I had a long day today debating and listening to debates about densification.
Ned Jacobs, Jane Jacobs’ son, invited a few of us from the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods to his place for brunch to chat with Wendy Sarkissian, author and urban planner, in advance of her lecture this afternoon. We spent a jolly couple of hours talking about community planning, the pressures of international financial speculation, and enjoying Ned and Mary’s barbecued salmon and other delicacies.
We then trundled down to the Mount Pleasant Community Centre to join about 45 others — a very good gathering on a pleasant Sunday afternoon — for the lecture. George Affleck, Peter Armstrong and a couple of other NPAers were in the audience, as was Bill McCreery of TEAM. I’m sure there were some Vision listeners too, but they didn’t identify themselves.
Wendy began by discussing the current situation in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide which is, she says, complicated by the “cultural imperialism” of former Vancouver planners visiting and lecturing on what they consider to be the wonderful Vancouverism. She then moved on to the planning situation in Vancouver today, which she thinks is a total mess, “a pathetic thing.”
She mentioned the complete denial of appropriate community engagement, the absence of dependable ground level renderings, and the duplicity of non-promises (or unfulfilled promises) that she called “bait and switch on steroids”. She suggested that the use of PR firms to manage community engagement “is an insult,” and she was saddened by the lack of institutional memory that the Vancouver planners and politicians exhibit today.
Wendy noted that the Open House model (such a popular feature of Vancouver planning) is “dead in the water” elsewhere in the world, but was positive about the World Cafe style of workshops. She was particularly strong on her belief that good planning requires a detailed community education component.
In response to Wendy’s comment that Vancouver’s planners used the “stupidest methods in a ham-fisted way”, I asked her about her views on the Citizens’ Assembly process that Grandview is about to be forced into. She considers it “an act of desperation” by the planners and quite unsuitable for a neighbourhood in hot dispute with the suggested Community Plan.
Other questions and comments showed that the Vancouver planning disease had spread to North Vancouver, while Vision was thanked ironically for bringing the neighbourhoods together . One speaker, having been used to Portland’s strong engagement strategy, had found the Mount Pleasant experience “an embarrassment” and was “stunned by the treatment of citizens.” Others talked about how failed engagement had led to disappointment and anger and eventually disengagement by much of the public.
George Affleck reflected on his memories of City Plan and asked whether it really could be revived. Wendy Sarkissian said that it certainly could but it would require a few million dollars and a complete rebuilding of the trust that has been lost recently.
The afternoon was enlivened by Ned Jacob’s sharp political rhetoric that occasionally drew a response from the politicians in the room.
The key take aways from Dr. Sarkissian were that “density done well” requires community engagement done well, that no tool or technique can work without the requisite political will, and a key problem is that unpaid volunteers are facing a well-financed planning department and their corporate supporters.
Steve Bohus of RAMP and the Coalition managed the afternoon really well, and David Vaisbord of the Little Mountain project videotaped the event; hopefully it will be available soon.