Event Recap: Politics & Planning – Vancouver's Next Planning Director

Tue, 20 Oct 2015

Christine Ackerley
Graduate student, SFU School of Communication

It’s agreed: Vancouver needs a superhero. Someone who walks on water (ideally a saint), with unmatched skills in negotiation and communication – someone to fix all problems in the city moving forward. 

Who is this human panacea? The chief city planner. And the position is open. Following current planner Brian Jackson’s resignation, an international search for his replacement begins December.

The presenters and participants at SFU City Conversations on October 15 admitted expectations are high. More than 60 people packed into a room at Harbour Centre to talk about the tricky relationships between publics, officials, developers, planners, and the rockstar leader to manage them all.

But another theme emerged throughout the discussion: the vital importance of public dialogue in the city planning process.

The event began with short remarks from three presenters: former city councillors Marguerite Ford and Peter Ladner, and journalist Frances Bula. Then, the participants dove in with questions and comments.

The resulting conversations stressed that public involvement is paramount to the success of city planning. 

But simply listening to the public isn’t enough. Many people in Vancouver never attend (let alone speak) at town halls or consultations, said Bula.

“When you say you’re listening,” Bula asked, “Do you mean it’s to the people who come to council and start screaming? Or to the people who never come to council?”

The director of City Conversations, Michael Alexander, wondered who represents those people that want to be in Vancouver? High rent and near-zero per cent vacancy rates affect those who don't yet live in the city, but consultations only include people who do.

Ladner added we must consider how to include the more than 50 per cent of Vancouverites with English as a second language, some of whom may be less comfortable voicing their views at public consultations.

Innovating in public engagement is even more important in light of the city’s increasingly contentious development. 

The passionate comments at this City Conversation reflect a now-familiar story: embattled residents resisting change prescribed by planners who don’t understand the neighbourhoods’ unique needs.

Vancouver has faced public outcry against new developments many times recently, and there’s no sign of stopping. For years, the city grew into the periphery and industrial areas. Now, existing neighbourhoods face intense pressure to increase density. 

Yet, Vancouverites are reluctant to let go of the feeling of the city, despite ongoing growth.

Ford pointed out that change is possible. Laneway houses and basement suites caused public uproar in the past, but are now widely accepted. She suggested patience is the ultimate virtue in public planning consultations.

Above all else, community engagement takes time. Time for the planners to craft the right plans, and time for residents to adapt to resulting changes.

This City Conversation was the second of three events focused on the city planner position. The first was hosted by UBC/SCARP and the Vancouver City Planning Commission, and will be available online soon. The next is on October 29, when the SFU City Program host former Vancouver Directors of Planning.