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episode # 289

Vancouver Then and Now with Renowned Planner Dr. Ann McAfee

If you don’t know Dr. Ann McAfee you should and chances are you have benefitted from her life’s work. Vancouver’s first ever Housing Planner in 1974; the Co-Director of Planning with Larry Beasley, implementing plans now famously known as Vancouverism, in the 1990s; more recently a consultant to international cities in countries as varied as Australia, Sweden, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Chinaa current member of Canada’s National Housing Council & a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners. And that’s just citing a few of her accomplishments. Ann sits down with Adam & Matt to talk about her storied career spanning a wildly dynamic half century of planning in our city. Is Vancouver a product of its own success? Was Expo 86 really a turning point for the affordability crisis? Is ‘Burnabyism’ the future for our region? And what is Ann’s biggest regret from her time at the helm of Vancouver planning? A talk for the ages. Not to be missed!

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Episode Summary


Please tell us about yourself.

I’ve lived in the Vancouver area most of my life, so I’ve seen the city change from an unspectacular city in a spectacular setting to, at one point, the world’s most liveable city. I went to UBC and thought after graduating I’d teach planning. But I wanted to practice planning before teaching. So, I joined the City of Vancouver in 1974 as the Housing Planner. That sold me on being part of the action. 

During the 1970s the City was using federal funding to assist 2,000 units per year of affordable housing. That was great until the federal government turned off the tap, getting out of direct social housing funding. So, in the 1980s, I switched to more policy development work. City Council was looking for directions for Vancouver and where development would happen next. They were also concerned about funding. Senior governments were pulling their funding which left the city scrambling to pay for services they needed to provide. 

During the 1990s CityPlan involved over 100,000 people advising Council on new directions for Vancouver’s future development and funding priorities. CityPlan led to developing new city-wide policies and neighbourhood plans. As Vancouver’s Co-Director of Planning, I had the opportunity to work with creative councils, talented staff, and thousands of Vancouverites. In 2006, I turned 65 and was required to retire. I turned to consulting with cities who were interested in what we were doing in Vancouver. That was good fun until COVID happened and I couldn’t travel. I’m currently doing some zoom consulting and am on the Canadian Housing Council which is keeping me in touch with what’s happening across the country. 

Why planning? 

I didn’t plan to be a planner. In the 1960s Planning wasn’t a usual job choice for women. Cities have always interested me. I was fascinated by Vancouver. I wanted to know how it worked and how we could make it better. So I got a combined doctorate in urban land economics and city planning.  

Why has Vancouver changed so dramatically compared to other Canadian cities?

In some provinces, like Ontario, decisions by the city council can be appealed to the province. So, the province sets the direction for the city. But because Vancouver has its own Charter and doesn’t have as much contact with the provincial government, there’s more opportunity to be nimble and implement decisions quickly. 

Vancouver was a hotbed of ideas in the 1960’s. Vancouver was an early ‘green’ innovator. We attracted people who were interested in change and sustainability. 

People protested things like the freeway. This set Vancouver on a course that’s different from other North American cities where you live in the suburbs and drive on the freeway to get to downtown jobs. With no freeway, Vancouver Council had to find ways for people to live close to work. Redeveloping old industrial ‘brownfield’ sites such as False Creek and Coal Harbour was the first response. Vancouver had people who wanted to try something new and the flexibility with the Vancouver Charter to try those new ideas.

Was Expo 86 the starting point? Is it to blame?

I don’t think it’s to blame. I might be to blame as I was the city’s first housing planner! But I think the attraction Vancouver has for immigrants and investment is a combination of things. Expo 86 announced Vancouver to the world but if the City hadn’t created more liveable communities, would we have been as successful? 

We were the world’s most liveable city at one point. This contributed to us being seen as a secure location for global investors who want to park their money. Expo 86 may have opened the door to that. But it was the redevelopment that followed which made Vancouver more desirable. 

Prior to 1997 Hong Kong residents were concerned about the turnover and, as with others both globally and in Canada, were looking to invest their money in safe places. Vancouver was seen as a safe place. We may continue to see this with climate change. Over the next 10-50 years – people who live in hotter areas may be looking for more liveable areas to move and invest. 

What is Vancouverism? What did it get right and where did it go wrong?

Larry Beasley and I were Co-directors of Planning. I think we saw Vancouverism from different perspectives. Larry was focused on implementing plans in the downtown. My focus was city-wide plans and policies. This included analysis of the social and financial impacts of new policies. Vancouverism, on the surface, is about the design of the city. But underneath the physical design was based on a lot of economic, environmental, and social analysis about what would work and the social and financial consequences. 

Once we stopped the freeway, we needed to help people live close to work. Council in the 1970’s wanted a range of household types and incomes to live downtown. This included families with children. The question was: Could we build high-density housing downtown that families with children would want to live in and could afford? During the 1970s few North American cities were building family housing downtown. So we couldn’t look anywhere for examples. We sat down with experts and families to ask what they need and how we could push density. We found we could go up to 100 units/acre and it would work for families provided family housing enclaves were small (35-45 units in a cluster) and had family-oriented services. 

To me, Vancouverism is the underlying analysis as well as the negotiations to make those plans happen. Critical to success was having councils who, over 30 years, maintained a focus on building livable neighbourhoods. 

Why were you thinking about density at a time when everyone else was thinking about sprawl?

I think the answers came from the group of people on city council in the 1970’s. Most had protested against the freeway. They were thinking about the development of downtown and new kinds of inner cities. Council had ideas about the kind of the city they wanted and turned to their staff and the development community to make it happen downtown and to the broader community to engage outside the core. Right through to 2006, while different councils came and went, they all held similar values about livability, no freeways, locating housing near jobs, encouraging people to walk, bike, and take transit, requiring new growth to fund services, and engaging the public in difficult choices.

Had only one council been interested in those ideas, it never would have happened. But these were continuing themes. Whenever plans didn’t work, we just tried again. 

We came up with a new kind of inner city due to creative councillors who were willing to try something different and because had a Charter that allowed us to experiment. 

Do you have any regrets about that time?

I don’t think my regrets are from the 70/80’s. Mine are from the 90/00’s. In the mid 1990’s, it was clear there weren’t enough industrial lands that could be redeveloped for housing. Some people wanted to push into East False Creek Flats, but others were concerned about the loss city and port serving jobs which would result from changing the Flats to housing. 

In the late 1980’s, staff proposed redeveloping the Arbutus Industrial area. Council supported the plan. But we hadn’t consulted with the community first, so there was a huge backlash. It was a lot of understandable NIMBY-ism. 

Council said we needed new planning processes. During the 1990s over 100,000 people — residents and businesses — engaged in a city-wide planning process called CityPlan. One of the big debates was around the low-density neighbourhoods. Should we leave them as is or make them denser by providing more housing choices? Should we develop outside the city? Should we develop industrial lands? People debated where new development should go. 

At first, almost everyone said no to more housing in the low-density neighbourhoods (NIMBY). But as the plan progressed, 80% of those 100,000 participants supported adding more housing choices to low-density neighbourhoods. 

Having got broad public support for change, my biggest regret is that it took too long to work with neighbourhoods to come up with the actual plans for rezoning and new services. It took about 10 years to develop neighbourhood plans. In that time, things change. Some of the commitment for density was waning. My second regret is that because the community was so involved in the plans, and I didn’t want to be seen as ‘taking credit’ so I wasn’t communicating enough. New zoning was happening with community support, but agreement doesn’t make headlines. 

In the Knight and Kingsway area, the community wanted a neighbourhood centre and had negotiated with a developer to add a library to a new high-rise project and to rezone for more housing around the neighbourhood centre. All that new zoning was approved but it took too long and got no headlines.  

In 2006 the mayor wanted to see things happen faster, so he came up with an ‘eco-density’ plan.  But the communities were shocked by this new plan and went back into NIMBY mode. 

Sometimes planning takes too long and can be too involved. We needed to act on a combination of new housing choices and services funded by new development immediately following CityPlan when the community was ready for change.

Are we seeing that same gridlock with planning today?

Yes, it’s too clunky, particularly in neighbourhoods where surveys suggest many people are still open to townhouses/low-rise housing/etc. But the broad community isn’t as engaged as they were in the CityPlan process in the 1990’s. The most vocal voices are heard opposing development.  Given COVID and new technology many planning processes now engage online. The web makes participating more accessible. However, we lose face-to-face negotiation which is needed to find neighbourhood agreement on difficult choices. 

Back during CityPlan, we had homeowners who didn’t want to leave or change the neighbourhood, we had elderly people who were looking for alternative housing in their familiar neighbourhood, and we had people who wanted to get into the neighbourhood but couldn’t afford it, so wanted more housing choices. There was no web, so neighbours worked together to find solutions.

In that respect, planning today may not be clunky enough. Filling in a survey doesn’t make you face the reality of other people’s needs or your changing needs over time. When we did it in the 90’s, all of those people had to talk to each other to figure out neighbourhood choices. Out of that came the agreement that overall people wanted to see more types of housing and more density meaning customers for neighbourhood shops. 

People can support change in their communities, provided they are part of the process. That’s what we learned from the Knight-Kingsway area. 

The Metro 2050 report suggests we’ll see 1 million new residents in Metro Vancouver by 2050. What are the major challenges we’ll have to deal with to accommodate this influx?

I live in Coquitlam so I’m seeing the changes that are coming to the suburbs. The municipalities have done a good job of locating new development around transit-oriented sites like Burquitlam, Metrotown, and Lougheed Mall. I haven’t seen this intensity of new Transit-Oriented-Development in similar cities around the world. The Metro 2050 plan is putting a lot of new development right on transit, which is a good thing.

What surprises me is that the Plan is too respectful of the city of Vancouver. What makes Vancouver a good place to live is its close to jobs, downtown, amenities, and services. But in my opinion the Metro 2050 plans for future development are undershooting the mark. We can build in Burquitlam and Lougheed Mall but there aren’t the same amenities there as you’ll find downtown. There are not the beaches, the parks, and variety of shops and restaurants.  I think we could do a better job of using the amenities that already exist in the city and developing around them. We need to walk the talk, develop where there are amenities, and minimize the sprawl. 

A lot of folks have suggested a shift towards Burnaby as the new centre. Do you think the centre is still in amenity-rich Vancouver? 

I think the nature of the region will shift with continued transit-oriented development but there just aren’t the suburban amenities. So yes, keep doing TOD and growth will shift and concentrate along transit lines. But don’t neglect the amenity-rich neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

What are your takes on the different parties’ housing proposals in the upcoming election?

I haven’t seen anything from the parties that looks realistic in terms of delivering. It’s fine to say you are going build a million houses. Parties have been saying that for years. 

Households with low-middle incomes and who work service jobs, won’t be able to find affordable housing in the private market. I haven’t seen anything from any of the parties that explains how they’ll allocate enough money to provide housing for the folks who keep our cities functioning. Until I hear about where the funding will come from and a recognition of the difficult choices we face, given limited funds, I can’t say I see any of the parties with the solution to housing problems. 

What’s the best way federal governments can help Vancouver’s housing problems?

Because cities must balance their budget, they can’t offer housing assistance outside of making city land available and facilitating processing. However, the federal and provincial governments have more revenue sources. So, do you leave it to the federal/provincial governments to allocate money to cities to create affordable housing? Or do you change how funding is collected and distributed to give larger cities a chance to manage more of the revenue? 

I think there will be tough choices at every level of government about who gets the revenue, how it’s spent, and how the debt (most recently from COVID support) is going to be repaid. Until we do that, it’s going to be difficult for any city to seriously address affordable housing.

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