Vancouver Province column: Ditch those downtown bins that are giving Vancouver a bad name

The Province
November 19, 2007

Dan Rather, the former CBS news anchor, recently finished a whirlwind tour of Canada’s poorest postal code to report on the dark side of our urban paradise.

The legendary broadcaster got an eyeful of street life on the Downtown Eastside, which, as most visitors there know, comes complete with strewn garbage and overflowing dumpsters.

Not that Rather needed to head to the corner of Main and Hastings to witness the grungy side of the city.

Throughout the downtown area, back alleys have become this city’s unofficial dumping ground.

In the worst cases, they are marred by graffiti-covered walls, discarded needles and even human waste.

The festering of spoiled food and old mattresses in laneways was more noticeable than usual this past summer during the city’s notorious garbage strike. But the stench lingers on.

Not surprisingly, dealers and addicts like to set up shop here, taking cover beside garbage containers to buy, sell and inject drugs.

The situation is more than just unsightly, it’s a public- health hazard, and a black eye for Metro Vancouver. And it’s a crime that we’ve allowed this to go on for so long.

Now some folks are fighting back, including the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), which wants to dump the dumpsters for good.

According to the business group, the oversized trash containers are the reason these laneways are associated with filth, vandalism and public disorder.

Their proposal: Get rid of the 600-plus bins throughout downtown — and have businesses bag their trash and recyclables so they can be picked up more frequently.

It’s a strategy that’s already working in Kelowna and Seattle, with more cities getting in on the act.

Last week, Calgary announced that it too will try out the idea.

Eventually, urban areas can move crime and vagrancy out of dark alleys, and make the cleaned-up spaces available for walking, cycling, shopping and, yes, even restaurant patios.

Not that the goal is to whitewash the alleys and rid them of the so-called binners who make a living finding treasures in the trash.

According to Dave Jones, a DVBIA security consultant, dumpster-divers will be able to find new employment with the proposed garbage pick-up program.

Jones, a former Vancouver police inspector, says his group will go to Vancouver city council later this month to firm up plans and win over civic leaders.

If they’re successful, the bins could be gone for good as soon as next February.

Local politicians would be wise to take heed and ditch the dumpsters.

After all, this is about more than appeasing out-of-town reporters like the visiting Rather or the tourists showing up for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Rather, it’s about reclaiming public space in our city and giving it back to the folks who live and work here.

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