May 9, 2022

The Vancouver Plan: More Housing, But Less Talk about How We Get There

Nearly four years ago in pre-pandemic times, the newly minted Vancouver City Council members publicly expressed how important the Vancouver Plan was going to be, and how they were all behind it. It is now just a few months to the end of this Council’s four year term and the draft plan is now out.

The pandemic did not make it easy to conduct any planning process with the various publics and that is evident in the draft Vancouver Plan. The document reflects the people that were consulted with who  were mostly online, and seems shy on the voices of multicultural areas or neighbourhoods that already may be living at a higher density in  dwellings as part of cultural traditions and practices.

The plan, which is designed for a population increase from 675,000 to 920,000 in thirty years, is organized around the three themes of reconciliation, equity and resilience. You can take a look at the plan in its entirety here. 


While all three aspects are extremely important, the placement of Vancouver in the Metro Vancouver region as part of a larger system and the impact of climate change on any planning process could perhaps be seen as the missing major overarching principle. If areas are going to be underwater or subject to severe climatic events that will impact livability, those potential events should be identified first, and the plan work around those impacted districts.

Last month at the TED talks in Vancouver the Chief Heat Officer of the City of Athens Eleni Myrivili directly stated that climate change at the local government level needed to be managed thinking of human security, especially in less advantaged neighbourhoods. This “has to be the focus of policy-making for a few years”.

Ms. Myrivili says “heat destroys quietly” and that is what happened during the heat dome last summer where nearly  600 people in Metro Vancouver died between June 16 and July 1, 2021. Couple that with the City of Vancouver’s unique location surrounded  by water ( a hazard map is hinted in the Vancouver Plan but does not go into any detail) and ensuring that dwellings are located in secure areas and that the comfort of residents are paramount in terms of flooding or climate event.

The plan also hints at aspiring items like ensuring there is more tree coverage for cooling canopies. But the corner cutting (no pun intended)  to expedite approvals of City development permits in the last year has meant that any tree less than 30 cm caliper can now be  cut down.  This has resulted in an additional 400 trees being cut down on private property in Vancouver in the first six months. This seems to be a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do”.

The last plan produced for the city, the CityPlan of the late 1990s and early 2000s saw this place as a “city of neighbourhoods”. That  produced a vision in the overall plan, and then that was workshopped with each neighbourhood on the specifics of where new density and development opportunities would be located.  Of course this was decades ago, and built on community input, but there is connectivity and good will in that history.

The last planning directors who knew the city well and who had worked their way up through the city were the  well respected Co-directors of planning Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee. They left the city in 2006 meaning that for the last 16 years there have been directors who are not from Vancouver, or who have had decades of experience working in the City of Vancouver. That experience provides context and a comprehension of past processes.

Take a look at the City’s Engineering Department where all the directors in the last 30 years have been hires from within the department. They have done some remarkable work, building on trusting their staff to do the best possible with demonstration projects that become policy.

While all change is good, it is that “missing link” in the Vancouver Plan between Vancouver citizens recognition of being “neighbourhood based” and  being able to speak out as development unfolds and incremental change begins.

The Vancouver Plan  should still get everyone to a more dense city-it’s not the ends that raise questions, but the means, how we get there.

The Vancouver Plan skips any resident participatory engagement at the development level of new proposals, instead offering a pastiche of zoning and potential housing form in a top down approach to communities.

It’s good news for developers, not so much for any nuance in building form or neighbourhood involvement.  Development heights are 12 to 18 storeys in rapid transit centres, up to six storeys in neighbourhood centres, 3 to 6 storeys in “villages”, and 2 to 3 storeys in “multiplex” areas, with 4 to 6 storeys achievable if the secured rental policy is enacted.

It  is a political document to cut red tape as much as it is a plan.  It snips out input from neighbours and residents on individual applications. The draft Vancouver Plan  contains all kinds of suggestions of what the future should look like, and what kind of housing and density will be considered, but offers little guidance on how this is to be achieved or what kind of staging is anticipated. In its current state, it is a free for all horse race.

The rezoning of everything also suggests a model that is not in itself resilient: it assumes that development will keep apace, and does not suggest alternative actions if the economy and employment radically changes, or if climatic events limit land use or habitation.

For former detached dwelling and duplex dwelling areas now called “multiplex” there is a need to address how  infrastructure will be paid for so that future parks, schools, sewer and water infrastructure can proceed in concert with density. As those previous detached and duplex neighbourhoods that can go to six units, how to ensure that units are designed for families will be key to neighbourhood balance and cohesion.

The Draft Vancouver Plan  will be returning to Council in June for approval. Should it be approved in its current form,  new zoning regulations and a new Official Development Plan will then be prepared for the entire city.

You can read more about the plan by clicking this link.







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  1. What kind of a plan do we need and does the draft Vancouver plan meet the need or is this plan just more business as usual with a little greenwashing? Seriously people, is this how we are going to save ourselves from climate disaster? Build a million new residential units in the next 30 years? Just for perspective, the year 2052 will be 22 years after the year 2030 when we are supposed to have bent the carbon emissions arc downward not upward. Today, construction accounts for upwards of 40% of emissions coming from cities. Until we have complete decarbonization of the construction supply chain we will continue to produce carbon emissions.

    The people that produce these land use plans need to stop with the same old story and rise to their professional responsibility. We are well informed by our climate scientists. Their knowledge ought to form the foundation of everyone’s actions in the world. To act otherwise is in the long term to advocate for nature’s destruction along with ourselves.

    So what about this idea of endless growth and development for ever in one direction. We know that it is not sustainable. We know that it is wasteful when our neighbourhoods are rebuilt to higher densities sometimes many times over. We know that this is environmentally destructive. Is there a better way to respond to evidence of an expanding population? Are sky high prices the only evidence of demand for housing? Does that mean: Build it and they will come, or does it mean they are coming and we need to build? We might want to question the latter prediction.

    Housing demand everywhere suggests that the challenge is to expand the offering of low cost housing. Doing this in a zero carbon way requires factory production of finished units. Vancouver has some experience with factory production in the form of ‘multi unit temporary housing’. The design concepts need to be ramped up and the supply chains need to be cleaned up, but never the less factory production remains the quickest and most promising way to deliver decarbonized housing. Such an effort would certainly benefit from the active support of government at many levels. It is something we can do. Today we are witnessing the transformation of the transportation sector due to a single design invention: The Tesla automobile. The housing sector is also poised for transformation with the introduction of carbon neutral product engineering goals and the production assembly line.

    1. Metro Vancouver is expected to add a million people in 30 years. This article is discussing the new City of Vancouver Plan, which only expects to add up to 260,000 people in 30 years. That’s obviously not going to require 260,000 more residential units (or a million in Metro Vancouver).

      Construction doesn’t account for upwards of 40% of emissions coming from cities. According to the Green Building Council “Together, building and construction are responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions in the world, with operational emissions (from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings) accounting for 28%. The remaining 11% comes from embodied carbon emissions, or ‘upfront’ carbon that is associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole building lifecycle.” So currently in Vancouver there are older, poorly built, badly insulated buildings with single pane glazing. If they’re redeveloped at higher densities (with the greatest densities associated with access to transit) then they can significantly reduce the amount of energy consumed per unit. Current rezoning requirements require highly energy efficient designs, with lower embodied energy, and much lower energy consumption. Many new buildings these days are meeting Passive House standards; some are net zero buildings.

      There are limitations to using pre-fabricated modules in higher density buildings, but increasingly developers and the City are using CLT panel construction, replacing concrete with wood (except for the elevator cores). There is a 17 storey social housing building, with 154 units, retail and a LGBTQ community centre, about to be built at the corner of Davie and Burrard. It’s a hybrid mass timber structure, using pre-manufactured components throughout. It will be a high-performance building pursuing Passive House certification, with a super-insulated building envelope.

      1. 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!

        The truth of the matter is that there are no millions of people, there is only the people here now and the only question they face is how to house themselves without producing carbon emissions.

        Going forward one must construct a carbon free housing production strategy in order to achieve zero carbon emissions in the housing sector. We cannot do this using in situ building practices. We therefore should consider factory production of this ‘thing’ that everybody seems to need called a home. All of the usual suspects need to work on the design of this ‘thing’ because it will be in high demand due to low cost and curb appeal. These ‘things’ will arrive over night in the backyards of Vancouver. The key to carbon neutrality and affordability lies along this pathway.

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