Discover more from City Conversations
Fighting for the Soul of Vancouver
City Conversation # 42: The draft Vancouver Plan will destroy our city. Can we come together to resist?
Scarcely a day after the publication of my post, Is Vancouver Losing its Soul?, city staff released the 150-page draft Vancouver Plan, which they have scheduled for finalization and adoption within the next two months, by June 2022. This leaves little time for reflection, yet never before has it been more important to think before we act, to set aside the editorial for the substance. If you find, as I have, that there is little substance but much capacity in the Vancouver Plan to do damage to our city, you may wish to contemplate your means to resist. I have some suggestions.
When is a High-Rise a Mid-Rise? When the Vancouver Plan says so—Vancouver Plan Illustration, Page 48
I hate boiling down complexity to simplicity, but the breathtaking schedule for the adoption of the Vancouver Plan (hereafter the Plan) leaves little time for the kind of thoughtful consideration one would have expected in such a seminal document. In order to evaluate the 150-page Plan it becomes necessary to eliminate the extraneous content—fortunately, this is easy to do.
The Foundational Principles and Big Ideas Smokescreen
The three foundational principles that the Plan leads with are on the surface inarguable: reconciliation; equity; and resilience. Problem is little of the Plan’s content has anything to do with these. The summary words on Page 28 may be inspiring—unfortunately they are nowhere meaningfully implemented in the Plan. Specifically:
Reconciliation as explained on Page 29 involves the City’s apparent support of real estate development projects on the Jericho and Heather Lands, whose stated commitments to social and affordable housing are no more, perhaps less expansive than other projects in the city—all other reconciliation gestures are not components of a land use plan. Those who have viewed the latest plans for the Jericho Lands will be forgiven for wondering whose interests have been reconciled, whose ignored;
Equity as explained on Pages 31 & 32 and illustrated by a mapping of equity issues is self-described as inaccurate—again, there are no actionable Plan elements arising;
Resilience has at least some relationship to planning, although that is limited to the third of three Plan commitments: Invest in safe and adaptive buildings and infrastructure and improve access to basic needs for all. Unfortunately, the Plan provides no ideas how this is to be achieved. As the author of CMHC’s Residential Guide to Earthquake Resistance, I have some knowledge of these matters but they are as much building code as planning matters.
To evaluate the reality of the Plan, these foundational principles must be set aside.
As for the Big Ideas:
EQUITABLE HOUSING AND COMPLETE NEIGHBOURHOODS is nicely illustrated on Page 20 of the report: a cyclist dismounts on a tree-lined section of Main street bracketed by 4-6 storey buildings. The various bullet points are similarly innocuous, except for the third: Leverage transit investments to support growing neighbourhoods. This must be cover for the Broadway Plan and SkyTrain extension to UBC (UBCx) and the quarter million residents those draft plans illustrate—suffice it to say that involves way more than the low-rise buildings in the illustration—photos of downtown Chicago would be a more accurate portrayal of the Plan’s intent;
AN ECONOMY THAT WORKS FOR ALL shows us a Commercial Street café, no doubt one of the few not bankrupted by civic property taxes. The Plan is silent on what jobs will support the quarter million new residents filling the equitable housing and complete neighbourhoods;
CLIMATE PROTECTION & RESTORED ECOSYSTEMS shows a Vancouver Beach, rather than explaining how the amount of anticipated construction can coincide with the stated goal of making space for nature, protecting habitat, and ensuring "healthy, thriving ecosystems." A beach picture is easier than identifying where community facilities such as schools (we will need one third more) will be placed.
To evaluate the reality of the Plan, these Big Ideas must also be largely set aside—they are at best irrelevant. The transit investments mention is vacuously deceptive.
What are we left with?
Part 3 of the Plan, starting on Page 36, offers hope with its title, Land Use Strategy. The strategy starts off well: Manage growth by directing new housing to areas rich in amenities, and adding opportunities for new amenities and services in areas that are currently underserved. Unfortunately, this language deceives—there are no plans for additional schools, parks or community centres, the amenities most needed by occupants of new housing. Neither are there any plans for existing underserved areas.
The second bullet point here, Reinforce our role as the cultural and economic centre of the region, while managing growth to prioritize the health, happiness, and well-being of residents is just fluff—nothing a Plan can make into an action.
The third bullet point offers some hope—Encourage more sustainable and inclusive urban living by promoting affordable housing and jobs near transit, and where walking and biking can become the preferred way of getting around. There is absolute logic to this strategy, just no substance. The recent history and current projects in the city offer no evidence that the city is heading in this direction—affordable housing is vanishingly non evident and there is no consistent plan to require it, only inconsistent spot rezoning negotiations between developers and city staff, to which the public is never invited.
The fourth bullet point also sounds good: Strengthen existing and support new neighbourhood centres by allowing more homes around clusters of local shops, flexible work spaces, childcare, public spaces and arts and culture venues. Except existing zoning already allows, indeed supports this. We’re not seeing it because land inflation and ruinous commercial property taxes move development intentions to sites where city staff will entertain spot rezoned high-rise density that provides few if any of the named amenities.
The remaining two bullet points around corridors, greenways and ecology are indeed very important but irrelevant if the preceding Land Use Strategy elements are unsuccessful.
Surely, there’s more?
The remaining 100+ pages of the Plan should be where the strategies are described in detail, including how they will be implemented. Instead of this clarity, the Plan indicates in many places that staff will direct certain kinds of development to certain places, where for the past several years they have simply rubber stamped more than 350 spot rezonings that offer little except to the developer and condo investor. Elsewhere, the Plan restates what the expected character of areas and neighbourhoods will be, without offering any ways to get there, or indeed to maintain the character of areas while every block is available for at least two high-rise residential towers, some with a scattering of high priced rentals at their base.
There are many map diagrams in the Plan, characterized by muddy edges and colour identifiers so subtle that it becomes impossible to determine, for example, if a location is a Neighbourhood Centre, a Village or a Multiplex area:
Muddy edges everywhere—Page 44 of the Vancouver Plan
As previously occurred with the Jericho Lands, mid-rise has been magically changed from a maximum of six storeys to 12—never mind that the building code defines high-rise as anything over six storeys and livable city texts notice successful, livable cities like Paris and London call mid-rise six storeys or less and make it the essence of their character. Everything in the Plan is orders of magnitude higher and larger except in cities like New York, Shanghai, or Chicago. If these are the examples to be emulated, let’s be honest and say so.
It must be said that the urban design diagrams starting in Part 2 on Page 59 of the Plan are at best, naive, at worst insulting in their over simplification of Vancouver’s site, with our mostly North-South-East-West street grid, a high latitude (low sun angles and long shadows for much of the year), etc. This has been a consistent Planning Department theme for some time now—shadow diagrams have been misrepresented, models are viewed from several storeys in the air rather than at grade—it’s a long list of deceptions that appears to be working.
Neighbourhood design guidelines (Page 65)—nothing more needs to be said about the Plan’s disdain for Vancouver’s 20+ traditional neighbourhoods than their replacement by a half dozen new, made-up generic neighbourhood types based on building types lacking, I don’t know, history, for starters—not to mention capturing the entirety of new design guidelines on a single page of the Plan.
Six neighbourhood types is plenty in the Vancouver Plan — Page 65
This is a plan full of 21st-century platitudes and bereft of substance. If adopted, it will enable city management and staff to continue their years long practice of spot rezoning a pox of development across our city, so that no resident of any neighbourhood will know how long their neighbourhood, their street, their view, their green space, their access to light will be preserved, or even respected. We need to set aside as meaningless Big Ideas and foundational principles that result in discretion being exercised by city management and staff who have little memory or appreciation of Vancouver’s character and history.
Call to Action—Time to Fight Back
You can take yet another online survey about the draft Vancouver Plan, offered by the City until April 24—that’s 2-1/2 weeks for the public to respond to a plan years in the making. Get your family, friends and neighbours to participate. You can also attend city-sponsored information sessions and “pop up” events, however only the survey allows you to record your opinions. Staff will curate responses as has become their practice. In these circumstances, now may not be the time for nuanced responses like neutral or somewhat like or dislike. Just sayin’.
Recently, I have been approached by members of several neighbourhood organizations concerned about one or more areas of the city: the Jericho Coalition; the Fairview/South Granville Action Committee; the Kitsilano Coalition; and the Grandview Woodlands Area Council, to name a few. If you live in those areas, join with them in their concerns about our city. The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods brings together 21 city neighbourhoods—contact them or visit their website for referral to concerned citizens where you live.
CityHallWatch is my go-to blog for details about what’s happening across the city—their analyses are simply the best. Follow them.
Vancouver’s civic election is in late October of this year. Lots of damage in addition to the Vancouver Plan may be done by the current Council, city management and staff before that date—and it will continue, and worsen, unless TEAM for a Livable Vancouver elects a majority (6 of 10) City Councillors—less than 6 and not much will change. If you are concerned that what you’ve just read is an example of what’s wrong with our city, and want to bring back its livability, join TEAM and work with us to restore Vancouver as a place we can all afford to call home.
It only required two generations to create a Vancouver that was the envy of the world. Unless we stop the destruction of our city’s soul, it will take less than a single generation to destroy that work and the city it created.
“Departure” by George Lundeen — photo by Brian Palmquist
Today’s question: Do you support the draft Vancouver Plan? Why or why not?
I read and respond to all comments made below. If you found this post to be informative and thought provoking, consider becoming a free subscriber to City Conversations at
Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired for the moment, still teaching and writing, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election. City Conversations are generally congruent with TEAM policy, so if you like the ideas that I’m writing about, please consider joining TEAM.