It’s been 25 years since you left us, that sunny October morning in 2000. So much has happened since! Now that we’ve got e-soul, we can finally fill you in.
The Highlands is much as you left it, you’ll be pleased to know, apart from the solar roofs, the straw-bale cottages clustered around the Pike House and the Saanich Inlet Greenway, linking both sides with the new ferry to Mill Bay. When gas hit $3 a litre, people banded together and bought two old schoolbuses. They converted them to hydrogen, painted them bright green and yellow and scheduled an hourly run from the Highlands to Victoria, bringing back the groceries and other supplies that people order on-line.
The South Highlands Earth Park has grown into a world-class centre, just north of the TransCanada Greenway. If anything represents the change that’s happened to the Island’s economy, it’s the Earth Park, with its technology demonstrations, sustainable business incubators, and a million visitors a year. People are so excited to learn about technologies they can use themselves, such as composting toilets, greywater systems, cob-building, rooftop gardening and solar shingles, alongside the high-tech things like nano-solar paint. The entire Park is powered by solar and geothermal (ground-source) energy. In summer they export their surplus energy into the grid, and in winter they buy what they need from the Island Wind Power Cooperative, which has just installed its 200th offshore wind-tidal turbine at Nootka Sound. It’s encouraging to recall how we persuaded BC Hydro to abandon its plans to pipe more gas to the Island 25 years ago, and to adopt a renewable energy strategy instead. Today, B.C. is a major exporter of hydrogen and renewable energy. It’s just as well, when you look at the price of oil and gas, and ponder the devastation that climate change is causing. We had our first tropical hurricane in Victoria last September, dumping boats on the lawn outside the Empress Hotel and knocking the City Hall’s tower down into the planning department.
Apart from the flying boats, the downtown has become a great place to live. You remember the mixture of car-parks and ramshackle buildings that used to exist in the area north of Value Village, between Government and Store Street? Not any longer. That has become Victoria’s first urban ecovillage (there’s another one going up near McCaulay Point, in Esquimalt). It’s quite the coolest place to live, with its waterfront promenade, rooftop gardens and car-free pedestrian pathways. They say it has more home-based businesses than anywhere else in Canada; lunchtime in the Rock Bay Café is one long business brainstorming session. It’s quiet there at night, too, enforced by an 11pm noise curfew and a bucket of water tossed down from a window.
The biggest changes in the city are all the greenery, and how few cars there are. In 2011, in the midst of the energy crisis, Jane Lindsay was elected Mayor of Victoria, and launched her big ‘The Future is Ours’ initiative. "This city is yours!" I remember her saying at our kids’ school. "If you don’t like something about your city or your school, or you have a dream you want to see fulfilled, then get involved! Make a difference! It’s not the end of the world – it’s the birth of a new one!" The foundations had already been laid by Victoria’s myriad social, arts and environmental groups, such as the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, the Neighbourhood Associations, and the Composting Centre. Mayor Lindsay lit the fuse, and persuaded the public and the other councils in the Capital Region Partnership (CRP) to buy into the vision.
By supporting the Streetlife groups, for instance, she empowered people to make their streets more pedestrian-friendly. Clare Street (near the border with Oak Bay) showed us what was possible, with its winding narrow road, its park and barbecue pit. Today, as long as you get 80% of the residents on board, raise 50% of the financing, follow a loose set of guidelines and do a share of the work, you can narrow the roadway and redesign the street with a pond, play area or community orchard, however you want it.
The results are wonderful. There are more trees, birds and wildlife than ever before, and the relative absence of cars is making the city a mecca for walkers. It’s been good for community-building, too. On my street, we take it for granted that we share tools and equipment, help each other with heavy tasks, look after the old folks, and give a hand to kids with homework problems. Every September, the first weekend after Labour Day, the whole region holds a big street-party, followed by dancing that lasts long into the night.
There are still plenty of vehicles around (super-lightweight hypercars, solar-hydrogen Sanyotas, dinky little neighbourhood vehicles), but the oil and climate crisis gave Mayor Lindsay and the CRP the political support they needed to bring in sustainable transportation. Today, there’s a region-wide transit pass ($200 per person, built into municipal taxes) that makes the buses and the LRT (light rail transit) from CanWest to UVic and Ogden Point effectively free. All the major roads have wide bike lanes and bicycle-friendly intersections, and the Capital Greenways has grown ten-fold, providing a complete hiking and cycling network that joins the TransCanada Trail to Tofino and Cape Scott. Half of all the trips in the city are by bus or LRT, and 25% are by bicycle, reducing the traffic-flow – and the space given over to parking - enormously. Every July, Victoria celebrates its status as Canada’s cycling capital with a massive fun-ride along Dallas Road to Cadboro Bay, coming back down the McKenzie Trail and along the Gorge.
And there’s so much more! The new Art Gallery and Concert Hall on what used to be car-parking behind the Legislative Assembly; the solar-walled multiplex with its greenhouse roof and 15,000 bicycle parking spots, on the site of the old Memorial Arena (cars pay $10 to park); the bicycle ferry from Shoal Point to Esquimalt; the solar aquatic sewage recycling centre and nature reserve on the old DND lands past Pedder Bay (the sewage is piped in under the ocean); the pedestrian waterfront centre at Royal Bay; the summer-long music and festivities on car-free Government Street; all the organic farms from Sooke to North Saanich, providing Victoria with 50% of its produce; the 1,000 units of stylish downtown micro-housing that have eliminated Victoria’s homeless problem; the Georgia Basin whale sanctuary. There’s even a Forest Cemetery for green burials, up in the Sooke Hills Wilderness Park. The world may still be in a mess, but here in Victoria, we’re proud to be part of the solution. And we’re grateful for the part that you played, Nancy. Your spirit lives on.
With thanks to Sandi Ayer, Janine Bandcroft, Arthur Caldicott, Brian Collier, Baron Fowler, Tom Gore, Dierdre Gotto, Lindsay Hill, Maria Lahiffe, Roy McFarlane, Brandy McPherson, Lorenzo Mele, Denise Savoie, Joanne Stephenson, Rob Wickson, Harald Wolf and Rich (Free Coop), for their ideas and contributions.
Nancy McMinn died on October 6th, 2000, after a lifetime dedicated to the preservation of nature and the celebration of the spirit. The Gowlland-Tod Provincial Park is one of the many achievements which she helped to realize.