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Op-ed: Defining core services is a question of core values

Dr. Elliot Rossiter penned this piece after a related discussion at Monday night's New West council meeting

A view of 'mainland New West' from Queensborough/Ria Renouf

Editor's note: this op-ed was submitted by Dr. Elliot Rossiter, who was also a speaker at Monday night's council meeting. If you'd like to read a recap of the Jan. 9 meeting, in which we give a brief summary of his comments, you can do so here

One of the main topics of discussion at Monday’s council meeting concerned the definition of what is meant by core services within the scope of municipal government.

This discussion was prompted by a motion brought forward by Couns. Daniel Fontaine and Paul Minhas (and ultimately passed in slightly modified form) to quantify the downloading of costs from senior levels of government onto the city’s budget and to prepare a list of expenses “which are typically considered outside of municipal jurisdiction and are not part of our ‘core services.’”

While it is sensible for the city to continue to advocate to higher levels of government for increased funding in various areas, the definitional question of what is meant by a core service warrants greater discussion: this question connects to a broader range of issues related to equity and infrastructure in our community.

Indeed, what we take to be core services is ultimately a question of our core values.

I would argue that the ultimate value of the city’s services, and the budget and taxes supporting them, consists in the set of real freedoms that they enable within the community—that is, the opportunities that individuals have to choose and to act in areas of fundamental importance to human life and dignity.

The geographer Alex Schafran and others defend this view more fully in The Spatial Contract, which holds that services and infrastructure within cities should be understood in terms of reliance systems that support human agency. The framework of this book is informed by the capability approach to human development, and it is reasonable to think of core services as those that support central capabilities in relation to municipal governance.

This framing helps to us to see that the question of defining core services is necessarily connected to issues of equity. If the value of services and infrastructure consists in the realization of real freedoms, this implies a fundamental concern with those whose freedoms are most limited – those who have disproportionately experienced the greatest material, economic, and social deprivations. This concern draws our attention to considerations of race, gender, class, and other identity characteristics that relate to systemic forms of discrimination both past and present connected to infrastructure.

In writing about equitable infrastructure, the urbanist Jay Pitter notes that there is a tendency to simply equate infrastructure with physical infrastructure – indeed, this tendency is evident in the perspective that the city should simply focus on things such as roads, buildings, and utilities as its core services.

While physical infrastructure is of critical importance for cities, Pitter argues that it is fundamentally interconnected with other types of infrastructure – social, democratic, digital, and economic – and the natural environment. When it comes to infrastructure, the physical is social and the social is physical in terms of the various ways in which the built environment and social relationships are deeply intertwined.

Physical infrastructure can support human agency in important ways, but it can also be used to subvert freedoms through practices of displacement, exploitation, and exclusion – indeed, the history of our region is replete with such examples, not least of which is the ongoing legacy of colonization. Examples of this broader phenomenon in the Metro Vancouver area include everything from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples enabled by the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the destruction of Hogan’s Alley in the Georgia Viaduct project, and the displacement of lower-income renters through demoviction and renoviction practices in real estate development – it can even be seen in things such as the lack of dignified public washroom space in our downtown core.

In response to these types of injustice, Pitter argues that one of the best ways to centre equity in discussions about infrastructure is through processes of co-creation where communities, especially equity-seeking groups, take part in shaping infrastructure. Increased justice in our social infrastructure will yield increased justice in our physical infrastructure.

It is this approach that we should take to the question of defining the city’s core services; while it is clear that council as elected representatives and staff as subject-matter experts undoubtedly have important roles to play here, discussion of this question should ultimately be an ongoing series of conversations in the wider community involving processes of co-creation, especially ones that prioritize the perspectives of equity-seeking groups whose freedoms have been most impacted by various challenges facing the city.

We should approach these conversations with an abundance mindset where we engage with one another charitably rather than dismissively and where we focus on what we can do rather than what we cannot do – we should avoid a scarcity mindset that sees politics as a zero-sum game pitting different interests against one another.

Indeed, one of the concerns about formulating a list of core services is that it could be used not just for advocacy to higher levels of government but also to justify cuts to services that ultimately increase suffering and curtail real freedoms in our community.

There are clearly many people struggling in our community in different ways, but it is from an abundance mindset that we are best positioned to set an example that inspires partnership with other municipalities and levels of government to collectively address the various problems before us.

As we think about what core services are in the city and what we value, we should strive to find healthy forms of cooperation that rectify inequities in our midst and that build a flourishing community for all.

Dr. Elliot Rossiter is a faculty member in the department of Philosophy at Douglas College. His research focuses on historical and contemporary concepts of poverty and distributive justice, the nature of housing, and the political function of narrative and the arts.