Q&A: Vancouver planning boss Gil Kelley

The U.S. expat talks affordability, development wait times and how the city compares to its American counterparts like San Francisco and Portland

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Vancouver’s new head of planning, urban design and sustainability is keeping his eye on ways to foster a better economy

Born in San Francisco and raised in Portland, self-described 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 politicians here to give things a try,” he observes, adding that he is thrilled to be in Vancouver because it is an adolescent city. “We’re just at the cusp of getting into the next stage of maturity where we have to be clearer and more intentional about our choices and really understand the cost but also the long-term benefits of making some of these bigger changes,” says Kelley. “The city’s become very attractive both for capital and for people moving here, so let’s harness that and use it to make the kind of changes that will work for us as Vancouverites.”

What steps are you taking to create affordable housing for millennials and young families in Vancouver?
The notion that we can be prosperous and sustainable and livable at the same time is a win-win-win. The missing piece, of course, is affordability, and so that’s where planning can take leadership in making sure that we’re providing affordable housing across all of those neighbourhoods. 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, so a remarkable amount of supply is coming on. 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, whether it’s in ownership or rental 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. If we can’t find sufficient housing options for them, we’re not going to be able to take advantage of the potential we have for an innovation-based economy.

We’ve defined affordable housing to date as the lowest 30 per cent of income workers, so the 30 to 80 per cent is the band that’s been missing. We’re doing fine at the top end—there are lots of housing choices there. It’s that middle, what we used to call the middle class, which is really squeezed out. That’s a huge challenge for us here in planning to provide options and then ultimately clarity about how we create more townhouses, more rowhouses, more family-size and affordable rentals.

How is urban planning important to residents and businesses?

Vancouver has one of the most compelling physical settings on Earth for any city, and it has a diverse international population. 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. There’s a population here that really cares, and a clean and accessible local government.

One of the primary issues I think the planning function here can 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, which is great, but only a relatively modest technology/innovation-led sector. That part of our economy needs to grow if we are to have robust employment. Fortunately, I think Vancouver is well positioned for that innovation-led growth. Part of my work there as the chief planner is to keep my eye on what’s needed to help foster a deeper and more inclusive economy here.

Secondly, as we densify as a city and a region, we have no choice but to grow in and grow up, not just out. The easy days are over, and now the part about infilling for new growth in all kinds of neighbourhoods from high-density transit station areas down into low-density traditional neighbourhoods, everybody’s got to play their part in that. It falls on planning in particular to help people visualize some options.

I would also add that Vancouver has a wonderful shoreline and park system, but it hasn’t paid enough attention to creating great places, the public realm, as planners like to call it: the streets and sidewalks and formal plazas and mini-plazas and formal places the way that many cities, particularly European cities, did based on their traditions of public gathering places, small and large.

There has been resistance to densification. How do you balance the needs of developers, residents and communities?

Because we are an adolescent city, there are growing pains, and we’re not unique in that regard. Most of the places I’ve worked before, it’s very similar tensions between some level of densification. Rather than focus the conversation on what’s the right density number, whether that’s expressed in terms of your allowable floor area on any given lot or your height or any of that, I think you start the conversation with things like what does it mean to be able to walk to your dry cleaners or to the local pharmacy or that kind of thing. What would it be like to make sure that the grandparents can stay in the neighbourhood when they don’t want to maintain a large house and yard? What does it mean to have young families?

If you start the conversation with what does a whole, healthy neighbourhood want to be like, then you can get to what are the appropriate building types and densities after that to accommodate those. We shouldn’t go in with any preconceptions. In any case, we’ll end up with a more livable neighbourhood that happens to be more dense as well.

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 5 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 industrries, 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 in neighbourhoods across the city, to assess what’s missing as neighbourhoods change and the nature of retail itself changes. So making sure that our land supply is matching the economic needs is a big piece of what I think planning can do.

There is a concern that Vancouver is losing its sense of community. How can planning turn that around?

One way to create a sense of community in every neighbourhood is creating great neighbourhood gathering spaces, particularly alongside healthy neighbourhood-serving retail. What’s also important is to make sure all of our neighbourhoods can accommodate a wide range of families and individuals at different income scales. This means that we need to re-examine some of our housing types, so seniors who are wanting stay in their neighbourhood can downsize into a townhouse or a rowhouse that they can own, or so a new family coming in who wants to raise kids but can’t afford a very large home may be able to afford a rowhouse with a backyard or a student can afford a small apartment.

Reconceiving of our neighbourhoods as complete and healthy livable neighbourhoods is part of the work ahead. We had this one model of False Creek, glassy highrises, or the single-family home on the large lot, and those are the extremes. We haven’t thought too much about the middle. That middle type of building, which feels very comfortable and accessible and friendly, is present in a few spots of older Vancouver, whether they’re small apartment buildings and some houses closer together, but it’s not the pervasive image or model for many of our neighbourhoods. We have some really interesting work to do with the community about reconceiving the next generation of neighbourhoods.


Gil Kelley is writing a book—The Intentional City—about successes and challenges in contemporary city-building

How do you balance environmental sustainability and economic growth?

One of Vancouver’s principal attractions is that it is a green city. I don’t think we want to sacrifice that overall objective and goal, because the metropolitan economies that are prospering, at least on the West Coast, have dedicated themselves to sustainability, and in the long term that’s attractive to workers, particularly in the creative industries, who prize livability.

In the very long term, being environmentally responsible lowers the costs for both the public sector and the private sector in terms of cleaning up, in terms of more efficient affordable energy systems and all that kind of thing. There’s some growing pains in there. We’re going to have to make those upfront adjustments and investments, but I think in the long term, it’s a very smart play for Vancouver to be doubling down on environmental sustainability.

What are you doing to simplify development approval?

We are taking a very hard look at our development approval process and figuring out a couple of different things. One is how do we simply speed up the permitting process. I’m doing that in conjunction with my fellow general manager of buildings and licences, Kaye Krishna. There’s a lot in the planning portion of that permitting system that needs to be made less complex and less burdensome in terms of time. I’m launching a so-called 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 in the development review arena is that one curiosity about the Vancouver development system is that it’s almost addicted to this notion of individual property rezonings as opposed to doing that through larger area plans. Specific developer contributions toward affordable housing, toward parks, toward street improvements or childcare, a whole array of things are negotiated development by development based on the lift in value that we’re granting through public policy. 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. Developers don’t mind paying for their part of growth and their part of community wellbeing, but I think what they really don’t like is a long, uncertain, obscure, opaque process.

Where does transit fit into urban planning?

The transit system is key in making the city accessible and walkable and getting more and more of the cars off the streets at more times of the day because you’ve got transit options. It frees up the street for lots of other interesting stuff.

We’ve got some exciting opportunities with transportation investments coming, the Millennium Broadway line. We’ve got this enormous ability to connect more parts of the city. I’d eventually really like it to go to UBC. If you could make that trip much quicker to connect with the kind of informal private sector laboratory space that goes on here, it would really up our game. It’s funny how transit investments can make all the difference in that.

Complementing that with a street corridor to connect some of these hub areas from the downtown and Railtown, the False Creek Flats down to Mount Pleasant and to Granville Island and the Burrard slopes, these are all areas where you can get a lot of innovation economy employment going. Connecting them with a streetcar is one of the key ingredients.

How resilient is Vancouver?

There are a lot of challenges there, frankly. We have initiated planning around sea level rise and what we need to do in the next 30 years, 50 years, 100 years to prepare. The seawall, our bridges and so forth, are 100-year investments, so we’re thinking now what the future sea level elevations might be and how we can build and replace adaptable infrastructure that is adaptable. 

Another aspect of resilience, of course, is earthquake preparedness. Vancouver doesn’t have a strong tradition yet of really focusing on that as I was used to in California. We’re doing OK with new buildings, but the existing building stock is something that’s quite vulnerable. How owners of those buildings can afford seismic retrofits and phase those in over time is a key policy question with real financial implications for building owners—particularly for apartment buildings and, to some degree, office buildings that were built before we had any awareness of the earthquake risks here in Vancouver.

Another piece of resilience that is becoming more frequently talked about is around emergency or hazard preparedness and what is the local community role.

How is Vancouver like and unlike other West Coast cities?

There’s a great similarity between what I would call the four Northwest Coast cities, from San Francisco, Portland and Seattle up to Vancouver, in the sense that they have prosperous economies. Vancouver may have the most catch-up to do there in terms of some of the new economic centres, but all are highly prosperous, politically progressive. Although they have varying characters, they have a high degree of livability and are therefore all very attractive both for new people moving here, for the young generation of new workers and entrepreneurs. They have a kind of leadership role, in my view, of pushing forward what is the model city of the 21st century.

The other piece they share is an affordable housing crisis. That’s the Achilles heel of all of these great cities, and something we need to share lessons between ourselves with regard to the affordable living piece but also with regard to continuing to push the other parts of these forward-looking, progressive economies.

In some ways, Vancouver and Portland share a similarity of neighbourhood patterns and are both struggling with what infill growth looks like at that traditional neighbourhood scale. They also share a high degree of civic investment in the future of their cities. What Vancouver and San Francisco share is a more internationally recognizable kind of skyline and an international population and a presence on the water. Both cities have that kind of high drama to them when approaching from the water or the air, or even from the highway, and share that kind of dynamism.

Vancouver and Seattle are so close that they’re almost becoming one economy. That’s something Vancouver can benefit from, but it still needs to find its unique identity. I think some of that uniqueness is going to come from homegrown innovation. There are a lot of creative people in Vancouver, and there will be more and more of those people because of the high livability factor. The congestion and the housing prices and the sprawling nature of the Seattle metro area is 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.

Are there other cities Vancouver could learn from?

Melbourne, Australia, has just in the last few years looked at its laneways, its alleyways in the downtown and completely turned those around from desolate, dirty, dangerous places into vibrant little hubs where they don’t need to accommodate a lot of traffic. Could we do more of that in downtown Vancouver without disturbing the traffic pattern? Are there segments of streets that we could drastically narrow where those little hubs are where people want to gather?

This summer, we’ll be starting some inquiry into that using a technique called public life study, and we’ll be hiring some consultants to help us. I did that in San Francisco to great effect. It’s a way of observing and interviewing and testing things in the public environment about how specific spaces could work much better for public gathering. We’ll probably repeat it in the winter months because it’s a very different kind of situation, and then be coming forward in the spring of next year with some recommendations.

The city’s engineering department will also be out this summer trying some sidewalk activation experiments and some street activation experiments—just partial closures of segments of streets for a weekend to make them into festival streets, for example. It gives people a sense of a different way of treating the physical environment and opens up ideas for more permanent or long-term changes—what some refer to as tactical urbanism, just trying stuff and seeing how well it works. That was the key to the success in Manhattan, where they closed a big portion of Broadway and painted temporary plazas and put out tables and chairs and planters. Suddenly, lunchtime office workers were flooding the street, and it became an outdoor living room, and so that informed how they made permanent changes.

What will Vancouver look like in five years?

We’re going to see a shift from building almost exclusively condominiums and to building much more rental housing to help balance the housing market. That will occur along the arterials and main streets, but it will also be happening at the station areas soon and the TransLink stops. So one change we can pretty well count on is a higher percentage of rental housing stock instead of home ownership.

We’ll see more of the creative industry begin to flourish here. You’ll see more U.S. technology firms plant larger pods here in Vancouver, primarily in the central city area. And I think you’ll see a renaissance in a bit of creative manufacturer here. That’s already beginning to happen in Mount Pleasant and in Railtown, and a little bit in the Marine Drive–Fraser River area, where you’re beginning to see, certainly around business plans, small-scale industrial and manufacturing users, particularly in this new manufacturing era where they actually want to own their own space, not just rent. You’re seeing some new buildings that are being stratified so that there’s an ownership of a floor, or a portion of a floor, by a firm as opposed to an entire site.

In Railtown, for example, it’s such a creative little hub there, and we want to continue to foster that, but what we don’t want to do is see the prices go to where it’s only office that can afford to be there. It’s a great place for consultants to be: a hip, edgy environment. That’s cool, but the real strength of what’s there is in creative manufacturing, design and sound studios for the film industry—a lot of things that can’t fit in a downtown office building very well. Some of the pure office users that also like that veneer of hipness in Railtown could easily be in a downtown office building. So preserving some of that space in Railtown or False Creek Flats for this kind of creative manufacturer as opposed to pure office, I think, is a wise policy. We’ll be glad we did this now.