Victoria (pre-departure) highlights from the UVIC Europe Sustainability Field School 2017

In May 2017, 20 UVic Geography students and their two teachers traveled to Europe to learn about city building efforts there. Before departing for Paris, we met with Victoria-area planners, activists, academics, and others in our own community taking stock of local sustainability efforts.

Victoria, Coast Salish Territories, on the Southern Tip of Vancouver Island

Victoria is situated in Coast Salish territories at the southern end of Vancouver Island. With a regional population of around 340,000 people, it is the second largest urbanized area in British Columbia and the province's capital city. Victoria's mild (for Canada) climate, its spectacular physical geography, and rich amenities (including the bustling inner harbour) makes it an attractive destination. Victoria is stereotyped as the place for the "newlywed and nearly dead", being an attractive place to visit (on a honeymoon, for example) or to retire. It also has a large student population, and, politically, is regarded one of the most liberal and green cities in Canada.

Victoria's Inner Harbour

However, Victoria has a dark side. The British colonial outpost was founded on the dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous peoples, who continue to struggle for healthy lives on their lands. It has a large homeless population and is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. While attempting to diversify its economy, Victoria remains a challenging place for young people to find or create work, and (compounded by the lack of affordable housing) many must look elsewhere to build their lives. While trying to diversify transportation options, investing in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, Victoria remains a car-dominated place with a high ecological footprint. Like other Canadian cities, Victoria has few fiscal resources for addressing such challenges. Progress is further complicated by a dysfunctional governance structure. Rather than a unified city, "Victoria" is a collection of often jealous, competing municipalities. This arrangement is often blamed for stifling effective regional decision-making, for example, paralyzing action to address Victoria's "dirty" secret - dumping untreated waste into the ocean or to deal comprehensively with traffic, through improving regional transit.

The Colwood Crawl - unsustainable transportation in the region

In what follows we highlight some of the inspiring people we met and projects we learned about that are responding to the challenges Victoria faces and reflect on challenges and opportunities for promoting sustainable communities. In particular, geographic questions around the appropriate scale of sustainability efforts and "who" questions around the "subjects" of sustainability were prominent.

At what scale?

Think globally, act locally has become an axiom in discussions around sustainability. But, the question of "what scale to act at" is an interesting and complex one, as we learned from planners and community leaders in Victoria. Senior Planner Kristina Bouris explained how the City of Victoria was focusing its efforts at the neighbourhood scale. Sustainability infused its Official Community Plan at the city level (and indeed aligned with broader regional goals) but, according to her, could be best realized at the neighbourhood scale.

Patti Pakhouse of the Vic West Food Security Collective directed her attention to neighbourhood level efforts - a community commons, an orchard, and a vibrant festival culture. She also imagined sustainability at the scale of the street. In the context of the "transition street" movement, Patti and her neighbours undertook a number of local food, ecological restoration, composting, and placemaking efforts on their block.

Vic West Common With Patti Pakhouse

The Compost Education Centre is a key sustainability initiative "providing composting and ecological gardening education to Capital Regional District residents." The demonstration garden site in the heart of the inner city neighbourhood of Fernwood provides a range of services including: a composting hotline (250-386-WORM), free educational literature and resource library; hands-on educational programs for all ages, and sales of composters and related products.

compost education centre

Alysha Punnett explained that while this project and projects like it (e.g. community gardens, commons areas) are often seen as "cute extras" they are actually vital to the health and well-being of the community. Benefits include: cheap and healthy food; inspiration and education; habitat for pollinators and green corridors for urban wildlife; and being a healthy place for people to come together and enjoy each others' company. Alysha argues that "enjoyment" is particularly crucial for sustainability. We won't do something if we don't enjoy it. What do you think?

Check out the video from the 2016 Field School

Created By
Cam Owens


Created with images by SHAWSHANK61 - "victoria bc inner harbor ferry" and Cam Owens

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