Can You Hear Me Now?

The sad truth is that our public consultation process appears to be broken, leaving little trust on any side of the equation:

  • Residents that dare express an opinion on new development in their neighbourhoods are regularly derided as NIMBY no-nothings …
  • The developers that built the extraordinary city we see around us and provide the daycares, rec centres and libraries we need are regularly decried as barbarians intent on destroying every last vestige of everything held sacred …
  • City planners are unfairly defamed as incompetent, uncaring or corrupt. and often in the breath …
  • And the public’s overall opinion of politicians is unprintable …

We’re told the overarching concept for our city’s future is ‘Green Capital,’ yet eco-density has become so loaded with partisan invective it has become a stand-in for “I want to destroy your neighbourhood” on the one side and “I would rather die than see one new building in my community” on the other.

Unfortunately, the very solutions that might help – neighbourhood plans or visioning exercises – are reputed to be too expensive, time-consuming, complicated or beyond the city’s resources.

What to do?

I have a suggestion.

2011 is the 125th Birthday of the City of Vancouver. A much-belated and reluctant effort by the city to embrace a year-long celebration envisaged by the previous council has led to a tepid, half-hearted effort, and the community and arts groups charged with staging the celebration are left uncertain of funding.

Perhaps we should take advantage of the oversight to propose an entirely different kind of birthday present for our city. What if we celebrated this anniversary by engaging in a four-year planning process to lay out a broad neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood City Plan for the next 125?

In that four year period – the life of the next council – we could take the time to do the following:

1) Reinvent and reinvigorate the planning and consultation processes.
2) Prepare a thorough analysis of what assets each neighbourhood has, those it lacks and a vision or plan emphasizing its unique character.
3) From the neighbourhood study, prepare a comprehensive list of assets the city needs.
4) Develop a new CityPlan taking into account the individual plans and needs of each neighbourhood along with the needs and future growth of the entire City.
5) Implement broad-based zoning based on that plan.

I realize the best-laid plans can easily end in quagmire, but if we actively involved city planners, area residents, businesses, schools, social profit organizations and the developers in creating a meaningful consultation process, and if we allowed each community to participate in the horse-trading surrounding density and needed amenities in their community, we might find more commonality than is thought now to exist. False Creek North is a classic example I’ll write more babout later.

One final thought. I think transit-based density is the key. If we focus density where it already exists and along major transit arterials, and if our plans provide enough street-level commercial to animate streets and provide needed local services within walking distance of each community, we could manage the change coming to our city as we continue to add residents in the most environmentally responsible way possible.

One thing is certain. If we don’t take this opportunity to plan the future of our city for the next 125 years, that spot-rezoned future will plan itself.

But it won’t be pretty.