Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Building a Vision for the City

The time has come for the largest municipalities locally to start a planning/visioning process to set the context of what the city will look like over the next fifty years.

It is Victoria and Saanich that need to do this because they are the local governments large enough in population and area to be able to set the tone for what the region will look like. The combined population of the two is close to 200 000 people, almost 2/3s of the regional population. Victoria and Saanich are home to almost all of the office space, the two major post secondary institutions, and much of the retail. What these two municipalities do will have the largest possible impact on the region.

Victoria and Saanich have gone through various planning processes for many neighbourhoods, the problem is that these plans are not dealing with the bigger picture. They are not asking the sort of values questions that are needed so that we know where to go with the city. When there are statements of values, they are too vague and do not have details of strategies of how to achieve them. They also do not look far enough into the future.

There are several hard things that need to be addressed in any planning, there are problems because there are decisions to be made. Any planning process that says the status quo is likely to continue is one where the people did not make any real decisions. It is a document that will not do anything more than make work for some consultants.

An example of a process that did something different is Vancouver's CityPlan. This was an amazing planning process that Vancouver started to undertake in 1992. The process is still underway in different neighbourhoods of the city. In the initial process Vancouver managed to have about 4% of the people actively take part in the process. The city did some innovative things to get people involved in the process. The one that really impressed me was the Ideas Fair, a chance for anyone to put forward their ideas for the city, but it also talked about the social aspects of the city through cultural presentations.

No one has ever tried to really engage the people in this region of what we want our future to look like. There are big questions to ask:

  • Our population is growing - where will the new people live? 4000 people each year.
  • How do we improve the environmental footprint of the city?
  • How do we make the city affordable for people?
  • Our population is aging, what will this mean for the future?
  • What can we do to build better neighbourhoods?
  • What do you want our city to be known for, what is our image?
  • What do we need to do make us healthy people?
  • What are our physical infrastructure needs for the next fifty years?

There are a lot more questions that could be asked but this is really part of a process that needs to be inclusive of the public.

Ideally I would like to see Saanich and Victoria do this together, but I am almost 100% that this would never happen. What would be a reasonable second option is if both municipalities did this at the same time and cooperated with some of the neighbourhoods that straddled the borders.

In an ideal world I would hope that Oak Bay and Esquimalt would do something similar, but that is really hoping for too much at all. The very nature of governance of the these smaller local governments means they are really too small to take a bigger picture view. As an example, Oak Bay has no industrial lands, virtually no offices, no gas stations, and takes no responsiblity for regional issues. How can a place like that do planning that considers the bigger regional picture?

My concern is that Victoria will not take on any bigger picture planning because of the issues of downtown. The homelessness issue may swallow up everything for the foreseeable future.

I really hope Saanich does start a process of visioning because it is at a major crossroads as a local government. As the region has grown, the core of the city has expanded. The denisty has risen and this is pushing into Saanich. With the development of the Town and Country mall into the new Uptown centre and with pockets of increased denisty along Shelbourne and elsewhere the nature of Saanich is changing.

Saanich has to plan now for the transition from a bedroom community to a something more. Other communities have managed to do this. In the lower mainland this has occured in Richmond, Coquiltlam and Surrey.
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