(Opinion submitted to CityHallWatch by Marion Jamieson, a community activist and former planner with the B.C. government. Readers: Which of the three possible explanations of choice of debaters do you suppose is correct? Send us an e-mail and we’ll summarize responses. To follow the meeting try @urbanarium or #urbanarium on Twitter.)
Urbanarium 1.0 was founded in 1985 with the intention of creating “confidence and trust in our political, community-building systems” after years of abuse by successive City administrations. Founder Ray Spaxman’s expectation was that the Urbanarium would create the conditions for good planning as “the result of genuine and transparent public debate”. After some activities in the 1990s the organization has re-emerged as Urbanarium 3.0.
But Urbanarium 3.0’s first event of the City Debates series, a debate (PDF here) at the Museum of Vancouver on January 20 (sold out) may not bode well for this current iteration. The proposition for debate is “Open all neighbourhoods to densification.” This is a hot topic for Vancouver communities after many years of inappropriate and unfriendly density forced on neighbourhoods that has degraded the character and livability of the City. This is likely the most important question that Urbanarium 3.0 could have dealt with, and if approached with sensitivity to community aspirations, could have begun the process of creating a new era of trust and cooperation between the development industry, City Hall and communities.
The choice of debaters on this topic, however, is likely to be considered a slap in the face for community groups and a message that the forum’s current incarnation as “Urbanarium 3.0” is not sensitive to the perspective of Vancouver neighbourhoods. The set up appears to provide for a chorus of approval for density, with discussion of the finer points of implementation rather than a debate. This event is being heavily promoted and has some buy in from academics and industry, but no apparent connection to the grassroots – the residents who actually live in the neighbourhoods.
On the “con” side of this debate, or the side that would most explore the community perspective, the Urbanarium has chosen Sam Sullivan, the former Mayor of Vancouver who championed densification by creating the Ecodensity Initiative. This top-down policy is widely considered to have “…contributed to a breakdown of trust between communities and City Council, re-politicised the planning process and destroyed social capital and relationships established through the previous CityPlan processes.” The other debater for the “con” side is Mike Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of Sauder School of Business and Honorary Life Member of the Real Estate Institute of British Columbia, who has publicly advocated for the virtual removal of all land regulation in order to permit extreme density.
The Urbanarium could not have found two debaters less able to speak knowledgeably for the “con” side of the densification debate.
This choice of debaters is very puzzling and can have a several explanations, all of which reflect poorly on the organization of the debate.
(1) The first possible explanation is that the choice of debaters is a joke. The intention is to put these lifelong pro-development, pro-density advocates in the amusing position of having to defend neighbourhood interests as a diversion for industry insiders. If so, this reflects an appalling lack of connection with and sensitivity to communities that are battling developers and City Hall to protect their neighbourhoods. There are any number of qualified community activists who could have entered into a genuine discussion on density for the edification of the audience and the City as a whole. This would have presented the Urbanarium as a forum that could courageously investigate other hot topics such as growth, regulation, food security, globalization and other issues that are avoided by a compliant media but central to Vancouver’s future
(2) The next possible explanation for the choice of debaters is a serious attempt to show that members of the Urbanarium are even-handed decision-makers, not swayed by their own interests. This may be designed to support the Urbanarium’s claim to be “a place where people can get reliable information without political or ideological bias”. The fact that Urbanarium members can believe it is possible for professionals & experts to be unbiased reveals much about the organization. For some time it has been accepted that it is impossible for experts to be without bias and that anyone who claims to be unbiased is not being honest. The best & most accepted approach is for professionals in any field to clearly state their interests & values so everyone knows where they stand.
(3) The third and perhaps most disturbing explanation is that the debate organizers are not trying to be amusing or pretending to be unbiased, but are not actually aware of the implications for their choice of debaters. If this is the case, the Urbanarium is not likely to be able to act as an “urban futures brain” of “appropriately qualified people to prepare the Plan for Vancouver” that is envisioned by Spaxman.
The idea that there should be an “urban futures brain” or cabal of qualified professional who will shape a future “smart” City of Vancouver is the flawed assumption behind the Urbanarium that needs to be re-examined. This elitist approach is diametrically opposed to the ambitions of communities that are no longer willing to have experts decide what is best for them. What successive City administrations have been unwilling or unable to accept is that the democracy genie is out of the bottle and will never be put back in. From Tiananmen to Tunisia, people in neighbourhoods believe that they know best whether or how the place they live, work and play should grow or change and this understanding is supported by the last 50 years of contemporary planning theory and practice. The most effective and least contentious developments, policies and plans are those in which the community was involved in a meaningful way from the outset not asked to comment after the deal or plan has been agreed by experts behind closed doors. No matter how well-intentioned, earnest dialogue among respected industry professionals resulting in admirable planning products will not create trust between communities and City Hall.
This is not to say that there is no role for a group of planners, architects and other respected professionals to discuss and develop standards and best practices and lobby for good planning outcomes in the City of Vancouver. The Downtown Waterfront Working Group has been an invaluable public resource for providing a more amenable alternative to the developer-driven horrors proposed for the area. But the idea of an elite group determining the future of the City as a whole is anathema to contemporary planning practice and communities.
We trust that Urbanarium 3.0’s initial debate debacle was a step in the wrong direction and that a genuine desire to bring about better planning in this City and a real interest in community participation will not be subsumed by less sensitive influences. Perhaps Debate #2 can do better in its selection of debaters, and will provide us with the kind of honest, informed debating we need & deserve.
EVENT INFORMATION from Urbanarium website (http://urbanarium.org/)
City Debate #1: Open All Neighbourhoods to Densification (January 20, 2016)
Introducing Urbanarium City Debates: Listen. Learn. Vote.
Experts dispute the future of our region. You decide.
Teams of experts argue competing visions for solving Metro Vancouver’s biggest challenges. Audience members vote before and after each debate, a prize awarded to the team who changes the most minds. A monthly series moderated by David Beers, founding editor of The Tyee. Sponsored by Urbanarium and UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
City Debate #1 Resolution: Open all neighbourhoods to densification
How and where will Vancouver and its region accommodate increased population? In densifying neighbourhoods, where do issues of fairness, democracy, ecology and community preservation come into play? Should any areas be off limits?
Moderator: David Beers founded The Tyee, Canada’s highly awarded independent online source for news and ideas. His solutions-focused journalism has been widely published in Canada and the US. He was an editor at Mother Jones and the Vancouver Sun, and is adjunct professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.
Joyce Drohan, Director of Urban Design at Perkins + Will Canada Ltd., is an architect and an urbanist whose focus is sustainable communities. A lead member of master planning teams for South East False Creek and East Fraserlands, she helped to forge Vancouver’s reputation for good city-building. Consistent to all her projects is balancing viability, amenity and growth with livability.
Brent Toderian, city planner and founding principal of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, is a consultant and thought-leader in advanced urbanism, city planning & urban design. He advises cities & best-practice developers across the region and globe, after six years as Vancouver’s Chief Planner. Brent is President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism, a regular CBC radio columnist, and a writer for many publications.
Michael A. Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of Sauder School of Business, joined UBC in 1968, was Sauder School Dean and AVP International and studied cities, their transportation, housing and land use systems and global competitiveness. He is a director of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board; Vankic China Fund; Chair of Surrey City Development Corporation, a member WorkSafeBC’s Investment Committee.
Sam Sullivan, , MLA for Vancouver False Creek, is a Member of the Order of Canada and former Mayor of Vancouver. As Mayor he championed densification by creating the Ecodensity Initiative and he has served as Adjunct Professor at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.