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Does Vancouver need a city-wide plan?

That was the topic of an an Oxford-style debate hosted by hosted by the Urbanarium society in partnership with UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Robson Square on April 13.  UBC prof Patrick Condon and Councillor Andrienne Carr were arguing the pro side; Councillor Geoff Meggs and I, Gord Price, took the con argument.  While the majority of the audience voted for the pro side, Geoff and I were able to convince more people to shift their opinion – and hence won the debate.

The only coverage I’ve found was in The Tyee – “To Plan or Not to Plan? That’s Vancouver’s Question” by Christopher Cheung.  So for the record, here are my notes, some of which I actually followed.

 

 

What is meant by ‘plan’? If you mean a strategic plan, with broad goals and objectives, okay, we already have them in abundance.  In this case we don’t need a planner, we need an editor.

But if a plan is to provide certainty– so you can tell exactly what can be built on a site, with defined uses, density, heights, setbacks, etc. – you mean a Zoning and Development bylaw.  Which we already have.

Then the question is: do we undertake a city-wide planning process to, at one time, determine all those factors for every neighbourhood in the city to accommodate growth and change for the next 15 to 30 years?  That is an unrealistic, and even pointless, exercise.

 

If a city-wide plan is meant to override local objections in the name of a greater city-wide good and to represent the people not in the room (those who will be born or move here in the future), it would unite neighbourhoods against it – because it implies the people currently in the community are not the best ones to determine the future of their neighbourhood.

 

It will also take years to achieve the level of consultation that a neighbourhood plan undergoes.  See Grandview.  And the cost would be staggering.  If no significant new development is meant to be approved during that time, the consequences on the economy would be severe.

If the ultimate plan is meant to avoid spot rezonings, that would require a city-wide upzoning that would unleash development everywhere, unless some neighbourhoods would be frozen at existing levels.  And how would that be fair?  Planning would become an all-or-nothing exercise: all neighbourhoods get rezoned, or none.

 

The political capital to be spent is high, and the return on the investment likely to be low.

City Hall never goes into a neighbourhood and says ‘we’re here to change the character of your community.’  The outcome, then, is more likely to be an iteration of the status quo.  Which leaves the original intent of the plan unaddressed.

Even if the plan undertook to accommodate the needs of those not present – not born, not moved here, those who wouldn’t participate in the process – they would want consultation when development appears, and effectively another plan appropriate to their time and circumstances.  The plan would have a very limited shelf life.

 

If the desire is to have a plan that unites strategic plans with detailed zoning and development, we can take what we already have and put in the format of an OCP.  But that’s not planning, that’s editing.

We have evolved a form of community-based planning appropriate to our time and circumstances, capable of accommodating change incrementally.   It may not be city-wide, it may not even by some definitions be a plan.

But it’s ours and it works.