Veronika Bylicki: A city for people has citizen participation

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      By Veronika Bylicki

      A shadow has crept up over the park behind my house. 

      It’s not from a looming cloud, but rather a high-rise apartment building erected a block away, adding thousands of residents and dozens of shops and businesses to my neighbourhood.

      The problem isn’t just the shadow of this development, however; it’s the lack of citizen participation that went into its design and purpose.

      I was an eager high-school student interested in urban issues when proposals first appeared for redesigning the Cambie Corridor and Marpole. I leapt at the opportunity to go to open houses, excited by the potential to improve my neighbourhood.

      I knew what my neighbourhood needed: a grocery store within walking distance, more park space, and cycling routes that could connect me with the rest of the city. My experience at these open houses was disappointing, consisting of reading displays that described the various heights, designs, and locations of buildings; having vague or light conversations with planners; and sliding my jotted-down ideas into the depths of a suggestion box.

      Now, five years later, the shadow of this soon-to-be-opened development complex creeps over my co-op apartment complex and neighbourhood park. Ironically, another high rise called "On the Park" is being built across from that one, placing a shadow even more directly over the park that its name alludes to.

      This and the other developments at the intersection of Cambie and Marine Drive will add residents, a movie theatre, restaurants, stores, cafes, and more. The area, however, still lacks public spaces, recreational facilities, community meeting space, and locally owned businesses, among other things that we who now live in the shadows would have preferred. 

      How might these developments have turned out if residents were the decision-makers? What if, instead of the consultation process being “What do you think of these [essentially finalized] plans?” the question asked to residents was: “We have this empty space. We need to add x amount of people to the neighbourhood, and it’s needs to be based around transit hubs. Citizens, what do you envision? What do you need to make your neighbourhood more liveable?”  

      Vancouver is a young, rapidly growing global city that offers a unique opportunity for citizens to shape how our urban area will change over the coming decades. According to B.C. Statistics, Vancouver alone will see upwards of 130,000 new residents by 2040.

      Vancouver clearly needs to densify, but our city is largely being shaped by developers and planners rather than residents. Neighborhoods such as Marpole are having changes imposed rather than being redeveloped based on resident input. We citizens hold the expert knowledge of local needs, an untapped resource that could be pivotal in making Vancouver a better place to live.

      What if we flipped the design process? Instead of being developer-driven, what if we began with neighbours pitching ideas and working in partnership with planners who understand policy, zoning and constraints? 

      The recent Grandview-Woodland Citizens Assembly is an example of just that. The assembly consisted of 40 residents from the community representing ranging views and demographics. They learned about the constraints and the general outcomes needed for the neighbourhood plan from city planners themselves. 

      Assembly members were as valued as experts, holding direct knowledge of what their community needed. Through hosting roundtables and gathering recommendations and ideas from their own neighbours and fellow residents, the Assembly worked together to draft recommendations for their neighbourhood plan.  

      Co-design is another example of flipping the design process through artist-facilitated drawing that captures the ideas of residents. Participants can be guided and educated with background and practical information, and then collaboratively pitch ideas for what they envision, captured by artists. Planners can then work on creating a community plan that incorporates ideas from these drawings, meeting the needs of the residents and providing a template for investors and developers to work from.

      These flipped design processes would put the future of Vancouver into the hands of residents. We’re at a point where Vancouver isn’t built for residents—and just as dangerously, it isn’t being built with residents. 

      Instead of living in the shadows of the decisions of a few, we can bask in collaboratively designed communities, designed for the residents who inhabit them.

      Veronika Bylicki is a student in SFU’s Semester in Dialogue CityStudio Program.