City of Vancouver, Canada CityPlan Public Process

Mary: I would like to ask you some questions about Vancouver’s method of community consultation.

Ann McAfee Response: My response will focus on the City of Vancouver, rather than Metro Vancouver, – since I am most familiar with the City and it is the City of Vancouver which has won awards for public consultation.

The City has a population of ¾ million people (much larger than the “City of Melbourne”). The City of Vancouver is the largest city in Metro Vancouver – a region of 2.3 million people (one million people smaller than the Melbourne metropolitan region).

 
In talking about Vancouver I’m going to focus on how we did public consultation when, as Co-Director of Planning, I led the process to develop a new City Plan and related sectoral and Community plans. This was from 1994 to my retirement in 2006.
 
One big difference between Melbourne and Vancouver is that Vancouver City has its own Charter. Decisions made by City Council are binding. There is NO APPEAL by applicants or residents to the Region or Province (State) on city/municipal land use and budget decisions.
 
As background, prior to 1992 the typical planning process in Vancouver was “DAD” – Decide, Announce, Defend. Draft plans were prepared by staff at Council’s direction. When the draft plan was put out to the public the response from citizens was, much like Melbourne, “Why weren’t we involved in developing the plan? 
 
Council finally got exasperated and said a new planning process was needed. Council asked staff to develop a process which involved citizens from the start. They wanted to hear from new people, to hear about all issues citizens thought were important, and to hear in new ways. That was the start of Vancouver’s CityPlan.
 
Mary Asked: What numbers of residents do you engage in consultation?
Ann’s Answer:
 
 In 1992-95 the City of Vancouver developed a new city-wide plan – CityPlan. It was a broad strategic plan addressing a wide variety of concerns – somewhat similar in content to Melbourne 2030. The difference was the process which was citizen driven from the start. I have attached a short summary of the process.
 
In terms of numbers our initial estimates were 20,000 different participants (does not double count people who participated in more than one activity). After CityPlan Vancouver did a statistically valid sample survey for the 1996 budget. One question asked whether respondents “had participated in CityPlan”. We left it up to people to define “participated”. The response amazed us. It suggested that over 100,000 people or 40% of City households had participated in the planning process.
 
Participation in subsequent area plans has included surveys to all households. Workshops, to provide an opportunity for citizens to discuss choices and consequences in detail were open to all interested residents and local businesses. Typically 30 – 55% of area households participated.
 
The number of participants involved in city-wide policy plans, such as Transportation, Affordable Housing, and Financing Growth, varied. Everyone is invited. Material, in several languages, was sent to all households. However, in these city-wide plans most of the participants tended to be from established organizations and agencies -- such as environmental, bike, real estate, development, investment, not-for-profit housing, social service, business, and similar groups.
 
Mary Asked: How do you locate these residents?
Ann’s Answer
Residents “locate” themselves. At the start of any process all households receive information (in several languages) about the proposed planning process and how to engage.
 
All processes offer a range of ways to participate from filling out a survey to attending workshops.
 
For CityPlan, the Mayor wrote personal letters to the presidents of 1,000 organizations (included groups from School Parent Advisory Committees, to cultural groups, to the Board of Trade, and local business associations) and 1,000 letters were sent to randomly selected households inviting them and their neighbors to meet Mayor and Council to learn about how to engage in developing a plan for the city. Community newspapers, city-region newspapers, local TV and radio shows had stories on CityPlan and extending the City’s invitation to participate.
 
Mary Asked: What form does the consultation take?
Ann’s Answer
See the attached story. Also see the Community Visions Terms of Reference at www.vancouver.ca/visions . For CityPlan, citizens were involved from the start – identifying issues to include in the Plan, discussing choices and consequences of different city directions in workshops (City Circles), at “Ideas Fairs”, and advising Council on their preferred Directions for Vancouver’s Plan.
 
We followed a similar process -- ideas, choices/consequences, recommendations for Community Visions and city-wide policy plans (such as Transportation). The only difference was that Community Plans started by acknowledging the CityPlan Directions. From there it was up to the community to advise Council on where new housing should be located in the community, priorities for service upgrades, location of Greenways and Traffic Calming etc.
  
Mary asked: What do you do with the responses?
Ann’s Answer
The responses from the public processes were assembled into a survey distributed to all households. The results of the survey go into a Draft Plan for review both by the community and by a committee made up of residents from a variety of neighbourhoods. The results of the process go to Council who holds a final Public Hearing for people to speak directly to Council on their Draft Plan.
 
Mary Asked: How much do they influence government policy? 
Ann’s Answer
CityPlan involved a wide range of Directions. One of the key discussions was about whether or not to add more housing in the City. The public engaged in a long discussion about whether to limit growth in the city (encourage new development to go to the region’s outer suburbs; continue to redevelop industrial land for housing, or add more housing in established neighbourhoods.
 
I expected communities to choose the first two options (direct growth to the outer suburbs or to industrial land redevelopment). Most people choose one or other of these options as their initial choice. Then the discussion started – where were single family residents going to live if, as they aged, they sold their single-family home and wanted to stay in their neighbourhood? Where were their children going to live? If we converted industrial land to housing where would the jobs and services locate? 
 
So, after much discussion, a majority of participants recommended to Council that we discourage sprawl, maintain jobs and services in the City, and add more choice of housing in neighbourhoods. Directions to add more housing choice in established neighbourhoods were supported by 80% of participants. Council adopted the Plan developed by the public without changes.  However, it is important to note that 20% of CityPlan participants preferred to limit growth in the City or continue to add new housing on industrial lands (Brownfield sites). This is relevant when I discuss “Ecodensity” later.
 
So far Vancouver City Council has adopted all the 9 Community Visions prepared by the community without changes. These become the plans directing development and services in the neighbourhood. The Community Visions identified 30 “Neighbourhood Centers” (much like your activity centers) where they wanted to see new housing, in a variety of densities, designs, and cost locate in their neighbourhood. The contract with the community was that after they identified their center the community would continue to play a leadership role in choosing the sites and densities for rezoning.
 
So the process for identifying the location for Community (“Activity”) Centers in Vancouver was different from Melbourne. In Vancouver it was a “bottom up” process. Another difference was the close link between funding and new development. Communities established their priorities for amenities (funded from the regular City budget and Development Cost Levies). Even before new development started to happen in neighbourhoods key services such as Engineering and Parks started to reallocate funds to community identified priorities. 
 
Council adopted the first Neighbourhood Centre plan which involved significant rezoning proposed by residents in the Knight& Kingsway (King Edward Village) area.
 
For the city-wide plans (Transportation. Greenways, Bike Plan, Social Policy Plan, Affordable Housing Plan, Infrastructure Plans etc) Council usually made some modest changes – usually in terms of setting priorities for next steps.
 
Mary Asked: Do you consult with developers?
Ann’s Answer
Developers participate with everyone else in the processes. In established neighbourhoods most of the “developers” are small scale builders. They prefer to wait for new zoning before they engage. Usually builders only participate in the community planning processes when the community and staff make a special effort to assure them we really need their input. For example, when staff and the community are developing new zoning schedules we seek their input on economic viability of proposed schedules.
 
The process is different for the big development companies. The big developers mainly operate in the Downtown and on large Brownfield sites (similar to Docklands) where there are few if any residents to consult. For old industrial areas near downtown offices and services the City set objectives in the 1970s to balance jobs and housing – over the past 20 years the focus has been on adding housing. So the developer’s task is to prepare draft new residential community plans for staff and public input prior to Council Public Hearings.
 
Mary Asked: Who does the government listen to, residents or developers?
Ann’s Answer
Both. On the Brownfield sites Council mainly listens to staff and developers – not many citizens participate. Usually the only citizens who speak are those whose views will be blocked by new development. (Important to note that in most cases the folks with blocked views only recently moved into the area themselves and, when asked by Council, usually admit they knew the undeveloped land across the street would be built on.)
 
In neighbourhoods Council primarily listens to residents provided the residents are advocating actions which support CityPlan and their Community Vision. If the Community Vision and subsequent Neighbourhood Centre proposals follow the Community Vision then Council goes with the community.
 
However, remember the 20% who did not support CityPlan? Sometimes some of these residents speak at neighbourhood Public Hearings. To date Council has listened to the majority of residents not the 20%. But there are still some people who speak and leave the Public Hearing saying “Council didn’t listen to me”.
 
An interesting by-product of the Community Vision process has been that several citizens who got engaged in their neighbourhood subsequently ran for Council and were elected. Another by-product is that people who got involved in developing their community vision wanted to continue to improve their neighbourhood. In the 9 Community Vision areas over 70 committees (involving over 1,000 people) sprung up to help to implement their Plan.
 
Mary Asked: Are the bureaucrats prepared to listen to residents?
Ann’s Answer
Of course – community planning staff spend their lives facilitating public engagement in developing Community Plans.
 
Mary Asked: How much influence do the bureaucrats have?
Ann’s Answer
Interestingly when CityPlan started Council directed staff that if, in our professional opinion, the plan developed by the public was not sustainable then the last step in the CityPlan process would have been a debate between the public’s plan and the staff plan. That never happened. Staff concluded that the Plan developed by the public was a thoughtful, sustainable city plan. Council respected staff’s judgment and adopted the public’s plan.
 
Mary Asked: Who really has the say, bureaucrats or Ministers?
Ann’s Reply
“State Ministers”, by your definition, are not a factor in planning Vancouver. Vancouver City Council has the final say on all land use decisions and on the distribution of the City of Vancouver capital and operating budgets. Where the Provincial government plays a (big) role is in the occasional investment of major transportation infrastructure (new rapid transit lines) and funds for social and health services.
 
Ann’s concluding Comments – Where next?
The answers above reflected how Vancouver involved the public while I worked for the City.
 
People ask me who didn’t support the CityPlan process. My answer is two groups – some academics who thought they or staff should be directing Vancouver’s future and some members of self appointed neighbourhood lobby groups who questioned why the city was “wasting” money asking a broad range of people when the City could save the money and ask them.
I’m writing a book on “bottom up” planning. Between Melbourne, and now Vancouver, I unfortunately have two illustrations of what happens when “top down” planning takes over.  
 
I hope that this answers your questions.
 
Dr. Ann McAfee
Retired Co-Director of Planning City of Vancouver
Principal, City Choices Consulting