I got overwhelmed when the City of Victoria’s draft Official Community Plan came out, so I didn’t write any blog posts about it (I’ll be talking about those issues for the next 30 years, anyway). However, the city just published the collection of all the long-form correspondence they received in response to the draft. It’s over 9000 pages long, but I skimmed it and picked out a few choice quotes:
Note surprisingly, the neighbourhood associations were all against their lack of explicit power in the planning process. This was best summarized by the City’s patronage Public Planning Advisory Committee:
It is vital that the role of neighbourhood associations be made explicit in the OCP…Residents who are already engaged in volunteer activity related to neighbourhood quality of life issues are the most likely to be knowledgeable about area planning issues.
Except the Downtown Residents’ Association, who had no problems with the planning process but questioned the whole thing:
Does the OCP actually provide any ‘teeth’ in terms of guiding how the principles and strategic directions are applied? There seems to be very little language that actually quantifies/measures how the policies are implemented and applied. Reviewing the document, the OCP provides only vague, innocuous descriptors without specific meaning…
The neighbourhood association and private citizen submissions mostly worried about the idea of letting more people live in Victoria. But the Urban Development Institute, which is a developers industry association, pointed out that the plan doesn’t go far enough:
Increased density is noted as something that is desirable to ‘achieve the development objectives of this plan’ but is still being considered something for which applicants must pay significantly. The provision of amenity contributions may add to the cost of new housing, something that runs contrary to the stated objectives of this plan.
Finally, Deborah Curran of the UVic Environmental Law Centre noted a glaring omission:
The City of Victoria is located in the traditional territory of the Songhees/Coast Salish First Nations and that the City rests within the context of the rich history of the Coast Salish. I recommend that this be the first page in the OCP before the introduction in recognition of that Constitutional context.
This session had an amazing cross-section of participants, who would have been ideal for deliberation if the facilitator had so wished:
- an employee of Black Ball, the company that runs the Coho and Clipper ferry lines to Washington state
- a planner for BC Transit, well-versed in the Regional Transit Master Plan
- a member of the Island Corridor Foundation, who are lobbying for a commuter rail service that ends in downtown Victoria
- a bicycling advocate, who kept refering to the various cycling utopias of Europe
- a highschool student, who was chiefly interested in late and cheap bus service
- and me, who lives downtown within walking distance of most things
Instead, we each independently presented our agendas to the group with little discussion.
My big beef is that transit isn’t that big of a deal within the municipality, and it’s not the Official Community Plan’s place to include a transit plan for the region. I noted that most people are bad at reasoning about transportation. For example, few participants believed BC Transit’s claim that only 5% of trips originating in Langford end in downtown (although it’s obvious when you include dog walks and neighbour visits).
The Black Ball guy, in a very polite and subtle way, raised an issue I have with the OCP: if the engagement is mostly with residents, who represents the needs of tourists and businesses? Is council and staff expected to take the OCP as only one set of guiding priciples?
But what really blew my mind was the community feedback (presumably from youth engagement) that Victoria should have longboard-friendly streets. Longboards! It never occurred to me that longboards are a form of green transportation, and now I’m considering learning how to ride one. This also poetically balances the ways the city is bending over to accomodate mobility scooters (including the armoured ones). Just as it was suggested that cities would be redesigned for Segways, we can’t even conceive of the personal transportation options of the future!
The materials for this Community Planning Forum had a bias toward the villages model of growth (either because the bias was in submissions or the planning department added it). This session was, more or less, a discussion about how to implement that model. Many of the other people attending this session were leaders of neighbourhood associations.
I am far more engaged and educated than the average resident of Victoria, and yet I don’t understand neighbourhood associations. The City’s website provides nothing more than a list of (broken) links. I believe that they specify development permit areas, which restrict aspects of development all over Victoria.
I expressed my opinion that neighbourhood associations are “undemocratic” (I’ll explain why I think this in a future post), which got an amusing response from the other people present. Apparently they hung around in the room to discuss this issue after I left for lunch. I also learned that “NIMBY” is a derogatory term.
My big concern is that the villages plan requires villages to accept thousands of new residents after the next few years. Villages cannot be allowed to choose whether to expand or whether to have services like a needle exchange, because all of them might choose stasis. I am reminded of the provincial NDP’s carrot & stick model for implementing affirmative action in candidate nominations.
I also put up for discussion whether mixed-use villages includes office space and expressed my concern about commuting between villages.
These sessions really disappointed my hopes for deliberation. It was more a process of:
- share ideas and gripe about the past
- present ideas collected to date
- share more ideas and gripe more
There was no weighing of trade-offs and making hard decisions. There was little requirement to give reasons. I’m sure these sessions give helpful guidance to the planners, but it sure didn’t feel like we were authoring the Plan.
This weekend was the second round of Victoria’s Community Planning Forum. I attended planner Robert Batallas’ Friday evening session on Victoria’s Downtown Plan. There were only three people in the audience (apparently the earlier session was much better attended), so I got to ask lots of questions.
- Why are the buildings higher east of Douglas?
- I was worried this was just to support the “ampitheatre” design, where Victoria gradually rises from the waves, at the cost of not maximizing development along the future Douglas rapid transit corridor. But of course the west side of town up to Chatham Street is mostly heritage buildings, so there’s not much point in zoning for higher density. I still think that north of Chatham should be developed symmetrically.
- What’s up with the density bonus system?
- I now completely understand the Density Bonus System and Heritage Density Transfer. I’ll write a separate post explaining them.
The other audience member was the first real crank I’ve run into at these planning forums. In a long-winded statement, he expressed a degrowth agenda. He said he didn’t want Victoria to grow not only because it was bad for the environment, but because it would make it less nice of a place to live. I tried to deliberate with him about how we needed to grow the city to get people to move out of the less sustainable suburbs. But when he insisted that rural living was more sustainable than urban, because “cities have lots of problems”, I lost it: in my mind, I punched Habermas* in the face rather than punching this guy in real life.
After the presentation, I had a chat with Robert that blew my mind. He said that every planner in the city reads the Vibrant Victoria forums every day – it’s their best source to get new ideas and the pulse of the community. I’ve been wondering how to influence Victoria’s plan from here on out, it looks like I found my answer.
* The grandfather of deliberative democracy. Habermas produced the theory that people should give reasons for their positions.
At Victoria’s Community Forum this weekend, the chief item for deliberation is to choose one of four growth plans:
- Waterfront and Green Spaces
- More of what we have now: condos with great views and no jobs or shops in sight. This scenario should only appeal to developers and rich people with SUVs. I’m worried that people will support this because “hey, everybody likes trees and dolphins!”
- Transit Corridors
- This sounds good at first glance, but it results in long tracts of medium density development. They’re too long for walking and too busy for biking. Everybody spends all their time on the bus. I think of West Broadway in Vancouver as representative of this.
- Diverse Villages
- I’m tempted by this option. I think villages that have, as the poster lists, supermarkets, heavy transit access, services and cute shops are good for both residents and tourists. If all the jobs are in the core, then transit from villages is easy to arrange (but intervillage transit would suck). I doubt Victoria’s ability to pull this off properly: density outside the existing “town centre villages” must be strictly capped and office space must be forced downtown.
- Core Area
- I think ultimately this would result in the best city, but the “Core” on the map is way too big. Bay Street and the Roundhouse are not within walking distance of downtown. For this to work, the Downtown Core Area Plan needs to allow nearly unrestricted development in the “core core”.
My goal at the forum is to argue against the first two and raise my concerns about implementation of the last two. If you can’t make it to the forum, fill out the online survey.
My friend Erin ran a community circle on the weekend. We started by brainstorming issues and then chunked them into logical categories (mostly ignoring the City’s topic areas). By consensus we decided to do a circle on waste management.
One reason we chose that is that I think everyone feels the City needs to be contintually prodded about curbside composting. (Oak Bay ran a “pilot project” for the Capital Region many years ago.) Organic material makes up 30% of the Capital Region’s landfill input. My goal was to keep a plastic bag ban off the table, because at less than 1% of landfill input I think it’s an insignificant step that distracts from real waste diversion strategies.
The visioning stage seemed kind of backward given that we had already narrowed in on a topic. The brainstorm-by-yourself-bring-it-back-to-the-group model worked very well for goals and strategies: we didn’t get any duplicates and by merging some ideas we got strong results.
The triple-bottom-line analysis and implementation planning felt like they were worth doing, but they didn’t change our strategies much. I wonder if the kind of people in our circle were the kind of people who do that thing in their heads?
Our three strategies:
- Composting and all recyclables pick-up for every household and in ubiquitous street bins (outstanding issue: cost!)
- Pay businesses and residences for composting and recycling, charge them a lot for garbage* (outstanding issue: will this create perverse incentives?)
- Establish a reusable container “library” with grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses – like the way that beer bottles are standardized and get reused rather than recycled (outstanding issue: implementation details)
* Based on Nudge, I think this could be accomplished just with information, but nobody else had read the book and I wasn’t able to convince them.
An Official Community Plan is a strategic plan (not to be confused with a government’s internal corporate strategic plan). The City of Victoria is using a bottom-up strategic planning process to write their new OCP. They’re asking citizens to gather in “community circles” and together go through some standard strategic planning steps. The twist is that it’s done in two iterations:
- Envision the outcome
- Brainstorm strategies
- Consider impact on the triple bottom line
- Envision the outcome
- Refine strategies
I think insisting people work in groups and go through two iterations will be successful in breaking-up preconceived ideas and challenging groupthink. It’s great that the City is trying to get public participation in the development stage instead of just asking the public their opinion between fully-formed alternatives. But it’s quite daunting to jump into one of these topics that you haven’t already worked on and I’m skeptical that the submissions will be of high quality.
Many of the proposed topics of discussion have two-page briefing notes called “topic sheets”. They’re pretty readable although they contain a bit too much cheerleading about the City’s current initiatives. They’re a great way to get everyone up to speed at the start of a community circle and include some key discussion points (in a green box on the second page). Unfortunately, six of them still aren’t available, undermining planning for those topics.
There are also 60 – 140 page discussion papers. They have key information that doesn’t make it into the topic sheets, for example that Victoria doesn’t have enough land for a food security utopia. I think community circles would be far more effective if at least one participant has read the relevant discussion paper, but it’s quite a a time commitment. If only every topic had a 10-page executive summary like climate change and energy planning. I think the City bit off more than it can chew with the discussion papers, because four of them still aren’t available.
I’m finding it difficult to organize community circles because I don’t know enough people who meet all these criteria:
- have a vested interest in Victoria
- are engaged
- have lots of free time
This session’s expert was Andrea Hudson, the City’s planner in charge of Downtown, North Park and Harris Green. She presented Kevin A Lynch‘s model from The Image of the City as a way to talk about urban spaces:
- streets, sidewalks, trails
- walls, shorelines, impassable spaces like highways (Hudson’s egs: Dallas Road, upper Blanshard)
- areas sharing an identity or character (Hudson’s egs: Chinatown, the Inner Harbour)
- focal points, intersections (Hudson’s eg: Haultain Corners)
- distinct or distantly visible reference points (Hudson’s egs: Quadra Street churches, the Rockland water tower*)
I was a couple minutes late, but I believe Hudson didn’t discuss the Development Permit Map, which was on a big board next to her. The development permit system gives Council approval power over the appearance of buildings within almost all of Victoria. Combined with land use zoning, it’s how the City exerts control over development: I was shocked that it wasn’t the focus of this session.
It was the last session of the day, so everyone was tired, but I think also no one knew what we were supposed to be talking about. The urban design topic sheet has no specific issues or discussion points. Two Citizen Advisory Committee members planted in the audience trolled about “evil development”. I tried to start a discussion criticising the neighbourhood planning process, but apparently that was out of scope.
The real issue that citizens must discuss is how urban design and heritage conservation can peacefully coexist with densification and economic renewal. Is the development permit system working? Are density bonuses an appropriate trade for well-designed developments? Where does zoning come into this?
* Victoria has a water tower?! I had never heard about it until now.
This session was a hard-nosed look at the economic future of the municipality, less utopian than the rest of the forum. The discussion centered around discussing the current employment breakdown:
|post-secondary education and healthcare
Government, tourism and construction won’t grow much in the next few years (although I didn’t get the impression that this was looking 30 years out like the plan is supposed to). Healthcare will grow on demand. High tech presents the best opportunity for growth but it has a variety of land use needs from office space to light manufacturing.
The session expert, Jay Wollenberg, thinks that Victoria’s waterfront represents our most underutilized resource for:
- residential (which creates community-oriented and construction employment)
- public space (which could make the city more attractive for the Creative Class)
The City’s downtown plan is commited to maintaining existing industry on the harbour, but doesn’t say much about development. I like the idea of an intensified working harbour, but Ryley says it’s not necessarily great in practice.
Wollenberg’s other suggestion is that the City could try to get government offices to consolidate in the municipality (right now 7500 government jobs are outside the municipality in the region). Amalgamation would do that for local government. I’m not sure exactly how to get the province to do it, but I really like the idea.
Wollenberg also mentioned that there’s a trend toward raising children in condos and apartments – apparently Yaletown has a shortage of daycare spaces. This is a huge cultural shift that I’d like to know more about.
In the question period, a woman attempted to share her view that Victoria should pursue a no-growth strategy. I’m sympathetic to this concept and will be writing on it in the future, but she came off as a crank because she didn’t know how to articulate this complex idea (I took me a while to figure out what she was talking about and I’ve read papers on it!).
* Community-oriented: services and goods consumed by people living within the municipality
Victoria’s Community Plan is a strategic plan. Risk management is a big part of organizational strategic plans, but I was surprised to see it so explicitly in the climate change session.
Risk management says there are four ways to respond to a threat that may occur:
- Accept: do nothing
- Transfer: make it someone else’s problem (insurance is the most straightforward example)
- Avoid: change your plan to reduce the impact (called “Adaptation” in a climate change context)
- Mitigate: reduce the probability that the threat occurs
Most emissions happen in urban areas, but the City of Victoria is just one municipality in the region and just one city in the world, so mitigation is more about setting a good example and doing our part. Victoria’s emissions are divided about 50-50 between building heating & cooling and transportation (solid waste is insignificant and reducing it is a distraction from the real problems).
For heating & cooling, it’s more important to retrofit old buildings than set standards for new ones (most of Victoria’s buildings that will be standing in 30 years have already been built). I didn’t get a chance to ask if we have a potential for deep water cooling, but there are a few geothermal heritage-retrofit projects in Victoria.
The Capital Region per capita transportation emissions are 0.6 tonnes higher than the City’s per capita emissions, so the most important thing is supporting regional transportation plans (like keeping rail on the Johnson Street Bridge, hmm?). It turns out that not that many people are commuting directly downtown, so sticks like reducing parking may not be as effective as carrots. But there’s also lots of opportunity to reduce transportation emissions within the City.
Given that some climate change is inevitable, we also have to avoid the impacts. Victoria is well above sea level. We need emergency management to deal with increasingly weird weather. Our biggest problem is water security:
- water supply
- water-borne disease
- handling wastewater