The City of Vancouver is at a crossroads after a turbulent decade of unparalleled growth coupled with deep social and political divisions. So, where do we go from here? Enter Vancouver’s Chief Planner Gil Kelley: the man with the ‘city-wide’ plan. Gil sits down with Adam & Matt to lay the groundwork for his vision, from a global city on a warming planet to housing shortages, zoning challenges and aging infrastructure. We cover it all. The future of Vancouver is here; and trust us, it’s exciting!
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Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I lived most of my life on the west coast of the US, then came to Vancouver three and a half years ago to work as the city planner for Vancouver. I’ve worked in a similar role in other cities such as Berkley, Portland and San Francisco.
Are the current growing pains in Vancouver specific to this city, or are many cities currently in this transition phase?
There are a lot of similarities up and down the west coast. The cities here are developing as a forward-looking node on the map, leading the charge on innovation, in both technology and social policy. We need to find a way to turn the housing affordability crisis into opportunity. San Francisco is deep inside it right now, and it is increasing in Seattle, Portland and LA. It’s acutely bad here, however. Although prices are higher in San Francisco, the affordability gap is more acute in Vancouver, more than even New York. It’s one of the least affordable markets in the world.
How much of the crisis has to do with planning?
My conception of planning is very comprehensive. It’s a discipline taking stock of what we have and embracing all drivers of change to declare what our future will be. It’s not simply land use and policy. It defines who we are as a community. It shapes our cultural diversity, the way we handle climate change, and how we want to be seen by the rest of the world. I’m trying to take this process out of City Hall and allowing the community to be involved as well.
Do Vancouver’s city planners of the past hold any blame for the current housing crisis?
Some of it, yeah. We are victims of our own success. We’ve done a great job in defining the new urbanism that has become so popular. Prices have escalated accordingly. Part of it, though, we need to step back and see that the growth in the economy and better paying jobs are also a contributing factor. We need to not only have a vibrant city centre, but we need to have many centres in the surrounding cities.
What other cities do we draw inspiration from?
I’m lucky to have worked in many other west coast cities, so I think we draw inspiration from one another. We have a west coast information exchange in the Cascadia region of Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. It’s also spread to San Francisco and now potentially LA. We did a presentation last year with a few other city planning teams.
I also look at other cities globally, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, as well as Barcelona, Milan and Bologna. There’s a notion with these cities that they’ve realized who they want to be and are able to point themselves in that direction and continue working towards that same goal over multiple political generations.
Cities are the primary use of change across the globe these days, not nations, and the goal is to all develop together. National borders are important with the different tax structures and cultural boundaries, but ultimately, I believe we are a network of cities.
Is this a process of soul searching for Vancouver when it comes to community plans and city plans?
I would like it to be. If you look at Amsterdam in the early 70s, they were a fading European city in importance. The economy began to decline, and there was a feeling of not understanding where they fit into the global economy. A few enlightened folks started to do some soul searching and discovered who they wanted to be. After some conversation, they settled on the notion of being the conference headquarters of northern Europe, to bring people in. They overbuilt the airport many times over what they needed, combined with preserving the city centre for anyone coming alongside those attending conferences. Amsterdam then built a second city between the airport and the old quarter, focused on hotels, conference centres, and space for corporations. Companies like Philips and Nike decided to put headquarters there, causing a flood of energy inward.
Bringing it back to Vancouver, if we can figure out the solution for ourselves, we can avoid being victims of incremental thinking and construct a comprehensive solution. We need to look long term and see what the results of our current path will be.
Are you an optimist that there can be a coherent plan for Vancouver?
I’m certainly hopeful, though it won’t be an easy road. Right now, we’re starting at a low level, asking people in the community what their experiences are. We’re still gathering facts and analyzing trends before we begin to try to start planning the future and who we want to be. We want a plan that is high level and strategic in nature. We see that in a year or so we’re going to start making sharp choices. We’re going to emphasize to City Hall how we think the city should move forward and help us develop what we want.
Are we at the forefront of cities trying to do this type of comprehensive planning?
Yes. Amsterdam came to that in an evolving way, but I’d like to be doing it in a more intentional, explicit way. Vancouver has that opportunity. There’s enough of an itch for everyone to want to make this place the best it can be.
In your ideal scenario, what does Vancouver look like in 20-30 years?
There’s a lot of different components to it. One, it would be an inclusive society, allowing the middle class to live alongside those at the far ends of the economic spectrum. Two, we need to make sure we keep our livability high, which is a combination of our natural setting and our urban character. Vancouver’s urban landscape is mostly suburb, and we need to fill that in to become more walkable and varied; that’s where the future livability lies. We want a middle-density environment that you see in many European cities who are less car-dependant. The main pillars of our economy is exporting natural resources through the port, tourism, and construction. What’s growing is the health sector, film, and the green industry. These all tie together to the larger plan.
How long does this whole process take? Does it have an end date or is it just continuous?
The conversation should continue forever, but the plan I’m talking about is a deliverable for the term of this city council, around 2022. What you’re going to see in spring is an intensive community conversation about what we want to be. We need to raise awareness that we even have a plan. We’re going to make a lot of use of public spaces, like libraries and community centres. When we get into the making choices phase, around 2021, that’s when the rubber hits the road on it.
The critics of this plan say that this city is very diverse and a one-size-fits-all plan will not suit the many various neighbourhoods. How do you respond to that?
I agree. The belief that this is a plan for everyone to follow the same track is a misconception. We are a city of diverse neighbourhoods. But if we only look at the small scale, we lose sight of the large scale issues such as sea levels rising, immigration, how we connect everyone, and unemployment. We’re not talking about tossing out the neighbourhood plans, but they may need to adjust some. The neighbourhood is a powerful collective unit, and people really connect to where they live. We definitely don’t want to supplant that, we just want to guide them through transformation.
There’s a lot of resistance in some neighbourhoods to light density or multi-family residences. How do you work with that?
Back in Portland this was a forefront issue. I engaged with a lot of neighbourhood leaders and steered the conversation away from density and towards the question of, “What do you want this neighbourhood to look like?” Regarding walking to commercial services, when you want to downsize but not leave the neighbourhood, you want your kids to be able to walk safely to school. When you isolate those qualities, those are the ingredients for the future mix of the neighbourhood. It doesn’t depend on exactly what they are now.
We also did a visual survey, looking at what kind of buildings are attractive to the area. We came to the conclusion that it was about design, not density. Four-unit homes that were well designed fit in better than badly designed one-family homes. It’s that nature of conversation that we need to get into.
Many neighbourhoods that are the poster child for the high-income single-family residences, they’ve lost population over the last census. The school populations are declining. There are many storefront vacancies. The neighbourhoods may look the same, but they aren’t healthy. Many people grew up in that area but can’t afford to go back and live there, or maybe they don’t even want to go back there as it feels like that life is gone. We need to find a way to rectify that.
Is this type of conversation happening in other areas such as Burnaby and Surrey? Is the integration there?
I imagine the conversations like this are happening privately, but I’m unaware of any action happening. But there’s a big opportunity to lash the updates that Metro Vancouver, Translink, the Port, and UBC are planning to broaden this type of comprehensive planning across the region. Most of the answers to the questions we ask are found at the regional scale.
You’re also seeing private sector cooperation across the Cascadia region, with Microsoft and others with a connection between Seattle and Vancouver. These two cities have a lot in common but also have complementary aspects. For example, Seattle with Microsoft and Amazon has a niche on the software side. Portland on the other hand has a large part in the hardware side. One version of Vancouver’s piece is a northern hub in a nation with easier immigration policies. Ideally, a high-speed rail system would really ramp up the synergy. It’d also be nice to get the public transit stronger and more efficient, with the Broadway skytrain built and a streetcar system running once again. Another way to link the North Shore would be fantastic, rather than relying on the seabus. Translink needs to have a greater and longer-term vision to allow us to develop.
Can cities save the world?
Cities are it. I think it’s the best way to do it. It’s going to require provincial and national funding, but we can’t wait for those mindsets to shift. Cities need to lead the way and pull the resources through politics, education, and convincing those who hold the budgets. We need to emphasize the cost of doing nothing or keeping business as usual. The cost is often greater than the cost to innovate. Canada is becoming more and more urban, and we’re beginning to grapple with that.
Do you have an infrastructure plan on the horizon that you’re most excited about?
The Broadway Skytrain line is at the forefront. We’ve also recently become aware of how old our sewer system is – they’re often a hundred years old. Many need replacing and upsizing. We also need to think about how we deal with storm drains, so they’re not polluting our ecosystems. There’s a program for this underway to analyse the cost and benefits of these upgrades.
Another is thinking about our response to the sea levels rising. Climate change is accelerating, and we know which of our shorelines are most vulnerable. A place like False Creek is one example. However, if we start building these large water walls, does that change in part Vancouver’s identity of having a close relationship with the water? So is there an adaptive technology that over time thinks about the shoreline differently? We may need to pull things away from the shoreline and stop development nearby.
You’ve been in the job for just over three years and seem to be very well versed in the city’s issues. How long did it take you to get up to speed and were there any surprises?
I’m a student of cities and make a conscious effort to know the city I’m in. I was looking at Vancouver as a big investment of time. The importance of learning the community was incredibly important. But I am still learning.
Two things occurred to me very early. The positive one is that coming out of the US context into Canada, there’s a fundamental social belief that the government has a legitimate life in the overall health and well-being of the citizenry. The US trust in government is incredibly low. Here, the belief that the government is trying to help is almost unchallenged. The more surprising one is, in many ways, Vancouver is a small town. There’s an insular piece of Vancouver that doesn’t want to change and that it thinks it already knows what it’s doing. But there’s a lot of innovation around the world, and we need to learn from others. We have the capability to lead in the green construction industry, but we need to keep being a learning city.
Favourite Neighbourhood: I don’t want to pick a favourite, but I live in Olympic Village.
Favourite Bar or Restaurant: Di Beppe Restaurant in Gastown
One book you would recommend people read: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
A piece of advice you would give your 18-year-old self: Follow your passion even if it defies certain structures in your life
Something you have purchased for under $1,000 that has changed your life: iphone (even if it is a blessing and curse sometimes)
Learn more about the City-Wide Plan.