21st Century Choices: Reflections on Kelowna’s Development Plans

21st Century Choices: Reflections on the McKinley Development Project Campaign

The Okanagan is on the cusp of a time of transition – between ‘business as usual’ and a new, innovative and greener approach to development. 

While this is similar to what other cities around the world are facing, there are a few things that make the Okanagan unique. The pace of growth anticipated, and the relative dearth of older neighbourhoods and buildings compared to other larger cities, makes for a wider range of options and range of motion. The dry, hilly setting of the Okanagan, where climate changes  will increase natural hazards, means that more attention must be paid to climate adaptation. 

But, there’s more at stake in the current moment, including the need to be attentive to economic, social, and cultural changes as well as environmental. 

Only a complete rethink of our current model of development, which is based on the 1970s era of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, will allow for the City of Kelowna to meet its climate goals while maintaining life satisfaction and wellbeing in neighbourhoods.

As cities are facing the need to redesign neighbourhoods to adapt to and mitigate climate change, the 1970s model of the car-based single-family suburb, with a relatively insular and monolithic local identity, has also increasingly come under scrutiny. Into this mix, the recent proposal from developers to expand the number of single-family homes beyond the Permanent Growth Boundary of Kelowna’s Official Community Plan in exchange for a token section of protected area was a symbol of the need for new thinking in a time of climate transition. 

The 1970s model was a product of governance decisions that had consequences for people and families. Highways divided poorer communities and paved over thriving shops, homes, and parks to allow automobile access to wealthier suburbs. 

Public transportation from trollies, where stops had given rise to thriving commercial and multi-unit housing, was deliberately sidelined to make way for cars and roads, which in turn fostered a separation of residential and commercial areas, a distinction between home and work. 

The suburban model isolated and marginalized women in their homes, fostered rampant consumerism and waste, and increased inequality of opportunity between school districts funded by property taxes. 

Prioritizing the suburban model has also contributed to the lack of housing, and the spike in inflation and house prices as demand becomes concentrated in a smaller range of available housing supply. 

Suburbs also gave rise to a culture of exclusion and NIMBYISM, which has seen resistance to supported housing and other public support for marginalized people.  People experiencing homelessness or struggling with addictions, minority communities, and those with disabilities  are most isolated.  The growth and endless consumption model has contributed to the opioid epidemic, which thrives on private isolation. 

Ultimately, the challenges we are faced with now are due to the availability of cheap and plentiful fossil fuel, which smoothed transportation corridors and provided delivery of goods and services on a global scale to feed demand from suburban consumers.

In the Okanagan, the suburban model has run rampant, in a modified form to suit a leisure lifestyle of the upper middle class, a good example being golf course based developments. 

The need to see how suburban planning affects other aspects of life is particularly acute in the Valley. In this case, the campaign by local environmental groups, including Okanagan Sustainable Leadership Council, Okanagan Climate Hub, the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, Green Okanagan, and other vocal individuals, successfully argued that this suburban spread model of development was unsustainable. 

Those opposed to the development noted that the project was out of step not only with Kelowna’s Official Community Plan, but also with its climate targets. The group raised issues that touched on the need for nature protection,  more compact neighbourhoods that reduce resource use, and preservation of quality of life for residents.

The kind of community imagined by sustainability advocates  represents a profound change from the old North American suburban model of life. 

Green neighbourhoods that are resilient to climate change are diverse, integrated, multi-use zones with lots of room for tree cover and natural watercourses, designed around ease of access rather than ownership of land, vehicles, and property. 

Green neighbourhoods are capable of richer community-building and resilience than the 1970s suburban model of municipal development, because they explicitly focus on local consumption, public services, and mixed economies that serve a wider range of community needs. This model is still in flux, but densification and public access are two of the fundamental principles that distinguish it from the stale 1970s suburbs.

Kelowna has a choice, follow the older developer dominated model or experiment with new more innovative and inspiring forms of community that take full advantage of new technologies, priorities, and economies of thrift. This model welcomes more intensive, less wasteful forms of growth, more varied social experiences, and a reduction in stark inequalities and a move away from loneliness. It puts the interests of the community first and foremost, building resilient neighbourhoods that serve people, not profits.

The 2040 Official Community Plan, built on the input from the Imagine Kelowna consultations is a vision for a vibrant, resilient community: let’s help the City of Kelowna to keep making the right choices. Give your input into the next steps for our beautiful city.