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.

Sightlines-Merge-Notes

The slope along Hastings is a feature of the sub-area. A part of the discussion relating to building heights, I tried to hear from my fellow residents around the table, what might be their preference of a possible future. The option here imagines a gradual reduction of building heights from Clark Dr. to Nanaimo Street.

We can’t let that discourage us from participating in life. Whether spoken or otherwise, our words lead to action. My challenge is to articulate insights into words that reflect my intentions. Our challenge as a society is to strike a fair balance between individual needs-and-interests and those of the community. The more we invest in articulating our interests and concerns the better we pave the ground for sustainable action. Our words then become building blocks and stepping stones.

While walking along the Hastings Street sub area I was looking for phrases to support my dialogue in the workshop that was hosted in the Aboriginal Friendship Center on Saturday, February 14. My first phrase is a question: how much of the local economy relies on visitors?

Immediately on arrival at the intersection of Hastings and Nanaimo you will notice the slope taking you down from east to west. Some of the building fronts are stepped in response to this slope. This feature as a carrier of character could become a message into the future. Let’s call it Shaping form in response to topography.

As soon as you step away from Hastings Street the relative quiet of the blocks is a pleasant surprise. Pandora park is being renewed and its field house is home to a group called ‘Dance Troupe‘ for the coming three years. It will be interesting to see how well the park serves the growing community. Could this sub area benefit from another park between Pandora and Woodland? Our future could benefit from Exploring unlikely opportunities.

The commodity of unobstructed views is a tough challenge. Does my quality of living rely so heavily on seeing the mountains from my bathroom? If I step out to dance in the streets, will I be better off or dismissed as a lunatic?

Pender Street, between Victoria Dr. and Templeton Dr. has an uncommon tree lined median that I wish we saw more of in our city’s streets. With proper landscape design such a median could encourage fantastic social activity. A larger number of residents is expected to live in the area as well as reach it for any purpose. A median such as the one on Pender could be a lovely landing, gathering and departure spot. The phrase I make of this example is Enhancement of existing features.

The more I go to community events like the ones in Grandview Woodland, the more I hope they continue. They provide layers of exchange that reach beyond their immediate purpose. Looking back at the workshop on Saturday, here is a quick list of the above points and some more:

  • How much of the local economy relies on visitors?
  • Shaping form in response to topography.
  • Explore unlikely opportunities.
  • Enhance existing features.
  • Maintain a flow of all trafic modes.
  • Develop programming that supports the built space.
  • Develop space that supports required programming.

Final Thoughts The word is one of the core tools of human communications. Since its first days of employment in our society, the word has removed us from the immediate concerns of survival. This in itself is both a source of inspiring opportunities and depressing dangers. Our ability to reach high levels of collaboration is based on stories that have united us in every step of history. The word is present in mind and matter: we can remember stories and pass them between generations; our products allow us to extend our control of the environment beyond the limits of our own bodies.

Variety is an often heard expression of desires. It makes life interesting, challenges us to accommodate each other, reflects our own personalities. If our policies successfully reflected this desire, our streets could become not only interesting but also part of our lives.

Variety is an often heard expression of desires. It makes life interesting, challenges us to accommodate each other, reflects our own personalities. If our policies successfully reflected this desire, our streets could become not only interesting but also part of our lives.

The city is human kind’s most complex tool. When we gather to discuss the future of that tool, I find it fascinating to reflect back on the word. It’s useful to see the connection between words and buildings, words and streets, plants and landscapes. Apart from having functional purpose they all communicate a variety of needs and interests. They have a language of their own. The gatherings in Grandview Woodland these days are an intriguing opportunity to both read the language of the place and help its future society have a compelling story to live and tell.

Britannia-Woodland Workshop: From Participation to Ownership

Microsoft Word - Britannia-Woodland - Workshop - Backgrounder V2 In the hall of the Vancouver Opera rehearsal building, tables were arranged by topics. I usually like to move between tables but this time I stuck with the one focused on Local Economy. Other tables dealt with Arts & Culture, Heritage, Parks and Public Space, Social Sustainability & Social Issues, Transportation and Housing.

But there are three topics that keep intriguing me when dealing with community engagement: Participation, Contribution and Ownership.

On Saturday, December 6 the City of Vancouver held a workshop dedicated to exploring residents’ interests and insights for the neighborhood in the next 30 years. What I feel is working in favor of the planning process is a good combination of participation, contribution and ownership. On my way to delivering a workshop at the Urban Design Masters program in UBC it was great to participate in one. I’m inspired by the process going on in Grandview Woodland these days.

Participation: one of the most challenging issues of setting up a workshop is attracting a significant audience.

When it’s sunny outside – they thank you for coming out on such a lovely day; when it rains – they thank you for taking the time. Well yes, no one can promise this process would yield tangible results, let alone benefits to the community. So the fact that people show up is admirable. And residents don’t hesitate to express their complaints: these range from the usual “the rich/the developers always get their way” to the more specific, personal stories of encounters with city policies and the looming threat to maintaining a business.

Contribution: when residents do participate, their contribution to this process can be significant.

141226-GrandviewWoodlandWorkshop-bb

Andrew Pask, the City of Vancouver planner for Grandview Woodland in one of his summaries in front of the screen.

Half an hour before the workshop I was still sitting outside the Britannia public library. I’ve exchanged a few words with a guy who was browsing through the garbage bin. He was in search of cans and bottles. It was a rainy morning. “The stuff people throw away in this neighborhood! It’s disgusting!” he grumbled sort of to himself. “So, you’re complaining?” I asked him, intrigued by the scene and curious to tap into his message. Homelessness was mentioned quite a bit throughout the day. The main issue was concern for those who seem to be entrenched in this type of living. The homeless is our symbol for everything that’s bad about gentrification, rightfully or not. Whether you need to move away to a cheaper space or are at risk of being thrown to the streets, talking about the homeless is not only an expression of care to those who are there: it is a tangible fear for our own fate.

Ownership: when you come to a workshop and contribute to its discussions, chances are that your care and attachment to the neighborhood increase.

As my talk with the guy collecting bottles extended a bit, I’ve heard that he comes from Saskatchewan. He is in touch with his family there. He seemed pretty interested to know where I was heading. But when the library opened at 9:30 AM the man slipped inside with the rest of the people waiting outside. I headed a few blocks south to where the workshop was about to begin. Eventually I couldn’t notice the guy at the workshop. But whatever story this encounter had entailed, I took it as just another one that makes this neighborhood.

Question: “Does this process help City Hall ease its way to execute a predetermined agenda or does it truly engage the community in meaningful development of our city?” The two parts of this question don’t seem contradictory to me. However, if participation, contribution and ownership are core elements of community engagement, trust, education and futility are a the real challenge of its purpose. Here is an interesting article relating to this.

Moving forward is an interest we usually have as much as it tends to be a necessity. “OK, so now what?” you may ask. On our way to action, questions can be useful. In Grandview Woodland it looks like the sense of ownership is strong. This makes for significant participation. The challenge is in how to turn the contributions made, into significant moves forward – for the benefit of current residents as well as future populations.

Unthinking Design

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

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

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

DESIGNTHINKING

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2014-HNY-AIY

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.

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

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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…

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.

13-02-27-KNIMBY-01

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.

13-02-27-KNIMBY-02

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.

13-02-27-KNIMBY-03

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.

Glacier

When I was growing up all I could hear about bureaucracy was suspicion and dismissal. Red tape and corruption were among the common terms used in relation to any interaction with City staff. The same applied and still does with respect to developers, business people, lawyers and so on. Somehow I developed a habit of questioning many of those sentiments: Haven’t they all been kids in the past?

13-02-27-Concepts

Typically, a number of City staff are present in community consultation meetings, to answer questions, clarify issues, document and gather insight.

In 2011 I got in touch with Scot Hein, Vancouver’s senior urban designer. I had just graduated from the urban design program at SFU and was looking for contacts to open my way into the field. We’ve been meeting occasionally ever since. In midday of February 27th I saw Scot for a quick exchange as a preview for that evening’s community gathering.

Scot was happy to prepare this way for the expected interaction with the community. It was good practice for me as well in an exchange of questions, comments and stories.

So the day started with excitement in anticipation for the evening. Although Scot’s revised development proposal for Broadway East relied on community input, there might always be those who could be adversely affected by it. This is one of the main reasons these meeting are so important. The exchange is both educational and cautionary.

13-02-27-Rizegate

Kingsgate Mall, apart from being a prime location bordering to the west of Broadway East, is also across the street from the controversial Rize site.

A good sign before everyone sat by the tables at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House (MPNH) was the presence of Houtan and Curtis, development managers in the Beedie Group. In January 30th I had met them and Rob in their downtown office for a discussion. With me were Sylvia and Joyce. Rob is Beedie Living’s director of development; Joyce is the City of Vancouver’s planner responsible for the Mount Pleasant file; Sylvia is the facilitator for the WPPP project. In that meeting I got the impression that the Beedie people understand the benefits of participating in the community process.

Kingsgate is defined outside of the Weaving project but is part of the Broadway East redevelopment plan so some gaps in engagement result. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen there will influence the implementation process east of it. Curtis and Houtan are both young and energetic professionals who express a healthy enthusiasm in their vocation. However, one of the messages that they insist upon is that their plans for redevelopment of the Kingsgate Mall site are practically non-existent yet.

13-02-27-Proposal

Gradually but steadily the ideas put forward by the community are forming under the experienced hands of city planners.

City building is a long term endeavour with short term pressures. The directions planners get from council aim to reflect valid responses to urban needs. There’s no escaping that the occasional (and still valid) economic & political agenda play into these directions. How do you employ transparency, collaboration and innovation when directions shift?

Vancouver is in the midst of an ongoing transformation. The Wednesday gathering took me back in time to my experience of standing on a glacier. You can feel the force without seeing it. In City planning you want to at least direct some of the force but be aware of the need to let things happen. It might be the balance between force and pressure; the opportunity to be a guide in the social journey of building our city.

As a preview to what went on in the gathering of the 27th I might have missed a few details and it already looks daunting. But Vancouver is changing fast even if we don’t have a chance to notice every side of that change. This is why I get so inspired. My aim is to see a positive balance between force and pressure. The group effort of urban residents – planners and plumbers, developers and peddlers, owners and visitors – that group effort is what will help us all succeed as a society.

13-02-27-Scot