I live in Vancouver. I know that if Vancouver is to be a place where a rapidly growing population can work and live, the design and structure of buildings is going to have to change. And if Vancouverites want to take a run at being a leading green city, things are really going to have to change. The same thing can be said for urban centres across the country. With a growing urban population set to double by 2050, we need to plan and build differently.
Real estate developers know this to be true. But sometimes they’re not the best at communicating it, even in this digital age. They are a conservative bunch, mostly, who look warily at newfangled tools like Twitter.
Real estate development opponents, on the other hand, are often extremely adept at using online tools to coalesce their cause. They’re constantly creating and monitoring social media sites to trumpet their beliefs and gather like-minded neighbours. In many cases, these local opposition groups are much better at using communication tools, new and old, to achieve their ends.
This needs to change. Balanced conversations – two-way conversations – are a must if we want to improve the way we plan and build our city.
Last year in the U.S., tens of thousands of people joined a Facebook group, “People Against the Malling of Wrigleyville”, to fight a hotel-residential-retail development in the Chicago area. More recently, here in Vancouver, the group Vancouver Not Vegas rallied together using Facebook – and other mass media tools – against the development of Edgewater Casino at BC Place. The casino project is still a no go.
While I don’t begrudge community organizations the opportunity to have their say, I don’t want digital prowess to be the deciding factor in the way we plan our cities.
Even right now, a select group of neighbourhood naysayers and NIMBY’s known as RAMP Vancouver (Residents Association Mount Pleasant, Vancouver) has declared war on a viable opportunity for urban densification at the corner of Vancouver’s Kingsway and Mount Pleasant, and has created an impressive online presence.
The well-organized RAMP group seems to have civic decision makers paying attention, with tower-phobic print brochures, blogs, a Facebook page and an online petition against the project. But, in a rare twist, social media savvy developer Rize Alliance is up for the challenge. Here, we have the beginnings of that balanced conversation I was talking about.
Well-versed in the world of social media, Vice President of Development Chris Vollan and the Rize team are responding to RAMP’s objections using channels through which the entire Mount Pleasant community can participate.
“Historically, developers haven’t communicated very well with these kinds of groups because we either haven’t had to or we just pretended we didn’t need to. We simply cannot move forward like this anymore,” says Vollan. “We absolutely have to communicate better; it’s the reality of development, re-development, and rezoning work in Vancouver.”
Rather than simply stating their case and leaving it at that, Rize is voicing their opinions and sharing their plans through platforms that encourage discussion and collaboration. They’ve announced a pop-up retail initiative for Mount Pleasant; they have a blog; they’re on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter. They’re exactly where not only the naysayers are, but also where potential supporters are as well.
It’s been a challenging process to be sure – one that is still ongoing. (The hearing at City Hall was February 27th) Already, the Acton Ostry-designed tower has been reduced from 26 storeys to 19, with a commensurate drop in community amenities. Now imagine if Rize had not engaged in the online conversation at all. What kind of changes to this project would we have seen then? Wouldn’t the resistant-to-change neighbourhood activists become the de facto city planners? Do we want NIMBYs to be calling the shots on how our city is planned and built?
Demand for homes in this city far outweighs the supply. As a result, affordable and sustainable housing is becoming harder and harder to find. We need to build more homes so we can effectively accommodate more people, and we need to develop more types of housing for a variety of people and situations. In order to move Vancouver forward and move past this issue of supply and demand, we need to create the opportunities for balanced conversation – and at the moment and in many cases – the balance is decidedly not there.