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!

Opinion: Is it time to say goodbye to the experts? Vancouver Courier August 20, 2014

More than 150 West Vancouver residents wrote letters or spoke in opposition to this infill development, fearing it would irreparably change the character of their single family neighbourhood. They were wrong!
Kerrisdale residents were up in arms over this West 41st Ave project, branding it completely out of scale and character. Councillor George Puil called it obscene and said it would be as bad as the white porcelain wall on the downtown Eatons in the April 1997 edition of the Vancouver Courier
Hundreds of Oakridge residents spoke in opposition of this seniors condo at W 42 and Oak St. If approved, they demanded more u/g parking. Today you can barely see it through the trees. The parking garage is almost empty.
Last week, the City of Vancouver announced the names of 48 individuals randomly selected to form a Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. They have each volunteered to devote a significant amount of personal time over the next eight months to listen, learn and deliberate on community planning issues affecting Grandview-Woodland. 

As I read the announcement, I was reminded of a recent article in Planetizen, an online public-interest information exchange for the urban planning, design, and development community.
The article was titled ‘The Fall of Planning Expertise’ and describes how we seem to have lost respect for "experts" — those who have knowledge and/or experience in a particular field — and replaced it with a kind of "expertise egalitarianism" whereby everyone's opinion is given equal weight.

For example, the advice and recommendations of planners are frequently overridden by neighbourhood residents who know very little about the range of topics that underline the profession, but feel they know better because they have lived in a community for so many years.

In the face of such conflicts, the author suggests planners should ask: Are the powers and politics now vested in "community participation" undermining the planning profession?

Planners receive a broad education and experience in a range of disciplines including urban design, regulatory processes, technical modeling, economic analysis, environmental issues, and how to engage with a community.

Armed with this knowledge, in many instances they are attacked for being arrogant and elitist for insisting they know something the ordinary citizen does not. Increasingly, residents believe their personal opinions should trump not only the planner’s individual expertise, but the collective expertise of the planning profession.

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.

The situation is exacerbated since there does not appear to be any agreement on who should be the final authority on decisions related to planning and development; the local residents or the planning profession.

In the case of rezonings and other complex development approvals, the city manager’s office, the mayor’s office, or council believe they should have the final say.

I initially studied architecture, not planning. When I told my professor I intended to study planning he told me it wasn’t necessary since “planning is simply good architecture side by side”.
After working as a planner for many decades, I disagree.

Good planning provides the necessary framework for orderly and sustainable growth. Unfortunately, one of the reasons we may be having so many debates in our neighbourhoods over individual development projects is due to the fact we often do not have overall neighbourhood plans; and if we do, we do not always stick to them.

Too many residents believe this is because certain developers, architects, and marketing firms have too much influence in our city. As a result, properties are rezoned in the absence of any supporting planning framework or justification.

I believe another problem is that too often planners forget what they learned in planning school. Instead of applying their professional judgement, they become pollsters. Their reports to council set out how many letters were received in opposition to an application, compared to the number in support, without adequate commentary as to the validity of the letters from a professional planning perspective. 

For these reasons, I am looking forward to the results of the Citizens' Assembly. I believe it could result in a better planning process compared to what we have now.

However, I am not overly optimistic, since notwithstanding the time and effort to be devoted by the 48 Assembly members, most will never know as much as the planners who earned a university degree, and worked in the field.

Furthermore, too often planning decisions are made not by planners, but rather by politicians who allow political considerations, along with words like sustainability and affordability, to trump good planning and urban design.

If you do not believe me, just ask some planners who have recently left the city.
© Vancouver Courier

When the Courier posted this column on Twitter, the responses came in fast and furious. Here's just a taste of what I found:

well this is going to get some self described community experts all hot and bothered!

Lets be honest, 's piece in the Courier today is not worth the fish and chips I would wrap with it. Elitist BS top to bottom.

I knew jakking49 wouldn't disappoint me.

Agree with on much of what he said about planners.However, hopeful about Citizens' Assembly's input.

. Democracy is doomed without a healthy degree of trust in honest experts. Responsible citizens should be informed, but .part of being informed is knowing that specialists know more than you do. Know enough to know what you don't know. Having institutions and professional associations that inspire confidence is key. People need to know what makes an "expert"

. Not all "experts" know what they're doing, sadly, and not all "community leaders" are wise and/or selfless.

I for one believe in mutual respect between "professional" expertise, knowledge & experience, & community knowledge & wisdom.

Knowing what you don't know is the first step to enlightenment. Knowledge becomes wisdom if shared.

If both parties were open to listening to one other, the results could exceed the experience of both.

so, Citizens Assembly and "expert" urban planners will save from itself. Misplaced hubris?

Developers, pollys, planners & community must respect opposing views. Good planning = compromise

Experts are well-advised to take lived experience of residents into account - seriously take into account.

There is a difference between expert advice and expert decrees, no?

planners need to defend why change is required: not good enough to say b/c many ppl are coming

Pure BS by MG "@VanCourierNews

Opinion: Is it time to say goodbye to the experts?

Michael Geller / Columnist
August 20, 2014 01:22 PM
- See more at:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Resorting to new ways of sharing space: Vancouver Courier August 13, 2014

I can't wait to see who will be upset by this week's column!

While many seniors are reluctant to move into lifestyle retirement communities, their children are the opposite. They want to know how soon they can move in!

Many years ago, my then 82-year-old father and I took a cruise around the Black Sea. Each day he enjoyed an array of activities and made new friends. He could walk everywhere — there was no need to drive and no dishes to wash or other housekeeping chores.

As we were disembarking, he turned to me and said, “I think I could get used to living like this all year round.”

I think about my late father’s statement whenever I stay at a resort. As I enjoy the extensive nearby facilities, activities, dining and shopping, I often wonder what it would be like to live like this all the time.

While some wealthy individuals can live year round on cruise ships or in sunny resorts, most of us do not have these options.
However, we often seek neighbourhoods and housing forms offering the features that make cruising and resort living so attractive. 

We seek “village-like” environments where we feel safe with friends and strangers alike. We want to be close to community facilities where we can enjoy yoga and bridge classes. We like the idea of occasionally sharing meals and not having to drive everywhere. We would like someone else to take care of us and do the things we prefer not to do like picking up, cleaning or weeding the garden.
Many seniors are now moving into “lifestyle” retirement communities that offer these attributes. They own or rent self-contained suites, but enjoy meals in communal and private dining rooms. They participate in planned outings, cultural, sports and recreation activities.

They and their families have a greater sense of security and peace of mind.

At the other end of the age spectrum, students and twenty-somethings enjoy university residences or other shared living arrangements. At the end of the day there is always someone to have a meal with, see a movie or head out for an evening on the town.
Unfortunately, most of us past our student days but not yet ready for a retirement home have very limited options when it comes to these kinds of friendlier, communal living arrangements. The few exceptions are those living in older market or government-subsidized housing cooperatives, or newer co-housing developments.
However, I think this is about to change.

Retirement community operators will tell you that while many seniors are still reluctant to move into their complexes, their children are often the opposite. They are attracted to carefree living environments and wonder how soon they can move in.

Many “empty nesters” would gladly sell their larger single family houses if they could move into well-designed smaller homes in a nearby clustered single-family or multi-family complex. They like the idea of what architect Ross Chapin calls “pocket neighbourhoods” which cluster a number of smaller houses together, close to amenities, but not on busy streets.

Sadly, this type of housing is generally not being built in Vancouver because zoning bylaws prevent it.

We cannot have small townhouse complexes mixed in with single family homes. We cannot even have duplexes or small lot houses mixed in with large lot houses. With few exceptions, new apartments are kept away in downtown locations or along busy streets.

While many empty nesters have happily moved into apartments, others say they are not yet ready for apartment living. They worry about the loss of indoor and outdoor space, and the potential of being somewhat isolated.

In Antwerp, Belgium, a 24-storey apartment building has recently been designed to address these concerns and help residents make friends.
Individual apartments are grouped into mini-communities opening onto communal balconies and winter gardens. Residents also share an inner courtyard and dining room for those times when they may not want to eat alone in their apartment. There is a bike-repair facility, roof terrace and other amenities. I suspect many Vancouver residents would find this appealing.

As aging baby boomers seek alternative housing choices, I am hopeful it will become easier for planners to convince neighbourhoods and politicians to make the necessary zoning changes to permit these friendlier forms of housing throughout the city.  

After all, most of us will never live on cruise ships or resorts.

An email exchange with Jean Swanson and Wendy Pedersen Fall 2008

In searching for the draft Op-Ed I wrote in 2008 to advocate for an increased shelter allowance, I came across the following email exchange with Jean Swanson and Wendy Pedersen. At the time I was running for Vancouver City Council.

It is interesting to observe  how similar this discussion is to what I wrote in my recent Courier article, alone with what has changed, and what hasn't changed. (comments in red are from Jean or Wendy)

MG: Jean and Wendy, as you may have noticed, the issue of homelessness has
dominated this election campaign, and yet I have not heard any mention, by
anybody, advocating an increase in the Shelter Allowance.  Why is this?
Having spent a week in Toronto with international housing experts, I am more
convinced than ever that we need a comprehensive approach to solving
homelessness, not just big promises, or just one initiative, to address the
problem.  We need:

MG:  1. more housing;
Yes, Michael, more SOCIAL housing that low income people can afford.  Just building new expensive housing isn’t working for low income folks.  This means we need the city to organize pressure on provincial and federal governments to get enough money to start building the number of units that used to be built in the ‘80s—around 665 (only we need at least 800) a year in the city.  And, while we do need some supportive housing (the only kind the province is funding) we also need plain old low cost housing for low income people who don’t need any supports.  They are being pushed farther and farther back on the BC Housing wait lists because people who need supportive housing seem to be the priority now.
MG: 2.  better enforcement of the maintenance and occupancy bylaws to improve
existing housing;  Yes, especially the enforcement of the section of the Standards of Maintenance bylaw that allows the city to do the work and bill the owner if he refuses.

MG: 3.  increased shelter allowance to help offset the cost of better housing.  (In Toronto, the equivalent SR0's rent for $125 a week and up, and are
generally better maintained;  Yes, and CCAP is constantly calling for increased welfare rates.  We don’t confine this to only the shelter part of welfare, the part that goes to landlords, as we think the support part needs to go up too, as I outlined to you before.  We are a member of a coalition called Raise the Rates ( that is also working for this.

MG: 4.  a program to relocate people into existing apartments, with support
services, just like the street to home initiative (I'm told by BC Housing
that this is quietly happening.  Are you aware of cases?;  The city has several teams of outreach workers that go out and find people who are homeless and get them on welfare (rules get waived for this for the people the outreach workers are helping).  But Judy Graves and the outreach workers we know say that the big problem is finding housing; that the outreach teams are competing with each other for the same rooms; that there isn’t enough decent, vacant housing to put people in.

MG: 5.  more senior level funding along with private funding and coordinated
city initiatives to make all of this happen.  If we just had a national housing program with, say 800 units a year allocated for Vancouver, then people could plan to make it happen.  Private funding won’t make much of a dent we suspect.  The extra tax break that Dobell and friends want for housing could schlup money out of other charities that are doing useful work.  Housing is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t have to depend on charity.

MG: Now, what am I missing, and what should I be saying to try and help?

Missing:  What are you going to do to get people off the streets now, in the winter?  Suggestion:  the city should investigate opening up vacant sro rooms in the DTES and leasing them , with staff, as shelters where people could stay until decent housing is found and not be kicked out at 7 am.

What are you going to do to keep homelessness  from increasing because of sros that are renting daily, and weekly (illegally) to tourists and kicking out long term local low income residents?  Suggestion:  get city to proactively enforce the sra bylaw prohibiting daily /weekly rentals in more than 10% of rooms; repeal 10% rule.

What kind of proactive lobbying will you do to get $$ from feds and province?  Suggestion:  Build a huge city coalition of developers, builders, non profits, govt., etc, and work with them at the FCM and UBCM and develop creative lobbying tactics with both levels of govt.

What are you going to do to keep condos from overwhelming the DTES, pushing up land prices and pushing out low income residents and the services they need?  Suggetion:  support CCAP’s call for a moratorium on market housing in the DTES until we get a community plan and funding for low income housing.

How long should 4000 low income residents have to stay in crummy privately owned sro’s?  Suggestion:  At the current rate, about 100 new units a year are being built to replace the sro’s.  Forty years is too long to sentence sro residents to.  More low income housing has to be built in the DTES, not just in the rest of the city (that’s ok too).

MG: I realize it is an election campaign, and one cannot trust politicians during
such times, but I do have many opportunities to speak and be heard.  So I
would welcome your ideas and suggestions.  cheers Michael

CCAP position on shelters 
Jean and I thought you may want to know our tentative position on shelters in the DTES based on CCAP.  We plan to talk about this at our next ccap volunteer meeting on Friday November 7, but in the meantime, wanted you to have this. 
CCAP believes that everyone deserves a good 400 sq ft home with bathroom and kitchen facilities and we're working on that by
§  working with Citywide Housing Coalition to pressure senior governments for housing money
§  pressuring the City to lobby more effectively for decent housing;
§  Trying to get media to push all levels of government to fund decent housing.
In the meantime CCAP believes that no one should have to sleep on the street, couch surf or be otherwise homeless. We have endorsed the call for Storyeum to be opened as a shelter.  We believe the CCCA has done so as well.

CCAP also surveyed empty hotels and called for the city and province to lease empty rooms, fix them up, and use them for shelters where people could stay all day and have a little privacy.  Both Mayoral candidates have said they will look into this possibility.

CCAP's work on city land use policies is also relevant to homelessness. With hotels converting to tourist and upscale accommodation, with condos pressuring land prices upwards, and with developers drooling over the DTES for condos, people living in the 4000 privately owned SROs are at risk of eviction and homelessness.

CCAP is also working with Raise the rates and by ourselves to get the province to stop denying welfare to people in need and to increase welfare rates so people will be able to afford to rent places.
If we don't but the brakes on this process, homelessness will increase as it has increased in the last few years.    ~ Jean and Wendy