The Best - Or Worst - Planning Decisions Made In The Lower Mainland
September 6, 2007
In 1952, Vancouver's first generation of urban planners direly predicted the region ran the risk of being overwhelmed within 50 years by 1.5 million people who would "strangle" its traffic arteries and deplete its food supply.
Fifty-five years later, the region's population is at 2.3 million and the debate is over whether its traffic arteries are, in fact, being strangled, what will happen to its agricultural land, and what the solutions should be.
A book being released this week, City Making in Paradise, by a former B.C. premier and one of the region's longest-serving planners, argues the region has been a model of success compared with many other sprawling, traffic-clogged, incoherently built metropolises.
But, say Mike Harcourt and Ken Cameron, the successes of the past risk being destroyed if the region and province don't plan well now for a transportation system that works with its growth patterns.
"There's a disconnect right now between growth management and transportation," says Cameron, who spent 17 years as a senior planner with the Greater Vancouver Regional District, recently renamed Metro Vancouver.
The province has chosen to remake the region's transportation planning authority in a way that separates it from the district's land-use planning, Cameron says. And the massive Gateway project, which includes new truck routes along the Fraser River and twinning of the Port Mann bridge, has been created "outside the framework of an overall, agreed-on plan," Cameron says.
There are many exhausted commuters south of the Fraser who would say that's just fine -- they're tired of planners who have blocked much-needed road development for years.
But Cameron and Harcourt's book insists that what has made Metro Vancouver so successful is that remarkable 60-year period of collaborative planning that did closely connect transportation and land-use planning.
We may grumble about the traffic, about the sprawl of houses through the Fraser Valley, about many imperfections in the local landscape. People also like to say disparagingly that Vancouver is "Venice surrounded by Phoenix."
But we're so used to our advantages we don't see them any more, Harcourt and Cameron say.
What we have is a region where 70 per cent of the land is a green zone -- a combination of ALR-protected land, parks and watersheds. That greenbelt, which only two other North American cities have, encourages even the most sprawling suburbs to concentrate development in compact areas.
There is a system of town centres, connected by rapid transit -- a marvel American and Australian planners visit and admire, as they compare it with their metropolitan regions, which have seen the emergence of suburban edge cities disconnected from transit and completely car-dependent.
A lot of residential growth has been concentrated in select areas, especially the downtown. That's resulted in a downtown where people walk or use transit at the levels of European city residents.
And, Cameron insists, large parts of the region have good choices in transportation.
"This region has gone further than others in taming the automobile."
That is all a result of nine crucial decisions made over the past 60 years, say Harcourt and Cameron, whose book was co-written with journalist Sean Rossiter.
THEIR LIST INCLUDES:
- The creation of the first planning board, the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board, following massive floods in 1948 that spurred provincial officials to agree to a regional planning agency to prepare for future disasters.
- The battle in the late '60s to save Strathcona and Chinatown from urban renewal and clearance for a city highway.
- The creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve in 1974, which has preserved 4.7 million hectares of land in the province -- five per cent of the total area.
- The Livable Region Plan process in the early 1970s, led by Harry Lash, who headed the new planning entity created in 1969 under the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Lash is seen as the "father of public participation in the planning process in B.C., and the inventor of the term 'livability.' "
- The remaking of False Creek after Expo 86.
- The "Choosing Our Future" planning process started by the regional district in 1990. The process, politically spearheaded by then-Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell, produced a general plan for the region that every one of the district's 21 councils eventually accepted.
- The return of regional planning through the Livable Region Strategic Plan and the provincial Growth Strategies Act.
- The creation of a Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority, which would put regional politicians in charge of transportation planning for the first time.
- And, the shift of power and responsibilities to cities and regions, away from the province.
In the end, says Harcourt, the Vancouver region ended up with better planning, better development and a better form of political organization than cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg.
"The disasters of the unicity everywhere else, the painful 20-year effort to fix unicity Winnipeg -- we jumped ahead of all that. I think we've emerged unscathed from those experiments elsewhere and we can go back to the basics."
Like Cameron, Harcourt says the region is at a crossroads now.
He is more positive than Cameron about Gateway. "Why punish people in cars?" says Harcourt. He says peoples' fears that more roads will create a flood of sprawl in the valley ignores reality.
"Those people are there already," he says. Now planners have to figure out how to make their lives easier.
But he does emphasize that for Gateway to add to the region's success story, and not detract from it, that means doing it right. That means making a huge investment in transit.
"I think we should go big and bold and quick -- proceed with the Evergreen line this fall and get it built by 2011, do the Millennium line by 2013, proceed with the extension of the Expo line, get a fast bus to Cloverdale and Langley."
And it also means using the new capacity for many modes of transportation. Yes, some for the car. But not just the car.
FIVE MORE DECISIONS THAT MADE GREATER VANCOUVER A SUCCESS
Mike Harcourt, Ken Cameron and Sean Rossiter looked at five good decisions made over the years that helped make the Greater Vancouver region a model of urban development. We asked them, and other noted urban analysts, what were some other important decisions that helped shape the region for the better -- and what were some of the terrible mistakes we're still living with.
1. Vancouver's urban grid system.
The original street system laid out for Vancouver, a fine-meshed urban grid with mid-block lanes, has allowed the city to densify easily and avoid suburban traffic problems. Houses were easily replaced by moderate-scale apartment blocks and towers in the West End in the 1950s because of the block pattern. Traffic planners say the grid system helps reduce traffic problems because drivers have several choices of north-south and east-west arterials that means a blockage on one road doesn't bring the city to a halt.
2. Allowing high-density development in the West End, Kerrisdale and Ambleside in the 1950s.
Those early planning decisions gave Vancouver an attractive vision of high-density downtown living that made the idea of more of it attractive. That led to the development of south False Creek in the 1970s, the Expo and Coal Harbour lands in the past 20 years, and the explosive new highrise growth in suburban town centres that is happening now. "Part of the condo boom now is because of the success in the West End in 1956," says Tom Hutton, a University of B.C. professor who has written extensively on the region.
3. The Vancouver revolution in 1972 that brought a new, progressive council to the city, including UBC Prof. Walter Hardwick, that hired planning director Ray Spaxman and set the wheels in motion to create a livable downtown.
Spaxman gave that process a significant boost by creating a discretionary zoning process that allowed city planners to negotiate with developers for benefits in exchange for density; city planner Larry Beasley shepherded that process through the mega-project development of the '90s. Again, that helped create a model that suburban planners are now emulating as they encourage high-density development around town centres.
4. The creation of the regional park system.
Besides the green space protected through the Agricultural Land Reserve, the region also has an extensive green belt of large regional parks that help reinforce the early concept of "cities in a sea of green," which was first envisioned in 1966 by the Lower Mainland regional planning board.
5. The regionalization of the water system.
The early decision to create a regional water system, says Gordon Price, set the pattern for subsequent decades of regional cooperation on a number of fronts.
NINE TERRIBLE MISTAKES
1. The lack of any real power at the Greater Vancouver Regional District to enforce the Livable Region Strategic Plan, which has resulted in some municipalities allowing major developments far from transit.
"There is no mechanism to force compliance to the policy. It all works on moral suasion. So when one municipality decides 'We're just going to ignore all that,' there is no mechanism to get them to toe the line," says Lance Berelowitz, author of Dream City.
2. Slum clearance in the 1950s and '60s.
"The urban renewal madness was so arrogant," says former premier and mayor Mike Harcourt. Although some of Strathcona was saved from that, there were dozens of houses torn down in the name of getting rid of slums.
3. Allowing the rural grid pattern laid out by the Royal Engineers in the regions south of the Fraser to remain.
"It was done with a one-mile-square grid and the inside was then laid out in cul de sacs -- it's a nightmare to service with transit and you can't densify because there are no mid-block lines," says Gordon Price.
4. Allowing business-park sprawl in the '70s, '80s and '90s.
"There should have been a recognition of the damage to the regional plan those would cause," says regional planner Ken Cameron. "I think it would have been possible not to zone for additional ones or require they be more transit-friendly."
5. Allowing the proliferation of underground malls in the '60s and '70s, which sucked dozens of businesses off the street.
"There was no need for that in Vancouver," says Harcourt. "We're not Montreal, we don't need the underground connections." At least, he says, the giant complex planned at one time for the block between Georgia and Alberni, Burrard and Thurlow never went ahead.
6. Getting rid of the region's interurban rail and streetcars, which destroyed a comprehensive transit system and promoted more car use.
"The interurban routes and the streetcar lines gave early Vancouver a comprehensive and startlingly sophisticated urban transit system that set the stage for much of the city's subsequent growth," writes Lance Berelowitz in Dream City. The last interurban service was in 1958.
7. Not containing the sprawl into farmland sooner.
Although the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve in 1974 did help preserve a lot of farmland in the Fraser Valley, significant parts had already been lost, says Harcourt.
8. Failing to analyse more carefully whether the region needed a vast light-rail system.
"We accepted it on faith that we needed it and it was the reward for municipalities, in order to accept more density. We all assumed it had to be a network of light rail without having any idea of the astronomical cost," says Cameron.
9. Getting rid of social housing.
The federal decision in the early 1990s to stop funding social housing set the stage for some of the social problems Vancouver are having today, says Harcourt.