Transcripts of the panel discussion at the SFU City Conversation, on November 20, 2014: Does Vancouver Need a New City-wide Plan?
NOTE: Transcripts have been edited for clarity. For complete remarks, please refer to the videos.
The topic of today’s City Conversation is: does Vancouver need a city-wide plan?
The basic layout of Vancouver’s streets, neighbourhoods, schools, parks and infrastructure dates from 1929. That plan was the foundation for many local area and community plans, transportation plans and zoning maps identifying what could be built and where it could be built.
After more than half a century of growth and change and with extensive public process, in 1995 Council adopted CityPlan, a 20-year framework for community and other planning programs.
Does that need an update? What would be the benefits of a new city-wide plan that defines where growth where will take place and what kind of growth should take place? What might that process look like? And what hazards would it face?
Today we are deeply honoured to have with us:
- Ann McAfee who was Vancouver’s Co-Director of Planning and who guided the 1995 CityPlan along with her Co-Director of Planning Larry Beasley, who has joined us today.
- Patrick Condon is the Chair of Urban Design at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture; and
- Peter Whitelaw is a principal at the Modus planning group and who is very experienced in creating and updating plans for other BC communities.
Then it is over to you to ask your questions and present your ideas, so we all can learn from each other. City Conversations doesn’t have lecturers and audience, but rather presenters and participants. It’s a conversation.
These transcripts have been edited for clarity and conciseness. Please refer to the videos for complete remarks.
This raises two questions: What will be the content of the new plan – Do we build on existing plans or do we make a fresh start? Who will be involved – Will staff prepare a draft plan for public review or will the community be involved, as with CityPlan, throughout the process?
I would argue that Vancouver has many well established strategic directions. They may benefit from wordsmithing but they do not need to be reinvented. .
Many chapters for a new city plan already exist. We have land use plans with excess zoning capacity. We have Central Area plans. And over the past decade, Councils have approved area plans for almost every community.
We are not short of plans. The difficulty is that the only place you can find them together is in Vancouver’s Regional Context Statement. The Context Statement is organized around regional directions and is not written for people who want to understand Vancouver’s plans.
In terms of options for a new plan, I would build on existing plans. I would involve many stakeholders. I might not go to the extent of CityPlan in terms of participation. However, I would not, if I were a Council member, instruct staff to prepare a draft plan for public input. You might have been able to get away with staff plans in the past. You cannot today. The public has a right to be involved in planning their community.
I think there has been a tendency for recent Councils to forget past work. CityPlan involved 100,000 people.
I would invite CityPlan participants to re-engage and encourage others to join in. I would share CityPlan results including the surprising conclusion that about 80% supported increasing housing choice in existing neighbourhoods, provided that growth paid for new services. I would recall that the Community Visions program identified centres for future development.
A lot of city-wide policy and area plans came out of CityPlan. However the Neighbourhood Centre Program never really got off the ground.
The first neighbourhood centre at Knight and Kingsway engaged the community, staff, and builders in developing new housing forms. Developers discussed options with the community. The community was very involved in reviewing ways to exchange density for a new food store and a new library. When the neighbourhood centre went to public hearing, the community spoke in favour of the plan. There were no protests because it was the community’s plan. An article by Pete McMartin* describes what has been happening in the Knight and Kingsway area.
In putting together a new city plan, I would assemble and review existing policies and encourage the public to re-engage by reviewing the neighbourhood centres identified in Community Visions. I would reintroduce the menu of housing options that were invented in Knight and Kingsway and which have been tested and improved since. And I would engage the communities in discussing priorities for neighbourhood improvements using DCL-CAC funds from new zoning.
There is a Chinese proverb: “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” From recent experience, “Tell me” is more likely to lead to “I reject,” and “Show me” is more likely to lead to “I’ll show you.” However, “Involve me” offers the opportunity to lead to “I support.” This is the direction for creating a new and updated city-wide plan for Vancouver.
CityPlan is a great plan and, as Ann said, it did not actually lead to a plan. I think that the average citizen in Vancouver does not know that there is no plan. We are the only municipality in the region that does not have a plan because the other municipalities are required by provincial legislation to produce an official community plan. Vancouver is exempted from that requirement because it is a charter city.
Here are some suggestions about what a city-wide plan might look like based on my experience from the City of North Vancouver, a plan that was organized around Lonsdale Street. Basically agreeing with Ann, we think it is possible to do a plan for a city and we’ve done it a few times. The actual community engagement can be relatively quick. It requires a careful process, of course, with a lot of work done in advance of the engagement work at the drawing table, such as this diagram for North Vancouver.
This is the set of goals, principles and objectives that informed the North Vancouver charrette. This is very typical, and looks a lot like many of the documents that came out of our own Vancouver CityPlan. This approach can be enhanced now in our contemporary circumstances by the desire to meet sustainability objectives. These were the energy targets for the City of North Vancouver.
The plan has to be drawn from an actual understanding of the site itself. This is a parcel-by-parcel estimate of the energy use in different parts of that city. This was condensed and abstracted and put into a map of how neighbourhoods performed, which is different from how houses performed. With that groundwork, a charrette was conducted in a number of days with stakeholders. We showed where the new buildings would be necessary to triple the population of that city. People didn’t go nuts over that because it was a plan for 2050.
Visuals are very important in all of this. When people are being asked to accept a plan, it has to be in a language they understand: How does it look now? How would it look in 15 years? How would it look in 50 years?
(The North Vancouver plan included towers, by the way – for those of you who may think I’m anti-tower, this is evidence that is not always the case.)
But more importantly, in terms of the broad area of the city, how do neighbourhoods change? We need to draw up what those radical revolutionary changes might be. And how that would be inserted into the fabric of neighbourhoods.
The information included specific drawings or a specific proposal that can be turned into a zoning map that helps with understanding what building typologies are like. For example, what business building typologies are like and how one-story businesses can become three-story businesses, using models.
How could green infrastructure be incorporated as part of a city plan rather than an add-on later on as a matter of policy? I appreciate the Greenest City plan in terms of wanting to plant 100,000 trees. But what really is the objective of that? How does that fit into ideas about how neighbourhoods fit together?
There are bike-ways, because this is a suggestion that in the City of North Vancouver every other street could be turned into a green street. At that level of detail, you can see the green bands and you can see the amendments in the houses. As well as at the broad scale, how does the new energy infrastructure operate in neighbourhoods, specifically where is it relative to greenhouse gas objectives and objectives to reduce energy.
Getting back to the plan, what are the neighbourhoods that correlate with that plan? And then looking at what the status quo is in terms of energy use and what does it turn into? Obviously, the greener it is, the better its performance. A plan is necessary to understand that, to get your arms around where the district heating system would go. And how you would shift auto trips to bus trips and biking and walking.
At the end of the day, that is the calculation on the right hand side. That was a 100-year plan for the City of North Vancouver and the objective was to get to zero greenhouse gases. Reducing greenhouse gases by 80 percent did not turn out to be all that difficult with changes in building typologies and with extending the district heating system. Adding on the on-site infrastructure for the additional 20 percent brought the reduction to zero GHG. So it is not that difficult.
Turning to another city required to have a plan, the City of Surrey’s draft Official Community Plan is before their Council now. It is a highly detailed instrument and, as Ann has pointed out, it is comprehensive and alludes to their other plans, but also incorporates the main points from those other plans. It’s very much about land use, about designating what can happen where, on some pages in boring planning terms, but with explicit diagrams on others.
And it even goes so far as to show how the fabric of their community can evolve over time, so a cul-de-sac on the left, shown on the right, could evolve in time.
Most of my work has been outside Vancouver, with the exception of helping the City of Vancouver review local area planning and consider how to tweak and improve it.
I want to start by defining planning. For me, planning is about making decisions about the future, where we want to go and how we get there.
In this case we are talking about a plan that shapes decisions about growth across the whole city – where it should go, what it should look like and what process to use later on to define the details that we can’t define in this big broad plan.
What are the problems are that we are trying to solve with this plan?
The first point here is that Vancouver has shifted gears in the last few years from big development projects on big sites with almost nobody living next to them to development in existing neighbourhoods. I think some of them feel like they’ve been hit by a moving train.
As well, the scale of development is quite high, and the negotiated approach for rezonings has big potential for conflict of interest. And there is a perception that resources have been focused more on the big sites than the small spaces, leading to a sense of favoritism.
And finally, even at the neighbourhood plan scale, there are rarely enough specifics to deal with some of those big issues of form and height and density, which have been really key.
So all of these elements have built some level of distrust in the democratic process and the process that people have to engage in for making those decisions about the future.
What does experience elsewhere tell us about what to expect from city-wide planning?
I think it has some potential but it’s certainly not the silver bullet. City-wide plans can be valuable and, as Patrick has pointed out, places like North Vancouver and Surrey have been quite successful. But they can as easily be a waste of time.
Communities with official community plans have many of the same issues that Vancouver does in terms of dealing with site-by-site developments, rezonings, and major changes. And they often come back and revise their official community plans as new projects come forward.
The second thing for me about comprehensive plans is that they help with the first part of the conversation, dealing with those big issues, maybe energy, the scale that Patrick is talking about, and so on. But they don’t necessarily help you deal with the specific details at the street level. Some of them do that better than others.
This means that you need more detail in neighbourhood plans at the neighbourhood level and you are still going to end up with rezoning processes, maybe less than you do in Vancouver’s current state. But you will still need more, partly because you can’t anticipate everything when you do plan.
The last point is that another plan actually can add more complexity to what is already a complex system of plans. And while it’s possible to bring the high level policy from other specific plans like transportation or housing plan into your official community plan, it does then mean that when you go and update those other plans, you have to consider how all the different pieces align.
So adding the extra piece can be helpful. It can give you that one stop shop where you can see all of the pieces and get a handle on it. But it an also make it more difficult in terms of finding different pieces and making sure that they all make sense together.
So if we embark on a city-wide planning process, what should we consider?
First, a key thing is balancing flexibility and rigidity in the plan. It’s important to be fairly certain so people know what’s coming at them. But you can’t anticipate everything; you have to be flexible.
Second, you need alignment with the various thematic plans and even with some of the neighbourhood plans. So you have to make it fit like a glove with the other parts of how the city works.
The third piece is political commitment and community support. You have to have those pieces in place and I’ve seen lots of communities where the official community plans sit by the wayside as the politicians continue doing what they prefer to do despite all of the policy that is in place.
And community and staff support is equally important. If you have strong community and staff support for your plan, as was pointed out, it gets approved and politicians have a really hard time saying no to something that has community support. So that constituency is critical.
The final point is about resources for implementation. If you have a plan, you can have the most fantastic plan in the world but if you don’t have the staff and the funding to support the implementation of that through regulations, through programs, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’ve been part of processes where we’ve produced great plans, and then watched staff get cut by 10 or even 20 percent and literally be incapable of delivering on the promise of the plan.
Here are a couple of things that make the planning process effective.
The first one is that a plan should develop and effectively communicate a shared vision for the future. And that’s a real challenge. I think we are rarely successful at this and I think it may be a bit more of a mythical beast like a unicorn than something we can actually achieve. What we are more likely to achieve is a vision that reflects a lot of input but that doesn’t necessarily resolve the real internal conflicts within a community, so we end up with something that is actually a real creature – the opaki – which looks like a combination of a giraffe, a horse and a zebra.
The second is that a planning process has to ask and answer the really tough questions. This is something that Vancouver, like every other city, is challenged with. How do we go out and take incredible leadership on greenhouse gases, on homelessness, on affordable housing, on parks and so on, and at the same time talk about stuff that we would really like to have. Someone, maybe Gordon Price, once said to me that people in Vancouver would really like a $30,000 house on an acre property in Point Grey overlooking the ocean. It’s true but it just can’t happen. Rose-colored glasses are not helpful to planning processes. You have to have trustworthy and productive dialogue that draws out the issues and faces them head-on.
As a concluding observation, the images that Patrick showed that actually take all of these policy ideas, coalesce them into something that actually looks like a building and helps you to understand what that looks like and feels like, represent a way that you can take these big issues and make them real to people. Those kind of visuals, the visual processes like charrettes, are critical to success in a plan.