Jay Wollenberg

A City-Wide Plan for Vancouver?

For decades, urban planning in the City of Vancouver has focused more on local areas than on the city as a whole. The neighbourhood has become the prevailing scale for planning for several reasons:

  • There has been a shift away from the grand design or master plan approach to city planning, because it does not work. Treating cities as though they are simply large architectural or urban design projects ignores the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of community-building. Making cities livable, economically robust, healthy, and green takes more than efficient land use and pleasing urban form.
  • Since the 1960s, urban planning in North America has been on a long trend to more involvement and empowerment of citizens, who are generally more inclined to view urban change through a neighbourhood rather than a city-wide lens. In Vancouver, successful opposition to downtown freeway construction and inner city neighbourhood “renewal” in the early 1970s helped foster a new culture of public participation at the community scale in planning, in contrast to the top-down, expert-driven plans of previous decades.
  • People live in communities, not the whole urban region. We have spatial and social connections that are important to us, neighbourhood characteristics we want to protect, particular buildings or districts we treasure, views we value. We naturally tend to respond to proposed changes in terms of how they affect our community, not the metropolis.

This “neighbourhoodization” of planning has been a good thing in many ways. Vancouver is more livable, has stronger communities, is more diverse, and is far more interesting than it would be without a robust community-oriented planning approach.

But there have been failings. For example:

  • All three major rapid transit lines in Vancouver have been planned by Provincial fiat. There was not a forward-looking plan that guided the routes or the station locations and the City continues to play catch-up ball to produce station area plans. This build-first, plan-later approach to public transit will continue unless the City takes more of a leadership role in planning future transit priorities, routes, and technology.
  • Neighbourhood-centred planning tends to result in plans that protect the status quo even when this has negative consequences for the city. There have been a few exceptions (such as the Norquay village centre), but most of the community visioning processes have resulted in little acceptance of densification. The impact? Strong market demand without dramatic increases in supply drives up housing prices and there are missed opportunities to make the city more transit-oriented and walkable through higher density. Neighbourhood-focused planning in the City has generally not included the injection of city-wide perspectives on issues such as housing affordability or transit.
  • There has been an ad hoc approach to managing the City’s employment-accommodating lands. It is years since the City updated its policies on which employment lands to retain and which to allow to transition to residential, so decisions have been made on a site-by-site basis.

There is, in my view, a compelling argument for adding a stronger city-wide (and regional) dimension to planning for the future of Vancouver. This does not have to mean abandoning the local focus that engages citizens and respects the character and quality of neighbourhoods, but it does mean ensuring that city-wide concerns or goals are included in the vision for the future. Housing affordability, adaptation to climate change, comprehensive transportation planning, creating a network of more dense neighbourhood centres, and the need to align the city’s economic development vision with land use planning are just a few of the challenges that require a city-wide planning scope.

Consequently, I strongly support the City’s intention of creating a city-wide plan for Vancouver. To make this a useful process, though, it is necessary to start with the right terms of reference:

  • The plan must go beyond physical city structure, land use, and urban design. The physical component of the plan must be coordinated with transportation planning, economic development, housing policy, greenest city plans, and a strategic fiscal plan for the City.
  • The plan must address implementation. Visions for future land use and development are important, but the plan must also include strategies for achieving the necessary transportation improvements, community amenities, infrastructure upgrades, open space, housing diversity and other elements of community-building. There has been neighbourhood resistance to densification because the plans tend to look like “this is how we will put more development and people in your back yard” rather than “this is how we will make your community a better place to live while adding housing and jobs.” So, part of the plan should be a comprehensive approach to building complete communities and financing the cost of growth.
  • The plan should not simply staple all the existing community vision statements and local area plans together and call it a city plan. This is an opportunity to reconsider older plans.
  • The planning process must engage the community, provide ample opportunity for meaningful public involvement, and ensure that citizens’ priorities and preferences (for their neighbourhoods and the whole city) are heard and respected. A city-wide process should not suppress local perspectives. But the conversation has to include planners willing to articulate a city-wide view and willing to engage in a dialogue about how to create a better Vancouver while also creating better neighbourhoods.


Jay WollenbergJay Wollenberg is president of Coriolis Consulting Corp. With over 30 years of practice as a professional planner and real estate analyst working extensively in western Canada, as well as in the US and internationally, he has been responsible for a wide array of projects for development companies, investors, pension plans, financial institutions, educational institutions, businesses, and all levels of government.

His areas of expertise include community planning, land use planning, and urban development policy; growth management and local government fiscal policy; urban development project planning and development approvals; market and financial analysis for development proposals; and public involvement and consultation processes. Jay is an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning where he teaches a course in urban development, and market and financial analysis. He has a BSc and Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners.