Stories from the NIMBY, Stories from the BING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Assembly And Beyond

A city in change can be fascinating and inspiring, as much as it can be sad and depressing. This is true, I suspect, for its residents and its governors, its business owners and developers. The city is a tool, a mechanism, a product. It is just as well an environment, a living space, an organism.

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The last session of three roundtables has been an interim conclusion to a promising process. Its promise, in light of the above, is plagued with question marks and challenges. The seven sub-areas of Grandview Woodland have each a set of unique characteristics. Together they form a whole that has the quality and charm of a metropolitan village.

Is this charm reason enough to leave things as they are? How can we productively articulate a set of directions that facilitate a healthy change?
150507-MechanismsAssembly-14It is evident that members of the Assembly have invested a considerable effort in this engagement. They have generated a list of recommendations that will be presented to City Hall later this year. The last roundtable was dedicated to fine tuning the various points for each sub-area.

Cedar Cove – The Edgy Residential Land
Hastings – The Industrial High Street
Britannia Woodland – The Rental & Affordable Stock
Grandview – The Residential Heritage Enclave
Nanaimo – The Truck Route & Historic City Boundary
Commercial Dr. – The Heartbeat of The Neighborhood
Broadway & Commercial – The Regional Transit Hub

For each sub area a table or two were assigned for discussion. From the two tables I participated in, the buzz of emotions was tangible yet somewhat subdued. There was urgency in the air mixed with despair; confusion alternated with decisiveness.
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Around the first table residents who want things to stay as they are sat beside a developer who is expecting zoning to allow more than four stories. More people than probably anticipated arrived at the Croatian Community Centre. As this was the last event where residents could participate in consultation, some frustration trickled into the discussion.

At the second table our facilitator was looking for specific feedback over points in the recommendations document. To me  they all seemed reasonably comprehensive. It looks obvious to me that the recommendations will never be perfect. What we need now is a look into the next stage of engagement. The Assembly members have gone through an admirable process of learning and contribution.
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One of the fascinating outcomes of the work of the Citizens’ Assembly in my view is the increase in connections. Neighbors got to know more about each other, more about their common interests as much as their differences. Residents experienced in a tangible way the tools in use for urban planning. Connections are what makes a city work. We need to make sure connections remain a priority in the management and governance of Vancouver. Wherever they are weak, our job is to strengthen them.

It is worth paying attention to the layers of connection. The following points are quick notes I’ve taken as discussions around the table evolved:

  • Within sub areas – enhance and improve the flow of pedestrians between streets and blocks.
  • Between sub areas – minimize or eliminate the separation between sub areas.
  • To adjacent areas/neighborhoods – Grandview Woodland is defined by thoughts and definitions. It also influences and is influenced by what people in and out of it are doing.

The wealth of ideas and insights from the work of the Assembly is dynamic. It can continue to nurture the productive connections created while the Assembly existed. As the Assembly is about to disassemble, established channels can facilitate the continued connections. New ones could surely emerge.

Possible channels could be the City website (Vancouver), the Commercial Drive Business Association (CDBS), Vancouver Public Library (VPL), Kettle Friendship Society (Kettle), The Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society (VAFCS) and other agencies. Each could have an interface established so that the engagement expands instead of being wrapped up.
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We need to support the achievements of the Citizens’ Assembly in making sure the discussion continues. Values & recommendation, zoning & policies are all open to interpretation. The documents we will see are generated in response to a commendable process. To fully benefit from the investment in this process, mechanisms of exchange need to be enhanced and maintained.

A city in change uses tools and mechanisms that become a product. That product is the environment we all live in and make into our life. It’s not about whether any of us wants change or not. The city is an organism that constantly changes. Participation in the process is the life of a city. We need to make sure that the tools for participation evolve with the changing city. This city is essentially who we are.

At the corner of Victoria and Ferndale

Playing music at the corner of Victoria and Ferndale: Brandon, Nao & Yuka

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?

Nanaimo Workshop: the limits of change; the limits of imagination

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The tension between my empathy and frustration made me suggest two ways of looking at the process of change. Both take inspiration from sculpture.

By empathy I mean that we all have a common inclination to resist change. When I suggest going for a walk, my daughter’s immediate response is ‘no’. It’s much more convenient to stay where she is but as soon as we’re out she’s completely transformed: every few steps there is something else that interests her.

Frustration is from my feeling of struggling with this same knee jerk reaction coming from adults. The process of community generated recommendations for a neighborhood wide plan is an opportunity. We can influence in a positive way the shape and function of a whole neighborhood. But we are stuck in saying ‘no’. Just because. So with adults there are much more time and resources required to move a step away from just saying no to shifting gears into a constructive discussion.

How can you imagine planning for 30 years ahead? It starts with maps.

Maps on the tables, a map on the wall, tracing paper and felt pens. In Grandview Woodland a set of events are part of an effort to reach a community plan that will be in service for the next thirty years. A week ago I’ve participated in a walking tour that was very helpful in generating initial acquaintance with the area and inspire some insights. The workshop on Saturday, January 17 was meant to collect as much of the knowledge and wisdom in the room to reach a vision that responds to real insights from real residents.

There were moments in the workshop at the Wise Hall on Adanac street where a presenter uttered the words “No Change” and the whole room burst into cheers of approval. No change to zoning around the parks. No change to this, no change to that: cheers, cheers and cheers. Oh, how lovely, how easy to say, to demand.

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The changes anticipated for Nanaimo street and its adjacent blocks of mostly single family residences are generally understood as those of densification. The facilitators in the room are generally doing a good job of explaining in words and diagrams the concepts and tools at hand. When people express a concern about height, there are a variety of solutions to keep sunlight, air flow and some views. When the discussions focus on amenities, green space and transportation, valuable information is gathered. Residents’ feedback directly informs our planners’ recommendations to City Council. Without them, the policies coming out of this process are much less effective in providing us with the services we could have.

However, most people know and understand that change will come and will happen. The question in my view is what change would you like to see? Not necessarily how much or how little but for any change proposed, how would you like it to be, to look, to work. It is complicated and in a way impossible to predict what change will eventually yield. Will it really succeed or sadly fail?

When I talked at the table with my fellow residents, I likened the addition of height within the Nanaimo sub-area to the work of a sculptor: one method employs the gradual addition of matter to the base until it feels right; the other is chiseling pieces away from the block until you expose the shape you want. In both options my idea is to explore the maximum massing as an exercise in community sculpture. With the maps available, we can take each region and consider its context. Whether it is the adding of mass or the chiseling method, each area can accommodate additional space, be it retail, office, residence or industry.

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Our discussion needs to move on to formalizing the limits of a change. Refusing change will not prevent it from happening. When the change is formally and positively directed – with the right input from the community – the policies constructed based on these discussions will reflect the change that we all need.

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.

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

Flaming

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Outside the bistro I’ve noticed JJ Lee, who I’d seen for the first time in one of MetroVancouver’s sustainability breakfasts. It was the first Wednesday of June and the Flame was having its last session of the season. I’ve been going to this storytelling event for quite a while now and each occasion has had a charm of its own. After asking whether he was about to speak, I shared with JJ my appreciation to the story I’d seen him telling and what had brought me to the event that day. We shook hands and I went back inside to sit with Ruth and Aviad who would be returning soon to Israel.

Storytelling is all around us. We grow up listening to one another and our life becomes a story. When I had completed the urban design program, one of the skills that seemed to me worth developing, was that of storytelling. Urban design focuses on the well being of people in the context of the built environment. My aim as a designer is to employ my skills for the benefit of balanced urban living. Understanding the human story can be useful in my process.

Being content in life seems to be a search that many people struggle with. I feel fortunate to have experienced what had come at me in life while making the most out of each opportunity. At times it felt like a struggle but the feeling of being fortunate has continually grown in me. The very few minutes I’ve shared with JJ Lee have shown me how simple making the most out of opportunities could be.

He stepped up to the stage and greeted the audience and hosts in his friendly manner. Then, in the still quite noisy surroundings of the bistro’s chattering I’ve managed just barely to hear him. He had addressed me, who he’s seen for the first time just seconds before, in name. It usually takes me a few times before I manage to remember new people’s names. Then he thanked our friends for spending their late moments in Vancouver to enjoy that special gathering of storytelling.

What I try to take from storytelling is geared towards design. My whole life I’ve been playing with concepts and ideas and turning them into tangible outcomes that enhance people’s lives. Stories connect us. Design strives to make connections. The struggle to be content is not an end result: it is a process that ignites in us the joy of being who we are.

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