Planning Vancouver’s Future: CityPlan or City-wide Plan
Vancouver is world renowned for it’s dedication to progressive planning and particularly for CityPlan as an innovative model for participatory neighbourhood-based planning and “the overall planning document for the City”.
The previous revolt
As Vancouver’s former Director of CityPlans Ann McAfee describes the state of planning prior to CityPlan, “the typical planning process in Vancouver was “DAD” – Decide, Announce, Defend. Draft plans were prepared by staff at Council’s direction. When the draft plan was put out to the public the response from citizens was, “Why weren’t we involved in developing the plan?””
“Council finally got exasperated and said a new planning process was needed. Council asked staff to develop a process which involved citizens from the start. They wanted to hear from new people, to hear about all issues citizens thought were important, and to hear in new ways. That was the start of Vancouver’s CityPlan.”
In 1995, Vancouver City Council adopted CityPlan, a long-range planning initiative to guide the city’s course into the new century. From inception, CityPlan was to be about planning from “bottom-up” rather than “top-down”. CityPlan was to be a “plan prepared by citizens”. More than 100,000 Vancouverites participated directly in shaping the CityPlan strategy as a “shared vision” for Vancouver’s future as a sustainable and livable city.
First and foremost, Vancouverites emphasized that Vancouver is and should remain “A City of Neighbourhoods”… “villages within the larger city, each with its own identity”. At the same time, however, it was recognized that housing density will gradually need to increase throughout Vancouver to accommodate regional growth and to avoid related sprawl and associated impact on vital agricultural and ecological land reserves. It was agreed that neighbourhoods should evolve around existing Neighbourhood Centres with appropriate new development to become more complete, inclusive and sustainable communities.
To this end, the Community Visions program was launched in 1997 to bring the CityPlan initiative to the local level through grassroots neighbourhood-based planning. By focussing the visioning process in CityPlan Directions, resulting Community Visions advance the boarder CityPlan strategy for sustainability while simultaneously preserving and promoting the distinctive character and livability of local neighbourhoods.
In effect, through CityPlan, grassroots Community Visions collectively constitute the city-wide policy context for planning and development on the local level.
Unfortunately, with the initial phase of the Community Visions consultation process now complete and with neighbourhoods across Vancouver eager to implement their visions, the City is apparently determined to abandon CityPlan in favour of top-down city-wide planning initiatives, including “Eco-Density” and “Greenest City” that are too much about development and too little about a truly sustainable and livable future.
Undermining and overriding CityPlan
In 2009, the City initiated a review of the CityPlan Vision Implementation Program and eliminated budgets for Vision Implementation Committees across Vancouver. The Vision Implementation Program Review concluded with a final report drawing selectively on feedback from “stakeholders” to paint Community Visions as “limiting” and “out of date” and to promote a purported need for “more responsive and innovative policy” and “a more robust community involvement model”. Crucially, and predictably, the report recommends a focus on city-wide priorities to replace neighbourhood-specific Action Plans developed through CityPlan.
Recognizing the City’s aims, Vision Implementation Committee chairs from across the Vancouver responded with the following unanimous statement:
To our knowledge, more than a year and a half later, the VIPR report – and the foregoing VIC Chairs’ Statement – has never been officially tabled and remains on hold with the City Manager.
Abandoning CityPlan – reverting to “DAD”
Unfortunately, however, there is every indication that the City’s planning department remains determined to abandon CityPlan and impose a city-wide developer-driven densification agenda under the false banners of “sustainability” and “affordability”.
The message from City Hall is that Vancouverites are incapable of knowing what’s best their city and the solution is a “tough love” city-wide approach to planning that once again places planners in the driver’s seat. In effect, the City is rapidly reverting to “DAD” – Decide, Announce, Defend and ultimately overrule the better judgement of Vancouverites.
Turning CityPlan upside down
To this unpopular end, the City has recently framed a new perspective on Community Plan development (“Vancouver’s Next Community Plans”) that establishes a new hierarchical context within which future community plans will be subordinate to regional and city-wide policy. Obviously, this is a major retreat from the CityPlan framework within which neighbourhood-based Community Visions were themselves to collectively constitute the city-wide policy context for planning and development at the local level.
CityPlan Terms of Reference are clear that Community Visions “will be used to guide actions and decisions on all levels, from the individual to senior governments”. Specifically, in adopting CityPlan, it was resolved that “CityPlan provide a context for developing partnership agreements between the City of Vancouver and Greater Vancouver Regional District with respect to the Livable Region Strategic Plan”. Make no mistake, as Vancouver’s city-wide planning policy, CityPlan and Community Visions were intended to provide the context for Vancouver’s implementation of the Livable Region Strategic Plan.
It is in stark contrast that the City is now determined to invert the planning process by supporting and subsequently exploiting the new Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy as an imperative for mandating unsupported levels of densification through a new City-Wide Plan and Regional Context Statement.
The resulting plan will then be imposed on Vancouver’s neighbourhoods by asserting the new hierarchy of planning authority (regional, city-wide, neighbourhood) as the policy context for local area planning.
CityPlan vs City-wide: imperatives and motivations
NSV is acutely aware of the major global, regional and city-wide challenges facing Vancouver, including climate change, homelessness, housing affordability. Indeed, these challenges have been at the core of CityPlan since its inception nearly two decades ago. We also recognize that there are forces beyond Vancouver’s unique natural setting and renowned livability that are driving Vancouver’s rapid development and dysfunctional housing market. Consequently, while we appreciate that some level of densification is required to accommodate natural growth, avoid urban sprawl and promote affordability, our clear view is that the scale, distribution and form of related development should be guided by facts and decided by Vancouver’s citizens through well-informed neighbourhood-based planning as envisioned through CityPlan.
Through the CityPlan Community Visions process, neighbourhoods across Vancouver have developed progressive and holistic visions to become more complete, inclusive and sustainable communities while retaining the livability and diversity of character that sets Vancouver apart. In addition to embracing CityPlan directions for conservation and sustainable transportation, Vancouver’s neighbourhoods have without exception supported densification and a range of new housing options.
Unfortunately, despite considerable potential, the appearance is that there is little development interest in the new housing options that neighbourhoods have advanced and NSV believes that this is a key problem. Having cultivated an addiction to lucrative high-rise developments in the downtown core, the City is now faced with a development industry and related client base that has little interest in duplexes, row houses or other moderate density housing.
Apparently, none of this was a problem and neither was CityPlan as long as the City’s Planning Director could use discretionary authority and density bonusing to create attractive opportunities in the downtown core. But, with precious little room remaining for commerce downtown, former industrial lands largely built out and with the density bank full to the brim, the development industry and its partners at City Hall are increasingly seeking fresh ground in surrounding neighbourhoods. Suddenly, CityPlan has become an obstacle and sustainability has become an imperative.
CityPlan and affordable housing
NSV is not opposed to progressive development and is strongly supportive of “smart growth”, particularly in the context of a truly effective regional strategy to contain urban sprawl. However, NSV believes that the surest way to deliver a sustainable, affordable and livable future is for the City to recommit itself to CityPlan, to extend the Community Visions program to all of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods and to focus on good faith implementation of resulting Visions.
By focusing the City’s resources on Vision implementation, rather than catering to the profit-driven motivations of the development industry, a wider variety of new housing will begin to be built and existing purpose-built rental housing will cease to be demolished. The fact is that there is no shortage of local demand for duplexes, row houses and other housing variety supported by neighbourhoods. The problem is that related potential for significant and affordable densification is not being realized because Community Visions are not being implemented and the reason is that the City is too busy responding to a development industry that is dictating the market.
Only where Neighbourhood Centres or larger sites are effectively divorced from Community Visions and developed out of all proportion with the surrounding neighbourhood is the City able to meet industry expectations. Here, again, NSV believes that a more efficient and affordable outcome could be obtained by respecting and implementing Community Visions for Neighbourhood Centres. By working with communities, rather than against them, development could proceed more efficiently and yield a greater proportion of housing that is geared toward the less affluent local market.
In general, by allowing the development industry to dictate the location, form and scale of development, the City is effectively limiting the variety of housing options available. NSV is opposed to the wrongheaded assumption that the only route to affordability is through spot rezoning for high-density development. There is no reason to expect that using spot rezoning to increase the supply of a particularly profitable product is a uniquely effective means of reducing housing cost. On the contrary, the expectation should be that we need to increase the supply of a wide range of housing forms, that rezoning inflates land values and that profitability is not a public priority.
In response to claims that the current scale and pace of rezoning and development is required to meet projected growth, NSV has repeatedly requested an accounting of existing and potential zoned capacity under current Local Area Plans and Community Visions. Again, the expectation is that related potential for significant and affordable densification is not being realized because the vast majority of already zoned potential is viewed as unprofitable by an industry that has lost all sight of moderation. By placing strict limitations on rezoning and focusing on Vision Implementation, the City could encourage related development of less lucrative and more affordable new housing and at same time protect existing rental stock. To date, however, the City has failed to supply requested figures and this warrants significant public concern.
As envisioned through CityPlan, NSV is confident that by recommitting to progressive neighbourhood-based planning and development, Vancouver can accommodate natural growth in a way that is truly sustainable, more affordable and strengthens local communities while simultaneously preserving local character and livability. The key to Vancouver’s sustainable and livable future is for the city to grow and develop as a local community, rather than as a global commodity.
To ensure that Vancouverites can once again afford to live in our own city, a range of residency/occupancy and tax disincentives should be imposed to control inflationary pressures associated with foreign investment and speculation. In addition, NSV supports serious consideration of proven and innovative strategies for establishing a parallel affordable housing market – e.g. partnering with senior governments to facilitate limited-term land leasing of public lands, co-ops, non-profit ownership (inflation-indexed appreciation rates) and property tax incentives. And, finally, in connection with new multi-family developments exceeding some threshold number of units, NSV supports a city-wide inclusionary policy requiring (not a target or incentive, but requirement) that a significant percentage of units be purpose-built rentals (below-market/rent-controlled if rezoning is involved) for the life of the building.
Community Plans or Community Visions
NSV is convinced that development industry influence at City Hall and in Victoria is in large part responsible for the Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis, and is surely not part of the solution. The extent to which the City is in the grasp of industry influence is the recent proposal that developers should be included as full participants in future Community Plan processes. Once again the contrast with CityPlan could not be more obvious. Terms of Reference for the Community Visions process are unequivocal that “the participation of special interest representatives from outside the community (e.g. heritage advocates, architects or designers, bicycle user groups, affordable housing groups, environmentalists, developers, real estate agents, etc.) will be limited to providing information or ideas through materials prepared by staff, or participating on an invited basis at workshops or meetings.
Clearly, while community planning should be well informed by a wide range of stakeholders and perspectives, resulting Community Plans should be community plans, responsive to CityPlan sustainability objectives, but responsive in a way that reflects local vision and priorities.
CityPlan as flexible framework
NSV is committed to restoring CityPlan as the primary city-wide planning policy for Vancouver, not as a rigid barrier to progress, but as a flexible framework that ensures local public support for progressive change.
By design, Community Visions are not detailed zoning bylaws, but rather a broader set of directions that establish priorities and general guidelines for future action and detailed planning. The assumption, however, is that future Vision Implementation remains a neighourhood-based process that is respectful of Vision directions and priorities and continues to ensure clear and established local public support (by neighbourhood-wide survey based on City Voter List) for all related decisions and actions.
Finally, NSV recognizes and supports the importance of new and innovative city-wide policy initiatives. However, new and emerging initiatives should in all cases be limited to informing ongoing CityPlan Vision Implementation processes led by local Vision Implementation Committees. Where city-wide initiatives contemplate development in which scale and/or form conflict with the established Local Area Plan or Community Vision, further consultation should be undertaken in the context of Vision Implementation to decide (again, by neighbourhood-wide survey) the extent and specific conditions under which these initiatives could be implemented as part of the community’s vision. The key point, however, is that city-wide initiatives should not supplant or unduly distract the ongoing implementation of established Community Visions.