Vancouver Planning Needs a Radical Change to Pace Growth

Planning concepts need to change radically if Vancouver and the surrounding region are going to cope with the explosive growth expected to occur in the next 40 years, three former City of Vancouver planners told delegates attending one of a series of Urban Land Institute discussion on the city’s future.

While an estimated 1.25 million people will arrive in the metro region over the next four decades, Larry Beasley said that figure, based upon his experience in international consulting, falls fair short. A more realistic projection is “four million or maybe five million” but heightened world economics and politics could drive the number up to seven million as Vancouver is deemed a safe, international haven.

Rapid growth combined with waves of aging residents will leave Vancouver and its surrounding areas struggling with affordable housing issues. “We are not prepared for it,” said Beasley, who was Vancouver’s co-director of planning from 1994-2006 and in 1996 his work was recognized by the United Nations as one of the “World’s 100 best planning practices.”

Beasley said the only way to keep housing affordable is “keeping supply ahead of demand – but that is not happening.” Choices in the marketplace are impacted and only the very rich are able to live in the city. One solution, he said, is for the private sector to take a greater role in building non-profit and semi-profit housing complexes, he said. “We need a new spectrum of housing,” he said, pointing to places like Rotterdam and Madrid where such private sector engagement has occurred.

The planning straight jacket

Today’s planning rules and guidelines do not provide for flexibility in development and are “obsolete”, he said. He points out that the Dutch have one building form that accommodates a number of building uses. Yet, in Canada, building and zoning codes “don’t do it” and hinder the construction of a building that might transition into another use. “We have got to get out of the straight jacket we are in,” he said.

Despite efforts to create sustainable density in urban areas, there has been little impact in the suburban areas. There remains a strong preference for residents to live in the traditional single family dwellings, a housing model that is simply “not sustainable” over the long term, he said. “We have to create a new sustainable template.” The failure of planners has been the ability to engage these suburban populations in dialogue to determine how that can be done.

To effect change, Beasley said there has to a grand-scale public discourse on planning initiated. Vancouver has become complacent when compared to other international cities, he said. He believes that by having large, continuous discussions regarding how a city should unfold in the future, it will provide an expedited environment for project development. Such ongoing discussions become a means of always assessing the social values of residents and making decisions accordingly.

Public engagement problematic

Brent Toderain, now a private consultant who succeeded Beasley in the city’s planning department until 2012, took issue with today’s public engagement process. “I believe we engage too much and improperly,” he said, adding that expectations have become exaggerated.

Such engagements are being “co-opted” by smaller special interest groups that play to the media, he said. “It takes a brave citizen to stand up and say that person does not speak for me or my neighbors,” said Toderain. Such an individual is often subject to personal attacks and a real challenge in gauging public opinion today is providing a safe environment where all parties can freely express views.

Two suggestions brought forward at the session were a jury of laymen that would hear information regarding a planned project and make a recommendation. Another was an independent resource centre, which could supply residents with only facts regarding a planned change in an area, thus, reduced biased or self-interest information. Beasley suggested that today’s technology could also play a role in providing public feedback to planners on developments to quicken a project’s development.

The broad perspective is missing

Ray Spaxman, whose career spans half a century of planning and was the city’s planner from 1973 to 1988, said today’s greatest failure in future planning is not taking a broad perspective. City and regional growth will ultimately hinge upon answering the questions surrounding new arrivals, climate change, heritage preservation, continued globalization, transportation and energy issues.

“We are in the middle of a revolution – although we have not put a name on it,” he said, adding that there is also a global shift of power occurring. China is powering up pulling the economic focus from the Western countries. New emigrates from enriched countries such as the East and arriving to live in Vancouver will shape the way communities and homes are planned.

Spaxman said capitalism’s effect on planning future growth requires careful consideration. “Every time you open a newspaper we are being told we need more of something,” he said, adding that “money is a tremendous driver and has become the goal.”

The free market may drive development, said Spaxman, but there needs to be a frank discussion by planners of how far capitalism should be allowed to drive affordability of housing. “We have to look at real issues in a real sense and not as a money issue,” he said

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