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As Vancouver’s new chief planner begins his job, architect/urbanist warns about Vancouver’s “toxic conversation”

October 4th, 2016 · 15 Comments


When Vancouver’s new planning director, Gil Kelley, made his first public appearance last Wednesday in a speech at the Vancouver Playhouse, he did so at the invite of an organization called the Urbanarium. One of the group’s key members, architect Bruce Haden, started the evening with a thought-provoking and very candid introduction about the serious challenges facing Vancouver as the city and other municipalities grapple with growth pressures.

These were Bruce’s opening remarks, which I thought were worth circulating.

My colleagues and I recreated the Urbanarium in part because of a profound concern we share about the coarsening of the public conversation over the last few years around city building pressures and opportunities in Metro Vancouver.

In particular, I know there have been many concerns in the design and development community that the Vancouver Planning department has become more risk averse and rule bound than in previous years. In contrast, I know from multiple conversations with citizens engaged in the city building conversation that the level of trust in the planning process is extremely low. So a Director of Planning has often had the near impossible task of being the meat in the sandwich between outraged citizens and outraged architects and developers.

This is not new, but I want to talk about this critical issue in three ways.

First, our purpose here is to welcome Gil to this new and crucial role – but not to expect him to offer any prescriptions for solving ANYTHING yet. It is a new role in a new City for him – and it would be completely counter – productive to ask for responses to complex challenges that would be raw or half cooked, given that he has only been in the job two weeks.

Let’s give him some time to breathe and learn.

Second, about the bigger picture. I believe we are in very challenging times globally. And I believe that our ability to act cooperatively to generate strong solutions to global challenges depends on our connectedness and so our ability to work together effectively. Unfortunately, when I look around the world I see a real decline in day to day civility and social trust at the time when we most need it.

And while our good neighbours to the south in the pre-election weeks are perhaps the most disturbing current example of that lack of civility, we are not immune to that disease. In recent Vancouver planning conversations that I have been a part of, the willingness to disparage people personally, to attribute communications about complex issues to conspiracy theories, and to assign thoughtful people trying to do their best into simplistic us versus them camps has shocked me.

And we are at an important time. The City is taking leadership in multiple major initiatives that are crucial to our future. The Greenest City 2020, The Arbutus Corridor and Northeast False Creek are only some that spring to mind. It would be untrue to say that in the past those sorts of plans would have proceeded without controversy – and nor should they have. But I put to you that responsible informed conversation has often been present in the major redevelopments that have shaped Vancouver today – to all our benefit. As an aside – many of the great past City of Vancouver chief planners that helped guide those past discussions are in the room today.

A stunted urban conversation has never served our city well, and will not do so in future. My fear is that Vancouver is heading towards a circumstance in city making where every project is viewed in terms of warring camps. This is a recipe for disintegrating civic relationships, wasted time, money and passion, and worseresults for everybody.

Gil is coming from a San Francisco context, where he knows well that the rigidity and aggression of the urban conversation inhibits good people from participating, and corrodes the quality of city life.

A small example from another place where hysteria reigns too frequently:

This is from Streetsblog New York City: 

“ the city announced plans earlier this year to relinquish three parking garages it owns to make way for 280 units of new social housing, all of which would be reserved for people earning less than the average income in the area. …. Since the plans were announced, a group of residents organized under the banner “Save Manhattan Valley” to fight the development. This group’s street flyers read: “This Street Parking Space Will Disappear Soon If You Don’t Act” . “In addition to the toxic noise and air caused by construction, you can expect added pollution from idling cars, double parking, honking, stress and accidents.”

 Apparently municipal garages are more needed than social housing in an area with three subway lines.

We are not so far from this level of toxic conversation here.

And we have all contributed to the current too often denuded state of the urban discussion in this city –

I can say with shame that I have worked to push projects through for clients that have had zero concern beyond profitability.

I have also seen citizens I know care profoundly about my neighbourhood personally disparage planners trying to do a hard job responsibly.

I have seen developers claim that minor changes to enhance a project will lead to bankruptcy.

I have seen planners focus on the minutae of regulation at the expense of helping to get great things built.

These are all examples of short term thinking and failures of courage and commitment that serve to reduce our ability to build a better place to live for all of us.

So my last point is this.

In this context, it’s easy to look for a savior. But, with perhaps a clumsy paraphrasing of the words of JFK, I think the right question to ask is not “what can Gil Kelley do for us?”. The right question to ask is “how can everyone in this room help Gil Kelley to succeed?”.

Most importantly, what can we do to learn enough to have an informed opinion, and what can we do listen respectfully to each other, while respecting each other’s deeply felt views? And, despite much evidence to the contrary, I believe it is entirely possible to both have a passionate point of view and to be a good listener. And I know none of you would be in this room if you did not care about this place passionately.

Let’s challenge each other to excellence in making Vancouver extraordinary.

With that, let’s listen to Gil.

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