Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book: The Vancouver Achievement by John Punter

Ah, Vancouver. That gleaming, sparkling, oasis of a planners wet dream. At least, that's what, at first glance, this book appears to say.

But if you look past the cringe-inducing boosterish title of John Punter's book you'll find a great documentation of Vancouver planning history and policies since the 1970s, up until about 2001, when the book was published. Punter, a professor of urban design in the UK at Cardiff University, has exhaustively catalogued the development of the city. While the title may give away just how Punter feels about Vancouver, he doesn't shy away from criticisms of affordability, architectural monotony, and exclusivity.

Particularly interesting was the chapter on Vancouver's single-family neighbourhoods and the infiltration of discretionary zoning and development controls sought by neighbourhood associations (usually wealthy ones) to preserve the "character" of their area. Punter describes how City Council and planners bent to the demands of these neighbourhoods, instituting zoning that restricted intensification and secondary suites. This obviously has had a severe impact on the affordability of Vancouver as a whole, confirming the power of these neighbourhoods in the political and planning process. It's hard not to see that the rhetoric of preserving a neighbourhood's character is often a guise for social exclusion.

There were a few things the book left out. There was no real mention of Metro Vancouver, or regional planning, which I think is a mistake. Many things are decided at the regional level and it would have been interesting to see how these interacted at the city level in Vancouver. Similarly, there was no real discussion of transit planning, except for a few paragraphs near the end. This, too, is an oversight. While SkyTrain is mentioned a few times, I would have liked a discussion of the planning and development around the stations and how it changed the city. Finally, Vancouver's elected Park Board only got a few brief mentions, even though there was much discussion of the provision of park space.

It's difficult to talk about planning in Vancouver without talking about affordability. The obvious question that runs through the book, and one that Punter does address (though not nearly enough, I think) is that, sure, Vancouver is shiny and mostly well-designed, but who gets to enjoy in this when the city is so utterly unaffordable? What does "livability" really mean if you find it hard to live there?