People Care

Imagine landing in Vancouver after a visit to a distant place. Is there anything missing here you’ve already seen elsewhere? Even the great things in Vancouver can benefit from fine tuning. How about issues that need fixing?

When Michael Geller invited the audience to share their ideas, his presentation finally delivered on its promise: 12 ideas on how to make Vancouver a healthier, friendlier, more beautiful and creative city. After the presentation, the number of audience members who waited to share their ideas was impressive. The video of the event will let you experience it as it was filmed. Here I will try to extract some of the points that raised my intrigue.

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One of the last Mic holders at the question period was a foreign student. He charmingly confessed to riding the Skytrain without paying. He’s been doing that ever since he realized he could. No Skytrain official approaches Japanese looking riders to check their fares. His point was not to brag about fare evasion and definitely not to complain about racism. He would actually like to see in Vancouver systems similar to those he knows from Japan; systems that work.

“The world is a more complex place than we think”, Michael Geller informs us. That “world”, me included since 2002, is coming to BC and Vancouver in a rate higher than local society’s natural growth (Births – Deaths vs Immigration). This city can become better but might find itself sliding the opposite way. It’s not the first time I come out of a local discussion feeling like “Vancouver is a culture, about to be consumed and trashed like any other commodity in our world”.

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Although Vancouver is sufficiently welcoming to new insights, it is also notoriously conservative and tied with too many restrictions. It’s not perfect – it’s changing. For some, it’s too much; for others it’s not fast enough. “Act quickly”, Michael urges. This tension between NIMBYism and impatient pressure for change can trash Vancouver. It is no one’s intention but it can certainly  happen.

Do we need to protect ourselves from a looming future or should we find the right mechanisms to improve what we already have? We could strive “to be like ______” (fill in the culture of your choice), but eventually we can work with what we have here. Introducing new ideas, locally sourced as well as imported, is an embraceable (i.e. worthy) challenge.

There’s a difference between seeing and looking, between looking and observing. In my own travels I used to “go to the non-exotic and look for the uncommon”, as Geller has suggested. What’s great about this approach is that you can apply it without even leaving Vancouver. Many of our side streets can be depressingly uninspiring. But as soon as you have an idea that inspires you to do something –  moving quickly should be your priority. Know your tools, be prepared and find the issues you really care about.

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As Geller’s entertaining talk approached its conclusion, a layer of whining started to wrap it up. “People care!” I blurted without really knowing what else to say. Initially I was a bit frustrated with the speaker’s delivery. The question period however, was the phase where our gathering truly justified itself.

“The World” is coming to Vancouver to get inspired. Part of it is coming here to stay. In doing so, That World is not only bringing ideas, but making them happen. Let’s open up to that reality and embrace what we already have.

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Michael Geller is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades’ experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. His lecture was performed at the SFU Harbour Centre on April 1 2015.

Pressing Questions

The Emperor’s New Clothes‘ is an analogy that any of us can interpret in a variety of ways. When you ask yourself “how am I like the emperor in my own life?” you could explore some interesting insights that might turn into action. The same with the boy, the same with the swindlers. It really depends on how honest you care to be with yourself. If you were a comedian, many stand up sketches could come out of such an exercise.

What insights would it yield if you were a participant in a City of Vancouver neighborhood planning workshop? One problem with this exercise is that the workshop is part of a democratic process. The ’emperor’ is a curious story from a not so distant social structure. But are we really fully democratic? Yet again, you could question your own government as to its practices and, not to forget, you could question yourself. 150223-ConDiv The workshop for the Commercial-Broadway sub-area was held on Saturday, February 21st. A few days before that, White Rock City Council voted to eliminate question period from their agenda. In that city, 19,339 residents were counted as of 2011. The Grandview Woodland neighborhood is home to 27,300. What are the differences between the two communities? What similarities can we count?

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White Rock, with its recent questionable decision, is like a vestige from an extinct species. Will we be so lucky as to have someone pick on the comic perspective of it? The proposed community plan in Grandview Woodland of mid 2013 was a display of disregard to community consultation. Fortunately, the lack of listening on the part of Vancouver City Hall resulted in an interesting eruption of community opposition. The lessons from that process are still being learned, as information becomes available and is shared. Here too, some giggles and laughs will hopefully emerge.

The efforts to govern and serve a city these days are intriguing to the point of practitioners becoming overwhelmed. Within the context of change, we humans, are almost the only part of the city that stays the same. The transfer of responsibilities from federal to provincial to municipal in recent years means that we are all still adjusting. From a sleepy region up until 1986, the lower mainland has experienced a constant push for growth.

Right now the neighborhood is bubbling with experimentation that is yet to be determined as successful or frivolous. The extent of residents’ involvement in the democratic process is a crucial factor, in which direction we take. This is where the workshops in Grandview Woodland provide a platform of engagement. Within the context of change, that platform promotes a degree of stability. So how do we benefit from it?

In the Croatian Community Centre the City of Vancouver facilitators were busy framing the discussion. As usual, the questions we were asked included the topics of Local Economy, Arts & Culture, Heritage, Parks and Public Space, Social Sustainability & Social Issues, Transportation and Housing. The difference this time compared to previous workshops was the introduction of a request to express our impressions of convergent and divergent items.

Our discussion covered items such as pedestrian friendliness of the area around the Skytrain station, building-form-and-height, green-and-open-space, etc. The topics that resulted in a sense of general agreement, were framed as convergent. The topics of disagreement were framed as divergent. This process was presented as experimental. Some facilitators admitted to it being challenging for them as well.

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Has our platform lost its sense of stability? Listening is one of people’s ongoing challenges. The experiment on Saturday might have stretched the effort of listening beyond most people’s attention span. It has possibly also triggered the underlying question many of us have: are they truly trying to listen to us? Is this exercise employing the comprehensive planning tools in the best possible way or is it just a fancy dress up to “eliminate question period”?

The comic in me takes a step back to ask, what if that boy’s parents had a babysitter that day?!

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.

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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.

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.

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

The Medium Is The Message

Planning can take us through a day, a week or a month. Whenever a plan is well crafted, there is a sense of joy in its execution. However, diversions usually strike us without our control. My sense of good luck has been strong in many of my encounters this year.

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This really was an eventful one for me. Our stories and the way we tell them reflect the passing year and help us reflect on the year to come: an inspiring display of resilience and recovery following a serious road accident to my in-lawsCanadian citizenship in August; fascinating city building processes; mind boggling disasters around the world; gaining confidence in my writing. Nothing seems to relate to anything so making the connections is a matter of creativity, optimism and storytelling.

I am looking at the prospects of 2014 with growing anticipation.

May you have a Happy New Year.

Do I Know You From Anywhere?

A few more words following the evening at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) titled ‘Testing the Limits: Smart Cities, Technology, and Open Everything’.

What Evgeny Morozov is trying to promote, judging from a few pages gleaned on the web, sounds absolutely valid to me, worth consideration, dare I say, important. The thing is, my visit to the discussion he was part of and probably where he was the main attraction, was triggered by the same tools we, or some of us, are also cautious about: communication tools of “the digital age”.

Wikipedia: “Morozov expresses skepticism about the popular view …”;  Eventbrite: “Join us Thursday August 8 at 6pm for a public dialogue …”

What I have experienced failed to impress me as meaningful dialogue. And it’s not so much the speaker, who was unfortunately so humbly full of himself; it wasn’t the other speakers, who I felt, were hard pressed to respond to Evgeny’s energetic mini lectures.

One of the components of any public gathering is the format. Within that setting, people in a room carry with them what you can identify as culture. Evgeny comes from one; the event moderator comes from another. Evgeny is ‘enthusiastically debateful’; the moderator, ‘Canadian’ i.e (for this matter), non-confrontational, lightheartedly self-deprecating.

Morozov has a lot of interesting things to say. In writing I’m sure he is articulate and thought provoking (I haven’t read any of his …yet). As a speaker he is… how should I say it…, well, so humbly full of himself. I can relate to that. Almost every morning my wife is at risk of being blown away with my outbursts of ideas, musings and thoughts pouring out of me. ‘Being Evgeny Morozov’ might turn out to be a compelling sequel to the movie featuring John Malkovich.

‘Being Canadian’ on the other hand is probably not the best choice for being a moderator in a discussion titled “Testing the limits”. However, being Hanna Cho, Curator of Engagement and Dialogue at the MOV, is not a position to take lightly. More gleaning from the web results in some impressive information relating to her. But the culture divide, it seems, resulted in a room full of words and hardly any discussion.

In today’s choice of communication tools a question mark is looming over any kind of human interaction. I am still in the process of assessing my use of the tools available. When I go to a public meeting my expectations are only one component of my being there. My being there also includes observation, listening, thoughts, interests and who knows what else.

Did we get Dialogue?

Could we have done things differently?

Why were we there?

What’s your story?