April 07, 2006

Say It Ain't So, Joe

I picked up a copy of the March issue of Seattle Magazine the other day, and happened across an article (print only, I'm afraid) by the estimable Joe Follansbee.  The article claims that Seattle suffers from an inferiority complex:  whenever Seattle residents compare their home town with Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, they always decide that Seattle comes up short. Follansbee argues that Seattle should just learn to love itself just as it is, rather than falling victim to sibling rivalry.

Interesting enough idea.  But there's one thing that sticks in my craw:  in trying to puncture the reputation of neighboring cities, Follansbee claims that Portland has an unusally low number of children, compared with its neighboring metropolises:

Portland's downtown Pearl District, hailed as the embodiment of "smart growth"...had only three more children living there in 2000 than in 1990, according to demographers.  What's "smart" about a city without children?

Do we [i.e., Seattle] want to be like Portland, childless and..."proper"?

Enough already! This factoid--that Portland is devoid of tykes--is simply false. It doesn't even pass the 5 minute Google test; that is, it takes less than five minutes of web searching to see that it doesn't hold water.  And yet, it's a theme I hear again and again in discussions of Portland and smart growth generally.

It's high time to roast this chestnut.

As it turns out, what's true for Portland's Pearl District -- that there aren't many children -- doesn't hold true for the rest of Portland.  Take a look at the Census Bureau's Portland "quick facts." As of the last Census count, 21.1 percent of the city's residents were children under the age of 18, compared with 24.7 for Oregon as a whole. 

So the city does have fewer children than the state as a whole, by 3.6 percentage points.  But take a look at the Seattle "quick facts."  Minors account for just 15.6 percent of the city's population.  In comparison, Portland is teeming with kids -- 40 percent more, measured per capita, than in Seattle.  And the gap between Seattle and the whole of Washington is 10 percentage points -- nearly 3 times wider than the gap between Portland and Oregon.

So it makes absolutely no sense -- none -- to ask whether Seattle wants to be "childless" like Portland.

Admittedly, Portland has fewer kids than many US cities.  But it's pretty much on par with Denver and Minneapolis, has a few more kids per capita than Pittsburgh, and far more than San Francisco (where under-18-year-olds are just 14.5 percent of the population).  In Vancouver, BC -- often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity -- children under 18 made up only 15.5 16.6 percent of the population in 2001. 

Diving into the Vancouver numbers a bit deeper, it seems that there's no major part of Vancouver -- not downtown, not the west side, not even the semi-suburban south end -- that has a kids-to-population ratio that's as high as in Portland.  And the kid-to-population gap between Vancouver and the whole of BC is wider than for Portland and the whole of Oregon.  Vancouver's denser neighborhoods have a reputation for having lots of kids, and in large part they do -- but only because they have lots of people, period.  As a share of the population, though, Portland has far more kids than "kid-friendly" Vancouver.

I'm sure this post won't put an end to the urban legend of Portland's childlessness (although it may perpetuate the impression that there aren't many kids in the Northwest's other major cities).  But I hope it helps.

On a deeper level, I'm puzzled by all the hand-wringing about childless cities.  As of the last census, families with children comprised less than one in three Northwest households.  And the number of childless households is growing for good reasons.  We're having kids later in life, and fewer of them -- largely because of better educational and job opportunities for women.  Plus we're living longer, so seniors are making up a far larger share of the population than they used to.  For the large and growing number of childless households, urban living has a strong appeal -- they're the ones who appear to be flocking to housing in dense urban centers.  So to the extent that the trends towards "childless cities" is real, it's largely driven by demographic changes that we'd be foolish to want to reverse.

What do the angst-ridden commentators lamenting the lack of children downtown want people to do? Have kids even if they'd prefer not to? Die before they get a chance to down-nest?  Move their families to urban condos in order to save some single-family detached houses for hipsters?  Help me out here, folks.

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March 30, 2006

Job Satisfaction vs. Cold Hard Cash

How much of a pay cut would you be willing to accept to take a more satisfying job?

Via Kevin Drum, I see that UBC professors John Helliwell and Haifang Huang have tried to put a number on how much different kinds of job satisfaction are worth in cold, hard cash.  The results (cribbed from this summary at MSNBC):

  • Increased trust in your employer is worth a 36 percent pay raise.
  • A greater variety of projects is worth a 21 percent pay hike.
  • Having a position that requires skill worth 19 percent more pay.
  • Having enough time to finish your work is worth 11 percent more pay.

Based on this, then, you'd be happier overall taking a 20 percent pay cut to work at a place where you trust your employers more; but you're better off in sticking with a somewhat harried job than taking that same pay cut to work at a more measured pace.  Of course, this somewhat contradicts this earlier post on a study that found, among other things, that working on a job where there's pressure to work quickly is just about the least satisfying thing you can do with your time.

It's also worth noting that increased pay doesn't do all that much for your happiness: a pay raise of $100,000 only begins to approach the wellbeing people typically derive from a stable marriage. This suggests that a slightly slower pace of work probably only does a little bit for your wellbeing.  Still, every little bit helps.

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March 14, 2006

Rails to Trails to Economic Development?

Editor's note: Guest contributor Hans Peter Meyer writes on community development issues from Courtenay, British Columbia.

I have a dream, and last year’s “official opening” of the One Spot Trail here in the Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley is part of its realization. The “developed” part of the trail is about 6 kilometres long. It’s a multi-use trail for walkers, cyclists, and horseback riding that parallels Condensory Road for part of its length, making a pleasant diversion through standing second- growth timber, then “ending” where the railway trestle used to cross the Tsolum River. Someday it’ll cross the river and head north.

I use quotation marks because the One-Spot Trail follows an existing railway right of way (RoW) that still stretches from the old log dump south of Courtenay, well into the Sayward Forest 120 or so kilometres north. Some stretches of the old Comox Logging RoW are still visible and in use as civic parkings, alley-ways, or urban walkways. Rural remnants are still walkable in some of the rural hamlets north and south of the city. But most of it is “lost,” buried in backyards or plowed into farmers’ fields, or hidden in the now twice logged-over lands that lie behind the settled strip of land on the east side of Vancouver Island.

There is a happy irony in naming this throughway the One-Spot Trail. The old One-Spot, a wood-burning locomotive, once pulled millions of dollars of timber out of this region. That was yesterday’s version of “rural economic development.” Today, the railway grade offers another type.

The irony deepens. The undeveloped part of the trail, as a relatively “protected” strip of land running through the heart of one of the world’s great forest ecosystems, is today--in places--one of the few places within walking distance of Courtenay where it’s possible to go for a long walk in a big Douglas fir forest.

We are slow on the uptake hereabouts. Maybe it’s living in the lap of so much natural wealth. It’s a commonplace, but three generations ago many people still believed that we’d never run out of first- growth forest. The wealth of timber seemed inexhaustible, and the wealth of work in the woods seemed unending. Now, relatively few people appreciate just how valuable our second-growth forests are becoming. Not in terms of timber, but as places where locals and tourists can get a sense of the former abundance of this place. It’s an aesthetic-spiritual experience, one that more and more people are valuing, as tourists, and as residents.

Living with so much natural wealth, it’s easy to take it for granted. Even to downplay what we have as “only second growth,” a pale shadow of the much vaunted “ancient forest.” For many around the world our wealth is plain to see: clean air and water, great swaths of unpaved and undeveloped lands, an amazingly resilient forest, a hospitable and temperate climate. Even our still relatively small settlements have some charm left to them (though our land use planning and development practices are an example of how little we regard the qualities of “charm” or “aesthetic” experience when it comes to built forms, housing). People who visit want to come back. And they want to deepen their experience of the things we take for granted. Like a walk in the woods.

It’s hard to know how much of an impact a trail can have on a scattering of rural hamlets. But, as tourists look for more active and “natural” ways to experience places, trails--and services for walkers and cyclists generally--start to look like a good and relatively inexpensive infrastructure investment.

About a dozen years ago bicycle touring started to emerge as a tourist activity on the Island’s Saanich peninsula. That area is laced with secondary roads and byways, has a rural agricultural feel, and links with ferries to Duncan and the Gulf Islands. The impression was that these were “cheap” or “budget” tourists. The reality was that they were spending over $100/day on accommodations, meals, and incidentals. Analysis showed that these cheap tourists were worth over a million dollars annually in the area.

Extraction is how we used to do rural economic development. Douglas firs. Salmon. Coal. Currently, we’re extracting raw land for large lot subdivisions. The challenge is do a different kind of “extraction,” to get as much “use” out of our landscape, forests, beaches, mountains, clean air and water, etc without diminishing its ability to sustain the high quality of life of those of us lucky enough to call this place home.

The dream of an extensive Comox Logging RoW trail is only part of the picture. In the backyards and backwoods of every Island community are hidden old railway grades. The Comox Logging RoW crosses several, including the Elk River right-of-way that connected Campbell River to the Quinsam River and Campbell Lakes valleys, the Bloedel Steward and Welch networks heading inland from Menzies Bay, the Rock Bay and Kelsey Bay rail lines that snaked into the White and Salmon River valleys, and so on.

To begin the work of mapping these connections, and then creating partnerships and low-key development may begin generating jobs and businesses in the rural communities that haven’t done well with the passing of yesteryear’s timber bonanza.

The One Spot Trail is only 6 kilometres long at this point, but it’s a great start. Meanwhile, I’m still dreaming. There’s a walk I want to do. From Royston to Sayward. About 130km. With a stop or two at a B&B along the way, at a pub (or two) for a beer. Maybe I’ll even do part of it on horseback. What a way to spend a week on Vancouver Island!

P.S. There is a growing body of research and literature on the economic benefits of trail systems for rural communities. A good place to start is the American Trails website.

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March 10, 2006

Luna Killed


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March 01, 2006

Beetle Battle

Beetle_trees_3From the Washington Post, an article worth reading on a subject that's depressingly well-known to Canadians, but probably unfamiliar to most Americans: the mountain pine beetle outbreak devastating forests in British Columbia. The damage has been colossal:

Surveys show the beetle has infested 21 million acres and killed 411 million cubic feet of trees -- double the annual take by all the loggers in Canada. In seven years or sooner, the Forest Service predicts, that kill will nearly triple and 80 percent of the pines in the central British Columbia forest will be dead.

Meanwhile, the beetle is moving eastward. It has breached the natural wall of the Rocky Mountains in places, threatening the tourist treasures of national forest near Banff, Alberta, and is within striking distance of the vast Northern Boreal Forest that reaches to the eastern seaboard.

Foresters and researchers agree that the principle culprit is global warming (because warmer winters, even by a few degrees, have not been severe enough to kill the native beetle and supress its now-exponential population growth). So the pine beetle infestation is worrisome, not only for the severe ecological impacts, but also because it appears to be an early sign of the devastation to be wrought by a warming atmosphere.

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February 22, 2006

The Time of Their Life

According to the latest figures, life spans in the British Columbia are still on the rise.  In 2005, life expectancy for newborns topped 81 years for the first time ever, up a little over two months from 2004:


To me, the most remarkable thing about this chart is that life expectancy growth has been so steady -- the increases have been almost linear -- and is showing no signs of slowing down. Which suggests that we're nowhere near the end of life span increases.  Indeed, as this article points out (abstract only, unless you're willing to pay), lifespans around the world have grown fairly consistently for about 160 years.  Moreover, mortality experts who have predicted over the years that we're approaching an 'ultimate ceiling' for life expectancy have repeatedly been proven wrong.  Which might suggest that lifespans will continue to rise for quite some time.

Of course, if current trends continue life expectancy in the province will approach 100 years by the time that this year's newborns reach 81--as unthinkable now, perhaps, as a lifespan of 81 years might have been at the dawn of the 20th century.  But even if the growth in life expectancy does slow down some, we're still going to see major increases in the number of elderly people over the next few decades, as the baby boomers hit retirement age.  Those demographic shifts are going to force some major rethinking about how we as a society deal with seniors -- to make sure that their lives aren't just long, but also pleasant and affordable.

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February 15, 2006

Nativity Scene

Perhaps everyone else knew this, but I certainly didn't: most residents of the northwest US were born outside the state where they now live.  Roughly 53 percent of folks who live in Idaho and Washington, and 55 percent in Oregon, are transplants, born either in another state or country.  (For the record, I'm a wanderer too, born and raised on the east coast.)

For the most part, in-migrants came from other parts of the US, rather than overseas.  As of 2000, only 1 in 20 residents of Idaho, 1 in 12 residents of Oregon, and 1 in 10 Washingtonians were foreign-born. The rest of us came from other parts of the US.  (Of course, there's some overlap here; some folks who were born in, say, Washington now live in Oregon. So there may be quite a few people who didn't move far -- but the Census site where we got these numbers couldn't tell us specifics.) 

British Columbia, on the other hand, has a substantial population of international in-migrants: 1 in 4 residents of the province were born in another country, mostly in Europe or Asia.

I have no larger point here -- other than a bit of surprise that, for a place that seems to have inspired genuine loyalty among its inhabitants, our roots may be a bit shallower than I'd thought.

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February 08, 2006

Canada's Great Bear Park? Not Exactly.

The world is celebrating an announcement in Vancouver on Tuesday that the government of British Columbia finally signed on to a new vision for a region of the province nicknamed the Great Bear Rainforest--a vast, nearly roadless forest of cedar and hemlock stretching along the coast from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

A Google News search that night turned up 137 stories published around the world about the announcement, including a front-page piece in the Washington Post (Huge Canadian Park Is Born of Compromise), and an AP story (Canada Unveils Park to Protect Grizzlies), which was reprinted nearly everywhere from Seattle to Fort Worth.

This new phase of land-use planning is about a lot more than a big park for bears. The media who reported it as such should be corrected.

The agreement announced by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell -- and built by First Nations who live in this area­­, environmentalists and logging company representatives,--is being called "A New Vision for Coastal B.C." That's not just P.R.--it really is a vision, a new way of thinking about and creating conservation that was a decade in the making.

In fact, contrary to some of the more romantic news reports, environmentalists and native leaders working on the Great Bear haven’t seen a U-Lock, or even a bullhorn, in at least half a decade. Instead, they’ve logged thousands of hours under fluorescent lights in stale meetings rooms at airport hotels and YMCAs, far from the tall trees and leaping salmon. They got to know people they didn't necessary like at first--mid-level bureaucrats, loggers, big-box retail executives. In doing so, everyone involved changed their thinking about the forest, their communities and the coastal economy.

Listen to CBC News for some good interviews with key negotiators (see the bottom of this page), or reporter Clifford Krauss' audio commentary on the New York Times' web site for a clearer picture of what happened.

At the core of the new accord is a vision of sustainability that fosters stong communities and healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in this unique place. This is not a traditional park.

The entire region will be "zoned" into three tiers of special management areas. More than a third of the region—the "Protected Areas" and "Biodiversity Areas"--will see no commercial logging. However, mining is allowed in the Biodiversity Areas. Tourism is OK too.

The final two-thirds of the region will be open to logging under another plan, called ecosystem-based management, which is still being hammered out by the stakeholders for implementation in 2009. (It's not over.)

What's more, some 25 First Nations living in this region, in communities like Hartley Bay, Klemtu and Bella Bella, will share management authority with the province. They'll have access to the Protected Areas for traditional and cultural use--that's not the case with parkland. They can fish, harvest cedar for carving totems or other cultural activities, and worship at their sacred sites, for instance. It's a way of thinking about people and place with a long-term vision for sustaining both.

Not everyone is pleased with the new Great Bear Agreement. Many B.C. environmentalists have criticized the environmental groups who negotiated the deal for remaining involved in the negotiations after the planning tables rejected the recommendations of a blue-ribbon team of conservation biologists. These scientists, who conducted their studies as part of the planning process, concluded that upwards of 70% of the region should remain free from industrial development to maintain healthy populations of large carnivores like grizzlies and coastal wolf packs. The end result was much less, and some say sufficient wildlife corridors are lacking.

Of course, what logging will look like under the esoteric term "ecosystem-based management" remains to be seen.

The key to the deal still rests on a gamble. The environmentalists' winning strategy was a huge $120 million "conservation financing" campaign. In less than five years, they managed to raise $30 million, with the assistance of private foundations, to fund budding entrepreneurs in native communities that agree to embrace sustainability- micro-businesses like eco-tourism, certified forest products and shellfish aquaculture. They double-dared both the province and the feds to match that number. The B.C. Liberals agreed to do so yesterday.

The newest complication is the recent federal election. Canada now has a Conservative prime minister from the oil fields of Alberta--not exactly a man envisioning sustainability. The immediate step forward is brokering a commitment from Ottawa.

Well, most British Columbians would never believe that a premier of this province would ever thank Greenpeace--known widely as the "Enemies of B.C." in the 1990s. He did this week. Perhaps Stephen Harper is next.

(Full disclosure:  Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck worked on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign from 2001-2003. She's now Tidepool's editor.)

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January 26, 2006

What's the Matter with Canada?

Canada_flag_1  Oh, Canada The country that prides itself as the social-policy soul-mate of Scandinavia--with universal health care, progressive drug policies, gay marriage, and yes, even legalized swingers’ clubs, of late--has elected as its leader a former oil-and-gas man from Alberta, the Canadian equivalent of Texas. Huh?

On Monday, Canada’s Conservative Party won the majority of seats in parliament, ousting the once-formidable Liberal Party from power for the first time in 13 years. Paul Martin, who became prime minister in 2004, resigned as head of the Liberal Party.

What’s an American Cascadian to think?

Well, Canada has four major political parties (the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois), so what may look like a sudden and unexpected upheaval is actually a more nuanced election than you typically get in the United States. Mix in the biggest political corruption investigation in years (the “sponsorship scandal,” which involved widespread mishandling of a public fund used to promote federalism over separatism in Quebec), and you have a race that the incumbent Liberal government was itching to lose.

Upon closer inspection, the vote was tight, and the Conservatives, or the Tories as they’re known north of the border, are left with a minority government--only 124 out of 308 seats in parliament--which means they have to reach out to other parties and form a coalition to actually govern. In fact, they only received 36.3 percent of the popular vote.

A mandate it ain’t.

And in Canada’s three biggest cities--Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver--it was a shut out. The Conservative Party won zero seats.

In British Columbia, there was a certifiable progressive resurgence. The New Democrat Party (NDP), social democrats to the left of the Liberals, doubled their seats, largely through scrappy, narrow victories in diverse metropolitan neighborhoods like Vancouver’s Kingsway. (This follows strong gains for the NDP in the provincial election last May, when the NDP recovered from the total annihilation of 2001, which left them with a pathetic one seat in BC’s legislative assembly. In the May 2005 provincial election, many voters were reacting to the sweeping government cutbacks provincial leader Gordon Campbell unleashed on the province after he became premier in 2001.)

The Tories lost BC seats, even in rural regions dominated by resource industries. Areas like Northern Vancouver Island, the Southern Interior, and the North all elected NDP candidates.

How will the election affect environmental policy?

Campbell is still the premier of British Columbia, and most land-use planning decisions will be decided on his watch.

But with only 21 more seats than the Liberals, the Conservative party is in no position to throw out Kyoto. Many Canadians are proud of the leadership role their country has played in finding global solutions to climate change, including hosting the Montreal conference last November.

One hot BC issue is the longstanding federal moratorium on oil-and-gas drilling off the BC coast. The NDP incumbent 33-year-old Nathan Cullen, won out over Conservative Party candidate Mike Scott, who was campaigning on the promise to lift the moratorium.

Cullen campaigned to safeguard the coast from drilling, strengthen aboriginal rights and title, and battle the encroachment of fish farms. The area he represents as a member of parliament is no progressive oasis. Stretching from the Queen Charlotte Islands all the way to Fort St. John, it’s full of cash-strapped communities and forests decimated by Asian pine beetles.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Canadian election is the emergence of Liberal star Michael Ignatieff. This ex-pat--a Harvard professor, frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and human rights activist--returned to Ontario at the start of this eight-week campaign to run for office and clean up the Liberals. He won a seat in parliament, and he’s now vying for party leader. Some have crowned him the Liberals’ new philosopher-king, and, perhaps, Canada’s future prime minister.

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January 20, 2006

Burnaby on Peak Oil

Editor's note: This is by Gordon Price, former city councillor for Vancouver, BC, Director of the City Program for Simon Fraser University, and NEW board member.

In my 15 years on City Council in Vancouver, I read a lot of reports. Ninety percent of them were not exactly stimulating: lane pavings, grant approvals, appointment of the external auditor … all the things that keep a city going. Occasionally, a report would appear that grabbed your attention – and on a very rare occasion, would actually change your understanding of the world, or at least your city.

I’d like to say that such a report recently appeared on the agenda of the City of Vancouver. But it didn’t. It appeared in Burnaby – the municipality just to the east. And what a subject: "Global Peak in Oil Production: the Municipal Context."

For those interested in the subject, there’s not a lot that’s new in the report; it’s primarily a background piece. Even on those terms, it makes informative reading. What makes it significant, however, is that it was requested by politicians, prepared by staff and comes with the seal of government –- as far as I know, the first such report of its kind in Canada.

It’s not as dry as you might guess, what with some amusing quotes at the head of each section - "Today no one disagrees that the wolf is out there but differences in analyses and opinions as to when it will attack the sheep still prevail." It provides a Canadian perspective, and, after noting that "It is too late to panic. It is time to plan," it provides an appendix of actions that the municipality might take.

Will action follow? I haven’t heard the results of the debate, but the mere fact that a government body is opening the door to a subject that most leaders would prefer remain firmly shut off is a tangible action all on its own.

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