Blindness of Power

140 West Plaza: Exhale

140 West Plaza: Exhale – Chapel Hill, North Carolina

When Mikyoung finished her presentation, her call for questions resulted in a strange stillness. Maybe it was the lack of light that kept her in that moment of power: everyone else could remain hidden in the comfort of their silence. However, Ms. Kim’s care for her audience stayed: she inquired who in the room were students, who were architects and so on. By then I was already heading out so that I could contemplate the parts of the lecture I enjoyed.

I remember, as a student going to presentations by guest designers, waiting for words of wisdom from the esteemed achievers. Like many of my peers I am curious to see what other designers are doing. A person on stage has a moment of power when attention is directed to them. What I have to say and how I say it is an opportunity to cultivate a message.

Yet standing on stage can be intimidating. Not everyone might like what I have to say, to show. My audience can be a reflection of my inner critic. The louder that inner voice is – the bigger the fear. That fear can be blinding. It can obscure my sight of the people who took the time to direct their attention to me.

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Farrar Pond Project – FlexFENCE

When Mikyoung Kim stepped onto the stage she started by addressing the context of an audience waiting to hear the words of the accomplished personality. We all start our lives looking to others for reference. Whether it’s the only issue that interests me or not, how to make money out of my skills is a big one. Looking for words, Mikyoung seemed to struggle a bit at first in addressing that balance between aspirations and reality: saying no to a client is one of the hardest things.

Alluding to the fact that she was also a beginner at one point, her words meandered between comfort and encouragement. I appreciate Mikyoung’s effort of presenting a meaningful story. But when you’re on stage you are the story. Even better than that, you are the message.

The work of Mikyoung Kim Design is inspiring. You can get a sense of what it is from the firm’s website and other sources on the web. In her talk, Mikyoung also shared some ‘behind the scenes’ stories that enhanced the visuals in her slides. For me this is usually the better part of presentations. We can all see the details, but how you got there is what we’re here to absorb.

Many in the audience in SALA Lectures are students of the school. But whenever I go, I see other practitioners from the field, beginners as well as veterans. I am always curious to see and hear what other people have to share. However, what intrigues me beyond the immediate encounter, is that interface between intention and result, expectations and outcome.

Horizon Garden - Providence, LI

Horizon Garden – Providence, Rhode Island

Standing on stage is a position of blindness. You present your show and hardly see your audience in most cases. You definitely can’t see the impression you’ve had on their minds. If you practice your show, then stepping from first impressions to conclusion can work to your benefit. Mikyoung Kim advocates finding authenticity. If you don’t see your audience you still have yourself, which in her case is a lot.

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Nanaimo Workshop: the limits of change; the limits of imagination

BroadwayXNanaimo

The tension between my empathy and frustration made me suggest two ways of looking at the process of change. Both take inspiration from sculpture.

By empathy I mean that we all have a common inclination to resist change. When I suggest going for a walk, my daughter’s immediate response is ‘no’. It’s much more convenient to stay where she is but as soon as we’re out she’s completely transformed: every few steps there is something else that interests her.

Frustration is from my feeling of struggling with this same knee jerk reaction coming from adults. The process of community generated recommendations for a neighborhood wide plan is an opportunity. We can influence in a positive way the shape and function of a whole neighborhood. But we are stuck in saying ‘no’. Just because. So with adults there are much more time and resources required to move a step away from just saying no to shifting gears into a constructive discussion.

How can you imagine planning for 30 years ahead? It starts with maps.

Maps on the tables, a map on the wall, tracing paper and felt pens. In Grandview Woodland a set of events are part of an effort to reach a community plan that will be in service for the next thirty years. A week ago I’ve participated in a walking tour that was very helpful in generating initial acquaintance with the area and inspire some insights. The workshop on Saturday, January 17 was meant to collect as much of the knowledge and wisdom in the room to reach a vision that responds to real insights from real residents.

There were moments in the workshop at the Wise Hall on Adanac street where a presenter uttered the words “No Change” and the whole room burst into cheers of approval. No change to zoning around the parks. No change to this, no change to that: cheers, cheers and cheers. Oh, how lovely, how easy to say, to demand.

NotUpToEight

The changes anticipated for Nanaimo street and its adjacent blocks of mostly single family residences are generally understood as those of densification. The facilitators in the room are generally doing a good job of explaining in words and diagrams the concepts and tools at hand. When people express a concern about height, there are a variety of solutions to keep sunlight, air flow and some views. When the discussions focus on amenities, green space and transportation, valuable information is gathered. Residents’ feedback directly informs our planners’ recommendations to City Council. Without them, the policies coming out of this process are much less effective in providing us with the services we could have.

However, most people know and understand that change will come and will happen. The question in my view is what change would you like to see? Not necessarily how much or how little but for any change proposed, how would you like it to be, to look, to work. It is complicated and in a way impossible to predict what change will eventually yield. Will it really succeed or sadly fail?

When I talked at the table with my fellow residents, I likened the addition of height within the Nanaimo sub-area to the work of a sculptor: one method employs the gradual addition of matter to the base until it feels right; the other is chiseling pieces away from the block until you expose the shape you want. In both options my idea is to explore the maximum massing as an exercise in community sculpture. With the maps available, we can take each region and consider its context. Whether it is the adding of mass or the chiseling method, each area can accommodate additional space, be it retail, office, residence or industry.

HousingTransportation

Our discussion needs to move on to formalizing the limits of a change. Refusing change will not prevent it from happening. When the change is formally and positively directed – with the right input from the community – the policies constructed based on these discussions will reflect the change that we all need.

Britannia-Woodland Workshop: From Participation to Ownership

Microsoft Word - Britannia-Woodland - Workshop - Backgrounder V2 In the hall of the Vancouver Opera rehearsal building, tables were arranged by topics. I usually like to move between tables but this time I stuck with the one focused on Local Economy. Other tables dealt with Arts & Culture, Heritage, Parks and Public Space, Social Sustainability & Social Issues, Transportation and Housing.

But there are three topics that keep intriguing me when dealing with community engagement: Participation, Contribution and Ownership.

On Saturday, December 6 the City of Vancouver held a workshop dedicated to exploring residents’ interests and insights for the neighborhood in the next 30 years. What I feel is working in favor of the planning process is a good combination of participation, contribution and ownership. On my way to delivering a workshop at the Urban Design Masters program in UBC it was great to participate in one. I’m inspired by the process going on in Grandview Woodland these days.

Participation: one of the most challenging issues of setting up a workshop is attracting a significant audience.

When it’s sunny outside – they thank you for coming out on such a lovely day; when it rains – they thank you for taking the time. Well yes, no one can promise this process would yield tangible results, let alone benefits to the community. So the fact that people show up is admirable. And residents don’t hesitate to express their complaints: these range from the usual “the rich/the developers always get their way” to the more specific, personal stories of encounters with city policies and the looming threat to maintaining a business.

Contribution: when residents do participate, their contribution to this process can be significant.

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Andrew Pask, the City of Vancouver planner for Grandview Woodland in one of his summaries in front of the screen.

Half an hour before the workshop I was still sitting outside the Britannia public library. I’ve exchanged a few words with a guy who was browsing through the garbage bin. He was in search of cans and bottles. It was a rainy morning. “The stuff people throw away in this neighborhood! It’s disgusting!” he grumbled sort of to himself. “So, you’re complaining?” I asked him, intrigued by the scene and curious to tap into his message. Homelessness was mentioned quite a bit throughout the day. The main issue was concern for those who seem to be entrenched in this type of living. The homeless is our symbol for everything that’s bad about gentrification, rightfully or not. Whether you need to move away to a cheaper space or are at risk of being thrown to the streets, talking about the homeless is not only an expression of care to those who are there: it is a tangible fear for our own fate.

Ownership: when you come to a workshop and contribute to its discussions, chances are that your care and attachment to the neighborhood increase.

As my talk with the guy collecting bottles extended a bit, I’ve heard that he comes from Saskatchewan. He is in touch with his family there. He seemed pretty interested to know where I was heading. But when the library opened at 9:30 AM the man slipped inside with the rest of the people waiting outside. I headed a few blocks south to where the workshop was about to begin. Eventually I couldn’t notice the guy at the workshop. But whatever story this encounter had entailed, I took it as just another one that makes this neighborhood.

Question: “Does this process help City Hall ease its way to execute a predetermined agenda or does it truly engage the community in meaningful development of our city?” The two parts of this question don’t seem contradictory to me. However, if participation, contribution and ownership are core elements of community engagement, trust, education and futility are a the real challenge of its purpose. Here is an interesting article relating to this.

Moving forward is an interest we usually have as much as it tends to be a necessity. “OK, so now what?” you may ask. On our way to action, questions can be useful. In Grandview Woodland it looks like the sense of ownership is strong. This makes for significant participation. The challenge is in how to turn the contributions made, into significant moves forward – for the benefit of current residents as well as future populations.

The Grandview-Woodland Assembly Roundtable

In recent years I’ve participated in a few Grandview Woodland community meetings. Following the decision to establish the Citizens’ Assembly I felt curious to catch up and stay involved. A Roundtable session happened at the Maritime Labour Centre on November 26th 2014. It turned out to be an intriguing exchange of thoughts and ideas.

At the very start of the evening a few disgruntled voices were heard from the audience. They had good points: 1. The draft was only presented at the meeting instead of being circulated for prior review and better preparation. 2. A contentious development plan has triggered the forming of the ‘Assembly’. The knowledge of a community plan prepared before that has come to light recently: Scot Hein, who had been senior urban designer for the City of Vancouver at the time, mentioned it in a comment on the Price Tags* blog. The comment from the audience inquired about the availability of that plan for review by the public. (* You might need to scroll a bit: the location of Scot’s comment is automatically updated when more comments are added)

My general impression is that we very often (me included) find it easier to complain about what seems wrong before acknowledging the positive aspects of what’s in front of us. What’s good about this habit is that it shows we care. However, in reality, in most cases confrontational discussions tend to put at least one side on the defensive, leading to a pretty unproductive discussion. At the Roundtable event there were signs of that although eventually the evening ended in a feeling of progress; it looks like the Assembly has gained useful insights for the next phase of its work.

One of my comments at the table referred to the use of the word Values in the handed Draft. A few nods of approval were made by other participants. Below are some more thoughts that expand a bit on that. Below my thoughts I’ve put the Draft for context. Hopefully this helps the Assembly further on their way to stepping into the Options stage:

It might be useful to point Grandview-Woodland Values in much shorter sentences for the benefit of focus. Diverse individuals, by nature of their individuality do not necessarily have the same set of values. This leads to my next point:

Values to Guide Change need to be very few and as open as possible for discussion, debate and clarification. This way we can achieve the desired understanding and diversity expressed in this document.

There seems to me to be confusion in terms throughout this document. What I value is not necessarily A Value. The effort of articulating the points described in this document is admirable. Participating in this process inspires in me a sense of responsibility to its success. When words are put down in writing, I find it necessary to be precise yet inviting; easy to follow yet meaningful. Would it help calling the list here Acknowledgements instead of Values?

The question ‘What are Values?’ might be a guiding principle for fine tuning this document.

More valuable points were brought up in the evening. The above is just a drop in the sea of explorations that will hopefully lead this lovely neighborhood to another day of progress, another decade of success, another century of city building.


Below you can read the Draft document as scanned and extracted following the evening described above.

DRAFT- Values to guide change in Grandview-Woodland

Character and History:

We first acknowledge and value that we are on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples. This is not just history but an ongoing and living presence within Grandview-Woodland.

We value residential friendly change in line with the current character of built forms and streets. This neighbourhood character has been defined by its unique history and we want to continue to attract, welcome, and sustain diverse people, communities and buildings.

We value the character and history as it currently exists in Grandview-Woodland. We want to build upon that history and character while understanding that this can mean change or maintaining what is here.

Appropriate Change or Just & Appropriate Change:

We understand that change is inevitable, but are concerned with the pace and type of change occurring in our neighbourhood.

In order to embrace change, we seek to promote social and spatial changes that are integrated, gradual, sustainable, appropriately scaled and responsive to the needs of local residents and the City’s residents more broadly. This is accomplished through extensive grassroots community engagement that is inclusive and democratic.

Diversity:

We commit to promoting and defending diversity of all forms. In planning for the future, Grandview-Woodland has a specific interest in the diversity of people, housing, public land use, and economic opportunities.

Affordability:

We want a reasonable way for people of all socio-economic levels to live lives free from stress of an uncertain future in regards to their money, security, and ability to grow.

Well-being & Health:

We value maintaining green spaces and a quality of life that fosters mental, physical, and social health in the places we work, live and play.

We view health in a way that recognizes peoples’ different social and economic histories and experiences. We also value walkability and encouraging active health.

Environmental Sustainability:

We think environmental sustainability includes at least three dimensions:

  1. Communities that are resilient, scalable, more complete, clean, vibrant, and have local economies.
  2. Green spaces that promote ecological literacy, biodiversity, food security, physical activity and well-being for all.
  3. Green infrastructure that is energy efficient and minimizes waste. It should also support people in reducing our collective emissions and resource use.

Mobility and Accessibility:

We value a transportation system that:

  1. Offers a well-integrated, sufficient, efficient and affordable mix of modes of transportation for all ages and abilities.
  2. Makes active transportation safe, convenient and delightful while managing traffic congestion.
  3. Allows the movement of goods and services that supports a thriving local economy and a major port, while reducing impacts and ensuring effective emergency response.

Safety:

We value the ability to walk, ride and drive anywhere at anytime in a safe and reasonable manner. We also desire to protect and include all members of the community, whether it is inside the home or in the neighbourhood at large. Safety should be guaranteed for, among others: women, children, people no matter their ethnic/cultural background, those with addictions, disabilities, or mental health problems, seniors, First Nations, and people of all sexual orientations.

We also want to encourage more collaboration between the community, law enforcement, community policing organizations, first responders, and harm reduction programs.

Finally, we value a neighbourhood that is family-friendly—safe, clean and encouraging of play for all ages.

Streets Drive Our Cities – Follow up to a talk by Aaron Naparstek

Change has its merits. It also ignites resistance. October 14 2014: In his interesting talk at Robson Square, Aaron Naparstek presented examples of change. Among them on the large scale front was the removal of the freeway in Seoul, South Korea and park(ing) day on the small-turned-global-scale. With a lot of appreciation to the way Vancouver has developed ways of implementing livability, he had some interesting points worth attention.

http://naparstek.com/

www.streetsblog.org

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On both sides of society, those who oppose change and those who advocate for it, elements of truth exist. So it’s only natural that times of change generate arguments to the point of confrontation. The documented crises in history show us that sometimes change helps societies advance their quality of life and sometimes not.

It would have been great to have direct connections between urban groups interested in change around the world. Many big cities have similar issues that could benefit from an ongoing on-line exchange of information. Free flowing information could facilitate quick responses to barriers such as legal actions and strict law enforcement.

However, insights from processes of urban change are almost naturally unique to the change they are related to. As much as urban dwellers around the world have similar, sometimes identical experiences, in times of change the timing is a major factor.

Before change happens, the uncertainties involved require attention to action and problem solving. Documentation is a lower priority in most cases. Funding is always a challenge so dedicated assignment of funds would tend to skip documentation intended for sharing.

A talk like this one, brought by the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UBC is therefore not only interesting. It is significant and important. Some of the points below are worth a much broader discussion so they are brought here as glimpses into future elaborations.

Success requires succession:

The Bogotá bus system introduced by mayor Enrique Peñalosa in the year 2000, became so successful in terms of usage, that overcrowding invoked complaints to the point of riots.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TransMilenio

http://www.citylab.com/commute/2012/03/why-are-people-rioting-over-bogotas-public-transit-system/1537/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxmqyF5M_rw

Having a dedicated media channel:

In advocacy, your public/online presence is also a place to go to. People are looking for an anchor to hook their interests onto. The platform from which you voice your vision and share your insights, becomes that anchor. The exchange between you and your audience helps in forming and strengthening the community.

Physical presence:

Crucial for maintaining support, advocates of livable urban change must show up to events. Occasions where change was in the interest of many, failed to yield the desired results because of insufficient physical engagement. People rely heavily on useful Internet tools to generate interest and support. However, for action to actually happen, showing up sends a strong message to other groups who might be opposed to the change.

This is definitely a core challenge for change makers. In most cases the hard work required to facilitate, engage in and inspire change is done by volunteers. The volunteering platform is inherently underfunded. Sufficient funding, direct or indirect, helps in efficient organization and management of complex urban processes.

Even advocates of change aspire to reach a state of permanence whenever their goals are reached. So it’s not only an effort to move society from one reality to another. A successful process of change requires a transfer from crisis to policy. Could this be a clue to what makes resistance to change so fierce at times?

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Arbutus Amble Walk

What would a good question be for an urban railway corridor that has been handed to the care of residents almost two decades ago? Arbutus Amble Start Starting at the platform of the former Olympic Line near Granville Island, it was another warm summer day, to be out enjoying the city. It is immediately evident that the landscape throughout this walk is unique. On Saturday August 9 I’ve participated (part way) in the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) walk. On the one hand we were required to occasionally cross heavy traffic; we were constantly surrounded by various types of human built structures. On the other, the natural/wild and cultivated growth along the way serve as a softening setting that has an undeniable charm that might even be considered magical.

The invitation to the walk seemed alarming: “The CP deadline for removing gardens and other structures along the tracks was July 31. … We’ll be on the look-out for any changes that have been made since the deadline passed.”

The community gardens along the way that I had the chance to walk through were still in place. The CP Rail deadline must have been an official notice without much intention to be enforced strictly. But the discussion in Vancouver will no doubt become complicated and confrontational.  There has already been some media coverage of the topic (see bottom of this page).

We all seem to want our city to be a great place to live in. What makes it great is an ever changing set of components, naturally occurring and manufactured. Following are just a sampling of phrases, each with their own implications:

Leave It As It Is: hearing this is very common when residents are asked about their neighborhood.

Enhance Its Public Character: interpreting each of these innocent words entails a world of controversy.

Common Development: do I hear residential? commercial? Just think of what clashes occurred around the Rize and Grandview-Woodlands: will this be another anti development battle front?

Re-introduce Railway Traffic: is it at all possible that such an option makes sense?

Who are the stakeholders in this story? We were probably not more than ten interested individuals participating in the walk. Even if we can imagine that any resident of Vancouver benefits from the Arbutus Corridor as it is today, what would make us engage and participate in determining its fate?

A walk along the tracks is a natural step in experiencing the play-field. I find this urban space charming and unique. However, my feeling is that a significant vision for its future is needed; a significant vision that is strongly inspired by the nature of the corridor at its current state. Could it reflect the interests and needs of Vancouver residents? What is the critical mass required to actually generate and fulfill that vision?

I had to leave the tour at an early stage: my ten year old daughter was naturally more inclined to following lady bugs and eating ice cream. One of the ideas that popped up at an early stage of the walk was using the tracks as an infrastructure for food, arts and culture carts. Would they be restricted to festivals or operate throughout the year? Well, that was just an idea. So many more are possible. What are yours?


 

A quick sampling of media coverage:

“CP Rail gets its gardening claws out” (Vancouver Sun, August 6, 2014)

“CP Rail’s deadline on Arbutus corridor comes and goes, but gardens remain” (Global News, August 6, 2014)

“Vancouver, CP Rail far apart on value of Arbutus rail corridor” (Globe and Mail, Monday, Jul. 28 2014)

Citizens involved in the debate have set up a Facebook page: Preserve The Arbutus Corridor

Technology and behaviour

The stamp on my disposable cup said “Without the internet.” I was visiting the Faraday Cafe on 434 Columbia Street in Vancouver. Beside the front glass of the space, many used cups were placed with phrases added to the existing one. I also finished my drink and added a few words to share my perspective.

Julien Thomas has opened a café that blocks wireless signals from reaching its customers. A few years ago I’ve read a disclaimer at JJ Bean explaining their stand on not providing wi-fi in their coffee shops. I’m not sure whether they are still doing that but at the time I was wondering if it really is necessary for a business to engage in such issues. With or without access to communication tools (A.K.A. Technology) it’s people’s behavior that determines their degree of engagement with each other.

Faraday Cafe-1082

What are the questions we ask ourselves in the context of our needs? I remember the emotional effort required to discuss with my wife the issue of using her cell phone in the presence of friends in a coffee shop. I’m trying to compare that effort with the effort invested in putting up the Faraday Cafe for the days it will operate. What I feel is at stake here is made up of many layers, branches and threads of thought. Maybe a significant one is the balance between confrontation and engagement.

It seems like almost everyone feels the challenge of giving our attention to the people important to us. That attention requires emotional investment that is acquired in time and reaches unique and many times incompatible levels. Face to face or through a variety of tools, our control of communication is a magical mess. Are you listening to me? Do I hear you?

As well and unintentionally Julien has come up with a design layout that in itself invites contemplation and discussion. For any of its achievements, this display is a great opportunity to foster awareness. Take away any part of your habits or routines and your awareness to its importance as well as its substitutes can improve.

What is a coffee shop without coffee?

How hard is it to turn off your device?