Larry Beasley Wants Vancouver to Soar

Larry BeasleyLarry Beasley, former Co-Director of Planning, City of Vancouver: I can think of no better way to think about the future than to dream about it, and then to share those dreams; otherwise you stay within very constrained limits. Either it’s the limits of the law, or the limits of the past, or more often it’s the limits of your own anxieties.

The fact is you cannot soar unless you dream. Dreaming is how you go beyond the obvious and beyond the known to the fantastical and to the unknown… to that better idea, that genuinely new idea, which really hasn’t come to the fore before. Maybe it’s an idea you brought from somewhere else but, more likely, today, you will generate an idea that no one’s thought about before. And you won’t do it yourself, I can tell you. You’ll do it with others.

And I want you to know, as a city planner, that dreaming is one of the fundamental tools of city planning. It’s not just about GIS and all of that. In fact, in cities I work in I often find that they’ve got the GIS bit right and they don’t have the dream bit right. They haven’t really dreamed. It is one of the basic tools in planning.

And so I commend to you today to dream wildly: to go beyond, to try to push beyond the obvious and to let your mind soar like the great birds in the wind.

Now you might say about Vancouver, “why dream?” I mean, we do have an undeniably great and liveable city. We do have a city that we know, statistically, is getting more and more support from it’s citizens - citizens who are telling us that they are becoming happier about their city and more satisfied about their city.

There are not many cities in the world that can say that. We have the beauty of this amazing setting and we have the elegance of the buildings and gardens that have been built particularly over the last 20 to 25 years. We have the joy of our diversity and multiculturalism and, frankly, we have a liberal society to really value and honour that, rather than worry about that. We have our stability, and our safety, and our social supports, and our relative tranquility – which in world terms are a true treasure that I don’t think we actually understand all that much, unless you get out and see the turmoil that is in the world today.

We have a buzz that’s growing – the 24 hour city, the vitality of the city, the street life of the city, not just downtown but in our neighbourhood high streets – is growing. And we have a strong economy, driven by ideas.

So what’s there to dream about?

Well, I think we all know why it’s important to dream about Vancouver in the future. We have to dream because, in fact, we’re not there yet.I’m not even sure we all know what “there” is, or what the content of “there” is in our future. We have to dream because there’s so much yet to do, and to think about our city and what our city might be. We’ve
made a good start but we have to continue to improve and expand our horizons.

And we have problems – and those problems really have to be addressed.

But we also have to dream because there’s a Vancouver out there that we don’t even know about yet, that is not yet built, that we have hardly begun to think about, or conceptualize, or talk about. We have
unbelievable opportunities – we are a fortunate city with opportunities and those have to be discovered.

So we must dream. And I, for one, do so constantly.

Recently, as I’ve been travelling around the world over the last few years, working in most of the continents of the world, my dreams have been spurred on, as much as anything, by the comparisons that I’ve seen between Vancouver – as I know it – and these other places that I’ve been working, and the other people that I’ve been working with.

So I could talk today about so many dreams that I hold dear for our great city. I know we haven’t reached anywhere near our potential for our cultural life – both in regard to the growth of our major cultural institutions, like the Vancouver Art Gallery or the others, or the spontaneous flowering of the avant garde culture, the small culture that actually generates the new cultural ideas for us. We need only look as far, as near, as Toronto to see how far behind we are on this issue of culture.

I could worry out loud about the imbalanced land use mix of our city, and whether or not we’re going to have enough work places in the city with all the housing that’s been built; or the slow growth in the alternative transportation infrastructure movement, the bicycle infrastructure, the rapid transit infrastructure; or the continued proliferation – this is my worst nightmare… some dreams are nightmares – of those insensitive subdivisions and overwrought streets that are still being built every day out at the urban edge of this region.

Or I could express frustration that the commonwealth of our city – its public realm and its public features – do not get the care and
attention that they deserve, or that we deserve, because of the way that public money is raised and channelled and used in our society.

But I’m not going to talk about any of that today.

This is a huge assembly and my expectation is that there is an advocate for almost every one of these, what I would call “typical planning issues” that I’m thinking about in my mind from time to time.

Instead, what I’m going to do today is draw specifically upon some very recent experience that I’ve had working in the Middle East, in particular, focus on two things that have hit me very strongly from that experience – things that I’ve come to believe are absolutely fundamental to Vancouver’s future state of grace and then tell you stories that, for me, brought all of this quite into my consciousness and into the worry side of my thinking, as well as the dreaming side of my thinking.

Now many people will know that I have been doing some work in Abu Dhabi – not in Dubai, I want to just say that – in Abu Dabi. It’s one of the emirates in the United Arab Emirates. And in that capacity I’ve met a very interesting gentleman. His name is Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi, he’s the godfather of the ruling prince of Abu Dhabi and he’s a very spiritual, wise, man.

But that’s not why I raise his name here today. I raise his name because he’s also one of the world’s greatest falconers. He enjoys the art of falconry. He loves his birds. He’s rejuvenated the sport of falconry all over the world and he focuses on the needs of the falcon in every way that he can. And through the insights of being a falconer he has become a dedicated environmentalist. By thinking about what is
happening to the falcon and realizing that the falcon is a dying species – was a dying species – it made him a very strong environmentalist. He is now the environment minister for his emirate.

And as the environment minister, he has put in place what are the most advanced legislation and policies in the world on environmental protection for Abu Dhabi. And he’s also sponsoring an initiative, which is going to build a carbon-free settlement in the emirate, in this emirate, for over 100,000 inhabitants – workers and residents.

And for me, Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi and his falcons are a very deep inspiration when I look back at Vancouver and at what we need to achieve on our environmental front. If a falcon can cause a small, newly minted country to start audaciously to address the environmental degradation that has been their entire way of life for years, then surely it can motivate Vancouver as well.

There’s no question that we are taking laudable measures already in regard to the environment. The sustainable development of the athletes village for the Olympics is very, very good. The development of groundbreaking green-building regulations – the only place in the world this is being done – is also very good. But we have to do so much more.

Many people in this room – most people in this room – will have heard of Dr. Bill Rees at the University of British Columbia, who invented the concept of the ecological footprint. He warns that our efforts to make the city to be more sustainable, even with everything we’ve done, is a drop in the bucket. And he says we have to redouble those efforts and cause a dramatic change in our habits as individuals and as a
collective community, if we have any chance of getting this city’s ecological footprint in line with what would be seen to be our fair share of this planet.

And Dr. Rees, I think, has given us the science of this. Now we have to match that with the dream of how to do this, how to change peoples thinking – their consciousness – at levels that I, for one have only just started to think about.

I see myself as being extraordinarily ignorant about the measures that we have to do.

I know, for example, that we have to manage our waste differently. We have to stop pouring it into the waters of False Creek and Burrard Inlet and those places. We have to use it more, in terms of recycling and reuse of the waste. I know that we have to manage our water much more carefully. I know that we have to increasingly draw on alternative energy sources and bring energy production down to the community level.

I know that we have to build a wide range of alternative infrastructure to move around in the city, taking the emphasis off of the car and putting the emphasis back on our feet – any by the way making us much thinner and much more healthy to boot. I know that we have to grow more of our food, and we have to draw more of our food, from closer to home than we’re doing now. And I know that we have to set up the institutions so that environmental learning is happening every single day with everyone, the smaller the better, so that environmental stewardship becomes a very popular part of our common culture.

I know of all that, in principle. But I don’t know – and I don’t think a lot of people, even in this room or in this city know, how specifically we do that – what are the measures, how do we implement them, how do we make them happen on the ground, how do we change the politics, the institutions, the flow of money and everything else to make that a reality and really change our relationship to the environment.

And my dream is that one day that falcon, that beautiful bird, might soar above the city of Abu Dhabi or the city of Vancouver in safety and in health as a powerful symbol of our success in making our city more sustainable. Frankly, I don’t think we have a choice on this if we’re going to pass on a planet that’s liveable to the next generation.

And that really is the first of the two dreams that I want to talk about today.

But my dream is not just about the environment, it’s also about people.

Several weeks ago I met a young couple whose experience in Vancouver really touched one of my other dreams. I’ll call them “Matt” and “Jenny.” That’s not their names but I don’t think they’d want me to use their names. He’s a teacher and she’s a legal secretary, and they’re both really delightful people. They’re very well-educated, they’re hard
working, they’re creative, and they’re quite thoughtful to the people around them. They have two children and, as you can imagine, they work tirelessly to sustain their family. They both come from quite average economic backgrounds, but they’re making their way in the world by just by their personal dedication. And they are, in fact, the kind of family that will carry on all the values and all the traditions that we hold so dear as Canadians and as Vancouverites.

But I discovered that Matt and Jenny have a really big problem, and it’s putting a big stress on their family. And that problem is this: they cannot afford to live in Vancouver. Now at this moment I’m not talking about low-income or government-assisted housing. These are not people that would ever be candidates for low-income and government-assisted housing. I’m talking about reasonably-priced, well-located, market housing.

Matt and Jenny’s family have been pushed right out to the urban edge. They travel several hours a day to get to their jobs, they miss several hours of that day with their children, and their children miss them. They’re putting pressure on our commuter system – and against all their beliefs they’re polluting the environment around them. They miss out on so much because of this housing problem that they have.

The worst thing, as I was sitting and talking with them, is that they’re saving like slaves to build up the equity so that they might buy a place in the city. And every time they get a bit built up, the housing prices have gone even higher; they’re pushed further away from being able to purchase a house or an apartment, or really any decently liveable place in the city, no matter how hard they try. And that’s a terrible situation that they find themselves in.

Now in Abu Dhabi, back to my experience in the Middle East, there is a government policy to provide every citizen with a home. Now you could say, in and of itself, “hey now, they’re the richest people in the world, why wouldn’t they do this?” And I could tell you, also, the downside – which is that this law does not apply to their poor visiting workers, who are provided their living accommodation by their employers – and it’s not very good living accommodation (we’ve set in the last few months, new standards for that living accommodation).

But it doesn’t change my point: that in Abu Dhabi we see a government recognizing that housing is a basic right of humanity that they really have to address. And to me, this is a really strong challenge for our community. Here in Canada we are also a very wealthy community in world terms, and we have to do better so we don’t leave so many people behind in regard to their housing.

I dream of a time when we will have affordable, suitable housing for everyone. And I know if we try harder we can achieve this. And I know, if we don’t try harder, we will in fact deny the very urbanistic success that we have had on so many fronts. Because if you create the best city in the world and no one can live there then they don’t have a piece of the rock and who really cares about the city. It all becomes quite irrelevant.

And this is one dream I don’t think is going to happen by accident. All of us have to be more creative than we have ever been in regard to housing. We have to work hard to make sure that multiple housing is better and better as a housing option so that people can choose this more affordable form of housing. We have to work to make sure people don’t have to make the kind of major compromises that they currently feel they need to do in the quality and nature of their housing when they shift from single family to multiple housing.

Bob Rennie, the realtor, has said that already, in the downtown, we’ve made multiple housing "socially acceptable," as hey calls it, even hip. Now we have to transform this so that it meets more of the deep housing needs of more kinds of people and households in our community.

And we have to make sure that we have enough good growth areas for multiple housing at all scales, not just the high-rises that have become iconic in downtown Vancouver. For example, in my opinion, there is still no better multiple housing form that has ever been invented in the world than the urban row house. Not only is it a good housing form, but it’s a good urban form because it’s so adaptable to so many different things over time.

And this issue of multiple housing is where Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity initaitve is so important.

Put aside the politics. The fact is that this proposition has to be embraced, and it has to be made to work with all of our citizens in neighbourhood after neighbourhood of the city. This is not just an environmental idea the way it’s being sold. It is an environmental idea, but not just that. It’s about affordable housing as well. And about the volume of housing that’s delivered to the market.

But you know, we have to go even beyond those kinds of – what I would call – “known” growth tools.

I’m convinced that we have to create a third housing sector: not just the market housing sector and the non-market housing sector, but what I call the “semi-market” housing sector, like the Europeans are doing in the face of unprecedented housing crunches in all of their cities.

Like it or not we are joining what is often called the “alpha” cities of the world – and these are the places with huge pressure on their land and on their housing markets. And we have to offer at least some opportunity for people to have better quality and location with their housing at affordable prices, in exchange for those people not using that housing as an investment vehicle or a pension plan.

In Madrid, for example, the government builds some housing, sells it to people, and then, if the owners want to sell it, they have to sell it back to the government at a pre-established rate, without the huge growth in value. And for some people who will forgo the investment side of things and want just great housing, this is a wonderful model. Not only that, but when government sells it to the next person the housing gets more and more affordable. What’s also great about it is that government investment is recouped right away. So it’s not like you throw that money and never see it again -- because you are selling that housing to people but at a lower cost, more related to the actual cost of producing that housing.

I would dare say – and I know this is politically tough – but I would dare say we should use the great wealth in the city’s property endowment fund, in part to create a revolving fund for middle-income housing. We wouldn’t lose a penny.

We also have to stimulate the rental housing sector. There’s no question of that.

My point is that we have to dream and dream and do more dreaming, and then act and act and do more acting until we overcome this profound liability of our city.

Now I want to turn to a similar related situation but a lot more difficult situation, but one that I think is very, very urgent to the well-being of the city and the people of our city.

A friend and I were walking along the streets several weeks ago and we passed a young man. He was a very passive fellow. He was very quiet, frankly he was very dirty, and he had his hand out. My friend is a very generous soul, very generous, so he turned around and went back so he could place a $20 bill in the young fellow’s hand.

The poor young man did not even react.

And as we looked closer I for one saw a world that I had never really properly understood before, and that I think few of us understand as we really objectify the poorest of the people that are on our streets.

As we looked, we realized that this young person was in the depths of a deep, deep trauma. Part of it was obviously that he was mentally ill, part of it was that he found himself homeless and friendless on the street, part of it was that he didn’t know what to do about that, and a lot of it was that the street had obviously been so brutal to him, personally, often, over and over again, that he had actually shut it out completely, to the point that he couldn’t even see us when we approached him.

Now fortunately in the end he did come around, he realized that we had put some money in his hand and he acknowledged that… and we saw tears in his eyes.

My biggest dream of all for the city, a city that I love so deeply and so completely, is that I never have to see that again, that I never have to feel the chill of this individual human being’s anguish, that for every single person in our city – regardless of their background or their circumstances, or what they might have done, or what they could have done, or what they couldn’t have done, whatever – that there would be a sanctuary, a home, with the supports they need and someway for them to connect back into the love that I know is out there for every single person in the city.

And I never want to hear the constant line that is made in the media and elsewhere – about the sweeping success in one part of the downtown and the deprived, deplorable conditions that prevail so close by. The fact is that urban success has to be experienced by every single citizen. Everyone’s lot has to improve, or we just haven’t done enough.

This is a dream that’s not going to come about by itself. Fortunately, under then-Mayor, (now Senator) Larry Campbell, the community made good progress in dealing with alcohol and drug dependency, once we all realized that the “war on drugs,” as the American’s call it, was a completely losing battle. But even this may now be in jeopardy. And we have to be so diligent that we don’t lose the progress and the gains that were made by then-Mayor Campbell on all of our behalf.

We’ve not found the right solutions with all of our efforts to support our mentally ill and mentally-challenged citizens. And I’m shocked to tell you what social workers have told me – that the single most important mental health worker in this city is the front-desk attendant at those old SRO hotels, because at least that attendant says to those folks, once a day, “Did you take your meds?”

They’re certainly not following through on the promises that were made at the time to reintegrate the mentally ill and the mentally challenged back into our communities with the closure, the proper closure, of the old-fashioned asylums.

You have to give Premier Gordon Campbell’s government credit for the recent purchase of the SROs in the Downtown Eastside, along with their promises to deliver housing based on that investment. But we, as a community, have to go so much further.

For example, I think we need a locally-rooted community development corporation in areas like the Downtown Eastside. We also need a real partnership – this is not just about public investment – between public and private forces in a brand-new model to deliver housing to those who are deeply in need, and to deliver supportive services to that last soul that my friend and I encountered on the street.

My dream would give us the strength to see clearly what is out there on the street happening every single day all around us, the tenacity to try everything we can think of to relieve this pain, and the moral outrage not to stop until we become again a truly gentle society, a truly civil society for all our people.

I want to repeat, and I want to emphasize that none of these dreams that I’ve been talking about today – or most of the dreams that you have been talking about today – are going to come about by accident or will “just happen.” We have to understand what are the constraints, what are the barriers and we have to then challenge those barriers.

I think in doing that, it will cause us – and maybe this is because I am a city planner – to look again at the shape of our city.

For the inner city we went through this process almost 20 years ago and the result was the living first strategy for our downtown which has served us so well, and continues to do so to this very day. But 20 years is a long time in the life of a fast-changing city like Vancouver, and I think it’s time to take another look.

For example, we have a great, open, undeveloped area just beyond the waters of False Creek; we call it False Creek Flats. And I think most of us just take these lands for granted. We think of them as being committed to rail-yards, nothing else can ever happen, but in fact these lands are larger than the entire downtown put together.

I think these lands provide an extraordinary opportunity for the future. Imagine this area restructured as the whole new third downtown in the next few decades – with oodles of room for all the kinds of building necessary for things that we want to talk about.

I’ll call it CrossTown.

Imagine CrossTown as, yes, a place of entry for the city, the rail station and the rail lines and rapid transit. There’s no reason that the rail lines have to move just in order for other things to happen. We could also have offices and shopping and services all clustered around in this area. I could imagine a new, great hospital complex in a central location, serving people in the eastern part of our city. I imagine CrossTown as still providing those back-up functions at the edge but really built another way, a tighter way, using less land. And then I can imagine the whole assembly glued together, like the rest of the core of the city, with all kinds of housing.

We have room here for a diversity of market housing, more room than we know what to do with frankly. We have room for social housing with integrated support services right near the Downtown Eastside where a lot of people needing these services are focused. We have room for artists lofts. We have room for family housing up against wonderful, revitalized neighborhoods such as Strathcona and Mount Pleasant. We have room to experiment with that third sector that I was describing just a moment ago.

CrossTown is a place where we can let, again, our imaginations sweep the skies with creative new ideas. It’s a place where we can make our dreams a reality in a very cool way.

And this brings me back to what I hope you’ve begun to see as the iconic metaphor for my remarks today: the falcon.

William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, paints a horrendous portent for the future. In one of his poems he says:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

In Vancouver, for our beloved city, through our dreams, let us push back this image, this potentiality. Let us be the falconers that can be heard. Let us bring our falcons with safety and health back to the ground. Let us dream about and create a city that is not only beautiful but is also humane and inclusive and fulfilling for everyone at every level.

And that is what I think should be the object of your deliberations today.

Thank you.