Thursday, August 21, 2014

Some of the many responses to my Vancouver Courier column on the roles of planners and residents

I sent out my latest Vancouver Courier column to a few friends. One, a former Dean of Architecture and Planning at an American university sent back a very thoughtful response that I thought was worthy of reprinting.

Michael,  thanks for sending this along.  

I agree with much of what you say.  It is usually better to have an organized forum for public input and decisions about neighborhood planning, rather than disorganized interest groups.  People take an official forum more seriously, and are able to temper the bomb throwers.  But such a forum is not a substitute for actual planning.  There is expertise that planners bring to the scene — examples of what has been tried elsewhere and succeeded or failed, the ability to visualize outcomes, understanding of the technics of development regulation, imagination to think of things that lay people would never conceive of, understanding of norms and standards (eg, how far people will walk to shopping or transit), and so on.  I could go on.  On the other hand, lay people also bring some common sense expertise — is something likely to be used?  What would make the most difference in terms of the quality of life?  How a neighborhood seems to be changing, etc.  

Lay people can also be wrong, of course.  Once, in planning for the future of the public school system in Boston, I had people arguing that the neighborhood population of children must be going up, since there were two new kids on their block.  When we looked at the numbers, what the local people didn't see was that there were a dozen or more kids entering the school system a year two decades before, at a time when Irish families typically had 6 kids, so the situation of supporting a neighborhood school had dramatically changes.  There are some things you can understand only by swimming in the pond, but other things that you need to stand on the shore to understand. 

Ultimately, the best neighborhood plans are a product of a collaboration between professionals and lay people, each sharing their expertise.  I think that is pretty much what you said as well.
From a municipal and real estate lawyer and local resident:

You have certainly captured the essence of what is undermining the development process in our city & probably many others as well. Certainly the experts are to be listened to & within reason the views of the community must also be factored into the process but not when as you have so cogently expressed they are just an uneducated rant against whatever project is being considered.

In the best of all possible worlds the experts should win out assuming their opinions reflect their expertise rather than their personal bias or their politics.
Bring on  neighborhood plans. They lay an important foundation for all that follows!
Keep the articles coming........well done!

Another friend who was an expert in Municipal Government had this to say:

Ready your column of August 20 in the Vancouver Courier with interest.

Another problem with letting the experts in any area dominate and rule is that professionals whether in the private or public sector, especially architects, engineers and planners have had little exposure to urban politic science during their professional education.

Ironically the Founding Dean at York of Environmental Studies, a Canadian , UBC Architect with a Harvard Ph.D. then Dean at University of Pennsylvania before York believed that Planners had to know about urban politics, Gerry Carruthers by name.

For many years as an Adjunct Professor, in the Faculty of Environmental Science at York University in Toronto I gave a graduate course in urban politics to students in the planning stream. Also I taught in the graduate programme offered to senior employees of The City of Toronto by the University of Western Ontario. One thing both groups had in common was few had any real knowledge of the depth of the professional literature in fields other than their specialty. Few knew, or appreciated that not just the Canadian literature but American and UK politics provided insights into the way planning decisions are made professionally and politically at Council.

What is also not appreciated is that by and large Canadian urban centres are governed by informal alliances of elected people not from open national or provincial political parties. In the professional jargon we have non party parties at play. The City of  Vancouver being one of the prime examples, what influence does this have, or have not on Council decisions?
From a prominent Vancouver resident, politician and writer

Hi Michael.  I think this quote from your column hits the nail on the head:

"Too many residents believe this is because certain developers, architects, and marketing firms have too much influence in our city."
Put another way, people do not trust governments.  This started with the most distant in Ottawa, came to include provincial capitals and now includes many (larger) civic regimes, including (I hope, he said in a partisan way) Vancouver.
I agree with you that the Citizens' Assembly has a chance to do something good.    It will be a new use of a powerful democratic tool.
Maybe a good discussion for the Round Table one day would be on your observation that:

"Most planners acknowledge that the community has every right to participate in the planning process. However too often they hear objections to proposals from neighbourhood residents who simply do not like what is being proposed. Objectors believe that should be sufficient justification for the City to reject the proposal or neighbourhood plan."
Sometimes it seems to me that "simply not liking" should be enough.  In other cases a broader leadership is required, but also needs broader support.  How to tell which is which?
Keep on writing!

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