The Vancouver Plan—Listening to Neighbours or Nobodies? (City Conversations No One Else is Having #16, Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles, including this 2021 series “City Conversations No One Else is Having.” (Our brief intro to the Special Council Meeting he is referring to is here.)


City Conversation No One Else is Having #16
The Vancouver Plan—Listening to Neighbours or Nobodies?

By Brian Palmquist (first published on 23-Nov-2021)

here –

November 23, 2021—I made some notes at the Special Council Meeting with a panel of “national and international city builders”:

“People should be able to choose where in a neighbourhood they want to live”—Paty Rios, panelist

“The best ideas for a community come from the residents in that community”—Andre Brumfeld, panelist

“Low-rise and mid-rise homes make more sense than “sykscrappers”—3 to 4 storeys is ideal”—Paty Rios

“Vancouver has been excellent at not having just bedroom communities—US cities are gleeful at how lively we have been during the pandemic”—Solomon Wong, panelist


“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” My son was looking over my shoulder at the title of this Conversation.

“Well, I’m writing about the Special Council Meeting held today for the ostensible purpose to “enable a panel discussion and dialogue with national and international city-builders to discuss emerging directions for the Vancouver Plan.”

“I’ll bite,” he responded. “Isn’t discussion good at the emerging directions stage?”

“It would be if it were really discussion and dialogue, rather than a continuation of the flawed Vancouver Plan process.” He’s used to me making sometimes inflammatory comments, so waited patiently for me to continue.

“So let me start with the lineup of this panel of national and international city-builders: it was chaired by an architecture critic from Toronto who writes consistently from a build, build, build perspective. Of the three panelists, only one is from the Vancouver area, and they’re a transportation consultant.”

“So we’ve got one Vancouverite—where do the rest of the panel come from?”

“Well, we’ve got a social planner who’s done a few projects in Vancouver but has been in Montreal for quite a while. Then there’s an architect/planner from Chicago who’s apparently in the process of setting up a Vancouver office.”

He paused a moment before responding. “You regularly tell me about Vancouver’s crop of internationally renowned architects and planners—why aren’t any of them on this panel? Surely they would have more perspective on emerging directions?”

“Ya think!” I answered with emphasis. “Which is why I think the entire event is designed to mask the incredibly undemocratic process that’s been taking place for some time now.”

“Dad, that’s also sounding a bit harsh. How can you say the process has been undemocratic? Haven’t there been many surveys, workshops and meetings over the past couple of years?”

…Still Looking for Neighbourhood Association Engagement

“Well,” I answered, “I take issue with your use of the word “many”—and as for the surveys, workshops and meetings, I’m afraid they’re deeply flawed.” “How so?” he asked.

“Let’s start with “many” as a description of the public engagement. You only need to look at the recent round of so-called “community workshops” to get a sense of what’s really going on. Vancouver officially has 22 Neighbourhoods, in fact 50 if you use walkable city criteria, the overriding importance of which today’s panel emphasized. Yet city staff have bundled together public engagement into two workshop events only in each of six multi-neighbourhood areas:”

50 Becomes 22 Becomes a Convenient 6

“So there are actually fewer workshops than there are official neighbourhoods?” He asked hesitantly—sometime honest math is itself appalling.

“Yes—even city staff’s own graphics show how they’ve bundled together as many as five official neighbourhoods into each of their six areas of convenience.”

“What do you mean, areas of convenience?” he asked.

“I mean it’s convenient for city staff, not for anyone else. I participated in the last workshop in the west area—I was unable to attend the first, as it was “full.” But since there are no participation rules, we had folks from Marpole and the West End in the Zoom “breakout” room I participated in.”

“So are you biased against those folks?” he asked, pointedly.

“Not a bit,” I responded, “But how can we have a discussion about west when only two out of five participants are from there? I don’t know their neighbourhoods intimately, and they don’t know ours.”

“Speaking of neighbourhoods, where are they in this process? Shouldn’t they be involved?” I was pleased he was drilling down to the essence of the matter. I paused a moment, to gather my thoughts.

“Well, through three rounds of engagement workshops, only two of Vancouver’s 22 neighbourhood associations have ever been contacted, even then only on the day of the final workshop, at which point the workshops were almost completely full.” I paused for effect. “And as I have described before, the workshop format muted most input, allowing city staff to decide which questions were addressed—they even got to rephrase the questions if they didn’t like how the participants couched them—actually, they did the same thing today to City Councillors!”

Changing the subject, my son asked, “So what did this expert panel actually say?”

“Their words were actually quite interesting,” I answered, “but not necessarily in the ways staff thought they would be.” He stared at me, knowing I would continue.

“Each panel member as well as the moderator started with a brief presentation about their perspective in relation to city staff’s “big ideas” about the Vancouver Plan. They were very revealing about what was said and unsaid, both.” He continued to be silent.

“The moderator used the lens of Toronto to describe how downtown population and home size have been shrinking, reinforcing with US city population patterns. My favourite graphic was a heat map of the entire Northeastern US showing (Surprise! Surprise!) that American suburbs use more energy due to larger homes and transportation requirements than do the adjacent city centres—this was intended to illustrate the climate logic of denser city development, something few folks disagree with.” He nodded at the sensibleness of this.

“We kept jumping from US city maps to a 45-year summary of population growth in the Lower Mainland, ending in 2016, which showed much growth in Vancouver’s downtown, a moderate amount in Kitsilano, Marpole and parts of the East side.”

“Where was he going with this?” my son asked.

“Well, much of the West side, pretty much everything west of South Granville, showed little population increase—the implication was that these areas are stagnant and not accommodating growth.”

“Well,” he answered, “isn’t that about right?”

“Yes and no,” I responded. “The graphs end in 2016 with the last census. The 2021 census is not published yet, so not shown. But consider that in the last five years, laneway houses have been permitted, in fact there is no more single-family zoning in the city.” He looked surprised so I explained.

“Various Canadian and American cities have been congratulating themselves on allowing in the last couple years what they call Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), usually one per lot—California and Oregon are particularly proud of this. Meanwhile Vancouver allows up to four homes on virtually every lot—a main home, which can be a duplex; a secondary suite under the main home; and a laneway home. The city is currently permitting about 400 laneway homes each year, plus 150 duplexes—I couldn’t find the data for secondary suites under the main (basement suites), but I’d bet there are hundreds of those as well.”

“Still,” he responded, “550 above grade plus an unknown number below is not many.”

“Until you set that against, for example, the proposed Streamlining Rental policy, which boasts it will create 470 rental homes per year, less than laneway homes + secondary suites, which must be rental. Not to mention all the hassles involved in trying to get permits for simple residential projects.”

“Back to the Special Panel. What did the three speakers have to offer, Dad?”

“As you would expect from a panel from away that had clearly not coordinated their remarks, there were some nuggets that were very relevant to Vancouver, together with a lot of irrelevant commentary.” He motioned me to continue.

“There seemed to be a desperate attempt to link Vancouver’s situation with that of the disadvantaged, often black populations (their descriptor) and large neighbourhoods in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, many of which are underserved by community facilities, open space and neighbourhood shops and services. Our Little Mountain fiasco (where the provincial government sold off land to private interests who then evicted the tenants from their social housing) was compared unfavourably to Toronto’s Regent Park, where private developers have gradually replaced social housing with new social housing and private development. Your Aunty Ginny has lived just a block from there for at least thirty years.”

“Seems like a fair parallel, Dad,” he suggested. I responded: “Until you understand that both were done with private development—in our case the province did the deal with no city-level involvement, whereas the process was pretty open in Toronto, which is as it should be. The Toronto deal was pretty good, the Vancouver one very bad, did not involve the neighbourhood or city politicians or staff—a confusing comparison at best.”

“So what was the outcome of this panel discussion?” he asked.

“I can only speak for myself,” I began. “Pretty much what you always do, Dad.” We both smiled.

“I heard from the experts selected by city staff that many cities struggle with growth, including Vancouver, but we must accommodate realistic numbers of a growing and shifting population. I heard that it is essential to resilient city growth that neighbourhoods be involved in their planning, and that low-rise, maybe even mid-rise homes are better than high-rise. I heard that those in a community know best how to plan it and should decide its character and where they want to live in it. I heard that Vancouver has been until now an acknowledged leader in so many ways—and I agree with all that.”  

“I hate to ask this question,” he hesitated, knowing I was not shy, “but when you use the term “Nobodies” in your Conversation title, are you referring to the expert panel or to participants in the various preceding workshops and surveys?”

I smiled sadly. “I’m actually referring to both. When you parachute in a panel of out-of-town experts to tell us locals what’s best for us, then the panel are nobodies because they lack local experience and understanding, can best make guesses about what we need. But when you disrespect Vancouverites, ignoring the concerns of many residents in most neighbourhoods in favour of the aspirations of a few, including the staff who pander to them and City Councillors who have their own agenda, then all citizens of Vancouver are Nobodies.”
            He was still leaning over me, watching my screen. He gave me a quiet but affectionate hug before deciding we had talked enough for now.

Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He teaches and writes, is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election.

One thought on “The Vancouver Plan—Listening to Neighbours or Nobodies? (City Conversations No One Else is Having #16, Brian Palmquist)

  1. I’ve been meaning to watch the presentations made to Council in November 2021 on ‘good’ urbanism for Vancouver. But haven’t been able to justify the time given the general reception of the exercise. So, I turned to CHW and found your piece, Brian.

    As usual with these ‘Conversations’, I’m going to inject into the dialogue the methodology behind urbanist planning and design in North America. My area of practice since 1985. Also my area of study for 8 years before that.

    Here goes…

    Two searches on google failed to hit on a “walkable city criteria”, begging the question: what exactly is it?

    There is the 5 minute walking distance (400m or ¼ mile or 1320 ft) and the ‘walk shed’ (126 acres obtained by spinning the ¼ mile distance in a circle). Obviously, any destination within a 5 minute walk is ‘walkable’. It is not too difficult to see pedestrians out for a walk with a back pack strapped on. That is not a ‘walk’, its a hike. Chuck Moron of ‘Strong Towns’ advocates for a mile distance or 20 minutes. That seems like the outer limit. So, walkability would be constrained within the area covered in 5 – 20 minutes.

    However, is there anywhere to walk to? Vancouver was laid out with ‘pedestrian sheds’ of 5 – 10 minute walking distances for elementary schools. There are no hard and fast rules for high schools or community centers. Shopping streets seem to have evolved along the early tram lines. But the trams stopped at any corner where there was someone waiting, or after someone rang the bell to get off. So, they tend to be amorphous strips without any regular dimensions.

    The cars could go anywhere, so shopping centers sprang up on the edges of town. These of course are only ‘walkable’ after parking the car.

    Vancouver officially has 22 Neighbourhoods, in fact 50 if you use walkable city criteria

    This method for designing the city, working on 22 Neighborhoods, or 50, is complicated by the fact that most urbanists find it hard to pin down what exactly people, mean by a ‘neighborhood’? In Vancouver, the 22 are an administrative tool shaped by order of magnitude, the grid pattern of roads, and very little concept of what makes ‘good’ neighborhoods. There not, by the way , 22 Neighbourhood Associations. In Mount Pleasant, for example, the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant was put on ice after the Rize tower fight.

    At 44.47 sq. mil the City of Vancouver covers 28,500 acres. If the ‘pedestrian shed’ is the neighborhood, then we have 237 neighborhoods. When I physically overlaid ‘pedestrian sheds’ on a map of Vancouver I came out with some 100 ped.sheds being able to be accommodated excluding parks, irregularities in the shore lines, etc.

    So, the analysis is complicated. When I completed a neighborhood charrette with RAMP, we were able to overlay 7 pedestrian sheds over Mount Pleasant.

    the implication was that [areas without population growth] are stagnant and not accommodating growth

    The reality is that CoV has ‘dumbed down’ growth to the only measure that matters for city planning.

    I heard that it is essential to resilient city growth that neighbourhoods be involved in their planning, and that low-rise, maybe even mid-rise homes are better than high-rise

    The phrasing is important:

    “Low-rise and mid-rise homes make more sense than “sykscrappers”—3 to 4 storeys is ideal”—Paty Rios

    As is the context. In order to retain solar penetration to the sidewalk, in Vancouver latitudes, building heights must be within ⅓ the height of the street. Our streets are one chain or 66-feet wide, so… 22 feet. With 25-foot front yard setbacks, the width of the streetspace increases to 116 feet. Now buildings can be 39 feet. Almost 40. With the ground level set into the ground 18″ or 1.5 feet we can achieve 4-stories on 66-foot streets with setbacks.

    However, on streets with zero setbacks (like commercial streets) the heights should be kept within 22 feet or two stories. More height is possible as long as it is set back.

    So, the way I would interpret the comment form Paty Rios is that ‘below 4 storeys is ideal’. At least in our latitudes.

    When you parachute in a panel of out-of-town experts to tell us locals what’s best for us, then the panel are nobodies because they lack local experience and understanding, can best make guesses about what we need.

    That’s a bit of an extreme position, though I give you credit for stating how many professionals in our city actually feel about the entire subject.

    The facts are different. There are general principles in urbanism—concrete and verifiable—that apply generally to the human condition. Levi-Strauss put it that the city is the human creation par excellence. The ‘principle’ about building to allow sun to penetrate to the sidewalk, for example, was expressed in 1570 by Palladio, a northern Italian architect and town planner in the Renaissance. And one of the best there’s been. His work points to the ‘universality’ of principles in urban design existing not just across the globe (Vancouver to Vicenza) but across time as well, 450 years in this case. That human urbanism robust stuff!

    Furthermore, the principles in urbanism can be seen to inflect to local conditions. Thus, the streets in Roma are tall and narrow, because further south and closer to the equator, the Romans enjoy the ‘luxury of shade’. At those latitudes blocking the sun from reaching the sidewalk is considered ideal.

    The principles also adapt to changing conditions. Thus the houses and buildings built by the first western settlers around Victoria BC can be seen to be of different sizes than the ones we build now. If you look at beds from that period, the appear puny to us now. Owing to better nutrition, we have grown to be taller and the western framing, along with the furniture manufacturers have adapted.

    Now, there is always a need to consult with the local population and to study what I call the vernacular. In Vancouver, we have the tradition of the west coast wood frame construction, or the West Coast Vernacular. Executed in human scale (less than 4 stories tall) for 160 years. And hopefully for another 160 more, with inflections in the urbanism and adaptations in the built form keeping the scene changing and lively.

    It hasn’t been an overly long conversation, but our results are startling. Here is the list of ‘concrete and measurable’ facts we are not too sure about, regardless of where we call home:

    1. The Walkable City

    Should we focus on the distances? Or are the destinations also important? How many walkable destinations that I like to frequent are within walking distance of my front door? ONE. The park with the running track I frequent, which influenced my decision to buy here rather than someplace else.

    Should we locate the pedestrian shed at the destination? Like was done for the school grounds? At the library or a village square?

    Palladio and his contemporaries centered it on the square or piazza. Then, the organs of civic life more or less agglomerated there. Each neighborhood had a square, a church, and an accretion of shops and services. However, the various guilds and professions preferred to establish their own district. It was a wonderfully vibrant hodge-lodge.

    2. Easy Walking Distance

    We came close here. 5 to 20 minutes. Inflecting to terrain (hills and valleys) and very much affected by the design of the street, the volume of traffic and the presence of trees.

    3. Building Height

    Well, there is no consensus on the Street Aspect Ratio. In fact, if you google those terms you are likely to come up with sketches I’ve made to explain the concept. It seems common like sense.

    Yet common sense goes out the window when an owner is making decisions about how to build (improve) his property. Towers are revenue generators. And the foot race is not onerous to wind, paying extra taxes and development fees to collect additional revenue.

    4. The Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts

    A wonderful thing about urbanism is that it has been around for millennia. So there is no shortage of aphorisms to describe it. And this one describes something that neither panelists, staff or even residents have dared put a finger on.

    It is the ensemble of buildings that creates the ‘urban space’, street, park or piazza. But nobody talks about it.

    Here is how I put it together for Vancouver: walkable neighborhoods, livable streets and affordable houses made in the West Coast Vernacular.

    Now you know that according to (1) walkable neighborhoods, we are interested in destinations within a 5 to 20 minute walk from front doors. And as many of these as possible: cafes, convenience, vegetables and maybe meats, a drugstore with a post office drop, dry cleaners and maybe a special restaurant or lunch spot. Too much to ask? No. Not from a ‘good’ city.

    The (2) livable streets begin with streets without high levels of traffic. This was quantified in San Francisco in the late 1970s by Donald Appleyard. He interviewed residents, taking that problem off the table. The study was reproduced in the UK some 20 years later. It would be the kind of measure you’d think every planning department and engineer would like to have. But Vancouver has never attempted it. In any case, our arterials carry too much traffic, yet on close inspection they are nearly all lined with single family residential. The design of the arterial is bereft of trees and medians that might mitigate conditions for residents. Leaving me to dub them “Open Traffic Sewers”.

    Well (3) affordable houses is what got us here, isn’t it? With this general lack of quantifiable data, is it any wonder that we have let the horse out of the barn, and that median house prices in our city are 7+ times over the affordability threshold (3-times median income before taxes) and predicted to head for 8+ by the time of the fall election.

    The last one (4) made in the west coast vernacular presents with comparative advantages in British Columbia, where the local Douglas fir is the source of renewable GHG-0 construction. Make it value-added construction components and give our economy a big shot in the arm.

    Sadly, none of the hi-rise condos qualify. The new wood code permits wood construction up to 6 stories but pays no attention attention to the niceties of observing street angle ratios. Which is not to say that we can’t build six storeys in places where the open spaces measure more than 180 feet. However, these are the exception rather than the norm.

    Let’s keep the conversation going! There is so much to talk about and explain.

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