Urban issues of the past keep bubbling up and resurfacing in full force. The relationship between housing costs and income earned in Vancouver has broken down in recent years. Vancouver City Councillor Adriane Carr has an insightful message for those trying to understand what is going on. “You can’t know where to go, unless you know from whence you came,” she says.

“You can’t know where to go, unless you know from whence you came.”

And that theme was precisely what carried conversations at Milestones 2017: A Dialogue on Events that Changed Vancouver, hosted by the Vancouver City Planning Commission.

Milestones 2017 provided a rare opportunity for the city and its residents to review transformative planning and development decisions from 2017. Indeed, hot topics reverberated around the packed room at the forum at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, hosted in partnership with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

From the new Housing Vancouver Strategy and the housing crisis, to the Development Permit Board decision that led to the inspirational rise of organized community activism, panellists and attendees alike dove into a range of urban issues to analyze what had happened last year. The event was a valuable demonstration of how decisions made in the past can educate, inform and advise decision-making moving forward.

The event was a valuable demonstration of how decisions made in the past can educate, inform and advise decision-making moving forward.

Leading the discussion this year was a panel with pointedly diverse fields of expertise: Paul Kershaw, UBC professor and founder of Generation Squeeze; Melody Ma, Chinatown organizer and activist; Gordon Price, former city councillor and director at the SFU City Program; and Ouri Scott, award-winning Tlicho Dene architect specializing in indigenous design and sustainable infrastructure. Sandra Singh, Chief Librarian of the Vancouver Public Library, moderated the discussion.

Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Crisis

To no surprise, housing affordability was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. If the panelists and audience made one thing abundantly clear that night, it was that Vancouver was in the midst of a crisis. While Kershaw applauded the bold revisions of the new Housing Vancouver Strategy, he also identified opportunities to do more, including tax restructuring, strategies to ease supply inequality, and deterrents to harmful demand.

The panellists kept coming back to the topic of the single-family home. For some, the single-family home has come to symbolize unequal distributions of wealth and opportunity, and differences in generational pressures. As Kershaw lamented, “Children can no longer afford to live in neighbourhoods they grew up in.” Scott added that the increasing difficulty of finding suitable housing in Vancouver impacts health and liveability for young families.

“Children can no longer afford to live in neighbourhoods they grew up in.”

Widespread design inefficiencies in Vancouver’s current real estate supply further compound the issue from Scott’s perspective, and she urged that the real estate industry can do better. We live in a “city of glass walls”—an environmentally unsustainable design—and it is not built with families in mind.

Ma dismissed the “single-family home” as a class of zoning that does not accurately reflect the reality of today’s living conditions.  “They were never single-family homes, it no longer describes the reality. They should be called single detached home or low density, because that is descriptive of the built form and not the sociological family unit,” she said, pointing to the fact that multiple families may cohabit under one roof.

The challenges Vancouver faces won’t be solved overnight or by the City alone.

While Price cautioned that “cities shouldn’t heavy-handedly bulldoze single-family homes,” he too agreed that appropriate densification is needed. However these feats will not come without resistance. Drawing his experiences as a city councillor in the 1990s, Price noted “changes to scale and character—I can’t think of any existing community in this city that has ever accepted that.” While panelists agreed that change is needed, the challenges Vancouver faces won’t be solved overnight or by the City alone. As Scott suggested, slowing the pace could afford us the time and space we need to engage in important and meaningful conversations.

Development Permit Board Decision

The themes of dialogue and the pace of development also emerged during discussion about another proposed milestone—the Development Permit Board’s (DPB) rejection of Beedie Living’s 105 Keefer application.  This historic victory for local community activists was reminiscent—for some—of demonstrations from the mid-1960s against integrating freeways through the Downtown core, largely organized by the Chinatown community. Today, the plight against luxury condo development calls out for heritage conservation and housing affordability in one of the city’s poorest, yet historically rich neighbourhoods.

The controversy was not lost on the panel. On one side, Price disagreed with the DPB’s actions based on the grounds that it is neither the responsibility nor the role of the Board to make political decisions, and the decision should have been passed back to Council for consideration. For context, Council had rejected Beedie’s rezoning applications multiple times over a period of years. From Price’s perspective, the DPB overstepped its boundaries, with potential legal and jurisdictional ramifications.

“[W]e’re not building in brownfields or greenfields, but in neighbourhoods with longstanding living heritage. This means working with the existing community genuinely and collaboratively.”

For Ma and the Chinatown community, the decision recognized the embedded historic value of the site, and the developer’s design simply did not conform to neighbourhood standards. “Painting the door red,” as a culturally appropriative and tokenistic gesture, is not enough. Pointedly, Ma noted that we’re not building in brownfields or greenfields, but in neighbourhoods with longstanding living heritage. This means working with the existing community genuinely and collaboratively.

Politics and Activism

Community members at a press conference opposing the project at 105 Keefer Street. Credit: Melody Ma

The DPB milestone was a conversational catalyst for much broader pertinent issues around development regulation, legalities and community activism. While Price reminded the room about the processes and protocols behind municipal governance and decision-making, Scott raised a more complex and pressing question: “Where is the role for advocacy?” Kershaw responded, “Politics responds to those who organize and show up, and we’re actually not very good at doing that. We are less likely to cast a ballot, and more importantly in my mind, we are less likely to organize before elections to shape platforms and to show up to important decision-making moments—except 105 Keefer.”

“Politics responds to those who organize and show up, and we’re actually not very good at doing that.”

For Kershaw and the rest of panelists, the strategic mobilization of the Chinatown community exemplified powerful and inspiring civic engagement. It was beacon of hope, showing the capacity and conviction of Vancouverites to organize, take charge, and shape what they’d like to see, or not see, in their communities. It is the kind of stewardship and social synergy that drives progress and innovationin times of crisis.

The status quo—Kershaw continued—was failing, leaving the City and its officials in a precarious state where they must balance the past with the present; the old with the new. How well these balancing acts are performed was the name of the game. The question then becomes: Where do we go from here? How do we tap into the power that was mobilized in Chinatown? How do we contain our cynicism for politics and drive the political will to move forward? The answers, it seems, remain to be seen.

Missing Milestones

Insite is a supervised drug injection site accessible to street drug users.

While a list of emerging milestones of 2017 was methodically vetted by the VCPC through a workshop and survey, one major topic of the year was left off the table: the fentanyl crisis—an issue that hit close to home for Scott.

As a Downtown Eastside resident, the architect chose an evocative word to describe what she observes on the third Wednesday of every month: trauma. The inundation of sirens, the profusion of needles, used condoms and overdoses—it is traumatic for residents, for children to witness, for DTES communities and for medical respondents. It is a cycle that repeats every month. She expressed the dire need to include the drug epidemic into planning, and is not difficult to understand why.

“Health does not start at medical care, it is a lifelong process that starts in our cities. It is therefore a city planning issue.”

Underscoring the need for the City to offer citywide overdose and crisis centres and safe-disposal sites, she asks, “How do we reduce harm? How do we develop resiliency so that our children do not become drug users, that the problem does not get worse?” It is a solemn reminder that the rising opioid crisis is not only a problem of health, but one that inherently includes planning. Succinctly summarized by Kershaw, health does not start at medical care, it is a lifelong process that starts in our cities. It is therefore a city planning issue.

Closing Thoughts

As expected from the diversity within the panel, milestones were weighed and responded to differently according to individual expertise and backgrounds. Topics were evaluated based on whether panelists approved of the City’s actions, and what the implications may be. While disagreement arose, it was largely accepted that these differences bestowed more value than harm. Moreover, it was noted that it is easy to fixate on cynicism, but progress (even slow progress) is worthy of celebration.

While disagreement arose, it was largely accepted that these differences bestowed more value than harm.

Political divisiveness made a resurgence in 2017 in Vancouver and beyond, but one must remember: politics serve as the one of the platforms —if not the only one— on which uncomfortable yet imperative conversations can happen. But then that is the nature of change, and, as Vancouver has learned in this past year, conversations around change are uncomfortable. They are unsettling. They challenge us to think and act both innovatively and collaboratively.

Five years from now, the VCPC will review the emerging milestones recorded for 2017. With the keen eye of hindsight, the Commission will look back at which events, actions, decisions and policies truly played transformative roles in Vancouver’s history. Until then, we look forward to what the next few years will bring in the world of local planning and development.

 

—This article was written by Frankie Mao, a VCPC volunteer.