Preface: Some of the information in the piece has since become outdated. Also, it’s too spattered with quotation and the stylistic choices made for a university setting, making this iteration unfit for journalistic publication. Gotta shift the vernacular some. The crux of the essay is a worthwhile exploration of the meeting points of urban isolation and a hard money crunch. In its academic form:
(With deep thanks to Esteban Gonzalez for his keen editing eye.)
April 27, 2014
Social Isolation and Affordability, A Question(ing) of Definition
“Vancouver is mythologized as a healthy, sustainable, lifestyle city while these very qualities often must be sacrificed by working Vancouver residents.” (Siemiatycki 2013, abstract).
A lack of social connection pervades and perturbs the city of Vancouver. This conclusion was reached through the “My Health, My Community” survey, conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), Fraser Health (FH) and the UBC Faculty of Medicine’s eHealth Strategy Office. Almost a quarter of Vancouverites suffer from social isolation in a variety of forms and deem it a source of stress in their lives. (Howell 2014). These findings corroborated the conclusions of the Vancouver Foundation’s 2011 study, which produced a report that has been widely disseminated by journalists for its sensationally bleak message. The Vancouver Foundation’s research methods were flawed, and so its data is not empirically useful. Yet, the story has been taken up by local media (and social media) outlets, as in the articles: “Life of Solitude: A Loneliness Crisis is Looming,” “Social Isolation Has Far-reaching Effects On Us and Our Neighbours, Survey Says,” and “Alone, So Alone, in Vancouver,” to mention a few. (Renzetti, 2014; Carman 2012; Mason 2012). It has been catalytic to the local discourse on social isolation, and though the word choice in the study renders it spurious, its general conclusions on the scope of isolation have since been confirmed. The report contains a useful kernel: that having aimed to locate the issue most pressing to Vancouverites, researchers found that the fragmentation of the social landscape “beat out homelessness, drug abuse and affordability” as a source of unease. (Carmen, 2012). Neither of these reports adequately addresses the co-constitutive relationship of a lack of affordability and social isolation. I am skeptical of the view that the impact of these social issues can be understood through comparison, and that they can indeed be compared at all. In fact, social isolation is bound up in affordability, and the way that the two issues are categorized and discursively framed ends up aggravating both problems, in spite of the apparent seeking of their solutions.
In order to examine the intersectional relationship of discourse and policy outcomes on affordability and social isolation, it is pertinent to contextualize the socio-economic processes at work, in which Vancouver residents are immersed and upon which their daily lives and material supports are contingent. The central paradox of this gateway city, that “Vancouver is simultaneously the most livable and unaffordable city in the world,” has a history and plays out materially. (Siemiatycki 2013, abstract). Part of my methodology is also a critical discourse analysis, and for this I will rely on public reports published under the incumbent Vision Vancouver City Council, an elected civic government that is oriented towards neoliberalism. I am theoretically rooted in critical urban theory and economic geography, grounded in Vancouver, a city known for its postmodern fluidity and its newness. I hypothesize that to root citizens in the social landscape demands a re-conceptualization of social isolation, with an eye to the necessary stable material supports for social engagement or a lack thereof. (Butler 2011). This demands an inspection of policies that uproot and make insecure the lives of residents and language that serves to influence the municipal imagination’s understanding of the intentions, agency and achievements of government. I focus my lens on the work of the City of Vancouver’s Engaged City Task Force, which formed in response to the Vancouver Foundation’s study. The team is comprised of a diverse team of residents who have come together under the guidance of the City to devise solutions to social isolation. The research of Loretta Lees is particularly salient to this project, and I seek a similar approach to hers: towards unmasking what is hidden in the language of an entrepreneurial city government. I aim to connect policy to a broader public discourse, and probe at how the language of government affects the way that the goals of civic policy related to isolation and affordability are discussed and understood. In the words of Modan, “If we want to create communities that serve the interests of justice and equality, then we need to consider what’s at stake in the ways we talk about places, and find discourses that can sustain the kind of society that we want to live in.” (2007, 321,cited in Lees 2012, 21, emphasis hers). In Vancouver, a neoliberal government under austerity makes assumptions of capital growth, strategies towards the generation of capital which benefit the rich, and cultural individualism. (Vert 2005, 2; Peck and Tickell 2002, 388). These ideological ideals condition the types of questions posed by government; they linguistically delineate what is deemed to be an appropriate response from the state and what is considered to be alterable in the urban socio-economic landscape. Policies are made to appear both benign and necessary. (Peck and Tickell 2002, 389). I find that the claims of Vision Vancouver to be working towards a warmer, more socially connected city are made with the assistance of horse blinders, and that policy in the way that it is written and compartmentalized is in fact complicit in dislocation, insecurity, and a dearth of social engagement.
Remedies for isolation from the Engaged City Task Force
“This isn’t just about how City Hall interacts with the public, but how residents can connect with one another and make their neighbourhoods better places to live. Civic engagement matters because as a City, we cannot grapple with tough challenges like affordability, inequality or climate change with an isolated, disengaged population.” (Gregor Robertson 2014).
The Engaged City Task Force convened in 2013 and released their first report this January. The final document lays out a preliminary set of recommendations towards the alleviation of social isolation and an increase in “social engagement.” In the quote above, which headlines the City of Vancouver’s online Engaged City webpage, social connection is posed as a pre-condition to solving the affordability crisis. Vancouver is the second least affordable city in which to live, worldwide. (Cox and Hugh 2014, 2). This uncomfortable distinction specifically refers to the cost of housing in relation to income generation: real estate prices sit at close to 10.3 times the median income. In the quote above, the assumption is made that the link between the problems of social isolation and lack of affordability is unidirectional: here, the lack of social connection makes affordability difficult or impossible to address. However, it is quite evident that social isolation and affordability are connected, as research conducted in Canada and in Sweden has found. (Stewart et al 2007; Mullins, Sheppard and Andersson 1991, 464). Stewart et al (2007, 210) concluded that “inadequate financial resources… ‘lack of time,’ [and] user fees” limit the participation of respondents. Why then are they posed as separate problems in public policy?
The Engaged City report does speak to affordability. In the text, the psyches of urban residents are recognized, and the way in which people are impacted by the interplay of financial and housing insecurity is made important, as it is stated that “the affordability issue is affecting people’s attitudes and beliefs.” (ECTF 2014, 5). However, the report absents itself from discussions of self-perception and identity formation due to limitations on the scope of the study. (ECTF 2014, 26). These ideas are, however, noted as pertinent to an understanding of social engagement. Research on economies of affect is relevant to our understanding of the isolating processes at work in this transnational, Pacific Rim city. The transition from Fordism to post-Fordism which sprung from economic recession in the 1970’s has meant the dissolution of secure, long-term positions in the labour force for many, and the disappearance of the briefly ubiquitous family wage. (Silva 2012, 506). The post-Fordist entrepreneurial city is inscribed by its Fordist past: vestigial fantasies of what constitutes an appropriate life path have perpetuated, even as post-Fordist economic reconfigurations have altered and eliminated the very structural supports that facilitate the actualization of expectations for the self. (Berlant 2011, 19). In the context of the United States, Silva (2012, 505) found that the loss of Fordist forms of employment has rendered “traditional life pathways” less accessible to the working class. The “cruel optimism” for an economic life that is unavailable is destabilizing, as “labor force participation provides an important source of identification, social contact, and emotional bonding that, when lost, can lead to social isolation and loneliness.” (Berlant 2011, 24; Mullins, Sheppard and Andersson 1991, 463).
Yet, ideology is at work in the way that the concepts of social isolation and affordability are framed. Deploying the Western trope “do it yourself,” the text exhorts citizens to find ways of combatting social problems individually, without changing the fundamental operations of government. (ECTF 2014, 17). In the context of the report the ability to afford to subsist is looked at through a neoliberal viewfinder, as in: “A lack of affordability can hamper the innovation that builds and encourages vibrant communities: a business owner or artist may be unable to take creative risks because the financial burden is too high.” (ECTF 2014, ). Then, citing again the limits to space, time, and breadth of analysis, affordability is circumscribed and relegated to housing policy, to be dealt with separately from social isolation. (ECTF 2014, 23). With the housing crisis placed to the side, eighteen additional priority actions and six recommendations for citizen involvement are laid out.
A sense of belonging is sought out in the new urban landscape of Vancouver, with a request to “rethink condos.” (ECTF 2014, 24). The study found through a survey of that both 25 to 34 years olds and people who live in high-rises and condos are “the most disconnected and disengaged.” (ECTF 2014, 8) Better design through communication with the capitalist (property developers) and administrative bodies (managers and strata councils) that are associated with condominiums is advised. (ECTF 2014, 24). This approach excuses the building typology, managerial organization, form of tenure and cost from critique, and represents isolation in the condo setting as primarily constituted by architecture.
Like this aesthetically oriented proposal, other recommendations ring pleasantly: for citizens to request restaurants to include lengthier tables in their dining areas, with the hope being that sitting closer to others will increase a sense of commonality with one’s neighbours and belonging in place. (ECTF 2014, 29). The importance of eating together is put forward again, and comprises a greater body of the report than does consideration of the financial inaccessibility of food choice in the city. The report avoids lack of affordability again here. As the Neighbourhood Action Food Group has written, “According to the Dieticians of Canada, it takes over [$]60 of income for an individual to purchase food for an adequate diet per week. Yet, income assistance rates amount to less than half this, disability rates don’t allow for it, and families on low-wages struggle to provide this too.” (Bush 2013). Although the sums allocated for income assistance and disability are determined by the provincial government, the municipal government has the ability to strategically eliminate financial burden. The report does not acknowledge the impact of income stratification on food security, despite the fact that this economically embedded insecurity exacerbates social exclusion acutely. (Fink 2010, 2). Vision Vancouver has created a Food Strategy that has many nuanced tactics towards encouraging urban agriculture and the resilience and distribution of locally produced food. (Vancouver Food Strategy 2013). Yet, these aims are perturbed by the fundamental need for capital to acquire food items and the insistence of the government that they adhere to an urban regime that continues to increase financial inequality between socio-economic classes and apply pressure to the city’s most vulnerable income brackets through housing policies. (Peck 2010). A number of studies have located high levels of food insecurity in homeless populations, which have increased by 249% since 2011. (BC Ministry of Health 2011, 5; Cole 2014). With homeless individuals, low income earners and people who are on income assistance are at the greatest risk of food insecurity. (BC Ministry of Health 2011, i). Instead of addressing the critical impacts of low incomes and low affordability on food supply, which in concert diminish the ability of residents to participate in social life, the recommendation that the City host occasional neighbourhood-wide potlucks is proffered. (ECTF 2014, 28).
Positive language of this ilk excludes the potential for structural transformation, which is both the most exciting provision of an election and what the task force explicitly aims to make more possible to residents. The report encourages collaboration around election time with an imagined creative class, advising that “music, film, creative writing, and theatre could be used to celebrate the election period while also providing information on how, where, and when to vote.” (ECTF 2014, 20; emphasis added). Beginning with acknowledgements of challenges to engagement that could be solved through structural amendments, the report repeatedly digresses and leaves those possibilities, instead reaching for “priority actions” which recommend that city council “invest more in public engagement resources, expand and improve the distribution of notification mailouts, and develop an evaluation criteria for online tools.” (ECTF 2014, 23). These policy recommendations implicitly advocate the maintenance of a neoliberal approach to urban governance, and the alteration of the urban landscape in surface-level ways. Using the scope of the study as justification for the absence of more profound inquiry, the report literally does not leave room for strategies to reduce social isolation or encourage engagement which could infringe upon the dominant interests of the city’s entrepreneurial government. This entrepreneurial, neoliberal orientation deeply impacts the discourse in City Council on affordability, too.
Under neoliberal governance, dealing with affordability separately
Vision’s proposition that Vancouver would be made to be more affordable under their governance was central to their 2011 election platform. However, as Lees has expounded the importance of diction, definition and grammar, I find that use of positive language in housing policy is concealing real social outcomes.
Concretely, the current city council, consisting dominantly of Vision party members, has redefined a series of terms. Their deployment in policy has direct impacts on the quantity and type of material supports available to residents. “Social housing” has been re-defined, and now means that 30% of units on a property are subsidized. This redefinition legalizes the representation of a building with 70% of units leased at an unaffordable market rate as entirely comprised of “social housing.” (Flegg 2014). In tandem, the definition of “affordability” has been emptied of its popularly understood meaning; it was re-defined by the current council as an umbrella term, and is also stretched to include the category of market rate rental. This loose definition actually contradicts the criteria of affordability used for the Metro Vancouver region, and so it applies singularly to Vancouver proper. Beneath a claim to affordability, as legitimized by its loose definition, performative policy does work in the landscape. Affordability is also compromised through exception, as in the case of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, wherein a policy of “revitalization without displacement” has been succinctly abandoned and replaced with the objectives of “affordable… revitalization” and social mix. (Vancouver Sun 2014). The redefinitions of affordability and these associated terms, made to denote material circumstances that are very distant from their popularly understood meanings, facilitate state-led gentrification and serve to deepen the financial insecurity and stress that exacerbate social isolation. (Sun Life Financial, 2012).
Use of these terms, with meanings that do not match their definitions as they are understood by the public, creates a rift between the actual felt impacts of policy and popular understanding of the intentions of government. A researcher must define their terms. In this case, the use of the word “affordable” to enable the creation of elite spaces and the destruction of truly affordable homes is highly misleading. In addition, Pfiefer (2011) speculated about the linguistic liberties taken in the representation of the housing market that “political platforms are partial to boasting their numbers, and units of ‘affordable rental housing’ are immediately halved the moment you double their size to a reasonable living space.”
This language and its deployment in policy facilitate state-led gentrification. Vancouver proper currently provides a context of precarious tenure and frequent creative destruction. An alarming 21% of rental units in Vancouver are at risk of redevelopment or demolition, which places the 51.5 per cent of Vancouver residents who rent in a position of potential insecurity — and under external pressure that disallows social involvement. (Crompton 2012; Ball, 2013).
Read in isolation, the Engaged City report longs after greater participation of residents in civic life, envisioning that “fully empowered communities” will “actively create a common future.” (ECTF 2014, 11). There is an urgent need for the involvement of local opinions: as projections suggest that the city will need to accommodate 130,000 new dwelling units in the next thirty years, the material impacts will be felt across this contained urban centre. (Metro Vancouver 2011, 68). However, observed with a wide-angle lens, the neoliberal policies of Vision and the post-Fordist organization of precarious employment do not allow for the kind of political transformations that the municipal government claims to seek for Vancouver residents, as individualism and the presumption of economic growth as the “only alternative” promote a post-political atmosphere. (Swyngedouw 2005, 215). The policy decisions that use language as it has been redefined by the Vision council to promote increases in “affordability” at least temporarily absolve that council of their contractual agreements — of who to provide units for, how many, where, in partnership with which investors with their private interests, and to what actual end. Despite the acknowledgement of the Engaged City Task Force Report (2014, 15) that “many complex factors [affect] engagement, such as social and economic inequality, housing affordability, trust, power, discrimination, and a rapidly changing media landscape,” I found their investigation to be lacking absolutely a nuanced critique of the way current city policies intensify the negative pressures of these linked elements. The acknowledgement is unfortunately hollow.
But, again, language is important. And the power of the word: Vision. This empty signifier hangs across the city, open to redefinition — it just might be your vision that council is striving for. The language of the City portrays the intentions and plans of decision-makers concerning the housing crisis as if heroic: Mayor Gregor Robertson entered office in 2011 on a pledge to finally “end homelessness by 2015.” (Lee 2011). Vision is alternately envisioned by its commentators as a “progressive green government,” and “developer owned.” (Mann 2012; Kagis 2014) It is difficult to tell to what degree the City Council’s bargains with the urban landscape and the tenure of residents are supported by the electorate. I see a need for contributions to the local discourse on civic government, in the form of investigations into the disconnect between what policy actually does, and what the popular imagination is encouraged to understand about the objectives of government. The speculations of Pfeifer (2011) on the use of numerical quantities to imply achievements appear to be paralleled in the discourse on civic engagement: simultaneously, residents of Vancouver bemoan a lack of consultation in city planning processes, and Vision Vancouver responds by pointing to the “high number of opportunities for engagement it has offered.” (ECTF 2014, 6). This disconnect deserves closer inspection.
The use of empty signifiers and definitions that are counter to popular understanding makes political engagement appear alternately unnecessary or futile. Any political transformation in the city demands the use of accessible, intelligible language, wherein terms are defined in the same way by government as they are by the public. The problem of the compartmentalization of policy as I’ve considered here is compounded by mistranslation. Treating issues separately creates the impression that the government is making concrete, popular, positive change on issues that matter most to citizens, by naming those felt challenges and nodding suggestively to their solution. Meanwhile, housing policy and a neoliberal impetus in government promote the very practices that lead to the dislocation of tenants and the increasing cost of shelter. (Vert 2005, 4).
As they were when more than 120 citizens signed up to speak to Council in response to the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan and the social impacts embedded within, the “jeers from the gallery,” are heard in City Hall. (Flegg 2014) In this context, it is possible to envision an alternative discourse, in which an expressive public engages in productive dialogue with a non-threatening state apparatus in a mutually understood language. In light of the elusiveness of this vision, I believe that the way in which challenges to the social participation of citizens is framed in government policy and proclamations must better reflect social realities. Otherwise, the word of the state leads the city to be misinformed towards the (re)production of injustices, like the isolation of residents that deprives the fulfillment of a need to connect with others and marginalization that disrupts individuals’ ability to maintain adequate shelter. Definitions of government must match the definitions of the public sphere, so that Council can interpret political aims authentically as they write policy based on the demands that are voiced by “everyone who believes in a bright future for our city.” (Robertson 2011).
This is a vigorous and very well-written paper, showing your ability to develop persuasive arguments in a creative and accessible manner.
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