November 15, 2021

Re-Engaging Citizens: Planner Larry Beasley,The State of the City & the Need for Real Public Process

People often misinterpret what the job of a municipal city planner is.

It is rare for planners with decades of working effectively at the municipal level to come back and speak out. The planner’s job is to support staff in the  research, evaluation and weighing of options and alternatives, and present to Council a recommended approach, explaining why that approach meets the policies set out versus other actions.

Planners are not kingmakers. They are professionals that read the information, meet the public and engage citizens in open public processes.  They then provide a direction with follow up information and  data for political decision makers to make informed decisions on policy, planning and structure.

But the re-emergence of the TEAM Political Party for the 2022 Vancouver municipal election provided  a place where Larry Beasley, a well regarded former City of Vancouver planner to speak. Mr. Beasley  provided stewardship for decades of work in Vancouver, especially in the downtown and in his speech he evaluates what has been lost and what needs to be reconstituted in how Vancouver’s municipal government is now serving its citizens. He was Co-Director of Planning with Dr. Ann McAfee, and as he points out the only example of such a team in North America.

TEAM  stands for The Electors Action Movement  a municipal political party that formed in the late 1960’s   and elected councillors like Marguerite Ford, May Brown, Darlene Marzari, Walter Hardwick and people that would become mayors, including Jack Volrich and  Michael Harcourt.

In his talk to the new TEAM party,  Mr. Beasley stated  that inclusive government had to be rethought, and that the concepts currently being challenged about progressive city building are similar to the situation in the 1960’s and 1970’s where housing and affordability were key issues.

He talked about the need for a reset about openness and transparency in municipal government and emphasized that there was never a reason for Council to meet in private session.

He also lamented the lack of real public engagement in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods, and the way public process had become “pro forma” instead of  in depth engagement to meet and listen  and build consensus at the local level.

He pointed out that the importance of recognizing and working with diversity in cities is fundamental. Some of the basics in cities, like  cleanliness, repair of sidewalks, and maintenance needs to be more adequately handled for every citizen.

Mr. Beasley had rueful  remarks about the current City’s False Creek South  redevelopment process, which was not a community public process, but  a top level  real estate plan on how to maximize land rents. False Creek South is a genuine community of people that have been made to feel like “interlopers”, and perceived as not being trusted to be involved in a new plan that would benefit everyone.

The civic top down approach of ignoring community input was surprising  especially since  the original housing form embraced a model of providing housing for low, medium and high income in equal amounts, and residents were willing to accept density. They just wanted a seat at the table to be part of the discussion.

In looking forward, Mr. Beasley noted that neighbourhoods need to be complete places, especially as remote work will fundamentally change how places become alive.  He believes that roughly 30 percent of people will continue to work from home, wherever home is. That means that traditional commercial streets must adapt to less workers coming into the downtown, and for more residents to be living there.

The increase of e-commerce especially during the pandemic will also outcompete local retail, meaning new methods to collect tax revenues must be found.

The downtown will need to be a place where everyone can live, not just the elite; and places to shop, gather, and have a coffee need to be embedded in all neighbourhoods. He believes this is handled by consultation and asking neighbourhoods how best to go forward with a plan, emphasizing the importance of public process in communities.

Mr. Beasley is not a fan of zoning land use regulations allowing for  ten storey buildings to be “plopped” without public process. He believes that  engagement and discussion about projects makes them better, and ensures the right form for the right place.

For affordability, Mr. Beasley noted that while a  combination of secure middle income housing is needed,  new forms of tenure such as rent to own must be developed. There needs to be a “pervasive mission” to bring in affordability models such as those already instituted  in Vienna, Madrid and Hong Kong.

He did not shirk away from homelessness mental illness and addiction, noting that funding needed to go to the person and not institutions, and that separate agencies needed to band together to give person centred care and housing.

Mentioning the importance of indigenous reconciliation, Mr Beasley talked about reshaping the city for equity diversity and inclusion, noting that Vancouver needed to make a stronger effort in serving its citizens.

Suggesting this is a time to produce family oriented development, Mr. Beasley emphasized it was time to work on substance of things and not  the spectacle, to move Vancouver forward into this next century.

You can watch the whole text of Mr. Beasley’s speech on the YouTube video below.


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