Vancouver, you’re a mess

Judging by some recent Facebook chatter, many of us have a lot to say about litter, and the sorry state of streets, boulevards and schoolyards in our city.

I think it is time to be blunt, Vancouver. On far too many of your blocks and alleyways, you are a mess.

We may aspire to be the greenest city, but we are quickly being branded as a gritty city for all the litter we leave behind.

Vancouver’s shabby appearance has been a subject of past columns for me and Courier scribe Michael Geller. As far back as 2013, he and I have offered suggestions on how to address this problem through public awareness campaigns and other initiatives.

Apart from vague statements around its waste collection budget, the City has largely ignored calls to advocate for a tidier town.

The fact is, clean streets have never been a political priority for the governing Vision party, and their unsightly appearance proves that point.

When it comes to issues relating to dumping, potholes or non-functioning street lamps, the City’s website advises us to report them via the VanConnect smartphone app, which I frequently do, accompanied by a photo and a short description of the issue.

If I were to begin reporting everything I see in my travels, however, I would be on that app non-stop for days.

Last weekend, as on many occasions, I picked up our old 20-gallon plastic garbage can and a slightly bent pair of tongs and spent 45 minutes on a litter-collection sweep on my block and back lane.

The container had to be emptied twice for me to finish the task. When tidying our block (which can be great exercise, by the way), I wonder why so few others take the same initiative. If anyone is observing me at the time, perhaps they think I have court-ordered community service hours.

It is plausible that most of us do not care about litter, but I doubt it.

I am told that anti-litter campaigns are featured prominently in our elementary schools. Kids must wonder then why we grownups tolerate so much mess here in Vancouver.

The public awareness campaigns I remember were American made, spotted while watching Saturday morning cartoons. Today, Woodsy the Owl saying “give a hoot, don’t pollute” and the “crying Indian” commercial seem quaint. The latter was produced by a business-led consortium known as “Keep America Beautiful.” The stated aim of that campaign — which began in the early 1950s — was to encourage litter prevention, waste reduction and sponsor community beautification projects.

Critics have dismissed it as corporate greenwashing, but the fact is we are still talking about their most famous advertisement nearly five decades later. Such is the power of marketing to instill an idea that we appear to have lost here — that we all are responsible for the public realm.

We have the annual city-led Keep Vancouver Spectacular initiative, which can bring out volunteers in droves. These clean-ups can have short-term benefits, but not enough to sustain tidy streets and alleys throughout the year.

Much of Vancouver’s mess is on our commercial high streets, which is why more effort should be directed at business and property owners as to their responsibility to maintain the property’s exterior. Those that do deserve our praise.

On occasion I have reminded shop owners in my area to clear litter, leaves, snow or ice, from outside their premises, but they respond that the property owner is responsible, not the shopkeeper.

In most cases we’re talking about a few minutes with a broom and a dustpan, folks.

Thankfully, it is not just me who gets to be the nattering nabob when it comes to Vancouver’s litter problem. Many of us wish to see things improved.

For that to happen, it will require our communities and small businesses, as well as our local government, to come together to clean up our messy city.

– Originally published in Vancouver Courier newspaper