Is the ‘Grouse Grind’ a reflection of Vancouver Culture?

If my
first impression of the Grouse Grind was of a touristy experience, it still
held a charm that allowed me to occasionally go back and enjoy it. The
intensely corporate context of the site is still physically challenging and
socially compelling.

In 2003 I took a photo that managed to capture the magic of that year’s
climb. The first time we took our daughter with us in 2006, she bravely slept
most of the way up, sitting on my shoulders, her head resting firmly on mine.
In 2009
my parents visited us from Israel for the first time. Our relatives from
Portland joined us to spend some family time with them. We all went out to
enjoy the place, most of the pack taking the cable car. Phyllis, my relative’s
wife and I took what turned out to be the bonding experience of walking up the
hill.
A few
years later, my in-laws were seriously injured by a car on a visit to Germany.
This happened just a month before we were scheduled to have a family vacation
in Israel. The timing was such, that sticking to plan was the most helpful
choice. They were helped back home by Anat’s brothers. We kept on with
preparing the now slightly changed context of our visit. Just two weeks before
flying to Israel, we took Inbal for her first on-foot Grouse Grind. Inbal, then
nine years old asked me after completing the course: “do you think grandpa
would manage the climb?” “Sure.” I responded. “Even grandma
could.” Inbal, in surprise: “You think so?” “Of
course.” I continued. “She might not want to, but she definitely
could.”
It is an
atypical warm summer in Vancouver this year. Still, nothing compared with other
regions in the world. Again, in a few months we are scheduled for a visit in
Israel. Anat’s parents are planning their vacation in Tanzania a few days from
now. Inbal’s second climb to the Grouse was an uneventful, enjoyable weekend
experience.
However,
my impression is that the place has become even more touristy; even more
corporate. The socially compelling side of the physical challenge looks to me
now a bit like an anthropological observation opportunity. I enjoyed walking
along a family whose daughter, younger than Inbal, patiently waited for her
parents, guiding her even younger sibling. The effort makes for talking to be
minimal, but the occasional exchange with others gives a curious sense of
community.
While my
leisurely pace is still that of a fit person, the many competitive climbers
make me think of the diversity of participants in this venue. In the past I was
amused to think that although walking up the path is not for everyone, it could
sometimes feel like you’re in the middle of a downtown sidewalk. I was reminded
of that thought while braving one of the narrower sections of stairs, close to
the top.

Some
people were a step or two in front of me, a few behind me. Not a lot of room
for passing or letting others pass. You just wait patiently for the next
widening of the path to make your move. If at any point someone lets you
through, a quick thank you is all that is exchanged. Then the breath and steps
of a quicker climber were getting closer until I hear from behind an impatient
“excuse me”. There isn’t a lot of room to move sideways so I continue
climbing. When she asks again and passes the pack I am with I’m not sure
whether I’m amused or irritated. As a newly minted Canadian I probably should
have said “Sorry”. Being who I am I’m happy to have avoided a
confrontational “Excuse me!”

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Just Watching

Since my previous post, Marylee and I have shared a few interesting experiences. At the Burnaby Public Library I saw her talk about “Life from the Land”. Then came Balcony Tales by Helle Windeløv-Lidzélius. Marylee saw it in DOXA. Anat and I watched it at home. Birders: The Central Park Effect by Jeffrey Kimball made me take the DVD from the library and have a home screening for the lot of us, Marylee, Anat, Inbal and I.

Our day in North Vancouver. Monday, May 18th 2015

Monday, May 18th was a bright, partly cloudy day. Inbal was handed a spare pair of binoculars and we headed towards a small pond where the ducks were doing their job caring for a bunch of ducklings that were past the chick stage. It is truly magical to watch the view magnified several times through the binoculars. It’s not a bad idea to remind a ten year old about some safety issues such as removing the binoculars from the eye while walking and such.

Heron waiting patiently for its catch.

Between the four locations marked on the map there was much walking and watching. We didn’t return home as fanatic birders but the fun of watching birds and hearing stories about them will stay with us. One of the highlights was the reminder that birds are everywhere in the city. Marylee wanted to show us a hanging nest she’s seen the other day on 5th. When we got there she realized that the tree must be a block or two away. But then Inbal noticed another hanging nest on a tree beside us. We got there just as the parents were feeding their chicks, which were probably just a little more excited to be fed than us observing the excitement.

Robin pecking the grounds at Harbourside.

Still, the presence of humans in the environment and their influence on it always raise the awareness of the challenges wildlife face in their survival. Our own passive form of watching movies about nature and wildlife is just one step in caring for a balance in ecosystems. Some of the Central Park birders of New York express an awareness to how bizarre they might look to “outsiders”. I think we should keep in mind that there would always be someone watching us and considering to join. This is the audience that should interest me. The engagement with uninterested people can come in other ways.

Pigeon Gillemot on its way from one side of the pier to the other.

Urban wildlife flock to the city because of the opportunities to feed, breed and have shelter. Our ways of building and maintaining the city are not geared towards the well being of wildlife. And yet there are many who find the benefits of our systems. Observation, one of humans’ core skills responsible for the achievements of our society allows us to notice the effect of our environment on the one we grew out of.

Bushtit rushing away to find more food.

It always intrigues me to find connections. From the walks with Marylee I am reconnected to the discussion of wildlife in urban settings. Our discussion waves through endless other topics that allow me to weave another set of thoughts into the quilt of a larger story. And it doesn’t end there. What remains is a fleeting moment of beauty.

Time for walking, time for talking

Marylee and I were discussing a jog one day. In her interest to show me some of the lovely birds you can notice anywhere you go in the city it was just a matter of finding the right day. At about 8 am it takes a while until I manage to board the Skytrain. Then another fifteen minutes pass and I am at the Lonsdale Quay where we get together on a sunny April morning.

Apart from birds, Marylee takes photos and videos of urban action of interest. She is a storyteller, who is busy living her life to the fullest. I have recently helped her set up a blog dedicated to documenting those jogs she takes. Gradually we are going through the various tools in WordPress that allow you to share your stuff out in the world.

A wide variety of landscapes can be experienced when you let yourself wander without constraints of time.

Using the path making tool in Google Maps is not perfect in terms of interface but it works. The first walk we had together turned out to be about 5.5 KM long. Strangely there is a bridge spanning the Mosquito Creek’s flow into the bay that is inaccessible to the general public. The Squamish Nation Reserve has private property signs along its roads. As pedestrians we take the liberty to use them instead of the noisy streets surrounding the reserve. We later walk beside the heavy traffic on our way back to the Quay.

If you have patience, you might get a shot of the heron shooting at a stray fish. Not much luck this time for me.

Many ducks can be seen in and out of the water. In the sky you can notice seagulls, crows and ravens. Within the Vancouver Shipyards territory, an eagles’ nest can be seen high up atop one of the massive cranes. How well the birds are faring is hard for me to know. Some of the challenges for urban wildlife are documented by organizations such as the Vancouver Avian Research Centre.

At least when this guy moved, the spread of its wings was magnificent.
Our walk continues on the Spirit Trail that has steadily evolved since the first decade of the millennium. The lovely pedestrian bridge over the train tracks takes us to 1st street west, where we head back east. We take one of the patterned crosswalks to get to the north side walk. The traffic is pretty heavy now. We grab a coffee and a tea to chat a bit about Galapagos and Darwin. Marylee is working on the third edition of her book. I am in the middle of reading a biography of Darwin written by Janet Browne.

We called this a Jalk. Marylee is the one of us jogging. For me the pace is quick walking. The point is having a good balance of exercise and companionship. Along the way we enjoy the scenery that is changing as we move in space. Our memories and projections notice the changes that the scenery is going through in time as well.

I got to know of the Spirit Trail through one of my submissions for public art in North Vancouver. The patterned crosswalks are another feature of this city’s care for the public realm.

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?

The Age of Walking

In  a high end fashion shop in Tel Aviv I am curiously browsing through
items that seem pointless to consider for my then bachelor condition. Even in my
current marital status I would probably avoid spending the amounts marked on the
labels in that shop. This happened sometime before my moving to Canada. A man
approaches me dressed up in a suite and tie and asks me for directions to a
place that is a fair distance away.

I ask the shop attendant whether they have a phonebook so that its map will
facilitate my response. As I show him our location and point to his destination
I ask him whether he intends to ride or walk. Each decision would result in a
slightly different route. The guy takes my question as an implication of a
different kind and asks “Why, do you think I’m too old to walk there?” I smile
and say that even people my age occasionally take a car or a bus for that
distance.

“How old are you?” he asks in a politely confrontational smile.
“Thirty three” I say.
His smile changes into a gaze of recognition.
“Oh. I’m ninety…” he says.

We greet each other farewell and the man steps out to continue his
walk.

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