Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

The Trouble with Paradise

Imagining a great city is easy. Building it is hard.

By Charles Campbell 17 Sep 2007 |

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read his other article here.

image atom
'Like an aging supermodel'
  • City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions That Saved Vancouver
  • Mike Harcourt and Ken Cameron, with Sean Rossiter
  • Douglas & McIntyre (2007)

Mike Harcourt is on his cell phone, sitting in the West Broadway Mercedes dealership waiting for his Smart Car to be fixed. He's also been stumping for his latest collaboration, the book City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions That Saved Vancouver, co-written with veteran planner Ken Cameron and longtime Vancouver civic affairs journalist Sean Rossiter.

Harcourt, who has been B.C.'s premier and Vancouver's mayor, likes his Smart Car. He says it goes 110 kilometres an hour on the highway, gets up to 100 kilometres to the gallon, and a fill-up is $15. "When I want to park it, all I do is fold it up and put it in my pocket."

If only saving a city was that easy -- as easy as the title suggests. Just decide. But as the book does make clear, first you imagine and then you sell, to your allies and your opponents, to politicians, bureaucrats and the public, and then you settle into the really hard work, which is putting policy into practice without losing the thread back to the decision, if in fact you really did decide at all.

The book, breezily written or rewritten by Rossiter, with Harcourt and Cameron appearing as characters in the story, makes all this clear. There aren't really nine decisions; there are nine complicated chains of events, and they often begin with a timely crisis.

Thus the 1948 Fraser Valley flood became the impetus to recognize and act on some regional needs. The autocratic plan to raze Strathcona and Chinatown for freeways and Stalinist apartment blocks resulted in the rise to power in Vancouver of The Electors Action Movement and the firing of Vancouver's autocratic chief planner. The uncontrolled sprawl of housing onto some of North America's best farmland provoked the creation in 1973 of the Agricultural Land Reserve by a short-lived NDP government.

In these moments of difficulty, visionary planners and advocates can win us over to a better way.

Beyond petty partisanship

The book was conceived when Harcourt and Cameron spoke at the 2005 memorial for Walter Hardwick, the Vancouver academic, bureaucrat and city councillor, about his under-acknowledged contributions. The book finds others to credit. There's Tory political organizer Tom McDonald, who pushed for regional planning in the late 1940s. There's the man McDonald found in Tennessee to do the job, Jim Wilson, who helped lead the first regional planning efforts in the 1950s. Early 1970s GVRD planner Harry Lash gets his own chapter for championing ideas and processes -- he promoted the phrase "livable region" and created a very open model of consultation and decision-making -- that persist today.

At SFU Harbour Centre, where the book was launched on September 7, Wilson was in the very large audience. So were people like Darlene Marzari who, along with young storefront lawyer "Ho Chi" Harcourt, fought to defeat Vancouver's Chinatown freeway plan. Influential planner and Liberal insider Peter Oberlander was there, as was former NDP MP Margaret Mitchell. Current powers Mayor Sam Sullivan, Coun. Peter Ladner and new Vancouver director of planning Brent Toderian were in attendance. Former NPA councillor and SFU City Program director Gordon Price moderated the discussion.

This diversity of the crowd reflected another planning truth that the book makes clear: there isn't much room for mindless partisanship if you want to build a city that works. Two people in the book who figure prominently in driving the success of the Vancouver region are former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell and former Vancouver NPA councillor George Puil -- Campbell for aggressively promoting the GVRD's late 1980s Choosing Our Future process, Puil as a key player in creating the TransLink regional transportation authority.

Consensus is worth the trouble

Both these chapters illustrate a central aspect of good planning. It's not easy to get buy-in from the province, the feds, and countless municipal politicians through a regional district structure that depends hugely on consensus. But such a process does have the benefit of requiring that the public and politicians talk a lot about values and goals, and as a result decisions are usually supported once they are made.

Ask Mike Harcourt if we'd be better off if the system were different, if the GVRD (recently renamed Metro Vancouver) had more authority to overrule local councils, or if the district extended up the valley all the way to Hope, and he's not interested in sweating those details. He wants to establish the principles, divide the tasks, and get to work "rather than muck around with governance structures".

He thinks, and few would argue, that the mega-city experiences of Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal have failed, and that consensus-building isn't such a bad thing. He does, however, want "a double devolution" of power (by which he really means more authority over taxation and spending) from the federal government to the province and from the province to "places." Ultimately, it's in those places -- where politicians, planners and the public have all their collective feet on the ground -- that consensus can be built in support of plans that work.

Right now, however, it's clear we need an engaging public discussion of a few more good ideas. Sure, we've been largely successful in creating "cities in a sea of green" -- compact town centres surrounded by protected farmland, watersheds and parkland -- through effective zoning and transportation choices.

However, the book argues that while our region may be livable, it's not sustainable. "It's unacceptable that there are homeless," Harcourt told the crowd at SFU last Friday. "It's unacceptable that our kids can't afford to buy housing in their own hometown."

Spark is missing

Harcourt agreed with former NPA city councillor Alan Herbert, who asked the authors of the book if the sense of excitement that drove some of our region's successes is now missing. "We need to provide people with the opportunity to be engaged," Harcourt said. "I think there is a huge appetite among the public about sustainability issues."

That, in fact, is a key objective of the book. In documenting past successes, and detailing how they were achieved -- through leadership that engages constructively with the public and other governments -- the authors want to show not only what we've accomplished but what we need to do in the future.

There is, in a book that is generally a feel-good manifesto, some delicately implied criticism of the GVRD's inward-looking inertia and the province's tendency to grab power when it can. Of course there's also the federal government's tendency to, well, be in Ottawa.

There's not much in City Making in Paradise about Vancouver's irritating and potentially dangerous sense of self-satisfaction. Yet in an interview Harcourt quotes Ken Cameron as saying "'We're like an aging supermodel, getting by on looks and reputation.'"

The former premier says he's committed to reinvigorating our particular regional effort to excel, and is setting aside his provincial and federal roles in treaty-making and national advocacy for cities. "Let's become the most sustainable city in the world -- now." As such, he's chairing the committee that will suggest new directors for the province's controversially reconstituted governance structure for TransLink.

Harcourt wants our rapid transit network finished, much faster than current plans require. "We've got a half-assed system now."

Rapid transit yes, but who's first?

Although we have had some success at driving effective land use through transportation planning, no other issue highlights the potential for municipal self-interest and rancour. Just ask members of Vancouver's last COPE council, which was divided on no issue so much as the decision to build the Canada Line to Richmond.

Harcourt has supported the line in the past, and wants to focus on what else we need to do. Cameron, who has worked as the manager of policy and planning for the GVRD and now heads the provincial Homeowner Protection Office, figures the line was a mistake that will disrupt Vancouver bus service and draw development onto Richmond's flood plain.

Both, however, would agree that senior governments are often too fixated on big projects at the expense of more mundane needs. Quite simply, we need to be always on the ball, attending to details big and small. When we look back, it should only be to learn from our successes and mistakes.

While Harcourt decries the dysfunction of the Downtown Eastside, he won't brook any suggestion that the NDP was complicit in aggravating its problems by proceeding to deinstitutionalize Riverview before sufficient community-based alternative housing was in place. He sets out a variety of federal and provincial decisions that "allowed the problem to get away from us," but he doesn't labour those issues. "It doesn't matter who did what when," he says. "To solve homelessness you build homes."

However, Harcourt says he doesn't think new social housing should be built in the Downtown Eastside -- only replacement housing. And he believes we need to think not so much of the small Downtown Eastside so much as the larger East Downtown.

Harcourt declares that we need to spread facilities to care for the addicted, the mentally ill and the homeless around the city, and decries the opposition in Dunbar to proposed social housing there. "These are your kids," he says to those who loudly opposed the plan.

He believes we can eliminate homelessness, although he doesn't think the often-touted objective of eliminating homelessness by 2010 is realistic, arguing that doing it by 2015 is an achievable goal.

'Single-family zoning should be banned'

Both Harcourt and Cameron have the same answer when asked if Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan's "eco-density" is more than a phrase that's been trademarked by the man himself. "I don't know," says Harcourt. "It's hard to tell," says Cameron. "It's still early days." He adds that the concept is really "old wine in new bottles."

Then both men wade in to the density issue with blunt declarations that would make most politicians quaver. "If the city is serious about eco-density, I could show you a chunk of land where it could put six to eight thousand people," says Harcourt, declaring that the former Arbutus corridor rail line is no longer needed for transit. He adds that the public needs to settle for less living space. Cameron tops his collaborator with the blunt statement "Single-family zoning should be banned."

All these issues show how contention can distract us from first principals. For Harcourt and Cameron, right now the first principal relates to that slippery word sustainability. Harcourt defines it as creating prosperity and eradicating poverty without sacrificing the future of our economy or our environment.

And who would oppose such a goal, until you get down to the specifics? Like what's prosperity? Yet there is a looming crisis that our political leaders can capitalize on. "People are moving from a recognition of climate change to panic," says Cameron. "If we do everything right here, it will simply affect some fraction of two per cent of the greenhouse gases in the world."

However, Cameron notes that if we succeed we can export our expertise. "If we can't do it here, then what hope is there for the economies where it will be truly essential?"

'Paradise Makers' Speak

Harcourt, Cameron and Rossiter kicked off the SFU City Program's Friday evening Paradise Makers Lecture Series. The series continues with planner and former NDP cabinet minister Bob Williams (Oct. 5), architect Rand Iredale (Oct. 19), and planner Ray Spaxman (Nov. 2). Admission to public lectures is free; reservations are required. For details click here. Also, on Sunday, Sept. 16 at 5 p.m. former Vancouver co-director of planning Larry Beasley will give a free lecture at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.  [Tyee]