a parklet is, and what the City’s plans in this direction are:

For those who don’t know, a parklet is a mini park set up as an extension of a sidewalk. They’re not very large, typically fifteen to twenty meters long, and about three meters wide. They’re places for people, set up to allow people to meet, sit, and relax. Vancouver has five parklets, and they’ve been big hits almost everywhere they’ve been put in.

Yep, those are the very same kinds of public spaces I raved about after coming home from NYC: little enclaves of social civility and peace amid the hustle and bustle of sidewalks and streets.

Coming upon a parklet introduces a wee frisson of joy during a walk through a city. But it isn’t just a feel-good move. It’s actually a savvy economic development move. Cavanagh’s post shares links to studies in other cities that found adjacent businesses typically see between 9-20% more business following the installation of a parklet. Good news for Fratelli, Bloom Bloom Room, Sushi Heaven and the other businesses at that end of East Columbia!

But what about parking? As Sapperton resident Jen Arbo put it, the boon to businesses will far outweigh the loss of a couple of parking spots.

Councillor Patrick Johnstone also wrote about the parklet in a council meeting summary post on his blog:

Parklets are great ideas, and they can really improve the pedestrian and retail space in a commercial district. The City is piloting our first Parklet this summer in Sapperton, with plans to introduce another annually (at least) for the next couple of years. Staff has been given a modest budget, but a lot of flexibility to find partnership opportunities, design ideas, or creative innovations to make the Parklets fit local needs in our different neighbourhoods. I was really happy Council endorsed this program, and that staff is not only excited to implement it but have provided a really nice design for New West Parklet #1.

The initial reaction from both businesses and residents was pretty positive on Twitter:

But not everyone was pleased. The announcement irked at least one Quaysider, where gardening budgets have been cut back:

What can I say? New West loves its greenspace. Note to council: Don’t mess with our parks.

Cuts to programs that help the homeless hurt us all

The most obvious solution to problems with homelessness and vagrancy is also the cheapest, most effective and most feel-good solution: shelter those who need it. It’s called a ‘housing first‘ strategy, and it has led to New Westminster’s striking reduction in the number of homeless people living in our city.

Between 2002 and 2008, the population of homeless people in New Westminster increased 118%. Thanks to policy changes, collaboration with community members and a partnership with BC Housing, New Westminster was able to help many of those who were unsheltered to find homes. Between 2008 and 2011, the homeless population shrank by 43% and by another 17% between 2011 and 2014. Key to this success was that BC Housing partnership, which created 84 transitional and supported housing units, as well as housing referral, outreach and advocacy programs that helped prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

However this approach is in jeopardy due to funding cutbacks. According to New West Senior Social Planner John Stark, New Westminster-based homeless outreach, referral and advocacy programs are facing $382,000 in cutbacks this year. This is in addition to significant cutbacks in 2013 and 2014 to other programs serving those who were homeless or at-risk. Furthermore, changes to program eligibility requirements are making it difficult for some in need to access services.

  • The Elizabeth Fry Society‘s Maida Duncan Drop-In Centre is in jeopardy now that the coordinator position is no longer funded by the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy program. The centre provides at-risk women and children with a safe space to access a computer, laundry, dental services, peer support, meals, and community supports. While the program is still operating, the centre cannot be sustained much longer without securing a new source of funding.
  • The Senior Services Society will have to reduce program support due to staffing cutbacks, which will hurt their ability to help seniors find housing assistance. At any given time, the society works with 150 seniors who are either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. Changes in eligibility criteria mean that seniors who are homeless for the first time or “only” at risk of homelessness will no longer be able to access help from Housing First programs.
  • Another program that lost funding was the Women In Need Gaining Strength housing outreach position. Since 2004, this outreach program helped 938 women and 734 children fleeing abuse at home, helping them to find new places to live and re-settle in new communities. Fundraising efforts were able to close the gap in funding for this program to maintain services, for now.
  • In 2014 the Hospitality Project lost $150,000 in HPS funding for their advocacy, triage and referral programs. These programs specifically targeted people at risk of becoming homeless, helping them to retain housing and locate shelter. With the new criteria focused only on those who are chronically or episodically homeless, the programs no longer qualified for funding.
  • In 2013, Lookout Emergency Aid Society lost funding from Fraser Health for a contract to provide non-clinical outreach to homeless people, resulting in over 400 people per year being unable to access services like service search and referral, case planning, and counselling.

It is penny wise and pound foolish to cut back on programs like these. When people are homeless, the public pays for it in increased policing and hospital costs.

As the New Yorker put it, homelessness is an expensive problem when you do nothing to solve it.

Homeless people are not cheap to take care of. The cost of shelters, emergency-room visits, ambulances, police, and so on quickly piles up. Lloyd Pendleton, the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, told me of one individual whose care one year cost nearly a million dollars, and said that, with the traditional approach, the average chronically homeless person used to cost Salt Lake City more than twenty thousand dollars a year. Putting someone into permanent housing costs the state just eight thousand dollars, and that’s after you include the cost of the case managers who work with the formerly homeless to help them adjust. The same is true elsewhere. A Colorado study found that the average homeless person cost the state forty-three thousand dollars a year, while housing that person would cost just seventeen thousand dollars.

It is cheaper to house the homeless than to leave them on the streets. And it is cheaper still to help prevent people at risk from losing their homes in the first place.

A January 26 report to council from the City’s Development Services Department outlined the potential impacts of these funding cuts:

This loss of funding will have a significant impact on the community, as the programs in question enable residents to maintain their existing housing, locate new housing in crisis situations and address issues which may contribute to their homelessness. They also target some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income individuals, frail seniors and women and children who are at-risk of homelessness or who are fleeing abuse … the loss of the programs in question will make it more difficult for staff to make referrals in case of eviction or homelessness, contribute to increased street and visible homelessness and place increased pressure on Bylaw Enforcement, Police and Social Planning, with its associated costs.

The report concluded with the recommendation that the City should direct staff to approach senior levels of government to explore alternative or new funding sources for housing outreach, referral and advocacy programs in New Westminster. I think that’s a great start, but I also think citizens in New Westminster who have noted and approved of the decline in visible homelessness need to remember that it was no accident.

Programs like those provided by Lookout, The Hospitality Project, Elizabeth Fry and Women In Need Gaining Strength and the Senior Services Society are our bulwarks against homelessness. Even those of us who are privileged with health, employment, and emergency funds find it a struggle at time to make ends meet in pricey Metro Vancouver. Imagine how difficult it must be for those who must also cope with addictions, chronic physical health problems, mental health issues, domestic abuse and other factors that introduce extra barriers to employment and making rent.

Note: the information on homelessness in New West and the cuts to local programs came from a report to council created by the Development Services Department. I would link to it, but I was not able to find it online. This report was shared at the February meeting of the Community and Social Issues Committee, of which I am a member. The report was presented for our review and discussion, and I thought the information was worth sharing more widely.