A decade ago, as the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics came to a celebratory conclusion, a win in urban planning was beginning to emerge.
The Olympic Village was built on a stretch of vacant land called Southeast False Creek, a former industrial area near downtown. During the games, it was home to athletes. After some financial turmoil, it has become a true community, home to mixed incomes, families, shopping, parks, a community centre and child care, all in a central location with easy access to transit and recreation. The buildings of the Olympic Village helped spark more development nearby. The area is thriving.
But this story of urban rebirth is missing one pillar of any successful community: an elementary school.
The neighbourhood was planned more than a decade ago, and people have been moving in for years, yet the province, the city and the school board have yet to build this critical piece of infrastructure. As a result, the community’s many children must be sent to school elsewhere in the city. An Olympic Village school was finally made a top priority last year and land is available – yet there is still no plan to build it.
This failure of civic planning – a failure of various levels of government to co-operate and deliver necessary infrastructure – was recently highlighted by news of what has become a perverse annual ritual for families living in and around the centre of Vancouver. Because schools in the core of the city are so full that they have waiting lists, families must enter their children into a lottery. Only the winners score a place in the local kindergarten.
Among the losers was a former Vancouver chief city planner, whose family lives on the other side of False Creek, right beside the recently built Crosstown Elementary School. The school is new and it’s already overcapacity. So while the planner’s son can see what should be his school from his bedroom window, the boy has to go to school farther away.
The same issue exists in Toronto. For several years now, many under-construction condo sites have featured signs put up by the local school board, warning prospective buyers that there is no guarantee their children will be able to attend the nearest school.
All fast-growing areas experience some strains. Yet governments consistently manage to plan and build roads, sewers and power for new communities, before people move in. There are no signs warning prospective condo buyers that, caveat emptor, your new home won’t be getting electricity, running water or flush toilets until the 2030s.
In contrast, schools in some growing urban neighbourhoods are being treated as a non-essential service.
In Vancouver, the provincial government sees a school district whose student population has fallen by about 10 per cent in the past decade, meaning that some schools have space. The citywide decline in student numbers, however, belies big growth in specific areas.
For years, the province has funded new schools in sparsely populated neighbourhoods to replace old brick buildings. The reason: earthquake safety. But when it came to building a much-needed school in Olympic Village, neither the previous Liberal nor current New Democratic governments could find the money.
Several hundred million dollars have been spent in the past two decades on seismic upgrades to, and replacements for, Vancouver schools. An Olympic Village school would cost just $20-million, based on the budget for the nearby Crosstown Elementary. British Columbia has to let go of the skewed view that Vancouver has plenty of elementary school spaces, counting classrooms distant from where children actually live.
With the makeup of cities rapidly shifting – from coast to coast, cities are growing taller and denser, with more people living centrally and at transit hubs – governments have to build in ways that take account of the shift. Cities, school boards and provincial governments have to do a better job of working together. The planning and building of new schools has to happen before a new neighbourhood is full, not a decade after. Proposals such as Senakw, an 11-building neighbourhood west of the Olympic Village, require such advance planning.
In most respects, the Olympic Village area is a success. Its main failure is the lack of a school. It’s a situation, and a frustration, that many growing neighbourhoods know too well.