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A secondary school is seen in Vancouver in 2014. The Vancouver School Board has more than 10,000 empty spaces and so it can’t always get provincial funds for new buildings.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Their local school is across the street. So naturally, Vancouver’s former chief planner Brent Toderian and his wife planned to send their kids there. But last week, they learned their son Alexander lost a lottery for entry to Crosstown Elementary School. The school is over capacity.

The situation is absurd. Two city planners, deeply committed to the idea of living locally, will have to send their two kids to school in another neighbourhood. The way Vancouver schools are planned – and how the city itself is planned – need to change, quickly.

When I spoke to Mr. Toderian on Monday, he was both frustrated and philosophical. “I have been a planner for 28 years,” he said, “and I’ve been frustrated for a long time about how we plan schools – long before I became a parent.”

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For Mr. Toderian and his wife, also a professional planner, school is not only about education; it’s about community. “We made choices 10 years ago about how we wanted to raise our family,” he said. They were ready to live car-free in the family-friendly downtown for which Vancouver is famous. “We planned to keep everything within the neighbourhood, which is in keeping with our values as city planners.” Alexander attends daycare across the street. He and his friends – and their parents – assumed they’d all start school together.

But the Crosstown catchment area now has too many students, and planned schools nearby haven’t been built yet. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education provides funding for facilities based on a board’s student numbers. The Vancouver School Board has more than 10,000 empty spaces and so it can’t always get provincial funds for new buildings. “Although Vancouver continues to see declining enrolment over all, we appreciate that with certain areas there are challenges with student numbers,” Patricia MacNeil, a spokesperson with the VSB, said in a statement. Planned schools in Coal Harbour and Olympic Village “have been on the district’s capital priority list for some time,” she said.

The problem, as the ministry sees it: VSB has excess capacity and could shuffle students around to fill it. But that point of view assumes that students are widgets. It ignores the difficulty such changes impose on families: How do children get to and from school? What are the implications for the city’s public transit and for car traffic? And what about the value of a school to a local community? Mr. Toderian is passionate on these subjects. “We need to think holistically about schools,” he says. “They are the social glue for communities and neighbourhoods.”

But there are competing mandates. The Education Ministry and school board see their job as education. City governments, who do land-use planning, have their own policies. Vancouver’s current Official Plan calls for a 20-minute city – one in which everything you need from day to day is within a 20-minute walk or transit ride of home. “But there’s a huge hole in that vision,” Mr. Toderian says, “and that is the school.”

What are the fixes? For one, the city government could add more people in neighbourhoods. Most of the City of Vancouver is made up of houses – which are occupied by an aging population, and now wildly unaffordable. Allowing the construction of more apartments and condos there, which might be accessible to younger middle-income earners, would help keep schools open. This is where the city’s planning policy appears to be heading, but it’s still remarkably contentious.

“You can’t fight density that’s needed to keep a school viable, and also fight to keep your school open,” Mr. Toderian says. “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

But Mr. Toderian cautions that this – a big challenge – shouldn’t prevent the construction of downtown schools. “We need to densify the city, but we need to densify our downtown regardless,” he argues.

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Another fix: reframing how school facilities are funded and run. “There needs to be a fundamental rethink of schools in urban settings if the schools are going to stay open,” Mr. Toderian says. City schools may be emptier over the next generation, for demographic reasons. The boomers’ kids have now grown, and many of them have too much house. They aren’t sending kids to their local school. (This isn’t a unique problem to Vancouver, by the way. It mirrors very closely what is happening in Toronto.)

VANCOUVER’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

The number of schools has not kept pace with where more young children are now living in the city

Relative change in children aged 5-11, 2001-2017

-100%

-50%

0%

+50%

+100%

Stanley

Park

0

2

Vancouver

KM

West Point

Grey

East

Vancouver

Q. Elizabeth

Park

Dunbar-

Southlands

Kilarney

South

Vancouver

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: jens

von bergmann (MountainMath, StatsCan T1

taxfilers, via CMHC)

VANCOUVER’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

The number of schools has not kept pace with where more young children are now living in the city

Relative change in children aged 5-11, 2001-2017

-100%

-50%

0%

+50%

+100%

Stanley

Park

0

2

Vancouver

KM

West Point

Grey

East

Vancouver

Q. Elizabeth

Park

Dunbar-

Southlands

Kilarney

South

Vancouver

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: jens von

bergmann (MountainMath, StatsCan T1 taxfilers, via CMHC)

VANCOUVER’S SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

The number of schools has not kept pace with where more young children are now living in the city

Relative change in children aged 5-11, 2001-2017

MAP KEY

-100%

-50%

0%

+50%

+100%

Stanley

Park

Vancouver

West Point

Grey

East

Vancouver

Q. Elizabeth

Park

Dunbar-

Southlands

Kilarney

0

2

South

Vancouver

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: jens von bergmann

(MountainMath, StatsCan T1 taxfilers, via CMHC)

But as long as this is true, what else can a school building be? Why can’t a school site, or half of it, become a community centre, or a daycare, or office space for non-profits? “Whenever I suggest that, I’m always presented with the rule that prevents the sharing of space,” Mr. Toderian says. But he argues that school boards (with city co-operation) “need to take a flexible, entrepreneurial approach” to managing their facilities and never sell them. He is right.

Solving the school imbalance in Vancouver will take dramatic change, and the sooner the better. It should begin today. But it won’t come soon enough for Alexander. While his parents wait to hear about his public-school placement, the private school down the block is ready to take him and, Mr. Toderian said, wants a decision right away. “It’s a bitter irony that we are even considering that,” Mr. Toderian told me. And yet they are, because downtown Vancouver is still governed by yesterday’s thinking.

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