Ned Jacobs: Vision Vancouver council has abandoned promises to the community

By Ned Jacobs

The Vision Vancouver-dominated city council was elected last fall based on a platform of citizen engagement, openness, improved process, community consultation, and grassroots neighbourhood-based planning. To date, the Vision mayor and councillors have reneged on all of these promises.

Council continues to disregard the community in favour of the development industry. Public process is not improving; in fact, it is getting worse. During the election campaign and at the beginning of the term, citizens were assured that they would be included early and often in the decision-making process. Instead, staff reports are made public with even less time for review and comment than under the previous council, and “block” voting by Vision Vancouver sends a clear message that decisions have already been made behind closed doors.

This is a huge problem because governments and their “experts” are often wrong. A prime example of this is the Strathcona community’s successful effort in the late 1960s to block urban renewal and a highway through their neighbourhood. Consequently, Vancouver is one of the few cities in North America whose downtown is not burdened with an expressway. These actions, inspired in part by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, led to saving the heritage districts of Gastown and Chinatown, and to the “city of neighbourhoods” bottom-up approach to community planning—major reasons that we are internationally lauded for our livability and sustainability.

In 2002, planning staff proudly showed Jacobs the recently completed “Arbutus Walk”, but neglected to explain that this neighbourly and architecturally diverse redevelopment of a former brewery site was the result of action by the community to stop a dismal towers proposal. Civic battles are wasteful of everyone’s time, energy, and resources. Timely and meaningful public input is essential for a successful planning process. When it is absent or disregarded—which has recently been the case in Vancouver—the development industry and other influential special interests inevitably gain control, trust deteriorates, and planning becomes fractious and over-politicized.

For example, council passed the Short Term Incentives for Rentals program on June 18, 2009, without adequate public consultation. Vision councillors announced that their civic “partners” were the development industry, declaring that there was no need for further public process because “the consultation was the election”. Only COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth (David Cadman was away) and the NPA’s Suzanne Anton opposed STIR, due to lack of public consultation, lack of affordability provisions, and many other concerns. Such disregard for civic democracy and due process is shocking and demonstrates the urgency of implementing meaningful campaign-finance reform.

STIR waives development cost levies, relaxes parking requirements, and potentially uses city-owned lands for new market rentals, at rates that most renters cannot afford. Because DCLs currently subsidize affordability and pay for the public amenities that help make Vancouver livable (especially for those with low or moderate incomes), this amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Height and density bonuses would undermine heritage incentives and the Heritage Density Bank and preclude local area planning. The temporary rentals could even be sold as condos after only 20 years. Because rate of change policies that protect existing rentals do not apply in commercial zones, the Downtown Eastside, and the heritage districts, STIR projects in those areas could actually result in a net loss of affordable rentals

The suggestion that STIR will provide affordability by increasing supply is inaccurate, as the number of rentals produced over the two and a half year program would have little impact on vacancy rates. But it establishes problematic precedents (such as waiving DCLs) that developers are lobbying to make permanent. Vancouver never should have allowed strata-only developments in the first place. We should take corrective action through inclusionary zoning, successfully adopted in many cities, which requires some purpose-built rentals (usually 10 percent to 30 percent) in all new developments—without special incentives.

Meanwhile, council has not followed through with numerous promises made to the community. The city is continuing with the CityPlan Vision Implementation Review, which undermines the neighbourhood-based planning that Mayor Gregor Robertson and his party supported during the civic election. The unsupported EcoDensity initiative, primarily a greenwashed grab-bag for developers, is still policy. EcoDensity’s one-size-fits-all, top-down planning is being used to override approved community visions, which allow for increased housing options and density, including laneway infill, through a community-supported process.

The public have clearly indicated that they want council to respect neighbourhood character and community voice rather than handing the city over to the development industry. Vision Vancouver may be counting on their development “partners” to pay off their campaign debt, but they would be wise to remember that it was voters who put them into council seats.

Ned Jacobs is a founding member of the Riley Park/South Cambie Community Vision Committee and Community Advocates for Little Mountain. He was at the mayor’s roundtable on rental housing representing the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver network. Ned assisted Jane Jacobs with her last book, Dark Age Ahead.



Smart Person

Jul 10, 2009 at 2:06am

Why does anyone pay attention to this guy, anyway? He is someone who is just trading on his mothers name and happens to be very mouthy. Pay him no attention.

Think City

Jul 10, 2009 at 10:25am

The concerns raised by Ned Jacobs are part of a bigger problem city hall faces.

Citizens feel they are left out of important civic decisions. Neighbourhoods have no real representation at city hall. Vancouver`s elections have the lowest participation rate of Canada`s big cities. Political donations are not subject to limits or full disclosure. And without spending limits, our civic parties shovel millions into winning council seats.

We have a democratic crisis in this city.

Citizen involvement and engagement has been a top concern for Think City and its thousands of supporters. In the lead up to last fall`s election, we advocated for five significant democratic reforms (see

The Mayor said he strongly supported our five polices. As well, his party also campaigned on creating a citizen engagement unit. If these items were all implemented, Vancouver could become the most democratic city in Canada by 2012 (see OUR VIEW: Democratic Race Good for Cities

Think City hopes the mayor listens to the critics and gets on with delivering on his election promises.

With just over two years left in its mandate, this council can still help our city turn the democratic corner.

Neil Monckton,
Think City Board Chair


Jul 10, 2009 at 2:27pm

Ned is absolutely correct. Vision made a lot of promises during the campaign to be more open and cosult with the public more often. Instead we are finding out that the Mayor and Vision council have had far more "in camera" secret meetings and made very bad decisions because they never had public consultations. To make matters worse, it appears Robertson has gone into hiding (again) in order to avoid hearing any criticism for some of his bad decisions. This does not promote confidence or goodwill. Vision is doing a great job at alienating citizens as well as supporters now that we can see just how cozy they are with developers. In essence, we've been lied to.

Joseph Jones

Jul 10, 2009 at 5:56pm

Yesterday (July 9th) saw the final meeting of CityPlan's Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre working group before summer. Fifteen meetings so far in 2009. Halfway through the meeting the city planner in charge took pains to inform the group: "This is not a democratic process. No consensus is expected." At the end of the meeting a citizen-produced synthesis (two concept plans with statement of priorities for future development) was presented and then supported by two-thirds of the working group members present. Norquay will provide a litmus test for Vision Vancouver's commitments to neighborhood-level planning and citizen engagement.


Jul 10, 2009 at 9:26pm

The history of top-down planning is punctuated with dynamite, the kind used to implode the "great" urban developments of the 1960s. Mass rezonings, urban renewal, and feckless "neighbourhood centre" planning exercises are all horrific and failed planning tools. In fact, the only real tools here are the politicians who promote these schemes as payback to the special interests who paid for their campaigns. At this rate, Vancouver will become the next Detroit, or worse, as bullets surpass penthouse condos as the new currency of life.

james green

Jul 11, 2009 at 12:56am

There is no doubt that Ned is correct and that this council must wake up to the democratic process in Vancouver. It is not too late for the Mayor and Vision to adhere to their promises. We as citizens must pressure for an end to councils and mayors who are bought and paid for my the fat cats in this city and the developement community. I for one believe that Gregor Robertson will change if he can separate himself from the Kingsway NDP Mafia and the like of Mike MaGee, Geoff Meggs, Raymond Louie, Tim Stevenson and the others who base all they do on getting even and corrupt political behaviours.