General Issues
Specific Topics
Transportation Planning
Walking/Pedestrian Mobility
Indigenous Issues
British Columbia
Scope of Influence
End Date
Total Number of Participants
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
Targeted Demographics
People with Disabilities


Vancouver's Arbutus Greenway: Rails-to-Trails derailed

January 11, 2024 megan.parno
December 20, 2023 nathanjhawkins
December 13, 2023 nathanjhawkins
General Issues
Specific Topics
Transportation Planning
Walking/Pedestrian Mobility
Indigenous Issues
British Columbia
Scope of Influence
End Date
Total Number of Participants
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
Targeted Demographics
People with Disabilities

Vancouver purchased an abandoned railway hoping to create a “world-class active transportation and greenspace”. Five years after an ambitious vision proposed pedestrian paths, bike lanes, and a streetcar, the Arbutus Greenway is currently no more than an asphalt path.

Case Study Introduction

In 2016, the City of Vancouver (the City) in British Columbia, Canada purchased an abandoned railway running through the centre of the city with hopes of creating a “world-class active transportation and greenspace” (City of Vancouver, 2017). After a decade of contentious legal battles with the owner – Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) – the corridor was purchased for $55 million. With the land secured, the City was tasked with proposing a design that satisfied both the residents of the neighbourhoods that the railway ran through and the users that they hoped to attract to the park through its designation as a transport corridor. In 2023, five years after an ambitious vision involving pedestrian paths, bike lanes, and a streetcar was proposed, the Arbutus Greenway is currently no more than an asphalt path. 

Illustration from Buttle, (n.d.).

Problems and Purpose

The Arbutus Greenway is a classic case of a “rails-to-trails” project in which abandoned railways are converted to shared-use trails or linear parks known as greenways. Other notable rail conversions in urban environments include the coulée verte René-Dumont (constructed 1992) in Paris and the High Line (constructed 2007) in New York.

Public participation is relevant in these cases because the development land is adjacent to built-up urban land and the proposed design will thus affect many stakeholders. In the Vancouver context, the abandoned railway runs through historically wealthy Vancouver neighbourhoods and had been appropriated by adjacent homeowners for many years following the cessation of rail activities (Cypress Community Garden, n.d.), creating a de facto park that was used exclusively by these homeowners for leisure and gardening. Although CPR removed many community gardens from the railway during their legal battle with the City of Vancouver (CBC, 2014), these homeowners still had some reservations about relinquishing the ‘rural character’ of their park by opening it up to public use and hoped to address these concerns during public engagement.

The Arbutus Greenway project also brings up issues of space allocation in a mixed-use transportation context. The Greenway is envisioned to contain pedestrian paths, bike lanes, green space, and eventually a streetcar, potentially causing conflict between different users of this space if design is not considered carefully.

Background History and Context

Vancouver is built on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. These Indigenous groups were violently displaced from their lands without compensation by the British Colonial government and later the Governments of Canada and British Columbia. 

The Arbutus Greenway is a section of a rail line that originally connected False Creek in Vancouver to Steveston Harbour in the suburb of Richmond. The rail line was constructed in 1902 and electrified in 1905 for a passenger tram known as the Steveston Interurban (Glover, 2021). This passenger rail service ended in 1952 and the interurban system was dismantled in favour of bus networks; from this point, the rails were only used for CPR freight trains (Glover, 2021). In 1995, the City of Vancouver adopted the Greenways Plan identifying the Arbutus rail corridor as a potential candidate for a greenway (City of Vancouver, 1995).

The south terminus of the proposed greenway is directly beside a Musqueam village, sacred site, and burial ground called c̓əsnaʔəm in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, and known in English as the Marpole Midden. c̓əsnaʔəm is over 4,000 years old and was Musqueam’s largest village 2,500 years ago (Klashinsky, 2018). 

In 2000, Vancouver passed an Official Development Plan that restricted the rail corridor to transportation uses only - preventing potential redevelopment into buildings (Glover, 2021). In response, CPR Rail sued the City of Vancouver for limiting the use of the property and reducing the potential sale price of the land. The BC Court of Appeal decided the case for CPR, but in 2006 the Supreme Court of Canada provided a final decision that the City could restrict the land to transportation uses only and did not have to compensate CPR for damages (Douglas, 2012). 

In 2001 the last freight train ran along the corridor as CPR had no more customers using this route (Lee, 2014). With the lack of rail traffic, community groups such as the Cypress Community Garden began to take over the edges of the rail line with unsanctioned gardens. 

The City passed the Transportation 2040 plan in 2012, planning to develop the railway for walking and cycling, with the potential future addition of a streetcar. A purchase agreement between the City and CPR was finalized in 2016 for $55 million (City of Vancouver, 2016b; Glover, 2021). Following purchase, the City awarded Dialog, a local urban design firm, the contract to conduct public participation and develop a Design Vision for the Arbutus Greenway.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Between 2016-2018, the City of Vancouver had more than 7000 touchpoints with Vancouver residents about the Arbutus Greenway Project. Participation in engagement events varied depending on the way participants were recruited and selected. Four categories of participants were identified in this project. The recruitment process for the participatory methods employed for the project is outlined in the appropriate category.

Open, self-selected participation

The public that attended these participatory events was self-selected, but participation was open to everyone. There were no restrictions on age, place of residence or other factors.

  • Open Houses
  • Phase 2: It is unclear how participants were recruited. Although it is not explicit – it can be assumed that recruitment followed a similar process to phases 3 and 4. 
  • Phase 3: The dates were posted on the City of Vancouver’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo and Youtube). Information was posted on the webpage. A newsletter was sent to the 2,500+ people subscribed to the Arbutus Greenway newsletter. The sessions were also advertised once in the Ming Pao, Sing Tao and Vancouver Courier. Posters were also placed in nearby libraries and community centres. 
  • Phase 4: The dates were posted on the CIty of Vancouver’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo, Youtube). Information was posted on the webpage. A newsletter was sent to the 2,500+ people subscribed to the Arbutus Greenway newsletter. The sessions were also advertised twice in the Ming Pao, Sing Tao and Vancouver Courier. Posters were also placed in nearby libraries and community centres. 
  • ‘Pop-Up City Hall’ Events 
  • Phase 2: It is unclear how these events were advertised or how participants were recruited.
  • Talk Vancouver Questionnaire 
  • Phase 2: The Survey was open January 18-February 15, 2017. Hard copies were available at all other engagement events. (Although it is not explicit – it can be assumed that the link was also distributed similarly to how it was in phase 4.)
  • Phase 4: The Survey was open April 19-May 6, 2018. The link was posted to the City of Vancouver’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo and Youtube). It was also posted on the webpage. A link was sent to the 2,500+ people subscribed to the Arbutus Greenway newsletter and advertised twice in the Ming Pao, Sing Tao and Vancouver Courier. Posters were also placed in all Vancouver libraries and community centres. Hard copies were available at other engagement events.

  • Reddit “Ask me anything” event
  • Phase 2: The City of Vancouver’s Transportation Design Manager posted about the event on the r/vancouver page. It is unclear where else this event was advertised. 
  • Community Input sessions 
  • Phase 3: How participants were recruited for these events is ambiguous, but assumed to follow the same strategies as open houses in this phase.
  • Workshops: 
  • Phase 1: It is unclear how these events were advertised or how participants were recruited.

Open, Targeted Recruitment

  • Design Jam Workshop: All Vancouver residents were welcome to apply to join the engagement sessions, but selection was limited. The application was on the webpage and open from August 11 - September 22. Out of 313 applicants, 120 were selected ( + 40 waitlisted). Selections were made based on two variables: the proportional representation of all 22 Vancouver neighbourhoods with more in Kitsilano, Arbutus Ridge, Shaughnessy and Marpole and a proportional representation of age and gender. 
  • The Design Jam was advertised throughout the spring and summer of 2017. The application was posted on the City of Vancouver’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo and Youtube) and geotargeted ads were used. Information was posted on the webpage. A newsletter was sent to the 2,500+ people subscribed to the Arbutus Greenway and Greenest City newsletter. It was also advertised once in the Ming Pao and Vancouver Courier. Posters and applications were also placed in all libraries and community centres in Vancouver as well as at the 22 Pop-ups between April and September 2017. The major invited participants at a media event and in a subsequent media release.

In the third phase of participatory engagement, Vancouver hosted three open houses and three community input sessions. Although participation was open to all who wished to participate, the City of Vancouver sent a postcard and letter to all residents within a two-block radius of the corridor inviting them to these events. In addition, geo-targeted ads were utilized.

Lay Stakeholders 

  • Community Stakeholder Meetings 
  • Phase 4: Maple Community Garden Society, Cypress Community Garden Society, City Farmer, Pine Street Community Garden Society, Point Grey Secondary School, Arbutus Ridge Kerrisdale Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale Business Improvement Association, Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association and South Granville BIA participated. There is no data to conclude how these organizations were recruited or selected, although they were engaged in topics that included: the streetcar, transportation design, public realm, community gardens, and excess lands. 

Professional Stakeholders

  • Stakeholder Workshops 
  • Phase 2: Three stakeholder workshops were held on the topics of Community, Business and History, Transportation and Urban Design and Urban Ecology. Each workshop had 10-16 participants who represented various organizations, groups or advocacies, but it is unclear where this event was advertised, or how the participants were recruited and selected.
  • Advisory Committees (see table below)
  • All phases: There is no data to conclude how these committees were selected or why every committee was not consulted at each stage of the project. Generally, the City of Vancouver has a variety of committees made of appointed volunteers to advise the Council and staff on specific lenses of analysis, often concerning aspects of equity.  

Process, Methods, and Participation

Photo by author Nathan Hawkins (2023, May).

Engagement Phase 1 – September 2016:

Participants were encouraged to elaborate on important criteria for the temporary path, its design and material. Table groups collaborated to identify key points including that the path is inclusive, safe, connective, welcoming, appealing, responsive and designed for all weather and light. 356 individuals participated in five workshops. The City also received 567 emails, letters and 3-1-1 calls. The Active Transportation Policy Council, Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, Children, Youth and Families Advisory Committee, and the Seniors Advisory Committee provided feedback. 

Engagement Phase 2 – January-February 2017:

Phase 2 sought to understand the aspirations and values of the Greenway and ask how the public would want to be involved. In-person engagement included three ‘Pop-Up City Hall’ Events and three Open Houses which received 910 and 260 participants respectively. A Talk Vancouver online questionnaire had 2,957 responses and a Reddit “Ask me anything” online event garnered 52 comments. Three stakeholder workshops for Community, Business and History, Transportation and Urban Design and Urban Ecology featured 34 participants. The Active Transportation Policy Council, Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, Children, Youth and Families Advisory Committee, and the Urban Aboriginals Advisory Committee provided feedback

Engagement Phase 3 – October-November 2017:

The goal was to provide residents with a chance to provide feedback on developing themes and contribute to the design process of the Greenways look, amenities, transportation, public space, urban ecology, urban agriculture and local history and culture. A three-day ‘Design Jam Workshop’ engaged 100 participants, three open houses garnered 540 visitors, three community input sessions saw 238 visitors and there were five advisory committee meetings. During this phase, the City met with the Active Transport Policy Council, Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, Urban Aboriginals Advisory Committee, Seniors Advisory Committee, and the Public Art Advisory Committee. 

Engagement Phase 4 – April-May 2018:

The fourth phase engaged the public after the renderings of the eight zones were created. It sought feedback on the proposed character zone designs, north and south connection options and the use of ‘Excess Lands”. A Talk Vancouver online survey received 1,123 responses and four Open Houses hosted 809 visitors. Again input was provided by the Active Transport Policy Council, Children, Youth and Families Advisory Committee, Urban Aboriginals Advisory Committee, and the Seniors Advisory Committee. The City also sought participation from community stakeholders including the Maple Community Garden Society, Cypress Community Garden Society, City Farmer, Pine Street Community Garden Society, Point Grey Secondary School, Arbutus Ridge Kerrisdale Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale Business Improvement Association, Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association and South Granville Business Improvement Association.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

After purchasing the railway, the City wanted a temporary solution to remove the rail tracks and install a temporary surface for immediate use of the greenway while a final design was created and constructed. The Engineering department made an internal decision to make the greenway accessible for active travelers of all ages and abilities (AAA) and selected an asphalt surface (M. Buttle, personal communication, December 1, 2023). Asphalt is often used because it provides a hard and flat surface for rolling at a lower cost than concrete, and asphalt can be ground up and reused. 

However, this decision was made without communication or consultation with the public, leading to a backlash by a vocal minority (Robinson, 2016). Construction of the temporary path was halted in 2016 to conduct consultation and educate on why asphalt was recommended by the Engineering department. The consultation process ultimately recommended a split path with asphalt paving and a bark mulch trail to provide a soft surface for joggers, and construction resumed for 2017 completion. Despite the consultation process and the split path compromise, some residents still complained that they disagreed with the presence of asphalt and did not feel that their opinions had been considered (Lount, 2016).

Dialog presented their Design Vision in July of 2018 which was approved by Council. The Implementation Strategy for the vision recommended phased construction, with detailed design and construction to begin on Zones 3 and 8 immediately (Dobrovolny, 2018). To fund this work, $5 million for the first phase of design and construction was allocated in the City’s 2019-2022 Capital Plan (Cheng, 2018). From that budget, only one contract was awarded to PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc. in May 2019 (City of Vancouver, 2019; O’Connor, 2019). 

Illustrations from Buttle, (n.d.).

At this point (after the Implementation Strategy had been approved), the City began earnest consultation with Musqueam concerning the land and Musqueam’s traditional territories. The City reached out to Musqueam as a partner in 2019 to discuss their interest in the site, and came to an impasse. Further design work for Zone 8 has been paused as of 2021.

PWL progressed design work for Zone 3 to 60% detailed design drawings but was directed to stop work at that point around 2021 (K. Yushmanova, personal communication, December 7, 2023; S. Sister, personal communication, December 7, 2023). It is unclear how much of the $2.5M contract amount was actually paid to PWL before work was paused and the contract was canceled (S. Sister, personal communication, December 7, 2023). Around 2018-9 there was a municipal election with a new City Council, and the City pivoted to other spending priorities like affordable housing and better facilities in East Vancouver. M. Buttle, former Senior Project Manager for the project, stated that the Arbutus Greenway budget allocation was refocused on safety improvements such as the W 16th Ave and W King Edward Ave intersections, which is wrapped up with sewer improvement work along W King Edward Ave, improved signal timing at intersections, and connections to the greenway in the Fairview neighbourhood (M. Buttle, personal communication, December 1, 2023). The $5M funding was reallocated to these projects and other transportation projects. Currently the temporary asphalt and bark mulch paths are the only completed projects on the Arbutus Greenway.

Before the 2022 municipal election, Council approved the 2023-2026 Capital Plan (p. 36-42 Streets section) which does not explicitly allocate funds for future design and construction work for the Arbutus Greenway (City of Vancouver, 2022). The Greenway was only mentioned as a major accomplishment of previous capital plans by purchasing land and installing temporary asphalt and amenities. The Greenway was not mentioned as a key priority for the future. Greenway funds have been allocated to Bute Greenway, Portside Greenway, Kent Ave, Eastside Crosscut for more regional and income equity of access to facilities (City of Vancouver, 2022). These project areas are lower-income and historically underfunded parts of Vancouver in the east, south, and downtown parts of Vancouver. However, Buttle stated that the 2023-2026 Capital Plan did allocate funding for the W King Edward Ave intersection of the Arbutus Greenway under a sewer and streets upgrade project (M. Buttle, personal communication, December 1, 2023).

Since approval of the 2023-2026 Capital Plan, City Council’s new ABC party majority government has not identified the Arbutus Greenway as a priority. The COVID-19 pandemic strained city finances and contributed to the design and construction pause of the Arbutus Greenway in addition to the geographic equity concerns identified above. No new funding is anticipated until the 2027-2030 Capital Plan at the earliest. 



The participation process was designed with the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation in mind, as this was a contractual requirement by the City of Vancouver. This framework defines the public’s role in a public participation process along two dimensions, the Public Participation Goal and the Promise to the Public. Each dimension is judged along an axis of ‘increasing impact on the decision’, from Inform to Empower.

This structure is similar to Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, with the IAP2 levels corresponding to the “rungs” of the ladder. The difference is that IAP2 attempts to “turn the ladder sideways” into non-hierarchical levels that (theoretically) allow for high-quality participation at any level of impact.

While the IAP2 Spectrum has been criticized for being misused to justify poor-quality participation (Hardy, 2015), its presence as a contractual requirement allows it to be used as an ideal with which to compare the actual participation conducted. 

The Arbutus Greenway’s Public Participation Goal was set at the Empower level, which places final decision-making in the hands of the public. This is a difficult goal to analyze, as it could be interpreted as delegating approval of the Implementation Strategy to the public (which is illegal, as City Council is required to do this) or that the Design Vision would require approval submission to Council. Regardless, this was likely not achieved. Although the facilitators sought feedback in the final phases of the design, the participation structure was not conducive to decision-making by participants, allowing facilitators to freely interpret the responses they received as approval for their design.

It appears that the preferred level of the facilitators was Involve. The ‘Design Jam’ and development of themes sought to understand public values and harness technical design knowledge to co-develop physical expressions of those values with the public. There is no intrinsic merit to selecting a higher level of public impact and the Involve level suits the facilitators’ participation strategy well, so the selection of the Empower level is unusual. 

The project was structured such that the public would co-create a design vision which was then given to the City to implement. Given these limitations, the selection of the Empower level of IAP2 was inappropriate, as it could create a vision that the City was unable to implement due to cost or other constraints. It is appropriate, then, to choose a level similar to Involve or Consult which includes a level of ownership by the City to more realistically guide the development of the project according to the City’s resources. This could represent a misunderstanding of the IAP2 spectrum and an attempt to ‘score higher’ by selecting a higher level, similar to Arnstein’s ladder.

Fung’s Democracy Cube

Despite the de facto selection of the Involve level of IAP2, the process still had deficiencies which are best analyzed using Fung’s Democracy Cube. The three dimensions of the democracy cube correspond to critical elements in the institutional design that are pivotal for comprehending the potential and limitations of participatory forms: Who participates? How do they communicate and make decisions? What is the connection between their conclusions, opinions, and public policy and action?


The participatory mechanism of Arbutus Greenway exhibited variations across different engagement phases. The early phases of participation were largely open and attracted members of the general public such as community residents. As the design progressed, the later stages employed a more targeted approach, seeking engagement from professional stakeholders representing schools, business improvement associations, and property owners, among others. 

The participatory process also included a few sub-committees. Fung describes this broad, un-targeted approach to participation as ‘lay stakeholders’ who are defined as “unpaid citizens who have a deep interest in some public concern and thus are willing to invest substantial time and energy to represent and serve those with similar interests or perspectives but choose not to participate” (2006). However, the rationale for choosing these sub-committees is not documented in any reports. For example, the Youth and Families Advisory Council was included in the first, second and fourth participatory phases, but not the third. The meaningfulness of representation of this group over others cannot be ascertained. 

It is interesting to see the role played by professional stakeholders. In this case, DIALOG design firm jumpstarted the participatory planning process through its ‘OURbutus’ campaign. DIALOG acknowledged that their participatory campaign, which engaged the public in their vision for the corridor, played a pivotal role in subsequently securing the design contract. While these efforts reflect the firm’s interest, they also underscore the nuanced reality that ‘participation’ can sometimes be used as a strategic means to a different end - a tool with varied objectives - rather than a pure commitment to inclusive collaboration.

A group that appears to have been largely discounted from targeted or open participation in the Design Vision is Musqueam Nation, in spite of grand promises of furthering Indigenous reconciliation. Although the site is adjacent to c̓əsnaʔəm, the land purchase was conducted without free, prior, and informed consent from Musqueam. This oversight is especially evident in the context of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and numerous conflicts between Indigenous governments and Canadian governments.

Musqueam hosted an open house in Fall 2017 attended by City of Vancouver staff, but this was not part of official project consultation. A collection of City projects were discussed including the Arbutus Greenway, but the discussion focused on Indigenous naming, plants, storytelling, and public art (Dobrovolny, 2018). As Tuck & Yang write, “decolonization is not a metaphor” and reconciliation is achieved through land back, not the incorporation of Indigenous plants and place names (2012). 

Although the Urban Aboriginals Advisory Committee was consulted, this level of consultation falls short of Vancouver’s aims to be the ‘City of Reconciliation’, which would require a more formal ‘nation-to-nation’ level of dialogue for projects on the unceded territory of Musqueam. Musqueam was informed of the purchase of the corridor and the design concept (M. Buttle, personal communication, December 1, 2023), but the degree of dialogue in these meetings was unclear. 

Communication and decision-making

The communication approach employed by the project primarily involved participants coming together to ‘express their preferences’, yet there was a lack of concerted efforts to translate these views into a collective decision. The agendas for each of these sessions were often broad, with a notable lack of clarity regarding the expected outcomes of the session. Documentary evidence indicates that the City staff were not available to facilitate these sessions. It is unclear whether City staff were intentionally absent to provide information or clarification, possibly in favour of fostering “unbounded creativity” among participants (M. Buttle, personal communication, December 1, 2023). This intentional absence, however, raises questions about the expectations for brainstorming sessions and what was effectively communicated to participants. Moreover, the engagement process lacked a clear framework for conflict resolution between opposing expectations for the project, contributing to weaknesses in the overall deliberation. 

This is a key weakness of participatory approaches that lack deliberation or aggregation. It is possible for a facilitator who receives unaggregated opinions to accept the ‘tyranny of the majority’ without attempting to reconcile the majority opinion with the minority ones or to simply ‘cherry-pick’ opinions that agree with the facilitator’s vision. A deliberative approach can seek to arrive at a group consensus through collective interaction and negotiation, allowing for the discovery of new options through consensus building. 

Given the existence of conflict with minority community groups in the area and the apparent conflict between cyclists and walkers, a deliberative communications approach could have been used to address conflict and defuse community opposition to this project. Furthermore, evidence from the 2017 vision consultation document outlines the wide range of topics on which no agreement was reached. These encompassed a broad spectrum from balancing transportation functions with other uses and managing conflicts between different users to envisioning the overall management and delivery of the Greenway as measures to enhance its safety. The City’s passive approach allowed them to (possibly rightly) ignore minority opposition to their design choices, but at the cost of absorbing a loss in public support by groups who felt excluded by the process. 

Authority & Power

Fung argues that “public participation at its best operates in synergy with representation and administration to yield more desirable practices and outcomes of collective decision-making and action” (2006). There must be an appropriate balance between public participation and administrative authority. Diverse participants and more intensive communication and decision-making techniques do not necessarily equate to increased public authority. 

One of the guiding principles for the project was to engage and involve the public and stakeholders in the design process. However, the modes of participation employed by the City were informative and consultative at best and the degree of influence that participants had in the outcomes was limited. The scope of participation – that is what participants had the authority to influence – was predetermined; the public had no role in developing the agenda of what could be discussed during participation. 

Although the City of Vancouver facilitated many rounds of public participation, they primarily selected mediums that only offered one-way receipt of opinion rather than true dialogue. Indeed, as a means of obtaining feedback, participants of these events were encouraged to complete a Talk Vancouver questionnaire with pre-set questions and answers. Even forms of engagement with two-way dialogue, such as Advisory Committee Meetings, Community Input Sessions and Workshops were facilitated with murky guidelines as to how meaningful feedback would be implemented. Documents, including the Consultation Summary Report: Vision and Values for the Future Arbutus Greenway, noted that the City of Vancouver reserved the right of final decision-making authority. This case shows why consultation is a preferred mode of participation amongst governments because of its ability to offer legitimacy through shallow and narrow participation (Cornwall, 270). It does not guarantee the integration of cultivated ideas and can permit the cherry-picking of participation to defend predetermined decisions (Cornwall, 270). 

Ultimately, the cost of this superficial approach to public involvement in the development of the Design Vision can be explained in terms of public trust and expectations. By failing to create a unitary vision amongst the participants through aggregation, the project managers were forced to commit themselves to satisfying the individual preferences of as many participants as possible, such as in the wide number of design features distributed across the 8 character zones. However, this broad diversity of features still left some participants dissatisfied, especially where their values were irreconcilable with the vision of the project facilitators.

Effective public participation can mobilize participants into effective action, creating the “shock troops of democracy” envisioned by Fung (2006). Ineffective public participation instead creates a host of promises that inevitably go at least partially unfulfilled, sacrificing public trust and time in service of the “empty ritual of participation” (Arnstein 1969).

Lessons Learned

Based on our analysis, we offer three key findings from the Arbutus Greenway project.

1. We recommend that Vancouver establish a formal framework for Indigenous partnership on municipal projects.

Public participation is often used to harness community knowledge, ease implementation, and ensure that the actual outcome is appropriate for the community. In this case, the stalled implementation of Zone 8 due to insufficient consultation with Musqueam was predictable. The historic and sacred meaning of this land could have been highlighted much earlier in the design and site evaluation process if Musqueam were involved in the process before the land was purchased and designs were created. Another zone could have been selected for the first round of implementation in place of Zone 8. 

This failure to involve Indigenous stakeholders, despite the aspirations of Indigenous partnership described in the Design Vision and Implementation Strategy, represents a structural failure in the City of Vancouver’s processes - and is generalizable to all government communications with Indigenous peoples. As noted by Anderson & Flynn, municipalities operate within strict and inflexible guidelines which limit their ability to interact with Indigenous stakeholders outside of generalized procedures that treat Indigenous peoples as an equity-seeking group, and do not understand the unique relationship between them and the land (2020). While these requirements are implemented in good faith to ensure procedural fairness, they are ill-equipped to handle the complexities of a nation-to-nation relationship. A legal framework that establishes the responsibilities of both a municipality and host Nation(s) is required for the flexibility necessary in a relationship and facilitates clear understanding between all parties for large projects such as this one.

2. We recommend that public participation strategies are constructed with both breadth and depth in mind, pairing broad brainstorming workshops with parallel workshops designed to facilitate deliberation.

Our analysis found that the participation process for the Greenway project lacked deliberation and failed to resolve conflicting opinions. Broad but shallow participation allows for a wide collection of opinions, including across equity-seeking groups represented by the various sub-committees consulted. While it may be appropriate to engage the public broadly to hear the widest diversity of opinions for a brainstorming workshop, this does not live up to the Empower or even Involve levels of the IAP2 spectrum, as the public is not given an opportunity to develop an informed opinion and thus no ability to make meaningful decisions. As a result, community knowledge is under-utilized, as it has no ability to affect the results. 

With a deliberative structure, the public is given the opportunity to develop new options to suit the needs of the community instead of being limited to evaluating options as they are presented. This differs from open brainstorming because participants collectively determine both the goals of the project and the ways in which they are achieved, whereas brainstorming is limited to finding solutions that match the goals envisioned by the project facilitators.

3. We recommend that public works projects be designed with public expectations management in mind with regard to their design and implementation.

The failure to implement the Arbutus Greenway can be attributed to political expediency; in the face of changing conditions, City Council can hardly be criticized for addressing more pressing issues. However, this incurred political costs as the effort and promises made during the Greenway project have been effectively wasted. Future projects should consider this cost and take steps to address it during the design phase.

One way to achieve this is to strive for transparency and consistent communication. Participants must be informed about not only the goal of their participation, but their ability to influence the project, realistic constraints on implementation, and upcoming steps necessary to implement the project. Informed participation not only generates more effective opinions but also tempers expectations.

The project timeline should also fall within reasonable limits to minimize uncertainty. Uncertainty increases as time passes, increasing the risk of cost overrun and shifts in public and political opinion (Flyvbjerg 2010). Thus, where possible, projects should limit forecasting past 3 years and long-term projects should make it abundantly clear to participants that the extended timeframe may cause large shifts in the project.


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Klashinsky, D. (2018, October 17). Portion of c̓əsnaʔəm village and burial site returned to Musqueam. Musqueam.̓əsnaʔəm-village-and-burial-site-returned-to-musqueam-indian-band/

Lee, J. (2014, May 7). Trains may run again down Vancouver’s Arbutus corridor. Vancouver Sun.

Lount, E. (2016, October 16). Arbutus Greenway “Final” design feedback – letter to City from citizen Elvira Lount re Oct 15 open house [Blog]. City Hall Watch.

O’Connor, N. (2019, May 29). City awards $2.5-million contract for detailed design of two sections of Arbutus Greenway. Vancouver Courier.

Robinson, M. (2016, August 5). City halts paving of Arbutus corridor. Vancouver Sun

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1).


This case study was created as part of the course requirements for PLAN 500 Comparative Perspectives on Planning History and Futures at UBC SCARP.