Pete Fry: Portland city planning really involves citizens

Vancouverites recently heard the news that some of the city’s largest underdeveloped greyfield sites — the 21-hectare Jericho Garrison site and another 8.5 hectares near Cambie and 33rd — are being reconsidered in a new partnership between First Nations and the Crown. The Jericho Lands especially offer some of the most significant land-use opportunities in Vancouver’s recent history. The question is, what is the best way to plan and truly engage citizens in delivering what we want?

In a city with such scarcity of land and affordable housing, this news might be welcome. But land use and development potential have been ongoing sources of anxiety for many, particularly in light of the financial relationships between the development industry and Vancouver’s two leading political dynasties, Vision Vancouver and the NPA.

Given past failed public consultation processes, the lack of an overall city plan and the nagging suspicion that developer campaign contributions might carry some expectation of favouritism, citizens are rightly concerned about what form and type of development will be built where and what amenities they can expect. While the potential of these parcels will mean economic benefits and jobs for the region, many rightfully wonder who will really benefit from developing these sites.

City staff have already promised that the future of these sites will be determined in conjunction with public consultation. But if ongoing lawsuits and frustrated, angry neighbourhood groups are indicative, the city’s six-year record on planning and consultation isn’t good.

My own experience working on the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan was certainly frustrating. For one, critical details like defining social housing and built form weren’t discussed during the two-year process. Despite requests, details that calculated development profit potentials weren’t made available to us. As a result, most committee members — a diverse cross-section of stakeholders — refused to support the plan.

Now, in the wake of overwhelmingly negative response to their Grandview Woodland Local Area Plan and prescribed tower redevelopment, the ruling Vision Vancouver council has reset that planning process as a randomized community reference panel.

Randomly chosen citizens, representing a socio-economic and cultural sampling of the area, will work together with city staff and hired consultants to draft a new vision for the community. It’s been described by Vision councillor and chairwoman of planning Andrea Reimer as one that could change the way planning is done citywide.

Ostensibly, the idea of randomly selected committee members is a good one but, by its nature, this process is flawed. A random selection of citizens can’t reasonably be expected to deliver the capacity, insight and history needed to guide this process. Instead, it will be lead by the city in a top-down approach.

Is this the best way to plan or to meaningfully engage community?

I recently travelled to Portland, Ore., to meet with city officials, staff, planners, and citizens to learn how they do things differently. At the heart of Portland planning — which seems to permeate all aspects of citizen-to-city relations — is the idea of empowered communities.

Ninety-six different neighbourhood associations are afforded official status, funding, resources and even staffing through a network of district coalitions. Neighbourhood associations are expected to maintain open, inclusive memberships and follow standardized rules. In exchange, they have a very powerful voice in how the city operates.

This was most evident in the Pearl District — Portland’s Yaletown — a former rail yard area reinvented as a mixed-use residential area. The Pearl boasts an impressive amount of affordable, inclusionary zoning, architecturally-sensitive design even in tower form, and lively, inclusive public spaces.

While Portland, like Toronto, benefits from a slightly different city charter that allows its economic development agency to finance urban renewal through tax-increment financing, the key to their planning success was developers and staff working with residents in an open, transparent urban design process, coupled with extensive use of design charrettes.

Design charettes are a collaborative process for consulting with stakeholders and have been successfully employed in developing urban plans worldwide. For a city with such dysfunctional community planning relationships as Vancouver, it might be surprising that one of the foremost experts on design charrettes, Patrick Condon, chair of UBC’s urban design program, has successfully employed them in Surrey and North Vancouver.

Let’s look to a better way to plan Vancouver’s future together.

Strathcona resident and community advocate Pete Fry is a Green Party candidate for Vancouver council in next month’s election.