October 2, 2012

Changing together

How to break the cycle of disadvantage in Vancouver’s downtown eastside

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Livability Survey recently ranked Vancouver as the third most livable city in the world – a solid reminder that the city is a place where many of us are able to comfortably live, work and play. The strength of a city’s social fabric, however, is in its ability to provide the necessary support mechanisms for its most disadvantaged – to ensure that no one is left behind.

This is the challenge faced by the city’s developers, mayor, council and the Urban Development Institute (UDI) as we plan for the future – how can we contribute to a Vancouver that sees all of its citizens thriving and realizing their greater potential? Many people in this city are struggling, unable to find affordable housing and employment, particularly in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. It is here that the growing gap between recent arrivals and the disadvantaged already in place is most evident – highlighting a major challenge for Vancouver’s future development and livability.

In the last 10 years, Vancouver has seen its homeless population increase 10 fold. The majority of homeless people in Vancouver are living with mental health and/or drug and alcohol issues, and many are unable to access the support they need to recover. They are unable to engage in employment or find reliable housing, as affordability continues to be a major barrier to individual progression. In fact, personal incomes in Vancouver have only increased by nine per cent, while house prices have increased at a striking rate of 280 per cent since the 1970s.

As complex and challenging as these issues are, Vancouver city council has begun to make some significant headway on the issue. After a number of attempts led by council in the past, there is renewed hope that the work being undertaken on the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan will revitalize past efforts and engage all stakeholders to develop both short- and long-term solutions.

It is important to note that this will not work without strong partnerships. It will require a citywide approach to social, economic and cultural development. Partnerships with industry, collaborative planning and a shared vision for the future will create forward-thinking, progressive solutions that benefit the whole community. These ambitious plans also need to integrate the valuable role that the development industry is willing to play; both in the area’s physical development, and in the social and economic changes needed.

The Urban Development Institute and its members are willing contributors to the creation of socially integrative neighbourhoods targeted at improving the living opportunities within disadvantaged areas of the city. Vancouver is on the precipice of realizing its potential – and there are many willing partners. How we move forward will require strong leadership and cannot rely solely on the government of the day or popular rhetoric, but visionary policy and a city-wide commitment to real and meaningful change that builds on natural synergies.

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