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ANDERSON: On broken windows and brown lawns

Image Credit: Contributed by author
July 21, 2015 - 7:13 AM

One of the perks of being a city councillor is that I'm exposed to a flood of ideas from folks all across the political and philosophical spectrum. They come in the form of emails, texts, phone calls, and sometimes handwritten letters. Today I received an email from a citizen concerned about the "broken window syndrome" occurring in my city. It goes like this:

A city block can be maintained for years, fostering a sense of beauty and tranquility. You know the neighbourhoods I'm talking about, with beautifully landscaped front yards, lush bushes and manicured lawns, and often artfully placed rocks and logs, all contributing to a sort of Zen placidity. They aren't always rich neighbourhoods, and in fact some of the nicest and best-kept properties are in enclaves of elderly retirees, and sometimes lower middle class retirees at that. It's a sense of well-being that knows no class or income level or any of the isms through which we tend to view the world these days.

Then one day someone moves out and their house lies dormant for a period of time. The lawn grows into weeds. Some weeks later a window in the house is broken, a window that in normal times would be fixed but because no one is home stays broken. The neighbour next door calls the local bylaw department, and calls them again a month later, and again after that, but after a few failed attempts just gives up. Then either he or someone else down the block, after months of internalizing the wreck in progress, feels the pointlessness of maintaining his own yard, and lets it too go to seed. Or parks a car on it. Or does one of the many small acts that seemed so out of place in the neighbourhood a few months before but not quite so strange now. And so it begins, with what the email writer called a "cancer" spreading through the neighbourhood.

This is not a radical thesis. It's been borne out in countless studies on urban decay since the early 70s and over the past few years we've watched it spread across Chicago, Detroit, parts of Florida and Arizona, and elsewhere, as a result of zombie foreclosures.

And now we're watching the broken window phenomenon happen right here in the Okanagan. But it's not happening because of a foreclosure crisis. It's happening because of a largely fabricated water crisis.

On the subject of water, the email writer pointed out something we all understand very well... that green and well-watered landscapes cool properties, provide oxygen, filter pollution (and absorb CO2), and have intangible psychological benefits among others they convey a sense of pride of ownership and community.

I won't go into the specifics of the current panic over water in my city, but suffice it to say that we're being bombarded with messages to the effect that we are in a state of crisis, and we are not. We are being told that such seemingly mundane things as watering our lawns is somehow selfish and wasteful, and that not watering our lawns is an act of good, an act of preservation, a way to conserve and protect precious water.

This crisis mentality is exacerbated by ever-increasing water costs, as if the costs are rising because of scarcity when in fact the costs are rising because of a feedback loop engendered by the very same sense of crisis. How?

?Because there are fixed cost to water delivery — all the piping and pumping and maintenance that go into a municipal water system. Those costs don't change no matter how much water is used, because the pipes and the pumping stations and the maintenance have to exist regardless of how much water courses through them. But what does change is the amount of water we use. When we use less, the water utility doesn't receive enough in fees to pay the fixed costs, which means the rates have to rise accordingly. As a result, a sort of vicious circle ensues in which people use even less water, driving the cost per litre of delivered water yet higher in apparent infinitum.

The irony is that the broken window syndrome doesn't have to happen here. We are making a crisis where no crisis exists and, to paraphrase Tacitus, we are creating a desert and being told it is a virtue instead of a blight.

So while we pat ourselves on the back in sanctimonious self-congratulation for using less and less water, we are actively hurting our environment. And our pocketbooks. And our sense of community. And we are helping nothing at all.

— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.

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