By Ned Jacobs
On December 9, 2008, a Heritage Hall reception for the newly elected city council was hosted by the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver network of community groups. Mayor Gregor Robertson thanked several hundred citizens in attendance “for all the work that you’ve done to represent your neighbourhoods, to actually pull together in a cohesive way what your neighbourhoods are...what they mean to the people who live there—and to put that forward and make a political statement out of it. It’s been the only thing really that pushed back effectively against the branding of EcoDensity. And when you say the word EcoDensity, well, it sounds kind of good—sounds reasonable, and something we should get behind. But the reality of it, I think, is very different.”
Robertson asserted, “We want the grassroots to have serious voice at city hall. What we want to see happen is a fundamental change in the way that city hall involves people in Vancouver.”
At its final meeting before the August break, council asked the city manager “to facilitate a citizens’ summit series as part of an ongoing process of improving engagement on public policy and planning decisions in Vancouver”.
On the surface this appears to be in accord with the commitments made by Robertson at the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver reception, and with the Vision Vancouver platform which pledged to “increase accountability, transparency, and access to City Hall with new opportunities for engagement, and improved outreach and consultation on major issues”.
In practice, however, Vision has been continuing the same policies and centralized top-down approach to community planning and public engagement that characterized the previous Non-Partisan Association-dominated council. This suggests that these citizens’ summits may be intended primarily as a public-relations distraction.
It has also been revealed that Vision is deeply indebted to developers, realtors, and others whose interests depend on municipal policies. Vision councillors insist that campaign contributions would never affect their decisions. The donors (whose gifts are not tax deductible) think otherwise. Some have even boasted about their influence on council, and Vision councillors now refer to the development industry as “our partners”. The Coalition of Progressive Electors does not accept contributions from developers, and largely due to the efforts of Ellen Woodsworth, municipal campaign-finance reform is being taken up by the Union of B.C. Municipalities. What will become of it remains to be seen.
The development industry does not want meaningful public involvement in planning, or housing policies that would limit profitability. As a result, council has failed to follow through on many commitments, including affordable private-sector housing. Despite incentives subsidized by Vancouver taxpayers, market rentals built under the Short Term Incentives for Rental program will be affordable to only about a third of renters, who continue to be displaced at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, the Vision election commitment to implement inclusionary zoning policies—which would make affordable rentals a requirement in new developments and help constrain land speculation—has been ignored. As long as Vision is putting their “partners’” interests ahead of the citizens that elected them, the value of these summits is questionable, at best.
The latest broken promises are a complete about-face on a Vision pledge to “oppose the transfer of density from the downtown Heritage Density Bank [awarded to property owners in return for heritage retention] onto landing sites outside of the currently approved areas into communities across the city”. This was approved at a special committee meeting on July 28 while the COPE councillors were on leave of absence. If allowed to stand, this decision will result in financial benefits far above what are needed to protect heritage buildings, with lost opportunities for public amenities and affordable housing. It would override local area plans and community visions, despite Vision assurances that these would be “the primary basis for future planning in Vancouver neighbourhoods”.
Citing a need for more “consultation”, Coun. Raymond Louie amended the motion, but, in an Orwellian twist, actually removed the words “in consultation with stakeholders” from the part dealing with the identification of sites for density transfers outside the central area. In other words, at the same meeting that council approved a citizens’ summit series for “improving citizen engagement on public policy and planning decisions”, they voted to drop stakeholder consultation on a matter of vital importance to public policy and planning. One can only conclude that having reversed their policy, they don’t want to hear about it from the public.
At the subsequent special council meeting, the councillors who were present largely ignored the many concerns of the Riley Park/South Cambie CityPlan Committee regarding the Cambie Corridor planning program, approving terms of reference that jeopardize the most affordable rental apartments in West Side Vancouver and the small businesses of Cambie Village.
Under the previous council, staff dropped surveys from the neighbourhood centres planning program (after the Norquay Village survey failed to produce the results they were looking for). Before the election, Robertson and Vision agreed that “there should be a larger role for scientific polling and referenda in determining the level of public support for major civic policy decisions”. The program for the Cambie Corridor study area, which encompasses 450 blocks and more than 13,000 households, is one of the largest planning policy initiatives ever undertaken by Vancouver, yet includes no provisions for surveys. Nor have surveys been reinstated in the Norquay process.
Then, despite having agreed “to craft new zoning to give incentives to retain, upgrade and densify existing character buildings to optimize the reuse of embodied energy and promote affordability”, council approved a city-wide rezoning bylaw that makes laneway housing prohibitively expensive for most homeowners who want to retain the main existing house, but encourages demolition and replacement of an existing home. This concluded a day that likely set a record for most promises broken by a Vancouver city council.
In 1886, a mayor and 10 councillors, elected at large, were thought adequate to govern Vancouver. That hasn’t increased, but the population and number of neighbourhoods sure has! Engaging with communities and understanding complex issues well enough to make considered decisions is time-consuming. Consequently, the dominant party delegates responsibility for whole areas of policy to just one or two of their members. Additionally, partisan “block” voting means that in practice decisions are almost always made prior to council meetings. Don’t waste your time (or ours) is the message conveyed to delegations. Council has consequently come to rely heavily on the city manager and senior staff, routinely rubber-stamping recommendations, often despite well-considered public dissent. Exceptions are rare, and apt to be in response to billboard companies and big developers, not citizens.
The bureaucracy exploits council’s dependency by distorting public input to support predetermined outcomes. For example, in reporting public input, the director of planning gives no greater weight to community groups than to individuals, and has characterized submissions that included significant objections to what was being proposed as “favourable” to staff recommendations. Prior to the election, Vision agreed “that city staff should be objective and unbiased in the solicitation, analysis and reporting of public opinion to council”. These and other abuses of the existing public engagement system provoke cynicism, which in turn feeds both apathy and backlash at the expense of the community-based collaborative process intended by CityPlan, which is now suffocating under the top-down, developer-oriented EcoDensity policy.
Despite Mayor Robertson’s strong criticism of EcoDensity—and praise for those who opposed it—he has yet to follow through on his party’s commitment to “address outstanding concerns related to the EcoDensity Initial Actions and their implementation”, lending credence to NPA councillor Suzanne Anton’s droll observation that “This mayor and council are pushing EcoDensity harder than ever. They’re just not letting that word escape their lips.”
If this citizens’ summits initiative had been brought forward at the beginning of the year, I would have been unreservedly enthusiastic. A public conversation leading to changes in how Vancouver is governed is long overdue. But assuming that these summits result in broadly supported recommendations, will they actually be implemented? While I would certainly encourage participation, public-spirited citizens must not let these summits serve as a distraction while the current malaise continues to worsen.
Given the string of broken commitments, it would be naí¯ve not to regard these citizens’ summits with a healthy dose of scepticism. If the majority on council are genuinely committed to restoring meaningful public participation in policy making, they will take decisive action now by honouring the commitments they made to the electorate regarding public process and planning policies.
Ned Jacobs is a founding member of the Riley Park/South Cambie CityPlan Committee and of Community Advocates for Little Mountain. He has served as a spokesperson for Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver and as a guest speaker at the UBC school of community and regional planning and the SFU urban studies program.