Those who attended a May 11 news conference at Vancouver City Hall may have left with the impression that UBC works closely with local communities. At this event, Mayor Gregor Robertson and UBC president Stephen Toope signed a memorandum of understanding to work cooperatively on sustainability initiatives.
UBC agreed to provide grants for 10 graduate students to work on long-term goals contained in the Vancouver 2020 report of the city’s Greenest City Action Team. The city agreed to provide wood waste from the park board to a UBC bioenergy demonstration project.
“It is a pleasure to represent the University of British Columbia this morning in formalizing the university’s continuing and mutually beneficial relationship with the City of Vancouver advancing our shared goals around community engagement, sustainability, and climate change,” Toope declared.
Later in his speech, the UBC president said that the university has “no intention of going it alone”, and is committed to “partnering with forward-thinking organizations like the City of Vancouver”.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that UBC is willing to be a team player in the region. Last fall when Metro Vancouver announced its intention to introduce zoning over UBC’s academic and housing lands, Toope and Stephen Owen—UBC’s vice president for external, legal, and community relations—vigorously objected. Toope declared in a November 14 e-mail to staff, students, and faculty that Metro Vancouver’s desire to regulate land use constituted an attack on academic freedom.
Premier Gordon Campbell is the MLA for Vancouver–Point Grey, which includes UBC’s main campus. On April 29, the B.C. Liberal government introduced legislation that will take away Metro Vancouver’s legal right to approve the UBC area’s official community plan. If Bill 20 is approved by the legislature and granted royal assent, this authority will be transferred to the minister of community and rural development.
The chair of Metro Vancouver’s regional planning committee, Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan, told the Georgia Straight that he wasn’t surprised by the B.C. government’s decision. “It’s the typical attitude of the province,” Corrigan said outside of the Metro Vancouver board meeting on May 12. “It’s the arrogance that makes it so difficult for us to be able to deal with them because, in essence, UBC was able to persuade them to really remain with the status quo instead of doing something that we think is necessary. And that is to end up with a local government that’s democratically elected and responsible to the people who live in the UBC area.”
Corrigan also suggested that the UBC Farm is “doomed” as a result of the pending change in governance. “I think despite all the bleating from UBC about their sustainable campus, this is all about them being able to operate the campus exactly as they choose to do,” he said.
In a phone interview, Owen dismissed Corrigan’s claim, saying that the farm is at the centre of the university’s sustainability initiative. “It’s being celebrated here as the unique opportunity in North America to study the interface between a farm, a forest, and a community that’s being built on a high-density, low-impact basis,” he said.
Furthermore, Owen said, Metro Vancouver had proposed “a thoughtless and complex and just-over-the-top set of zoning bylaws” that went beyond those affecting any other university in the country. He claimed that this would impede UBC’s ability to generate research funding because of future delays in obtaining zoning variances from Metro Vancouver.
Meanwhile, District of North Vancouver mayor Richard Walton told the Straight that he, too, is “concerned” about the future of the UBC Farm as well as the opportunity for campus residents to have democratic input into decisions about development issues. “Hopefully, UBC will take an active interest,” he said. “Dr. Toope has expressed an acknowledgement of that.”
One of the sharpest criticisms of UBC has come from Setty Pendakur, a former Vancouver city councillor and UBC professor emeritus of planning. In a phone interview with the Straight, he claimed that the provincial legislation taking away Metro Vancouver’s authority “undercuts the idea of a livable region”.
Owen said that UBC works closely with the University Neighbourhoods Association and that the university’s board includes representatives of students, faculty, staff, and alumni—and that this offers ample opportunities for community involvement.
What do you think about UBC being removed from Metro Vancouver’s planning process?
“It means they [UBC] sit there in their ivory towers and say, ”˜We know well enough to do what we want to do, but we don’t want to be told by anybody else that their views have to be considered.’ These are the people that preach regional planning, local planning, consultation with the citizens, responsibility of the landowners to the city at large. Where is all this?”
“Because we don’t know what the governance structure looks like from the provincial level, there will be direct dialogue taking place between UBC and the province. Metro Vancouver will not be involved at all. And currently, with the political climate, there is a trust issue with the provincial government. And the development issues at UBC have been controversial.”
“It makes life a whole lot easier for UBC, but it seems counterproductive to the whole notion of regional planning to take one of the primary daytime commute destinations and remove it from the planning process. It’s the second single biggest destination for commuters in the Lower Mainland, after downtown. Would we say, ”˜Let’s remove downtown from the whole regional planning process?’ ”
“I think Metro Vancouver was expecting that the province would come back with several options. Instead the province and UBC got together and what came out was the press release that we all found out about at the same time Metro Vancouver found out. So it kind of removed the democratic process in the way that this is going to unfold with the ministry. I think that, as the dust settles, it will become more clear exactly what the province wants to do.”