Summary: Vancouver is going to be a large(ish) global city at some point this century, and most of our discourse doesn’t seem to acknolwedge this. Thinking about this, I explore six things we could do to “grow up:” (1) massively expand our transit and transportation system, (2) dramatically change how we build homes, (3) strengthen our regional networks and partnerships, (4) meaningfully commit to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, (5) leverage our diversity for global change, and (6) build a new, transformational model of sustainability and resilience.
I spend a lot of time thinking about Vancouver.
Mostly I do a lot of this in the context of what it’s doing wrong, but some of it I do with an eye towards what I’d like to see it become, too. As an urban planner, I feel like I’m always torn in two directions in my work: I’m simultaneously fixated on the context of our city and region that currently exists, and what potentialities, both good and bad, lay ahead for us. Sometimes it’s really difficult to balance those two parts of myself, but part of me thinks that that’s simply all part of the job.
Part of all of this thinking that I do has me fixated on a particular aspect of our civic discourse: what Vancouver’s “place” in the world is.
It’s an interesting thing to consider, and perhaps is indicative of our relative adolescence as a city that we think about it at all. The ‘Big Cities’ of the world — the global hubs, the trendsetters, the political and financial capitals of our interconnected global society— know who they are. New York is often referred to not so much as a city, but rather the archetype of a city. But for cities like Vancouver, cities which are if we’re being honest, small, the question of who we are and what we’re about is a constant, often unnerving, question.
Some of my past work has been related to this exact question, and often the answers we came up with sounded something like this:
Vancouver has the best mode-split in North America.
Vancouver is the 15th best startup ecosystem in the world.
Vancouver is a world-leader in sustainability policy.
I want to suggest, however, that if Vancouver intends to ‘find itself’ as it ages, and if it intends to live up to the progressive values that underpin a lot of its soul-searching, we need to shift the dialogue.
Vancouver is going to be a big city — but what kind is still unclear.
I’ve heard many people saying things about the city that are underpinned with a sense of nostalgia. Their implicit (often explicit) claim or assumption is that Vancouver can rewind the clock to the idyllic past of low home prices, open roads, and technologically simpler living. The reality (and desirability) of each of those are fundamentally in question for me.
What is the likelihood of us driving down the price of detached homes in Vancouver to what they were in the past? Nil.
What’s the likelihood of creating enough roadspace that everyone can take their cars everywhere with impunity? Nada.
Is our city ever going to become a simpler, slower, and more homogenous place? No — and nor should we want it to be.
Because to achieve any of these things would mean becoming smaller.
I read smaller also as ‘less complex,’ which is not a value judgement on smaller communities, but rather an observation of sheer number of physical, financial, social, and ecological functions present in larger ones. The density of overlapping systems — the anthrosphere, if one likes — found in cities is phenomenal. So phenomenal, that even a city like Detroit, above, which has been hammered for decades by a series of systemic challenges, has enough inbuilt complexity, that total dissolution seems impossible. In fact, given enough time, it seems like almost any human settlement can bounce back.
Perversely, this also means that the more we do — good or bad — the more complex we become. This, by its very nature, means we are unable to return to any prior state. The system is different and cannot be turned back, even if certain features might reappear.
I believe that many people still simply haven’t come to terms with the fact that we are going to be a big city.
Not a Shanghai or a New York, to be sure, but a somewhat large city by global standards all the same. We’ll be 3.4 million before the middle of the century, and with the uncertainties of climate change and other global disruptions abounding, I would be unsurprised if we were creeping towards 7–8 million at the end of the century.
And yet we don’t seem to talk about this. We pretend that we can chip away at little problems without ever taking on some of perspectives, timescales, and, if we’re honest, bravado, that large cities have to, by their very nature, if they are to survive.
Now the obvious rebuttal is that they don’t always do these (big) things well. And that’s true, they don’t. They fail all the time. And sometimes that failure can be heartbreaking. It’s almost often costly. But big places have to do big projects, or they fail (big).
Six big ideas
As I started to think about what we could do to respond to this challenge, it continuously was hit home to me that there is a critical balance to be struck in what we can learn from other places, and what we already know ourselves. However boosterish it might sound, Vancouver is a unique place globally, and we have to recognise (and celebrate!) that as we move forward.
To that end, I start noodling with ideas about what we might do. There was no method to my madness beyond the readings I have done as a planner, an interest in equitable cities, and having a Twitter feed of people way smarter than me. What I came up with were six broad ideas of where action made sense to me. By it’s very nature, this is an incomplete list, but based on observations and thinking over some of the summer, it seemed like a reasonable place to start a conversation.
I settled on three things we could learn from large cities around the world, and three areas where we already have something going.
From other cities:
1. We can learn about how to build the scale of the transportation we need.
2. We can learn to build the scale of public housing that we need.
3. We can build the kind of institutional partnerships that we need.
Building on what we already know:
1. We can commit to a multigenerational vision of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
2. We not only recognise and celebrate our deep diversity, but leverage it for global impact.
3. We can champion a transformational model of sustainability and resilience.
To cut to the chase, here’s how I thought we might tackle these ideas:
1. Vancouver should have a world-class transportation system.
I know every transportation planner in Vancouver is groaning when I say this.
Don’t get me wrong: we have world class transportation outcomes. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have a somewhat small, very well-run system that punches above its weight in terms of dollars spent to people moved. That’s a great thing to be proud of, but if we’re going to be a big city, with five or six million people by the middle of the century, we need to think bigger. We cannot imagine ourselves a New York or a Shanghai tomorrow, but, if there’s something we can learn from them, it’s the scale of their ambition:
As I think the above map shows conclusively, my main observation of other cities when it comes to transportation is simple:
- They build with ambition.
Vancouver’s transportation system is certainly envied within many places in North America, with out high mode split, growing transit ridership, and deep history of strong land-use planning. It’s not a technical capacity we lack, but rather, from my vantage point, political ambition.
What would that ambition look like? I think a building programme something like this:
- The full Mayor’s Ten Year Vision;
- A North Vancouver railway system, from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove;
- A full extension of the Millennium Line, not just to Arbutus, but to the University of British Columbia;
- Passenger rail to the Fraser Valley, from downtown Surrey all the way to Hope;
- A full build-out of the current Surrey LRT plan, all the way to White Rock and Langley right away;
- An Arbutus LRT line, running all the way from South Vancouver to Chinatown;
- Stronger connectivity between downtown Vancouver and the North Shore;
- Multidirectional (i.e., not only downtown to suburbs) SeaBus connectivity between the North Vancouver, Tri-Cities, Burnaby, and Downtown Vancouver;
- Pedestrian connectivity (possibly including more ferries) across the Fraser River between the Tri-Cities and Surrey, New West and Surrey, and Richmond, Delta, and Surrey;
- A fully connected regional cycling system, with the most separated kilometers of bike-lanes and pathways in North America;
- A regional bike-share (that is integrated with the Compass Card);
- A fully interconnected transportation and transit payment system, inclusive of congestion pricing, and mobile/online integration so that one system enables you to pay for transit, for a (regional) bike-share, and for (a carefully managed) ride-hailing system.
Some of these measures, though not all, might look like something like this:
Now, the phasing of all of these is obviously uncertain. Would you want to build rail to Hope before you completed the Surrey LRT? Probably not. The phasing and costing of these is not something I advocate we undertake without due consideration or process. My point, fundamentally, is that we need to dream big, and be explicit about it. Otherwise, we’re never going to end up with the system we really want.
2. Vancouver should have world-class, accessible (public) housing
Vancouver’s housing system is in crisis. Prices have risen for almost two decades, and while they may be slowing with some recent supply and demand measures, they are still fundamentally disconnected from wages. As a result, the social and political fallout of this continues to mount.
Interestingly, this is a challenge that many of the world’s largest cities face and, with few exceptions, have yet to fully address. But there are stand-out features of cities that have made some meaningful gains here, or protected against exceptional losses. I am not a housing expert, but here are some observations I have made of strong housing policy in my travels, in my reading, and from people I trust:
- They don’t have (or they end) apartment bans — this is a much-discussed idea these days, particularly in the City of Vancouver, after the Making Room, report on up-zoning the city for duplexes. From what I observe, the most successful cities, whether in Europe, Asia, Latin America, or otherwise, are not afraid of density. The City of Vancouver has a poor split of single-detached to higher-density residential, while regionally, it often looks even worse. Without moving past an overwhelming zoning preference for single-detached homes, we are never going to meet our sustainability or affordability ambitions.
- They build and think for long-term — major mega-cities like Hong Kong and Singapore build and manage public housing on multigenerational time horizons.
- They use taxes to make sure the public gets their fare share — Hong Kong in particular has an incredibly robust system of Land Value Capture (LVC) that allows the government to recoup some of the value that they generate when public infrastructure is built. They in turn use this money to ensure the ever-more-efficient and robust build-out of their whole system.
- They also use taxes to incentivize win-win investments — Cities like Seattle have ensured that their property taxes and corporate income taxes support purpose-built rental and try to subsidize rents for low-income people. There are obvious critiques of rental subsidies, but in a crisis, this seems to be a way of bringing units to people who are precariously housed or have become un-housed.
- They (carefully) manage demand — Many cities use a combination of taxes, regulatory restrictions, and sometimes direct agreements with other organizations, to limit toxic demand (as we do to some extent with our new AirBnB regulations, and could do with flipping of pre-sales).
- They build housing for all people, especially families — cities like Sydney, Australia, mandate particular percentages of family-friend units. Other cities, including some in the Netherlands, have experimented with multigenerational housing, bringing young and old people together to save money and combat isolation.
- They have efficient, flexible zoning uses policy that helps maintain low prices, and ensures personal freedoms — Japanese zoning, for example, is largely form based, meaning that a steadily increasing number of uses are allowed within larger and larger building envelopes. With the incredible crunch on regional industrial lands in Vancouver, allowing light, clean industrial uses or small-scale commercial uses, could create more economic opportunities, particularly in job-sparse neighbourhoods.
- They’re not afraid of public housing — Cities succeed when their lowest income residents succeed. Some of the most economically successful cities in the world have worked hard to make sure that low-income people can live there through the provision of large-scale, publicly-owned housing, and/or non-profit housing that is significantly supported with public dollars.
- They support non-profit and co-op housing — Part of beating the speculative merry-go-round of global flows of capital will mean having institutions, outside of the whims of day-to-day , who are able to capitalize, support, and grow this stock of housing. Patrick Condon has said Vancouver should work towards having 50% nonprofit and publicly owned housing — whatever the goal is, it should take a long-term, integrated approach that leverages all public land (as has been proposed for BART in the Bay Area), and is focused on the long-term financial stability of the assets.
- Finally, they build (and build, and build)— The global cities of the world never sleep. Sao Paolo, Shanghai, and Mumbai continue to evolve their urban form dramatically year after year. This can be a part of the global flows of capital, but it doesn’t have to be. With smart system of growth and supports for the most vulnerable, cities can grow to the benefit of everyone.
3. Vancouver should build institutions that are able to survive and thrive amidst increasing global complexity
Most local governments don’t actually have control over that much of what goes on within their boundaries. They don’t set the educational outcomes, or (many of) the regulations, they don’t (directly) control who enters and leaves their city, and they have the smallest amount of financial resources of any government to help the in their work. The breadth of what they manage to do with these limitations is frankly incredible.
Vancouver, with its special charter, and Metro Vancouver, with its tradition of collaborative decision-making and regional planning, deserve a great deal of credit for their existing successes and innovations. And a little-known, but critically important, organization, the Municipal Finance Authority, created by and for local governments, is also is a facet of our strong financial health. We have a number of successes that we should build from, and I don’t see much utility in chasing the powers and status of other, global cities. I think the mistake that people sometimes make is to think that being a big city means being one of the global centres of power. New York, London, and Shanghai have a practically mythical pull on capital and political power; I think it is unreasonable to assume we will achieve the same.
But can we do more and do it better? We can and we have to — and the leadership of other cities can help us augment our already strong tradition in our institutions.
I think we also have to be attentive to the critiques of a recentering on cities and the local. There are, after all, many things that even progressive local politics can obscure. Cities have faced incredible fiscal downloading over the past three decades, and now are expected to compete against one another globally, all at the same time. But arguing in favour of stronger cities and regions need not be exclusive to demanding more of our provincial, national, and global politics. In fact, I think with some of these measures in hand, they can be quite complimentary.
Here are some of the qualities and aspirations of cities from whom we can learn a little with regards to governance and strong institutions
- They have robust community fiscal capacity— Vancouver is lucky to have a strong ecosystem of credit unions, community foundations, and other non-profits who are working, but they are small in absolute terms. Better linkages between existing institutions and communities, and new initiatives, such as networked Community Economic Development Corporations, can be a way to mobilize existing capital and bring it into needy communities, whilst keeping wealth local and productive.
- They have robust civic fiscal capacity — Vancouver’s civic institutions should create diverse new ways to save and raise money (as some are talking about with a land value tax). Some cities, such as Los Angeles, are now considering public banking. Well-managed, autonomous, but still public institutions with a clear mandate for social good (like the Bank of North Dakota) can help fill the critical capital gap that all cities facing — increasing their ability to raise money for critical capital infrastructure, while decreasing their costs of borrowing.
- They leverage their post-secondary excellence — Vancouver’s use of its higher-education institutions is robust and growing and, with projects like City Studio, noted around the world. Continuing to double-down on the sheer breadth of intellectual, physical, and financial resources that these institutions offer is an essential part of our region’s continuing success.
- They have strong regional planning and governance — Vancouver’s roots of planning run deep, with the first regional research studies taking place in the 1940s, with institutions like TransLink deeply admired in many parts of the world. But there is much to be done: TransLink needs a stable, long-term fiscal capacity that is under the control of that institution — whatever the mechanism for this is, whether a payroll tax, congestion pricing, carbon taxes, or anything else, it must be stable and oriented towards long-term use. Metro Vancouver, in turn, needs additional capacity to plan and undertake functions such as economic development (as Toronto has recently gotten), land-use planning, and environmental management. The sooner the power and resources to undertake that work are outlined, the better.
- They plan on a longer time-horizon— the Dutch are, understandably, the most notable here, but many jurisdictions have planning functions that (meaningfully) extends beyond the 100-year timespan. Long-term planning means anticipation of long-term shocks, stressors, and opportunities.
- They work with their neighbours — We might not often think of it this way, but Vancouver is a transboundary region; the Lower Mainland extends not jut beyond Metro Vancouver, but beyond Canada. Systems like the Puget Sound Regional Council, and, if we’re thinking larger, what Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia experimented with SIJORI Growth Triangle. Vancouver’s connectivity to Cascadia is a unique opportunity to grow and experiment with governance arrangements of this type.
What Vancouver can learn from itself
Vancouver may have much to learn from big cities, but it should never be a carbon copy of any of them. The region’s roots as part of a settler colony, its history with the resource sector, its status as a multicultural, Asia-Pacific gateway today, and its dynamic, innovative contemporary economy, all mean that much of its pathway must be its own. In relation to what I see as both our key areas of threats and opportunities, I suggest here three things that Vancouver either must do, or is already on a path towards, that will help it grow up:
1. Vancouver should make a multi-generational commitment to reconciliation
Unlike almost every other large city or region in the world, Vancouver has begun, with stops and starts, to embark upon the path of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. This is an uneven, shaky process, which has and will continue to have many false turns, misunderstandings, and failures; but the promise that it offers is immense and unique.
Vancouver (and BC as a whole) is built on a patchwork of mostly unceded and a few treatied First Nations lands. In Metro Vancouver, this includes eleven nations: the Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Qayqayt, Hwlitsum, Katzie, Kwantlen (a member of the Sto:lo Tribal Council), Kwikwetlem, Matsqui (also a Sto:lo Nation member ), Semiahmoo First Nation(a member of the Senco’ten Alliance), and the Tsawwassen (the only treaty First Nation member of Metro Vancouver). In addition, there are also the many Métis people living in Metro Vancouver (one of its fastest growing Indigenous groups), and the many thousands of non-status First Nations (often called the ‘urban Indigenous population’) who live here, as well.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Pathways to Reconciliation report, and the frameworks developed by cities of Vancouver and Surrey, all offer glimpses of what this might look like. Some of the activities to be undertaken will likely include (in no particular order):
- Servicing agreements, such as the one recently announced between the Semiahoo Nation and Surrey;
- Council to Council(s) meetings;
- (Re)naming policies;
- Recognition and sharing of anniversaries, events, and Indigenous languages and culture;
- Targeted, citizen-focused education around decolonization;
- Careful, respectful coordination, and, where possible and needed, supplementation of social services, particularly with urban Indigenous peoples;
- Joint governance and management agreements, such as those around conservation, like that which was recently created for Pimachiowin Aki, the Anishinaabe-governed UNSECO World Heritage Site straddling Ontario and Manitoba;
- Coordinated support for First Nations negotiations with the Government of Canada to provide support for and examples of a Nation to-Nation relationship, including rights recognition, service provision, and otherwise.
Most important to highlight amidst all of this, is that the relationship that it appears we are working towards is not one of one government to another, but of a constituent part of a nation (i.e., a city) to a Nation. This will be hard. It will be new. If an integrated approach is developed for the whole region, it would be the first of its kind anywhere in the world. That’s something that we can do, and something we can share with others.
2. Vancouver should not only embrace its cultural and national diversity, but harness it towards global impact
Vancouver tops a number of lists when it comes to the diversity of languages and peoples. It’s not only diverse, but parts of it are ‘super diverse.’ Its mixture of Indigenous, settler, and immigrant communities is a globally unique composition; but the opportunity that that composition represents is unparalleled. Vancouver has a deep and problematic history of exclusion and racism, like most cities, with many elements of which continue to this day, but there are a number of signs that this history is being seriously grappled with, from apologies for historical injustices, to ongoing struggles for recognition and rehabilitation.
Numerous studies show the incredible value of Vancouver’s (and Canada’s) diverse population, but this is the strength of almost every major global city. Their ability to attract talented, energetic people from all over the world is part of what signifies their preeminence. Vancouver is noted already for having the fourth highest-number of foreign-born residents of any city in the world, where roughly 40% of the metro population was not born in Canada. This signifies that Vancouver already has a unique model for not only accepting difference, but thriving amidst it. If we are to succeed, we need to leverage that further.
We could do this through:
- Seeking out, training, and otherwise supporting diverse leaders and representatives at all levels of government and influence, including amongst elected officials, city and regional committees, corporate and societal boards, and otherwise;
- Physically revitalizing and sharing the story of communities and neighbourhoods previously subjected to racism and exclusion, such as the historic and current Chinatowns, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver, and former Japanese neighbourhoods;
- Expanding and better integrating facilities, programs, and support structures that allow newcomers to ‘arrive and thrive’ in the region, such as neighbourhood houses, community centres, and other ‘first stops’ for newcomers.;
- Focusing policy and planning resources on culturally appropriate housing that takes into account practices, traditions, and needs (e.g., spice-kitchens, multi-generational housing, etc.).
Vancouver has always been a diverse city, but that diversity has never been more visible than now. Our success or failure at navigating our current diversity, and the ways in which we are likely to become more diverse over time, can and should lead the rest of the world in how they do the same.
3. Vancouver should champion and exemplify a transformational vision of sustainability and resilience
In 2011, the City of Vancouver made a commitment to become ‘the greenest city on Earth’ by 2020. Since this proclamation has come and gone, many other communities have made similar goals, whether to become 100% renewable, to create a circular economy, or protect their natural assets more closely. At the regional level, however, there is not an overarching framework into which these notions can be integrated. This extends far beyond the need to scale ambition upwards, but indeed means that our region has to think of its ecological systems, its supply-chain linkages, and its material-energy throughputs at a larger scale and often in very different ways.
But we should be clear: Vancouver’s reputation for sustainability, whether in land-use planning, clean technology companies, zero-waste attitudes, and otherwise, is global. The City of Vancouver can steal much of the show in this regard, but particularly on a continental scale, the entire region stands out. We’re at a point, however, where we cannot simply advance sequentially from typology of sustainability to another — we have to act transformatively. Like our successes in integrating diverse populations, we are
- Make a region-wide commitment to total decarbonization and 100% renewable energy — the region already has pockets where these goals are being pursued, but a direct, political commitment should be made at the regional level, where energy production, grid construction, and regional regulatory frameworks, can be mobilized.
- Become a zero-waste region — through a combination of programs and approaches like industrial symbiosis, the circular economy, and zero waste, we can not only reduce the waste that heads to our landfills, but create new jobs and new ways of relating more to what we consume.
- Focus on systems-wide resilience — Vancouver’s membership in the 100 Resilient Cities network has advanced a longstanding regional conversation about how to build truly resilient systems. Building real regional resilience will be a longstanding activity that, by its very nature, must be a whole-community exercise. Montreal’s recent completion of their first resilience plan spoke to me of the need for a continual focus on social equity.
- Use land-use and other planning measures to build dense, connected, safe, livable communities — This means first avoiding putting homes in the wrong place, then utilizing all of the best places for them to go, and, finally, as Surrey has been considering, sometimes buying out or helping remove homes that are too threatened to be maintained where they are.
- Recognise the role of natural assets in building community resilience — Nearby to Vancouver, we already have a nationally-resonant model with Gibson’s Municipal Natural Assets Inventory. This is on top of incredible salmon restoration work done in False Creek and North Vancouver, just to name two. Green approaches to infrastructure are already well-discussed in our region, but we must go so much deeper to really begin to recognise and protect them, as well as build real resilience with them.
- Create financial systems that support a just transition and build resilience, while creating green jobs — Examples like Energiesprong in Europe, or PUSH in Buffalo, show some of the different models of building resilience and increasing local economic development that we can emulate in Vancouver.
- Prepare to adapt — We know that the spring and summer of 2018 gives us a taste of our future. More fires, more floods, greater heat, altered precipitation, many more air quality threats — these are all a part of what we will face in the future. Focusing on integrated, long-term solutions, like cooling and air quality centres, will be crucial to our success.
- Use commerce for good— As I have previously written elsewhere, government support for socially and environmentally oriented businesses (“impact businesses,” or often “social enterprises”) can be a radically positive thing. Large or small, networks of explicitly triple-bottom line businesses can play a huge role in reducing waste, changing energy systems, and paying fair wages while they do it.
Change is coming — no matter what
Whether or not we embark on any of the actions I have laid out, demographic, economic, environmental, and political change are already radically altering our city. I maintain that, whether we want to or not, we are going to be a big city in the not-so-distant future.
Pursuant to that what I perceive as that inevitability, there’s another way to put everything that I’ve said here. I’ve framed these things carefully as things that we must do to respond to our increasing size, but another way to look at this is: we can either to do some of these things simply as part of the process of becoming large (e.g., building a larger transportation network), or we can do all of these things (and more!) in order to become the city we truly and fully wish to be.
Notably, because of the time and scale of writing something like that, I haven’t costed anything out here. Some will immediately balk at the idea of these kinds of investments as unaffordable. To them I think the rejoinder is simple: have you calculated the cost of inaction?
Ultimately, these ideas are mine. They’re my little attempt to think big. I believe whatever our region does to address these problems, we’ll have to do it in conversation with one another. Consider this the first volley of that. What you’ve just read is what I think we can do.
What about you?