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?

All about design

The degree of engagement in community consultations can be felt throughout an event. However, a great way for facilitators to get a sense of it is to invite participants to summarize the discussion.

In the February 27th workshop the discussion around the table was lively and inspiring. An interesting potential conflict evolved from the idea of reducing car traffic and parking along Broadway. Bikers and biking might benefit whereas businesses and residents could suffer.

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Frieda, a senior resident of the neighbourhood, seemed pretty decisive in her interest to keep things as they are. Andrew, a young resident presented the bikers’ side. When time came to conclude Scot still nudged his head my way looking for a candidate to present the evening’s outcome. I decided to stretch my position of active participant and relay the call to Frieda. She had in my view raised pretty intriguing concerns and insights throughout the evening.

With what looked like a humble shrug, Frieda confidently stood up and started. She surveyed the map in front of us beautifully. It was fun listening to her take on the discussion that evening. In each section along Broadway she provided straightforward descriptions of issues. Without any effort however, Frieda peppered her words with the occasional shrewd remark. Her remarks reflected some of the differences between participants along the way.

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As mentioned, not everyone walked out of the event feeling a lot of progress was made. However, the benefits of community consultations extend beyond the content developed in them. The waves of interest each member generates have a power to reach more people whether they are families, friends or broader circles. Not all the questions are answered in a single meeting and more continue to be raised.

Some questions are specific, like “Will six stories on North side of Broadway reduce the sun on my porch in the afternoons?”; “Do we need another Big Drugstore?”; “Are there ideas that would be better to implement significantly away from the core?”

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Other questions are more abstract, philosophical and open: “What are the questions we ask and what are the questions we fail to ask?”; “What happens if?”

The degree of engagement of the community in the redevelopment process of a neighbourhood will probably remain challenging. The balance between common sense and controversy is not in the hands of anyone. Questions asked leave room for thought, discussion and proposals. Eventually decisions have to be made and actions be taken. I’m excited from being involved in this process. This is a great opportunity to employ design in dealing with issues on an urban scale. We grow our city (advance development on a large scale) by making it smaller (useable by its residents).

Design is a matter of life.

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Dental Biking

Since our moving in 2004 to live close to Central Park Dental Clinic, our dentist has already had two boys. About a year and a half ago he’s gone through a light traffic accident. It turns out that Dr. PJ lives in North Vancouver and has been commuting to Burnaby by bike. The morning of my dental appointment was supposed to be rainy. The weather forecast kept changing until finally it started to rain in the afternoon. I decided to take my bike to the clinic.

PJ’s accident was light but it left him stranded with headaches that are still preventing him from returning to work. It’s pretty strange to become orphaned from a doctor that is still alive but who we don’t have any contact with. When I bike, most of my way to the clinic and back home I do on the sidewalks of Kingsway. In the coming years this road will be transformed (2.4 mb file) to accommodate safer biking. Lately I’ve participated in quite a few discussions that deal with one of the hot topics in urban planning: reducing society’s reliance on cars. The needs of housing a growing population on limited lands ties in well with the move to encourage biking and walking.

Human history shows that challenges have always been great for innovative solutions. Technology continues to improve human interaction with the world. The marvels of nature on ground-level remind us of the less exciting realities of life expectancy, physical labour and collaboration. Until the next technological breakthrough I make do with my basic mechanical skills of fixing a bicycle tube.

About two hundred meters from home I feel my bike’s back wheel running on its rim. Whenever I need to fill air I take my bike to the nearest gas station because our pump is such a pain to use.  I decide to fix the puncture later and drive to purchase a new inner tube for six dollars. On my way back I have a new inner tube and a pump that together have cost about ten times more. Technology costs.

Step. Pedal. Ride. Planning for change.

After almost-frantically taking notes, I stepped out of Andreas Røhl’s talk at SFU with a mischievous smile: “our Elephant is culture” I was thinking “and our challenge is reaching balance.”

Take off the training wheels

When it comes to issues of leadership for change, there will always be an “Elephant” in the room. Adreas referred to topics that need not be brought up as they tend to clog the discussion. For Copenhagen planners, it seemed unnecessary to talk about Health as a component in the city’s efforts to promote cycling. Instead, they focused on the more tangible benefits like ease of use, access and infrastructure. Of course health for the user is there. But in communications, talking about health is like talking about brushing your teeth: planning is a tedious occupation; don’t bore your audience to death.

Røhl, Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program Manager, is on leave from his current position. He’s joined the team at Urban Systems in their process of consulting the City of Vancouver. His talk – Sticks, Carrots and Tambourines – attracted a massive audience to SFU’s Harbor Center lecture hall. Many points relating to the promotion of bike riding were brought up in the talk. A few short words were presented before Andreas: Brian Patterson represented Urban Systems, one of the evening’s sponsors; Dale Bracewell, Manager, Active Transportation at the City of Vancouver mentioned some points from the city’s perspective. Then a panel made up of Andreas, Dale and two others were seated on stage to elaborate some more following the talk: Erick Villagomez, editor of Spacing Vancouver and  Tania Lo from Momentum Magazine.

It seems to me that North America’s Elephant in the room is Culture. One of Røhl’s slides showed his observation of what discussions about cycling look like in Copenhagen vs in Vancouver (or in more general, North America)

Civil Cycling (Copenhagen): Convenient; Citizenship; Life quality; Mass culture

Militant Cycling (Vancouver): Survival; Sports; Subculture; Rebellion; Critical mass; Environmentalism

Among bikers in any city there will be those who employ this type of cycling or the other. Probably, whether one city is perceived this way or the other, relies on its broader set of values and social habits: in other words, its culture. First we notice aspects of behavior. Then, we tend to describe them in fond words or in mockery. After generalizing we use titles that simplify our discussion. This is the birth of the Elephant. We don’t like others questioning our culture. Some of us don’t want to let go of the car. Others (cyclists in this case) find it hard to grow out of fighting for the cause even after trends have shifted. Andreas Røhl’s message on this was that you can live with more than one means of transportation.

It’s “only” a matter of promoting a culture of change.

The whole talk was compelling. Our City is faced with the challenge of facilitating the change without dictating it. Some of the solutions are common sense: provide infrastructure; invest in programming; listen to the citizens. In Copenhagen there is an underlying history of utilitarian bike riding. This supports their success in reclaiming the roads. Denmark too has seen its lowest usage of bikes in the 1950’s like the rest of the developed world. However, biking never reached the status of subculture as in some other places.

In light of the apparent tension between cyclists and car drivers, be it isolated incidents or ingrained conflict, a balance will be found. We are experiencing a transition from car oriented infrastructure to a more varied and wholesome flow of transportation types. We need to be aware of the Elephant in the room. Whether we talk about it or not, what matters most is what we want of our city. It’s not about biking. It’s about balance in our lives. It’s about our interests and our culture.