Since the motion to review Vancouver’s view cones was passed by City Council in October, there has been a lot of attention on the debate over why they do and do not matter and what should happen to them. Some consider the ocean and mountain views that form the remarkable setting for the city as part of Vancouver’s heritage. Of particular relevance to heritage is the question of giving value to something.
Vancouver’s view cone debate has been well covered. Arguments for and against have been presented by a range of news outlets and more. Most recently, on December 6, former Co-director of Planning for the City of Vancouver Larry Beasley and well-known architect Peter Busby did a talk on Vancouver’s view protection policy as part of the SFU City Conversation series. Plenty of information is available and we provide a partial list at the end of this article*.
Critics argue that the view cones prevent the building of more housing, especially more affordable housing. The limits put on building height by the view cones also limit the revenue that could be generated for the City in the form of amenity contributions the developers would have to make on the added height. The revenue would be used to pay for public benefits such as day care facilities, parks, community centres etc. The motion called “Modernizing the City’s View Protection Guidelines to Unlock New Housing and Economic Opportunities” captures these criticisms of the view protection policy.
On the other side, those who are concerned about the motion and potential elimination of view cones argue that the view is an important public good for Vancouverites and is a remarkable amenity that provides the setting for the beautiful natural aesthetic of the city. Notably, some are in strong opposition to elimination of view cones because it privatizes a public good available to anyone and turns it into a commodity that only some with money can own.
Why on Top10?
Since the topic has been so well covered, we turn our focus to something different which is the nature of the value of a public good.
Former Director of Planning Brent Toderian raised the point about the public value of the view during the December 6 talk at SFU. Because he had been facing pressure from developers to allow them to disregard the view cones in 2009, he had a review done to determine whether their claim that people no longer care about the view cones was true. The review led him to the conclusion that the public cared and there was value to the public.
People who argue for heritage conservation are familiar with this concept of value. It is usual to say “x” should be kept because it has historic, aesthetic, economic or social value stemming from “y” reason. What often is overlooked is how demanding it is on the public to sustain the relationship to the public good, in this case the view. In 1978-1979 Vancouver residents identified the preservation of public views as a top priority for the city in surveys identifying the public’s goals for Vancouver.
As time passes it is not unusual to take for granted what is there that is in the public interest. Some or even many people may forget why we have it or that it is there. Or it could simply be that values and/or priorities change. About the current situation with view cones, Brent Toderian had this to say:
I think we are in another example where the public is going to have to decide, do you care about the view cones or not? And in the absence of a strong and compelling voice, I think the result will be different than it was in 2010.
And the question is much more than simply “do you care about the view cones?” Privatization of the views turns something that belongs to the public into something that is owned by those who can pay for it in exchange for more housing or money for public amenities. Although that choice may seem simple, the tradeoff is very serious. The responsibility is on the public to engage with this issue of what happens to a public good because it takes a public to value it.
We acknowledge the financial assistance of the Province of British Columbia