World Town Planning Day: A cause for celebration in B.C.
Opinion: Since 1949, this day has highlighted the valuable contributions sound planning makes to the human environment
By Michael Geller, Special to The Vancouver Sun November 6, 2012
Photograph by: Stuart Davis , Vancouver Sun
What do housing affordability, physical health and a sense of community have to do with town planning?
This week, planners in 30 countries around the world will be celebrating World Town Planning Day. It is a day to recognize the importance of community planning, an oftentimes contentious discipline that brings together professional planners, builders and developers, politicians, special interest groups, and the general public.
Since 1949, World Town Planning Day has focused on the progress of community planning across Canada and four continents. It highlights the valuable contributions that sound planning has made to the quality of the human environment and provides recognition of the ideals of community planning among the profession and the general public worldwide.
While most of us have a good idea what doctors, dentists and engineers do, we are often confused about the role of professional planners. That may be due to the fact that among the 7,000 planning professionals across Canada, of which more than 1,400 are in British Columbia, there is considerable variety.
There are urban planners who work for developers and property owners, and planners who work exclusively for the public sector, including the various levels of government and a myriad of agencies and institutions.
Many planners focus on what is called current land-use planning. These are the people we often see at public information meetings or standing before city councils. Other planners tend to specialize in long-term planning, regional planning, urban design, and transportation planning.
Increasingly, planners are specializing in areas like heritage preservation, environmental protection, parks and recreation, resource management and economic development. In Metro Vancouver, those planners who specialize in housing policy have become particularly busy.
In developing a plan for a particular property, neighbourhood or whole town or city, planners must take into account a wide array of considerations. These include Official Community Plans and zoning bylaws, sustainability objectives, traffic congestion and air pollution, neighbourhood crime, potential impacts on land values, and relevant legislation.
The importance of the urban planner has been increasing throughout the 21st century, especially in British Columbia as we begin to face increased population growth, climate change and other impacts of unsustainable development. Consequently, a planner can no longer be considered a white collar or blue collar professional; rather he or she is becoming a green collar professional.
Professional planners in British Columbia and the Yukon are members of the Planning Institute of British Columbia (PIBC), which has been dedicated to the advancement of the planning profession for more than 54 years. Fully qualified professional or certified members of PIBC have the exclusive right and privilege to utilize the title “Registered Professional Planner” and designation “RPP” in B.C. They may also use the designation “MCIP” to indicate their professional status nationally with the Canadian Institute of Planners.
Professional planners are faced with a number of particular challenges due to our constricted land supply and desirability as a place to live and work. Looking to the future, I see three areas requiring more concerted effort by planners, working closely with other professionals, governments and the broader public.
The first relates to housing affordability. Our housing supply is not keeping up with demand, and too often the types of housing being built are too expensive, especially for first-time buyers wanting to stay here. Much is reported about the need for increased densities, and while many question whether more density will necessarily lead to more affordability, there is a consensus among planners that it is extremely difficult to have affordability without density.
The second area relates to physical health. While readers might question what planning has to do with health, it is worth remembering that in the beginning, the primary purpose of zoning bylaws was to protect physical health by separating noxious uses and residential areas.
Today this is not as significant a challenge. However, research by UBC’s Dr. Lawrence Frank and others has demonstrated that the layout and density of a neighbourhood can have direct bearing on the physical health of its residents. Children who can bike or walk to school are less likely to be obese than those who must be driven. Similarly, adults living in dense, walkable and complete neighbourhoods are more likely to be healthier and less obese. To find out how healthy your neighbourhood might be, check its walkability index at www.walkscore.com.
The final area is sense of community. As evidenced by recent Vancouver Foundation surveys, despite the accolades that Vancouver often receives as a most livable city, there appears to be a growing sense of disconnection and isolation among residents of many Lower Mainland neighbourhoods. Good planning can help address this by creating welcoming spaces where people want to congregate and meet one another. In some cases, these may be parks or public squares; however, they might also be well-designed communal gardens or community spaces within a rental or condominium development.
While many may question whether B.C.’s planners have been doing a good job, internationally, they are highly regarded for the quality of our province’s urban and rural planning. While there is much more to be done, this is something worth celebrating.
Michael Geller is a 25 year member of the PIBC and Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners.
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