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Citizen Hern

Matt Hern has a plan to make our streets and neighbourhoods safe—but first, what does that word even mean?
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Hern
Matt Hern Brian Howell
Matt Hern has a plan to make our streets and neighbourhoods safe—but first, what does that word even mean?

Not pausing before breaking the law, Matt Hern marched out onto Commercial Drive with the assurance of a guy who knew that the truck had time to slow down. Hell, you could hear the engine grumbling, gearing down for the light up at Charles Street. He kept walking. If you didn’t know him-, you might have taken this as a typical act of East Van defiance: staring down the man, fighting the power. Yo. He sure looked the part. Buzzed head. Ripped jeans. A tattooed murder of crows flying up towards the pushed-back sleeves of his leather jacket. Grin like a post-pummel back-alley fighter.

But Hern wasn’t out for a scrap. He was simply taking a calculated risk, one repeated thousands of times a day across this city. And a risk it certainly is. Last year, 46 souls met violent deaths in Vancouver. And despite all the recent hullabaloo about gang warfare, only half of the dead were victims of homicide. The other half met their maker out here, on the street, crushed in or under a motor vehicle.

“We’re afraid of the wrong fuckin’ things,” Hern said as he set his gaze on the truck driver’s eyes—not to dare him, but to establish a relationship. The driver nodded. Good. So did Hern. The truck slowed, and Hern headed for the far curb, never missing a beat in his commentary on the dynamics of danger.

It’s common wisdom that Vancouver has become a dangerous place. “The city is gripped by fear,” said West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed, after last fall’s spate of gang shootings. Transit cops have started packing heat. The mayor ordered his Civil City czar to crack down on crime and aggressive panhandling. And, a sure sign of security collapse, our Chinese consulate warned tourists to be vigilant when visiting our shores.

If you’ve caught the fear, if you wince every time your children leave the stoop, if you wish someone would make this town safer, take heart: Hern has a prescription. It doesn’t look much like the Civil City handbook, however, and it doesn’t call for more cops or cameras or Tasers. All we have to do is follow him off the sidewalk. He wants us to walk, play, and hang out in the middle of streets usually reserved for traffic.

This is more than just fuzzy talk from the anarchist’s cookbook. Behind Hern’s ragged street uniform and potty mouth is a hefty volume of urbanist theory. He’s a thrice-published author and a popular lecturer on education and urban studies at Simon Fraser University and UBC. He’s the most charismatic trash talker in town, and he’s used that gift to win support from city councillors, bureaucrats, and soccer moms for an experiment that will turn this city on its head.

If Hern’s experiment is successful, if he can convince enough of us to follow him out into the street, it will change the way we see our thoroughfares, and each other. It may even make the city safer—which is ironic, given the title of Hern’s new book: Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better.

Hern’s preoccupation with safety was sparked by the view of kids climbing trees on the grounds of North Vancouver’s Windsor House School, where he worked in the 1990s. At a staff meeting, a teacher wondered about the school’s policy on tree-climbing. Should there be a height limit? Should kids be allowed to climb only when supervised? Reasonable questions, but moot: a child had fallen from a tree and died in another North Van schoolyard the previous year, and the school district had outlawed the practice. “What could be more natural for kids than tree-climbing?” Hern says, tracing the lines on his scratched kitchen table on another winter morning. “This would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.”

It got him thinking about how much things had changed since he was a kid on Vancouver Island. In Grade 1, he walked to school along the byways of North Saanich. Today, most parents wouldn’t dream of letting young children walk the streets alone. Once, kids were expected to fall and hurt themselves on playgrounds. Now, playgrounds must meet strict standards or they become uninsurable—leaving some communities without. Once, schools routinely took kids on field trips. Now, the liability risk is too great.

Hern concluded that our entire culture has succumbed to a safety obsession ever amplified by insurance brokers, marketers, and politicians. From closed-circuit cameras and armed security guards to orange terror alerts on CNN and warnings on coffee cups and stairways, our lives have become exercises in quantifying and mitigating risk. Much of that risk is imaginary: the media portrays crime as an epidemic, when national and local crime rates have actually fallen in recent years.

Last summer, Hern took his two daughters to Third Beach, only to be chastised by a lifeguard who reminded him of the municipal prohibition against beach balls. Parks bylaw #22 forbids playing with balls on Vancouver beaches. Frisbee-throwing is verboten, too. So is sitting on rock walls.

“When you question these rules, they say: ‘What, aren’t you concerned about your kids’ safety?’” Hern says.

“Safety has become a trump card that ends all kinds of conversations. It’s the same with the security cameras everywhere. If you complain about them, people say, ‘If you’re doing nothing wrong, why are you afraid of security cameras?’”

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