Community Development & Urban Land Use Planning

  Ron Hayley


What is the relationship between the body of thought and action known as "community development" and contemporary urban land use planning?

It's best if we start with some definitions. One of the most prominent thinkers in the community development field, John McKnight, defines community as "the space where citizens prevail." By this, he means areas of life where citizens get together to solve their own problems, rather than relying on experts or legislators. Community development, by definition, is the process of strengthening that capacity for self-help.

Now, by John McKnight's definition, community development would not be limited to neighbourhoods. It could also apply to 12-step programs, even to groups that associate for some common purpose over the Internet. But most people who write about and practice community development assume a spatial context. If it does not involve a neighbourhood, village or settlement, then it is usually assumed to have a certain shared space as a focal point for activity, as with cultural centres for so-called "minority" groups or resource centres for drug users or the homeless.

McKnight strongly contrasts community development with social work or social services. Community development focuses on people's assets or strengths, not on their weaknesses or disabilities. It involves economically empowering members of the defined community, not the care providers; and it strengthens local leadership and capacity, not people's dependence on outside "experts."

The Relevance of A CD Perspective to Urban Land Use Planning

So, what does this have to do with urban land use planning? First we need to define land use planning in an urban context. A simple straightforward definition is that it involves regulating and arranging the structure and functions of urban land and the built environment in cities. This includes, but is not limited to, the buildings, open space, roads and sidewalks (and other components of a transportation system), and the infrastructural services that enable people to meet their needs and organize their lives in an urban context.

Of course, this definition conceals a multitude of sins since planners have different conceptions of what this would involve, but let's put that to the side for the moment. Traditionally, urban land use planners have not seen themselves as having much to do with community development. They have seen themselves as experts, as specialists who help arrange the built form of the city so as to enable it to function as efficiently as possible, whatever that might mean.

However, this has not always been so. When planning was first conceived of as a specific practice around the turn of the last century, and after it was, at least in the minds of some such as Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, seen as intimately bound up with empowering local communities to take control of their lives and destinies. This emphasis on a community development component began to re-appear in planning (though it was not accepted by all planners) in the mid-to-late 1960s, when it became evident that planning activity was not serving the needs of all members of society equally and was in fact, in some cases, helping to perpetrate very real injustices.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are a number of areas where the concerns of planning and community development necessarily overlap. One involves the relationship between the global and the regional or local. As many commentators have noted, we live in a rapidly globalizing world where economic actors particularly, transnational corporations take the whole world as their stage, and consequently are no longer as dependent on, or as rooted in, specific jurisdictions as they used to be.

This means that local and regional economies including and perhaps especially city economies are much more fluid than they used to be, subject to the vagaries of global markets. It means that, in one sense, cities are less in control of their own destinies and more apt to defer to economic actors or trends that promise short-term economic benefit. As Marcia Nozick writes:

The more we are consumed by the idea of turning our particular city into a World-Class City like Los Angeles or New York, the more we lose touch with our local traditions. And the more we focus on integrating our local economies into the global economy, the more we lose control over how our communities will develop. In the race to become globally competitive, valuable resources are being diverted away from meeting community needs.

This has two consequences: local politicians may be prepared to sacrifice the needs of local interest groups or communities in order to attract growth and investment though one could argue that this has always been the case. But it also means that, with the bulk of investment coming from outside, cities are in danger of losing their distinctive characteristics. For instance, when a corporation such as Wal-Mart or McDonald's opens a branch operation in my city, they are not trying to enhance what is unique about it, they are looking to replicate a successful formula that is relatively the same the world over.

With economic globalization comes cultural globalization, aided by the instantaneous transfer of images and information by means of television, cinema, Internet, and other media, and the less-instantaneous transfer of people through immigration. This can lead to pop-cultural trends that tend to overwhelm local specificity. An example is the tendency towards subdivisions that are largely identical in various parts of the world, or the tendency to build California-style condos or Manhattan-style apartments in the rainforest environment of Vancouver.

This issue brings a community development perspective into land use planning either because specific communities find themselves on the chopping block as cities try to attract international investment, or because community groups find themselves fighting to defend local culture and "sense of place" against what they perceive as an encroaching global monoculture.

But there is another dimension to it, which has been addressed by Leonie Sandercock and others. As our cities become more multicultural through immigration, planning becomes a less straightforward activity. As Vancouver city councillor, Gordon Price, puts it: "Community planning becomes tricky when we have so many communities." Not only must planners ensure that planning information, and opportunities to participate, are made available to non-English speakers, they must also begin to accommodate different cultural attitudes about the uses of urban space, and learn to mediate between different groups when their values come into conflict.

One example which I have personally researched is the so-called "monster house" phenomenon, whereby opulent new mansions were being built in some cases, supposedly in accord with feng shui principles and were experienced as an affront in formerly Anglo-dominated neighbourhoods where there was a carefully cultivated landscape image of neo-Tudor houses and English gardens. It finally took a community development process to bring the factions together to work out a solution.

A second issue that brings the two together is closely related. It has to do with the tendency, in a capitalist society, for economic values to predominate over other values. Because of their subordination, at the end of the day, to the decision-making authority of local and regional councils, planners often find themselves in a position of serving the needs of the development community, or at the very least reacting primarily to its agenda.

This is either because local politicians are sympathetic to the needs and interests of developers (in some cases, they are financed by them), and/or because urban land is a private commodity and thus tends to be valued and invested in relative to its capacity to generate revenue. In this context, the main initiators of land use change and development tend to be private sector investors. They are the engine of change, the motive force of growth, and planners have little choice but to try to steer that force in one direction or another. Thus, they are put in a reactive position, attempting to extract non-economic gains and amenities in what is largely an economic game.

A third issue pertains to knowledge what planning theorist, John Friedmann, has referred to as "processed" vs. "personal" knowledge (or, alternatively, "expert" vs. "experiential" knowledge). Processed or expert knowledge is the kind that the traffic engineer brings to his or her task of ensuring the most efficient traffic flow, or of ensuring access by emergency vehicles. One characteristic of expert knowledge is that it tends to be rather narrowly focused, has fairly limited performance criteria. As Richard Andrews notes:

Ordinary people see the environment as real and particular places cities, wildlands, countryside.... Experts, by contrast, see with the fractured vision of specialists.

The personal or experiential knowledge of "non-experts" of people living in communities can often be an important corrective, or supplement, to expert knowledge, because they are the ones who live with the results of planners' decisions and plans. They know about traffic volumes on neighbourhood streets. They know how fast the traffic is going, whether it is a safe environment for pedestrians, what noise levels are like, and so on. Thus, their knowledge can be brought to bear to ensure that cities work better for people, and not just for cars or investors.

A fourth, and final, issue concerning the overlap between planning and community development involves the issue of urban sustainability, and how we're going to achieve it. While we will have to rely on a variety of tools, very few commentators on the subject think we will be successful unless we can actively engage the majority of the populace in supporting its objectives. This means not only supporting actions by governments and corporations that go against past ways of doing things, but also trying to incorporate changed practices into our own lives.

In essence, this involves two things: finding ways to make sustainability a community development movement, and building on existing "seeds of sustainability" that are emerging in communities spontaneously, such as community gardens and stream stewardship. The key in both instances may lie in grafting the concepts of sustainability onto felt and pressing needs in the community, an orientation has long been central to the practice of CD.

With regard to sustainability, there is no area of theory and practice so important as the arena of land use planning. It is how we use land especially in an urban context that determines the size of our "ecological footprint": the amount of resources we use, the effects we have on local and global life support systems, and the amount of wastes and pollution generated.

Empowered communities can either be a great boon for sustainability fighting for livability and ecologically sustainable development practices or they can be irate defenders of the status quo. Where I live, so-called NIMBY, or "Not In My Back Yard," groups can often be seen defending low-density single-family neighbour-hoods, which are highly dependent on automobiles, against land use intensification (accommodating more people per acre) and greater enhancement of public transit systems. Unless people living in these neighbourhoods change their outlook, it will be very difficult to change the way we build cities, or to get people out of their cars and on to public transit.

What I have suggested so far is that community development is relevant to planning in four distinct ways. It provides a potential bulwark against cities being redeveloped by international capital in ways that compromise social justice and local and regional identity. It provides a corrective against placing too much emphasis, in land use and development activity, on economic values to the detriment of other values. It provides a vehicle for fusing the personal and experiential knowledge of citizens and residents with the more abstract knowledge of the planners and engineers. And it provides a means for communities to get serious about sustainability, and to begin to insist that its principles be applied to the way we build our cities and live in them.

Examples of Their Intersection

I'm now going to turn to some examples which illustrate these interconnections, and which illustrate key principles of community development thinking. Two of them are from my own city, Vancouver; one is from Brazil; and one is a movement which is not specifically based in any one place.

The first example from Vancouver is the residential community of Strathcona, often referred to as Vancouver's "first neighbourhood." It illustrates well how community development is affected by the attitudes and actions of planners, and how, in turn, communities can force a change in the theory and practice of planning.

Strathcona began developing as workers' housing around the Hastings saw mill in the late nineteenth century and gradually spread south of the mill. By the time the new Strathcona school addition was built in 1915, the school was being referred to as the "League of Nations" because of the large number of languages spoken by its children. Before World War II, Japanese Canadians were the dominant ethnicity, but that community was dispersed and put in internment camps during the war, and the Chinese gradually emerged as the most populous group, especially as Strathcona directly abuts the city's Chinatown.

In the mid-to-late 1950s, Vancouver's planners and politicians began to import the U.S. doctrine of "urban renewal." The urban renewal doctrine said that slums represented diseased urban tissue that could not be healed. In fact, it was seen as contagious and would spread by contact with other neighbourhoods. The only solution was to remove the inhabitants, demolish the slums, and install the residents in new and sanitized housing projects where they could learn a more upright way of life.

There was no question that Strathcona, in the post-war years, was a bit run-down, but people loved their community and most owned their own houses. Part of the problem is the neighbourhood was sandwiched in between industry and a city dump, so bankers were reluctant to extend loans for people to fix up their houses. Moreover, being populated by immigrants, the neighbourhood was stigmatized by the city administration and little effort was made to upgrade services.

Despite the vibrancy of the community, the planners and politicians most of whom were Anglo-Canadian began to designate Strathcona as a slum, partly no doubt because, given their class and ethnic biases, it didn't look like their vision of what a neighbourhood should be. Armed with federal money, they began to make plans to demolish the entire neighbourhood and replace it with "projects."

Before being stopped in their tracks, the planners and politicians succeeded in demolishing sixteen square blocks and replacing them with concrete high-rise and low-rise housing. They offered residents of the condemned blocks a pittance for their houses, pitted neighbour against neighbour, and threatened the holdouts with expropriation.

Finally, in the mid-60s, the residents (most of whom did not speak English or did not speak it well) formed a community association and took their cause to any politician who would listen, at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. And, at last, they were successful. The razing of blocks was stopped and, based on a pilot project developed by the residents themselves, the federal government launched a new program to help communities throughout Canada called the Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP).

This program represented a complete about-face in planning policy. Rather than seeing run-down neighbourhoods (and their residents) as beyond redemption, it started from the premise that people want to live in decent neighbourhoods and have the will and the skills to make them better. All they need is a little help. The NIP program provided a combination of grants and loans to residents so that they could repair and re-paint their homes, and provided money to municipalities to replace aging infra-structure. So, as John McKnight would say, rather than focusing exclusively on the problems of the neighbourhood, the NIP program focused on opportunities.

I might add, as a footnote, that the capacity for organizational and political action evinced by Strathcona and Chinatown's residents was tested a couple of years later when politicians tried a run a freeway through the very same neighbourhood in order that outlying suburbs could be directly connected to the city centre. The community also defeated that proposal, and the controversy resulted in the mayor and council being turned out in the next municipal election.

The next example I will give is also from Vancouver, and involves a neighbourhood that used to be called "Skid Row." It sits between Strathcona and the current central business district. Comprised of many historic commercial buildings, and hotels that have been converted into single-room-occupancy (SRO) rooming houses, it is home to the poorest population in Canada.

At one time, most of the residents were workers in the province's resource industries, either unemployed or retired and overwhelmingly male but nowadays most residents are on welfare, and many have drug or alcohol problems. The district has the highest rate of drug addiction and HIV infection in the nation, and is seen by social workers and policy makers with some justification as a nearly hopeless case.

Nonetheless, in this seemingly not very fertile soil there has emerged one of the most interesting community development movements in Canada in the last century. One of its leaders, for many years, was an ex-longshoreman by the name of Jim Green who took over the helm of an organization called the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association (or DERA for short).

In classic John McKnight fashion, Green did not view the residents as merely embodying needs or social problems; he focused on their assets. And, by taking this view, he helped them accomplish extraordinary things. Taking advantage of the fact that many of them had a background in the labour movement, he tapped into their militance and capacity for solidarity. Despite the fact that most did not have phones, and access to the SROs was restricted to outsiders, he found ways to take advantage of their compact living circumstances, and the fact that many of them congregated in the pubs during the day. Not only was Green able to assist the residents in achieving numerous victories, but the confidence that people developed in their own abilities led many of them to turn their lives around on a personal level.

Under his leadership, a number of "firsts" were achieved. The Downtown Eastside became the first place in Canada to have social housing projects managed by the residents them-selves. The neighbourhood now has a community development bank, residents run their own community centre in a historic building that was formerly a City Hall, there are job training programs, and residents are able to take humanities courses at a local university. All of these things the politicians had said, at one time or another, were "impossible" for a group of people that society has attached very little value to.

The Downtown Eastside is facing new challenges these days as gentrification fuelled in part by Pacific Rim investment and immigration moves in on three sides. There is also pressure to convert the SRO hotels into instruments of the tourist trade be it chain hotels or low-end backpacker hostels. There are many, no doubt, who see the residents of the area as riff-raff sitting on top of very valuable real estate, who would just as soon see them dispersed or "disappeared." One of the challenges of land use planners is how to balance the needs of this group, to have a safe place to congregate and to have access to a minimum level of affordable housing and social services, against the needs of the city to continue to evolve economically and physically.

The third example I want to give is that of Curitiba, Brazil which has been described as the world's premier "eco-city." The initiative to transform Curitiba into a "green city" began in the early 1970s with then-mayor, Jaime Lerner. Lerner was a bold visionary who helped draft a plan whereby new residential growth (in higher-density buildings) was streamlined along major thoroughfares that were to be served by remarkably efficient articulated buses. These buses, which are supplemented by feeder routes, service 80% of Curitiba's population every day. Furthermore, Lerner overcame the objections of a downtown business community to create a pedestrian mall which has become a thorough-going social and economic success.

But in addition to fostering a more ecologically efficient urban form and adding trees and extensive green space, Curitiba has also fostered a number of innovations that have been of assistance to the city's poorer residents. In addition to giving people who bring bags of garbage to city way stations free bus tokens or bags of groceries, the city has provided architects free of charge to the city's slum dwellers so that they can properly design and build their own houses, and has laid out lots with proper municipal services for people to build on. Residents are given deeds to these lots along with trees to plant.

The city also has an extensive free day care program, employment and activity programs for local street kids, and job corps opportunities for single mothers and unemployed high schoolers. Old buses are turned into community college facilities and distributed throughout poor neighbourhoods, and there are circulating toy workshops where children learn to make things out of recyclable materials.

What's interesting about Curitiba is that the city administration has sought to give the city's poor a stake in a more ecologically sustainable city, and it has also offered assistance in a way that doesn't compromise their autonomy. One of McKnight's big beefs about the way most social assistance is handled is that little of it is given as direct aid. Much of it ends up in salaries and support for social workers and administrators, and what is given to the needy is usually subject to all sorts of complex rules and regulations.

One of McKnight's models of enlightened aid is the GI Bill, which enabled returned servicemen to avail themselves of the education or training of their choice, and to buy their own housing without any interfererence from Uncle Sam. The social programs in Curitiba work in a similar fashion. They provide direct, unmediated assistance: groceries for garbage, architectural advice for owner-built homes.

The fourth and last example I want to use is the healthy communities/ healthy cities movement. This movement was launched by the World Health Organization in 1986, and spread to Canada later in the decade largely through the influence of Dr. Trevor Hancock where it became a federally and provincially funded program for a number of years.

The basic premise of the movement, which has been led by public health workers and others, is that the determinants of an individual's health are not strictly private i.e. determined by what a person eats, or whether they get enough exercise. A person's health is also affected by the quality of their environment, both bio-physically and socially; by the degree to which they are integrated into the community; by the degree to which they feel economically advantaged or disadvantaged relative to other people, and by how much control they exercise over their lives.

A healthy community, by definition then, is one that provides access for its residents to these various components. Whether a community is ecologically vibrant and healthy, is socially convivial, and promotes opportunity for all is greatly affected by land use planning decisions. Too often, in the past, planners have seen their responsibilities as ending with providing roads to get people to work, ensuring that new housing is available, and not having noxious industrial uses next to residential neighbourhoods.

But this kind of limited thinking is arguably what gave us urban sprawl, with endless subdivisions, strip development, and destination malls, and there is mounting evidence that these types of physical configurations do not make for a healthy community. As Graham Haughton and Colin Hunter have noted, planning policies have the effect of changing the internal structure and functioning of cities, and this is an important factor in improving or degrading the social fabric of the city.

This message of the healthy communities movement that the health of individuals is partly determined by the wealth of connections they have to the rest of their environment, biophysical and social ties in well with the theory and experience of community development. John McKnight, in his writings, gives example after of example of people who, under other circumstances, might have been institutionalized for their disability or "problem" who instead become valued members of a community, where they are recognized for their unique "gifts."

The key to successful community development, then, is to acknowledge and provide scope for people's gifts and talents, and for their ability to address their own problems with the resources at hand. Outside resources may be needed as well, but these will play a supplementary role. The key instead lies in retaining, and building up, local "social capital" defined by Robert Putnam, and others, as the features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

A Current Example of Land Use Planning with a CD Perspective

Having reviewed some of the interfaces between community development and land use planning, and given some examples, I would like to now close off by exploring some of the points I started with in the context of a planning case that I have been associated with for a number of years. The case involves a 50 acre parcel of largely derelict industrial land on the shores of False Creek, an ocean inlet in Vancouver fairly close to the Central Business District. The rest of the shore of False Creek which at one time was all industrial has been redeveloped for housing and mixed use development. Only this one parcel known as Southeast False Creek remains.

Several years ago, the City of Vancouver began planning for its redevelopment, and got itself talked into considering the parcel as the site for creating a model sustainable community, one that could perhaps be emulated in other parts of the region. It illustrates, however imperfectly, the points I made at the outset about how a community development perspective is relevant to planning, and indeed needs to be incorporated if planning is to aid in the creation of a more healthy and sustainable community life.

To date, no sod has been turned, but a policy statement has gone through numerous iterations and been accepted by Council, and an official development plan is in the works. The site, and the aspirations that different groups have for it, illustrates well the challenges facing planners and communities.

The north shore of the creek, which at one time belonged to the province and was host to an international exposition, was purchased by an international financier and the land redeveloped as high-end condos mainly for the recent well-to-do immigrant market. Thus, the north shore of the Creek illustrates the forces of economic and cultural globalization alluded to earlier.

Moreover, the effect of this redevelopment has been to further marginalize poor people and their access to affordable housing. The aim of Expo '86, which preceded the redevelopment, was largely one of attracting international investment. Consequently, the vast majority of the site was razed, removing virtually all traces of the Creek's distinctive industrial legacy. What sits there now point towers and expanses of green grass could just as easily be in Dallas or Battery Park. There is nothing particularly "Vancouver" about them.

So, the challenge in Southeast False Creek is to create a new community that interacts with the forces of economic and cultural globalization in a positive way for instance, by creating a model that may have relevance in other parts of the Pacific Rim and that does not turn its back on the people who are in danger of being left behind by an overheated housing market. Currently, the city has a policy in place to reserve 20% of the land in new mega-projects for social housing and many have argued that, given the housing crisis in the city, the percentage should actually be considerably higher.

This is an example of upholding non-economic values, and this is not the only area where it comes up. Another instance is when a hired development consultant concluded that Southeast False Creek, which is owned by the city, could more profitably be developed for high-tech industrial uses than for housing. However, Council rejected that option in favour of building needed housing close to the city centre.

Another area where values clash is in the proposed density. Twenty-five years ago, the city developed another parcel it owned South False Creek through a consultative process with the public that resulted in medium-density ground-oriented housing. That community has proven very successful, boasting a strong sense of place and community. Anecdotal and other evidence suggests that this form of housing does more to foster a sense of community than high rises do, but because of the land values involved the city clearly sees that option as out of the question today, which represents a triumph of the economic values over non-economic ones.

In terms of my third point the fusion of personal with processed knowledge there have been attempts to involve the public in the planning of Southeast False Creek, but most of the participants to date have been activists and design professionals who know more about sustainable development than do the city's planners and engineers. It is a case where there has perhaps been more expertise outside City Hall than inside. Nonetheless, the blending of different perspectives has resulted in a richer and more comprehensive mix to draw on than if the planners had been flying solo.

With regard to the fourth point that people need to "buy into" sustainability for it to work there has been some recognition of this in the planning thus far. The city at the urging of activists has committed itself to the formation of a stewardship committee, which will involve future residents and interested parties in guiding and imple-menting the development process, to ensure it lives up to its stated ideals, and so that residents will be stewards of the community, and not simply consumers of housing.

Beyond these general considerations, there are a number of specific things that planners and politicians can do to foster healthy communities or what is nowadays often known as "social sustainability." Time does not permit a full list, but some of the elements include:

  • Encouraging co-housing and co-ops
  • Encouraging the formation of land trusts
  • Encouraging the incorporation of community and public art into the site's redevelopment
  • Encouraging retention and interpretation of heritage elements
  • Creating a variety of formal and informal public spaces for people to mingle and hold festivals and cultural events
  • Reducing the intrusiveness of cars
  • Encouraging opportunities for community learning and stewardship
  • Ensuring that a variety of people can live in the community that it is inclusive and that people with special needs have access to appropriate resources and services, and
  • Providing vehicles for community decision-making and self-governance.
  • Planners, by virtue of the influence they have on the configuration of the built environment and its social composition, have an enormous role and responsibility for the state of our communities. Trevor Hancock has described this in terms of the "soft infrastructure" of the city in contrast with the more traditional "hard infrastructure" that planners have typically dealt with. He defines soft infrastructure as consisting of both the formal and informal activities and services that sustain community life.

    According to Yiftachel and Hedgecock, there are three overall areas where planners contribute to this soft infrastructure:

    • In the layout and design of community areas and their impact on the nature of social relations and behaviors;
    • In the character and dimension of neighborhood units and the facilities required to develop community focus; and,
    • In the concept of social balance and social mix and their role in the development of community structures.

    The myth that there is a "physical" environment independent of the "social" environment must be put to rest once and for all; they are bound together by a thousand visible and invisible threads.