Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Opinion: B.C. planners look to the street for guidance Vancouver Courier April 22, 2015

Last week, approximately 200 British Columbia planners gathered in Seattle’s beautiful Washington State Convention Centre. They were attending the Annual Conference of the Planning Institute of British Columbia (PIBC) that was appropriately titled “Beyond Borders.”

They were meeting in Seattle since the American Planning Association is holding its national conference there this week, and organizers hoped some planners would be able to attend both events.
I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on Planners as Developers, something I often advocate, since the skills planners learn at school and in professional practice can make them creative and effective developers. While I doubt whether I managed to convince many to leave their current positions, I was told I did shed light on the oftentimes differing attitudes of planners and developers, and the benefits of improved mutual understanding and respect.

The conversations that took place in the sessions and in the corridors between sessions will fill many future columns. I would like to start with the “Untapped Power of the Street” and “Ethics and Professionalism in Planning.”

The opening plenary session featured Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner with the New York City Department of Transportation and now a transportation principal with Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consulting service for city governments. She was instrumental in converting many downtown New York streets from what SFU City Program Director Gordon Price calls “motordom” to a new focus on pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. She noted that at the turn of the last century, streets were extensions of sidewalks and storefronts, but cars changed everything in the 1920s.
However, anyone who has recently visited New York can attest to the dramatic shift that has taken place as vehicle lanes have been converted back to bicycle lanes, wider sidewalks and inviting public open spaces.

In addition to making New York a much more delightful place to be in, pedestrian and motorist injuries have dropped dramatically and the initiative has been good for nearby businesses. It is ironic that many Vancouver businesses worry the opposite will happen. A related success is New York’s bike-share program, funded entirely without public subsidy. Today the city has 7,000 bikes and hopes to have 25,000 in the future. However, Sadik-Khan noted that of 35 successful bike-share programs in the world, none have a mandatory bike helmet law. As long as Vancouver has this law, we will never have a successful program.
As Sadik-Khan showed pictures of wide, congested New York streets being converted to beautiful landscaped boulevards full of cyclists, pedestrians and transit, I could not help but think of Kingsway and so many other Vancouver streets that need to be put on a diet.

The plenary session was followed by a sobering session during which a panel of senior planners and a municipal lawyer explored how best to balance planners’ ethical, professional and employment responsibilities to avert or resolve potential conflicts. Attendees were invited to anonymously submit questions and concerns.  Many dealt with the issue identified in my column last week, namely the desire by municipal administrations and politicians to override good planning decisions in order to maximize financial benefits or other community amenities.

Planners in attendance complained that oftentimes they were requested by their administrations or politicians to alter professional recommendations. While they acknowledged this might be appropriate when there was additional information unknown to them, too often the requests contravened what they considered good planning.

The panel cautioned attendees that if they did not comply with PIBC’s ethical code when carrying out their professional responsibilities, they could be brought before the institute’s disciplinary committee.  Complaints could be instigated by another member, a client, a neighbourhood group or the public, and the Planning Institute itself. Attendees were cautioned not to sign-off on reports with which they did not feel professionally comfortable.

Given the increased incidence of planners feeling pressured to make inappropriate decisions, it was concluded that it may be time for PIBC to establish an advisory board comprised of senior professionals to which conflicted planners could confidentially bring ethical and professional challenges. Hopefully this will occur since it could result in better planning decisions around the province, and especially in Vancouver.
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