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In Our View: Adapting to change has burnished Vancouver

The Columbian
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:03am

The typical State of the City address is part reflection, part pep talk, and part self-congratulatory enumeration of accomplishments. The same can be said about speeches assessing the state of the union, or the state of the state, or the state of the county.

Elected officials, after all, spend most of their time being questioned by the public and the media about perceived failures. They deserve a chance to remind those critics that governance is hard work, and successes often take place out of the public eye.

So, it was appropriate this week that Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle pointed to the city of Vancouver’s 1,500 full-time employees.

“Those are the individuals that keep us safe, maintain our streets — yes, we know; they’re filling potholes just as fast as they can,” she said. “They are making sure that we have safe, clean drinking water; provide spaces and places for us to play; plan our growth and more.”

At the same time, it was disappointing that McEnerny-Ogle waited until 14 minutes into her speech before mentioning homelessness. She noted the city’s declaration of a public emergency, the closing of five encampments and the opening of two additional Safe Stay communities.

The mayor also appropriately brought up “the contributing and deadly factor of fentanyl,” which has made homeless response more urgent while complicating the situation.

But throughout a 25-minute talk, the overriding theme was Vancouver’s growth. Regarding City Manager Eric Holmes, who has announced he will retire in October, she said, “He has changed us from that little bedroom community everyone talked about, and we have evolved into a very urban city of the future.”

Holmes, of course, is not solely responsible for that transformation. But Vancouver has benefited over the past 20 years from leadership that has embraced change rather than clinging to the city’s status as a suburb.

“Our commitment to Vancouver and our quality of life, what we love about this special place, remains unwavering,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “Valuing our quality of life and what we love about Vancouver doesn’t mean we won’t change. Change can be exhilarating and very exciting; it can also be daunting and scary. But change is necessary.”

The willingness to embrace change and the ability to manage it defines the vibrancy of a city. As one urban planner has explained: “Simply put, to be vibrant is to be full of energy, enthusiasm, activity, and life — in other words, healthy and alive. The presence and amount of vibrancy is a reasonable proxy for a city’s general health and well-being.”

In Vancouver, that translates into the city’s adopted strategic plan. “What makes this strategic plan different from the previous ones is the inclusion of quantifiable metrics in the form of community indicators and performance measures,” McEnerny-Ogle said. That is an important distinction; many a government has passed grandiose plans only to congratulate themselves without worrying about implementation.

But while Vancouver officials can laud The Waterfront Vancouver development and a coming transformation of The Heights District and the attraction of numerous businesses and new residents, they also must continue to focus on the things that can undermine those benefits.

Along with growth, the ability to deal with homelessness and a housing crunch will define the city’s future. As McEnerny-Ogle said, the goal is to “advance in a way that allows us to keep what is special and to focus on what is important.”