Community safety is about more than crime 


Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 September 2022

699 words

One issue we are likely to see a focus on in the upcoming municipal elections is community safety, often focusing on crime and violence. But important though that is, community safety is about much more than that.

I recall, as a consultant working on the Healthy Cities initiative with the World Health Organization in the 1980s and 1990s, seeing the very different understanding of safety in Europe compared with North America.

In Europe, the Safe Communities movement was focused largely on preventing ‘accidents’ – what in public health we call unintentional injuries. But in North America the focus of safe communities work was largely on preventing crime and violence – one part of what we call intentional injuries.

From a public health perspective, unintentional injuries are by far the larger problem. In a 2017 report, the BC Injury Prevention Committee noted “injury is the leading cause of death for ages 1 to 44 years and the fourth-leading cause of death for all ages.” Based on data from BC Vital Statistics, in 2020 there were 863 deaths from unintentional injury, 381 deaths from intentional self-harm and only 24 deaths from assault – homicide, in other words.

Hospitalisation for injury in BC in 2019/20 followed a similar pattern. By far the largest reason was falls (over 20,000, more than half of which were in those over 75), transport-related causes (almost 4,000), self-harm (just over 3,000) and unintentional poisoning (which includes drug overdose – over 1,700); assault, at just under 1,000, was fifth, with well over half occurring in the 15 – 44 age group.

Based on all of this, and reflecting those injuries which place the largest burden of injury and cost on society, the Committee identified three provincial priorities for injury prevention: Seniors falls, transport-related injuries and youth suicide and self-harm. So if we want a safer community, we need to focus first on the priorities identified by the Committee.

Within the realm of intentional injury, the largest problem is clearly self-harm. This is not to diminish the importance of assault as a cause of injury and death, as well as the mental and emotional trauma it causes, which injury data does not collect.

But even within the category of assault, it is not random violence perpetrated on strangers that should be our priority, it is family violence and sexual violence.  A 2021 report from Statistics Canada noted “one-quarter of victims of police-reported violence are victimized by a family member”, while “two-thirds of all victims of family violence” are women and girls.

Moreover, this violence, as well as sexual violence, is hugely under-reported. A 2019 StatCan report noted 80 percent of spousal violence was not reported to police, while a 2014 report found 83 percent of sexual assault was not reported.

Moreover, community safety is not just about violence, or even about crime more generally, it is about feeling as well as being safe. For example, assault – especially random violence – is seen as much more frightening (and more newsworthy) than the vastly more numerous cases of falls and traffic accidents, which too often seem to be accepted as just part of the fabric of daily life or the price we pay for getting around. This tells us that perception and emotion matters when it come to safety, not just data.

People may feel unsafe for a variety of reasons, often having little to do with criminal activity or within the purview of the police. Indigenous people, people of colour, LGBTQ people and others may feel unsafe because of discriminatory attitudes, remarks or behavior that are not criminal. And of course dark streets and parks make many of us feel unsafe, while people are troubled and perhaps scared by those who are acting strangely, are disheveled and living on the street.

So if we truly want a safer community, we need to think quite broadly about what makes our community unsafe for people, and not get sucked into an understanding of safety that is too narrowly defined as simply a matter of crime and violence and law and order. That said, next week I will focus more on that issue, stressing that it is a complex problem with no quick fixes, no easy solutions.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


Don’t blame Victoria for other governments’ failures

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 August 2022

701 words

Shorten and add in more examples from out-takes

There is a concept in health promotion called victim-blaming – blaming smokers, for example, when in reality they are the victims of a sophisticated marketing campaign. The same concept applies to the tendency by many to blame the City of Victoria for problems such as homelessness, unaffordable housing, mental health and addictions problems and crime and violence. And with municipal elections coming up, its only going to get worse.

But in reality, these are not problems created mainly, if at all by the City, so they cannot be solved by the City. Both the causes and the solutions lie elsewhere, usually in federal and provincial policy decisions, sometimes in the actions (or inactions) of the courts, health professionals and others.

Let’s begin with mental health problems. In the 1980s there was a move to close psychiatric institutions, because they were seen as inhumane, and send people out into the community. This was a provincial decision, and was supposed to be accompanied by moving funding into the community. But by and large that did not happen, at least not anywhere near enough, leaving people who are already challenged to live on the streets, which is also inhumane.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are talking about cancer treatment rather than treatment for people with mental health and addiction problems. Would we have closed the cancer treatment centres if we found inhumane treatment and sent the patients home to get community-based care? Would we then have under-funded the community-based care? Would we be OK with cancer patients living on the streets and not getting the care they need? Or would we fix the problem by addressing the inhumanity and providing quality care, rather than perpetuate it elsewhere. ?

Then there is the related problem of homelessness. We know from the March 2020 Homeless Count and Survey that almost two-thirds of people who are homeless had a substance use issue, well over half had a mental health issue and almost one-third an acquired brain injury. These are not people who should be living on the street. As Don Evans, then CEO of Our Place, wrote in this newspaper in October 2019 (before Covid) “It is almost impossible to stabilize someone and provide proper care until they have a safe place to lay their head at night.” So why are they homeless and on the street, where they are only made worse?

Well in part because of the closing of mental health faciltiies, as already mnoted, and in part because of a lack of suitable housing. As retired nurse Jo Vipond argued recently in this newspaper, “psychiatric housing needs to be provided for homeless people who are mentally ill”

As to camping in the parks, that came from two main factors: The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in 2009 that people had a right to shelter in the parks if adequate shelter was not available to them, and then Covid made it necessary for people who were homeless to be sheltered in the parks until proper shelter could be provided. So it was the decisions of legal and health authorities that led to the situation in the first place, coupled with federal and provincial under-funding of social housing.

Clearly, the City of Victoria and other local municipalities did not create the policies and practices that have caused the problem, and it is unfair to expect them to fix the problem. This is not to say that local governments cannot be part of the solution, but they are not the ones who should be held accountable. It is not fair to blame the victim  – in this case, the City – for policy and program failures coming from other levels of government.

A recent national survey by . . . . . looked at people’s views on their downtowns, and found – surprise, surprise – great concern about poverty, homelessness, mental health and addictions. But as  . . . . , Mossop,  . . . . . of . . . . , commented: “It’s a national and provincial health crisis, it’s homelessness . . . It goes much deeper than what a local mayor can do.” Or as Randy Hatfield, Executive Director of the Human Development Council in St John NB, succinctly put it at a recent conference I attended: “The federal government has the resources, the provinces have the responsibility, the municipalities have the consequences.”

So let’s not blame the City of Victoria – or any other municiaplity – for the failures of the federal and provincial governments.

The City does not have the jurisdiction, power, authority or resources to fully address and solve these problems, although of course it can play a role in many of them

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

See also

We think B.C. downtowns are in decline: poll

High number of people working from home cited as a reason

Nathan Griffiths

Times Colonist, 16 Aug 2022

See also “Psychiatric housing needs to be provided for homeless people who are mentally ill

Decline and collapse: Unpalatable, but not implausible

Dr. Trevor Hancock

23 Aug 2022

701 words

One of my professional roles throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s was that of a health futurist. Often that involved working with scenarios of plausible alternative futures. In addition to helping people understand the implications of past, current and future actions, these scenarios are useful in exploring their values with respect to the future and helping them identify a preferred future they would want to create.

Among the range of scenarios we always included one or more that dealt with societal decline or collapse. It was, of course, nobody’s preferred future, but that did not make it implausible, in fact it was often rated among the more plausible futures. It was, however, the future that people were least interested in understanding or exploring – and that is a problem.

As I noted last week, “a number of recent reports give added credence to the notion that we are in deeper trouble than we have yet recognised.” But while I focused on the possibility of a cascade of climate tipping points leading to catastrophic climate change, I also noted that climate change is but one of the many human-induced challenges we face.

A paper published last month by the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University (for transparency, I am a member of the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board) lists the following global systemic risks we face: “climate heating, biodiversity loss, pandemics, widening economic inequalities, financial system instability, ideological extremism, pernicious social impacts of digitalization, cyber attacks, mounting social and political unrest, large-scale forced migrations, and an escalating danger of nuclear war.”

The problem is that these systemic risks – threats “emerging within one natural, technological, or social system with impacts extending beyond that system to endanger the functionality of one or more other systems” – not only “appear to be increasing in severity . . . [and] at a faster rate”, they also seem to be happening simultaneously, the report noted.

The Institute calls this combination of interacting risks and the crises they engender a polycrisis. While this might be regional or continental in scale, a global polycrisis might result in “runaway failures of Earth’s vital natural and social systems that irreversibly degrades humanity’s prospects”.

Given that polycrises are increasingly plausible and the consequences are so severe, says the Institute, we need to pay more attention to them. However, the report notes, while our management of individual crises has often been weak and inadequate, our management – or even our consideration – of a polycrisis is “nonexistent” because we operate in silos and manage crises one at a time, in isolation.

The Institute is not alone in its concerns; similar concerns are raised by Earth4All, “an international initiative to accelerate the systems-change we need for an equitable future on a finite planet”, Led by an impressive international Transformational Economics Commission and motivated by the 1972 Club of Rome report, ‘The Limits to Growth’, (which I discussed in June), Earth4All is particularly focused on the need for economic transformation.

Concerned that “the world has ignored the risk of system collapse”, Earth4All will publish its findings in a book due out next month, which it promises will be “a survival guide to help steer humanity away from ecological and social catastrophe.”

While we don’t like to contemplate catastrophe, if we don’t, we can’t hope to avoid it. But as the case of climate change illustrated, our social, scientific and political judgements tend to be conservative. However, in downplaying the entirely plausible ‘bad news’ scenario and opting for a variant of business as usual, we avoid having to face and deal with the difficult choices and decisions that are needed.

As both the ‘Climate Endgame’ work I highlighted last week and the reports noted here make clear, we need our governments and international agencies to take seriously the plausibility of polycrises and the ensuing decline or collapse that would result. Both the ‘Climate Endgame’ group and the Cascade Institute want serious study of these situations, while Earth4All says “we need fresh conversations in every home, every school, every university, every city, every parliament. What is the future we want? How can our operating system get us there?” 

I think we need to do both, as a matter of urgency.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The world is not ending, but humanity has a problem

Dr. Trevor Hancock

16 Aug 2022

699 words

A recent letter to the editor (July 30) began: “Another opinion from Trevor Hancock about the upcoming end of the world”. Well actually, that is not what I said or what my columns are about. If by ‘the end of the world’ he means the planet, it is not ending any time soon. It has been around 4 billion years and will doubtless continue for billions more. Nor is life on Earth too likely to end; it has survived 5 previous ‘great extinction’ events, and will probably survive the sixth great extinction that we have initiated, although a great many species will not survive.

Even the human species is probably not at risk – although we should remember that over time, pretty much all species go extinct. But we are a highly adaptable and tough species, able to survive and indeed usually thrive in habitats as diverse as the Arctic, equatorial jungles, deserts and high altitudes. We will likely survive (in some form) anything less than the sort of major extinctions caused by an asteroid strike or massive volcanic eruptions.

What are at risk are societies and communities and our present form of ‘civilisation’, which will decline or collapse if the natural systems upon which we depend decline or collapse. If societies and communities do collapse, the health consequences will be severe, with high mortality rates, especially among the most vulnerable and marginalised.

My thoughts are occasioned not simply by the comments of one letter writer, however, but by a number of recent reports that give added credence to the notion that we are in deeper trouble than we have yet recognised.

The first is an August 1st article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled “Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios”. Authored by a distinguished group of earth, climate and system scientists, the article notes that far from exaggerating the rate, severity and impacts of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a natural tendency to underestimate these factors.

The authors note four reasons for such a tendency, the result of which is that when a range of plausible models and scenarios are considered, we tend to stick with the ‘Goldilocks’ scenario – not too optimistic, but not too pessimistic. Yet, note the authors, “There is ample evidence that climate change could become catastrophic. We could enter such “endgames” at even modest levels of warming”.

Second, a recent report from Carbon Brief compiled attribution studies looking at more than 500 extreme weather events around the world. They noted “71 percent of the 504 extreme weather events and trends . . . were found to be made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change”, including 93 percent of extreme heat events. Overall, they found a number of severe heat extremes that “would have been impossible or virtually impossible without human influence on the climate”.  

One of those was the heat dome we experienced here last year. In fact, the rapid assessment study on that event, done by World Weather Attribution – a collaboration of climate scientists in several leading institutions – found “the observed temperatures were so extreme that they lie far outside the range of historically observed temperatures”.

An article on the Carbon Brief study in the Guardian (August 4th) quotes Professor Bill McGuire of University College London as saying “What is astonishing is the speed with which global heating is translating into a hike in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather when the average temperature of the planet is up by just a little more than 1 °C.” Moreover, note the authors of the PNAS article, we are on track for “a temperature rise between 2.1 °C and 3.9 °C by 2100”.

But it’s not just climate change; the UN refers to a ‘triple crisis’ of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, and that is just on the environmental front. Add to that Covid-19 and other emerging or potential pandemics, high levels of inequality, war in Ukraine and elsewhere and political instability in many places, and the potential for all of these to interact, and we face what is being called a polycrisis, which I will discuss next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

For a livable region, we must minimise building waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

(Published as ‘For a livable region, we must minimize building waste and energy consumption)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 August  2022

699 words

I come now to the fifth and final ‘Big Idea’ from Livable Victoria, a group of which I am a member. As a group we are passionate about what it takes to create a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and equitable place to live. The first four ‘Big Ideas’ have dealt with broad issues of socially just housing policy, fair and ecologically sustainable urban and neighbourhood design, and active transportation. This fifth one deals with the design, construction and operation of the buildings themselves.

In North America we spend on average 90 percent of our time indoors. So the design and operation of the immediate built environment where we spend the vast majority of our time is of great importance for our wellbeing.

That of course is why we have building codes; it’s all about safety and health. The BC Building Code establishes “minimum requirements for safety, health, accessibility, fire and structural protection of buildings, and energy and water efficiency”.

The built environment not only affects our wellbeing directly, because we live within it, but indirectly, by impacting on the wider environment, which in turns affects us. Energy use in buildings is particularly important because buildings have a large ecological footprint, with carbon emissions forming a large part of the footprint, and we need to reduce both materials use and fossil fuel energy use. 

City of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps pointed out in a statement this week that “buildings account for nearly half of all greenhouse gas pollution generated in the city”.  When the One Planet Saanich team estimated the overall ecological footprint of Saanich they noted  that for the built environment, “nearly three quarters of footprint impacts are due to operating energy (electricity and fuel used for heating)”, while “the remaining quarter is due to the energy and materials . . . used to construct the buildings”.

So our fifth ‘Big Idea’ is to minimise building waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, we recommend not just requiring that buildings be energy efficient, but actually incentivizing building designs that reduce energy consumption and embodied carbon. For example, municipalities and the province should provide incentives for high-performance walls, renewable energy production (e.g., solar panels), low-carbon concrete, and bio-based construction materials.

To support this shift in construction practices, which is already under way, we recommend a collaboration between industry, academic and government partners to build local knowledge and capacity on sustainable building practices such as working with low-embodied carbon materials, and zero waste practices. Could this be a role for the recently announced continuing education campus in Langford?

In addition, we recommend that households should be incentivized to upgrade fossil fuel heating and hot water systems with energy-efficient electric systems. In fact, just this week, the City of Victoria has done just that, requiring almost all new buildings constructed after 2025 be ‘zero-carbon’, which rules out fossil fuels for heating and cooking. The rest of the region should follow their lead, indeed Saanich and Central Saanich are reportedly considering this.

Another key recommendation is to implement strict requirements to minimize landfill waste from building demolitions and construction while incentivizing material reclamation whenever possible. This is because “material from the construction sector represents more than one-third of Victoria’s landfilled waste”, states the City of Victoria.

Hence the City’s new demolition waste and deconstruction bylaw, passed in June. In an interview with the local CTV News, Adam Corneil, founder and CEO of Unbuilders Deconstruction, noted “90 per cent of the materials salvaged from a construction site are either resold, donated or recycled, keeping them out of the landfill”. Other municipalities should follow suit.

The ‘5 Big Ideas’ from Livable Victoria that I have presented in these five columns “aim to create a city that respects our planet’s ecological limits while promoting human health and wellbeing.” They are meant to be implemented as a whole, as they reinforce each other, and are “intentionally designed to be flexible and not overly prescriptive”, so that creativity and innovation can flourish.

We hope they will become a central part of the discussions in the coming municipal elections about how to create a more livable region not only for today’s residents, but future generations who make Greater Victoria their home.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

For a more livable city, invest in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 August 2022

703 words

This is the fourth in the series of columns where I present the recommendations of Livable Victoria, an informal and non-partisan group of which I am a member. We share a commitment to making our region a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and inclusive place to live.

Our fourth recommendation is to invest in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure. This form of mobility is also known as active transportation, for the obvious reason that people getting around on foot, by bike or transit are more physically active. It makes a great deal of sense in a region with a temperate climate, and one that on the whole is not very hilly.

Active transportation is a major focus of public health action, and has been for some decades. The health benefits include increased physical activity (in turn linked to reduced obesity and improved heart health), improved air quality (linked to improved heart and lung health), and reductions in injuries, noise and greenhouse gas emissions.

On the down side, noted Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health in 2010, people using active transport modes “face an increased risk of injury from collisions, [and] may also be exposed to elevated levels of air pollution”. Those risks can be reduced by safely separating cyclists and pedestrians from vehicles, reducing vehicle traffic, controlling exhaust pollution and speeding the transition to electric vehicles.

Our first recommendation is to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, and multi-use paths to ensure that every household has safe walking routes to local schools, parks, urban villages, and community centres. This of course fits well with and complements one of the key Livable Victoria recommendations I mentioned last week, namely to create ‘15 minute neighbourhoods’ where people can meet most of their daily needs locally.

Of course, not everyone can walk, bike or take transit, so a second key recommendation is to apply universal design principles so that streets, sidewalks, and roads accommodate all users, including people with mobility impairments and other special needs. 

This fits well with the focus of our third recommendation, which is to expand the All-Ages-and-Abilities (AAA) cycling network to ensure all residences have convenient and safe access to the network. People with mobility and other impairments must be able to access all the services and amenities they need, hence the importance of allowing electric-powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters to use the network.

Our final two recommendations are for the region to accelerate the implementation of the Victoria Transit Future Plan, creating a comprehensive and integrated transit network, and to place a moratorium on future highway expansions, reallocating funding to traffic reduction strategies. On a regional scale, we can’t build a good transit system and get people out of cars if we continue to sprawl and build highways. So stopping further urban sprawl – another recommendation highlighted last week – is key.

So too is a re-allocation of public and private investment. In a July 6th  Planetizen blog posting Todd Litman, a member of Livable Victoria and founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, whose  research is used worldwide in transport planning and policy analysis, points out that “In a typical community, 20 to 40 percent of residents will rely on non-auto travel options if they are available”.

Yet, he adds, “about 85 percent of spending by departments of transportation is devoted to roadways”. He suggests that we should be allocating 20 to 40 percent of transportation dollars and road space to walking, bicycling, and public transit, or “even more to make up for a century of car-centric planning.”

One final point: It may seem cheaper to live further away from downtown, but that is an illusion, as a 2020 CRD report found. Total average annual household housing and transportation costs in the core municipalities were lower than in the Saanich Peninsula and the West Shore. Much of that was because “transportation costs tend to be higher in car dependent areas with limited access to services and employment centres”.

Add the social costs of long commutes to that, as well as the related greenhouse gas and other pollutants generated by all that traffic, and it is clear where the benefits lie. Investing in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure has important health, environmental, social and economic benefits.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Creating a more livable Victoria: Plan neighbourhoods for sustainability and human wellbeing

Published as ‘Urban sprawl not just bad for nature but for health

Dr. Trevor Hancock

26 July 2022

701 words

Back in the 1980s I worked for the Department of Public Health in the City of Toronto.  We were developing and implementing the ideas that contributed to what became a world-wide healthy city movement. One of those key ideas was that the design of the built environment was a fundamental determinant of the health of the population of the city.

Not exactly rocket science, one would think. After all, we are 80 percent urbanised in North America and spend 90 percent of our time indoors. (We also spend 5 percent of our time – half the reamining 10 percent – in vehicles!) If that sounds like a lot, try keeping a time diary for a week and see where you spend your time.

But I was surprised to find, in talking to urban planners, that urban design at that time was not strongly linked to what, to me, was the obvious point of the whole exercise: That people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life is  – or should be – what it’s all about. Surely the success of urban design should be measured in those terms. Which is why a lot of our work on creating healthy cities was and is done in conjunction with urban planners.

A second important urban focus in the 1980s, one that in fact achieved more prominence than healthy cities, was the concept of sustainable communities. From my point of view, they always were two sides of the same coin – a healthy city must be a sustainable city, because while we may spend most of our time in built environments, we spend 100 percent of our time within natural ecosystems that are the ultimate determinant of our health. All of which goes to explain why the third Big Idea from Livable Victoria – a group of which I am a member – is that we must plan neighbourhoods for sustainability and human wellbeing.

Our first recommendation under that heading is to concentrate future population growth within existing urban and suburban areas, while protecting natural habitats from future development. That also leads naturally to our second recommendation, which is to identify, restore, and protect areas of ecological and cultural significance, working with local First Nation communities, ecologists, and other professionals.

In other words, we can’t keep on creating urban sprawl, which is both ecologically harmful and also harms health. It is a very energy and resource inefficient form of development, car-dependant, and one that eats up large natural areas that we and other species depend upon. It also often consumes prime agricultural land, because cities tend to be located where there is good agricultural land to support the population.

The health impacts of urban sprawl have been understood for decades now. In their 2004 book ‘Urban Sprawl and Public Health’, Frumkin, Frank and Jackson identified the main impacts as diseases related to increased air pollution, reduced physical activity and increased obesity, injuries and deaths related to traffic, and impacts on mental wellbeing and social capital. To this we should add the health impacts of climate change, which sprawl exacerbates.

So as a region, we need to concentrate future population growth within existing urban and suburban areas through infill, ‘gentle’ densification, building ‘missing middle’ housing and ‘mainstreeting’ our urban corridors, creating more dense mixed residential and commercial developments along our main transit corridors.

Our next set of recommendations are concerned with smaller-scale urban design issues, based on the concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood.  Melbourne made this the basis of their new official plan in 2017, although they called them 20-minute neighbourhoods. The idea is very simple: “giving people the ability to meet most of their daily needs within a 20-minute walk from home, with safe cycling and local transport options”.

This means, we recommend, developing a network of commercial village centres, but it also means expanding all forms of public amenities and social gathering places (such as parks, plazas, and libraries) with an emphasis on incorporating natural ecosystems and habitats and creating safe places.

Because of course neighbourhoods are not just physical places, they are also social spaces. Good urban design makes community possible by creating places for people to connect – that is an important part of what makes a community healthy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

What a legacy! Thank you, fossil fuel industry

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 July 2022

699 words

Gwyn Morgan is cursed with bad timing but remains determined to stay on the wrong side of history. In his latest fossil fuel/ anti-environment spin exercise (Times Colonist, 23 July), this fossil fuel businessman manages to criticize environmentalists and boost the fossil fuel industry without once mentioning either climate change or global warming, never mind the human impact of those processes.

This in the week when we have watched vast areas of France, Spain and Portugal burn; seen Britain hit a temperature above 40C for the first time ever; seen 100 million Americans under heat warnings, and witnessed droughts in India and flooding in Bangladesh, China and Australia.

I am reminded of Donald Trump recording his message to America the day after the January 6th insurrection: just as he could not say “the election is over”, so too Mr. Morgan can’t bring himself to write ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. This would be funny, were it not so stupidly dangerous.

The fact is that what we are witnessing today in many parts of the world is the result of climate change – actually, climate chaos – driven largely by the combustion of Morgan’s beloved fossil fuels. And it’s going to get worse – probably much worse – before it gets better. If it gets better. Because we are only at 1.1C of warming, likely to surpass 1.5C and on our way to 2 or 3C warming or more.

But as David Suzuki notes in the accompanying article, fossil fuel industry executives “mounted a full-scale campaign to deny, downplay or cause confusion about the growing evidence that their actions threaten our survival – a campaign that’s ongoing” – as Morgan’s column neatly illustrates.

The problem, Mr. Morgan, is not the environmentalists, it’s the fact that our warnings – dating back 50 years or more – were ignored, dismissed, ridiculed and downplayed by people like you. The Club of Rome’s 1972 report “The Limits to Growth” anticipated that “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years.”

A 2008 review of their work by Graham Turner, a Principal Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, concluded: “Thirty years of historical data compare favourably with key features of a business-as-usual scenario . . . which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century.” That is less than 30 years away!

But an unholy alliance of corporations and governments, inspired – if that is the right word – by neoliberal economists, failed to understand – or preferred not to understand – what was being said. As a result, they failed to take action to protect us from the consequences of their actions.

Instead, you all chose to try to keep the whole crazy edifice of our industrial consumer economy going, regardless of the consequences – and you are still at it. As Kenneth Boulding, at one time President of both the American Economic Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science told the US Congress way back in 1973, only a madman or an economist – or in this case, a retired business leader – “believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world.” And yet this is still the myth peddled by the world’s government and corporate leaders.

The real problem is that the solutions proposed by the environmental movement for decades, which would have shifted us from our current path to a healthier, more sustainable and equitable future, have been ignored or delayed. As a result, we have probably lost any hope of managing a gentle transition to what the Science Council of Canada, in 1977, called a Conserver Society. But because of the short-sighted, pig-headed and self-serving opposition of the fossil fuel industry and it’s many corporate and government fellow-travellers, we are running out of time.

We now face the prospect of trying to navigate through a rapid decline, even collapse, of key ecological systems. And when ecological systems decline or collapse, so too do the social and economic systems, the societies and communities, that depend upon them, with disastrous health impacts.

Quite a legacy the fossil fuel industry and the entire corporate and government leadership is leaving us. Thanks, Mr. Morgan.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Creating a more livable region: Build an abundance of housing

(Published as ‘If you want an abundance of housing, don’t micro-manage’)

19 July 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Continuing my exploration of the ‘Five Big Ideas’ of Livable Victoria, a group of which I am a member, this week I look at our second Big Idea: Build an abundance of housing and implement policies to promote affordability.

We know we have a major problem of affordability, both nationally and in this region; indeed in a report last month CMHC called it a crisis. CMHC found the last time housing was considered affordable was 2003/4 and that “to restore affordability, we need 3.5 million additional housing units beyond current projections” by 2030. Of those, over half a million are needed in B.C.

In fact, CMHC notes, B.C. “seems to have always been an unaffordable province”; since at least 1990, “affordability has not been below 40 percent of disposable income”.  In 2003/4 an average household needed to spend 45 percent of their disposable income to buy an average house in British Columbia. Today, “such a household would have had to devote close to 60 percent of their incomes to housing.” I suspect it may be more in this region.

The CRD’s 2018 update of its Regional Housing Affordability Strategy includes some general recommendations under Goal 1 – Build the right supply of housing across the spectrum but the specifics are missing. Livable Victoria provides some of those specifics in our second ‘Big Idea’: Build an abundance of housing and implement policies to promote affordability.

Our first two recommendations under this idea are: “Update residential zoning to allow, by-right, a diversity of housing types and tenure in residential neighbourhoods, including townhouses, houseplexes, and low-rise apartments” and “Scale-up and encourage purpose-built rental housing through incentives such as pre-zoning areas and allowing for greater densities compared to strata ownership housing.”

This takes us straight to the issue of ‘Missing Middle’ housing, currently being debated in the City of Victoria. The term ‘Missing Middle’ was coined in 2010 by Daniel Parolek, founder of Berkeley-based Opticos Design. It is defined on their website as “a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units – compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes – located in a walkable neighbourhood”.  They make the point that this type of housing used to be quite common, until the post-war period.

In a May 2021 article Jimmy Thomson, Managing Editor of Capital Daily noted the idea behind ‘as of right’ zoning and pre-zoning is that “large areas – or whole cities – could be designated as places where more units can be built by default, encouraging cities to densify”.

The point of what has been called ‘gentle densification’ with house-scale buildings is that it both creates a more walkable ‘15-minute neighbourhood’ that, as Opticos puts it, “supports locally-serving retail and public transportation options”, and it is more environmentally sustainable. Many older European cities are built that way, and we love them.

But ultimately, this may not be enough, warns Christine Lintott, an architect and Biomimicry Professional and a member of Livable Victoria. Even with as-of-right zoning and pre-zoning, a plethora of other regulations and codes can get in the way of innovative solutions. “While they can often be addressed”, she notes, “processing times for development permits and building permits remain lengthy, adding another year or more to the process, and that added time and cost makes it difficult if not impossible for innovative small-scale developments to be built.”

We need to step back and look at what we are trying to achieve here – “more households on lots in mature neighbourhoods”, as Lintott puts it – and then figure out the best way to get there, including through regulatory reform.

I am reminded of the apocryphal story of the difference between the Ontario and German building codes. The Ontario code is very thick and immensely detailed, describing everything in great detail. The German building code is very thin and results-driven. It tells you to build a wall that holds up the roof and meets other basic needs and then leaves it to the designer to figure out how.

While this is undoubtedly an over-simplification, the point is clear – don’t micro-manage. Know where you want to be, set some basic rules of safety, sustainability etc., then stand back and let the innovation and creativity flow.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Creating a more livable region: Rapid development of social housing

Published as ‘Social-housing crisis stems from 1993 federal cuts’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

12 July 2022

701 words

Last week I introduced Livable Victoria, of which I am a member. We are an informal and non-partisan group of people who share a passion for making our region a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and inclusive place to live. Our aim is to “create a city that respects our planet’s ecological limits while promoting human health and wellbeing”, which has been the focus of my work for much of the past 40 years.

This week I will begin to explore our ‘Five Big Ideas’ in more detail, from the perspective of human wellbeing and its achievement within the Earth’s ecological boundaries. These ideas are intended to provide a balanced and holistic perspective and be implemented together. We want to create a city-region that puts the health of the planet and the wellbeing of everyone that lives here at the centre of decision-making about the built environment.

The first of the Five Big Ideas is to scale-up and facilitate the rapid development of social housing across the region, the provision of which is essential to ensure health and wellbeing for everyone. The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness notes “the term ‘social housing’ refers specifically to housing that is subsidized by a level of government”. It is just housing for ordinary people whose incomes are insufficient to afford market-price housing.

I addressed this issue in my April 10th column “Speeding development of non-profit housing is good for health” and won’t repeat here what I said then. But it is important to understand that the crisis in social housing was the result of the cancellation of the federal social housing program in 1993 and the downloading of responsibility to the provinces in the early 1990s, together with the failure of incomes to keep pace with increased housing costs.

Nicole Chaland, a local housing and homelessness researcher and a member of Livable Victoria, uses data from a 2015 article that shows that social housing fell from a range of 7 – 20 percent of all housing built annually between 1972 and 1994 to 1 – 2 percent after 1996. As a result, she notes, “Canada now has one of the most privatized housing markets of the 38 members countries in the OECD. Only 3.5 per cent of Canada’s housing stock is protected from market influences.”

The good news is that both the federal and provincial governments have finally started to act on the issue of social housing, affordability and homelessness, after decades largely ignoring the problems. But local governments have only a limited capacity to respond to the policy failures of higher levels of government.

Nonetheless, the CRD’s Housing First Program and its Affordable Housing Strategy are beginning to address the issue locally.  In partnership with the federal and provincial governments, the Housing First Program is working “to eliminate chronic homelessness and generate new rental housing options . . . moving at-risk individuals into long-term, tenant-based, supported housing to enable recovery and integration into society.” So far, the construction of over 1,000 units is in planning, underway or completed; of these, 20 percent are provincial income assistance units, 31 percent affordable and 49 percent near-market rental.

We believe this process could be strengthened if municipalities remove barriers to social housing and incentivize and expedite approval processes through measures such as pre-zoning, allowing for higher levels of density, waiving development fees, and providing property tax breaks. Other useful steps can include using existing public land and acquiring new land for social housing; establishing dedicated municipal staff positions to facilitate the development of social housing; providing greater flexibility in land use zoning for social housing, such as allowances for live-work spaces, and broadening the range of accepted design guideline considerations, allowing social benefit, community safety, and cultural features to offset other design goals.

Social housing, an important component of the affordable housing spectrum, is not just an issue for low-income people but a concern for all of us. As the CRD notes, “affordable housing is key to a strong economy and healthy region”.  In fact a CMHC report last month found B.C needs more than half a million new affordable units by 2030. So next week I will look at our suggestions for building more affordable and sustainable housing.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy