On Monday, September 30, 2019, in the beautiful Bram & Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library, two significant voices in the Canadian planning and urbanism arena engaged in a thoughtful and candid discussion about the release of the new book, Vancouverism. Former Vancouver chief planner Larry Beasley, one of two voices on stage, is the book’s author. With Vancouverism, he tells the stories, challenges, and successes of the urban planning philosophy that has driven Vancouver’s development.
Joining Beasley on stage was Jennifer Keesmaat, the City of Toronto’s chief planner from 2012 to 2017 and current CEO of The Keesmaat Group. Introducing Keesmaat on stage, ULI Toronto executive director Richard Joy called her “one of the great treasures of our city.”
Before introducing Beasley, Keesmaat said that early on in her career, he was on a list of people she aspired to meet and work with one day. It was a dream come true to have had the opportunity to work with him throughout her career. Following the introduction, Beasley joined Keesmaat on the stage by Larry Beasley.
After his tenure as Vancouver chief planner came to a close in 2006, Beasley has held positions as a Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the founding principal of Beasley and Associates, an international planning and urban design consultancy. Beasley is also, of course, a highly regarded author on urbanism.
When working as a junior planner, Keesmaat recalled having a colleague come back after spending some time in Vancouver. “He came in and he started talking about podiums and street walls, and street life. He was using language we weren’t yet using in our city,” she said. Keesmaat attributed a lot of the good things that have happened in Toronto to Beasley’s vision and ideas.
Giving a 10-minute summary of his new book, released in May 2019, Beasley outlined the planning and policy components involved in the transformation of the city in a relatively short amount of time, between Expo ‘86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. “In the heart of this period, we have this amazing set of urban innovations that we were able to bring to the floor, but also struggled with issues we were not able to solve,” he said. Through their “living first strategy,” Vancouver was able to entice large numbers of people, including families with children, to live in downtown Vancouver in tall, thin towers separated by a podium with lavish amenities instead of the suburbs. Every year, the focus was on improving transit service and encouraging active forms of mobility through the creation of “complete” communities, not just residential neighbourhoods.
The so-called ‘successes’ have not been without their weak points, Beasley admitted. These include a lack of affordable housing for low-income and middle-income residents, the visibility of drug use and addiction, and untreated mental illness in the Downtown East Side.
Beasley concluded by saying that the City’s approach to planning has been an important contribution to Canadian urbanism by being deliberate in creating a “vision” for the future city. “Rather than have the city just be a result of the clashing of public and private interests through the heated battles of municipal politics, there has been a collective concept of the future city that we increasingly put together and codify, to what we believed at the time, as visionary concepts, that we evolved into physical and policy plans that ultimately were converted into zoning,” he said. One difference, he noted, between Vancouver and Toronto is that there are virtually no opportunities to appeal a development or land use decision in BC. Not having to go to a courtroom or tribunal for one development, Beasley says, “is not something that many Ontario planners can say.” The provincial government in British Columbia doesn’t interfere with local government, Beasley said, a comment which resulted in the room full of land development professionals chuckling at the stark difference between provincial regimes. The brokering for every deal is proactive and happens up front with all stakeholders brought together early on. He hopes that this book conjures up good conversations and stirs new ideas. “We as Canadians are adept at building and managing modern cities,” he said.
Beasley and Keesmaat then sat down together to discuss in more detail the components of his presentation that touched on housing affordability, governance, politics, and opening up the conversation of planning to include the “intelligence of the public.” Beasley and Keesmaat agree that the concept of “Reaganomics” and cutting budgets doesn’t work and that we have to accept that a collaboration between the government and private sector needs to occur. They agreed that “we all have something to offer; some money, some ideas, some power.” Development scenarios and proformas vary dramatically from location to location, with planning policy playing a huge part in that piece. Beasley and Keesmaat discussed the need for a transactional system and decision-making process that involves public interest and vision but that, most importantly, make the proformas work and ensuring the deal will be worthwhile for the private sector.
Overall, the atmosphere of the event was more of a chat between friends in a living room than a professional panel discussion — friends who sometimes disagree with each other but for the most part share in trying to reach the vision of building more inclusive, affordable, and livable communities for all Canadians.