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.

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.

People Are Human Beings Too

July 9th 2013: This is another part of my response to the talk ‘Community Based Resilience: Frontline Stories from the United States and Canada’. (Go to the first part here)

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Two comments by members of the audience reminded me that an opportunity to share insights was one of the reasons I go to public discussions.

1. “In a disaster, people of Vancouver will be at each other’s throats”

The honesty of this comment doesn’t prevent me from looking at it as defeatist. There’s a funny little phrase from an obscure little song that says, “People are Human Beings too” *. The conflicting streams of our own existence lie at the heart of this phrase. Yes, people definitely are capable of being at each other’s throats. In times of crisis, the intricate web of social structures displays its strengths as well as its weaknesses. In our planning for disasters we can only try to provide resources and erect barriers for what we’ve already recognized as human traits.

It is valuable to acknowledge our own capabilities of destruction when discussing the needs of the future. We all are used to asking ‘Why’ and other questions. Why would people be at each other’s throats? Who were they in documented incidents? What would have prevented them from unwanted behaviors?  What would facilitate support and collaboration? Planning for disaster is not only learning from the past. It is also an opportunity to know something about ourselves today. We create a reality in the present for the benefit of the future.

2. “I think some of those places need to be removed”

If a neighbourhood is destroyed you have people to work with. The removal of a broken place is definitely an option. The farther away you are from that place the easier it is to suggest it. What Mary Rowe stressed in her talk was the conditions that had built up to become the disaster. In New Orleans the collapse of infrastructure exposed the ongoing neglect in the various layers that support a society. There’s a need for balance between our search for perfection and the reality of breakage and renewal. If your house is broken you are mostly free to decide whether to leave it behind or fix it.

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Can we really plan for disaster? Or, is what we call disaster really it? The danger  people face following a disaster is no longer bad infrastructure. Their danger is a return to the process that has dragged the already fractured infrastructure to its knees. Planning for disaster can be surprisingly easy. By making sure that our habitat is built and maintained in response to its surrounding you achieve the first step. Providing access to resources in the event of restructuring is the next. This step is bound to be a challenge. But if the first step is done right, the other might not turn into an overwhelming struggle.

The story of a place is made up of the intricate fragments of human life and their connections to it and each other. An engaged community doesn’t need endless resources to become one. People have been resourceful throughout history. As the means for communication become more available and far reaching, our societies can become more connected and collaborative. The circles of engagement are what makes us resilient.

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The talk was presented at Robson Square by Bing Thom Architects and the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. It was led by Mary Rowe and discussed with Moura QuayleJoji Kumagai and Gordon Price

* PUGGY BaPITA, 1974: Protest Song (Antibiotics)

Disaster by the books

July 9th 2013: Mary Rowe’s presentation introduced great insights and room for thought for our engagement in urban living. Mary is Vice President and Managing Director of the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS). At times She sounded as if urban living is still questioned by some populations around the world. But her talk mainly focused on the issues of small scale activities within the urban realm: how individuals and neighbourhoods are key forces to consider when planning for disasters. The list of massive scale incidents since the turn of the 21st century is significant and includes floods, pest infestations, hurricanes, earth quakes and more.

Beached

Aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. (SOURCE)

Following Mary’s research into disaster stricken regions her concerns evolved: rescue and restructuring efforts by the authorities started to look like systemic acts of demolition of whole neighbourhoods. When residents of the destroyed places had noticed these acts, the intentions of authorities became suspect. One of the strongest messages from the talk was the need for awareness and action in all fronts of urban infrastructure. But when using the word infrastructure, social issues such as education and services should be taken as part of it: the residents of a city are also its owners.

A fascinating reality of urban life and management is the seamless ties between the built environment and the life it supports. Our technologies continue to facilitate more and more opportunities to interact with and protect us from the natural environment. However, no tool human kind has built to date has been 100% fail safe. The city is our most complex tool and we are maybe its most important component.

So I listened to the presentation and was intrigued by the discussion that followed. Eventually my thoughts brought me to a few feedback streams. Planning is a result of experience. It is also a trait we tend to employ even without experience. In many cases we plan our solutions to deal with experiences from the past, which are never going to repeat the way they have occurred.

Nola

A Street Scene in New Orleans from December 2012. (SOURCE)

Mary Rowe advocates for stronger reliance on local communities in determining their fate. A few arguments were raised in favour of seemingly contradictory policies: large scale systems were proposed as the better investment. In any society on our globe a varied set of balances are always waiting to be explored. The process of debate results in the story we eventually live. This is why the question ‘What is your story?’ is a compelling one.

Whatever we call disaster we always try to avoid, mostly by planning. We learn from the past and try to anticipate the future. We always wake up to the realization that disasters don’t happen by the book.

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I’ve heard about this presentation, ‘Community Based Resilience: Frontline Stories from the United States and Canada’ when only a few seats were left to grab on the sign up page. The talk was presented at Robson Square by Bing Thom Architects and the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. It was led by Mary Rowe and discussed with Moura QuayleJoji Kumagai and Gordon Price

Glacier

When I was growing up all I could hear about bureaucracy was suspicion and dismissal. Red tape and corruption were among the common terms used in relation to any interaction with City staff. The same applied and still does with respect to developers, business people, lawyers and so on. Somehow I developed a habit of questioning many of those sentiments: Haven’t they all been kids in the past?

13-02-27-Concepts

Typically, a number of City staff are present in community consultation meetings, to answer questions, clarify issues, document and gather insight.

In 2011 I got in touch with Scot Hein, Vancouver’s senior urban designer. I had just graduated from the urban design program at SFU and was looking for contacts to open my way into the field. We’ve been meeting occasionally ever since. In midday of February 27th I saw Scot for a quick exchange as a preview for that evening’s community gathering.

Scot was happy to prepare this way for the expected interaction with the community. It was good practice for me as well in an exchange of questions, comments and stories.

So the day started with excitement in anticipation for the evening. Although Scot’s revised development proposal for Broadway East relied on community input, there might always be those who could be adversely affected by it. This is one of the main reasons these meeting are so important. The exchange is both educational and cautionary.

13-02-27-Rizegate

Kingsgate Mall, apart from being a prime location bordering to the west of Broadway East, is also across the street from the controversial Rize site.

A good sign before everyone sat by the tables at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House (MPNH) was the presence of Houtan and Curtis, development managers in the Beedie Group. In January 30th I had met them and Rob in their downtown office for a discussion. With me were Sylvia and Joyce. Rob is Beedie Living’s director of development; Joyce is the City of Vancouver’s planner responsible for the Mount Pleasant file; Sylvia is the facilitator for the WPPP project. In that meeting I got the impression that the Beedie people understand the benefits of participating in the community process.

Kingsgate is defined outside of the Weaving project but is part of the Broadway East redevelopment plan so some gaps in engagement result. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen there will influence the implementation process east of it. Curtis and Houtan are both young and energetic professionals who express a healthy enthusiasm in their vocation. However, one of the messages that they insist upon is that their plans for redevelopment of the Kingsgate Mall site are practically non-existent yet.

13-02-27-Proposal

Gradually but steadily the ideas put forward by the community are forming under the experienced hands of city planners.

City building is a long term endeavour with short term pressures. The directions planners get from council aim to reflect valid responses to urban needs. There’s no escaping that the occasional (and still valid) economic & political agenda play into these directions. How do you employ transparency, collaboration and innovation when directions shift?

Vancouver is in the midst of an ongoing transformation. The Wednesday gathering took me back in time to my experience of standing on a glacier. You can feel the force without seeing it. In City planning you want to at least direct some of the force but be aware of the need to let things happen. It might be the balance between force and pressure; the opportunity to be a guide in the social journey of building our city.

As a preview to what went on in the gathering of the 27th I might have missed a few details and it already looks daunting. But Vancouver is changing fast even if we don’t have a chance to notice every side of that change. This is why I get so inspired. My aim is to see a positive balance between force and pressure. The group effort of urban residents – planners and plumbers, developers and peddlers, owners and visitors – that group effort is what will help us all succeed as a society.

13-02-27-Scot

Scrutiny

I guess I am hopelessly optimistic.

Scot Hein‘s Markers and Marks

This is probably why I am attracted to trouble makers.

On Sunday, November 18 the City led an urban design workshop at the Native Education College (NEC). City planners started with brief presentations that allowed the audience to focus and orient themselves with the relevant information. Joyce, the Mount Pleasant Community planner, showed a set of slides that reviewed the plan approved in 2010. In one of Joyce’s slides there were a few words that caught someone’s attention. Jon, a retired member of the community was emotionally vocal about the misleading nature of the presentation.

It took a while until the presentation continued as planned. Before the audience gathered in three groups for walks in the pre-defined regions, I got hold of Jon to understand in detail his concerns. My understanding of it was that different words were used in previous documents than those currently presented. History shows that such gaps are fertile grounds for misunderstandings and buildup of distrust. The proposed and approved development of the Rize project on Broadway and Kingsway was brought up on Sunday of the workshop as a close and relevant example (123, and more…).

An interesting example that stays in my mind for impressive community engagement is the fight against the proposed expansion of the Edgewater casino (123, and more…). I guess this was an easier battle. The interests here were more clearly defined and divided. But the sprouts of distrust have gained some height nevertheless.

In the development and revitalization of Mount Pleasant – proposals are much more complex, the variety of players is much broader. So whether Jon’s mistrust of the City and developers is justified or not, his pointing to the issue of discrepancies is valuable. My belief is that most, if not all players in this field have good intentions. Land owners, developers? Yes, they want the most profit on their investment. Business owners? Yes, they all want more paying clients. Residents? Yes, we all want to have quality of life.

Yes, developing a city to accommodate all of its tax payers’ needs and interests is challenging. Believing we can reach a balanced solution probably makes me a hopeless optimist. “Trouble Makers” can point to details that are potentially drivers of eventual imbalances in the big picture.

I sometimes wish I was a trouble maker. The trouble is that I’m a maker. Hopelessly and optimistically so.

PWL‘s illustrator’s quick hand

Disposable City

I love the concept of the City sponsored open house. City staff and occasionally elected personnel, can truly engage with residents and stay connected. This platform for public responses to proposed developments is a great kind of interface. Together we build our city. But “Is this the best we should expect?” I paraphrase on the statement in one of the presentation boards.

In October 2011 I’ve submitted my proposal for the re:CONNECT open ideas competition. There are always good reasons for not winning. There’s never a good excuse. However, I enjoyed participating. This is another good way of generating a wealth of insights for the benefit of sensitive city building.

The background material (13mb pdf in this link) in the competition website didn’t seem to support the subtitle of ‘open ideas’. It showed a clear leaning towards demolition of the viaducts. Nevertheless, inspired by Italo Calvino’s classic ‘Invisible Cities‘, I felt compelled to pull the other way: “I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.” (Marco Polo in his concluding words to the Great Khan, Invisible Cities)

A panel of five discussed the results of the competition back in December 2011: Ken Greenberg, Joe Hruda, Dr. Tom Hutton, Patricia Patkau and Helle Soholt. My memory keeps a few fractions of insight from that gathering. They are less the exact words of the speakers and more my understanding of their concepts.  Helle Soholt from Gehl Architects suggested trying not to plan evrything. Indeed a city is built “piece by piece”. There are always pressures pulling and pushing in all directions. Many times the balance achieved comes naturally. Ken Greenberg, author of ‘Walking Home’, mentioned the prospects of climate change, floods and earthquakes. The seemingly boring technical issues must be at the base of our public discussion on the way to creative, functional and bold solutions.

Back to June 2012: A few of the presentation boards in the open house use the title a bold new concept. My eyes move from this statement into the details and two questions come up: 1. Is it really bold and new? (or in bolder words, isn’t it just another case of ‘same old, same old’?) 2. Does it have to be bold? (Helle’s “try not to plan everything”)  It is challenging to translate the complex processes of planning into useful communications. It is crucial that we have this done. The challenge of leadership is to keep steering the ship of a city. But the vision of a great city can only come from true collaboration between its residing leadership and the city’s real owners – its residents.

Another presentation board mentions the window of opportunity. This is where my appreciation for City staff has to be expressed. They have to transform into sales people of a questionable “bold new concept”. With very few if any good responses to questions and claims from the public, the ‘open house’ starts to feel less transparent than its hopeful intent. Back and forth between ‘house’ and ‘ideas’: Was it Joe Hruda from Civitas Urban Design and Planning who argued that re:CONNECT means removing barriers? From this it was almost clear that the competition wasn’t openly searching for ideas.

In the turn of the seventies, our city said no to the freeway. Following Jane Jacob’s (immortal) ‘The death and life of great American cities’, western society is still growing out of car centered development. Vancouver was a leader in that sense. The success in stopping the freeway came with real casualties to Vancouver’s urban fabric. These structures are now part of it, as well as a symbol to a place and time in history. In the demolition of the viaducts we are facing another type of freeway. They have their merits and drawbacks. Demolishing them expresses the same mindset that pushed for the freeway. Demolishing them does not promise any improvement in our joy of the city.

It was great to see so many people participate in the open houses. Some points brought up by others showed a diversity of concerns. It becomes clear from these discussions that the viaducts project will have influence on four main scales: the block level, the neighborhood, the city and the region. This is not new in urban planning but is always in danger of neglect. The seemingly small scale of planning for bikes shows how careful we have to be. Careful in facilitating instead of dictating. The way to tie the scales together is by weaving our story to include the four of them in it. This is our opportunity and our responsibility.

We should consider the built environment as our cultural landscape. The tools we have enable us to do almost anything we want with the resources at hand. Demolition is the easy way out. It’s like turning the built environment into a disposable cup of coffee. We all want to step forward in life. For that to lead us to a better place, yes, we have to be bold. We should be careful. We need to be creative.

Although we are not there yet, a wealth of ideas is still waiting to be harvested. The re:CONNECT competition provided fantastic insights for the future. The question what is our story has to be answered. “If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” (Marco Polo to the Great Khan)