Vancouver’s Clouded Vision

Judging by Daniel Muzyka’s attempt to chart a brighter future for the Vancouver region, you can’t get there from here. At least, not in this clouded city's vision.


Judging by Daniel Muzyka’s attempt to chart a brighter future for the Vancouver region, you can’t get there from here. At least, not in this clouded city’s vision.

Eight years ago, Muzyka arrived in Vancouver to take command of the business school at UBC. Muzyka, recruited from the prestigious INSEAD business school in France, intended great things for the Sauder School of Business and its hometown, Vancouver. Admittedly he’d been warned Vancouver lacked a sense of purpose, a focus on its economic and social future. He recalls a colleague lamenting that the city and region “resembled a talented, attractive teenager at the age of 35, still living at home.” Undeterred, Muzyka threw himself into building up his school and his new community, and in 2005 he was elected chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade. It was the first time an academic with vast international perspective had led the 110-year-old board, whose huge downtown membership makes it the heavyweight among chambers of commerce across the Lower Mainland.

In his inaugural speech as board chair on June 16, 2005, Muzyka spoke passionately about Vancouver needing a vision, a sense of purpose that would inspire all its citizens. “We need to look beyond 2010. I think we should be asking what will Vancouver look like in 2025,” he opined. Vibrant cities around the world, like smart businesses, do these things. They engage their public. They focus everyone on the future they want, find their shared values and commit to making it happen. A common goal guides everyone’s efforts in delivering social, economic and environmental benefits, explained Muzyka. It helps senior governments focus their decisions and funding. A declared vision makes clear to the world why a place is right for investment, migration and commitment. It creates a crucial competitive advantage. Muzyka launched the board of trade into leading the creation of a Vancouver vision.

By November 2005, he and a handful of board members publicly sketched out some concepts to emphasize goals in areas such as entrepreneurship, education, the arts, ethnic integration and global connectivity. These would be among the points to be discussed widely among citizens and business and community leaders, items to prioritize and then focus on achieving. Something to look forward to, something to energize Vancouver the way Expo 86 did. But after the initial excitement of creating the forward-thinking plan, Muzyka was disappointed. Since then he’s discovered that Vancouver suffers from myopia. Two years after its announcement as a board-of-trade project, Muzyka’s visioning initiative is still struggling for enthusiasts to shape it, has attracted zero in funding and is virtually unknown to the public. Members of the board have not flocked to get involved in the brainstorming at the early stages. An advisory committee including a few faces from TransLink, Vancouver International Airport, Surrey Board of Trade, the GVRD and the Vancouver Foundation has met only three times. “It’s too early to say where [the visioning] is going,” says Vancouver Board of Trade managing director Darcy Rezac. “It won’t be done in two years.”

Muzyka’s is just one of many failed attempts to create a cohesive vision for the region’s economic future. Another effort, the Greater Vancouver Economic Council (GVEC), is a year behind its November 2006 deadline to hire a prestigious CEO and 15 staff members to handle a proposed $2-million-a-year regional prosperity planning and promotion fund. Launched in 2004, the GVEC’s steering committee was carefully structured to include suburban and city politicians and business leaders. But they’ve failed to pry any bit of a recommended $40-million endowment fund from Ottawa and Victoria. No Vancouver company has stepped up with sufficient funds to float the GVEC. Nor is any local political body interested in taking on regional economic development. Despite – or perhaps because of – the GVEC’s crippled status, the GVRD, the governing council of the 21 regional municipalities, this year dumped all strategizing about regional economic development in the GVEC’s lap rather than address it directly.

Muzyka, still the dean of the UBC business school, has not given up hope. During the two years since he first unveiled the idea of Vancouver finding a vision, Muzyka has learned many important things, including that the region suffers from a lack of leadership. He estimates it will take another two years to get to the point of even beginning a public conversation about what metro Vancouver could look like in 20 years. He’s learning to take the long view.

Other observers of Vancouver aren’t even sure such a vision is possible. “There has to be a need, and there has to be leadership,” says Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and head of SFU’s city-focused public programs. There are almost no public champions of a metropolitan Vancouver vision because of parochial politics, and the province is unwilling to promote any such concept, says Price. “My hunch is that the conditions may not be right.” He adds that the Vancouver Board of Trade might not succeed.

There’s little doubt that the metropolitan Vancouver region needs some far-sightedness. On the economic front, the 2010 Olympic Winter Games created construction jobs and promises tourism benefits, but beyond that the future is clouded. The current B.C. economic boom is still based on the traditional trickle-down benefits of backcountry resource industries, and the pine beetle has destroyed any hope of sustaining forestry’s benefits into the next decade. The Vancouver region is overwhelmingly a service centre for the hinterlands and a place of consumption rather than production, according to new research by the city-based Vancouver Economic Development Commission (VEDC). The Lower Mainland ranks ninth out of 10 regions in B.C. in exports per capita. The much-touted new economies such as biotechnology and new media are still relatively small. The head-office exodus continues. Greater Vancouver, with its shockingly below-average median family income – it ranks 22 out of 27 regions across Canada – urgently needs to “diversify and strengthen our export base, increase productivity and create a climate that attracts and retains business investment,” according to the VEDC’s Benchmark research report released June 12, 2007.

Alarming words, but hardly unfamiliar. Analysts have been pointing to the weakness of the regional economy and calling for coordinated action to generate new economic development for more than a decade. According to Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner, it’s hard to get attention when the economy’s on fire. “But all booms end, and when you look beyond real-estate speculations and one-time Olympic construction, our productivity is declining, our research-driven high-growth ‘new’ industries are lagging behind their competitors and head-office employment is declining,” he warns. “The foundations of all this growing wealth, they’re shaky at best.” It’s not just the region’s economic future that’s at stake.

On the social side, a study of public attitudes and experts’ analyses released by the Vancouver Foundation last year rated most social amenities and issues as less than first class. The foundation, the largest community charity in Canada, particularly cited the rich-poor gap, housing, minorities’ inclusion, citizen volunteerism and safety as serious concerns. A better-balanced or sustainable society “assumes a certain level of equality among all residents and growth that is compatible with the harmonious evolution of civil society,” added a similar report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks, prepared for the city and the foundation. “Threats to social sustainability in Vancouver are real and imminent,” it went on. “There is a compelling need for local action to raise public awareness, influence national and provincial policy agendas” and better coordinate public, private and non-profit efforts to work together. “Otherwise Vancouver may be at risk of pervasive urban decay and social exclusion in the coming years.”

Daniel Muzyka wanted to turn people’s attention toward the coming years. He wanted to see some vision in metropolitan Vancouver. The “V” word, or “the visioning experience,” has been much used elsewhere by school boards, town councils, airport authorities and endless other public agencies whose future depends on community acceptance. At its best, visioning is part touchy-feely and part high-tech. It means drawing out citizens’ ambitions, ideas and dreams even before it proposes anything specific. It asks: “Imagine this community 20 years from now. What would you want?” It means presenting computer-animated scenarios, 3-D maps and other depictions of the outcomes of different choices such as expanding the port, redeveloping a derelict zone, relocating an airport or building highways or mass transit. It requires finding the common ground among all the opinions without ignoring immutable realities such as providing schools and hospitals, maintaining jobs or moving people around.

Then there’s the negotiating of trade-offs to achieve consensus, winning community commitment to support it and being guided by it in decisions for years to come. It can be a glorified community consultation process, or sometimes something greater, even inspiring. It can cost big money, tons of time and a huge amount of organization. It has worked elsewhere, including Boston, Dublin, Los Angeles, Chicago, and closer to home, Calgary and, on a small scale, North Vancouver. In 1997 Dublin crafted a 2010 vision and three years ago completed a 2020 plan “to set an agenda for a new and improved city.” It includes land use and governance changes. It even directly attacked Ireland’s usual assumption that the city didn’t need attention. “Cities are the economic engines of regional and national growth,” and to ignore them is to risk economic decline on a national scale, the latest Dublin vision document warns.

Of particular interest to the Vancouver region, Salt Lake City and the state of Utah launched a massive vision experience for themselves, pegged to the 2002 Winter Games. Envision Utah first tackled fears that the city faced imminent loss of green space to post-Games housing developments. It held thousands of hours of community meetings and then went on to develop a statewide urban-growth and economic-development strategy. With public and private funding, Envision Utah now runs a US$1.5-million operation planning the future, and regularly offers advice to visitors (including a Vancouver Board of Trade delegation in 2004). “Salt Lake had a real epiphany: to become more conservation-minded as a response to urban sprawl,” says Fred Leonard, a member of the board delegation. “It worked.” It’s not as if Vancouver hasn’t made attempts.

he city engaged in a visioning experience from 1992 to 1995 called CityPlan, inviting residents to help plan development strategies. A total of 20,000 people participated. But the million-dollar CityPlan was a neighbourhood planning exercise and did not integrate economic development, educational excellence, ethnic diversity, global outlooks and all the other issues Muzyka wants to see Vancouver tackle. And it wasn’t a vision for the “big” Vancouver; it was just for the city and excluded the suburbs. Some of those municipalities have crafted their own visions or community plans, but they rarely combine business and social goals and never cross local boundaries.

The downtown VEDC is currently crafting its own vision of a favourable business climate for Vancouver, but again that includes just the city, not the region. The need to reflect a bigger Vancouver, the entire region, is one of the lessons Muzyka’s visioning group inside the Vancouver Board of Trade has learned. To dispel suburban political perceptions that it was just another downtown plot to boost the City of Vancouver, the board last year symbolically shuffled the vision initiative out from under direct board supervision and parked it in the Spirit of Vancouver project, which is only indirectly a board initiative and is more focused on promoting Vancouver events, the Vancouver lifestyle and the 2010 Olympics.

“It’s the region, stupid,” should ring loudly in the minds of anyone attempting to envision Vancouver, says Peter Holt, a member of the board of trade’s vision committee and, until recently, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade. “When you’re doing something right for the region, you’re doing right for your community.” But Holt says Muzyka’s vision initiative hasn’t yet identified what the right thing is. With no obvious crisis wracking the region, it is hard to draw a crowd of local leaders together to plan responses.

And the current “I’m all right, Jack” attitude of each municipality precludes any thought of collaborative, long-range vision on less-obvious issues. “Yes, it is moving slowly,” says Chris Kelly, the erudite superintendent of the Vancouver School Board and a member of Muzyka’s committee of vision strategists. Kelly remains committed to the idea that citizens across the region can be presented with current challenges, such as housing, sprawl and how to make Vancouver a world centre of lifelong education. He believes they can become enthused about thrashing out a common vision that guides them and their leaders to something better. But “we’re all doing this in addition to full-time jobs; it requires more focus than one can give to such a large concept, and it is important to create an infrastructure for this.” Muzyka says a few local firms may help with funds to get the vision initiative off the ground, but he won’t name them.

Muzyka, who mixes academic intellectualism with pragmatic business acumen, remains generally enthusiastic about visioning metropolitan Vancouver. Running a business school with global reach also gives him perspective on what Vancouver could be. But the job often takes him away from the region and from a Vancouver focus, and his energy has undeniable limits. “We raced out [in 2005] to show that you can build a vision. It was rushed but pretty good,” says Muzyka. “Now we’ve decided to slow down, take a breath.” His committee and a couple of business students working part-time are now plowing through opinion polls and old community consultation efforts to see what might be on Vancouverites’ minds. Eventually, if something can be found and if corporate funders will finance a team to launch the conversation, metro Vancouver’s potential may yet become a talking point for residents across the region. And perhaps a shared vision will emerge from all the talk. But that would mean thinking ahead, and today at least, that’s not a Vancouver thing.