I initially thought the best way I could affect change in communities was through public policy, but halfway through my UBC Masters in Community and Regional Planning, I realized that developers are the ones that actually mobilize resources to build a lot of the infrastructure that makes a city.
Cities create “playbooks” that outline their vision and the various ways to fulfill the collective aspirations of its residents in the form of Official Community Plans, bylaws and design guidelines. But a playbook is meaningless without players. Developers are one of the players that then try to execute a city’s desires under the rules and directions set out for them.
In the planning process, there are sometimes changes that are considered in order to meet the goals of the city or accommodate design constraints associated with a site. Often the assumption is that the developer is working to manipulate the process for increased profit, and the city is criticized for excessively delaying the development application process.
Sure, having a profitable business and being able to hire and compensate employees for their hard work are priorities for developers, but they often fall prey to the stereotype of “fat cat” moguls creating products that are unattainable by the average person. What critics conveniently ignore is that developers operate in an environment of high land values, rising construction costs and interest rates, large capital investments that come with risks, and uncertain regulatory frameworks where goalposts change throughout the process, subject to public opinion and political changes.
Communication between cities and developers needs to start with a common goal, instead of pitting one against the other. We each have a part to play to accommodate growing populations in a way that respects our environment and allows opportunities for different socio-economic groups and household configurations to thrive. This means an openness to alternative forms of housing.
There is no easy solution to complex issues like housing affordability in the region, but I am encouraged by conversations and initiatives to develop the “Missing Middle” – multi-unit housing types like townhomes or low-rise buildings that have ground-level space and support walkable urban living. Most homebuyers and renters seeking long term housing need something with enough space for a young family, ideally ground-oriented and walkable to amenities, schools and parks. With initiatives by cities to create zoning and policies to support this, and funding programs by senior governments that have emerged, there has to be more collaboration with developers to make such forms of housing viable. Like any other business, developers want to work in environments with predictable processes and minimal bureaucracy. Unlike most businesses, a developer’s process from acquisition to completion often takes four years or more, meaning a long period of incurring costs and risks. Cities that are unpredictable and do not operate by their own “playbook” risk losing the confidence of developers and new homes in the process.
We are all residents with the same goal of building great cities where our family and friends can live, work and play. We might have different ideas of how to achieve the same goal, but let’s work together with a mutual respect and acknowledgement that city building isn’t and shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.