February 5, 2015

Ray Spaxman: “A City Plan for the Future”

Ray Spaxman follows up on the previous post – “The Process of Change” – with this proposal:

A CITY PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

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The best, shortest definition of modern planning I have come across is this one by UK Observer newspaper columnist Rowan Moore in 2014:

“Great planning does not mean either “most restrictive” or “most laissez-faire”. It means creating the conditions for growth and change while maintaining a vision of the common good. It balances competing interests. It includes a grasp of the cumulative effect of individual decisions, which private developers will not have. It can protect long-term benefits against damage from short-term profit. It has the ability to spot problems before they become crises and find a way to address them. It can review alternative approaches to an issue, such as population growth, and promote the best ones. It has clarity and consistency, so everyone knows where they stand. It has the ability to review the results of its own decisions, and learn from them. It is informed by knowledge, not guesswork. It is the result of genuine and transparent public debate.”

While that contains profoundly important principles, I believe it needs some expansion here to provide the 2015 Vancouver context.

Most of the people I talk to in Vancouver on the subject of planning for the future yearn for a time when they can feel more assured that we are working together as a well informed community, that we are pursing ethical processes in order to anticipate and prepare for our future. They want to feel safer and more confident about how we will survive within the context of the vast changes that are occurring in the world.

Many worry that current planning and decision-making processes seem increasingly oriented to persuade us to buy into uncomfortable and poorly conceived policies and plans. They are not accompanied by sound reasoning, adequate evidence or an assessment of the pros and cons of a range of alternatives, or even acknowledgement of the ideas that may have been offered during the numerous public engagement sessions.

The world is facing an unprecedented number of major, seemingly intractable issues. Never before have we faced so many global issues, and ones that will impact us at the community level. We need to anticipate how climate change coupled with the occurring revolutions in communications, social, political and economic systems might affect us at home. A wise community will document as best it can what these shifts might mean to our future and what alternative actions seem to be available to ensure a good future.

Such questions as these need to be addressed: Is there a limit to growth? Is it inevitable that we have to go on growing? As water supply becomes a major global issue what impacts will various political responses across the world have on Vancouver? How will rising oceans affect us? How is the widening income gap affecting our future and can we do anything about it? Can we accommodate more people and if so where, how, who and how many?  How can we create confidence and trust in our political, community-building systems. What alternative futures can we consider?

As a uniquely attractive urban place we are becoming more and more desirable as a place to live (and, or invest) especially as the various environmental, social, political and economic crises unfold around the world. With it come the continuing demands for more housing, more jobs and more transportation. All our servicing systems and budgets will be placed under increasing stress. As urbanization continues, for there appears to be no willing alternative to growth, (at this time), we still have to do our best to ensure growth occurs as fairly and compatibly as possible within our wishes to create a livable and just society. That means we must apply the best expertise available to understand, discuss, evaluate and develop our social, economic and environmental systems.

Even though there is clear evidence that the electorate is tending through skepticism to apathy, the elected parties tend to behave as if their point of view is the only one that matters and should be pursued with every means available. This takes the form of heavily “wordsmithed” reporting, biased, unduly optimistic and unbalanced arguments and aggressive behaviour to those who have another point of view. The whole civil entity is currently managed to emphasize the current political point of view. Other points of view and other possible scenarios for the future are by-passed, squashed or ignored. The machine at City Hall has become so large that the ordinary citizen cannot compete with the financial, legal and human resources that support the regime that holds power.

While this might be good for some businesses it is no good for local governance. It may get favoured things done faster but, more importantly, it is disassembling the very trust and confidence that create strong communities with planning processes that produce viable longer-term results.

 

TRUST AND CONFIDENCE

I believe that the only way to meet the enormous challenges of the future is to create city-building processes that promote community trust and confidence. I believe that communities that experience trust and confidence are the ones that will be best able to deal with the enormous issues that we are facing. To foster trust and confidence we need a genuine pursuit of honesty and openness, search for knowledge, acknowledgement of what we don’t know, search for alternatives, and developing plans and processes that change as fast as the issues we are facing and our understanding of them changes.

 

HOW DO WE DO THAT?

While our community planning processes have been refined over time and are some of the best in the world they will need some tweaking if we are to succeed. I say “tweak” to indicate that I think it is possible although I am sure some will see them as somewhat more challenging than mere tweaking.

The primary question then is; what can we do to strengthen the community and its ability to grapple with the emerging issues. How can we become more trustful and confident?

 

SEVEN POSSIBLE DIRECTIONS

 

KNOWLEDGE. Collect, analyze and share information.

Create a special, regionally oriented entity whose purpose is to do this work with honesty, openness and communication as its primary mandate.

 

CHANGE. Accept and include in all planning work the inevitability of rapid change in all elements of the urban system.

Require that all municipalities specifically identify the change they anticipate in all the forces at play in their municipality.

 

COMPLEXITY. Acknowledge and accommodate complexity in all planning work.

Invest in adequate specialist resources, human and leading-edge high tech, to handle this most complex of systems. After all, this is totally about our future wellbeing.

 

UNCERTAINTY. Accept the inevitability and truth of uncertainty.

Incorporate continuous monitoring and change into planning systems.

 

COMMUNICATE. Reach out with information designed to help the “guy in the street” understand what is happening and what we can do about it.

 

HONESTY. Require and provide for honest reporting and openness.

 

COMMUNITY. Build community through sharing trustworthy processes and reaching out to inform and engage everyone. Be thankful that our predecessors passed onto us what we call democracy and build on it for those who follow us.

 

HOW DO WE GET THERE?

What tweaking do we need to do?

The most important tweaks are those that restore and maintain Community trust and confidence.

Much of the budget and staffing are already at City Hall. Preparing a new Plan for the city, which many people are asking for, will require reassignments of resources. The methods I describe below may be the least costly of many that have been spoken about but is likely to be most successful. Most importantly we need to institute new procedures that ensure the seven directions listed above are achieved.

  1. Council adopts the seven directions as the ones that will drive the work to be done. It will also be used to test the success of the work as it is done.
  2. Council sets up a SHAPING THE FUTURE TEAM of appropriately qualified people to prepare the Plan for Vancouver. It will consist of the following team members.
  3. Council sets up a working group whose focus will be to put together a statement about the city and its future: It will include a description of the city, as it currently exists, in all its facets. It will also describe the forces of change that are being exerted on it and what affect they might have on the city. It will also describe the ways those forces might be accommodated to create several alternative city futures that could result from those forces as affected by existing and alternative city actions. Part of that process will be to describe the different qualities of livability that such scenarios might provide:

The State of the City

  1. Council will set up a companion group whose focus will be to develop the products of the first group in ways that enable the general public to understand what is being discovered:

Understanding the City

  1. Another group will be set up as soon as the first products are delivered for the purpose of sharing that information with the public and involving them in refining the work. The team will develop techniques and processes that maximize the opportunities for engagement:

Sharing our understanding

  1. Council will invite representatives of the private sector businesses and the community to participate as advisors to the STF Team. There are alternative scenarios of this that can be worked out:

Citizens Advisory

  1. All of this will best be done in partnership with Metro Vancouver and may be relevant to other member municipalities who are considering their own plans:

Regional Liaison

 

This does not cover all the things needed but perhaps it could push the ball along a bit further.

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Comments

  1. This is an finely-crafted commentary by an experienced hand espousing a set of principles we have often either lost or never had. The author’s prescription is exceptionally relevant.

    But we have to keep in mind that we are not a collection of inspired navel gazers imbued with progressive ideas. Though it is the centre of gravity for the region, Vancouver is only one of 21 legal and political jurisdictions, and much of what will be required will rely on appropriate responses from outside our boundaries. Some municipalities have achieved record levels of development roughly equivalent to the entire DP value of Vancouver’s over the past year yet have only 1/3 the staffing level to process it, let alone make policy for the future and get back to core principles.

    This is where the need for an elected regional government comes to mind with a larger planning department to oversee 2,800 km2 of territory.

  2. Reblogged this on Surrey Slice and commented:
    Many of the problems cities face is due to poor planning.
    Short term gain= long term pain
    We can do so much better. If Surrey doesn’t acknowledge this fact very soon, we’ll be the place that had a great future, but lost it.