Justice not just democracy: are residents’ self interest a barrier to the critical needs of our time?

The City of Vancouver is in the process of conducting three new community plans in Grandview Woodlands, Marpole and the West End as well as a Community Planning Table meeting in the Downtown Eastside. While these planning processes are underway, fundamental questions need to be asked about this planning process. What are are the outcomes of this process and what do we collectively hope to achieve through them? While some residents are engaged in the process to protect the status quo and to say “no” to change, other residents know that the world is changing and every neighbourhood needs to respond to the critical issues of our time through creating more housing affordability, adapting to climate change and responding demographic challenges.

Citizen engagement and democracy are important values for Vancouver residents, but are the pursuit of these values at the exclusion of other values? It is important for the city to engage citizens in a dialogue about what their views of their communities are, but what if the direction that the citizens want will not be in the best interest of their communities and the city as whole?

Witness what happened in West Point Grey in 2010 when the community finished their “City Plan” process and developed a community plan that basically entrenched that status quo of entitlement that made no accommodation for any increase in density and also did not involve any planning considerations for new immigrants, young families or seniors.

In an article in the Vancouver Sun byBob Ransford critical of (the City Plan process in West point Grey quoted the City Perspectives Panel [CPP]) that advises Council on the City Plan process the following”

” … it is the view of the CPP that the overall vision for West Point Grey fell substantially short of outlining sufficient locations for new housing to develop. It is here, in the realm of housing, where the most glaring shortcomings of the West Point Grey Vision are apparent. The inability of the West Point Grey Vision to make room for the diverse demographic and housing needs currently impacting the community and the city as a whole is highly problematic … A lack of community responsibility to a citywide issue, coupled with an inability to house even their own residents as they move through life stages, is seen as highly problematic … .”

Council passed the community plan, because as elected officials how can they not pass it given that it was a result of a process that was developed with the mythologies of democracy and with an attempt at equal access to the process? The West Point Grey residents participated in an engagement process that reflected their self-interests and entitled the wealthy the power to have a community vision that made no attempt to address the changing world that we live in. Even if affordable housing is a huge concern for the city – no change for West Point Grey. Even if we need to house immigrant populations that are critical to our economy with Vancouver’s low birth rate and aging population – no change for West Point Grey. Even if our as seniors need new varieties of housing types in their communities to support them in the aging process – no change for West Point Grey. Even if young families need more affordable childcare -no change for West Point Grey. Even if the climate of the world is changing because of the how we are currently acting – no change for West Point Grey. Sadly now, citizens are empowered to make decision with no responsibility to deal with the critical issues that are facing the city.

Clearly, there is something wrong in our planning process that values engagement of entitlement without addressing the outcomes of the process. Susan Fainstein, the author of The Just City, critiques the process of urban planning in part by doing an analysis of the “communicative model” of planning that values having a deliberative process where planners moderate between different view points in a public dialogue. She states the following in regard to this issue:

“ My criticism of the proceduralist emphasis in planning theory is not directed at its extension of democracy beyond electoral participation but rather at a faith in the efficacy of open communication that ignores the reality of structural inequality and hierarchies of power. Moreover, it slides over the question of whether in an existing historical context citizens are good judges of their own interest or the public good. After the deliberation has run its course, people may still make the choices that are harmful to themselves or to minorities.” (p. 30)

An exciting policy that Fainstein is proposing is the strategy of studying outcomes of projects to see how these outcomes promote justice and equity. Fainstien is asserting that planning has been too exclusively focused on economic development without studying other values of the cities. So rather than being solely concerned with the “process” of a planning process, planners need to also be studying how projects are meeting the critical needs of the city such as immigration, aging population, low birth rates, the need for more affordable housing for lower income and marginal population, and the need for more affordable housing for middle income families and seniors.
West point grey city plan

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