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.