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Where Should We Draw the Line On Expert Planning Power?

Urbanarium's last debate pits populism against skill.

By Christopher Cheung 12 May 2016 |

Christopher Cheung is editorial assistant for The Tyee. Find him on Twitter @bychrischeung.

Nothing sets nerves on edge in Vancouver quite like the idea of a neighbourhood plan. Letters and petitions flood city hall, residents crowd public hearings, and candid outbursts light up Twitter under the #vanpoli tag.

Fitting then that the last topic in the crossfire at Urbanarium's City Debate was a hot one for Vancouverites who like to make their voices heard. "Let Experts Plan" was the fifth in the series on urban issues hosted by Urbanarium -- a non-profit group of academics, city planners and citizens -- in partnership with the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

The late urban issues writer Jane Jacobs, an idol of many city lovers, once wrote, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." But while it can be argued that residents know where best to put roads, parks and newcomers, experts provide technical oversight and forward thinking that current residents sometimes lack.

None of the debaters disagreed that planning needs to be a collaborative process. The debate was over where to draw the line on the power of experts.

Arguing for more reliance on experts were Judy Rudin, a communications consultant, and prominent local architect, developer, and planner, Michael Geller. Arguing against them on the con side, urging more power to the public in planning, were Charles Campbell, a writer and former editor who now works with the Grandview-Woodland Citizens' Assembly (and who occasionally appears in The Tyee), and Michael Kluckner, heritage advocate and author/artist best known for his book, Vanishing Vancouver.

At the start of the evening, 56 per cent of the audience voted pro-experts for the final say, while 44 per cent voted con -- leave more to the public. Following the Oxford style of debating, the side that was able to sway the most audience members in a second vote at the end of the event would be deemed the winners.

Top-down or bottom-up?

Geller opened for the pro-expert side with examples of projects he has developed that were criticized by the public. One was a four-storey senior home in Kerrisdale that was deemed "out of scale." Another, that placed nine townhomes on a former three-home West Vancouver lot, was deemed to have "excessive density." To his relief, the projects were approved despite the public backlash.

Geller showed an old Christmas card he drew that featured residents telling Santa Claus to leave, poking fun at NIMBYs who didn't want anything in their neighborhood, not even Father Christmas. Despite experts approving certain projects for their suitability in a neighbourhood, Geller believes that if citizens were more empowered, "all these projects would've disappeared."

The con side's Campbell countered that a top-down approach to planning can be rigid and stifling. "Our communities are built from the ground up," he said. "Their unique charms and neighborliness come from citizens."

He cited popular elements of Vancouver that came from the "unofficial creativity" of citizens. The annual Car Free Day street festivals were started by community activists. Corner stores had zoning amended so they could serve food as residents lobbied the city for the change, seeking to breathe new life into old haunts. An artist placed a city-style sign at a park that read Dude Chilling Park (for a nearby sculpture called "reclining figure" of a vaguely anthropomorphic shape relaxing) and it was welcomed by the city as a permanent work of art.

"I want to be able to get together with my neighbours and plan my own block," Campbell said. "The job of the government is to enable innovation where it actually takes place."

Planning, politics, and property kingpins

There was consensus among debaters that the City of Vancouver's planning processes aren't perfect.

The con's Kluckner sees planners making choices based on economic benefit rather than the "social needs of the city."

"The relationship between planners and the property development industry is so problematic because they both see the city as a business opportunity, which is philosophically at odds with people who just want to do their jobs, meet their friends, raise their children, and be able to live with a reasonable amount of security as renters or owners," Kluckner said.

He calls city-building a three-legged stool of planners, the public, and property industry. "If any leg gets too long," he said, "the edifice becomes unstable."

The pro's Rudin had some advice for experts from an Amsterdam planner, Martin Weigel: "Don't just see planning-shaped problems. See people and neighbourhoods."

Power rivalry at city hall can also be a problem, said her debate partner Geller. He believes that city planners have had too short a leash under the authority of Vancouver's city manager and elected officials.

The democracy of a city

Debate moderator David Beers, founding editor of the Tyee, mused on the wider tension between experts and the general public in modern democracies. It's there when financial experts craft public budgets, professors choose what's taught to students, and, in Beers' field of journalism, the chance for the masses to scrutinize newsmakers.

The pro-expert Geller calls this implied egalitarianism in planning expertise a "tragedy." He stressed that collaboration is healthy, but that planners should have the final say. "We're beginning to believe that our personal opinions should trump not only the planners' individual expertise, but the collective expertise of the entire planning profession," he said.

The con's Campbell believes that extra public consultation is a good thing.

"We must always put citizens at the front of our efforts because sometimes institutions lose track of their responsibilities," said Campbell. "Here's what I suggest we plan for: an educated and engaged community today with power over its own circumstances. Those people must be able to hold the rule makers to account."

He shared a comment from a neighbour that captured the experience of following all the city's rules: "You didn't buy your house, you just bought the rights to use it the way the city tells you."

By the end of the evening, the final vote was 58 per cent pro and 42 per cent con. With two per cent of the audience members switching their vote, the side advocating to trust the pros was deemed the winner.

The last Urbanarium City Debate rounded out a program of discussions that earlier fought over the need for towers in Vancouver, where to put density, regulating affordability, and city-wide plans. In the fall, Urbanarium plans to expand its discussion schedule into other cities in Metro Vancouver.

While none of the debates solved the many issues heating up as the region grows, Jane Jacobs -- to whom debaters gave a call-out during the final debate -- would be pleased to hear concerned citizens voicing a healthy mix of opinions. After all, "cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."  [Tyee]

This article is part of a Tyee Presents initiative. Tyee Presents is the special section within The Tyee where we highlight contests, events and other initiatives that are either put on by The Tyee or by our select partners. We choose our partners carefully and consciously, to fit with The Tyee’s reputation as B.C.’s Home for News, Culture and Solutions. Learn more about Tyee Presents here.

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