What culture expects us in the future?

As I lock my bike to the railing beside the Croatian Community Center, another guy has just about finished locking his own. He grumbles something about the lack of racks to accommodate the mass of bikers who came to the planning workshop. “Pretty impressive” I share in irony. “We seem to have parking challenges” I smile and continue my unpacking. “Assholes”, he scoffs and walks inside.

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The last of seven planning workshops for Grandview Woodland concluded on Saturday, March 7, 2015. The series of workshops has generated an intriguing process of interaction. The neighborhood is made up of people from a variety of cultures. Can their various interests and intentions then constitute a Grandview Woodland Culture?

Doug Saunders, a Globe and Mail columnist and author of Arrival City, spoke at Surrey City Hall in November of 2014. His opening remark relates nicely with the process Vancouver is going through these days. “We have just finished five decades in which we got lucky… and, we are now at the beginning of five decades in which we will have to be skilled”. Saunders’ discussion focuses on “the urban districts that form the bottom rung on the ladder”. (The full talk by Doug Saunders can be watched here). However, his observation is valid for any planning process a city goes through.

In mid-2013 the planning process for Grandview Woodland ran into what can be seen as a clash of cultures. To the best of my knowledge, the people at City Hall, responsible for that process in Grandview Woodland, are all skilled.

Has the City of Vancouver missed on being smart? What qualities do we need to successfully head into the coming half century?

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Good will? Or in Y2K speak, Transparency? In 2012, the Commercial Drive Business Society (CDBS) commissioned a consultation process that resulted in a document: Vision and Design Guidelines. The Grandview Woodland Citizens’ Assembly (GWCA) has approached the CDBS in a request to share that document. I’ve been among those who signed an open letter that had urged the CDBS to allow circulation of the document in the community. However, I had a feeling that the two groups were heading into an unnecessary power struggle. I was very quickly happy to realize I had been wrong. On March 7 Nick Pogor, CDBS executive director participated in the workshop. Copies of the Visioning document were circulated in the hall. Not bad, eh?

The Citizens’ Assembly are in the final stages of working out their recommendations to The City. The learning process that they’ve gone through is sure to yield many benefits for the neighborhood as well as the individuals involved. The play between scales is at the core of planning, designing and caring for our city: the interests of an individual and the needs of the community; the livability of a street and accessibility within the region. A bench on the sidewalk is a result of a layered process that is more than just screwing it in place.

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It was a beautiful day on the Saturday of the last workshop. My daughter wanted to get there in the car. My wife and I wanted to take our bikes. “It’s all downhill from our place to the Croatian Center” I told her, “We can take the Skytrain on the way back”. On our way back we cycled halfway and crashed at Inbal’s classmate’s home. They were very happy to see us and without delay opened a box of cookies. Both kids and parents had another hour of socializing. The rest of the way to our place was a piece of cake.

We can only plan some of our moves. The gatherings in Grandview Woodland exposed a multitude of interests and needs. What then is the culture of a neighborhood? How do you facilitate its success for the future?

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

Testing the limits of our patience

The invite for the evening at the Museum of Vancouver looked interesting: “In this dialogue, we delve into how a ‘smart city’ will impact privacy, personalization, accessibility, and citizen (versus consumer) engagement?”

Some members of the audience seemed content with the content.

Two members of the panel, David Ascher (Mozilla Foundation) and Andrea Reimer (Councillor, City of Vancouver) seemed a bit perplexed with the monologue’ish elaborations of the third member, Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian writer and researcher who studies political and social implications of technology.

I left the event feeling “What tha Hell Was That All About!?”

On my way out I managed to exchange a few words with another member of the audience. When I’ve used the words frivolous and nonesensical she said she was a bit too young to be judgmental. However, we both agreed that Evgeny’s messages seemed a bit conflicted. Could it be his way of marketing his books?

The topics of the discussion will always remain fascinating. Here’s a quick display of non committal points extracted from my reliable, technologically non-judgmental notebook. Some are just notes I’ve taken during the evening; some are thoughts turned into words:

Solutionism: an expression coined in response to the trend of focusing efforts on finding solutions no matter whether an issue requiring any, exists or not.

Sensors: the ever expanding use of them in public and private realm.

Copyright: the questions surrounding our ability to protect copyrights.

Smart as the prefix of many tools and accessories, the implications of the term on our lives and actions.

Stupifying of individuals: can it be that the rush for “smart” devices allows people to act stupid?

Controlled Ignorance; Informed Ignorance

Return to congregation: The quest to be informed.

The language of debate.

Historicize this debate.

It seems to me a bit pointless to summarize this evening’s discussion for any meaningful insights. Sometimes just being there is good enough. When the content fails to engage there’s always room for thought, the room itself, the people. I said hello to a fellow biker and had a nice ride home.

TEDx Audition

Update. August 2nd 2013: My talk will not be part of this year’s event. I will continue working on it so that it stands ready to be delivered whenever the opportunity shows itself

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The Renfrew Collingwood TEDx will take place on October 19 2013. My audition for this event was a short preview to my planned talk. Here is what I’ve said:

I am surrounded by teenagers busy working each on their mosaics: some breaking ceramic tiles to the right size and shape; some mixing mortar for their peers. With a sample in my hand I am delivering an enthusiastic speech about the fascinating aspect of telling a story through one by one laying of coloured pieces on our cement base. As part of my routine I am asking one of the kids, “What’s the story on your tile?”

He looks me in the eye and with a blank expression on his face responds, “Whatever”…

“How do you spell whatever?!” I ask him in the same breathless enthusiasm.

He is like “Aam,… Double you, Eitch, Ey,… Whatever…”

“There you go! Almost gotcha!”

Mosaics

In the summer of 2010 I was invited to participate in this community based art project here in Collingwood. It was an excellent opportunity for me to practice my skills in human interaction and design for public space. What I got from this process was a first hand experience in community engagement.

The city is our most complex tool and we are probably its most important component. I am intrigued by the interaction between mechanism and organism. My training in Israel as product designer led me through a local landscape architecture office. In my two years there I managed to implement my interest in design for urban space.

People

Design requires sensitivity and awareness to all ability groups. In my early thirties, I was living in Tel Aviv. A guy approached me asking for directions. He was dressed up in a suit. His tie lifted his neck wrinkles to his smoothly shaved chin. The long and healthy life he’d already had radiated through his transparent skin. After showing him on a map where we were and where his destination was I asked him whether he was considering using transportation or walking.

“Why, do you think I’m too old to walk?” he asked with a smile.

“No, it’s just that riding requires a different route than walking. It’s not a huge distance but even people my age might choose to ride it.” I said.

“How old are you?” he asked

“Thirty three”. I said.

“Oh,” his face lit in recognition: “I’m ninety.”

LegsWalking

In the fall of 2010 I signed up for yet another unknown adventure. The urban design program at Simon Fraser University felt like a fascinating opportunity to expand my skills in the field. In the first session of the program I knew I was in the right place. We were going to explore what balances are required between the built environment and the people using it.

The city is both an extension of our bodies and an environment that requires learning and practice. In Collingwood I had the fortune of working with people and participating in a few processes that made me feel connected.  My interest in the city as a human made kind of nature brought me to realize that it’s not about me; it’s not about you: it’s about our connection and what we make of it.

Layers

A platform like TEDx is a fantastic opportunity to engage in a discussion that can spread further away from the space in which it happens. So what is my talk going to look like? In October, I’m sure you’d like to hear the rest…

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)

KNIMBY – Knot in My Back Yard

Still at the footsteps of February 27th, I’ve heard a comment that the evening felt like we were scratching the surface. I can relate to that feeling after attending a variety of such gatherings: there’s a sense of repeating the same topics over and over again with hardly any progress. It might be true that community consultations promote discussions of little significance. In light of a growing urban population, pressing needs require swift action. For people who want to see change the frustration can raise the question whether we might be missing bigger opportunities.

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I think this question in itself is a good window for thought that should always be open. Thoughts lead to discussion; discussion to understanding; understanding to decisions and decisions to action. Action in turn brings the needed change. This is why I think that the Weaving project is great in promoting a change that is balanced and sensitive.

As density, liveability and mobility become the components of routine, many urban residents realize that collaboration for innovation is what makes a city succeed. Public realm is for many the main outdoors space close to home. As private space becomes limited, quality public realm becomes a necessity of life.

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The concerns and ideas raised by residents focused on the blocks along Broadway between Prince Edward and Prince Albert streets. The board was open for people to stick their notes and exchange ideas on the way to advance the discussion into possible solutions.

“No need for change” was also heard among remarks, requests, questions and thoughts. An interesting difference between speakers came up when considering the narrowing of Broadway into a four lane arterial from the six it currently is. On the one hand concern was expressed over the proposed reduction of parking space. This means interior streets will likely see an increase of shoppers’ vehicles at the expense of those of local residents. On the other, the increase of younger residents who do not own cars was mentioned. This trend implies a possible smaller need for accommodating private cars.

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Although resistance to change is a natural human trait we are connected whether we like it or not. This is why the prospect of shifting from NIMBY – Not in My Back Yard, to KNIMBY – Knot in My Back Yard might be a compelling and refreshing one. Change will happen. Our engagement in it is the knot that holds us in balance when we move together into a beneficial future.