NOTE: Michael Geller will talk about the concerns outlined in this column on CBC radio's On the Coast with Stephen Quinn at 4:50 p.m. today (June 25). Listen in.
As a child, I was amused whenever my visiting American relatives would comment on how clean Canada was. Really, I thought, who cares?
Now, more than 50 years later, I find myself caring a great deal.
Whenever travelling, I compare the cleanliness of other cities with Vancouver. Perhaps it is my upbringing and memories of a mother scrubbing the sidewalk outside our Lancashire rowhouse, but I am happier in a clean environment.
In the past, I was generally proud of how our city was maintained. However, in recent years, I have noticed a general decline. Weeds are growing in street medians and sidewalks. Boulevards and parks appear overgrown, and more cigarette butts, chewing gum and garbage are strewn about.
There is also an increase in the number of unkempt properties, presumably slated for redevelopment or unoccupied, which become scars on otherwise beautiful, well-maintained streetscapes.
On a recent visit to C Restaurant at the foot of Howe Street, I was disgusted by the neglect of a once-prized waterfront walkway. Weeds were growing through pavers, under benches and around tree grates.
When I mentioned this to a nearby resident, he threw up his hands in despair. Local businesses and condominium owners were tired of complaining to the park board. He reminded me the city cleaned up the area after I posted a photo on Twitter and a radio station picked up the story of the neglected seawalk.
So last week I posted another photo of the weeds on Twitter.
I soon discovered I was not alone in my concerns. Other tweeters were disgusted with the deterioration in city and park board maintenance and shared their photos.
One Twitter follower suggested the weeds were the result of the herbicide ban. Others quickly responded weeds could be controlled with steam, hot water and vinegar.
Some people told me not to be so uptight about weeds and overgrown boulevards. They should be viewed as sustainable alternatives to manicured lawns. This was all part the mayor’s goal of becoming the greenest city in the world.
While I support sustainable landscapes, it’s time for a public discussion on public maintenance and how best to keep our city clean.
I would like to see more waste receptacles around the city, especially in the Downtown Eastside.
To reduce collection costs, we should invest in solar powered “big belly” compacting garbage cans like those found in Chicago.
Public and private companies should install more “cigarette posts” and ashtrays, especially outside transit stations, office buildings and venues where smokers gather.
While I don’t support a Singapore-like ban on chewing gum, given its unsightliness and cost of removal, we might take a lesson from Croydon England’s “Chew this Over” program.
There the Business Improvement District hands out pocket-sized packets for discarded gum and people who throw gum on the ground may face fines. The city has also organized an awareness campaign to deter people from dropping their gum on the streets.
England has also instituted a “Love Where You Live” program, a multi-sector anti-litter campaign, led by Keep Britain Tidy and funded by companies including Wrigley.
It brings together government, voluntary organizations, schools and communities with the aim of encouraging action over the coming years to change littering behaviour and significantly reduce the amount of litter by 2020.
In Dublin, residents are being shamed into keeping the city clean. Large posters on buses and transit shelters proclaim: “If you behave like a piece of filth, that’s how the world sees you. Litter is disgusting. So are those responsible.”
To keep Vancouver beautiful, we need our own awareness campaign to change behaviour. Developers and builders should know they are expected to properly maintain properties held for redevelopment. Absentee owners should be told to arrange for gardening services.
More neighbourhoods, like the Southlands Ratepayers Association, should undertake local area cleanup programs. People should be shamed for tossing cigarette butts and chewing gum on the streets and forgetting to clean up after their dogs.
Finally, the park board should be told to clean up its act since it is possible to be both sustainable and tidy.