City Planning without People: The Slow Development Alternative

In some areas of Vancouver, change feels like a developers' feast. Strangers with unsolicited offers to purchase appear at the door, inducements to participate in land assemblies arrive in the mail, escalating prices and shadow flipping bewilder and construction is everywhere. Periodic opportunities for consultation with municipal government seem trivial; the solicitous efforts of officials focused on what adjustments might placate neighbourhoods in the context of an overall plan that is a foregone conclusion. Can we throw in a community centre or some green space somewhere for you?

What is the role of the city in this fervour? It is not unprincipled. The guiding principle appears to be 'densification'. I take it that this means attracting significantly more people as residents of the city core by building 'up' multi-person accommodation along transportation corridors, maximizing land use and increasing the municipal tax base. Equally importantly, 'densification' counteracts the drift to the suburbs with its demand for more roads and bridges and associated increases in carbon emissions from vehicles. In Vancouver's case it also has created a construction boom and a haven for investment.

What's to lose by this approach? This pattern of development is, quite literally, tearing apart the social fabric of neighbourhoods. It reminds me of a time when my uncle, then the Deputy City Architect of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, took me around an entire section of the city that consisted of terribly rundown multi-story buildings and equally desultory streets. The city planners had made the mistake, he explained to me, of shifting established row house neighbourhoods holus bolus into these formerly state of the art buildings. The move destroyed the culture of these neighbourhoods and the result was a kind of chaos, he noted. Delinquency, addiction and mental illness became rampant and there ended up being a prevailing ethos of alienation and despair. A kind of 'city planning without people' had taken place and the results were awful and costly. The effects on the social fabric of neighbourhoods need to be figured in the planning process as a part of urban development.

In order to foster a socially integrated rather than alienated city culture, I propose the alternative of 'slow development'. The objective is to mitigate the social alienation that is a by-product of headlong densification and development. The essence of slow development is to limit the rate of development especially in the context of established neighbourhoods and tie development to a tax structure that reinforces purchase of units by local residents. Slow development enables the integration of new structures and populations at a digestible rate in order to build a safer, saner and more enjoyable city. Using development of the 5 city blocks along King Edward between Cambie and Oak in Vancouver as an example, the pace of slow development would require no more than one major development per year along this corridor and further stipulate that a new site be completed before the next application for development is entertained.