Price: I hear you saying that in order to get the kind of planner that we need, the council who runs this place has to change its culture.
Beasley: I don’t agree. What I’ve been trying to say is that the planner is the sponsor of a way of looking at the world. The planner is an agent to show people through example that you can build a city in a different and better way.
All over North America, I see planners who never want to be seen in public, never want to tell the story, never want to do anything that would endanger them. That’s why I keep saying that courage is a really big part of this. Look at the experience of Jennifer Keesmaat, the new director of planning in Toronto. Her council doesn’t agree with her on a lot of things, but she keeps going. She keeps building a constituency and keeps building political interest in it. She finds her alliances and slowly she’s bringing planning back from a very low level in Toronto, one of the lowest in this country, to being a meaningful, guiding force for that city. To me that’s what the planner does.
It’s pretty easy if everything is good and you come in and everyone is happy and the politicians love you. The harder planning is to go to a place where people maybe don’t get good planning, and you can start to show it through the quality of what you have to say and being convincing. I think we need much more strength and courage in our planners.
Toderian: I think I’m the only one here who has worked directly with the Vision Council. In my observation, when they came in they heard the narrative that “you have a lot of good ideas, and staff is going to try and keep you from achieving them,” and they decided it would not be that way.
I greatly lament that because we planners were downright excited about the vast majority of what they were saying. There were a lot of things that were exactly in keeping with our own perspectives on city making. But something was obviously different in how you do things. You had to be with them 100 percent of the time. If you disagreed even once or twice in a series of 10 conversations, that could come back to haunt you.
I would frequently go to my predecessors and ask for advice on how to deal with this and they were all very helpful. Larry said, that doesn’t stop you from saying the right thing. You still do it. You still act on principle and you do your job, speak truth to power, and you are never so afraid to keep your job that you don’t do your job. But I don’t really think it was a problem of the culture of the politicians, because we were actually on their side but they didn’t necessarily always see it that way. The real problem, being candid again, was that they hired a city manager who was the author of an entirely different culture at City Hall. I’m optimistic now with that City Manager gone that there is an opportunity for this council to realize that staff are really on their side, and that nobody is trying to keep them from being the political leaders that they want to be. Staff and council are a team.
Spaxman: Politicians are people, as well. They have frailties and also the necessity to get on with their work. And they are nice people, mostly. Who else would volunteer to do a difficult job like that? I have a lot of wish to help politicians. You may not think that from some of my writing since I’m critical. Nevertheless, they had a real crisis with the Olympic Village and other things when they appointed Penny. They needed a strong manager and recognized the strength of the previous deputy minister to get things done. Penny did that and some people believe that was a bit of a miracle, but her approach denigrated staff.
Maybe the Vision Council now know that they have to reach back to us people in the city and do a better job. To hire the new city manager and the director of planning at the same time is a wonderful opportunity for that. It will help their policy direction because more and more people will get behind it and be able to refine it, just like TEAM Council knew way back in1972 – and I see Marguerite Ford in the audience.
McAfee: I’ve tried to stay out of things in Vancouver because I’ve been mostly working elsewhere in the world. But as I go to the odd function in Vancouver and listen, I sense something is wrong and that somehow the public and the Council are on different wave lengths.
The strange thing is that when I look at the ten or so directions that the TEAM council set in the 1970s, this Council is still moving in those directions. They are worried about affordable housing. They are concerned that the city be not only sustainable but, as new knowledge has come in, greener. They are trying to ensure that this is a walking, biking, transit city. They are making sure that growth pays its way for new community services. These directions have come in over many years.
But I don’t think Council realizes that they are really building on the past. There is a kind of institutional amnesia. We alluded to the staff who were around us. Under Ray’s direction, there were a number of bright young planners. When Larry and I had to put a management team together, we drew on the team that had all been around since the 1970s. We all had a good understanding of the directions. But within a couple of years, the vast majority of these people who had written the policies and plans over the previous 30 years had left, mostly because a lot of us aged, but also for more creative or interesting jobs. I counted about 60 people, and see some of them here today.
So the irony is that while you have a Council that has been following directions that have been around for 30 or 40 years, the people who might be able to help and explain them and build on them are gone. I can see the challenges that Brent faced as many people left. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t new, young, capable people and a very educated population in Vancouver who I sense are all willing to engage and help. Hopefully there will be a more open door at City Hall for that and some of those policies can be continued and improved with everybody engaged with them. But we did have a loss, and I think that has been part of the challenge that the most recent planning directors have had to cope with.
Beasley: I think it’s a little too simple to say that the issue that we have with planning right now has to do with a city manager. I think it has to do with a combination of things. One of them has to do with the strength of the person who is leading the planning service and the planning efforts of the city, and whether that person is building a real movement with staff and the hundreds of people that any politician would have to respond to. It also has to do with whether that person is courageous. I learned something from Ray which I tried to carry on, and I know Ann tried to carry on, and Brent carried on, too. And that was you have to be courageous. You have to still say what you think is right, and when they don’t want you they don’t want you.
When Ann and I took this job, we organized our personal lives so we could be fired at any point without collapsing into economic disaster. Otherwise we’d belong to them. And we didn’t want to belong to them. I learned that from Ray. I watched him convene us all years and years ago and say, “I want you to know I am probably going to be fired tomorrow morning.” He did that at least three times in my memory and he never got fired. He retired with honour and it’s because when you are a planning leader who says things that are compelling and people believe in, when you are a planning leader who listens carefully so your voice is the voice of many people you’ve heard and learned from, you become a very compelling force in a democratic political process.
That’s what I think we’ve lost and I feel we need to get back to. I’m not laying blame on anyone, I just haven’t seen it. There are councils in many other places where I’m doing work right now that are a lot less sympathetic to planners. Not only does the council in this city support many of the things that I think many of us believe in, but they have been pretty positive about planning compared to the struggle that I know planners have in many places.
And it’s important that we not forget that these are just not institutions and positions. These are people. If the people are really good at what they do, you have success, and if they aren’t really good at what they do, you don’t have success.
Price: You’ve been remarkable in articulating the kind of person, the character of the planner. But what about the community itself? I think all of you, maybe with the exception Brent, dealt with a city that had to accommodate growth but never had to come to terms with changing the character or scale of the established neighbourhoods except on the margins.
We had the mega-projects because we had the industrial land. We had CityPlan, a neighbourhood process city plan, but you have already acknowledged how little it was implemented. With the flow of wealth that has come into this city, with the desire of people to keep the character in the face of forces of gentrification, people are more reluctant than ever to see a change in character or scale. No one ever goes into a neighbourhood and says, ‘Hi we are here to change the character of your community. How would you like us to do that?’ And if a council can’t look to planners to do that, are they not then entitled to find another way?
McAfee: I think there are ways of doing that, and I see some of the recent plans – Marpole, West End, Grandview Woodlands (still underway) – which didn’t work.
I look back to the Knight and Kingsway King Edward Village area, which is not at the top of all of your minds for neighbourhood change because it was not a neighbourhood fight. The community sat down with the architect and developers to look at their own needs and how they were aging and changing. They looked at the services they wanted – new library, a grocery store, a variety of different community services. And they worked together to say, ‘if we have change, how are we going to make that benefit the community?’
At the public hearing on the plan for Knight and Kingsway, about 80 people showed up, and we were worried. Two people spoke, both in favor of the plan. Council approved the plan, and all those people jumped up and started throwing confetti and balloons, cheering the fact that their plan was approved. They got a new library out of it, along with a new grocery store, some new parks and community centre improvement. 1500 single-family homes were also re-zoned to allow a variety of infill forms. The community can work for itself to bring change. I think it can work, depending how it’s done.
Beasley: I’ll extend what Ann is saying. I too started as a neighbourhood planner, and found something that served me pretty well in any setting. I found that if I go and talk to any group of people, find a way to put the real issues on the table, figure out a way to let them learn about and cope with those issues, and learn what the possibilities and implications were, I got good results. I found a collective wisdom there that has always served me well.
We think we are coping with a lot of change, but you have to look at other cities like Curitiba, where leaders who were faced with people who were afraid as well as angry found a way to reach out to them and say, “together let’s figure out how to cope because we can’t go anywhere else. This is our home; this is the only thing that we have.”
And that means a kind of collaboration, a partnership with the people of your city. I think that works, and I have no evidence that it doesn’t work. But what I think doesn’t work is when you go out and talk to people, and they all develop a plan, and it goes back to City Hall and someone there says, ‘It’s not good enough, and we’ll just do what we want.’ Then people feel angry, abused.
Price: Is it possible to get a comprehensive complete city plan as called for by many, that will deal with change on the scale that is required to accommodate the next several hundred thousand people? One city plan through a single process?
Spaxman: I’m conscious that this director of planning is going to have to get on well with the region, because the primary impact on this city is going to come at a much higher level. If we don’t get in harmony with the Metro Vancouver planning organization and if that doesn’t get organized too, we could be facing disasters from economic, environmental and social changes that are far bigger than homelessness or converting the residential areas.
We have to enjoin that discussion at that level with the whole community because to get the whole community involved with the issues that we are facing. We read that we are going to have another million people in 30 years; and another million after that, and so on. We are already at seven billion in the world, and beyond our capacity to equally share the benefits of what nature provides, and it’s going to get worse. So the plan for the city has to be done very much in conjunction with at least the region, and hopefully also the province and the feds. Examples from other communities show that the federal government is often much more involved in what’s happening in their cities.
Price: Do you think it is possible to extrapolate that million down to the neighborhood level in a single process to produce a comprehensive plan that can accommodate that growth in the time frame that you are talking about?
McAfee: What you are talking about in a short time frame is a land use plan. A comprehensive plan has to also include services, and tough choices around money and funding.
Spaxman: We need to have a big debate on this.
Price: I don’t hear any of you putting forward a process that suggests there will be tough decisions. What I hear you saying is that you work in conjunction with the community, through a process that listens and accommodate, and you will get the result that everyone will be satisfied with. I can tell you as an ex-politician, I don’t believe that.
Toderian: Your introductory statement certainly wasn’t true in my case. The narrative when I was hired, whether true or not, was that the downtown is basically done – which I found to be a hilarious statement since I spent a fair amount of my time working in the downtown – but that the rest of the city is the challenge because the easy parts are done.
Two months before I was hired, the mayor announced, at the World Urban Forum, this word ecodensity, with no sense of what it meant. My first task was to figure out what it meant and turn it into something workable. And he wanted it done in four months, which means no time for public engagement.
We ended up taking two years on it, and I think it ended up being a better conversation than many people still give it credit for. But we spent most of our time digging ourselves out from the problems of how it was launched, and the feeling, which to a certain extent was true, that the mayor who launched it really thought towers were the bees’ knees and should exist just about everywhere.
How do you have a conversation about change in the rest of the city when the narrative was the fear of the Manhattanization of the neighbourhoods.
At the end, we ended up developing phrases like gentle density, hidden density, laneway housing, to talk about how neighbourhoods can change in a reasonably healthy way but not fundamentally eradicate their existing character. But, even after having that high-level discussion, my observation is that the existing plans – with respect to the people who worked on them – did not provide any clarity on how the rest of the city would change.
We did an exercise where we looked at what all of the community visions enabled, and tried to map it. It was a patchwork quilt of confusion. And that was the starting point for our conversation on “do we need a new plan?” – if for no other reason than to provide clarity for everyone, including the neighbourhoods, about what was possible now and what might be happen in the future.
I’m one of the people who, with the Vancouver City Planning Commission, first championed the idea of a new plan. If you asked me now, I would say the city should absolutely not start a new plan because we don’t have the moral authority as a planning department. We don’t have the positioning with the communities and credibility. It would be a blood bath. It would be a disaster.
But I do believe a new plan is necessary, maybe once credibility has been re-established both in terms of the principled approach to how design and growth can occur, and how community engagement really should be done. At that point, a new plan would, I think, be extremely valuable. But timing is everything, and I don’t believe you could do it now.
NEXT: Audience Discussion
These transcripts have been edited for clarity and conciseness. Please refer to the videos for complete remarks.