Voices against Displacement: Eugene McCann’s speech to City Council


Eugene McCann. DTES Local Area Plan, Friday, March 14th

My name is Eugene McCann. I am a professor of urban geography at Simon Fraser University and a resident of Vancouver. First, I would like to thank all the people whose hard work created this Plan and to acknowledge the fact that we are on unceded territories as we discuss it.

As an urban geographer, my research focuses on how certain cities around the world become models of best policy practice. Vancouver can rightly call itself a global model. Many around the world recognize this Council and its predecessors for addressing the challenges of climate change. Indeed, at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Mayor Robertson showed national and global leadership by arguing for a better Canadian approach to carbon emissions. He also chairs the FCM’s Big City Mayors Caucus.

Being a model and a leader involves taking a stand. It involves following what you believe is right, rather than what is simply expedient. Being a model of good urban policy-making involves being different, moving beyond business as usual. It means stepping out in front of the pack and encouraging them to follow the best direction.

The Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan provides the city with another golden opportunity to be a model. Done well, this plan can lead the Provincial and Federal governments toward greater investments in social housing. The most impressive part of the plan is its 60% social housing/40% rental goal for the Oppenheimer sub-­district. This formula could help protect the vibrant low-­income community of the area and show that Vancouver is a city that promotes quality of life for everyone, while encouraging housing stability and reducing homelessness.

However, the devil is in the details and in the definitions. If the 60/40 ratio is to be effective and if low-­income people are going to have any reasonable chance of affording housing anywhere in the Downtown Eastside, ‘social housing’ must be defined as non-­market housing that is affordable to people living on the basic social assistance shelter rate or on a basic pension. Furthermore, the 60/40 zone should be extended to more areas of the Downtown Eastside, not just Oppenheimer, and the number of social housing units to be added in the future should be increased and this must happen in 10 years, rather than 30.

Clearly none of this can be done by the city alone. But, by strengthening these commitments the city can show leadership to senior levels of government, focus their attention, and bring them to the table for discussions about investment in housing.

If Vancouver is a global model among those seeking to promote greener urbanism, it is certainly also a model of innovative public health policy, particularly for some of the most stigmatized and marginalized members of society. The Local Area Plan must also be commended, then, for its attention to the relationship between community, health, and well-­being. Fundamental aspects of well-­being include: strong community ties, feelings of belonging, and meaningful interactions with people who share similar backgrounds, circumstances, and beliefs. But another crucial element of well-­being is having a decent, affordable home.

So, the Local Area Plan can help Vancouver be a model healthy city in at least two ways:

First, an Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Centre would provide an innovative and valuable addition to the neighbourhood.

Second, by approving the strong version of the 60/40 ratio, with social housing defined by the welfare shelter rate, Council would again take a leadership role in contemporary urban policy in BC, Canada, and beyond.

So, I urge you to take a bold, innovative, approach to planning the Downtown Eastside. Take a stance that protects the neighbourhood and its current communities. If you take an innovative stance by protecting this one little neighbourhood from market development, Vancouver can become a model of innovative, urban policy.

In conclusion, I will say that the Local Area Plan is an opportunity for Vancouver to be a model and leader once again. It contains many good intentions. If they are defined strongly and implemented effectively, the plan can leave an important legacy for the neighbourhood and for the city in general. I urge you to take this opportunity: do something that’s different from all the other city councils around the world that are allowing their low-­income neighbourhoods to be destroyed by development. I urge you to lead in a different direction. Let Vancouver be a model. Show your Vision.