During my graduate studies in Planning at the University of Toronto, my major research project explored conflicts that arise when communities go through the planning approval process to build new mosques. I examined the role of planners in deconstructing and challenging those conflicts. Mosques are some of the most contested building developments in the world, and by and large, when mosques applications are up for approval, deep community opposition about parking regulations, traffic, and compatible architecture among other complaints arise through the community consultation process.
Years later, I still feel resistant towards conversations about heritage because of what I learnt through that project about how arguments about compatible architecture can be deployed to oppose the spatial needs of non-dominant communities. And so when I saw Heritage Vancouver’s October 9th event titled “What do we do about neighbourhoods?” the second conversation in their “Shaping Vancouver: What’s the Use of Heritage?” series, my interest was piqued. One of my goals over the next twelve months is to learn more about planning in Vancouver. Since most programs in the city aimed at increasing civic education and involvement are aimed at the under 30 age group, and I fall outside of that bracket, I’m learning on my own, and this event felt like a good step on my learning journey. (On that note, anyone who is interested in starting/creating the equivalent of the DiverseCity Fellowship or the Maytree Policy School we need you in Vancouver.)
But I digress. I admit, I was nervous to attend the Heritage Vancouver event. When I think about planners or conversations about cities, I often imagine planners and community members who are white, male, and passionate about bike lanes. I don’t imagine someone who looks like myself: racialized, female and Muslim. At the event I was overwhelmingly in the minority and I quickly sought out the other racialized women at the event. (As a sidebar: It can be a bit daunting to share your thoughts in such a space, and I recommend approaches like the one described here to structure post-event question periods so that questions not just follow the order of hands that go up, but actively seek to hear from different voices in the room.)
The panel had four panelists: Jada-Gabrielle Pape, a facilitator and consultant with Courage Consulting, Jennifer Maiko Bradshaw, a pro-housing activist and Director of Abundant Housing Vancouver, Richard Evans from RePlan, a committee of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association and Scot Hein, adjunct professor in the Master of Urban Design program at UBC. More detailed bios and information about the panelists can be found here.
Here are my takeaways and questions from what the panelists shared that night.
- How can cities do equitable consultation about neighbourhood change?
To begin, the moderator showed a video from YVR YIMBY featuring a montage of multiple community consultation sessions in different time periods with older white men speaking up and using the word heritage to justify their opposition to neighbourhood change. The video was powerful, and made me think about the role of planners in facilitating community consultation. If it is certain bodies and identities who primarily have the time and wealth to participate in community consultations and to articulate en masse that neighbourhood change is undesirable, then trying to participate in an open consultative process as someone from a more marginalized identity can be a violent experience. Following the video, Jennifer Maiko Bradshaw shared stories about being at community consultations about affordable housing or new developments in areas like Shaughnessy and often seeing property owners of dominant identities show up, and overwhelmingly say no to neighbourhood change because of their fear of the impact of neighbourhood change on property values. Bradshaw asked us to reflect on the question:
“For whom are we preserving heritage? What and who are we preventing from coming in when we evoke heritage? We need to do a power analysis.”
In a city where housing is limited and rents are rising this opposition matters.
Her remarks made me think about my Masters research, where expert interviews highlighted the importance of planners advocating for marginal communities and challenging racism that shows up in the community consultation process.
For Canadian planners who turn to their professional code for guidance in how planners should proceed however, the Canadian Institute of Planners Professional Code provides limited direction. According to the Canadian Institute of Planners Statement of Values, CIP members “believe in meaningful public participation by all individuals and groups and seek to articulate the needs of those whose interests have not been represented.”
In addition, the Statement of Values mentions that “CIP members seek to balance the interests of communities with the interests of individuals, and recognize that communities include both geographic communities and communities of interest.”
And according to the Canadian Institute of Planners Professional Code of Conduct, members should “practice in a manner that respects the diversity, needs values and aspirations of the public and encourages discussion on these matters (1.1).
The problem with these statements and the code however, is that neither acknowledges power, and it is not clear how exactly planners should balance the interests of communities if the views of the already established oppose the values of less-powerful groups exercising their right to develop urban space. Is it simply a numbers game of how many people are opposed to a development in a neighbourhood? When it comes to communities of interest, how do we weigh up the needs of the overall city, country and planet when it comes to changing the character of neighbourhoods?
This lack of direction matters because the planning process is not designed to have in depth conversations about neighbourhood change. The moderator asked Jada-Gabrielle Pape to share her thoughts to the question: How do we go about having difficult conversations about neighbourhood change? In response Pape shared:
“If we can figure out what is deeply underpinning our point of view and recognize that we all want safety, shelter, that helps. But when we don’t check in with our own discomfort and recognize that this (conversation) is uncomfortable for us, then we can read our feelings as conflict and the conversation becomes combative. So we need to check in with ourselves and recognize that we are uncomfortable but we are still safe. We need to enter conversations with genuine curiosity. [..] We can be critical without being hostile.”
Recognizing that discomfort is key. And right now we’re not doing a good job of listening to another. At another point in the conversation, Jada-Gabrielle Pape said:
I don’t think we are in a climate where people can listen deeply to Indigenous people and incorporate what they are saying. We say we are doing the work of reconciliation but we are not even in a place where people can listen to truth because it makes them uncomfortable.
Our conversations also benefit when we start to question and decolonize the language we use and the structure of our conversations. Jada-Gabrielle Pape shared that
“The word community itself is a colonial term. In these lands people were grouped by families, families on land, and people were deeply rooted in families. For newcomers and settlers to not know these names, these places cannot be and cannot heal.”
There was more that was shared on the panel but it was these two things: how community consultation can and should take place and how we speak to one another and recognize our own learning journeys that were my most powerful learnings of the night.
How do you think equitable consultation can take place? What are your favourite examples of planners as advocates for social change in Vancouver? I’d love to hear your thoughts.