Strathcona Garden Pine Tree Massacre exposes flaws of “at large” system

As members of the Strathcona Community Garden headed to their monthly meeting Feb. 7,  they were stunned to discover that the line of 23-year-old pine trees along Prior St. on the garden’s north side had been brutally trimmed.

The 20-foot trees, planted on a berm to provide a noise and privacy screen from busy traffic on Prior St., had been limbed to the 10-foot level. Blackberries at their bases had also been completely removed.

Yet the Garden society, which leases the land and cares for it at almost no cost to the city, had not been consulted and was not even sure who had authorized the destruction.

Understandably outraged, the Garden executive asked corresponding secretary Joanne Hochu to protest to the city.

What happened next laid bare the yawning gap between the city and its neighbourhoods, a gap I trace back to the “at large” system of representation in place since the 1930s.

Hochu, no novice at contacting city hall, fired an e-mail broadside to a number of city councillors and park commissioners, ensuring that the barrage fell across party lines.

I am aware of three who replied: COPE Councillor Ellen Woodsworth, Vision Vancouver Park Commissioner Constance Barnes, and me. (Apologies to anyone else who plunged in who has not been acknowledged.)

In political terms, this was a bulls-eye. Since neither councillors nor commissioners have dedicated staff, the overwhelming majority of e-mail is read and deleted. Since no councillors or commissioners have elected ties to any neighbourhood, no one can be singled out for failure to respond.

That’s the “at large” system at work: we represent everyone and no one.

But Hochu’s broadside was coming from a community organization with a 25-year history of activism. Inquiries were soon under way to see who, if anyone, at the city was responsible for the Strathcona Pine Tree Massacre.

On Feb. 14, Hochu sent Woodsworth and me the following update, acknowledging the role played by Barnes in determining how the destruction occurred. She included this explanation from Terry Walton, acting East Vancouver manager for the Park Board:

The pruning was done at the request of Vancouver Community Police to open up a densely overgrown area thereby addressing a number of safety concerns in the park including a recent mugging of a senior, as well as illegal sex and drug sales.

City Engineering (street lighting) and Coast Transit were also part of the discussions with Police in order to improve pubic safety along the south sidewalk.

While it is common practice for the Park Board to raise up vegetation in high crime areas, in this case however, the pruning was too severe as lower branches could have been maintained without compromising safety.

The Park Board regrets that staff did not involve the Community Garden Society in this discussion.  As stakeholder and partner, the Garden Society has a vested interest in park safety and should have been involved in the discussions of safety issues and consulted on possible solutions.

I would like to apologize on behalf of the Park Board for not consulting with your group with regards to the pruning along Prior St. . .

I am available to meet with representatives of your group to discuss possible remediation such as the planting of new bushes.

“I have to admit,” adds Hochu, “I have never had such a thoughtful or sincere response from the Park Board previously. They are genuine about wanting to remediate what happened there.”

But she goes on to question how a decision triggered by a community policing office, which included a city department, the Park Board and a transit agency, could be implemented with no engagement with the leaseholders or other community organizations.

It’s a good question. In fact, such decisions happen all the time in a city in which elected officials are not accountable to specific areas and city departments lack the resources to stay in touch with all the stakeholders in each of the city’s 22 neighhourhoods.

The problem is compounded when the community organizations themselves are organized in silos — crime, gardening, recreation, planning — that make it difficult to manage community-wide problems.

Given the referendum vote in 2004 that upheld the “at large” system, I don’t anticipate change soon at the city level. So change must come at the community level — perhaps helped by a city-wide commitment to improve connections with communities — to bring more issues to single tables in each neighbourhood.