In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the area around False Creek in the Canadian city of Vancouver underwent a transition through which new residential towers within close proximity of the CBD went up.

Whilst this unlocked a vibrant atmosphere and housing for around 80,000 people close to the CBD whilst preserving character and public space, the costs were substantial.

Apart from a loss of commercial space, the transformation saw low-cost housing in one of the few remaining affordable areas of the city disappear and the displacement of around 1,600 residents, many of whom wound up on streets. This happened at the same time as high opium production saw heroin flood onto the streets and the deinstitutionalisation of the mental health sector saw more vulnerable people requiring alternative accommodation. Several hundred not-for-profit groups now operate in that area, which now also occupies large portions of police time.

In 2012, the city acted. A community development area was created with rental only developments, 20 per cent of which must be affordable to those on social assistance. Proposals for new economic development within the area are assessed by a community board and disallowed if they are not sensitive to the socio-economic status of the area or would result in further displacement of low income residents.

Across the city, developers who demolish rental units are required to provide at least the same number of replacement units which must be rented at a price not exceeding that at which they were previously being rented or alternatively compensate the city at a cost of $150,000 per dwelling. As many of those displaced had turned to scavenging and flogging merchandise found in garbage to passers-by, the city created a new market which now serves as a safe place in which many of those partaking in this can eke out a small income – the space being largely controlled by the vendors themselves under moves to promote a sense of dignity and empowerment.

Whilst these developments are encouraging, the impact of what was done in the early 90s remains with the city today. Moreover, the case highlights the need to think carefully about social implications when undergoing urban regeneration efforts.

Such lessons – described by Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer at a recent conference in Melbourne – prompt questions as to how we can go about urban renewal in a way that drives positive social value without having unintended adverse consequences.

According to Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Liliana D’Ambrosio, a number of strategies are required.

First, D’Ambrosio said it is critical to reflect upon what was important to communities. Whilst families and households assume varying forms, she said there are a number of desired features which are common to all. These include safe open spaces, good access to transport and jobs, accessible schools and childcare centres, adequate local infrastructure including straightforward features such as well-maintained footpaths upon which wheelchairs and prams could be managed, reliable local bus services to enable those unable to drive to access local services and opportunities and good healthcare and social opportunities.

In this regard, D’Ambrosio says there are examples where things have been poorly done. In one case in outer Melbourne, she said the majority of the social infrastructure such as sporting facilities, childcare centres and supermarkets lay on one side of a busy road and housing on the other – a situation which made it difficult for those unable to drive to access community facilities.

When undertaking renewal within existing communities, D’Ambrosio said it is also important to look at the positive aspects of those communities and build upon those. Whereas many acknowledge that there is room for improvement, she says many people even in poorer communities like where they live and feel a sense of ownership within their localised environment.

Further, D’Ambrosio says governments need to look not just at the bigger picture but also at a more localised level. Whilst Melbourne as a whole will generally manage the effect of the automotive industry shutdown, for example, the localised community of Broadmeadows in the north will be particularly hard hit. In this case, she said the government is thinking about specific strategies it can apply to unlock other opportunities and was looking at partnership opportunities at a local level.

In the case of the City of Hume (in which Broadmeadows is located), she says there are partnerships in place between the state government, the local government, VicTrack (state government agency which owns the rail tracks) and VicRoads which are coming together to develop a housing demonstration site, commercial floor space, public oval space and multi-deck car parking.

State governments in such circumstances, she said, need to intervene early together with local partners to unlock new opportunities and help the community to transition the local economy into new areas.

In terms of infill and inner urban precincts, D’Ambrosio said these must provide for social and economic infrastructure as well as residential development. Fishermans Bend – Australia largest urban renewal project in Melbourne’s west covering 485 hectares which by 2050 is expected to be home to 80,000 residents and 60,000 jobs – is a case in point. The vision for the project involves five precincts, each with its own characteristics which will combine to make up a multi-functional urban renewal effort featuring commercial, residential, community and open space. One entire precinct, for example, will be dedicated to social and community infrastructure and will include Victoria’s first vertical school as well as a new community park.

Reimer says it is important to empower the local community and provide everyone with a sense of dignity. With the aforementioned street market, she said enabling people to make decisions for themselves has improved their sense of self-worth.

“People who were heavy drug users or alcoholics are making choices to not do drugs or not drink because they have leadership roles within the market,” she said.

Australia has an opportunity to unlock significant social gains through urban renewal projects within our cities.

Whether or not this happens depends upon how well we plan and engage in community dialogue and empowerment.