Landscape vs. Public Space: Homelessness and Vancouver’s Olympic Bid
Vancouver is poised on the brink of World Citydom, and those closest to the Olympic project can almost taste it. David Cobb, senior vice president of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Olympics (VANOC), was quoted in a recent news article as saying that “[w]e’re not all hockey and moose and Mounties…[w]e’re a technologically advanced country. We’re much more of an urban country than people realize. We’re a very cosmopolitan country”(Read, The Oregonian, 2006). This plaintive cry for global recognition of Canada’s cosmopolitan character is echoed in the efforts of Vancouver officials and elite citizens to brand Vancouver through the 2010 Olympic Games. “[T]he Olympics is not a destination event, it’s a branding event”(Penner, Vancouver Sun, 2006), says economist David Baxter. However, the success of the brand is dependent on its attractiveness to capital, wealthy homeowners and tourists. In a recent Globe and Mail article announcing “Project Civil City”, with the express intent of eliminating homelessness, open drug exchange, and aggressive panhandling, Mayor of Vancouver Sam Sullivan is quoted as saying “[w]e have about 1,000 days until the world arrives, and I can’t think of a more important legacy from the Games than a more civil city”(Hume, Globe and Mail, 2006). This statement and its subsequent policy, if adopted, have potentially disastrous implications for those members of society deemed ‘unattractive’ by the elite. Sullivan makes abundantly clear which members of society are meant to receive the legacy benefits of the Olympics, and they are those of us privileged enough to create a comfortable landscape out of the “brutal public sphere”(Mitchell, 2003) that many Vancouver residents must call home.
“We have about 1000 days until the world arrives…”(Hume, Globe and Mail, 2006).
With this phrase, Sullivan alludes to the reality that planning for a globally competitive city is a process of packaging the city for global customers. Bunting and Rutherford observe that “[m]ega-events such as trade symposiums, world fairs, and Olympic games…‘showcase’ competitive cities to the world as ‘open for business’”(2006: 75). Vancouver aims to prove itself on the world stage as a cosmopolitan centre embodying high consumption, economic power, multiculturalism, and progressive attitudes toward issues like poverty and environmental responsibility.
The global competition for capital leads to, in the words of Neil Smith (1996) an “uneven development” of space within the city. Capital flow and accumulation is necessarily unequal, creating a dynamic that “involves…the spatial centralization of capital in some places at the expense of others, the evolution of spatially differentiated pattern of wage rates…class differences, and so forth.”(79). He goes on to say that the benefits of capital that equalize citizens on an inter-urban scale are differentially accessed on an intra-urban scale (Smith, 1996).
From this argument, it is apparent that there are many who will not benefit from the World City agenda. They are the poor and homeless of the city, many of them recent immigrants who are largely concentrated in certain ghettoized areas such as the Downtown East Side, infamous for being the most impoverished community in all of Canada outside of First Nations Reserves (Heisz, 2001).
VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics, acknowledged the importance of leaving a positive legacy for all, including the poor and homeless, with their ‘Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement’. Specific goals are ensuring “that people are not made homeless as a result of the Winter Games” and providing “an affordable housing legacy”(VANOC, 2003). Unfortunately, current efforts to implement this legacy fall short. The most significant low-income housing efforts—the Olympic Village with 200-250 new units and the Woodward’s redevelopment with 200 units (VANOC, 2006)—are not nearly sufficient to address the need for housing the current homeless population, not to mention the need if this population triples by 2010. Lawyer David Eby of Pivot Legal Society warns that “[i]f we continue to lose low-cost housing in the Downtown Eastside at the current rate, we can expect to be coping with at least three times the number of people living on Vancouver’s streets by the time the world arrives for the 2010 Olympics”(Johal, Inter Press Service, 2006). Furthermore, it is well documented that the ‘revitalization’ of poor areas of the city often translates into the displacement of low-income individuals due to inflated rent and lease rates (Smith 1996; Varouhakis, Associated Press, 2005). The expected influx of 152 000 people demanding housing as part of the Olympics’ “legacy effects” would require 61 100 additional housing units (Penner, Vancouver Sun, 2005). Inevitably, existing low-income communities will absorb the shock of incoming wealthy people, forcing many onto the streets. These trends, along with Smith’s analysis of ‘uneven development’, call into question the view that the Olympics and its accompanying gentrification will be a “rising tide that lifts all boats”(Duany, 2001).
In efforts to hide the ‘homeless problem’ from the world, past Olympic Games witnessed laws that severely undermined basic rights of those experiencing homelessness (Denton, 2002). One of the goals that VANOC outlines, “to ensure all inner-city residents’ access to public space…”, is in part a direct effort to avoid a similar situation in Vancouver. Such steps toward inclusivity, however, are flatly contradicted by a set of recent policy recommendations by Sam Sullivan and the NPA government. On November 27, 2006, Sullivan unveiled ‘Project Civil City’, a plan to crack down on homelessness and “clean up our streets”. Some specific policy initiatives of the project include allocating $1 million from the Olympic Legacy Fund to “enhance civil response to deal with nuisance and annoyance complaints”, and having the Vancouver Police “adopt policies that will increase the street presence of our existing police force”(Hume, Globe and Mail, 2006). With Project Civil City, Sullivan falls back on the “broken windows” theory of social disorder outlined by Wilson and Kelling (1982), using alarmist language about how “public disorder” is “endangering our community”(Hume, Globe and Mail, 2006) to justify anti-homeless measures. The question arises: what community exactly is being endangered by the existence of homeless people? Those living on the streets or panhandling are rarely a danger to people around them. In fact, the ‘community’ Sullivan refers to are business and property owners who have a vested interest in Vancouver’s positive image at the Olympic Games. It is not a local, place-based community of people, but a diffuse community of capital that is endangered by the presence of ‘undesirables’ such as the homeless.
“…and I can’t think of a more important legacy from the Games than a more civil city”(Hume, Globe and Mail, 2006).
Still more questions arise from Sullivan’s phrase. What will constitute a more civil city? Business and residence owners who can turn the other cheek at the issue of poverty because the homeless have been pushed out of their neighbourhoods? “Clean streets” that are the result of an intolerable abuse of basic human rights for those without dwellings? The brand of civility that Sullivan and his NPA government are going for is one of appearances; we appear to the world to be a civil city, when in reality we act with extreme incivility to over 2000 (Goldberg, Social Planning and Research Council of BC, 2005) of the human beings residing here.
This dialectic of appearance and reality with respect to homelessness is central to the idea of landscape that Don Mitchell describes in his brilliant book The Right to the City (2003). As global capital proves fickle and as cities strive to attract investment, the aesthetic value (to those possessing capital) of clean streets becomes paramount in the municipal neoliberal agenda. To this end, Mitchell argues that “[c]ities seek to use a seemingly stable, ordered urban landscape as a positive inducement to continued investment”(2003: 177). Rather than a public realm where the unfortunate aspects of a capitalist society go about their lives, the city must become a “scene” over which the “propertied classes express ‘possession’ of the land and their control of the social relations within it”(Mitchell 2003: 186, quoting Cosgrove and Daniels).
Vancouver 2010 is no different: those who stand to gain are packaging the Olympic experience for the global customer in a series of nodes throughout the city region that effectively leave out, bypass, ignore, or disguise social dysfunction. The visitor’s experience of Vancouver is organized between the picturesque Olympic Village in South East False Creek, state-of-the-art practice facilities in Point Grey and in Richmond, Whistler-Blackcomb Resort, a newly constructed Sea to Sky Highway, and Vancouver streets that will, if Sullivan is successful, be free of panhandlers and drug addicts. The visitor partakes in a landscape that is “a place of comfort and relaxation, unsullied by images of work, poverty, or social strife”(Mitchell, 2003: 187). Similarly, Peter Hall speaks to the “sanitized” urban environment of mega-developments meant to package an experience for tourists. He observes that “…the city…becomes a kind of exotic suburban enclave, stripped of all negative connotations of decay, dirt, crime, and social malaise”(Hall 1992: 7).
The creation of landscape vs. public space is essential to Vancouver’s World City bid, because as it “restores to the viewer…an essential sense of control within a built environment…”(Mitchell, 2003: 187), it also restores to the investors of capital the sense of security that their investment in this ordered city is sound. City officials and business owners know that the presence of a homeless person or an aggressive panhandler (the ‘broken windows’ of social disorder) profoundly destabilizes this comfortable landscape, necessitating the removal of the threat altogether.
In Vancouver, the song and dance to attract capital is given urgency by the desire of the city’s elite to showcase Vancouver’s global status through the Olympic Games. “Project Civil City” is an attempt, poorly disguised as an effort to protect “our community’s interests”(Hume, Globe and Mail, 2006), to eliminate a threat to our image that might discourage capital from entering the city. City officials and businesses seek to create an ‘Olympic landscape’ by framing the city in a series of attractive venues and actively suppressing those elements of the city deemed unattractive. Through inadequate social housing measures, accelerated gentrification of current low-income neighbourhoods, and direct discrimination toward those experiencing homelessness, the “physical, social, and economic legacies”(VANOC 2003) promised to the citizens of Vancouver will be beneficial to some and devastating to others, namely, the poor and homeless. To offer a twist on Duany’s phrase, the Olympics may be a tide that lifts all boats, but those without one, drown.
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