Dan Fumano: Vancouver plan is a break from the past, says senior planner

Chief city planner says past plans and practices insufficient for current challenges

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The new plan for the entire city of Vancouver represents a significant break with decades of past planning practices that are “simply not enough” to meet current challenges, the city’s chief planner told the council on Wednesday.

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Theresa O’Donnell, general manager of planning, made the statement in a somewhat tense exchange, responding to questions from the TEAM Coun. Colleen Hardwick, who is running for mayor and is the council’s most outspoken critic of the planning department’s approach to density and development.

The plan, aimed at guiding Vancouver’s next 30 years of growth and change in a more equitable and sustainable way, envisions taller towers near transit centers and multiplexes, row houses and retail space on the side streets of low-density residential neighborhoods of the city. The goal, staff said, is to eventually produce a comprehensive citywide land use plan that replaces Vancouver’s patchwork of existing neighborhood plans, some of which are decades old.

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Hardwick asked how city staff would “respond to criticism that generations of Vancouverites have contributed literally thousands of volunteer hours to the creation of a real tapestry of community plans across the city that are barely mentioned in the body of this report.

O’Donnell said he didn’t want to downplay those plans, which “were created with considerable time and effort” from residents and businesses and “laid the foundation for Vancouver’s world-renowned livability.”

“But it’s important to keep in mind that the planning approach of the past is simply not enough to meet the challenges facing Vancouver today,” he said. “This council and the next council will be called upon to address these issues now.”

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A rendering of the city's Vancouver plan, a long-term strategy to support growth to 2050 and beyond.
A rendering of the city’s Vancouver plan, a long-term strategy to support growth to 2050 and beyond. Photo of the city of Vancouver /jpg

Hardwick referred to criticisms of the Vancouver plan issued publicly in recent weeks by planners who worked for the city in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. He asked O’Donnell if he would tell previous prominent Vancouver planners as Ray Spaxman Larry Beesley, ralph segal Y scottish that “the planning process of the past is no longer relevant to our current planning?”

O’Donnell responded, “I would say that past practice has not adequately addressed the housing affordability crisis and the climate crisis. Yes.”

The exchange captured some of the tension in the discussion of the Vancouver plan.

Some people, including many planners, don’t like breaking with the decades-old traditions of famous urban planners credited with Vancouver’s worldwide reputation for livability. Others, including some other planners, may applaud O’Donnell’s statement and argue that a new approach is exactly what is needed to meet challenges that didn’t exist decades ago.

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A city plan rendering showing ideas for development around a transit station.
A city plan rendering showing ideas for development around a transit station. Photo of the city of Vancouver /jpg

More than 80 members of the public signed up to address the council about the Vancouver plan—many said the plan was going too far, too fast, but others criticized it for not going far enough or fast enough—and the council was still listening. to the speakers on Wednesday. afternoon.

The broad plan includes ecosystems and watersheds, art and culture, economy, industry and childcare. But a main theme of the plan, and the piece that has attracted the most public attention, is changing land use, especially around housing.

O’Donnell said transforming low-density residential neighborhoods, made up mostly of single-family homes, will be key. They contain only 15 percent of Vancouver’s homes, but account for more than half of the city’s land mass. Some of the plan’s fiercest critics also focused on this in their remarks on Wednesday.

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Unlike the controversial Broadway plan, which the council approved last month, the citywide plan would not lead to any immediate changes. The 230-page document before the council sets out “a framework” and seeks direction from the council to send staff on more detailed planning work.


That would come to the next council for a decision some time after the October election and could eventually lead to an official citywide land-use development plan, which the city currently does not have.


A rendering of Vancouver's city plan, showing a concept for a commercial street.
A rendering of Vancouver’s city plan, showing a concept for a commercial street. Photo of the city of Vancouver /jpg

This is Vancouver’s first attempt at a citywide plan since the 1990s, when the city began a process called CityPlan. After years of public consultation and staff work, the council approved “Directions to Vancouver” in 1995, which was described as “a broad view of the city”.

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CityPlan laid the groundwork for limited citywide changes, such as legalizing secondary suites, but after years of work, it never led to the kind of comprehensive land-use strategy envisioned in Vancouver’s plan.

With a few exceptions, most of Vancouver’s low-density residential neighborhoods look much the same now as they did before CityPlan’s vision was adopted in 1995. Many of those neighborhoods now have fewer people and fewer children and, of course, the houses are several times more expensive.

Rendering for plan of Vancouver, showing multiplex between single-family homes.
Rendering for plan of Vancouver, showing multiplex between single-family homes. Photo of the city of Vancouver /jpg

Gil Kelley, Vancouver’s chief planner when the council first directed staff to complete the citywide plan in 2018 until his departure from the city in 2021, oversaw the plan’s early years. He watched Wednesday’s proceedings from his home in Oregon, eager to see what happened to his “baby.”

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Reached by phone on Wednesday, Kelley said that from the early days of the planning work, the hope was to break with the past.

“I have a different vision of 21st century neighborhoods than I did in the 20th century, and a sense of urgency around climate, inclusion and equity,” Kelley said.

He added that, in some ways, these “European-style” medium-density neighborhoods with row houses, low-rise apartments and commercial space on side streets, are a throwback to planned cities before widespread car ownership.

“In a way, the new way is the old way… It doesn’t mean we ban cars, but it depends on the aftermarket.”

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