April 11, 2022

Before the Draft Vancouver Plan of Today: The CityPlan of the 1990’s.

You would think from some of the media reports that there has not been an overall city plan for Vancouver since one hundred years ago  when the Vancouver Town Planning Commission hired American civil engineer Harland Bartholomew and Associates . That is wrong.

In the 1990’s a very ambitious citywide planning process was undertaken that was very effective and engaged over 100,000 people in Vancouver.

Take a look at this statement below. Almost thirty years ago the City of Vancouver embarked on a city plan, knowing that an estimated 8,000 people a year came into the city. Even then the discussion in the Vancouver Sun was that “it’s hard for sparse populations to finance services such as sewers and transit…Vancouver CityPlan visualizes about 20 neighbourhood centres, much like Kerrisdale, more densely packed with shops, services, jobs and the people that work there living nearby.”

And here’s the kicker: “Cars will be taxed and tolled more than now, and rapid transit will zip people around the city and downtown…you can expect predominantly single-family dwelling neighbourhooods to get their backs up at taking more concentrated housing such as townhouses or row housing.”

“The solutions have to be shared by wealthy neighbourhoods as well as poor ones. The fat cats of Vancouver will have to do their part, and it is up to city hall to make sure they do.”

Doesn’t that sound a lot like the Vancouver Plan which has just been released in draft form from the City of Vancouver?




Feb 1995 CityPlanFeb 1995 CityPlan 26 Feb 1995, Sun The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Newspapers.com

You have to remember that in the 1990’s there was no internet, no social media, and that people learned about public processes from the bulletin board, community groups, and advertising in newspapers. This process started in 1992, cost 1.8 million dollars, was slated to take two years.

At the time, Ian Haysom, the editor of the Vancouver Sun embarked upon a “parallel process”, using the newspaper to identify the key issues in the region that needed to be addressed. People were invited to write in, questionnaires were conducted, and in depth articles written about emerging regional challenges, including air quality, the water shed, public transportation and housing.  Mr. Haysom also saw the newspaper’s job as ensuring that the city heard from “ordinary citizens”.

CityPlan City Circles Before Ideas Fair Robson SquareCityPlan City Circles Before Ideas Fair Robson Square 23 Apr 1993, Fri The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Newspapers.com

Public participation was a huge component of the CityPlan and the Vancouver Sun also created teaching kits for schools to get children involved. The City of Vancouver process had “City Circles” meeting across the city to discuss issues. There were over one hundred city circles with ten to twelve people in each one.

People were asked to pen or draw potential ideas and send them to the planning department. These ideas were part of the CityPlan “Ideas Fair” that was held for a weekend  in May 1993 at Robson Square, with thousands of people coming to view presentations, demonstrations, and to share their ideas. In total over 100,000 people were engaged in this overall planning process.

Information was translated and interpreters  available in Cantonese/Mandarin, Punjabi/Hindi, Spanish, Vietnamese and French.

cityplancityplan 27 Jan 1993, Wed The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Newspapers.com

During the CityPlan process there was a CityPlan office set up in City Square, the mall across from City Hall.  You can take a look at the plan here, and also go to page five and six which outline the details of the approved plan.

The most important piece that came out of this CityPlan was the recognition of Vancouver as a city of neighbourhoods, and further work in each of the neighbourhoods looked at achieving the objectives set out in the plan.

Of course  today this plan is going to be commented upon by individuals in the developer industry, as it concentrated density along commercial areas, and would not have offered outright zoning rights as now being considered.  It also created engaged citizens who understood the process at the time.

Remember this process was three decades ago, but established a baseline for the 21 neighbourhoods in the city.

Dr. Ann McAfee, who was Co-Director of Planning at the City of Vancouver (with the other Co-Director being Larry Beasley) thoughtfully photographed and documented the whole process, so there is a visual record at a time when photos still needed cameras with film. Brian Riera and Christina DeMarco came from Australia to work on CityPlan, and were invaluable to the process.

There are still CityPlan neighbourhood plans for the Vancouver Neighbourhoods, and even the term “Vancouverism” has been suggested as coming out of this plan, which envisioned vibrant and lively commercial areas.  And thirty years later, that plan appears to be  completely kicked aside in favour of the new draft Vancouver Plan, without acknowledging its importance and public process capacity.

You can take a look at this YouTube video below with Dr. Ann McAfee describing her work on the CityPlan at a small gathering at Simon Fraser University in 2014.

Dr. McAfee candidly discusses what they did wrong (never compending the plans into one understandable vision) and describes how the regional plan produced by Metro Vancouver would have been a better format.

She also makes the case that there was no need to create a  brand new Vancouver Plan from anew, but to use the CityPlan  and  positive community engagement that came from that  as a place to start. That surprisingly was also kicked to the side, and the new plan is a based upon a “tabula rasa” of proposed outright zoning increases , not recognizing the past work of active community input and engagement which could have factored into the adoption of this new density and developer  friendly approach.


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  1. Dr. McAfee’s paper on the 1990s City Plan can be found here.


    I think the front end of that City Plan process was its strength – speaking to 100,000 Vancouver residents in a short period of time to get some Citywide priorities sorted. However, IMHO many Community Visions were VERY anemic and amounted to: we want to keep our density low, our taxes low and our levels of service high’. ARKS, Dunbar and others basically allowed for very little change.

  2. A quick look at the city draft land use plan illustrates a large area of the city that could be occupied by buildings 25 floors or higher, an area I estimate at perhaps 2,000 blocks in total with a potential to easily contain up to 10,000 towers and a minimum of 2 million residential units!

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