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Does hiring a former Portland planner mean a Portland-style homeless solution?

August 3, 2016
Gel Kelley, Vancouver's new

Gil Kelley, Vancouver’s new chief planner, believes in bike- and foot-friendly neighbourhoods and planning with intention.—City of San Francisco

The City of Vancouver has hired American Gil Kelley to be its new chief planner.

I had to laugh because the Province newspaper ran the announcement underneath a puff piece called “Tent cities have history of tackling homelessness”, which used a slight reference to a tent city of 50 in the Downtown Eastside as an excuse to list the top five homeless tent cities in Vancouver going back to 2002. The actual item about Kelley was titled: “Vancouver hires former Portland city planner“.

Kelley’s time in charge of planning and development for Portland, Oregon, was all of seven years ago—old news. He’ll actually be coming to Vancouver as the former San Francisco city planner–and it would’ve made more sense for a news story to describe him as such.

However, when I saw him defined by his time in Portland, underneath a meaningless piece about homeless tent cities, I wondered if perhaps I was seeing a bit of sly editorializing, or spin doctoring.

Kelley was, after all, Portland’s chief planner in 2001, the year that the city took an illegal homeless camp and turned it into, what I believe was, the very first legally-sanctioned, permanent homeless encampment in the United States, the subsequently world-famous Dignity Village.

A West Coast planner through and through


The way that the hiring of Kelley was framed in a morning newspaper.

According to his Linkedin CV, Gil Kelley has over 40 years of experience as an urban planner for West Coast American municipalities, including  North Bonneville in Washington state, Portland, Oregon and Berkeley and San Francisco in California.

Kelley will take on an expanded role as Vancouver’s chief planner and general manager of the newly-created city department of planning, urban design and sustainability. His appointment, effective September 15, will fill an eight month planning vacuum created by the retirement at the end of 2015 of Brian Jackson, who served as Vancouver’s General Manager of Planning and Development from 2012.

Kelley cones to Vancouver straight from serving two years as Director of Citywide Planning for the City and County of San Francisco, since 2014. Before that, as stated at the top, he was the Director of Planning for the City of Portland, Oregon, from 2000 to 2009.

Kelley is known for both his commitment and approach to sustainable urban development, which includes his influential concept of bike- and foot-friendly “20-minute neighbourhoods“—basically a modern re-imagining of the pre-automobile urban planning of a century ago (with bicycles replacing horses).

His belief that healthy neighbourhoods begin with residents being able to walk or ride to essential amenities and services within 20 minutes was given full and effective expression during his nine years as Portland’s head planner. Now dozens of communities across the United States, including Detroit, Michigan and Baltimore, Maryland, are adopting both the goal of “20-minute neighbourhoods” and the buzz phrase.

Gil Kelley actually sounds like a perfect fit for Vancouver’s current approach to city  planning—he’s all about bike routes and “greenest cities”. He pragmatically accepts gentrification and his swan song as head planner in San Francisco, the proposed and hugely controversial Affordable Housing Bonus, shows he’s happy to pay developers with significant extra density to get them to produce units of affordable housing.

The village that homeless people (and Portland) built

Curiously, Gil Kelley hasn’t had much of anything to say publicly about homelessness. This is really curious, considering that Portland took the unprecedented initiative, while Kelley was the head of planning in 2001, to allow a group of homeless protestors camping downtown to relocate to a permanent location on city-owned land on the outskirts of Portland.

The result was Dignity Village, a permanent, legally-recognized, encampment and mini-community for homeless people, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary on August 22.

The Village provides services to all of Portland’s homeless people but it’s on a small piece of land, so it can only provide actual housing for about 60, making it more of a transitional half-way housing option. Still, it’s self-governing, self-policing and against all expectations it has survived. Not surprisingly, it has become both a model and an inspiration to homeless people and their advocates all over the world.

Close to home, in 2013, there was a concerted effort to create a Dignity Village-inspired “Dignity Camp” for the beleaguered 60-some strong homeless population of Abbotsford, B.C.

Abbotsford Pastor and homelessness activist Wayne Draper even told the media that he had a firm commitment from an un-named family to provide 10-acres of free land for the permanent homeless encampment. At the time I asked:

“…how closely it would follow the original Portland model with it’s emphasis on community and self-responsibility. That could really attract many of Abbotsford’s homeless, who are clearly trying to live alternative, self-reliant lives. But we’re talking about Abbotsford. Could city officials accept that, or would their ‘Dignity Village’ more resemble a refugee camp?”

Nothing actually came of Draper’s initiative; this was still the Abbotsford of Mayor Bruce Banman, who’s only response to a homeless camp in the spring of 2013 had been to arrange to dump chicken manure on it.

Things only began to change for the better in Abbotsford after Banman was kicked out of office by voters in 2014 and the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that because Abbotsford had no shelters, homeless people couldn’t be prohibited from sleeping overnight in Abby’s parks.

There are now three communities in B.C. that are letting homeless people sleep overnight in parks for lack of proper shelter spaces—Victoria and Abbotsford, by court order and Chilliwack, by choice.


Meanwhile, Vancouver has been keeping its parks off limits over night and hoping that no one (especially no B.C. Supreme Court Justices) notices that the city has nowhere near enough shelter spaces for its all-time high number of 1,847 roofless Vancouverites, enumerated in the city’s 2016 homeless count.

And there’s no reason to suppose that the number of homeless people in Vancouver won’t continue to increase year after year, unless someone steps up and does something to effectively break the existing pattern—something that obviously isn’t being done now.

I can’t say that Kelley is that someone, or that his appointment to the top planning job in Vancouver signals that Mayor Gregor and company are the least bit interested in creating a permanent campsite for the city’s homeless population.

But hopefully Vancouver can learn useful guiding lessons from his firsthand experience with implementing one of the most famous homeless projects in North America.

And coming directly from West Coast American cities where the homeless problem is altogether more advanced and severe than anywhere in Canada, Kelley brings valuable advance insights into the possible futures of homelessness in Vancouver.

On the one hand, there’s Portland, with its ground-breaking approach to empowering homeless people and alternately there’s San Francisco, where the problem has been allowed to fester and grow, until the homeless are so thick on the ground that outraged elite tech workers can hardly keep from tripping and spilling their specialty coffees. Click the images to enlarge them.

  1. Detroit and Baltimore are two of the top three armpit cities in the USA, along with Sadhu’s Chicago. Hardly shining examples of anything.


    • Haha! I’ve certainly read about Detroit’s problems. I mentioned those two cities because they’re notably large cities on the east coast (there’s no end of communities on the west coast adopting 20-minute planning) and to indicate how the buzz phrase is being tossed about far and wide.


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