There is much talk these days among the twitterati about the “need” for an Official Community Plan (OCP) for Vancouver. It seems the main purpose of this is “to remove uncertainty” for the development industry. The fact that this will also remove the ability of community residents to protest unwanted development in any meaningful way is brushed aside or, even considered a value-add to an OCP.
There is often a failure in these discussions to see, or at least to acknowledge, that city building falls within a political/social envelope that is far more important than the daily work of planners and urbanists. But all these ideas are part of political systems and modes of thought, and that background needs to be recognised.
In discussions of politics, I have long ago rejected the so-called left-right continuum; for me, the important structural divide is between centralizers and de-centralizers: those who prefer a top-down decision making process, and those who argue that decisions should flow from the bottom up.
The centralizers, whether they be openly totalitarian or profess some form of broad liberalism, tend to be institution builders – making neighbourhoods subordinate parts of cities, cities subordinate parts of regions, regions subordinate parts of countries, countries subordinate parts of international associations; often with many subdivisions of subordination within each level. These hierarchical institutions always lead to a diminution of the political power of the individual or locality. To illustrate and without having to climb too far up this hierarchy, ask yourself how much power does a Vancouver resident have over the decisions of Metro or Translink, for example?
Clearly I fall into the other camp, believing that power should reside with the smallest possible group. That is not to say there is no place for larger groupings – in urban terms for management of water, sewage, transportation, for example. But these groups should be technical in nature and without separate executive authority. And yes, I believe that consent-building is more important than “efficiency”.
So, to bring this discussion back to the matter of an Official Community Plan for Vancouver, I am not opposed to the creation of an OCP but I am dubious as to how it is to be created under the existing conditions. We live in a city of centralizers and it is clear to me that an OCP developed under such a system will inevitably force neighbourhoods to vacate their decision-making and to conform to the OCP whether they want to or not. I would definitely oppose such an OCP.
If, however, each of our wonderfully diverse communities is empowered and enabled to create their own local community plan, and these plans are then stitched together, then such an overall OCP would clearly be acceptable (though its value would be limited). Some might argue that such a procedure would be impossible. However, I would remind them that this was what the popular and late-lamented City Plan process was all about.
I would further argue that some of our city planners could best be used by placing them in each community to act as technical advisers – perhaps even as visionaries – to assist local residents build the neighbourhood plans. This again is what happened in the 1978-1980 Grandview Community Plan which helped produce the diverse and successful community we see today.
Finally, if what the development industry wants is certainty, then it shouldn’t matter to them where the plans come from. A local community plan will be just as certain as an OCP. Of course, I don’t accept that certainty is their only goal; freedom to build where and what and when they want is their ultimate objective, and I don’t believe that either style of plan should allow them that.
So, that is a “no” for a top-down OCP, and “yes” for plans built from the neighbourhood up.