Vancouver is working on a long-range, citywide plan, an attempt at a broad blueprint for the big issues of the present and future, from affordable housing to climate change.
It is the first such plan in nearly a century. An attempt in the 1990s fizzled after launch. The current work will take what feels like a century to complete: From start to finish, the process runs more than three years.
Mid-November was the one-year mark. Consultations are now under way. The final plan arrives a few months before the next civic election in fall 2022.
The ambition, credit to the city’s planning department, is laudable. The effort to bring as many people on board is also worthy. But the process is too long, too ponderous and there is too great a risk the eventual result will be compromised, or met with a swift demise when presented to a mayor and council facing imminent election.
The plan seems mostly to serve as political cover for a timid council unwilling to grapple with the city’s biggest challenge: housing. The previous council, in its last days, moved to open up Vancouver’s wide swaths of single-family housing to duplexes. The new council strictly limited such developments and backed the new citywide plan instead.
While the city peers into the future, the present is being neglected – rental and social housing in particular. According to the city, approvals for new social housing this year are at 44 per cent of the annual target. Approvals of rental housing are at 32 per cent. The city plan plods along, while council’s immediate actions lack courage.
The plan’s perceived need is also questionable. The city completed a long series of community-specific plans this decade. Two more are in process, one for the Broadway corridor, future home of a new subway, and one to remake the Granville Street Bridge. The principles and goals that underpin these plans are solid: a city of diverse and affordable neighbourhoods; transportation focused on walking, cycling and transit; and mechanisms in place so the city reaps the financial benefit of zoning changes.
Vancouver already knows what works, after years of opposition to new housing projects that continued even as home prices blew past the stratosphere.
Building standards are greatly improved. Roads are for more than just cars. And home construction is active. The annual average of new housing units completed is at more than 20,000 in Metro Vancouver, above estimated demographic requirements, after a long stretch between 2011 and 2017 when it was well below.
There are also hints of what’s possible. The Squamish Nation, on its reserve land and thus freed from civic rules, has proposed a large development near downtown. It will offer far less parking than would normally be required – something that should be emulated in the rest of the city.
That’s what a bold citywide plan could look like. Shake off the burdens of the past. Allow a vast rebuilding of the city – and make sure the city pulls in the billions of dollars in value that would result. The city plan, however, does not seem to be about bold thinking, because this city council appears unlikely to endorse sweeping changes.
Given this reality, amid predictable outcries from entrenched interests, be pragmatic. Build density along transit, such as Broadway. It will not be easy there, either. A proposed 28-storey building of rental apartments – one-fifth for moderate incomes – is controversial in the minds of some neighbours. A citywide plan will never assuage such people.
This highlights one important aspect of the citywide plan: chief planner Gil Kelley’s emphasis on an array of voices – those of the young, those of mixed incomes, Indigenous views, and not just people who live in lush, quiet neighbourhoods affordable to only the very rich.
Vancouver deals with pressures all cities across Canada face to varying extents. Economists at National Bank Financial observe that Canada’s population is now growing at more than half-a-million people a year – faster than France and the United Kingdom combined.
Canadian cities can comfortably house many more people. It does not take three-plus years of planning to figure this out. Vancouver City Council is dodging its duties. The citywide planning process should not be an excuse to put off decisions that need to be made today.