We need to talk.
In this community, we need to talk much more.
A significant element of the city’s dysfunction – particularly the regular neighbourhood shock with development – owes to its impulse to shortchange the necessary dialogue to build support.
Conversation and consultation value the three basic human needs: to be seen, heard and understood. When engagement is open, when there is a true reach-out to the community, the obvious benefit is the likelihood of better ideas and more durable agreement.
Several recent struggles with this concept are in our midst in Vancouver: the failed effort to develop 105 Keefer Street in Chinatown, the strong backlash at modular housing for the homeless in the Marpole district, even the mammoth housing strategy for Vancouver that was passed last week with precious little public feedback. These were all preventable problems.
To be fair, it isn’t as if local government is alone. Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s small business tax proposals seemed to come from nowhere. Former premier Gordon Campbell’s fraught HST plan comes to mind.
The examples carry in common a problem with process as part of an annoying tendency at times in politics to wait too long then act too quickly. Witness the 10-year housing strategy that took nearly 10 years to create then what seemed like 10 hours to pass. Even if some of the strategy’s ideas are fine, the way they were delivered wasn’t. It felt concocted and foisted, not collaborative and fraternal.
There is a framework for consultation lacking in the community that involves interested and affected people, breaks down barriers to involvement, gathers evidence as it identifies objectives, uses the best methods to engage, shares information, works across political lines, builds skills and knowledge and confidence along the way, takes time for feedback, then monitors and evaluates whether it met its goals.
Does this slow things down? Maybe, not always, and the upside of support outweighs any downside of delay. Sadly, this just hasn’t been a time in our community when this patience and transparency have been priorities. The result is a lack of trust, deep suspicion about motives and more hostility than necessary to even modest change.
The most critical area of concern today in the city is the perceived unpredictability of development, due partly to the absence of a conversation to modernize our city plan and establish agreed-upon objectives. The housing strategy tries to create a parallel track of development, even an overwriting of the hodgepodge of neighbourhood plans, but in failing to embrace a process of involvement, even its wiser ideas will face a harder sell.
When I talk to neighbourhood representatives, business leaders, even developers, they express a common wince at the disruptive, unsettling effects on their genuine effort to make this a better place.
Take, for instance, the bewildering fog of the community amenity contributions that are negotiated when a developer seeks rezoning. Neighbourhoods rarely discover how much they were and which, if any, amenities were created by them. They clearly add to the cost of units – some times substantially – and there appears to be no standardized amount for certain-sized projects.
In the case of the Marpole modular housing, I wonder if an earlier, broader community discussion on the challenges of homelessness and an agreed-upon, adequately resourced plan of health and other support for the affected districts might have proactively built stronger acceptance.
The imposition of these projects certainly isn’t the answer, nor is it helpful or respectful to read administration party commentary that any reluctance about the initiative reveals a lack of compassion or understanding. Indeed, the lack of compassion and understanding for the residents has inflated the controversy.
For some reason, though, the city didn’t think to talk, just as it has failed to do so more times now than any of us can count.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.