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Vancouver needs a city-wide plan to manage growth

The Vancouver Sun by Penny Gurstein 6 March 2015

If you were the city of Vancouver and were repeatedly criticized for making planning decisions behind closed doors, how would you gain the trust of your citizens? Recently, the B.C. Supreme Court echoed those concerns and put the brakes on a development in Yaletown. Now the city plans to mount a lengthy and costly appeal. Instead, might you want to consider this setback as an opportunity to take a fresh approach?

Vancouver is one of the most livable cities in the world because, aside from our setting, a structure of sound planning and urban design principles was put in place in the 1970s and 1980s that provided a framework when Vancouver began to grow after Expo 86. Citizen engagement was further refined by the CityPlan process in the 1990s. During that time the negotiation process that evolved between developers of large tracts of land and city planners provided many of the public amenities that we now cherish.

But the art of the deal is a skill that not everyone has, and development pressure has rapidly grown beyond the downtown core to established neighbourhoods. Our city is now de facto being planned by rezonings with each rezoning allowing greater density for the proliferation of condos in the city’s hope of extracting some community benefits in the form of amenities and affordable housing units. The city is becoming a patchwork of developments with little relation to the nuanced public realm that has made us an exemplar of urbanism and doing little to address our affordability crisis.

Is this the way we want our city to evolve? Without a citywide framework in place, and agreed on guiding principles, we are losing our ability to guide development, maintain the integrity of our neighbourhoods, address complex issues such as climate change, and provide a home for future generations.

So what can be done? It is now openly being discussed by some members of the planning and development community, community organizations, and academics, but not by city council, that Vancouver needs a coherent city structure that can manage growth in a transparent and integrated manner. It needs to be strategic to define the city’s vision and the strategies and allocation of resources needed to realize this vision.

It needs policies and strategies to encourage and nurture innovation and resiliency. It needs programs to provide for the delivery of affordable housing and the fair allocation of benefits between different segments of the population. It needs a process to engage the citizens in decisions about their city. A citywide plan could be the first step for that to occur.

Given the uncertain global economy and the lack of brownfield sites within the city, it is unlikely that in the near future we will see the kind of large scale development projects that have occurred in the last 30 years. Instead, we are seeing redevelopment occur in an incremental pattern within existing city patterns. As our population grows it is even more imperative that a clear vision be formulated that can help guide our transformation.

The Bartholomew Plans of 1928 and 1945, although never adopted, were the source code for the city as they set the pattern for the large tracts of low density single-family housing which still predominate in many neighbourhoods. This pattern has been resistant to change and adaptation. Zoning as a tool for exclusion has reinforced this pattern. While CityPlan, in 1995, was successful in reinforcing and encouraging the development of strong distinctive neighbourhoods, decisions on densification have been resisted in many of the neighbourhoods that could most benefit from growth. What has been lacking in our city is a plan that provides clarity on the physical form of our overall growth. What a city-wide plan could do is provide a much needed framework to understand the ramifications, and long term costs and benefits, to a variety of growth scenarios within neighbourhoods and throughout the city. Then we could have a zoning map which would guide future development, rather than one that needs to be constantly cut up to affect change.

Vancouver to the outside world is a success story. We have a livable, vibrant city that is used as a model for other cities. Why, then, do we need more planning? Our success has come at a cost.

Vancouver has ranked for a number of years as second worst in the world for home ownership affordability, and vacancy rates are among the lowest in Canada with the secondary rental market as the main source of new rental accommodation. Small businesses that are unable to afford the rising cost of commercial rents are being pushed out of the city. Young families that cannot afford to live in the city have to commute for hours from other communities to their jobs in Vancouver.

While recent planning efforts have focused on the greening of our city to become more environmentally sustainable, far less effort has been focused on ensuring social sustainability — a fair and just community — for all of its citizens. A city-wide plan could be the start of a much needed dialogue on what such a just community would entail, and how planning could address the equitable and sustainable allocation of resources and growth within our city, and beyond its boundaries.

Penny Gurstein is the director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC.