Urban Transformation

Vancouver shows how cities can develop better infrastructure planning and development

Vancouver stands out as a model for other cities dealing with infrastructure challenges.

Vancouver stands out as a model for other cities dealing with infrastructure challenges. Image: Pexels.

Daniel Sweeney
Project Fellow, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum LLC
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Long-Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development

This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation

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  • Globally, cities have seen an increase in funding and public demand for improved critical public infrastructure.
  • Resilient urban infrastructure requires a long-term planning mindset that considers impacts ranging from scaled electrification to climate change.
  • Cities have traditionally approached urban infrastructure through siloed departments, causing a lack of alignment, spending, and redundant work.
  • Cities can learn from Vancouver in Canada which has developed best practices for collaborative infrastructure development.

Cities around the world have become increasingly complex, and leaders are having to solve problems they’ve never faced before. From increased population to climate change, these challenges require a more collaborative approach across city government, which can be difficult when city services have traditionally been organized into silos.

When it comes to cities and their large portfolios of infrastructure, there are many stakeholders who have a vested interest: utilities such as power and water, roads and transit departments, public works and community relations, parks and recreation, innovation departments, housing, and many others, depending on the city’s geography, size and structure.

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City leadership can establish the high-level goals for the city such as growth, affordability, or climate preparedness, but these intrinsically have different meanings for every stakeholder. Considering all these factors as part of the city infrastructure ecosystem, the need to find effective, creative, and realistic collaboration methods is critical.

In 2022, the World Economic Forum’s Urban Transformation “Building Tomorrow’s Urban Infrastructure” team began looking into how cities are implementing infrastructure governance models. Following the reviews of over 25 city plans, interviewing 11 city infrastructure experts, Vancouver’s approach of collaborative infrastructure governance stood out as a unique and powerful model. Vancouver has strategically positioned itself as a leader of proactive planning across governmental agencies and can serve as a lighthouse model for other cities dealing with shared challenges such as affordability, rapid growth, climate resilience, and citizen well-being.

Vancouver's collaborative approach

Vancouver has spent many years developing a governance model that increases collaboration around infrastructure, encourages joint funded projects, and spurs future engagements across the board. This did not happen overnight, nor was this a single iteration that worked immediately. It has been a long-term effort that challenged all parties to actively commit and engage in the collaborative model. This includes dedicated director meetings, transparency of priorities and issues, as well as strategic alignment of departments.

The steps Vancouver has outlined for collaborative governance are as follows:

1. Establish and integrate city level priorities into all departments’ plans and programmes utilizing a “layered” system referencing an overall citywide vision, vetted by the community.

2. Connect departments at multiple levels, specifically at the director level, ensuring consistency, collaboration, and coordination throughout.

3. Incentivize the idea of “win-win” models for jointly funded projects in alignment with citywide targets and objectives, creating flexibility of budgets and more available ways to build out infrastructure.

4. Create a centralized approach on programme and project delivery, focused on outcomes and how collaboration can yield those outcomes long-term.

5. Instill a culture that can adjust, evolve, and input feedback from all stakeholders to decrease chances of falling backwards.

This process is anchored with an overall citywide vision and land use strategy, called the Vancouver Plan, it was shaped and validated by a wide range of public feedback over a three year period, the highlights of which can be seen in the figure below.

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The Government of Canada has also endorsed this approach. Infrastructure Canada, the national governing body that controls funding distribution for infrastructure programmes across Canada, has discussed the importance of cities and regions having a diversified and aligned model. Collaboration from the local community, as well as the private sector, are key elements of this unified model approach.

Infrastructure Canada aims to invest in programmes and projects that will have positive social impacts and stand the test of time. Vancouver has shown that governance is a powerful way to create coordination at the city/regional level, that links back to federal funding. Infrastructure Canada discusses this in detail in their paper Permanent Public Transit Funding in Canada.

Vancouver Plan: Community engagement overview. Source: City of Vancouver.
Vancouver Plan: Community engagement overview. Source: City of Vancouver.

In order to align and organize agencies in a truly compatible way, Vancouver restructured their overall spatial city planning outlook. The diagram below shows how city leadership has aligned the overall City Plan aspirations to unique layers of the city.

Vancouver Plan: Aspiration alignment to city layers. Source: City of Vancouver.
Vancouver Plan: Aspiration alignment to city layers. Source: City of Vancouver.

The City Plan highlights the high-level aspirations across the entire city and the building layers serve as a practical alignment back to these aspirations. This helps to create a collaborative mindset for the city around the aspirations and layers, rather than the more traditional silos of departments and their associated assets. The shift to this jointly collaborative mindset and structure directly aligns to the transformed governance model and mentality around win-win coordination.

The Vancouver Plan includes a long-term community vision, land use strategy, foundational principles of reconciliation, equity, resilience, and three big ideas of equitable housing and complete neighbourhoods, an economy that works for all, and climate protection and restored ecosystems. This plan continues to inform the refinement and prioritization of capital planning and service delivery to ensure the greatest value and well-being to citizens.

Aligning investment decisions with a citywide vision allows the city to intentionally respond to near-term priorities and long-term pressures at once.

One Water Approach, is an example of integrated infrastructure planning. In the model below, Vancouver illustrates how the city has aligned their governance around a “One Water Approach.”

Vancouver One Water Approach. Source: City of Vancouver.
Vancouver One Water Approach. Source: City of Vancouver.

Because all stakeholders have an impact on, and individually affect, all these areas, collaboration is critical to creating a just and equitable future for water and watershed-related services. It does not place any one agency or stakeholder at the centre, but rather focuses on the needs of the utility, and all levels of government – municipal, regional, provincial and federal.

All planning efforts for budgeting, capital projects, and overall maintenance are shared between the key stakeholders – enabling benefits to be shared across the board. While an individual agency leads a project, other impacted agencies must validate the plan to ensure collaboration, regardless of which agency is in charge of a particular project.

This model has yielded multiple projects that have integrated objectives from multiple stakeholders. One such project is the Alberta St Blue Green System. Because of the “One Water” approach, the Alberta St Blue Green System had a positive impact across the following areas: pedestrian mobility, green space, sewage, wastewater, stormwater, broadband, and public space quality. The graphic below depicts the multiple layers of infrastructure that were planned and delivered as a result of the collaborative governance Vancouver put in place for projects exactly like this one.

Vancouver Plan principles and a One Water approach as proposed for integrated projects such as the Alberta St and Columbia Park Blue Green System. Vancouver One Water Approach. Source: City of Vancouver.
Vancouver Plan principles and a One Water approach as proposed for integrated projects such as the Alberta St and Columbia Park Blue Green System. Vancouver One Water Approach. Source: City of Vancouver.

Collaboration inputs from academia

Academia has confirmed and strengthened the models Vancouver has put into practice. Eve Michel, a Project Management and Program Delivery Lecturer at Columbia University School of Professional Studies, noted in an interview with the Urban Infrastructure team that early planning and collaboration from stakeholders across the life cycle of a project is instrumental to truly successful infrastructure programmes.

Michel noted that programmes have often failed to include all elements and needs for larger scale infrastructure projects, resulting in less-than-ideal situations. A movement towards holistically collaborating, and understanding the full custom set of needs, potential issues, and funding/financing landscape will yield much better short and long-term results. She noted multiple examples of programmes that have worked to employ this model, and how it has improved delivery and operations of infrastructure assets for cities.

Vancouver has shown that it takes both long-term commitment and a dynamic, well-planned approach to implement a truly collaborative and impactful governance model. The results speak for themselves, but Vancouver continues to grow and learn through self-reflection of their own programmes and projects, as well as by engaging in globally facing initiatives and organizations across the infrastructure industry. This transformation is now embedded in the City of Vancouver, and the city better off for it.

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