Vancouver's new head of planning, urban design and sustainability is keeping his eye on ways to foster a better economy
New Vancouver planning boss Gil Kelley thinks the city will become a magnet for innovators
Born in San Francisco and raised in Portland, selfdescribed urbanist and West Coaster Gil Kelley became Vancouver's new general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability in September. Kelley was previously director of planning and development for Berkeley, California; director of planning for Portland; and, most recently, director of citywide planning for San Francisco, which, he says, has a worse housing crisis than Vancouver but less political will to address it. There seems to be an openness on the part of the city's politicians to give things a try, he observes.
Vancouver has one of the most compelling physical settings on Earth for any city, and it has a diverse, international population, Kelley says. “Those are extremely good building blocks for the future of Vancouver, as is the sense that there's a real civic investment here in making a better city.”
How is urban planning important to residents and businesses?
One of the primary issues which I think the planning function here can really help with is improving what is now a relatively shallow economy in the metropolitan region. We have a healthy tourist economy; we know how to build condominiums, particularly for foreign investors; we have a growing port; but only a relatively modest technology/ innovation-led sector. That part of our economy needs to grow if we are to have robust employment. I think Vancouver is well positioned for that innovation-led growth. Part of my work as the chief planner is to help foster a deeper and more inclusive economy here.
What is the planning department's role in creating a positive environment for business?
Paying attention to the structural needs of the future economy here is a big one. This year we're doing an employment lands needs study to inform our planning efforts. Most of the employment in Vancouver, and about half of the region's total employment, is on about five per cent of the city's land. We need to be smart about saving enough land and creating enough space for a diverse set of employment types, including office, creative industries, traditional light manufacturing, food production, as well as arts and crafts, perhaps in an increasingly mixed format.
One success we had in that regard was 10 years ago reserving the central business district within downtown for office, retail, hotel and excluding residential. The new office buildings that are attracting the Microsofts and other high-tech companies now wouldn't have been there because they would have been built as residential buildings. We're also doing a retail health study across the city to assess what's missing as neighbourhoods change and the nature of retail itself changes.
What steps are you taking to create affordable housing for millennials and young families in Vancouver?
The recent housing reset that the city is engaged in has made clear that there are several bands of household incomes that are not being adequately addressed. We've actually produced a lot of housing units. The problem is that that supply is really skewed to the top
end and to homebuyers only. So building rental housing and more affordable options for the so-called missing middle or the generation squeeze, the young generation that's wanting to either find a family-size rental or to buy a first-time home, we need to pay attention to that. That is the future of the city, and that is the workforce that's going to be working in the creative economy.
What are you doing to simplify development approval?
One is, how do we simply speed up the permitting process. I'm launching a regulatory review process in this coming year which will look at this hoary thicket of regulations in Vancouver that's been built up over time. Particularly if we want to keep up with the need for affordable housing, we have to find ways to expedite some of that. The other piece is that the Van- couver development system is almost addicted to this notion of individual property rezonings as opposed to doing that through larger area plans. It's very cumbersome, time-consuming and opaque both to developers and to neighbourhoods. One of the shifts I'm trying to make is to have that system be more uniform across districts, be done at the time they do an area plan and be much more fixed-rate developer contributions.
How is Vancouver like and unlike other West Coast cities?
All are highly prosperous, politically progressive, highly livable and therefore attractive for new people moving here, for the young generation of workers and entrepreneurs. The other piece they share is an affordable housing crisis. That's the Achilles heel of all of these great cities. In some ways Vancouver and Portland share a similarity of neighbourhood patterns and are both struggling with what infill growth looks like. They share also a high degree of civic investment in the future of their cities. Vancouver and San Francisco share a more internationally recognizable kind of skyline, an international population and a presence on the water. Vancouver and Seattle are so close that they're almost becoming one economy. That's something that Vancouver can benefit from, but it still needs to find its unique identity.
Some of that uniqueness is going to come from homegrown innovation. The congestion and the housing prices and the sprawling nature of the Seattle metro area are going to make Vancouver very attractive for a lot of the innovation folks. I think Vancouver is the next great place here on the West Coast. I really do.