The Wendy Sarkissian Conversation

January 19, 2014

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-Sarkissian-headshot-2013Wendy 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.


Happy Times

November 30, 2014

We spent some of this afternoon saying goodbye to Australian planner and irreverant wit Wendy Sarkissian who returns home on Wednesday after a busy three months here teaching at Langara and UBC.  The goodbye party was in the bar at the Sylvia Hotel, with a fine fiery sunset colouring English Bay.  Good to see Wendy again, plus lots of good discussions about planning and a lot more.

To get to the Sylvia, of course, we had to pass through the A-maze-ing Laughter, better known as the Giant Laughing Statues.  The everloving had wanted to come down here for a while, so Wendy’s party was the perfect opportunity.


Passing On The Wisdom

October 22, 2014

Last night I was privileged to be part of a Langara College class being held by Australian planner and community engagement expert Wendy Sarkissian with whom I have been in contact throughout this year.  She is in Vancouver this Fall to teach courses on planning at Langara and at UBC SCARP.

Last night’s class brought together a number of long-time neighbourhood activists (Eileen Mosca of Grandview, Gudrun Langolf of Marpole, Ned Jacobs of Riley Park/South Cambie, former mayoral candidate Randy Helten, Little Mountain documentarian David Vaisbord, and me).

Over the evening, we each discussed our own histories, our specific focus of activism, and often enough, how the history of activism in Vancouver and elsewhere informs potential solutions for today.  I told a few a few stories, and then was happy to sit back and listen to the wisdom of the other “elders”.  I hope the students got as much out of it as I did.

Many of us made the point that planning disputes are rarely ideological in a traditional political sense. The problems tend to arise through faulty process, and inequality in the servicing of that process (often appearing as “cronysim”.).  Many of us still have the belief that an improved and equalized process can produce an improved result, to the benefit to the neighbourhoods, the City, and the building industry; and that a continuatuon of the current process will inevitably deliver a city that is unaffordable and without many of the features of livability.

It is the choice between these conflicting systems, one supportive of corporations and the other supportive of people, that makes the result of the upcoming election so important.

Most of the class was facilitated by students April Crockett and Elona Saro, who did a marvelous job and deserve congratulations.  Well done for an interesting evening!

Time and Stuff

August 20, 2014

I haven’t been writing much — as you can see.  I have been concentrating on reading, making notes, prepping a future essay on the conflation of literacy, monotheism, and democracy, and how they ganged up to eliminate the rights and powers of women.  That’s for later, but I am having trouble keeping my focus on other issues because that material is both fascinating and disturbing. I have developed a list of posts that I have been thinking about, but haven’t gotten to the point of writing yet.  This week maybe.

I have taken the time to attend a meeting of the Our Community, Our Plan (OCOP) group on Monday, and to meet with the fascinating Wendy Sarkissian this morning.

OCOP is surviving well as a group of activists, the meetings are exciting and forward moving, and we now know each other well enough that we get real action initiated quite quickly.  I suspect the City may be surprised about some of the things we have planned. It is also a useful teaching/learning forum about planning, development, media management, and municipal politics.  Everyone learns something at these gatherings — every Tuesday 7:00pm at Britannia Info Centre.

Sharing coffee and conversation with Australian planner Wendy Sarkissian was a real pleasure this morning.  She is here for a few months this fall to teach at Langara and UBC.  The joy is that she is happy to help us in Grandview and her decades of experience can only be valuable.  I am looking forward to seeing how best we can fit her into the group.

An Activist History of the GW Community Plan

July 3, 2014

As we approach the next crisis point of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan, I thought it might be a good idea to trace the history of the project so far with links to the stories I wrote at the time.


  • The Plan really began in the spring of 2012 when City Planners conducted a variety of surveys about what we liked about the neighbourhood.  We were shown the results in a Grandview Park display.  There was no inkling of the trouble brewing.
  • Phase two kicked off with a series of Open Houses.  The Planners outlined a number of current City initiatives (Greenest City, Homelessness, etc) and discussing how they must be tied in to the Grandview-specific issues that were identified in phase one.  These connections — and other ideas that emerge — formed the foundational material for the issue-specific workshops that will fill up the balance of phase two.
  • The idea of a high tower at Commercial & Venables was raised at the Grandview Heritage Group meeting in September 2012.  I wrote at the time “I still hope that they don’t get ideas about a tall — or even medium — tower on the site.  That would not be appreciated, I am sure.” (Note that the Courier had discussed a 7-8 storey building  back in January 2012, and Kettle reps came to GWAC’s February meeting that year).
  • The City held a number of workshops in September and October 2012.  These were the workshops and Open Houses that introduced us to the City-wide plans that had to take precedence over anything we wanted, and it eas at these Open Houses that we learned to hate the yellow-sticky style of “communication”.
  • In October 2012, the Vision majority on City Council pushed through the Task Force on Affordable Housing Recommendations.  GWAC and the community urged Council to delay implementation.  Andrew Pask told a GWAC Meeting that the recommendations would have little or no affect on GW’s Plan.
  • October 2012 also saw the NSV’s “Future of Vancouver” conference. This was one of the very first gatherings to express city-wide anxiety about the City’s failing planning process.  NSV’s Bette Murphy spoke eloquently about the unproven need for a development plan in Grandview.
  • In November 2012, the Grandview Heritage Group submitted its concerns for heritage retention during the Plan.
  • That same month I wrote a piece about the failure of the Plan’s PACE process, that failure’s links to Vision’s “faux” consultation, and the fact that local power was slipping away.
  • December 2012 saw the NSV-sponsored meeting at the Hollywood where a wide variety of city regulars argued against the City’s planning policies and processes.



The Our Community, Our Plan folks met last night and I look forward to hearing what they had to say.

Spreading The Manure Far and Wide

March 14, 2014

Former Vancouver City Planner Brent Toderian, who promoted and furthered the aims of the deeply unpopular Eco-Density program, is presumably making a very decent living promoting what he likes to call “Vancouverism” to municipalities around the world, often in Australia.  He will be a main speaker at the Australian Planning Institute next week.

Australian planner Wendy Sarkissian recently forwarded me a copy of an article that Toderian and Jillian Glover write for Planetizen called “10 Lessons In More Engaging Citizen Engagement” and asked me to comment.  This was my response:

I read with interest the piece in Planetizen by Brent Toderian and Jillian Glover.  Had they not kept mentioning Vancouver, I never would have recognized the city they are describing.

In one section they claim that this is “a region known internationally for its public consultation” — really?  In who’s fantasy is that?  The fact is that locally the current administration is known for being complete failures at engagement.  In 2013, one of our major local newspapers, the Vancouver Courier, conducted a survey to find the most important story of the year, and their readers chose neighbourhood discontent with civic engagement by a huge margin.

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, of which I am chair, was formed last summer specifically to focus and assist the unprecedented opposition to City planning from right across Vancouver.  We began with 18 neighbourhood associations and now have 24, covering about 90% of Vancouver’s population.

The City recently published the final Report of the Mayor’s Task Force on the Engaged City.  The report was completed without consultation with or input from Vancouver’s numerous and active residents’ associations – that’s a perfect example of how engaged they are.

What the Plantetizen article does highlight is this administration’s ability and indeed willingness to create public relations exercises in which citizens are invited to participate but which result in those same citizens having no genuine influence on policies that, most of us believe, were done deals before the first invite was ever sent.  Bread and circuses are all we get.


As I write this, I am watching the final stages of the Oakridge redevelopment hearing — a cabaret of extraordinary frustration.  Hundreds of residents have spoken and written in opposition to the project. “Council has listened,” claims Clr. Louie as he moves to approve the project, the forest of very high towers, while giving the future seniors’ centre a slightly larger kitchen, and pretending the speeding up of construction is a benefit.

Another done deal.


A Sunday Conversation Between Urbanists

January 14, 2014

A short while ago I wrote a post about Australian planner and author Wendy Sarkissian.  We had hoped that a meeting with her would take place and a public meeting has indeed now been arranged for this Sunday.

On Sunday afternoon in Mount Pleasant, Wendy Sarkissian and Ned Jacobs, son and collaborator of Jane Jacobs, will take to the stage, so to speak, for a conversation on densification and other planning issues.  Here is the meeting notice taken from our friends at CityHallWatch.

Densification Wars!
Community Planning in New South Wales and Vancouver:
A public conversation with Dr. Wendy Sarkissian, Ned Jacobs, and You!

 Sunday, January 19th, 2014. 3:45 – 5:45 pm
Location: 1 Kingsway (Mount Pleasant Community Centre, Multipurpose Room 2)
Just show up, or register online on EventBrite here. Inquiries:

The second half will, I understand, open up to questions from the floor. This should be a really good event for anyone interested in the future of Vancouver’s development.  Look forward to seeing you there!

How Eco-Density Ruined Planning In Vancouver

January 12, 2014

wendysarkissianOne of Australia’s leading urban planning theorists, Wendy Sarkissian, has been looking at Vancouver’s planning system, and she has little good to say about it, especially Eco-Density:

It is now widely accepted that the [Eco-Density] Charter misrepresented community views and did not adequately address issues raised in the public process. There were strong community complaints of misrepresentation by Council officers (and senior planners) of the contents of community submissions; there were serious weaknesses in the analysis of submissions about the draft Charter. In meetings to work out the Charter, it was observed that the moderator skewed public comments.
In the community’s view, the 2008 EcoDensity Charter represented a “battering ram” approach to densification. Considerable discretionary power was eventually granted to Council by the Charter, thus undermining well-established policies of community engagement and implementation. Despite the extensive publicity campaign, the community hated and distrusted the policy. It sank Sam Sullivan politically. Shortly after he announced it, his popularity went into steep decline and, despite thirteen years as a City Councillor, he lost candidature after only one term as Mayor …
Research reveals that even the City of Vancouver planners were not convinced that the policy would work. Brent Toderian was quoted in 2007 as saying: “EcoDensity won’t provide housing that meets average incomes. I don’t think we would affect housing supply to the point that prices would go down.”


Dr. Sarkissian is in Vancouver on a private visit this month, Several of us are hopeful of meeting with her while she is here.