Time To Build Our Cities Differently
Canadians are not content with how their cities are being developed, and this sentiment is especially prevalent in BC
You & Me BC
April 29th, 2022
While all of us are affected by the seemingly endless barrage of building, community design and development across Canada is a worryingly closed process, and Vancouverites lead the country in discontent with how it happens.
If you live in a Canadian city, it is part of your life.
A new apartment complex going up across the street, renovations happening the block over, banging and clanging through the day into the night.
Layer upon layer, building up, down, and to the side, our cities are in a constant state of construction.
But while all of us are affected by the seemingly endless barrage of building, community design and development across Canada is a worryingly closed process, and Vancouverites lead the country in discontent with how it happens.
What is the problem?
For one, our cities are being built according to the interests of the wealthiest.
Not only do developers have an oversized influence in shaping our communities based on their own economic interests, participation in public consultations on development is greatest among high-income residents.
Accordingly, only 1 in 10 community members feel that local development reflects what they want, with the majority believing it instead reflects the wishes of developers and big money.
Only 1 in 10 community members feel that local development reflects what they want
This sentiment is higher in Vancouver than anywhere else in the country, with Vancouverites also most likely of all urban Canadians to say development is happening too fast.
Particularly lacking are the voices of visible minorities, Indigenous persons, and younger Canadians, all of whom participate in community planning at lower rates than the general population, and are far less likely to see themselves and their culture in the community.
While some may think of community design and development primarily as issues of aesthetics and annoyances—whether something is easy on the eye or inconveniences the daily routine—it runs much deeper.
Vancouver is the city least content about the development process
The building of physical spaces is one of the starting points for the building of relationships and bridging gaps in society.
If a built environment does not reflect the people who live there, every other attempt at relationship building starts on the wrong foot and is more likely to fail. The message sent is that one is still an outsider, whose identity and culture are not worth considering in local decision-making.
If we aim to disengage people from their communities and even create resentment among them, there is little need to change current practices.
If we aim to disengage people from their communities...there is little need to change
But if our goals as a society include reconciliation, social inclusion, and creating enduring attachments to our cities and neighbourhoods, existing processes for community design are inconsistent with what we aim to achieve.
And the damage is not just to people and relationships.
The weaker someone’s connection to an area, the less likely they are to look after the local environment.
This contributes to street disorder, such as the accumulation of litter and graffiti, which in turn lead to increased criminality and community degradation.
Most of us can agree that we do not want this, but we are setting ourselves up for it when only a few have a say in community design and development.
So, what needs to be done?
The first measure is for you: get involved.
You can find notice of community consultations and city council meetings on your city’s website.
Be prepared with the points you want to make and evidence to support them.
It takes energy and initiative, but you need to at least speak out to be heard, and currently most Canadians do not provide their input on local development.
The second is for community organizations: mobilize and organize.
Community organizations can play a critical role by activating their networks and providing tools—like letter of support templates, factsheets, and graphics to share over social media—to support community members in advocating for their position.
This keeps community members engaged as planning drags on, generates dialogue on different aspects of the issue, and educates the local population, which is particularly important when a main reason Canadians give for not participating in community development consultations is a lack of information.
The third is for policy and process makers: mix it up.
Public participation is bureaucratic, standardized, and inflexible, done more as a formality than to fully engage the community.
Planning should be expanded to include proactive outreach to institutions, organizations, and individual actors seldom involved in the design process, rather than just putting out notice through the same tired channels and seeing who shows up.
Building our cities is the starting point for building so much more. Unless the process is improved and more people are involved, we are losing out.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of You & Me BC. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org