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Can We Build Needed Housing While Preserving Local Democracy?

Citizen input catalyzed a golden era for Vancouver urban planning. Now it’s dismissed as a NIMBY obstacle.

Patrick Condon and Colleen Hardwick 20 Mar 2024The Tyee

Patrick Condon is the James Taylor chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Colleen Hardwick, a former Vancouver city councillor, is CEO of Placespeak.

Vancouver’s success as a global city has spawned housing prices that rise farther and farther out of reach of city wage earners. Tied to that process has been a question of whose arguments hold more sway at city hall, those of everyday citizens or the real estate industry.

There was a time when citizens were far more influential in Vancouver’s planning, an era we’ll revisit later in this piece as we make the case for honouring the spirit of those times.

But the 2008 ascendance of the Vision Vancouver party marks a moment when city government swung away from encouraging strong neighbourhood influence on planning decisions to acceding to the argument of the housing industry. Which was that building much more housing, with less regard for what local citizens would advise, would produce a plethora of social benefits — notably, more affordable housing.

Vancouver’s current mayor and council have moved even further in this direction, with anti-citizen arguments boldly pronounced, rationalized by the housing crisis. Mayor Ken Sim provides one example after real estate industry voices suggested removing a decades-old policy on view cones. He was inspired to assert, “We don’t have a view crisis. We have a housing crisis,” suggesting taller towers equalled cheaper housing.

Behind his assertion is the assumption that housing prices would go down if we let the real estate industry build what is marketable, at whatever height is economically viable, wherever real estate developers decide.

This opinion, seemingly now dominant in the body politic, merits challenge. Vancouver has tripled the number of housing units in the city since the 1970s — most of this growth occurring during the period of Vancouver history we are calling consultative. We are not aware of any other already “built out” city in North America that has come remotely close to this heroic mark. If adding housing to this degree lowered prices as we all hoped, Vancouver should have North America’s cheapest housing. It has by some measures the least affordable.

Despite this major contradiction in the empirical evidence, the provincial government has gone even further in restricting local democracy’s role in city building via its new suite of housing bills 44, 46 and 47. These bills remove housing development decisions from local control. Yet none of the current elected officials in Vancouver have raised public objection to this removal of local jurisdiction — again, all in the name of the housing crisis.

How did we get here? And is it really where we want to be?

When we look into the history of how cities are run, especially Vancouver, we find a mix of changing ideas and beliefs about the role and responsibilities of resident/citizens. David Ley's important 1974 book, Community Participation and the Spatial Order of the City, helps us understand how community development changed during the 1960s and 1970s in this city. His book shows how ordinary citizens became more involved in decisions about their communities, caught up in North America-wide movements like the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.

A big part of that political discourse focused on different ways of making public policy decisions: either with the interests of investment capital in charge (while getting their main advice from industry experts), or letting average residents have the largest say.

Walter and David Hardwick wrote a chapter in Ley's book that describes the advantages of a middle ground, suggesting that considering advice from experts is a useful strategy for managing public policy, while still making sure everyone has a say in how things are run. This seems to have become the dominant model between the mid-70s and the mid-2000s.

During this period, Vancouver was transformed from sleepy and remote resource industry port town to its present brand as a “global city.”

In 1972 the Electors' Action Movement, or TEAM, won the council majority and the mayor’s chair on a platform that included opposition to a freeway that would have bisected downtown and wiped out neighbourhoods, and the change away from highrise construction outside of the downtown peninsula in favour of midrise and missing middle forms. Less well known but likely as important in the longer term was the initiation of over a score of local area plans formed in collaboration with neighbourhood groups.

Vancouver histories usually identify this as the moment when a more consultative strategy took the wheel at city hall.

Much of the way our city looks, from the residential infill housing in Kitsilano, to non-market housing at False Creek South and Champlain Heights, to the Seawall expansions, to the tower districts in Yaletown and Coal Harbour, is the physical legacy of that shift.

The existing form of the city embodies that spirit of “gentle density” favoured by residents, a form which disguises the fact that over 100,000 new housing units would eventually be included in neighbourhoods outside of the downtown peninsula.

It’s fair to say that during these decades, ceding power to citizens was simply an assumed best practice.

But that was then and this is now. Motivated by our new dependence on the real estate industry to provide an ever-expanding tax base (and the jobs that go with it), and the severity of the housing crisis that is its corollary, we find ourselves shifting to a former model, where dominant corporations, now almost entirely real estate corporations, hold sway — driven by the idea that letting unfettered investment capital is the best way to ensure a healthy city.

Let’s push back even earlier. In 1936, Vancouver changed how it chose city council members in the hopes of making local level democracy more “professional and efficient.” The previous government of the city, based on “ward representation,” was scrapped in favour of “at large” representation where each member of council represented not just one district, but the whole city.

Those who backed the “at large” model did so, in part, because it would undercut the strength of the emergent labour left on the east side of the city. The problem with Vancouver’s new at large system was that it eroded the connection of elected officials to the voters in specific city districts.

The end of the Second World War began a new era of infrastructure development. Given this burst of growth a “council/manager” system was instituted in the city, mirroring corporate management principles. The intent was to insulated decision-making from partisan politicking. Yet this too diminished opportunities for citizen engagement, while making local democracy more and more structured around “expert” managed, corporate style government.

Then came the 1970s when the pendulum swung hard away from the expert, corporate model for who called the shots. The newly seated TEAM council replaced the former city planner with Ray Spaxman, who was hired based on his community-focused planning model for the by now rapidly changing city.

Spaxman and the council who hired him adhered to a much more consultative model of planning than in the past. This resulted in the creation of dozens of separate neighbourhood plans and the transformation of former industrial sites into mixed use midrise and highrise communities, with new housing largely affordable to most city wage earners.

That model of citizen-involved urban planning is now largely forgotten and even maligned by some as a blueprint for NIMBY obstruction. However we are poised to sacrifice much if we accept the new order. We lose a fundamental aspect of civic democracy. We lose any feeling that local area citizens have any democratic agency and are mere consumers of city housing and associated services. We lose the most immediate and local core of democratic action.

Tonight as the Local Democracy Project holds one in a series of events on local democracy and sustainable city design, we hope to bring some of these contradictions and complications to light, and encourage city and provincial leaders to more clearly identify the real issues. After all, local democracy might not be the reason for our current conundrums. It might just be the solution.

Join us tonight at 7 p.m. at UBC Robson theatre to engage in this debate. Free tickets are still available; please register.

A livestream of the event is available for viewing remotely.  [Tyee]

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