By Jeff Lee
Long before Mayor Gregor Robertson’s intemperate remarks calling public presenters political “hacks,” relations between Vancouver and its neighbourhoods were testy.
Politicians and community activists say that disconnect arose largely from the last city council’s EcoDensity program, which sought to layer citywide environmental goals into the way density, land use and design are considered in local planning processes.
Instead, the program fractured efforts by the city and neighbourhoods to develop local land-use plans through a careful, decade-long citywide exercise called CityPlan.
“Just the word density could strike fear in neighbourhoods,” said Robert Allen, the head of the Renfrew-Collingwood Visions Implementation Committee. “A lot of this tension has been below the surface for a long time.”
Allen, whose group worked with Vancouver to help each of the city’s 23 neighbourhoods develop updated community plans, said the trust-building exercise was killed the moment former mayor Sam Sullivan’s NPA-dominated council dropped the EcoDensity program on them. Dialogue stopped and many were enraged by the city’s preoccupation with politically charged rezonings that would strategically build density into neighbourhoods.
Now, neighbourhoods have learned to distrust the city’s planners and engineers, he said, because they never know if their local issues will be taken into consideration.
In recent months, the city has made concerted efforts at reconciliation with neighbourhoods, from plans for a “citizens’ summit” to air concerns to the creation of a stand-alone office for information and community engagement. But those efforts may have been set back by Robertson’s description last week of public presenters to council as “f——g … hacks.”
“Well, if I don’t think it helped,” said Coun. Andrea Reimer, who is spearheading the city’s efforts to “engage” communities again in cooperative civic affairs.
“Community engagement is all about trust and relationships, so it’s hard for his comments not to have an impact on that,” she said.
Robertson said in an interview the city doesn’t have strong relations any more with many community groups. He blamed much of that on Sullivan’s EcoDensity program, but acknowledged his own gaffe hasn’t helped matters.
“”It definitely creates a lot more work and effort to assure people that we’re open and listening and that we want dynamic debate on this,” he said.
“We’ve worked to improve consultation and engagement with neighbourhoods from day one and it has been a big challenge. Many neighbourhoods are wary and distrustful of city hall from previous administrations. It’s tough when we try to improve this and it is construed as the opposite, as closing down debate.”
Allen lives on the opposite side of the city from Doreen Braverman, the chairwoman of the Arbutus Ridge Concerned Citizens Association. But they share a common view that their communities are constantly at odds with city hall.
“They don’t listen and they don’t care,” said Braverman, whose group is opposed to a proposal to redevelop the Arbutus Centre shopping mall into a residential development. “I think the EcoDensity program really broke relations between community groups and city hall. But this group in office isn’t much better.”
She said Robertson’s remarks are “just what you think they think of you. It’s very phoney. I think what he’s done is make people realize we’re not just whistling Dixie when we say we’re not being listened to.”
Allen says that even though Robertson “did himself and his party no favours” with his comments, he thinks the mayor’s gaffe could won’t result in worse relations with communities.
“Actually, I think it will have the opposite effect. It points out that yeah, we do have issues in communication. So then it gives us the opportunity, just as we are doing now, to talk about it. I think that’s the silver lining in this.”
Reimer said the city is working hard to try to reconnect city hall with its neighbourhoods. This fall, several plans will go before council, including one to set up a single “Vancouver Office of Information and City Engagement” (VOICE), where people can get information neighbourhood issues, from rezonings to street improvements.
Reimer said that while the parts of EcoDensity that the Vision Vancouver council liked were folded into its Greenest City program, but the word “EcoDensity” still causes residents to shiver, she said.
This fall will also mark the first “citizens’ summit,” which Reimer said will allow residents to set their own agendas about what is important to them.
“Community engagement is not like building a bike lane. It’s not simple and it’s not technical. It is a process built on relationships and foundations of trust,” she said.