Xin Xin Deschner emigrated to Vancouver from Beijing nearly 20 years ago for the quality of life.
She settled in Kingsway, one of east Vancouver’s oldest and most culturally diverse neighbourhoods. She married, had a family, and went to work as a teacher in a local secondary school.
Now she’s worried the city’s plans to increase density in the area – and its seemingly insensitive approach to the community’s many ethnic groups in the process – will destroy the neighbourhood she loves.
“The major reason we came to Canada is that we treasure the lifestyle here,” she said.
“We have gardens and houses. We’re very proud of this. We Chinese do understand the concepts behind densifying. [But] it makes us sad to think of losing this.”
A communication problem is at the core of a years-long tug-of-war between the City and residents over the planning process in a micro-community of Kingsway, known as Norquay. It has spawned a human rights complaint by citizens and charges by planners that a small group of residents hijacked the conversation.
It is an example of how one of North America’s most multicultural cities is struggling with how to bring diverse communities into the planning process.
City had ‘good intentions’
The challenges are not surprising to Leonie Sandercock, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. She researches participatory planning, immigration, cultural diversity and integration.
“With planners, the common idea is that planning is neutral,” she said. “But by denying the relevance of cultural diversity, you’re in denial that differences exist.”
Immigrants make up 45.6 per cent of Vancouver’s population, and represent more than 70 mother tongue languages, according to Statistics Canada. In Norquay, only 25.5 per cent of residents count English as their first language; 42.7 per cent are Chinese immigrants.
Sandercock believes Vancouver has had “good intentions” since it first began thinking about Norquay in the 1990s. That’s when the City started working towards increasing density in the area with the goal of turning it into a neighbourhood where residents would work, shop, play, and live, all within a few blocks radius
The difficulty, she said, is it never quite caught up with the ethnic diversity, and it’s begun to lose the trust of the community.
“And when trust breaks down,” she said, “it can get very dangerous for the City. If the community gives up on dialogue, they turn to direct action.”
Related: Norquay Village timeline
Joseph Jones, a retired librarian who has lived in Norquay for nearly 30 years, said he started getting frustrated in 2007, when residents received information from the City written only in English and Chinese. That left 30 per cent of the community unable to read about what the City had planned, said Jones.
Residents mobilized in response, completing door-to-door surveys that eventually forced the City to scrap its plans for rezoning Norquay and go back to the drawing board.
Jones, with the support of neighbours, launched a human rights complaint against the City on behalf of what he calls the “language-disenfranchised” residents. He suggested the City had purposely excluded them to push through an unpopular agenda.
The City tried to have the complaint dismissed, said Jones, arguing that he – a white man – could not represent the community.
The BC Human Rights Tribunal disagreed, and set a date to hear the case on January 18, 2010.
A sense of distrust, said Jones, has been growing since then. “We trusted them to do things properly. We were naive.”
The City declined to comment on the case at this time.
Planner expected ‘challenges’
Further protest was sparked during consultation with Norquay’s Chinese community in 2009.
The City sent a planner to the workshop who could speak Cantonese, but who wasn’t well informed about the issues, said Deschner. “There’s no way to interpret if you don’t understand the material.”
Catherine Buckham, acting assistant director of community planning for the City of Vancouver and senior project manager on Norquay, said she “knew going into this there would be challenges.”
“People have different values and needs.”
Buckham can’t speak to what happened with the Chinese community workshops. She’s part of a new team assigned this fall to see the Norquay vision through to a plan they hope take to Council in 2010.
“We’ve been losing staff all year,” said Buckham. “So it is a challenge. There are new tools we’re trying. But we’re still working within a policy framework. Maybe one of our shortcomings is that we haven’t been reminding people of the framework.”
That framework ensures citizens are involved in the decision-making process. A Norquay working group – of which both Deschner and Jones are members – was formed by the city to bring the needs of the entire community to the discussion.
When participatory planning works
Leonie Sandercock believes that bringing diverse communities into the planning process can only work if people are made comfortable on their own terms.
She said the best local example of a good process was the creation of Collingwood Neighbourhood House, a small community centre in East Vancouver.
Internationally, she said, Sydney is pioneering new methods in participatory planning, hosting meetings of 500 people seated according to preferred language.
“Each table has a facilitator,” said Sandercock. “You have to put a lot more time and patience into it. It sounds to me like with Norquay, they’ve just lost that patience.”
Xin Xin Deschner certainly has. After all these years, she just wants to see something get done. At a meeting with planners in November, she talked about the process as a barrier, and the root of her growing distrust.
“I was brought up by communism, and I still hold some of those ideals dear,” said Deschner. “In communism, the government is helping citizens. There’s equality for the whole country. Here, we just cannot trust the City to do as it sees fit.”
The City plans to meet again with Norquay residents at the end of January 2010, when it hopes to convince residents it has heard what they had to say.