Victoria’s mayor talks unpopular policies, Ghent transforms its cycling culture and Helsinki goes green.
British Columbia’s provincial capital Victoria (population 93,000) has long been saddled with a reputation that falls upon many government towns: it’s seen as a little sleepy. But that bad branding is falling away according to the city’s mayor. That’s thanks, in part, to a thriving, nascent technology economy and a growing number of young people attracted to Victoria as the cost of living in nearby Vancouver continues to soar. She tells monocle what city hall is doing to keep the city liveable.
MONOCLE: When you were first elected in 2014, some of your policies were unpopular. Bus drivers, for example, opposed your proposals for a bike-lane network. Yet you were convincingly re-elected in 2018. How?
Lisa Helps: The bike lanes are a good example of an important community conversation. I don’t think, at the beginning, we communicated that very clearly. We’re only 4km into a 30km network and I think the uproar has started to die down. The opposition is always loud and the support quiet. It’s a conversation about how we change a city. But, if we’re doing it for the right reasons, which is the long-term health and wellbeing of our residents, it’s a defensible change.
M: You recently made bus travel free for all public-school students. What’s your goal?
LH: We hope that by empowering kids with their own transit pass they’ll take the bus. It’ll feel like their public-transport system and they’ll become lifelong transit users. Now we’re asking what it would take to provide free public transport to every child in the wider region too.
M: Are you concerned by the rising cost of living in Vancouver or has that presented an opportunity?
LH: I would say a bit of both. There are benefits – we’re getting wonderful new people in town – but it also puts pressure on our housing stock. Vancouver has been a real warning for Victoria on what not to do; it has done lots of good things but it takes a long time to get a development project underway. So it’s a question of housing. Housing is key to resilience, to belonging, to a sense of personal security. I’m a big proponent of private investments when it comes to housing and particularly rental stock. But the biggest lesson from Vancouver is that if we want our cities to be inclusive, thriving and diverse places we need below-market, decommodified housing – and only government is able to provide that.
Helsinki has launched a service to help people find sustainable restaurants, bars, hotels and shops throughout the city. It has collaborated with think-tank Demos to rate Helsinki hotspots based on how ecological and socially sustainable they are, weighing up factors such as use of renewable electricity sources, how local products are and whether waste is recycled. The results are then posted on the city’s website.
While the city views the service as an experiment, it could prove to be a politically savvy one. The ecological footprint of travel is a growing concern among many tourists (see the rise in train travel). Meanwhile, two thirds of Helsinki residents name climate change as their biggest worry.
Two wheels are better than four. At least that was the thinking behind the Belgian city of Ghent’s initiative to relieve its traffic-clogged streets. The city launched the Circulation Plan in 2017, built around the dual aims of creating a more spacious, safe environment and improving public transport and emergency response – all without a major investment in infrastructure.
Inspired by the Van Den Berg Traffic Circulation Plan employed during the 1970s in Groningen in the Netherlands, Ghent now divides its centre into six sectors. Each allows motor traffic to enter but not to travel directly into another. To reach a different sector, a driver needs to head back out to the ring road first. It deters pointless car journeys and clears the decks for cyclists, pedestrians, buses, trams, taxis, refuse collection and emergency vehicles.
So, is it having any discernable effect? Early indications are encouraging. The city recently posted first-year figures that include a 17 per cent reduction in rush-hour cars, 37 per cent fewer cars on main bike routes, 35 per cent more cyclists, an 8 per cent bump in public transit use and a 25 per cent drop in accidents in the centre.
While the plan has had critics in the council and the local business community, concerns about the centre becoming a ghost town have proved unfounded. Furthermore, the local environment agency has measured an 18 per cent improvement in air quality across the city. There are now ambitions to grow the number of bike routes fivefold by 2020. Similar sized cities with traffic woes would do well to keep an eye on progress.