Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Kelden Formosa: Conservative urbanism starts with public safety

Commentary

Are you a NUMTOT? An ELMTOT? Or maybe an RRMTOT

You might be one, even if you don’t know it yet. Those are, of course, fans of “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens,” a global Facebook group of young urbanists; Expo Line Memes for similarly-oriented young people in BC’s Lower Mainland; and, not to be outdone, Rocket Riding Memes for teenage enthusiasts of Toronto and its TTC. 

The popularity of such groups, together with social media channels like City Beautiful, Not Just Bikes, and r/f*ckcars, point to a particular interest among young Canadians in creating compact, walkable, and bikeable cities with better public transit and fewer cars. These “15-minute cities,” young urbanists argue, would be stronger communities with more dynamic economies, more fun, shorter commutes, and less of the pollution and habitat destruction caused by (sub)urban sprawl.

Canada has a particularly thriving online community of young urbanists. Despite our size, we’re largely an urban country: Three-quarters of Canadians live in cities and almost half (44 percent) of us are within a 20-minute drive of a downtown core. But the price of housing in our biggest cities has made urban life unaffordable. Moreover, under-built transportation systems are experiencing serious strains, and crime, street disorder, and vandalism are all on the rise. Meanwhile, our federal government and many municipal governments are led by left-of-centre politicians whose base of support is located in downtown cores and their urban fringes. No wonder there is a strong undercurrent of NUMTOT discontent with political leaders. 

This represents an opportunity for collaboration between urbanists and conservatives. If right-leaning politicians learn to speak the urbanists’ language, they can appeal to younger voters and make inroads into cities. Likewise, if hardcore urbanists can speak to conservatives, they can make progress on their priorities even when the right is in power. Indeed, certain urbanist priorities are more likely to be advanced by conservatives than by progressives, simply because they don’t offend key points of today’s progressive thinking. 

Rising crime provides the best example of this. Living in a compact, walkable neighbourhood and relying on walking, biking, or transit highlights the importance of safe streets. When you drive past encampments, open drug use, or unstable people acting out on the streets, you may be able to ignore the human tragedy and the threat to public safety that these situations represent. From your suburb, you can put a “In this house we believe” sign on your lawn and safely pat yourself on the back for your progressive luxury beliefs like hostility to the police, acceptance of public camping, and support for harm reduction as the only acceptable method of combating the addictions crisis. 

But if you walk, bike, or take transit every day, the problems are impossible to ignore. Your daily commute reminds you that luxury beliefs are just that: a luxury you and your neighbours can’t afford. Ask ex-TTC riders, many of whom stopped riding the rocket in the face of increased threats to their safety, or the seniors and small business owners of Vancouver’s Chinatown, who are increasingly frustrated with the chaos of their neighbouring Downtown Eastside.

Across Canada, downtown residents were among the first to notice rising crime, and with good reason: those increases often start in the same neighbourhoods that have always been most marginal in our society, many of which are located in neglected areas near the urban core. 

Granted, there are some downtowners who can afford such beliefs. They’re generally tall guys with Twitter accounts. They seem to not mind crime too much. They claim that everything is fine and being accosted by other tall guys — usually ones without Twitter accounts — en route to the grocery store is just a part of life that we should all just get used to. 

But our shared vision of more compact and well-connected cities relies on the public actually wanting to live in such cities. If downtowns are known for crime and disorder, then most suburbanites will oppose making their neighbourhood anything more like downtown. 

That’s where the potential for urbanist-conservative collaboration lies. The urban renaissance of the two last decades was prompted in part by decreased crime that resulted from more proactive “Broken Windows”-style policing in places like New York City. Crime fell when officers were empowered to enforce the law and courts were less likely to release repeat offenders without adequate supervision or support. 

We should re-learn some of the basic lessons of that time: crime is prevented with more police officers walking the beat, more detectives solving crimes, and sentencing that keeps dangerous repeat offenders off the streets and away from their victims. By enforcing laws, even against minor offences, we hold repeat offenders to account and send the message that more serious crimes won’t be tolerated. 

Contemporary mental health and opioid-related crime problems offer us the chance to avoid the mistakes of our recent past. Instead of enabling drug abuse, we can incentivize recovery-oriented treatment for addictions, including compassionate involuntary treatment when there is a threat to one’s own or public safety. Instead of deinstitutionalizing the severely mentally ill (read: throwing them onto the streets), we can invest in modern, humane, long-term treatment facilities. 

Measures like these have helped make downtowns safer before but, in our current moment, the political Left finds itself unable to support them — a hangover from the anti-police rhetoric of the last few years, much of it coming from south of the border. The political Right is, by contrast, better placed to advocate for effective policing and a renewed attention to prevention, enforcement, and treatment as complements to existing harm reduction policies around crime and addiction. Conservative politicians at the provincial level can override soft-on-crime decision-making at the local — and in some cases, federal — levels, and they should do so with the support of urbanists.

One wonders, for example, what urbanists in Calgary and Edmonton think of the provincial United Conservative Party government’s recent move to reach over the heads of those cities’ progressive leaders and insist on more stringent policing. This included sending twelve Alberta sheriffs to both cities to support municipal police on their patrols of public transit and downtown areas.

Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis made a practical urbanist point in his announcement: “It shouldn’t be a daily achievement to survive your commute on transit.” Spoken like a true NUMTOT, albeit one who’s progressed past his teenage years. He followed it up by noting that, “You also have a right not to inhale second-hand crystal meth smoke.” Perhaps a bit pointed for your average NUMTOT, but worth considering if you want more people to feel comfortable walking, taking public transit, and living the more-urban lifestyles so many NUMTOTs would like. 

There are other potential areas for conservative-urbanist collaboration too. One thinks of Pierre Poilievre’s focus on increasing the supply of new housing to make cities more affordable. Or perhaps of The Hub’s own Howard Anglin and his proposal to defeat the worst of NIMBYism by constructing beautiful buildings rather than soulless ones. But making our downtown area and public transit systems safe again is a good place to start. Both conservatives and NUMTOTs would do well to find ways to work together on it. 

Mark Hill: Decades ago, a fake monk on the run from the British press found shelter in Canada

Commentary

It’s no wonder The Third Eye was a bestseller. Not only did the 1953 autobiography of Tibetan Lama Tuesday Lobsang Rampa offer insight into a mysterious kingdom recently seized by the People’s Republic of China, but life as a monk was an endless adventure.   

Rampa joined a lamasery as a boy and soon underwent an operation that drilled into the bone above his nose to open his third eye, granting him clairvoyant powers used to perform counterespionage in the Dalai Lama’s court. He encountered yetis and discovered the mummified body of his previous incarnation, moments that left him with sage and witty spiritual insights.

The Third Eye moved 500,000 copies in two years, giving many Western readers their first exposure to Buddhism and the plight of Tibet under Mao’s boot. It was also complete gibberish. Explorer and Tibetologist Heinrich Harrer, whose Seven Years in Tibet had been released a year prior, was so offended that he hired a private detective who revealed that Rampa was a London clerk named Cyril Henry Hoskin. 

A 1958 Daily Express report exposed Hoskin. Undeterred, reprintings and future books explained that in 1949 he fell out of a tree while trying to photograph an owl, and as he recovered a Tibetan monk projecting his spirit across the globe approached him. Hoskin agreed to welcome the monk’s soul into his body, and thus a lifetime of knowledge was acquired. Convenient limitations prevented the ability to speak Tibetan from inclusion in the package. 

To escape the badgering British press, Hoskin and his wife decamped for Dublin. When that distance proved insufficient, they fled to Canada. They settled in Saint John, where acquaintances recall signs of wealth: an upscale apartment, a secretary, a modern car and driver, a clock gifted to the veterinarian who cared for his precious cats. Future mayor Sam Davis was among his friends. Not bad for a high school dropout. 

But Hoskin struggled to adapt to life in Canada. In 1964 he wrote Living With the Lama, although in a stroke of either marketing or insanity he claimed to have merely translated it “from the Siamese Cat language” after his Fifi Greywhiskers telepathically dictated it to him. For a book meant to shine a light on how animals are smarter than we give them credit for, there are a lot of complaints about taxes. Canada was called “so uncultured, so unfriendly” and “a cold, cruel country, with no civilised amenities such as one would have in Europe.” The cost of living was too high, the winters too cold, and the prime minister too rude to respond to his letters. Perhaps we really are trapped in an endless cycle. 

Hoskin would rack up over a dozen different Canadian addresses, bouncing around Ontario and Quebec before making his way to the “more cultured, more civilised” Vancouver. He became a Canadian citizen and continued to write, each book more ridiculous than the last. Before joining the Englishman’s body, Rampa supposedly served as an air ambulance pilot in World War II, survived capture and torture, and escaped a prison camp near Hiroshima the day the bomb was dropped. 

In Vancouver, Hoskin settled in a West End hotel. According to his secretary’s self-published memoir, he enjoyed the waterfront views but otherwise found Vancouver trying. He couldn’t replicate The Third Eye’s success, it had been a struggle to find a home that would accommodate his cats, and health issues necessitated the use of a wheelchair in a city unfriendly to it. Hoskin grew reclusive as his work branched out to explore aliens, premonitions of future wars, and Christ’s previously undocumented escapades.   

Another relocation took Hoskin to Calgary, where he finally embraced Canadian life. 1976’s As it Was, which added even more improbable claims to his biography, was “Dedicated to The City of Calgary, where I have had peace and quiet and freedom from interference in my personal affairs.” He died there in 1981, leaving his future royalties to charities for cats. 

Hoskin, depending on your own sense of charity, was either a shameless con artist or a misguided believer in his own ludicrousness. While a review had called The Third Eye “juvenile fiction,” some scholars credit it for sparking their interest in Tibet. Tibet had long fascinated the Western world; the race to sneak into forbidden Lhasa had been a thrilling if morally dubious last gasp of imperial adventure and China’s violent annexation had created a crisis that needed publicity. Hoskin was Tibet’s strangest ally in its struggle for freedom. 

He was also a vanguard for New Age gibberish, work that will forever be believed no matter how often it’s debunked. A website dedicated to Hoskin claims his every word is “very true as you will discover if you remain open minded.” He added his ramblings to a bottomless slop that leads credulous believers to dangerous junk science, or at least to an annoying belief in the power of horoscopes. 

But if nothing else, Hoskin was proof that interesting things can actually happen in Calgary. Ms. Greywhiskers didn’t live to see Hoskin make peace with the land of his exile, but I’ll give her the final word regardless: “Canada, we are agreed, is a most uncultured country, and all of us live for the day when we can leave it. However, this book is not a treatise on the faults of Canada, that would fill a complete library, anyway!”