Stories from the NIMBY, Stories from the BING

What are we talking about when we remember the dead? I’ve recently helped my family in Israel produce a book in memory of my father. He passed away a year ago, roughly at the same age as Bing Thom. Both were dreamers. One of them, a city dweller. The other, a city builder. Thom was on a trip to Hong Kong when he passed away, October 4, 2016. I saw Bing talk a few years ago, at a Lulu Series lecture in Richmond. My impression of his achievements was that they amount to much more than just drawing nice buildings. He had a profound understanding of politics, social benefit, marketing and business making. He knew how to connect. Remembering the dead can inspire our own engagement with life.

bingthom-projectsIn late November, I receive an email from Westbank: “Bing Thom & the Future of our City ” December 6th, 2016. Knowing it would generate high demand, I sign up immediately. A few days later, I stand in line outside the Rio Theatre, roughly fifteen minutes before ‘open doors’. For Westbank’s marketing machine, this venue is an easy choice in promoting their development agenda. The planning process in recent years for Grandview Woodland has raised enough resistance and suspicion in the neighbourhood. The Rio is physically and symbolically in spitting distance from the intersection of Commercial Drive and Broadway. Bing Thom Architects (BTA) is involved with Westbank in the proposal for the Safeway site precinct at Broadway and Commercial Drive.

The snow from the day before hasn’t melted away yet, but it wasn’t too cold outside. As I work on preparing my phone to show my ticket, the guy ahead of me realizes he doesn’t have one. I try to help him solve his issue. I later see him successfully enter. I talk briefly with a downtown resident who worked in a kibbutz in the seventies and then the doors open. My screen is scanned and I find a seat in the middle of an advanced row: good view of the stage; broad connection to the audience.

It’s too dark to read through the program I was handed. Within the rows of seats of the theatre I find myself wondering how long we have until something meaningful starts. Maybe fifteen minutes to 7 pm, I stand up. If we are going to continue sitting until nine o’clock, I better stretch a bit. From the motion surrounding Ian Gillespie’s arrival, a few minutes before 7 pm, it looks like everyone was waiting for him. Is it him? The band on stage seems to be enjoying themselves. Later I see in the program, that the hour between ‘open doors’ until the event starts was planned into the agenda. This is not the right venue for spending an hour waiting.

I kind of learned to appreciate Ian’s performance on stage from previous events. He’s personal, visionary and charming. His vision is obviously “limited” to massive scale business opportunities. Is there anything there for me or you, the small-scale Vancouverite? Is he the developer that will save The City? Are any of us? Who WILL determine the future of our city?

In his closing remarks, Ian mentions Leslie Van Duzer and her great work at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, but when he exits the stage, Hellen Ritts—Director of Marketing and Communications at Bing Thom Architects—replaces him. Hellen’s introduction to working with and for Bing provides a heartwarming transition to the rest of the evening. It’s interesting to hear from her about Bing’s way of promoting his staff by challenging them to stretch their own limits. He seems to have been a father-figure to many who had encountered him. The loss of a leader can be our opportunity to be empowered.

Then it’s Michael Heeney, one of BTA’s principals. He surveys the professional impact of Bing Thom on the global “industry” of architecture. He weaves into his story the wider context of urban and political development. My two highlights from Michael’s presentation are Bing the connector and Thom the developer.

When Leslie Van Duzer appears onstage, she is accompanied by the panelists. They occupy the sofas waiting for them: Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City; Bruce Haden, who is establishing his own practice following a partnership at DIALOG Architecture and ; Sonja Trauss, founder of SF BARF, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, as well as Michael Heeney.

Van Duzer’s moderation is somewhat dry, academic, a few anecdotes worthy of branching into comedy, engagement and questioning, but at times slow paced. Montgomery’s edgy discomfort is a promising spark of light in an otherwise stifled discussion. Sonja’s inclusion in the panel is an intriguing piece of casting. A Grandview-Woodland Citizen’s Assembly member might have been a more inspired or insightful contributor to the exchange. Who knows.

When finally the audience has a chance to participate, quite a few members have already left. Some trivial, yet worthy questions start to flow and then a white-haired fellow a few rows ahead of me states: “Build cities for people somewhere else. I like my detached, single family home residence. I was here first.” he expresses his typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) view in admirable honesty.

Montgomery’s sharing of his controlled rage with the NIMBY’s words is, on the one hand a welcome comic relief. On the other, it is a moment in the discussion that illustrates our weakness as a democratic urban society. Dealing with the development pressures of a growing city has always been a matter of massive experimentation. NIMBYs Hate Change. Change eventually comes.

No single person has the power to resist Big Money. Democratic urban societies are a random collection of individuals trying to advance individual dreams. Their degree of education is hardly a tool in use for the benefit of urban well-being. The panelists on stage sound intelligent and educated. The NIMBY in the audience baffles them. If they are so dumb-struck by a single audience member, what chance do we have with our professionals in dealing with City Hall? Some of us need to become Bing the connector and Thom the developer.

Earlier in the discussion, Sonja’s remarks reflected nicely on the reality of people’s views in light of a person’s position in life. If you own property and are not in any significant pressure to earn your living, your interest in densification might be low. This easily translates into resistance to change. The current illustrations of disconnect, between interest groups in the world come to my mind. Vancouver’s own planning mess at City Hall is one; Brexit is another example; the election of Donald Trump to president; Sonja’s own call for less planning illustrates a conflict on a personal scale; the 2015 Transit Referendum anyone?

For me, these are research worthy topics, showing our own failure to engage with those who ascribe to a NIMBY attitude. Find out where they are right and work with them on solving the challenge; on dissolving their fears.

We are all born with at least a thread of NIMBY in our vocal fold. By understanding the NIMBY we can advance beneficial urban development. We can make progress either by working with our neighbours or building new connections. Instead, we trench ourselves in holy knowledge of what’s good for society. “Why can’t they understand how stupid their own ideas are?” Why should they?

The existing balance between democracy and indoors discretion doesn’t always benefit social good. This balance seems to me to be the struggle we will always face in promoting well-being in our community. Whoever has control over resources, be it land, knowledge or anything with a price tag, will not surrender it willingly. I’m left with a sense that a crucial point in this evening’s opportunity was missed.

I walk out to the chilly sidewalk outside the Rio Theatre strangely inspired. In his anonymity, my father touched the lives of the many people he knew. With his wealth of awards and the societies he’s touched, Bing Thom is still relatively anonymous outside of professional circles. The loss of people, which for some leaves a void, can transform into a space for action. All of us have an opportunity to work with that space for the benefit of generations. Leadership is not a role exclusive to the elected few; Bing Thom’s model of development is a significant take away from the evening.

Anarchy is not always a threat; our challenge is to harness the power of change into a positive driving force. Let’s Make Vancouver Ugly Again; this paraphrase on Trump’s election slogan doesn’t have to be taken literally. There is promise in the changes Vancouver is going through. Whatever threat we can think of, can become a source of growth. By embracing our inner NIMBY we can benefit from its strength.

The evening in memory of Bing Thom ended in Bruce Haden’s reminder that Bing left us with a legacy of pushing boundaries and boldly exploring possibilities. I can live with that.

bingthom-gw


Many thanks to Erick Villagomez for his editing of my article, that appeared first on Spacing.ca. The title above is a paraphrase on an album by PJ Harvey.

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Hastings Workshop: Tooling Our Language

No matter what we say, our words will be wasted in the lands of politics and development. This, at least, is a common fear I observe in community consultations I go to. Indeed, the word, which is one of the core tools of human communications, is also a source of much misinterpretation and even distortion.

Sightlines-Merge-Notes

The slope along Hastings is a feature of the sub-area. A part of the discussion relating to building heights, I tried to hear from my fellow residents around the table, what might be their preference of a possible future. The option here imagines a gradual reduction of building heights from Clark Dr. to Nanaimo Street.

We can’t let that discourage us from participating in life. Whether spoken or otherwise, our words lead to action. My challenge is to articulate insights into words that reflect my intentions. Our challenge as a society is to strike a fair balance between individual needs-and-interests and those of the community. The more we invest in articulating our interests and concerns the better we pave the ground for sustainable action. Our words then become building blocks and stepping stones.

While walking along the Hastings Street sub area I was looking for phrases to support my dialogue in the workshop that was hosted in the Aboriginal Friendship Center on Saturday, February 14. My first phrase is a question: how much of the local economy relies on visitors?

Immediately on arrival at the intersection of Hastings and Nanaimo you will notice the slope taking you down from east to west. Some of the building fronts are stepped in response to this slope. This feature as a carrier of character could become a message into the future. Let’s call it Shaping form in response to topography.

As soon as you step away from Hastings Street the relative quiet of the blocks is a pleasant surprise. Pandora park is being renewed and its field house is home to a group called ‘Dance Troupe‘ for the coming three years. It will be interesting to see how well the park serves the growing community. Could this sub area benefit from another park between Pandora and Woodland? Our future could benefit from Exploring unlikely opportunities.

The commodity of unobstructed views is a tough challenge. Does my quality of living rely so heavily on seeing the mountains from my bathroom? If I step out to dance in the streets, will I be better off or dismissed as a lunatic?

Pender Street, between Victoria Dr. and Templeton Dr. has an uncommon tree lined median that I wish we saw more of in our city’s streets. With proper landscape design such a median could encourage fantastic social activity. A larger number of residents is expected to live in the area as well as reach it for any purpose. A median such as the one on Pender could be a lovely landing, gathering and departure spot. The phrase I make of this example is Enhancement of existing features.

The more I go to community events like the ones in Grandview Woodland, the more I hope they continue. They provide layers of exchange that reach beyond their immediate purpose. Looking back at the workshop on Saturday, here is a quick list of the above points and some more:

  • How much of the local economy relies on visitors?
  • Shaping form in response to topography.
  • Explore unlikely opportunities.
  • Enhance existing features.
  • Maintain a flow of all trafic modes.
  • Develop programming that supports the built space.
  • Develop space that supports required programming.

Final Thoughts The word is one of the core tools of human communications. Since its first days of employment in our society, the word has removed us from the immediate concerns of survival. This in itself is both a source of inspiring opportunities and depressing dangers. Our ability to reach high levels of collaboration is based on stories that have united us in every step of history. The word is present in mind and matter: we can remember stories and pass them between generations; our products allow us to extend our control of the environment beyond the limits of our own bodies.

Variety is an often heard expression of desires. It makes life interesting, challenges us to accommodate each other, reflects our own personalities. If our policies successfully reflected this desire, our streets could become not only interesting but also part of our lives.

Variety is an often heard expression of desires. It makes life interesting, challenges us to accommodate each other, reflects our own personalities. If our policies successfully reflected this desire, our streets could become not only interesting but also part of our lives.

The city is human kind’s most complex tool. When we gather to discuss the future of that tool, I find it fascinating to reflect back on the word. It’s useful to see the connection between words and buildings, words and streets, plants and landscapes. Apart from having functional purpose they all communicate a variety of needs and interests. They have a language of their own. The gatherings in Grandview Woodland these days are an intriguing opportunity to both read the language of the place and help its future society have a compelling story to live and tell.

re:CONNECT. Asking the right questions.

Just after submitting my entry to the re:CONNECT competition I flew off for a two and a half weeks visit in Israel. Our families are spread around the country so we found ourselves travelling quite a lot on the roads and freeways between north and south. It was a great opportunity to get a fresh glimpse of development and its impact on the landscape in a society I am still connected to. The Vancouver viaducts that were never turned into part of a freeway are definitely a case worthy of careful development.

In the past few years there seems to have been a public discussion whether the viaducts should be removed or retained. Whichever decision is made, they are part of this city’s fabric and history. Through sensitive examination of visions and realities, we can take the opportunity to build for the future based on the stories of our past and present. Three questions guided me through this study: what we want; what we have and what we need. I believe that ordering the questions this way leads to a balanced discussion. However, my own mind keeps jumping between the three. In the title to my presentation I’ve visually illustrated this.

Want-Have-Need

What we want

Usually a source of much debate and contention. Even a single household can have its conflicts over the smallest of decisions. The interests in a city where economies always play a significant role will probably never be settled over a polite cup of tea. Nevertheless, considering we all have similar basic human needs, what might look like a long list can eventually be grouped into a few simple topics.

What we have

It is always fascinating to search for references and stumble upon pieces of information that generate valuable insight. I’ve divided my findings into structural and social references.

My visits to the area have also been a source of insight and inspiration. The sense of connection to a place increases dramatically after walking it extensively. Occasional talks with residents and passers by provided even more depth to my impressions.

What we need

The city is a tool that serves the needs of humans. The spaces we build have an impact over the various interactions we have. When trying to consider plans for the future shape of our city, we need to be aware of its history. What people are doing in the urban space and how – is the invisible structure that is as important as the built environment they occupy.

As for the viaducts, it’s not about whether they are needed as much as how to keep using them. To some they might seem as part of Vancouver’s quirks. To others they are a menace. Most people seem to simply use them this way or the other. A city with character – “a great city” – is built on a history of living with its imperfections. A mature society grows to embrace its city for the benefit of the people living in it as well as for its visitors.

Advance to the analysis.

re:CONNECT. Analysis

Jump back to the intro

Understanding the needs

Asking what we want and what we already have will help us determine our needs. Vancouver has a history of achievements and pitfalls. The city’s residents showed their power to address unwanted as well as progressive developments. Land values inVancouverare prohibitively high. Street drugs and homelessness are persistent problems. Winter 2010 Olympics were a huge celebration. The 2011 Stanley Cup riots were the hangover.

Bikers, skateboarders, wall climbers and what not, they all make the public sphere much more lively and interesting. Relatively small budgets are usually required to provide free activities. Some can become business opportunities in collaboration with the city.

Separating traffic users makes sense in terms of safety. When speeds are reduced though there is room for opening up the walls. This way a natural feel of a city street will evolve.

A variety of structure to allow access from one point to the other support many needs. They also add up to the character of the place.

Balancing between contradictions

Development alone cannot solve social or economic problems. It is crucial in providing the right infrastructure and space for human activity to prosper and heal.

(Move on to ideas.<Link to come shortly>)

re:CONNECT. Reference Structures (What we want).

This is an extension of the intro post

What we want

The research for my proposal brought me to some interesting locations around the world. Although the viaducts stream is focused on the traffic aspect of the structures, their influence goes beyond movement in an urban setting.

“The Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) is a Medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.” (Wikipedia)

“The Chengyang Bridge  is a famous bridge in Sanjiang County , People’s Republic of China. It’s in Dong Minority Region. It’s a special covered bridge  and one of Fengyu Bridges (a special bridge type in local Dong Minority Region). It was completed in 1916.” (Wikipedia)

“SkyTrain was conceived as a legacy project of Expo 86 and the first line was finished in time to showcase the fair’s theme: “Transportation and Communication: World in Motion – World in Touch”. Construction was funded by the provincial and federal governments.” (Wikipedia)

“The Shelby Street Bridge (sometimes called the Shelby Avenue Bridge) is a truss bridge that spans the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. It was originally opened on July 5, 1909, and was reopened as a pedestrian bridge on August 3, 2003. The bridge spans 960 m (3,150 ft) and is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world.” (Wikipedia)

“The 900-space garage was designed to meet or exceed many of the USGBC’s LEED® guidelines and has been recognized as the USA’s first LEED-certified parking facility. The structure employs various sustainable design and construction practices, materials and products – including Cambridge’s architectural mesh, which is 100% recyclable.” (Cambridge case study)

“The High Line is a 1-mile (1.6 km) New York City linear park built on a 1.45-mile (2.33 km) section of the former elevated freight railroad spur called the West Side Line, which runs along the lower west side of Manhattan; it has been redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway.” (Wikipedia)

Jump back to  intro