The biggest city in Canada with no government

In my previous life as editor of UBC’s campus paper, I often wrote about the lack of municipal government for the 25,000+ people who lived on campus. Before the 2011 municipal elections, I wrote this piece for the Vancouver Sun, though it’s no longer on their website.

Every civic election brings with it local, unique quirks. But if you want an election that defies any sort of traditional analysis, travel north of 41st Avenue and west of Blanca.

After you cross that boundary, you enter a land of over 20,000 residents. About 8,000 of them live in student housing, while the rest live on university land and the adjacent University Endowment Lands (which, confusingly, are not part of the university in any way). They live in an area with hockey arenas, beaches, sprawling parks, a local RCMP detachment, commercial outlets, a seniors’ centre, scores of coffee shops, and last but not least, a billion-dollar university.

Forty thousand people enter the area every day, many on buses, making it the second-largest transit hub in Metro Vancouver after the downtown core. Nobody really has a good name for it, so let’s call it “UBCity.”

UBCity is a growing part of Metro Vancouver, and an important part of the region’s long-term future. However, it has no municipal representation.

Actually, that’s not technically true. On election day, UBCity voters will cast a ballot for director of Electoral Area A, the area composed of all unincorporated areas in the Lower Main-land. It’s the only municipal vote people in UBCity make. The Electoral Area A director sits with 36 other directors (who actually govern their constituencies) on the Metro Vancouver board, but due to weighted votes his or her power is much less.

So UBCity may have municipal representation, but it certainly isn’t effective. Or close to democracy. This was understandable when UBCity was nothing more than a couple of thou-sand permanent residents, a corner store and pharmacy, and a provincially minded university. But now, by any reasonably estimation, UBCity has most of the characteristics of a city. So why isn’t it one?

The short answer is that UBC doesn’t want it, the provincial government isn’t interested in legislating it, and people in the endowment lands like low property taxes. So the status quo remains.

Residents in the endowment lands have an advisory council. Permanent UBC residents, who live on land owned by UBC but given to developers on a 99-year lease, have the University Neighbourhoods Association, a group that provides some basic municipal services and negotiates discounts for UBC services to its members. And students? They’re just happy to sign a contract that provides them with affordable housing on campus.

Nowhere in this system does a mayor or council exist, allowing UBC’s board of governors to regularly make eight-figure zoning and development decisions without having to worry about the next election, a situation any politician would kill for.

UBC, obviously, enjoys this situation. It gives them maximum flexibility in creating a planned community, allows them to attempt sustainability initiatives that other regions wouldn’t be able to pull off, and keeps politicians out of the world of academia.

But the current system causes plenty of problems. Whenever there’s a development controversy, such as when UBC announced construction of a hospice next to a highrise despite the concerns of residents, it highlights the lack of checks on UBC’s zoning powers.

When local concerns arise which UBC doesn’t have the capacity to solve – such as increasing transit to campus or adding more daycares and schools in West Point Grey – they drag on for years, because no local politician has any real motivation to get things done for the university.

In the past, Metro Vancouver had nominal control over zoning and had pressured UBC every so often when students or concerned residents stood up. But in 2009, they attempted to exert more control over UBC’s land-use decisions.

The university cried foul, the province stepped in to take responsibility under the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act, and three different ministers over the past two years have specifically avoided this hot potato.

The province and university have pledged that at some point, a governance review will take place to create a long-term solution for UBC’s non-academic lands.

When that happens, it would be beneficial for all parties involved if there was a person outside of the university who could plausibly claim to represent everyone in UBCity.

However, turnout for the Electoral Area A election in 2008 barely cracked 700 votes. Anything more than 1,000 votes this time would be considered a success.

So while the Nov. 19 election will bring clarity to how Metro Vancouver will be governed the next three years, the wheels of governance at UBCity will continue to spin, no matter who is elected.

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