From Vancouver Sun:

What do we do when a stable community resists change because there’s nothing for residents to gain from accepting change?

How does a community with serious housing affordability challenges contend with these same people who want housing prices to remain high because the last thing they need is for the value of their own homes to fall below the amount owing on their mortgages? Increased housing supply is a threat to them.

That’s one of the realities in the dilemma of managing growth in Metro Vancouver today.

Another reality in this dilemma is that the region has a limited land supply and there will never again be cheap land available to build on, regardless of how far we allow growth to sprawl, forcing long, financially expensive and environmentally costly commutes.

It’s these realities and this dilemma that sets the stage for almost every battle that erupts in urban and sub-urban neighbourhoods every time a new development project is proposed, especially when the development might change the existing character of a neighbourhood with more intensive forms of housing.

Planners, developers, civic politicians and citizen-advocates for smart growth are all struggling with finding the game changer. They desperately want to move the public from setting off an emotional values-based debate to becoming engaged in dialogue that honestly focuses on our collective community challenges. Consensus on how we’re going to protect our enviable quality of life, accommodate population growth, protect our natural ecosystems and provide new opportunities for the next generation will only come from a constructive dialogue. Yelling at each other isn’t getting us far.

City of Vancouver planners sat down a couple of months ago at a daylong session with 20 citizens who are involved in their respective neighbourhoods across the city to attempt to initiative this kind of dialogue around grappling with how to address density from a neighbour-hood perspective. I recently stumbled across the report of that dialogue, Carbon Talks: Density in a City of Neighbourhoods Dialogue Report. ( Dialogue%20reports/DensityDia-logueReport.pdf). It makes for some interesting reading.

The “D” word is a dangerous one to even utter in these parts. It was courageous of the conveners – SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and a number of other SFU partners, together with the city – to try bring together neighbour-hood activists to talk about density. The magic seemed to come from the orientation of the dialogue: a big-picture look at the city as a whole, where participants were encouraged to take a step back from their neighbourhood viewpoints.

SFU City Program director and former Vancouver city Coun. Gordon Price wrote an extremely insightful discussion guide that provoked the participants. ( documents/Discussion%20guides/ CarbonTalks-DensityDialogue-Dis-cussionGuide.pdf) As only Price can do, he took participants on a Vancouver historical journey from the earliest years of land-abundant settlement to the city of 2012, a city running out of options. Price’s paper articulated clearly the dilemma I outlined earlier. He painted, era by era, how we ended up with this dilemma after a century of being able to moderate housing costs by consuming vacant land. Now very little vacant land exists.

As Price said: “The process of planning for the future must inevitably look to existing neighbourhoods, and to new forms of housing – to different ways of accommodating change without changing the fundamental character of a community.” In other words, we have no option but to accept density.

Price’s paper also reminded participants that even when Vancouver has undergone change at a scale that would be unacceptable today, like the transformation of the West End in the 1960s, we have been able to introduce new forms of housing, absorb growth, mitigate the impacts and create a livable neighbourhood residents love.

“We tend to assimilate it and then when it’s threatened with further change, want it declared heritage,” Price reminded us of this irony.

He also reminded participants that everyone wants certainty. They want a plan and a process that identifies and addresses issues as early as possible and treats everyone with fairness and respect.

This talk of a plan with certainty, and perhaps a plan that goes beyond just addressing neighbourhood concerns but also looks at the city as a whole, seems to be a common refrain that underlies much of the talk about getting beyond the bickering over spot rezonings and neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood murky plans.

It’s the talk at Vancouver City Hall, where four neighbourhood plans are being formulated with citizen involvement using some new processes and techniques that might help when a city-wide plan is tackled.

This wider perspective is also what seemed to motivate and move the 20 citizens who sat down for this dialogue on density. The one conclusion high-lighted in the dialogue report that was most encouraging spoke to this wider perspective.

“Participants appreciated the opportunity to look at the city from both micro and macro perspectives, from both the perspectives of individual neighbourhoods and the city as a whole.”

A number of participants, the report concludes, mentioned how useful it was to consider the larger planning goals for the city and look beyond their community.

The dialogue concluded by agreeing that “density” is simply a word and it needs to be unpacked to expose all of its meanings, implications, perceptions and assumptions, so that future conversations can move away from simplistic concepts like highrise towers and traffic.

Participants also expressed an appetite for densification projects that are sensitive to local human-focused needs like esthetics, green space, affordability, transportation habits and access to amenities.

Constructive dialogue usually results when people honestly face reality. Per-haps more of these discussions need to take place. The city officials who participated have taken the findings back to city hall and hope to use them to inform the new processes they are trying to develop.

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