Audience Discussion

Highlights from the audience discussion with the audience following the presentations from Ann McAfee, Patrick Condon and Peter Whitelaw:

Participating audience members included Larry Beasley, Bob Ransford, Frank Ducote, Neal Lamontagne, Louis Conway, Karenn Krangle.

NOTE: Transcripts have been edited for clarity. For complete remarks, please refer to the videos.


What might resilience mean in relation to a city-wide plan, including disaster scenarios?

Whitelaw: ‘Resilience’ is a painful term. I think the key issue for plans is a balance between certainty and flexibility, especially with a community plan done at most every 10 years; and with a city-wide plan done every 15 or 20 years. Over that time scale, you can’t possibly anticipate everything that’s going to happen. I think an interesting thing that plans can do is build explicitly flexibility into them to say, “if these conditions are in place, our policy would be this.”

During the planning process you could explore different scenarios build policies to correspond. The other thing you can obviously do is create a climate adaptation plan, for example, where you look carefully at what’s likely to come at you and identify specific ways to adapt and mitigate your risks.

What happens in a case like the City of North Vancouver when you’ve done all of the engagement, staff has done all of the work, and you ultimately don’t get the backing of your city council?

Condon: First, you absolutely have to have council’s backing to initiate the process, which in the City of North Vancouver they did. And you need an enduring staff. Richard White [Director of Community Development] has been with the City over 15 years and recognized the importance of this and how the plan supported discussions at the council level with visualizations of what they have been trying to articulate. And if you look at the track record of the existing council they have done pretty well… The 100-year sustainability plan has become the basis for two different official community plan updates.

Following on Peter’s comment on flexibility, the recent official community plan was a 50-year plan and nobody expects it to be followed 50 years from now. However, a 50-year plan is really good at telling you what you ought to do Monday – “Should I widen that sidewalk?” Or, “What about this project, how does it relate to a long-term vision?” Of course conditions are going to change significantly and you could do a 50-year plan every 10 years if you wanted to.

We are all trying to create a sustainable city for our kids, and that takes 50 years to execute because cities change so slowly.

We are all trying to create a sustainable city for our kids, and that takes 50 years to execute because cities change so slowly. That’s the real value of a 50-year plan.

McAfee: In response to your question about the role of the politician: When I go elsewhere in the world, people are interested in how Vancouver turned from what it was in the 50s and 60s, an unspectacular city in a spectacular setting, to one of the most livable cities in the world only 30 – 40 years later. I always start by saying the whole process started and was implemented because city councils over the years had visions, and wanted to see their visions happen. And councils engaged the community in developing and implementing visions.

If you don’t have the political support at the start, why even start your planning process?

If you don’t have the political support at the start, why even start your planning process? I was part of a planning process called The Vancouver Plan in the late 1980s. Staff felt that we needed a city-wide plan. Council gave a yawn and said to go ahead, and we did. The plan was received by council, council said ‘yawn’ and it went on the shelf. It was only later, when council become so frustrated by the opposition every time staff and council proposed a new development that council supported a city-wide planning process.

I remember [Mayor] Gordon Campbell taking his shoe off and banging it on the desk saying, “Let the public walk in our shoes.” And to the question about resiliency: We can’t anticipate everything that is going to happen. But, if you have a knowledgeable and engaged public, when some major issue happens, you’ve got the ideas of the whole community to call on.

How would we create a healthy public participation process that addresses the inter-neighbourhood equity issue, both in relation to neighbourhood political capacity and neighbourhood share of housing types and density?

McAfee: With CityPlan, the starting point was to engage people from all communities in thinking about the city first. To be inclusive, in areas such as the Downtown Eastside, people are not necessarily willing to write academic pieces on the city’s future, so we had staff talking with people and recording their comments. I think that you need the broad city-wide discussion to set a context.  Today it is not clear to me how new community plans fit together.

As an example of how you look at the inter-neighbourhood sharing idea, during the CityPlan visions process, a neighbourhood would be engaged doing a plan using the broad city-wide context that had been approved through CityPlan. We also had a group called the City Perspectives Panel. They were people from nearby neighbourhoods invited by council to observe. If the neighbourhood was saying, “everybody else can take more density but not us; everyone else can take a recycling centre but not us,” those citizens from other neighbourhoods were there to say, “Excuse me, if you don’t take a share, what happens in our neighbourhood?”

So I think that neighbour-to-neighbour is a critical part of any process to ensure that the issues and interests of all are involved, not just each neighbourhood on its own. And just to comment briefly on how to engage people who aren’t normally part of a political process – one is translation: CityPlan ran in six written languages and eight spoken languages and brought a whole new community to the table.

Condon: I’ll add that, having done this in many surrounding cities over 20 times, we have never found a case where, if you frame the question correctly, people will operate from their selfish interests. It’s a matter of setting the goals: what kind of city do you want? Where do you want your kids to live? Do you want them safe? Do you want it to be affordable? Do you want ways to get around other than a car? Do you want natural resources protected? The answer to these is always yes, yes, yes, because people really are the same on that one.

It’s when we get mired down in the muck of “I don’t want that next door to me,” or as you say, “this neighbourhood isn’t taking its share,” that it goes off the rails. So my experience is that CityPlan did this except they didn’t come up with a plan at the end of it for the whole city, as a map.

My advice is to start with the discussion of, what do you want your city to be like? What is your main goal? What are your objectives on your way to that goal? Formalize that agreement, and then execute the planning process that would come up very quickly with a plan.

The word ‘charrette’ is bandied around often incorrectly, but I don’t think it’s inconceivable to at a certain point in this process to have a city-wide charrette with 20 different tables around the city organized around their own geographic area, but connected and exhibited as a plan for the whole city at one time. I think it’s totally doable.

McAfee: I would add a caution. A number of years ago, the Vancouver City Planning Commission, who are hosting today, produced Goals for Vancouver, a creative look at everything that people would like for their city. The difficulty in trying to implement the Goals was that it never engaged people in the tough choices. In one place, Goals for Vancouver said, “we want to add housing in the neighbourhood.” And on another page, the Goals said, “don’t change the character in the neighbourhood.” So you do at some stage have to get to those tough choices, whether it’s limited land or limited money, and how those choices are going to be made becomes a component of a city-wide planning process.

You do at some stage have to get to those tough choices, whether it’s limited land or limited money,

Condon: I would argue that it is the actual drawing that resolves those contradictions, because when you actually put the buildings on the ground, actually take away someone’s house, actually change things, actually have a new street where there wasn’t one before – that is where those contradictions become obvious and you can’t avoid them when you are doing the drawing. That’s why the drawing is so crucial.

McAfee: Vancouver is bigger than the City of North Vancouver, with a million people in the city every day, so 20 tables would not be enough.

Condon:  I believe it could be done.

Do we need a mega-city in this region?

McAfee: ‘No’ to a mega-city. I’ve worked in many mega-cities. I think that while we have warts in our system, there are much bigger warts when you talk to people from Toronto about the challenges they’ve had trying to bring everything together. Although consensus is often difficult, we are recognized internationally for having done some great things here through consensual processes as opposed to forced amalgamation.

How do we get to the city-wide plan, if a shared vision is the essential starting point as Peter outlined, given the vision statements we already have?

Whitelaw: I can give a quick and hopefully provocative response. Take the plan to the next step and do a drawing of the city as we expect it to be 50 years from now. Use it as a basis for a new zoning map and a new set of policies. Get away from running the city’s capital improvement budget with CACs. Use DCLs because you can accurately identify how many libraries or swimming pools the city needs and where they might best be…

There is a tremendous amount of power and effort and many voices that are in the community visions documents as well as in CityPlan, which reads much more like a vision statement than goals and objectives for the city. When I think about the vision for the city, I see something that is fairly short. The crux of the matter is how to translate that down to something that is real on the ground is the crux of the matter…

In Prince George we used an approach similar to Patrick’s. We produced a set of about 20 goal statements and made some qualitative or quantitative assessments of how different city patterns, including the status quo of existing regulations, would affect each of those goals. And we brought them back to the public and for each them said: here is the development pattern, here is what it looks like, here is how it performs. And do like three other patterns. The process resulted in a huge shift from 80 percent greenfield development to 80 percent infill development at the policy level.

That was the first part of the conversation. The second part of the conversation was to look at the ideas on the ground: put a dot around this neighbourhood centre and a lightly shaded area around that, and ask what it looks like Is that two storeys, is it four storeys? Is it a strip mall right now? How are we actually going to get a strip mall to shift to another type of development? If it’s successful, it could be six or eight storeys…

So you then have that conversation and bring in some of those real considerations to the community and say, it would be really nice to replace the strip mall with a two-storey apartment building and a couple of retail stores. But it’s not going to work. So what will work? Well, here are three or four forms that will work. So let’s have that conversation in a real situation and give people an understanding of those trade-offs and help the community walk through those difficult choices illustrated in ways that they understand.

McAfee: I’d want to focus on the piece of the Community Visions that physically identified where a neighbourhood centre was going to be. And then, much like in Knight and Kingsway, work with the community using that menu of existing schedules. It took about 14 months to do Knight and Kingsway, and a lot of that was inventing new zoning schedules which would fit into the community.

Most of those zoning schedules are there now, and we can see what they look like when they have been built. I would take that menu of schedules, locate it where the community said they wanted to see the centres, and then work on exactly what the zoning is going to be and get the zoning in place. In retrospect, I think we spent too long on the broad community vision, and too little time getting it drilled down to the next level…

And I would just say to not start from scratch. I would say to the community, you’ve had these discussions in the past, you’ve had these areas that you are thinking might be your neighbourhood centre, and we’d like to see it happen. Let me use Point Grey Road as an example of what can occur if you pretend the past never happened. The Urban Landscape Task Force in the early 1990s did a greenways plan for the city. Council adopted the Greenways Plan following broad public support at the CityPlan Ideas Fair. One greenway was along Point Grey Road.

If I was on council, I might have reminded the public that there was broad support for the Greenways Plan, and that we now have the funding to proceed with the greenway along Point Grey Road. This presents the proposal in its context as opposed to presenting it as a new initiative with no basis of public support. I think that in many cases, if you can engage people from the past and bring them into the future, it is better than pretending that nothing has happened before.

City-wide plans of all types seem to become obsolete almost as soon as they are published.

Another approach could be to have a place where citizens area continually engaging in that vision of their city that is being documented in 3D, with that vision being affirmed once a year. The specific of drawings would be left with neighbourhoods and communities.

With today’s social networks and the speed of communication and opinion changes, to publish a plan from now to 2050 is becoming less and less relevant ever day. Comments from the panellists?

Condon: I respectfully disagree. I think that the drawing is fundamental for citizens to understand what they are buying into and to be able to engage in a policy discussion without glossing over the contradictions between housing affordability, transportation, desirability of new green systems. The drawing has to resolve those contradictions. Having said that, the drawing can be an organic document that grows into the future.

I think it would behoove us to use drawings to at least update the zoning map, and to have a city-wide document that that is valid for at least five or 10 years. And, I think that starting with an objective of 50 years in the future is a necessary pre-condition for understanding where you want to go. Cities take that long to get built. It also tells you what you do Monday. And it gives the citizens something much more robust than a policy paragraph about what is going to happen in their neighbourhood or what they have collectively decided. You can say exactly what you are proposing with the 40-storey tour next to the Broadway subway station.

Whitelaw: I’ve been a big fan of the idea of small plans with enabling systems for implementation and of investing the resources in implementation. I’m intrigued by the idea of having plans in a place, and it could be in a digital place as well. I’d argue that you can draw policies from the panoply that Ann showed and pull them together into a place that captures them and makes them easily accessible. I also like the visual representations…

It’s crazy to think about the plan as a thing that lands in 2015 and then doesn’t get changed till 2025.

We’ve talked about planning as making decisions for the future, and we are doing that daily. It’s crazy to think about the plan as a thing that lands in 2015 and then doesn’t get changed till 2025. We need to think of plans and planning as living documents, and maybe maintain them that way. And that may be more what you are talking about.

There is a lot of space for diagrams or images to say that’s what this plan looks like here or here, and I love that idea. So for me, it’s about a small plan that’s documented that captures that guiding direction of policies, the vision, and that’s then built on over time and adjusted over time with diagrams and new policies and new directions, experiments, whatever might be.

A city-wide plan has to be a structural document as will as conceptual, with a imagery and diagrams understandable by everybody that show nodes, centres, and what can go there, with numbers attached.

McAfee: I would add to that the priorities for community services, because my impression has always been that if people have change and more density, they want something in return.

What role can the public realm and urban design pay in terms of social resiliency in the time of climate change?

Condon: As an urban designer, I think the drawing is a way to resolve some of those issues at the same time as dealing with affordability and transportation.

Speaking as a planner who has done many plans, why do we fixate on the plan, and instead recognize that we are constantly planning and making decisions?

Instead, how do we set up a framework so that we can have the important conversations, perhaps smaller in scale on some issues and bigger in scale on bigger issues? Do we really need a plan?

Condon: My answer is that we do. We don’t even have a diagram for the city. The diagram in the Regional Context Statement is not even a diagram. And I think that the fundamental land use maps in official community plans for Surrey, North Vancouver and other cities ARE diagrams, and good ones, to which a lot of other policy instruments connect. Again, it is my feeling, strongly felt and strongly delivered, that we don’t have a city-wide plan. And we need one!


Quick links to more documentation of the November 20, 2014 conversation: