Frances Bula header image 2

2011: Hoping for a year of productive change

December 31st, 2010 · 43 Comments

Twenty years ago, two city planners wrote a series of articles for the Vancouver Sun where they laid out what our region would look like in 2010 and what the region would be challenged by in those two decades.

Michael Seelig and Alan Artibise predicted that the Lower Mainland would grow by a million people, to 2.7 million. They said that, since Vancouver and Burnaby were mostly built out, most of that growth would go to the suburban areas. Surrey would become the largest municipality of the region, with 550,000 compared to Vancouver’s 450,000.

The two predicted that the region would have to cope with some formidable problems in order to deal with this new population. Encouraging denser housing was the only way to absorb that many people and to provide affordable housing — a key concern for almost every resident, they said. But that would be hard since most politicians preferred to give in to citizen lobby groups instead of doing the right thing.

As they wrote: “In the face of the enormous population pressures that our region will experience in the next decades, what, for example, has Vancouver’s City Council done? – Down-zoned the West End; continually delayed the rezoning of Downtown South; and regularly given in to local interest groups in refusing applications to increase densities.

Artibise and Seelig also bemoaned the love affair with the car. At the time, Vancouver had the lowest transit use of any major Canadian city, with only nine per cent of all trips in the region being done by transit. They urged more to create a robust transit system and they also encouraged the municipalities to consider promoting an overlooked option: the bicycle. Even then, they noted, 47,000 trips a day were being made by bicycle, 85 per cent of them commuting trips.

There’s lots more: Garbage was a major issue, as was air quality. And so is the fractured political system in the region. (Interestingly, they don’t even mention issues like homelessness, drug addiction, crime or some of the other factors that play a big part in our quality of life now.)

As we all know now, Seelig (who helped develop Granville Island) and Artibise (a UBC prof who moved on long ago to a plum job in St. Louis) were sort of right and sort of not.

The region didn’t grow by as much as expected. We’re only at 2.3 million.

Vancouver did absorb a lot of new people and it’s now at 630,000. The West End stayed downzoned and took little of that, but thousands of new people moved into Coal Harbour, North False Creek and various other pockets. Surrey did grow phenomenally, from 250,000 to 450,000, but not as much as they expected.

The transit picture changed dramatically. In the whole region, the last census showed that 19 per cent of people get to work by transit; in Vancouver, the city, it was 26 per cent.

We recycle more; our air quality is better.

But we still have a lot of the problems that Seelig and Artibise talked about, amplified even more by new forces at play.

I could fill screens writing about the problems and the new forces and how I see the future of both unfolding.

But I’m sure all of you will have comments on that.

The one issue I will talk about here is the way the internet and social media have shifted the way we converse about all of these urban issue, a shift that is likely to become even more pronounced this year as more and more people migrate to the new networks and instant news that the twitter/facebook/blog/online news world provides.

When Seelig and Artibise wrote this series in 1990, about two years before this new thing called the internet started creeping into people’s consciousness, they could make their pronouncements with authority and to a wide audience.

Today, if two new academics tried the same thing, they’d get a few thousand online comments, with a substantial number of those comments saying they were full of sh*t, didn’t know what they were talking about, were elitist know-nothings, and more.

We’re in a different world now, where it’s difficult for anyone to have authority in the face of a critical and quick-to-post public.

That new communications democracy have given voices to people and groups who had a hard time being heard before. They’d mutter quietly to their neigbours; call talk shows and hope to get on; send letters to the editor and hope to be selected.

Now, public debate is frequently dominated by those who have the fastest typing skills and the most time and energy to burn on their causes.

That can be a great thing, as people debate, publicize new information, and bring new perspectives to old conversations. But it can lead to the like-minded simply reinforcing their own prejudices — a real barrier to ever figuring out solutions to big, complex, regional challenges like how to grow a good city.

I’m generally an optimist and a great believer in the free marketplace of ideas, so I’m hoping this year brings us even more changes in how we talk using these wonderful new tools that we have. Less name-calling, fewer cage matches between the virulent pro and con sides on every issue, less propaganda generated to boost one generic political group over another.

More real debate with people we don’t agree with — now available to us all over the internet — to try to understand where we have common goals. And maybe even work to achieve them together.

Happy New Year.

Categories: Uncategorized