Does Vancouver need a city-wide plan?

That was the topic of an an Oxford-style debate hosted by hosted by the Urbanarium society in partnership with UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Robson Square on April 13.  UBC prof Patrick Condon and Councillor Andrienne Carr were arguing the pro side; Councillor Geoff Meggs and I, Gord Price, took the con argument.  While the majority of the audience voted for the pro side, Geoff and I were able to convince more people to shift their opinion – and hence won the debate.

The only coverage I’ve found was in The Tyee – “To Plan or Not to Plan? That’s Vancouver’s Question” by Christopher Cheung.  So for the record, here are my notes, some of which I actually followed.



What is meant by ‘plan’? If you mean a strategic plan, with broad goals and objectives, okay, we already have them in abundance.  In this case we don’t need a planner, we need an editor.

But if a plan is to provide certainty– so you can tell exactly what can be built on a site, with defined uses, density, heights, setbacks, etc. – you mean a Zoning and Development bylaw.  Which we already have.

Then the question is: do we undertake a city-wide planning process to, at one time, determine all those factors for every neighbourhood in the city to accommodate growth and change for the next 15 to 30 years?  That is an unrealistic, and even pointless, exercise.


If a city-wide plan is meant to override local objections in the name of a greater city-wide good and to represent the people not in the room (those who will be born or move here in the future), it would unite neighbourhoods against it – because it implies the people currently in the community are not the best ones to determine the future of their neighbourhood.


It will also take years to achieve the level of consultation that a neighbourhood plan undergoes.  See Grandview.  And the cost would be staggering.  If no significant new development is meant to be approved during that time, the consequences on the economy would be severe.

If the ultimate plan is meant to avoid spot rezonings, that would require a city-wide upzoning that would unleash development everywhere, unless some neighbourhoods would be frozen at existing levels.  And how would that be fair?  Planning would become an all-or-nothing exercise: all neighbourhoods get rezoned, or none.


The political capital to be spent is high, and the return on the investment likely to be low.

City Hall never goes into a neighbourhood and says ‘we’re here to change the character of your community.’  The outcome, then, is more likely to be an iteration of the status quo.  Which leaves the original intent of the plan unaddressed.

Even if the plan undertook to accommodate the needs of those not present – not born, not moved here, those who wouldn’t participate in the process – they would want consultation when development appears, and effectively another plan appropriate to their time and circumstances.  The plan would have a very limited shelf life.


If the desire is to have a plan that unites strategic plans with detailed zoning and development, we can take what we already have and put in the format of an OCP.  But that’s not planning, that’s editing.

We have evolved a form of community-based planning appropriate to our time and circumstances, capable of accommodating change incrementally.   It may not be city-wide, it may not even by some definitions be a plan.

But it’s ours and it works.


  1. A couple of notes

    City Hall never goes into a neighbourhood and says ‘we’re here to change the character of your community.’

    I am not sure it is how the residents of Joyce Collingwood understood it.: the city came and said: “the neighborood didn’t developed as expected: let’s do something about it:

    The city also never admitted that the whole process was triggered by Westbank wanting to build a 40 storey building at 5050 Joyce street.

    BTW, I have nothing against this kind of development at this particualr location (and the way the consultation rolled out neither), but it doesn’t harm to be true and open about how and why the things happen.

    The neighborhood doesn’t seem hostile either, but is more concerned about what he gonna get (so far the city vaguely promised to put some sidewalk here and there…): BTW, the nearby Wall development (Boundary#Vanness) generated $12M in CAC and DCC (+ laneway selling proceeding), from which the neighborood didn’t see a single cent so far.

    On a city wide plan
    In France, it is required by state law.
    May be that has some down side, but as a citizen, it is a single and law binding document you can refer to (no other document can contradict it), this with great certainty, which offer tremendous level of detail

    below is an extract of the one for the CIty of Rennes (France):

    (Each Avenue and Bld of the city get this kind of treatment),

    In this french urbanism document, there no much FSR consideration- it is pretty much an all form based plan -, and the height for new construction are set realistically at the difference of Vancouver (where there are set artifically low, in the expectation to get over ruled by backrrom deal), also notice that the plan not only imposes Maximum height but minimum height for new construction.

    The document is city wide, but now they plan to go metropolitan wide (43 municipalities) – it is a process planned to take 5 years, in the meantimes, the current plans apply (not sure I understand why the later could not happen in Vancouver), and one motivation seems to make sure that the metro urban devlopment plan align with other regional investment (such as rapid transit lines). That bring us to the next point:

    Grandview Woodland case.
    A tremendous failure: Here with the complicity of the city, some 40 self appointed residents have seized the planning process to decide that the better use of land surrounding a Multi Billion $ regional transit investment should be a community garden or something the like.

    All that is beyond sanity (There is an excellent article in the today Tyee on the topic).

    A city wide plan is not a collection of neighborhood plan, and could certainly have alleviated this pathetic planning failure. A city wide plan identifies areas where the general interest needs to prevail on the local one. Usually those areas are small, so that typically the political cost of locally unpopular choice can be well contained (or at least simialr to the one of promoting a subway all the way to UBC…)

    If to achieve all that, is just doing some editing work, let’s do it!

    1. Voony, GW is so much larger than the Broadway Station hub. And the citizen’s assembly was far from being “self-appointed.” The process of application-selection was very extensive and made every effort to provide demographic and income balance. It was overall a good model of public consultation that was a reaction to the fact the community felt completely imposed upon by the pressure of development. What I especially liked about the separate, concurrent workshop process was that it neutered (if imperfectly) the activists with narrow agendas from taking over a one-workshop process. Though council threw in a council-has-the-last-say clause, it would be extremely unwise to ignore community input (or to even give that impression). Vision almost lost the last election because of that.

      I have always agreed with the objectives of the Livable Regions Strategic Plan and the idea of linking density to rapid transit. However, the Plan didn’t fully account for the fine texture of established historic neighbourhoods. This is where local wisdom should come into play to balance with a regional (or city-wide) view. The GW assembly’s input on the station hub should be taken into account, but I think Frank’s suggestion below to move the hub into a Special Area study has a lot of merit, and it may well derive several alternatives that establish a compromise between local neighbourhood concerns and a regional objective.

      [I think the Cut should be decked over between Victoria and Commercial and the acreage devoted to open public space (plaza, park, perhaps a community building …..) as part of a dense Hub development.]

      We have to keep in mind that the entire GW community was initially extremely opposed to the huge imposition of a regional rapid transit project “railroaded” through the neighbourhood back in the mid-80s. There was a shameful lack of public consultation, and a lot of mockery of community activists by politicians like minister of transport Grace McArthy. Now, even the old leftist radicals in the neighbourhood who blasted the right-wing Social Credit government of the day over SkyTrain accept the huge value good public transit has brought to the city, and most of them have come to be dependent on the system.

  2. Closing comments from me, one of those who argued the city does in fact need a city wide plan, and that the four horsemen of the apocalypse would not descend on the city if it tried – particularly since the other 20 communities in the region seem to do it every four years without descending into civil instability.

    “For forty years, Vancouver citizens have worked, planned and worked some more – to make this city the envy of the world.

    Forty years of fighting threats – fighting freeway gashes that would have blocked our waterfront, cut a giant swath through Chinatown and Strathcona, and sent a tidal wave of sprawl from here to Hope. Forty years of fighting narrow minded experts, blind to the living breathing city right before their eyes.

    It is an insult to that legacy when our opponents claim that a city wide plan is not needed, or is doomed to fail – when they say we can only plan one area, or one project, at a time.
    It is an even greater insult when we are told that no city wide plan can help our sons and daughters stay here. That our young professionals “must (in words ascribed to Bob Rennie in the Walrus) be prepared to give up on the idea of living in the city. Instead, open their minds to moving to suburban areas”.

    Or, one supposes, to move even further away than that.

    It sounds so wrong. At the very moment when a tsunami of capital is washing over us, putting homes out of reach to all but the wealthy, our opponents tell us a city wide plan cannot stem this tide, cannot direct this ocean of capital to more productive ends.

    What a dramatic turn around. What disrespect for two generations of citizen inspired work, especially since it is now so clear our predecessor were right and the experts were wrong.
    What disrespect, when they successfully protected the city that they loved, while also created a welcoming setting for almost 200,000 new Vancouver residents.
    But today it’s not a proposed freeway that threatens us, but our own success, and our incapacity to manage it.

    Where is the new city plan that stems the exodus of our young people – at the same time welcoming change? The work of previous generations shows us – no, it proves to us – that by working together we can protect the things we love and open a door to a more equitable future. It proves to us that a democratically generated city wide plan is not only possible but is the very bedrock of our civic tradition.”

    Patrick Condon.

  3. Voony – extremely well said. I especially appreciate your comments about a citywide plan not just simply being a collection of local plans, that there are citywide interests that may need to overrule a LAP, but in hopefully very limited areas.

    To that point, the CityPlan process was indeed based on neighbourhood-level planning, with little or no overarching understanding of the citywide interest. Hence the protectionist nature of, for example, the Dunbar Vision. This was also true in the Centres Implementation Program (such as at Kingsway and Knight and Norquay Village, the only two centres actually CityPlan implemented with zoning, amenities, etc.), but where change was more acceptable to residents and businesses.

    While those two centre plans are, IMO, among the very best work the COV planning department has produced in recent years (despite, or perhaps because of, seemingly modest densities compared to, say, the West End Plan, etc.), I think we are now at the stage where citywide interests also have to be “in play”.

    For this to work, it cannot be just imposed at the end of the process, but clearly articulated and represented throughout the process. Left to themselves, most neighbourhoods will obviously not seek to maximize development potential, i. e. change. But to fundamentally undershoot or waste rare opportunities at, say, Commercial and Broadway, the affected community does run the risk of an imposed solution.

    A better way is to allow those few contentious development sites to be pulled out from the overall plan and treated as “special study areas” that will have their own separate, focused and time-certain process that includes all relevant interests, including both those of the City and the developer. The latter, to be fair to the community and the process, has to be willing to engage in a collegial and respectful way. The role of the city planner, or his/her designate, is central to a process if it is to find common ground for moving forward,

    1. thanks Franck. Regarding the suggestion below to move the hub into a Special Area study: I fully agree,

      In fact it is something I have already called for 3 years ago in this comment

      and to answer MB, that doesn’t mean there is no public consultation, but a one on a different perimeter able to better represent the city-wide (if not region wide) input, That rejoins the apropos link posted by Yuri.

  4. There are two great, open pits that lay in the path of establishing a city-wide plan.

    One is the Glass Dome that tends to descend on neighbourhoods to preserve them for the rest of time, like an ancient wasp in amber, and protect them from upzoning and development. A city-wide plan that is founded on this purely reactionary principle will be the antithesis of sound planning, like government by referenda, and would be disasterous from a regional planning perspective and as an economic and demographic pressure safety valve.

    Another is the Emperor Knows Best method where a certain sameness is imposed on the city by a few decision makers, a monoculture of urban form that could be realized in two extremes: protecting inner neighbourhood detached homes while elevating density on arterials; and overriding neighbourhoods with uniformly dense development over community objections.

    In both cases regional issues are inadequately addressed.

    One has to ask, what exactly is being protected? It is my view that the standard and large Vancouver lot with a detached home is now obsolete. This conclusion was reached as a part of a concern over city and regional land use planning long before “foreign money” became an issue in real estate.

    Now we have journalists, not planners or elected officials, controlling the narrative. To wit: Kerry Gold’s piece in the Walrus that is one part fact, one part inference, and one part paranoia, all based on highly incomplete research *, only to be followed by Jonathan Kay’s editorial in the same issue that expends a full page incongruously blaming left/green policies and the mayor for the foreign investor program and immigration policy. Land use and demographics were summarily dismissed as non-considerations while coming to the breathless conclusion that Vancouver will become Monaco by 2050. As if.

    * Clearly, these areas need provincial and federal investigations into foreign incomes.

    Why does a proponent for a city-wide plan use the influence of foreign money and immigration to support their position? It doesn’t make sense. And what exactly would be the hard form their vision takes under a city wide plan? In a transit response for Broadway that merely puts the Number Nine trolley bus on rails? On a formulaic academic exercise in low/mid rise urban design? On a failure to understand basic supply and demand economics?

    So far, the city-wide plan proponents make an emotional appeal that co-opts the well-worn references to killing the freeways and accepting immigration from all over the world. But based on the images, writings and published comments from their past, which largely ignore the Livable Regions Strategic Plan and downgrade the contribution of the highly urban planning efforts out there, and also on their opinions today that so easily roll in “foreign money” in the absence of accountancy, I have to say I am disappointed at the lack of detail and remain in the Edit camp because its feet are firmly planted on the ground.

    1. MB i think that the level of urgency around affordable housing and affordable entry level housing in particular is such that neighbourhoods would not want to be frozen in amber. This is not the reaction that i get when talking to neighbourhood groups.


    2. MB – as you probably know, Burnaby has an OCP, as does Surrey, Victoria, New West and every other municipality in BC. If Burnaby can do it, why can’t Vancouver? It’s not exactly Metropolis, for heaven’s sake.

    3. Patrick, there is indeed a high demand for affordable housing. However, 70% of the private land in Vancouver is still zoned to lock in the detached home on open lot vernacular, and has become nearly the singular focus of opinion on high housing (land) prices. The pressure to develop the remaining 30% with medium and high density development has been enormous since the 90s , and in several respects highly successful (e.g. downtown), but that pressure is now spilling over into established neighbourhoods, and the pushback is significant. There is a stunningly huge vacuum in ‘middle ground’ housing, most of which is attached and ground-oriented.

      To address affordability one has to address land planning, urban design and demographics along with foreign money. However, the Walrus article you referenced very quickly dismissed the first three elements in order to hyperventilate on foreign money with very little factual evidence and several tonnes of educated conjecture, and a dash of imaginative projection. That is my point.

      Frank, of course I am aware of the OCP process in Metro cities. By law they have to be updated every decade or so. However, I question the veracity of this process when there is still so much land use inefficiency and a dearth of quality urban design (with a few notable exceptions). In these terms I really don’t see the advantage of the OCP process over what we currently have under the Vancouver Charter; there is room for a universe of improvement all around.

      What I am concerned about is that the proponents of the city-wide plan idea may have one vision of what the plan should entail, one form of urbanism to impose, and base everything solely on the limitations of the popular opinion of today at the expense of tomorrow’s generations. I believe that we will shortchange our future if we are biased against Big City solutions where Big City solutions are justified and appropriate, and not address bringing zoning efficacy to the vast areas where land use is most inefficient, wealth and quantity of votes be damned.

  5. The Economist has an interesting perspective on the value of a city wide plan:

    “Most city-dwellers are not reflexively anti-growth; they merely prefer that building occur in other parts of their city, giving them the benefits of growth while sparing them many of the costs. But when battles over building unfold at the neighbourhood level, the affected residents have little reason to prioritise the citywide benefits over the local costs.

    Shifting the debate about new construction to the level of the city as a whole would change this dynamic. Representatives charged with thinking about the citywide loss from forgone development still have an incentive to push for limited development in their own neck of the woods. But it would be to their advantage to ensure that at least some building does in fact take place.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *