Penny Gurstein – City-wide Physical and Land Use Plan

A City-wide Physical and Land Use Plan: Commentary and Questions

I laud the City of Vancouver for taking this on. While historically there have been attempts at developing a comprehensive community plan such as the Bartholomew Plans of 1928 and 1945 which set the pattern for future development of what was until the late 1980s a predominately low density city, and CityPlan in 1995, which provided a framework for decisions on City funding, programs, and actions, what has been lacking in our city is a plan that provides clarity on the physical form of our overall growth.

While the growth in Vancouver in the last 25 years has produced some significant “signature” projects that have transformed our urban realm and the use of urban space, providing more dense, livable environments, the overall city planning has been largely reactive rather than proactive. In addition, the urban amenities which the city now enjoys such as public walkways, art, and parks has come to fruition through a negotiated process with developers which can produce good results, but also can result in lengthy delays on approvals, which adds to costs, and a planning culture which is perceived by the public and the development community as, at the best, lacking clear guidelines, and, at the worst, where everything is up for negotiation.

Given the uncertain global economy and the lack of brownfield sites within the city, it is unlikely that in the near future we will see the kind of large scale development projects that have occurred in the last 25 years. Instead, it is more likely that redevelopment will occur in an incremental pattern, with infill within existing city patterns. However, our population growth projections are for a doubling of our population within the next 20 years. Because of this, it is even more imperative that a clear vision be formulated that can help guide our transformation.

The Bartholomew Plans were the source code for the city as they set the pattern for the large tracts of low density single-family housing which still predominate in many neighbourhoods. This pattern has been resistant to change and adaptation. Zoning as a tool for exclusion has reinforced this pattern. While CityPlan was successful in reinforcing and encouraging the development of strong distinctive neighbourhoods, decisions on densification have been resisted in many of the neighbourhoods that could most benefit from growth. What a city-wide plan could do is provide a much needed framework to understand the ramifications, and long term costs and benefits to a variety of growth scenarios within neighbourhoods and throughout the city.

Vancouver to the outside world is a success story. We have a livable, vibrant city that is used as a model for other cities. Why, then, do we need more planning? Our success has come at a cost. The city of Vancouver ranked as the 3rd worst in the world for homeownership affordability in 2010, and vacancy rates are among the lowest in Canada with the secondary rental market as the main source of new rental accommodation. Small businesses that are unable to afford the rising cost of commercial rents are being pushed out of the city. Young families who cannot afford to live in the city have to commute several hours or more from other communities to their jobs in Vancouver.

While recent planning efforts have focused on the greening of our city to become more environmentally sustainable, far less efforts have been focused on ensuring social sustainability – a fair and just community – for all of its citizens. A city-wide plan could be the start of a much needed dialogue on what such a just community would entail, and how planning could address the equitable allocation of resources and growth between neighbourhoods.

In light of this discussion, below are some questions I would like to see addressed in the city-wide planning process:

  1. What are the underlying values guiding the plan? All plans are value-based but few express their values openly. Vancouver sees itself as a green, diverse and tolerant city but it is also one of the most expensive in the world. How can we reconcile our belief in inclusivity with our apparent exclusivity? How do we reconcile our wealth with our pockets of abject poverty?
  2. What is driving the need for this plan? Demographics, affordability, health, and climate change are some of the most pressing issues facing all communities but are there any uniquely Vancouver issues that need to be looked at?
  3. How will the planning process address anticipated opposition to any significant changes in the status quo? A plan is only useful if there is significant buy-in from the various stakeholders. Prior planning processes have illustrated the shortcomings of public participation that result in planning options but do not address inevitable tradeoffs that are required to realize these options.
  4. How can zoning be used as an inclusionary tool to provide diverse housing forms and scales of affordability?

Vancouver needs a coherent city structure that can manage growth in a transparent and integrated manner.  It needs policies and strategies to encourage and nurture innovation and resiliency.  It needs programs to provide for the delivery of affordable housing and the fair allocation of benefits between different segments of the population.  A city-wide plan could be the first step for that to occur.


Penny GursteinPenny Gurstein is the director of the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Centre for Human Settlements at UBC.  Penny specializes in the socio-cultural aspects of community planning with particular emphasis on including diverse populations in planning processes.  A particular focus is in strategies for housing affordability.

Authored books include: Learning Civil Societies: Shifting Contexts for Democratic Planning and Governance (with L. Angeles, 2007, U. of Toronto Press); and Wired to the World, Chained to the Home: Telework in Daily Life (2001, UBC Press).