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Planning on the Edge in the Middle of a Pandemic

Posted: Friday, August 07, 2020

Written by Dr. Penny Gurstein, University of British Columbia

Planning on the Edge cover

We are living in a time of great uncertainty. Economic and social inequalities have been exposed and magnified by the COVID-19 global pandemic coupled with the ongoing impacts of climate change. We are in crisis mode as households, organizations and communities’ grapple with the complexities of a new reality. What will the future look like and how can we shape it to be more sustainable and equitable? The edited volume, Planning on the Edge: Vancouver and the Challenges of Reconciliation, Social Justice, and Sustainable Development, focusing on the Vancouver region looks at the past, present and future of community planning and its centrality in shaping our region is never more important than now as we try to understand what needs to be done to provide a better future for all.

What are the big takeaways from the book? Starting from the first chapter, written by members of the Musqueam nation, we are reminded that there are multiple layers of the Vancouver story starting with the indigenous people who have been here since time immemorial. Vancouver was built on the unceded ancestral lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̕ilwətaʔɬ/səl̕ilwət (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, and in moving forward we need to find a way to coexist with these nations, while maintaining the integrity of their communities.  

The Vancouver region is a dynamic urban system that is constantly reshaping itself as global, national, and regional forces impinge on it within the imperatives of social, economic and environmental sustainability, migration patterns, and global markets. The Vancouver region has one of the most diverse populations in the world. Addressing social justice by reducing inequalities that range from First Nations’ claims, housing and social mobility for immigrants, refugees and the young are crucial to creating functioning communities. 

As the pandemic has shown us, governments can be effective in tackling some of the most intractable problems facing us. Regional planning is essential in disaster management and adaptations needed for climate change threats. The current government structure in the Vancouver region exhibits disjuncture that hampers risk reduction, and policy innovations, and greater metropolitan coordination are essential. To prepare for ongoing challenges we need to strengthen local governance of municipalities and provide opportunities for community development of neighbourhoods. The city and the region, in spite of claims lauding our environmental awareness, exhibit a substantial “sustainability gap” that will require more stringent policies and behavioural change. 

The limitations of tower and podium high-density development termed “Vancouverism” have been evident during the pandemic when people are required to isolate at home in often, inadequate spaces. Compact medium-density built form with usable green spaces is offered as an alternative in the increasing redevelopment of single-family housing. A case is required for integrated planning and coordination of housing, transportation, health and environmental programs and policies. 

Inequities have never been more evident in Canada when COVID-19 has disproportionately affected low-income people of colour due to crowded living conditions and work where they cannot self isolate.  In the Vancouver region, enclaves of racialized poverty have emerged throughout the region without the needed support services. The preservation of affordable housing near rapid transit is crucial for this population. In order to reconceptualise the housing system, policies and programs need to be instituted that more holistically address housing needs.

Planning on the Edge traces a nuanced, complex, multi-faceted viewing of Vancouver and its region. The COVID-19 pandemic has put in greater focus Vancouver’s inequities and tenuous governance and infrastructure. While there is much to be lauded about Vancouver’s planning legacy, there is also much that needs to be done. 

Penny Gurstein photo

Penny Gurstein is a professor and former director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. She is the co-editor of Learning Civil Societies: Shifting Contexts for Democratic Planning and Governance.

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