Planning From a Different Era: By Neighbourhoods, For Neighbourhoods
By Carol Volkart
As City Council ponders whether to impose the Broadway and Vancouver Plans on its mostly unengaged and unsuspecting residents, I recently came across a reminder that planning wasn’t always done this way.
According to the Dunbar Community Vision, a 46-page booklet describing a 1997-1998 planning exercise for my Dunbar neighbourhood, the City once viewed residents and their opinions very differently than it does today.
The assumption was that residents who know and love their neighbourhood could be trusted to come up with plans for its future – plans that would be acceptable both to their fellow citizens and to the City.
Another big assumption was that residents’ opinions really mattered. That accurate surveys could and should be done, and the results treated with respect. That nothing should go forward without majority approval.
Compared to the top-down process of the Broadway and Vancouver Plans, where residents’ main role is to take online surveys and rage when they’re not heard, those good-faith assumptions seem to belong to another place and time. Like the black-and-white snapshots of community scenes scattered throughout the Dunbar booklet, they’re touching, naïve, and maybe even a little bit quaint.
Yes, times have changed, and the massive Broadway and Vancouver Plans can hardly be compared to a little community-planning exercise from two decades ago. But I believe that in its casual dismissal of the role of residents and their opinions, the City has planted the seeds for the controversial debate now raging over the Broadway Plan, soon to expand to the Vancouver Plan.
I think there are elements of the Dunbar exercise that can be extracted to point us toward a more harmonious, more productive, way of planning for future growth.
The Dunbar project was part of a larger, overall plan called CityPlan: Directions for Vancouver, adopted in 1995 as a comprehensive vision for the city. CityPlan’s directions had a number of goals, such as improving the environment, increasing the variety and affordability of housing, strengthening neighbourhood centres, reducing reliance on cars, diversifying parks and public spaces, and defining neighbourhood character.
Once it had approved the overall directions, the City aimed to bring them to the community level. To begin that process, it set up pilot projects in the Dunbar and Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhoods.
The process emphasized that those who lived and worked in the neighbourhood would play a central role. Guided by the City’s terms of reference, their job was to identify “what people value and want to preserve, what improvements are needed, and how change should occur,” to create a vision for the community, the City of Vancouver booklet explains.
They would not be expected to rush things along: “The program asks each community to implement CityPlan directions in a way and at a scale and pace that suits the community.”
The City also made it clear that community input would continue even after the plan was approved. “Combined action by the City and the community is needed to make the Vision happen.”
In Dunbar, the process began in January 1997 with community outreach and a weekend Ideas Fair. At its heart was a series of intensive public workshops with more than 100 people spending many hours developing ideas and options on a variety of topics, the booklet says.
The results went into a survey distributed to all households, businesses and property owners. More than 1,600 people, from every block in Dunbar, responded, and the community vision evolved out of their responses. In September 1998, 21 months after the process began, Council approved the directions that residents had supported in the survey.
The survey was conducted with great care. There were essentially two – one general and one random, with the latter done to confirm the results of the former. For a measure to be approved, it needed majority support in both surveys.
The survey results were fully transparent. The booklet describes them in detail, categorizing each measure as “approved” or “considered, but not approved.” Each included “agree/neutral/disagree” percentages, plus a selection of people’s thoughts about them.
There has been a sea change in City attitudes in the two decades since my Dunbar neighbours met over books and papers to decide the future of their area. But considering the unity and harmony that marked the Dunbar exercise, and the division and controversy that marks the current one, let’s consider what might be usefully retrieved from the earlier era.
One is the value of enabling those who live and work in an area to be deeply involved planning its future. They know what it needs, what is cherished and what is expendable. If people from the Broadway Plan neighbourhoods had had this chance, I believe a very different, less divisive, plan would have emerged.
Given reasonable, data-based growth expectations to work with, they would have found ways of incorporating new people, homes and jobs into their neighbourhoods while keeping them liveable. But they’d also have insisted that schools, parks, community centres and libraries be part of the deal before the population increases, not a distant dream for the future.
Contrast this with the current top-down plan created by staff, with little meaningful neighbourhood consultation and elimination of existing neighbourhood plans created through years of dedicated volunteer labour. The City’s message is very clear: those who live and work in neighbourhoods don’t count.
A second point is, who gets a say? The Dunbar model was restricted to those in the area only – the rest of the city wasn’t asked to weigh in on Dunbar’s future. The current strategy is to allow anyone from anywhere, and even invite “stakeholder groups” such as developers, to participate in area plans. Is this fair? Surely the voices of those who must directly live with the consequences should far outweigh those of outsiders, if outsiders get any say at all.
A third point is the way public opinion is viewed and treated. In the Dunbar exercise, accuracy, precision and transparency were almost sacrosanct. Today, COVID has been an excellent cover for avoiding public input while rushing city-changing plans through. There have been slanted online surveys driving respondents to the “right” conclusions, vague summaries of public input, often without numbers, and limited online workshops where public comment is muted. The result is general mistrust.
The Dunbar Community Vision, old-fashioned as it may seem today, placed neighbourhoods and the people who live and work in them at the heart of the planning process. The result was a harmonious plan that kept residents happy and met City requirements. Why would the current City Council choose anger, frustration and division instead?
(This is an expanded version of a five-minute presentation to Vancouver City Council on May 25, 2022, in opposition to the Broadway Plan.)