Opinion: Vancouver is falling behind on building community centres and infrastructure

Mar 1 2022, 12:19 am

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Sarah Kirby-Yung, who is a first-term Vancouver City councillor and past chair of the Vancouver Park Board.

Each city council inherits a capital plan and each city council gets to approve one before their term finishes.

With the October 2022 civic election looming, Vancouver City Council will approve the four-year, 2023-2026 capital plan by the end of July. What does and doesn’t get included in this plan will have a significant impact on our city.

What worries me, and something residents should be concerned about, is that Vancouver is facing a dire and growing infrastructure deficit. In short, our community facilities, water, and sewer pipes, and essential fire halls are aging, and we are not putting enough funding into renewing them. Nor is Vancouver on pace to provide new amenities to growing and rapidly developing neighbourhoods.

Capital plans are financial plans for investments in the City’s infrastructure and amenities such as water and sewer pipes, roads, sidewalks, curb cuts, traffic signals and bikeways, community centres, and recreational facilities like ice rinks and pools, arts and culture spaces, parks and open spaces, fire halls, and libraries.

Infrastructure that is degrading and reaching end of life includes water and sewer pipes that date from 1886 to the early 1960s, as well as community centres and recreational facilities that were built between the 1940s and early 1980s. There’s also unmet demand from residents for improved street safety infrastructure such as pedestrian signals and flashing beacons, bike routes, and lighting that support people safely moving about.

At the same time, our population is expected to grow by approximately 70,000 plus people in the next 15 years. New residents mean more demand on existing facilities, and the need for new community amenities like community centres, green spaces, and fire halls.

There are examples of aging facilities and infrastructure needs in neighbourhoods across Vancouver:

  • separating our aging sewer system and One Water approach to eliminate combined
    sewer overflows and the risk of flooding with more climate-driven extreme weather
  • the West End Community Centre awaiting renewal as part of the West End Plan that envisions a hub including the West End Community Centre, King George Secondary School, Joe Fortes Library, and a potential relocation of Firehall 6
  • new, now populated neighbourhoods like East Fraser Lands whose promised community centre has been reliant on community amenity contributions without taxpayer dollars to make it a reality
  • the Kerrisdale Arena built in 1949
  • Gastown Complete Street project to protect and re-energize this historic neighbourhood before the signature cobblestones degrade beyond repair
  • the installation and refurbishment of curb ramps at intersections
  • the installation of new traffic signals where none exist
  • new street lighting

In my four years on the Vancouver Park Board and now in my first term on City Council, we’ve become the city of plans – constantly kicking off new planning exercises like the Imagine West End Waterfront Plan – but we’re not getting renewed or new community facilities built quickly enough. Vancouver is behind pace to serve our current population let alone a growing one.

We’re not getting a community centre renewed each capital plan or more than a couple of intersections equipped with new traffic signals each year.

Public community facilities and infrastructure are essential in an increasingly dense and unaffordable city. An affordable place to hit the gym, take kids swimming, get out into nature in parks and green space, places to walk your dog, and safe streets equal livable cities.

Ultimately, it’s about priorities. Recently I brought a motion forward for City staff to start quantifying the downloading of costs by senior levels of government. Vancouver has been spending in areas that have traditionally been the responsibility of federal and provincial governments such as housing and childcare, as well as ramping up climate spending. And so, we’ve been underspending on community facilities and infrastructure.

The good news is we’re now seeing more investment from senior governments in housing and childcare. Vancouver can do its part to support much-needed non-profit housing and new childcare by providing land, enabling zoning, and fast-tracking approvals and permitting, vs. spending cash. It’s time to commit to the needed investment in community-serving amenities across our neighbourhoods before the infrastructure deficit gets bigger.

It’s also good news that community facilities and core infrastructure is also climate infrastructure. Investing in renewal of aging facilities like community centres will help meet climate goals by reducing building emissions, and support response to extreme weather events as these centres become heating and cooling gathering spaces. Improving transportation infrastructure — new sidewalks, curb cuts, and traffic lights — enables people to walk and ride safely in their neighbourhoods.

Vancouver City Council has the opportunity to listen to its residents and show we value livability and climate by centring community facilities and core infrastructure renewal in the upcoming capital plan.

Failing to do so will see our infrastructure further decline and be more costly in the long run. The highest cost of delay will be borne by residents who are feeling the sting of increasing unaffordability and need accessible public spaces and places.

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