Vision Vancouver and city planners have recently launched a series of highly branded “ideas competitions” with design-heavy titles like re:THINK and re:CONNECT. While the stated purpose of these competitions has been to generate creative new ideas for the city’s greatest planning challenges, the reality is that these events represent staged spectacles that obscure Vancouver’s housing crisis. The story of re:THINK and re:CONNECT offers a textbook model for how to distract residents away from the the social injustices of extraordinary housing costs and incredible developer profits, displacing politics through the spectacle of competition.
The re:THINK housing competition encourages ordinary residents to submit and vote on ideas for “protecting and creating affordable housing in Vancouver,” while re:CONNECT called on the citizens of Vancouver to “join with local and international designers to ignite discussion and dream new possibilities for the future of the viaducts and the City’s broader Eastern Core.” By launching these flashy spectacles of competition, oriented primarily around designing our way out of the crisis (or ignoring the housing crisis completely in the case of re:CONNECT), Vision Vancouver is embracing the creative neoliberal language of community and citizen participation, while actually sidelining the fundamental socio-economic injustices of our developer-run city.
Inter-urban competition has been a trademark of urban governance since the 1980s. From attracting mega events to building the biggest convention centre or the flashiest downtown redevelopment scheme, cities compete in zero-sum contests in hopes of standing out to the corporate executives, wealthy tourists, or the finicky ‘Creative Class.’ Today the exhausted logic of urban entrepreneurialism ensures predictable outcomes, as more and more cities end up with the same look-alike spectacles at incredible public expense – enormous sports stadiums, convention centres, airports, sterile downtown redevelopments and gentrified neighbourhoods with the same luxury chain stores. Today’s cities are on the neoliberal treadmill, one-upping each other to spend and subsidize developers’ major redevelopment schemes or inner city attractions in order to attract tourist dollars, the so-called ‘flighty’ capital, and the ever-elusive Creative Class. In Vancouver, flamboyant inter-city competitive rhetoric has guided Vision Vancouver’s “Greenest City in the World” campaign. More recently, intra-city competition has been put on full display through the re:THINK and re:CONNECT competitions.
re:THINK and re:CONNECT encourage Vancouverites to submit design ideas pro-bono. In turn, they are made to take responsibility for the very challenges our city councillors had promised to solve. Urban scholar Steve Herbert warns us that, “[i]n neoliberal practice, community stands as a potential recipient for responsibilities off-loaded by a governmentalizing state. Community works to help legitimate these efforts at off-loading because of the warm-hearted associations many make with the term.” Vision’s idea-competitions are intended to elicit broad support under the guise of community empowerment, but only within a framework that allows planners and politicians to exercise full control over a predetermined outcome.
The promotion of these competitions are carefully crafted and branded to be consistent with Vision Vancouver’s image to millennial, media savvy, creative types. The re:CONNECT competition, launched in summer 2011, encouraged both community members and professionals to submit proposals imagining the viaducts without cars. The city proudly states receipt of 104 submissions from 13 countries, of which 75% were generated locally, with 1,500 online comments and 15,000 online votes. The winners were selected by jury in early June 2012, and the final plan was presented to the public through a series of open houses. Interestingly, the final concept most clearly resembled a professional submission from the established developer Beasley & Associates, and entailed the removal of the viaducts, the creation of new park space, and similar to most large-scale urban redevelopment schemes, made room for high-end mixed-use development.
The wording of the final concept speaks endlessly about major green space, “reconnecting” communities, transportation linkages, and other aesthetic considerations. Any mention of affordable housing possibilities is tucked away at the end of the concept and limited to five lines of text (see page 16). One day the Vision Vancouver team reminds us that we have a housing crisis on our hands, while the next day we are sold a major redevelopment plan on city-owned land which completely misses the mark in addressing the city’s major crisis. Is this really “a bold new idea [that] unlocks opportunity,” as the corporate-style re:CONNECT language assures us? A bold new idea would be to make the creation of affordable housing the primary objective of the viaducts removal by designating at least 20% of the total land to build affordable housing – a bold endeavour that is financially feasible if council possessed the will to make it happen.
So the question is, did Geoff Meggs and his developer-supported Vision team end up with what they originally intended? Absolutely. This is a developer-friendly concept with aestheticized green spaces for those fortunate enough to buy into Vancouver’s newest and sleekest luxury waterfront redevelopment. You can buy into a neighbourhood with “stylized expressions of ecologies,” if you even know what that means. In short, the re:CONNECT competition is a neoliberal spectacle masked in the language of community engagement, intended to frame the discussion in the sexy language of “celebration plazas,” “urban vistas,” and sustainable transportation networks. Unfortunately you cannot live in a park, nor a celebration plaza, especially after Vision Vancouver has made that explicitly illegal. You also cannot live in high-end waterfront real estate if you are a median income Vancouver household, not to mention if you are young, low-income, or a socio-economically marginalized urban aboriginal or immigrant.
While Vision’s re:CONNECT planning initiative was never about creating affordable housing, the spectacularized re:THINK housing competition sidelines the very issue it is intended to address: the creation of affordable housing. Again, we see the city use an “open ideas competition” to generate citizen input on affordable housing solutions. While at first glance, this would appear as a laudable way to engage Vancouverites around the issue facing the city. Considered more carefully, it is a rather bizarre competition that seems to suggest we have simply exhausted all ideas to create affordable housing (widely defined as requiring no more than 30% of household expenditures). The reality is that our city has many proven examples of affordable housing, not to mention that there are myriad examples in other locales. Before throwing their hands up in the air, Vision should look into these fundamental models for both protecting and creating affordable housing.
First, we need to actually protect existing affordable rental housing stock, which Vancouver is losing on a daily basis through renovictions as neighbourhoods undergo gentrification. Landlords and property management companies realize they can evict tenants by making unnecessarily disruptive renovations and then doubling, tripling or quadrupling rents. When will the city leverage its own permit powers and demand aggressive action on the part of the provincial Residential Tenancy Branch?
Secondly, non-profit housing co-operatives, community land trusts, and lower cost forms of construction (not high-cost glass towers) are all proven methods to create and protect affordable housing. Finally, the city can use its land-use powers through the rezoning and permit process to create covenants which restrict developers to build new rental housing affordable at the median incomes of area residents, at a minimum. This means that the city must define ‘affordable’ rather than use flexible language which can be deployed when selling (re)developments to the public. Our municipal government continues to subsidize developers, enabling them to build unaffordable market rental housing through supply-side schemes like the Short Term Incentives for Rental housing program (STIR), while foregoing the collection of community amenity contributions (CACs) and development cost levies (DCLs) which can be spent to build truly affordable housing on publicly-owned land. In the public discussion of the last few years, Vision has constantly lowered our standards by re-framing market rental housing as an added public benefit in itself (therefore CAC and DCL waivers are okay), rather than the requirement it should be.
Today Vision Vancouver has mastered the skill of mobilizing well-intentioned, youthful community groups in order to legitimize their policies. At events like the re:THINK Housing Jam, it is somehow seen as socially and politically acceptable to consider housing poor people in shipping containers on the water. Other ideas to address housing affordability included the supply-side approach of eliminating property taxes on land improvements and creating iPhone apps with squirrels. Of course, Mayor Robertson and senior city staff feel comfortable attending these types of forums, since they are non-threatening environments where trickle-down economics and the neoliberal planning paradigm will not be challenged. It is one thing to engage communities, but it is entirely another to take them seriously. Perhaps the beauty of creative class-style idea ‘jams’ is that some of the ideas are so wacky and out of touch that there is no obligation to really consider this input. Furthermore, these ‘crowd-sourced’ forums are devoid of any critical analysis of the actual planning policies contributing to the crisis. The left arm of the city is sponsoring flashy ideas competitions and ‘jams’, while the right arm of the city is facilitating the loss of existing affordable rental housing stock and subsidizing the very developers who benefit from the housing crisis.
While Vision is embracing the neoliberal sideshow of competition spectacles intended to distract from the fundamental issues, well-articulated community input is thrown under the bus. With the community consultation for a 19-storey luxury condo tower in the heart of Mount Pleasant, it became clear that this council was not interested in listening to neighbourhoods or the concerns of community groups. Opposition was strident (roughly 71% of public house attendees) in the early part of the rezoning application process. This opposition then increased (to 80% of open house attendees in January 2012), based on resident disapproval of the revised application, which completely removed all rental units and the originally planned artist production space in exchange for a entirely insufficient community amenity contribution (CAC). The overwhelming majority of neighbourhood residents and the Residents’ Association of Mount Pleasant felt strongly that the proposed development was inconsistent with their recently approved community plan, making many feel that the entire process was an exercise in futility. The approval of the 1401 Comox Street rezoning for a STIR market rental tower in the West End provides an even more recent example of a neighbourhood largely opposed to a high-rise tower which will – again – be unaffordable to those at or below the median household income level for that neighbourhood.
While the recent housing affordability task force’s interim report makes promising suggestions, including the creation of a municipal housing authority and the establishment of community land trusts to keep housing units out of the market, housing advocates and organizations like the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) have been articulating these strategies for years. As the re:THINK housing ideas competition is intended to inform the mayor’s task force, the entire process appears as part of a much larger spectacle of neoliberal urban governance, marked by flashy displays of engagement with the mayor surrounded by youthful creative types in a space exuding the apolitical, creative class-style cultural logic of advanced capitalism.
The symbolic community engagement of these competitive spectacles, especially in spaces that do not threaten the hegemonic position of capital and elites, are consistent with neoliberal urban governance strategies aimed at obscuring larger social and economic injustices. We must be acutely aware that these spectacles are deployed to distract from this urban crisis and frame the discussion away from an obscene and inexcusable housing situation. What we must also admit is that this ‘progressive’ civic party is complicit in a revanchist political agenda that positions the wealthy as the most deserving inheritors of the inner city.
 Steve Herbert (2005), “The Trapdoor of Community,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95(4), 851
Andy Longhurst hosts The City: Critical Urban Discussions on CiTR 101.9 FM every Tuesday from 5-6pm. The program is also available as a podcast at www.thecityfm.org.