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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

City Making in Paradise

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SFU City Program at the Harbour Centre 14 June

Mike Harcourt (past Mayor and Premier) and Ken Cameron (past regional planner) talked about what’s in their new book, written with Sean Rossiter:

City Making in Paradise: Nine decisions that shaped the Greater Vancouver Region

First-hand perspectives from those who did the shaping with comments from a panel of ‘new leaders’-the shapers of today.”

Ken Cameron by Richard Ericson

Ken Cameron opened

The book is dedicated to Walter Hardwick, who, he said, has received less than his fair share of credit for the Livable Region.

The nine decisions reflect Leadership and the Real City: that is bigger than GVRD. It is an organic entity [the “functional urban region” in planning speak]. Up until World War II the political body coincided with that region, but its growth afterwards rapidly outstripped the city itself. It is now a much larger area, with a “matrix of decision making authorities”.

The Nine Decisions

1. Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board: produced the vision of “cities in a sea of green” which was, in large measure, a response to the devastation of the 1948 flood

2. Saving Strathcona – “No freeways” [in fact this only refers to the proposed downtown freeway – the region actually has plenty of them]

3. The creation of the ALR and the “Spetifore” case

4. The Livable Region proposal 1975 – which recognised that planning was a process not product.

5. Expo ’86 with the legacy of the False Creek development and Skytrain

6. “Choosing our future” largely the work of Gordon Campbell, which set out for the first time the transportation priorities – pedestrians first, then transit, then freight and only at the end car use. The Green Zone was also frost defined here

7. The Livable Region Strategic Plan, which for the first time set out a plan for growth management and transportation together as an integrated whole

8. The creation of the GVTA.

9. The changing role of the Province

In his presentation he referred to the key players at each stage and I am sorry that I could not write them all down. I thought they showed exceptional generosity. For example Dave Stupich gets solid credit for his work on the ALR. Given that he was largely responsible for the Nanaimo Bingo scandal which brought about Harcourt’s resignation as premier, this shows unusual forbearance. In my view he should have made an earlier decision to get Stupich to take the rap, and saved us all from Glen Clark – but then at least part of his decision must have been driven by Clark and Sihota’s activities within the NDP caucus. Equally, Cameron made a point of acknowledging two of his staff – Hugh Kellas and Clive Rock, who was singled out for praise, again, somewhat to my surprise. Also named was Glenda Jackson (former actress and subsequently Labour Minister of Transport) who surely cannot have played a key role in the GVTA drama when George Puil “did a deal with the devil”. I suppose I will have to wait for the book to find out.

Mike Harcourt photo by Richard Ericson

Mike Harcourt

The development of the livable region has given rise to the term “Vancouverism”. There is a history of strong minded people in this region beginning with the first nations and their extraordinary wealth, which lead to a highly developed culture [unlike the subsistence farmers and hunter gatherers elsewhere in what became known as North America]. The first act of the new City of Vancouver was to request the set aside of Stanley Park.

The book is later than originally intended as they decided to rewrite it to include the whole region [not just the City]. Instead of June as originally intended it will now be published in September. “Greater Vancouver is now livable but not sustainable.” He credited Sean Rossiter‘s regular column in the Vancouver Magazine under the strapline “Twelfth and Cambie” as strongly influencing opinion on how the city was run and would develop. He noted that at that time Vancouver was referred to as a “setting in search of a city”.

In writing the book they had decided to forget about political labels. They wanted to credit the people who had made real the vision of “cities in a sea of green”. Portland, Oregon and Kitchener-Waterloo are the only other cities in North America that have tried to achieve such a goal.

Action is needed now to move on sustainability. He referred to William Rees’s concept of the ecological footprint. Vancouver needs seven times the carrying capacity of the earth it occupies. Calgary is even worse at nine times. CitiesPLUS was the 100 year plan that won the International Gas Union award for sustainable city plans in Tokyo. There has also been the Round Table on environment and the economy. Both pointed to the need to create “resilient places” – and idea he has recently developed in a report to Infrastructure Canada. [From Restless Communities to Resilient Places: Building A Stronger Future For All Canadians Final Report of the External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities June 2006]
That recommends “double devolution” and he cited the current deal with Ottawa which allows UBCM to distribute federal funds to the municipalities ‘without provincial skimming’.

Two million more people are coming and there is no way we can prevent that. So we need to develop tougher targets. For example the EU recently adopted a “zero waste” policy: we currently recycle about 50% of our solid waste. We could cut water use by 90%, as demonstrated at the Choi building at UBC: this is mainly about not treating to drinking water quality water which is not going to be drunk – which is nearly all of it.

He then went on to talk about the Port Mann bridge, which he claimed now has “22 hours of peak traffic”[an exaggeration for effect – not an accurate count]. More surprisingly he put the number of homeless in Vancouver at 1200 [which sounds like an under estimate to me]. He noted that the middle class is being priced out of the city and cited the experience of San Francisco where teachers, nurses and other essential workers could not afford to live in the city, severely affecting levels of service that could be provided. He levelled the charge that the current level of “drugs & crime”, which he sees as the same problem, on the “stupid J Edgar Hoover policy” adopted by the police. He said that after fifty years of failure he expected that the police would finally see that this approach did not work and that we need to try the four pillars.

We were fortunate to avoid the flood this year (so far) but we are still building on the flood plain – something that the LRMPB had recognized should be stopped. We are, of course, still awaiting “the big one” (a major earthquake) and while we stopped the waterfront freeway, we still need to tackle climate change. At this point he could not resist a dig at Governor Schwarzenegger – “Arnie’s five Hummers”

The comments panel was composed of Ting Pan – a green buildings consultant, Lenia Rowan a planner with the City of Surrey and Andre Vallilee from Smart Growth BC

Ting Pan photo by RichardTing Pan did not talk about buildings but people. The new challenge is to engage the newly diverse population in the process of planning. There are 45,000 new immigrants every year but a void in the process to involve and engage them in the plan. She pointed to a workshop she attends on sustainability: all of the participants are women, and they nearly all work in municipalities. She sees this as a hopeful sign that ethnic communities can become involved in developing a sustainable region.

Phot by RichardLenia Rowan said she was an optimist by nature. She cited her experience with Surrey, where half the planning staff deal with twice the workload of Vancouver. She said that a common theme there was that planners saw the big picture and made “integrated decisions”. She noted that we now need to take more risk based decisions. How we institutionalize sustainability would be the next big challenge but one in which “we all can be leaders”

Andre Vallille photo by RichardAndre Vallilee noted from his recent research how things are the same over the last thirty years. While the words used might be difderent, the problems are the same. His concern then was “How do we make change happen quicker?” He cited Leonie Sandercock’s work on who gets marginalised, and acknowledged the reality that Ting Pan had identified, which he attributed to “social nervousness”. He also referred to the NGO sector where he works. He said that the tension between NGOs and governments was not productive. There are “progressive funders” however who recognised the value of the NGO’s work. He also pointed to the key role of the universities and their “programs of engagement” – services to the community [as opposed to research for its own sake].

In response Ken Cameron acknowledged that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency, but he felt confident: after all, “If we cant do it, who can?” He recognized the difficulty of dialogue and motivation for 4 million people. Mike Harcourt said that leadership equals “guided democracy”. He went on “Change can happen real fast” and quoted the supposed Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” He thinks that most people “get it” but pointed out “You have got to include people or you get riots”. Ultimately the politicians make the decisions: there are, he said only three ways to consult. “Two of those are disasters, the other one is risky.” Briefly these are (1) we know best, we are the experts (2) we have no idea, you tell us (3) here is the problem as best we know it and these are the resources and options – what do you think of them? The third he calls “guided democracy”.

The first question was on the role of the media in achieving engagement, and Mike Harcourt generally defended their record “The Sun has done a good job” [sometimes]

Adrienne Carr (Deputy Leader of the Green Party who seems to turn up at a lot of these meetings) asked how the “moment we are in now” (i.e. The Gateway Project) compares to the Chinatown freeway. Ken Cameron said it was a much more complex project. He though that the municipalities were “connecting big ideas” and the big difference now for activists was the use of the internet. Mike Harcourt said that TEAM (his political grouping when he became active in politics) were also fighting “a done deal. It was daunting but people knew it was wrong. It was a clearer issue”. He then went on to defend the Gateway saying “there are some realities you have to deal with. The number of containers is going to triple. Twinning of the Port Mann is not much to do with the City of Vancouver.” This gave rise to vocal dissent from the back of the hall. Harcourt the said that he thought the current proposal was “dumb” and it should be done differently: he thought a multi-modal approach that included rapid transit, truck priority and HOT lanes would work.

A tribute to Sean Rossiter noted that we do not see much in the media now of the same quality as his column. He said that he did not see much opportunity for that now, but would talk to the editor of the Vancouver Magazine. In response to Gord Price’s suggestion of a blog he replied, “I’m a book guy.”

A questioner from West Vancouver (a municipality which had been the subject of a number of barbs in passing) asked why was the LMPB disbanded? He said that green space is suffering now, and pointed to development at 200th Street in Langley as an example. This brought the response (from Ken) “It’s in the book.” But he expanded on that a little referring to the dispute with the province over the rail line to Roberts Bank. He also said that the LMRPB had no implementation powers, unlike the GVRD which could use water and sewerage provision as levers [and he might have pointed out land use powers as well until they crossed Van der Zalm’s path]. Mike Harcourt said “We need to get the boundary right” which I understood to mean that the GVRD is too small and should be expanded to take in Squamish and Chilliwack.

The next comment referred to the increased speed of development and wondered about the agility of governments to respond to “tipping points”. This was picked up by the planner from Surrey who acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with the flood of development applications they have to handle at present. She pointed to the down town east side where, despite the “talent & desire of planners” 2010 would come as a shock. Ken Cameron acknowledged that we were not ready for shocks. Mike Harcourt, trying to recover ground lost earlier on the Port Mann, said that it was time for big bold changes to transit – rapid transit “build out” and lots of buses as well as increased residential densities. (The transit bit drew some applause).

Christina de Marco, a planner at the GVRD and former staffer of Ken’s, wondered if in pursuing sustainability we were ‘building a new house on crumbling foundations. Do we have the tools we need?” Mike Harcourt responded with a clear “No”. He compared our local governments to those in other countries and accused our system of “property tax parsimony”. Ken Cameron cited Walter Hardwick again: “Clear vision empowers change. Just do it, and you will get your mandate.”

Richard Campbell of BEST pointed to the City’s decision on bike lanes on Cambie as an example of where we can influence change for the better. The Canada Line, he said, is supposed to save nine lanes of traffic but the city seemingly cannot give up any lanes for bikes. He further pointed to the “tragic” position of Gateway that there are not enough construction resources for all the projects the region needs at the same time – light rail, new bridges — and therefore we appeared to be making the wrong choice of priorities. He said that China does not want to be forever dependant on the export of cheap goods, and he asked pointedly “What’s in the containers?” Harcourt talked about his experience of six years on the Board of the Port of Vancouver, and multiple visits to China. He claimed that Port’s forecasting took account of the macro-economics of a developing China. Gordon Price intervened saying that in his opinion, and “sitting next to port officials”, that the forecast was a simple straight line extrapolation of recent trends.
One questioner pointed out that the experience of other cities in dealing with homeless people was straightforward – house them – that, he said “solves all the issues” By now, in Harcourt’s reply, the number of homeless has risen to 3200 – but he stressed that other cities have to do their part. “If we can build skating ovals, we can build houses.” He cited the closure of Riverview, the withdrawal of the federal government from housing supply and the provincial cuts to welfare as all part of the cause. He was sure “We can do it by 2015” but the down town east side should not be a dumping ground for other municipalities’ problems.

Colleen Hardwick Nystead attacked Harcourt’s defence of the Gateway and said that the region should prioritising transit expansion instead. She also pointed out that homelessness was a much bigger issue than the down town east side.

Ray Straatsma was concerned about the impact of the province’s proposals on GVTA governance which he saw as a “clawback” that relies on property tax’. Harcourt responded that we should have dialogue across region: the problem he thought was that the gateway was “done dumb”. Ken Cameron said that he could only speak to what what he had learned while at the GVRD and that he was “not in a position to comment on what has happened more recently.”

The discussion will continue, the City Program at SFU will hold a series of monthly meeting on the first Friday of the month, starting in September.

All photos downloaded from Richard Eriksson’s flickr page. Used with permission. Thank you, Richard.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 15, 2007 at 9:05 am

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the wrapup Stephen. I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend, but it’s good to know you had the story blogged already! I’m sure it’ll be up on SFU’s site soon. Sounds like I missed a good lecture.

    Paul Hillsdon

    June 15, 2007 at 1:04 pm

  2. Stephen – I’m featuring this article in my newsletter for June 20. It will be posted to the blog June 21.


    Tom Christoffel

    June 18, 2007 at 4:34 pm

  3. Thank you. Can you provide a link and maybe send me a copy of the newsletter? I would be happy to add your blog to my blogroll

    Stephen Rees

    June 18, 2007 at 6:52 pm

  4. […] he showed in his remarks at the launch of his new book that he has swallowed their justification for new port capacity uncritically. Like many Board […]

  5. […] Plus you might want to check this earlier post  […]

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