Municipal Tools to Create Social Assets

Part One: Municipal Governance; Vancouver versus Ottawa

Written by Dennis Carr

November 20, 2015

This is part one of a three-part post about using municipal tools to create social assets.
  • This first part reviews what Vancouver has achieved and compares Vancouver’s municipal governance structure to Ottawa’s.
  • The second part will provide a detailed look at Vancouver’s achievements in creating social assets.
  • Part three will look at some of the challenges and opportunities for Ottawa related to creating these amenities and offer up some suggestions for changes in policy and practice.

Over the last few decades, Vancouver has created thousands of affordable housing units, hundreds of daycare spaces and many other community facilities such as neighbourhood houses, adult day centres and cultural facilities. Many more of these community amenities are in the development pipeline.

How does Vancouver, with a population 30% smaller than Ottawa, achieve this? In part, by using the municipal development process to leverage these assets. But it’s also by using all of the other resources at its disposal. Behind Vancouver’s success is a strong commitment to create municipal policies that enable a livable, sustainable city and the political will and staff resources to put the policies into practice.

Vancouver versus Ottawa: Municipal Governance

Vancouver has a population of over 603,000 in an area of 114 km². It’s important to understand that Vancouver is just one of the 23 municipal entities within Metro Vancouver which has a population of 2.3 million. Unlike Ottawa and most other municipalities in Canada, Vancouver has a system of local political parties, rather than unaligned independent Councillors. It has 10 municipal councillors elected through an ‘at-large’ system - there are no wards.


Vancouver is incorporated under a unique provincial statute, the Vancouver Charter.  This statute provides Vancouver to negotiate Community Amenity Contributions (also known as ‘public benefits’) when a developer applies for a rezoning which includes a significant increase in density, among other powers.

While approximately the geographic size of Metro Vancouver, Ottawa has a population of 883,000, 23 ward Councilors and no municipal parties. Also unlike British Columbia, municipalities in Ontario have jurisdictional responsibility for affordable housing, something to keep in mind as we compare how Ottawa and Vancouver have responded to their critical need for affordable housing.  

Ottawa Councillors make about $96,000 per year and have office budgets that allow them, among other things, to hire staff and support and promote activities in their ward. Ottawa Councillors have great accountability to their constituents and, despite occasional claims to the contrary, have quite a lot of influence over what happens in their ward. 

Contrast this with Vancouver Councillors who make about $68,000 per year (the local median income) and don’t have a budget for office staff and promotion.  While some Vancouver Councillors may have a base of voter support within certain constituencies or particular neighbourhoods, because of the Councillor-at-large and municipal party system, their accountability is to the entire voting public.  Their chances of being re-elected are generally dependent on the popularity of their party and how well the party has advanced the goals in its political platform. 

Achieving Social Assets in Vancouver

The public benefits achieved through rezoning in Vancouver are numerous and diverse. They include affordable housing, recreational facilities, libraries, neighbourhood houses, community centres, adult day care, child care, public art, cultural facilities, greenways and bike paths.

The numbers are impressive. Between 2010 and 2014, Vancouver’s rezonings created an average public amenity contribution of $128 million per year. In December 2014, Vancouverites elected a new Council and voted in favour of a four-year capital plan with a total budget of $1.085 billion. The estimated public benefit contribution to that budget is $308 million or 28%.

Imagine the opportunities for improving the quality of life in Ottawa if 28% of its capital budget was financed through the development process supplementing revenues from development charges and the tax base. 

In the second part of this post I’ll review the planning and policy tools and other resources Vancouver uses to achieve public benefits and provide some project examples.

Dennis Carr

Senior Advisor

November 20, 2015