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episode # 74

We Built this City on Rock and Roll…and Careful Planning with Neal Lamontagne

Adam and Matt sit down for a chat with City Planner Neal Lamontagne to find out what Vancouver is doing right and how it could improve Urban Planning within the region.


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Episode Summary


About Neal: 

Neal worked in the past as a Senior Planner for the City of Vancouver as well as Managing City Planning for the City of North Vancouver. Currently, he is on several city planning boards and a PhD candidate at the University of California Los Angeles; teaches at UBC and Langara College; and works with the City Planning Commission and sits on the Urban Design Panel.   

What Is Vancouver Doing Right and How Can the City Improve Urban Planning?  

What Is Vancouver Doing Right? 

The planning model in Vancouver is very much alive and intact.  The City of Vancouver has always done a really good job of leveraging the discretionary power that it has to approve or not approve applications, not only for raising design quality but also in getting infrastructure improvements for the public that are enjoyed by many, such as Vancouver’s Seawall.  

As a city, Vancouver is very good at making sure the development that occurs is beneficial to the public good.    

In some ways, the city is better than ever with its sophisticated engagement platforms.   There are more housing choices than ever, and there are more ways to easily move through the city, cheaply and sustainably.  

What Is Vancouver Doing Wrong from A Planning Perspective? 

If anything, we are doing less planning now than ever before. Planning has shifted to really focus on how we process development applications.  It is now more focused on dealing with the current, rather than looking at the future. So, we need a more future-focused stance.  We are not leveraging the intellectual capital we have in Vancouver and not dealing with the city-wide issues effectively. 

Chinatown is an example. There is too much focus on the zoning. People are worried about the long-term robustness of the neighbourhood. We need to allow for new development to revitalise that neighbourhood.  There was a fear that not enough people walk up and down and shop there.   They tweaked the zoning to allow for some larger buildings, buildings that were viable developments.  So overall, the rezoning policy was decent, and there were some interesting developments in China Town.  

The result of the rejection of the 105 Keefer application is that now they are trying to tweak the rezoning again.  There are a lot of developments that need to happen in that area, for example, they need housing but we also need a collaborative approach.   

What are your thoughts on the North East False Creek Plan? 

The North East False Creek Plan is challenging. It is great that the Viaducts are coming down and all should welcome the evolution of new neighbourhoods and generally the new park will be amazing and the standard of work is really good.  One of the best urban designers the city has is working on this file.   

But there are a number of larger questions: what are we doing here? There is a concern that we are making Islands of dense nature without any real relationship to the surrounding areas.  There are few land owners in North East False Creek, but they each own really large plots of land.  

Some people believe the Viaducts are a barrier between the communities but it is worth questioning whether North East False Creek is going to be so distinct that there may well still be barriers between Crosstown, Chinatown, Strathcona, and North East Falls Creek neighbourhoods.  

Other Questions raised:  

How does North east False Creek  fit in with our attempt to be the Greenest city in the world? 

Why does the park have to be so big?  

What Are Some of The Greatest Challenges Facing the Urban Planning Community in Vancouver Over the Next 25-50 Years? 

It is a challenging time for Vancouver because we are at our greatest level of inequity.  The City Planners will be asked to do more than ever, with less money than ever before. 

We don’t have high property tax rates, as far as North American standards go. Rather, when faced with cutbacks, we are asked to fill in for cutbacks by leveraging private development/developer contributions.  There is an overall concern with the long-term sustainability of that model.  

Historically, developers have always bent over backwards to get their projects completed in Vancouver.  In Vancouver, we have gone through a period of prosperity and stability. Historically, these periods never last forever. 

Low property taxes and private developers. Has that led to the crisis we have with empty homes? 

Could this be an unforeseen consequences of this model? Possibly.  

Can Vancouver learn from other cities? 

Copenhagen, Zurich, Montreal, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. All for very different reasons. 

Vancouver has a shockingly high number of businesses that are ten employees or less.  We have a phenomenal amount of small businesses in Vancouver, and we need to create spaces for them to expand.  We need to help people move up the economic ladder, and that is a challenge. 

What Do People Ask You About Vancouver? How Are We Viewed Globally Among Other City Planners? 

 Planners always ask, how is so much density permitted?  

Vancouver is a beautiful city, with a nice climate, that’s wealthy. We are perceived as being wealthy because we have real estate wealth.  

People often don’t realise how we have been able to leverage private developments to fund public amenities. That is exciting for people from the outside.  The designs and the sustainability.  

The future calls for optimism. We have a great development community and a great architectural community. There are also a lot of grass roots visions and views coming together, and the transportation side is promising.  

The Green building aspirations for Vancouver will really shape how buildings in Vancouver look in the future, and it will drive innovation.  

Five quick-fire questions we asked Neal at the end of the interview.  

  • Favourite Neighbourhood in Vancouver? Strathcona 
  • Favourite bar or restaurant?  Faculty Brewery for their craft beer 
  • Downtown penthouse or Westside mansion? Downtown penthouse 
  • First place to bring a visitor to Vancouver? The Seawall  
  • LA Kings or Vancouver Canucks? Calgary Flames

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