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.


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.


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.


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.

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?

Unthinking Design

I guess when you organize an event that the words design and thinking are embedded in its title you’re inviting challenges from the audience. Yes, I became frustrated very quickly with the discussion. Yes, I’ve stayed standing at the back of the room, where the chairs were laid out in a circle. The event threw me back in memory to the design thinking unConference of 2011.

Read a bit about my design thinking unConference
first impressions and following thoughts in the embedded links.

However, now we were invited to a free event. We watched a movie and convened afterwards to engage in discussion. I was hoping to feel more engaged following the not totally impressive movie (Design & Thinking). Why then did I say yes when asked if I’d enjoyed the movie?


I’m not a big fan of the term design thinking. You design, you think, you do those things all the time. The two words together don’t add up to much more than any of them on their own. But still they’ve allowed a few people to generate a buzz which has probably pushed their revenue stream a step further. And then some others are offering design thinking programs, unConferences, a LinkedIn Group or two…

Our world is full of opportunities and challenges. When everyone knows you, knows what you do and looks up to what you can offer, your life can be easy. How many people do I know that are blessed with such a reality? My guess is ah, none.

So part of the energy that I feel exists in the room when I come to design nerds events is that of craving for opportunity. For some it is employment, for others it’s just some sort of connection. Whatever your reason and however impatient I might become with design nerds gatherings, I’m always impressed with the platform. It is engaging, thought provoking and occasionally inspiring.

Did we really need the panel following the movie? Were the talents in the room fully employed? I can go on raising questions but my point is that no matter how open minded I might be when I engage with others, my expectations come with me, pulling at my sleeve, like a child seeking attention. So I was standing at the back of the room, as were many others, mostly because sitting throughout the movie was enough for me. Of course I was making sure to have a convenient escape route. But just like I’ve enjoyed the movie even though it wasn’t entirely interesting, I was hoping to engage in compelling discussion.

The intro and panel, unfortunately, were not the right vessel to transport me – from the passive experience of watching the movie – into the public realm of open discussion. And here I am, reading my own words and saying, hey look: design thinking; public realm; open discussion! Each of them encompasses a world of thought and action. Together they provoke even more. So what is it that I expect when I sign up for an event? Should I expect even more?

We all are developers


It didn’t start on my last visit to the Design Nerds. The idea that developers are a menace to society was always strange to me. Whenever voices in a large audience express these anti-developers cry outs, it’s hard to argue with them. Not only do I not make a living as a developer, the cheers are usually decisive and noisy. In my last visit to the Design Nerds on November 22nd, one of the speakers in the evening was Leslie Shieh, a neighbourhood scale developer. As one, she’s honestly expressed her frustration from her own encounters with resentment and mistrust. That was already after my call to the Beedie Group that resulted in a fascinating exchange.

It looks like November 3rd happened a long time ago and still it feels almost like yesterday. A lot has happened since and much more is still ahead. After the November 15th gathering at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House (MPNH) I managed to schedule a meeting with the management of Beedie Living who are the lease holders of the Kingsgate Mall. This mall is strategically located beside what is defined as Broadway East. It made sense to me that the Beedie’s presence in the consultation process at MPNH could be just what a true collaborative process needs. As part of my exploration of the urban planning market I’m looking for ways to learn through active participation and experimental initiatives.


So in November 19th Rob Fiorvento, director of development for the Beedie residential division, suggested meeting at the end of January 2013. It wasn’t a big surprise for me that the time frame was that generous or in other words laid back. What I wasn’t expecting was his mentioning of two other managers that would be at the meeting with him. This is when I quickly “recruited” Sylvia, our facilitator for the Weaving project (WPPP) and Joyce, from the City of Vancouver Planning. I had thought that they would have a lot more to say about the topic of Broadway East Revitalization than I could possibly know.

My idea was to talk with them about what participation in community consultation can yield in terms of benefits to all sides involved: I was inspired by the stories of the development of Collingwood Village from the nineteen eighties; my assignment from Simon Fraser University for the Guy Carleton School also served as reference for possibilities. It turns out that the land on which the Kingsgate mall is built is owned by the Vancouver School Board. Introducing a cultural component to its redevelopment has very good chances to attract support from many stakeholders.


What we’ve learned in the January 30th meeting with Rob and his managers wasn’t earth shattering: developers have complex challenges in managing their business. The Beedie group’s interest in contributing to the well being of urban life seems honest enough to me. This was in essence my summary for our meeting: “My impression from the November 3rd session at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House, was of experiencing History in the Making. Now that we have yesterday (January 30th) behind us I continue to feel that History is being held in good hands.

When it comes to details, processes and complex interactions I’m sure the challenges will not hesitate to show up. I’m honestly happy to have helped open this window of discussion with the Weaving PPP and The City. I’m looking forward to updates and progress.”


All images are edits of the timeline Sylvia Holland posted on the boards for the meeting of January 30th, 2013

Our participation and involvement in issues relating to what goes on in our neighbourhoods can be time consuming and frustrating at times. This doesn’t mean we should let things happen without us, the residents. If we don’t express our voices, no one should know what our needs and interests are. Developers are there for a specific business case. We can say no to everything they propose and delay progress for all of us. We can also make room for listening and considering ideas, asking questions and proposing alternatives. A city is the most complex tool human kind has devised to sustain its existence. Our city needs us to work together. We all are developers.

The business of design

The design profession will always be challenged to inform its clients as to the services they are required to pay for. From the moment we are all born any of us is a designer: we all think; we all create; we all make connections between our thought process and the actions required to bring those thoughts to reality. This is a journey from the internal to the external. What good designers do is build a process that is both efficient and desirable. In order to make business out of design services designers must realize their value.

Three simple questions can determine what constitutes the design service: what are the tools; what is the result; what is the product. As soon as you manage to agree with your client about the value of your services, looks like your in business. This is true to any business. As mentioned, design is in each of us (sounds pretty religious, doesn’t it). The transition from design as a naturally occurring activity to design as a professional service requires some articulation of the three questions above.

Here are some quick thoughts for further expansion later on:

  • The tools (the skills set): your brain, your hands and the connection between them 
  • The result (the delivery): a creative process that includes a variety of purposeful human interactions
  • The product (the tangible): communication tools and governance

Your skills set enables the quality of engagement in the design process.  The way of delivering the service affects all of the people engaged in any specific project. The product is just the tangible aspect of the service and is as important. These three components of our service constitute the strategic value of design.

Many designers enter their career after being the ones who created visually compelling images. They might have had the most readable hand writing; those who drew the nicest cars or dressed in the fanciest fashion ware. Only after years of perfecting the whole spectrum of our own service do we manage to become the consultants we actually are. The sooner we build awareness to the components of our service the sooner we can charge the premium for it.