Thursday, December 1, 2016

Heritage. A word in seach of a meaning.

A while back, Mike Folka asked some questions on his blog and twitter account attempting to get a discussion going around heritage in our community.  I’d been long wanting to write something on heritage and preservation, but every time I tried I kept running into mental blocks – I felt like I wasn’t even sure of what was being discussed, let alone what I could contribute to it.  All I had were questions, and as more and more issues came up, I just had more and more questions.  

So I took Mike’s call to arms as an opportunity to collect my questions into one place.  I sent them to him, but I have no idea what evil intentions he has.  With the Queens Park Heritage Area popping up again recently, I thought I’d expand on them a bit and put them up here to hear what others have to say.   

1.     When we as a community or a government or an individual say we want to ‘preserve heritage and/or character,’ what exactly does that mean? What specifically are we trying to preserve? For whom are we preserving it?  And to what end? Frankly, unless this is answered clearly, any discussion of heritage is just hoodoo-voodoo.  

This is the main issue I have with the whole heritage discussion in New West.  To me it feels like whenever someone uses the term ‘preserve our heritage,’ it’s just a euphemism for “they shouldn’t be able to tear down their house because I like it.”  

2.     Heritage, much like community, is about people.  While artifacts, including houses, can provide valuable touchstones and longevity that people do not have, preserving heritage should be about people. 
On that note, the May Queen dance issue stood out to me as a glaring example of people’s interest in preserving heritage artifacts, but not people and institutions.  

3.     Speaking of people, they do bad things at times.  How do those bad things fit into preservation, alongside atonement and reconciliation? 

We’ve had our share of bad stuff right here in New West, from the treatment of first nations, a pretty nasty prison and I’d imagine many more things I’ve never heard of.  How do we maintain heritage while recognizing what happened?

Consider for example how Germany has banned the Nazi flag, and some places in the US are now banning the Confederate flag.  Obviously we don’t want to glorify the evils of the past, but neither do I think it’s right just to bury or hide it, where it can be too easily forgotten.  And how do we manage this with constantly changing moral norms?  What are we celebrating and preserving today that will have our descendants calling us savage monsters?  

4.     Heritage neighbourhoods.  Again, this is focused on artifacts, or ‘character’, and not people.  But by restricting the land uses you are limiting the kinds of people who would choose to live there.  How do we reconcile this with trying to promote diversity in our communities?  

5.     Similarly, how do you reconcile preserving the heritage character of a neighbourhood with allowing people to define their community’s character?  A community’s character is a reflection of the people within it.  To what extent are we saying ‘you can come to this neighbourhood, but you can’t alter it,’ both explicitly (you can’t change your house) and implicitly (you’re not welcome here if you don’t play along)? 

This is the most insidious part of neighbourhood covenants to me.  It’s one thing to say you are just limiting architectural or aesthetic concerns over homes and land uses, but this can easily turn into a tool for trying to keep ‘certain’ people out of an area.  This isn’t just a covenant issue – there are a lot of homeowners associations and stratas that give me the creeps because of this.  

6.     Since housing seems to get the most of the focus, some questions specifically related to that:
a.     Balancing private property rights. I’m aware that we don’t give property owners carte blanche permission to develop their land, but at what point do restrictions on property development move from reasonable to not? How does this fit into the context of all the other restrictions owners face on using their property?
b.     Density - by designating entire neighbourhoods as ‘heritage’ how much are you limiting the amount of density that can be added there? How does that fit in with the OCP and regional goals?
c.      How are we defining neighbourhood character?  There is talk about allowing ‘gentle’ infill in areas like Queens Park.  What is gentle?  What is rough? How are we deciding what is allowable and fits in with the heritage character of the area, and what is ‘out of character’? Who is deciding it? What gives them the knowledge, and frankly the right, to pass judgement on it?
d.     How do you balance preserving old housing with environmental goals?
                                                      i.          Land use - maintaining large areas for evil Single Family Homes.  I’d include here transit as well, this makes it more costly to provide frequent, reliably service and encourages car dependency.  
                                                    ii.          Energy use - old homes are generally much less energy efficient than newer ones
                                                   iii.          Safety - Older buildings have nowhere near the seismic, fire and general safety features modern buildings do.  Is it worth preserving a building that is not sufficiently safe?  
                                                   iv.          Retrofitting can alleviate some of these issues, but how much can be changed and the building still considered heritage?  
e.     Along those lines, does building a new home in a ‘heritage’ style meet the intent? Must a house be old wood and bricks to be considered heritage? 
If we razed Queens Park and built all new homes to modern standards, but architecturally equivalent to the old ones, would it still be the same? If we build a new house out of recycled material from torn down old houses, is it ‘heritage’?
f.       How do we balance preserving stock while allowing redevelopment and densification?  This is a much more long term concern, but as more and more homes and neighbourhoods become restricted, development is forced onto a smaller available land base.  How does this impact affordability, infrastructure requirements, city services?  
g.     Why are new ‘monster homes’ evil, but old ‘monster homes’ good? I see many heritage houses that dwarf the McMansions so many decry.  Yes, some of these old houses have been partitioned into multiple units, but many of the new large homes are also used for multiple generations or more than one family.  
7.     Why are First Nations rarely mentioned in terms of heritage preservation? They get lip service at times, but as soon their concerns stand in the way of building a high school, all bets are off.  And the people/institutions vs. artifacts questions apply doubly here.  
8.     Commercial/Industrial heritage.  Again, there’s interest in preserving a few buildings, but not preservation of the businesses, industries, associations and services that built our city.  FRDC is doing some good stuff here, but their focus is somewhat narrow.  
And back to neighbourhood agreements, how do we incorporate multi-modal development in character controlled area?
9.     Today’s society is tomorrow’s heritage.  If we are concerned with protecting heritage, how are we identifying what is happening now that should be preserved in the future? And how should we preserve it? 

Sorry I don’t have something more positive to contribute.  I think that stems from the fact that frankly, I don’t have a clear sense of what it is we as a city/community are trying to accomplish through ‘heritage preservation,’  besides getting other people to stop tearing down houses they like.  If I had a better sense of that, perhaps I could offer something more constructive.