A better city together One community at a time and with a little help from our neighbours to the south

With former Portland mayor Bud Clark

MY NAME’S PETE Fry. I’m a creative professional, entrepreneur and community activist, and I’m running for city council with the Green Party of Vancouver.

I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life with clients ranging from the DIY indie music and club scenes to government and NGOs to arts and activists, but mostly I’ve worked with small businesses across Vancouver.

Small businesses provide 80 percent of this city’s jobs, yet many are suffering due to ham-fisted rezonings and development; exorbitant taxes and property values; lack of a cohesive urban plan; and too much red tape. Along with my park board running mate, restaurateur Michael Wiebe, we’re excited to bring a front-line small business perspective to the Greens and this civic election.

I’m also a community activist in my neighbourhood, Strathcona and the DTES, where I’ve lived since 1988. Most recently as chair of the Strathcona Residents’ Association, I advocated for the community in the Local Area Planning Process but I’ve also been very active regarding the proposed viaduct removal, safety, housing and heritage retention, as well as helping to raise money and grants.

I’ll get this out of the way now because a lot of people ask me: Yes, my mom is Hedy Fry, Vancouver Centre MP since 1993. No, I didn’t grow up around political campaigns—I was in my mid-20s when she was elected and I’d long since left home.

But like me, mom was a political neophyte when she first ran. Like me, she was running because she saw that something was rotten and needed fixing. In her case, it was the issue of same-sex partner rights. For me, it’s the state of Vancouver—slick, developer-funded, world class city building without the jobs, the affordability, the community or the infrastructure citizens actually need.

To say at one point that I had distanced myself from my mom’s political career would be an understatement. I’m proud of what she’s accomplished for the LBGTQ community but as an artist, entrepreneur and iconoclast I wanted nothing to do with it.

Running for public office wasn’t part of my plan, but all that changed after several years of community activism and butting heads with City Hall over citizens’ and neighbourhoods’ roles in decisions—more, the lack of that.

Community engagement is not an “easy thing”. Even with proper representation it risks the tyranny of the majority, NIMBYism and resistance to change. But community engagement is the “right thing”. It’s the basis, literally, of democracy—the rule of the people.

What is community engagement? Let’s start with what it is not. It’s not random selections of citizens taking direction from the top; it’s not sticky notes and roundtables to record and ignore. Community engagement is an opportunity to involve citizens meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives.

I recently travelled to Portland, Oregon, to see how they do things differently, and how that might apply to Vancouver. I met with planners, urbanists, business owners, housing activists, neighbourhood associations and city officials. I could write several articles on what I discovered there: affordable, human-scale housing initiatives; small business incubation; robust multi-modal transportation and genuine place making.

But what really drew me in was the Office of Neighbourhood Involvement.

The Office of Neighbourhood Involvement (charmingly located in the main foyer of City Hall) helps facilitate citizen/government relations. Established in 1974, their mission is to “Promote a culture of civic engagement by connecting and supporting all Portlanders working together and with government to build inclusive, safe and livable neighborhoods and communities.”

There are 96 recognized neighbourhood associations in Portland. They get some funding and logistical assistance from the city, are expected to uphold standards of inclusivity and fair representation, They also have an active role in city governance.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, studies show that if people aren’t totally dependent on government, they like it better and government is more effective. But without meaningful public involvement, there is an increased dependency on government institutions, who in turn are overwhelmed by demands for services.

Arguably, this is the case here in Vancouver, where community consultation is often decried as an expensive time waster, overwhelming and unwieldy for staff and policy makers.

Typically, our Vancouver consultation model is provided not as a collaborative opportunity, but as a pedantic, micro-managed process, that on one hand validates itself through citizen involvement, yet actively disempowers citizen input—meaning, the public have no responsibility for the decisions being made.

Involvement doesn’t mean that citizen groups automatically “get what they want” but that they are engaged participants in the process, and invested in the solutions.

In Portland, that involvement permeates all aspects of government and apparently begets a compassionate and informed populace. Every Portlander I spoke to appreciated both the work of the Office of Neighbourhood Involvement in enhancing the role of citizens and small business in decision making, and the wildly popular former mayor, Bud Clark.

Clark, a tavern owner and community activist, ran an underdog campaign against a big money opponent, and is largely responsible for the spirit of community activism and its integration in the running of the city, and in government’s responsibility to citizens.

I was lucky enough to meet Bud for a pint, and asked him what makes his city so great: he couldn’t give a definitive answer, but when I suggested it’s the people not the planners, he agreed—it’s the people for sure. And with that he wished me luck in my campaign to bring that same spirit to Vancouver.

Pete Fry is a Green candidate for Vancouver city council. He is former chair of the Strathcona Residents' Association and was a community representative on the city’s DTES Local Area Plan.

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Originally published in the Georgia Straight http://www.straight.com/news/761236/pete-fry-better-city-together