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Opinion: The budget for junk removal needs a big boost in Vancouver

When was the last time you walked down a street with a garbage bag and picked up someone else’s litter?
An RV trailer at Strathcona park
The recent brouhaha over a derelict camping trailer being towed and dumped at Strathcona Park, then left for several days before finally being yanked away by City staff, highlighted the belief that in Vancouver, it’s okay to dump whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.

In this case, if the tweeted photos hadn’t been picked up by local media and championed by Park Board Commissioner John Coupar, who knows how long this camper might have stayed in the park.

Recent attempts by the Council and staff at the City of Vancouver to beef up the street cleaning budgets are far from what really needs to be done to dampen growing anger about the state of cleanliness in the city. 

Whether it’s garbage overflowing from cans along Robson Street, abandoned urban camp structures in retail alcoves along Granville Street, chewed gum or cigarette butts tossed away on our sidewalks, mattresses and other residential garbage dumped in alleys, and yes, the protracted crisis in our parks, the City and the Park Board need to be tenacious and actually budget for the removal of garbage, abandoned vehicles, and non-compliant tents in parks.  

The City’s current, anything-goes attitude to the public realm, coupled with rampant crime and disorder in every neighbourhood of Vancouver, are some of the biggest reasons why Vancouverites feel like our world-renowned quality of life is disappearing before our eyes.

In no way am I condoning cruelty to people who are forced by circumstance to sleep in our parks and streets, nor am I advocating for massive operating budget increases This is about priorities. Taxpayers will support moving current funds into managing the mess, and doing more for residents than any other line item in the operating budget (and the money is there because the operating budget has gone from $800 million in 2007 to $1.6 billion today). 

Frankly, it is a sad statement about the current state of affairs that most of us don’t want to take responsibility for the cleanliness of our city. Most residents probably believe it’s someone else’s job to clean up the neighbourhood. When was the last time you walked down a street with a garbage bag and picked up someone else’s litter?

In Japan, cleaning up is taught from an early age. In a recent BBC story, Maiko Awane, assistant director of Hiroshima Prefectural Government’s Tokyo office, said “For 12 years of school life, from elementary school to high school, cleaning time is part of students’ daily schedule … In our home life as well, parents teach us that it’s bad for us not to keep our things and our space clean.”

Vancouver’s city website promotes similar philosophies and provides tips on “How you can help maintain our streets and sidewalks.”

But let’s get real. We look to city and park board staff to get the job done. That’s not going to change. The current city budget set for the removal of garbage across our city, which was recently increased by the current council, is a fraction of what it needs to be. As for our parks, we know they have been starved for funds by the city since 2009 as well and with 200 plus parks and only a couple of dozen park rangers to enforce the bylaws, we have set the Park Board up for failure. The problem is literally right in front of our faces, yet the solutions are seriously and significantly underfunded.

George Affleck is a former City Councillor in Vancouver, retiring from office in 2018. He is the Founder of Curve Communications, Co-host of the political podcast Unspun, and a regular contributor on CTV and CKNW. Twitter @george_affleck