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What we talk about when we talk about politics: Vision Vancouver aims to connect the city to its residents

May 26th, 2013 · 178 Comments

Last week, the Vision council brought out the first recommendations from its Engaged City Task Force, with more heavyweight ones to come later on.

The report with their recommendations is here and my story, one of several done on the day, is here.

A few of the quick starts here inspire me with a certain nostalgia. Participatory budgeting (allowing community groups to decide how they want to spend a set amount of money on local projects) was much loved by the COPE council of 2002 but disappeared shortly after they were elected, lost in the dust as that council had to grapple with one daunting issue after another, from the Canada Line to Wal-Mart.

But, as good or as long-standing as some of these ideas are, there are residents who are going to wonder why they are coming forward now and how much they’ll really change the culture at the city. Many people have had the experience of participating in a city process only to walk away and wonder, “Did anything I said really matter?”

Obviously, not everyone can get 100 per cent of what they want from the city all the time. Not only a logistical impossibility (since there is always one person who wants exactly the opposite of another), but not good planning. But I do believe there is a longing by many to feel that they are more than just the window-dressing, brought in towards the end of a development proposal or a new bylaw, to spout their little “concerns” and be over-ruled.

As my story in Vancouver magazine this month showed, there’s a critical mass of changes going on in the city that is making the city hall-citizen conversation very tense. The task force is one attempt to address that.

Whenever I’m asked at panels/workshops/conventions what the problem with public dialogue is in Vancouver, my usual answer is: Regular people have no idea what part their opinions should play in the process. Not really. Too many of them believe that if they just line up enough delegates at the microphone, they should get to prevent anything from coming into the city.

So if they don’t get their way exactly, then council and planners are “bulldozing ahead” or “in the pockets of developers.” Which I know the more thoughtful readers of this blog will understand is too simplistic an explanation.

But there is a tendency for those at city halls to assume they know what’s best, bring people in too late in the process for their opinions to have any real impact and then dismiss them as NIMBYs when they go berserk.

There are some recommendations in here, and to come, that I think could have an impact on all of that. But it will take real faith on the part of the city that its citizens aren’t just knee-jerk Opponents of Everything and some effort on the part of citizens to understand the how and why of planning.

Will any of the quick steps help? They’re a tiny start. I await the bigger news.

(Advance warning: I won’t be posting the boring old name-calling comments. People who’ve been through city processes or observed them and have thoughtful things to say about how that went are welcome, as always.)



Vancouver, whose council has been accused of not listening to the public and whose residents say they are lonely and alienated, launched the first steps on Wednesday of a plan to make people who live there more connected. “Vancouver is a dynamic city undergoing a great deal of change,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said. “The connection between city hall and citizens is tenuous at the best of times. I felt a real need to invest more in engagement.” Some of the ideas from his Engaged City Task Force:


THE PLAN: Vancouver will declare a city-wide neighbourhood block party day each year – date for 2013 still to be decided – so residents can block off the street to hold an outdoor get-together. The proposal specifies that it is not just for single-family neighbourhoods, where residents already frequently organize impromptu street parties, but also its many districts dominated by condo towers and small apartment buildings. The hoped-for results, according to the official plan? “To empower neighbourhoods.”

REACTION: “We think it’s a great initiative. When you bring people together, they get to know each others’ names and you have a more engaged, involved and safer city.” – Martin Livingston, vice-president of the Vancouver Foundation, which last year released the results of a survey showing that a significant number of Vancouverites feel alienated and lonely.


THE PLAN: Turnout in civic elections is abysmal, with typically fewer than a third of registered voters bothering to show up. “People who register to vote in advance are much more likely to cast a vote than those who don’t,” says the city report on the task-force initiatives. The idea is to ensure that residents can register to vote any day of the year at any time before the election, using a form on the city website.

 REACTION: “This might help. I’m not sure it’s the best. I’m a fan of people going out and knocking on the door to enumerate. But anything that can improve turnout helps.” – Max Cameron, director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions, University of B.C.


THE PLAN: A requirement for developers to hold public open houses before submitting a design proposal to the city. Improved signs on lots where developments are proposed, with plans explained in plain language. More notice to the public about development decisions coming before council. “Vancouver has always had reactions to development,” Mr. Robertson said. “There’s no doubt the pressure has increased and it’s shifted right into neighbourhoods.”

REACTION: “They already tell us what they’re going to do and that works fine. It’s how they deal with the feedback that’s more important. And there’s nothing about that yet.” – Mike Andruff, organizer of Dunbar Re-Vision, a community group formed in opposition to several projects in the west-side neighbourhood.


THE PLAN: Rather than force every person needing to buy a dog licence, pick up a recycling bag or pay their taxes to travel to city hall, the municipality will create a mobile kiosk that provides services in city buildings in every neighbourhood. The proposal says that areas poorly served by transit should get priority.

REACTION: “I’ve been wanting that for a long time. I’m delighted. A lot of people just don’t know how to access city hall, and 311” – the simplified phone system introduced five years ago to make it easy for people to access city services – “didn’t have the push I thought it would.” – Eileen Mosca, long-time community volunteer in the Commercial Drive area.


THE PLAN: The city will set aside some money in its capital budgets and neighbourhood committees will propose ways to spend it. “Winning projects could be used for … park enhancements, new playground equipment, amenities for seniors, street upgrades or new green space.”

REACTION: “People are always talking here about community gardens, but there’s a limited amount of space. If there was a certain amount of money put aside for things like that, it would be a worthwhile conversation to have.” – Brent Granby, long-time community volunteer in the city’s West End.











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