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Should we let the experts plan?

Urbanarium debate questions who should plan our city — experts or neighbourhood residents
The next instalment of the Urbanarium city debates goes ahead May 11. "Let the Experts Plan" is the subject of the debate. Michael Geller and Judy Rudin will speak on the 'pro' side, while Charles Campbell and Michael Kluckner will speak on the 'con' side. Photo Dan Toulgoet

In August 2014, I wrote a column on whether it was time to stop listening to experts.

It was inspired by Vancouver city council’s announcement that it was establishing a 48-person Citizens’ Assembly in Grandview-Woodlands to spend eight months learning about neighbourhood planning so residents could provide informed input on a controversial community plan.

My column was also influenced by an article titled ‘The Fall of Planning Expertise’ in Planetizen, an online website for the urban planning, design, and development community.  

It described how society seems to have lost respect for "experts" — those who have knowledge and/or experience in a particular field — and replaced it with a kind of "expertise egalitarianism" whereby everyone's opinion is given equal weight.

Since writing the column, the Citizens’ Assembly has issued its report and planning recommendations. They often depart from what many planners would regard as appropriate building forms and densities.

On the controversial proposal for a high density, high rise complex at Commercial and Venables, the members could not reach a consensus, and agreed to disagree.

There have been other significant events in Vancouver since my column. In January 2016, the Urbanarium Society, in partnership with the Museum of Vancouver, created an exhibition titled Your Future Home: Creating the New Vancouver.  

My colleague Naoibh O’Connor (it’s OK, I can’t pronounce her name either) wrote about the opening of the exhibit.

If you are interested in Vancouver’s future, I highly recommend that you visit this exhibition before it ends on May 15. The museum is located at 1100 Chestnut Street, within the Planetarium.

In addition to the exhibit, the Urbanarium Society has organized a series of debates along with the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Moderated by David Beers, founding editor of The Tyee, expert teams argue competing visions for solving Metro Vancouver’s biggest challenges. Audience members vote before and after each debate, with a prize awarded to the team that changes the most minds.

So far there have been four debates.

The first was on the proposition that we open all neighbourhoods to densification. Former Vancouver director of planning Brent Toderian and architect Joyce Drohan did their best to justify the benefits of increasing neighbourhood densities. However, the debate was won by UBC professor emeritus Michael Goldberg and former Vancouver mayor Sam ‘EcoDensity’ Sullivan who convinced many in the audience it may be best to leave certain neighbourhoods alone.

The second debate was on the proposition that we build fewer towers. The third debate was on the proposition that we legislate housing affordability. The fourth debate looked at whether Vancouver needed an overall city plan.

To see who participated in these debates, and who won, go to where you can also watch videos of the debates.

The fifth debate is set for May 11. The proposition is ‘Let experts plan’ and two teams will argue whether citizens should be more empowered to decide what gets built Vancouver; or whether the process is already too prone to public pressures, stifling the creativity, knowhow and vision that professional planners are hired to provide.

I will be arguing the pro side of this debate and joined by Judy Rudin.

Rudin is not a professional planner. On the contrary, she is a communications consultant who describes herself as a fan of the democratic process who specializes in promoting public engagement.

Our opponents are two well-known Vancouver personalities.

Michael Kluckner is an artist and author best-known for his 1990 book Vanishing Vancouver, and its 2012 sequel. He is a member of the Heritage Commission and president of the Vancouver Historical Society.

Charles Campbell is a former editor and writer with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun and The Tyee. He worked with the Citizens' Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan to salvage a planning process that he claims was botched by senior city managers.

The debate will take place on May 11th at the UBC Robson Square Theatre, starting at 6:30. You can obtain tickets at (Two more debates are planned at Robson Square. The Urbanarium Society is in the process of finalizing dates.)

If you think neighbourhood residents need more power at city hall, I hope you will attend. I might change your mind.


Note: This story has been corrected since first posted