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.


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”.


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.


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.


Food for thought

Referring to my previous post – yes, using food as a tool to attract people to an event seems radical to me . Why?!

In one of my Crawls at the Vancouver East Side, I was intrigued by a set of tables designed by the artist whose studio I had visited. What intrigued me even more were the guy’s complaints about the public who didn’t seem to buy into the marvels of his piece’s ingenuity. At the time I wasn’t able to articulate what seemed to me to be his mistake. Maybe I still struggle with it.


The question does not lie in the degree of interest of your audience. The funny/sad thing is that probably my own interest in my own product’s marvels doesn’t really make a difference. That product could be a chair, a service or any activity. If I want my audience to buy into any of my offerings, I have a responsibility to engage them. When I think of engagement, it’s not about me; it’s not about you: it’s about our connection. The implementation process for the revitalization of Broadway East includes an impressive schedule for gatherings way into 2013.

However important the cause, if we fail to bring our stakeholders to the table, the void will be filled. The reality we are trying to change will be succeeded by another. Our aim is to bring benefit to all if not most. Without community participation the risk is that the benefits will be lost into the hands of a few. Reality sucks. Or does it?

Successful community consultation in the Collingwood neighborhood back in the 1980’s resulted in a development process that is appreciated and remembered to this day. It seems like in Vancouver’s urban planning, the aim is to achieve similar successful development processes in other areas of town. For that to happen, community engagement is just one part of the puzzle but is a crucial part. It is also a massive challenge.


At the individual scale, planning as a concept could be one of life’s biggest threats. Think of planning for a wedding; consider financial planning etc’. We like things to just happen to us in life; good things, that is. Many times though, procrastination is our first step when we embark on planning. Now try to lure a significant amount of people to help in planning A Neighborhood? “Oh, I have a hairdresser appointment” or, “Shawks, I forgot…” or just plain neglect.

Food does help. The Vancouver Design Nerds base any of their events on sharing food, drinks and on fostering a collegial atmosphere. I think they’ve built their success on a gradual and steady outreach to a growing audience of like minded people. In the case of a City sponsored, one-off, legally-binding (?) process like Broadway East’s revitalization, the set of challenges and opportunities is somewhat or maybe utterly different.

Which still doesn’t mean food is not a good option.

Which leads us back to asking more questions.

On that, later.


Landfill can strike a chord on the way to land use

In the past month or so, I’ve been trying to get a sense of the platform of community engagement. There’s been a few of them in various forms and formats that always raise the biggest question for me: how do you get people to participate in a valuable process that is beyond their immediate influence? East Broadway is currently the project I am most engaged in and the mystery is still unfolding.

Who Can Make It Happen

We use questions, at times, as a threat. Other times our questions are so perceived without our intention. Asking the right questions is both a matter of mindset as it is of context. This is probably why we should always keep asking them.

Community Outreach sounds like something politicians should be good at. But anyone trying to attract an audience will have to go through some sort of it before a room is filled with the desired energy. It’s always great to be involved in conversations that discuss ideas intended for actual implementation. The challenge is generating participation that is representative of the eventual community who is supposed to benefit from the change. The planning department‘s intention to have “input from all Mount Pleasant residents and business owners” is always at risk of staying unfulfilled. For the meeting of December 11th 25 people confirmed their attendance. In reality you work with what you have. I think we were eight including our facilitator Sylvia.


Rules for a storm? What if this title is read with rules as a verb? As long as it’s within your brain, storm as much as you want. Urban planning exists for productive results. It is a social art of balancing conflicting needs. Brainstorming is a much friendlier social engagement than the employment of riot police in civic confrontations.

The title for the evening was Good, Fast Cheap: First Moves to “Better” on Broadway East. An upcoming feature-length documentary illustrates what can be done with not only cheap stuff but dirt cheap stuff. Sylvia showed it to us before we started. I remember showing my family a photo of a woman in Calcutta  preparing cow dung cakes on a wall. My grandma was apparently appalled by what to me seemed like a fascinating illustration of ingenuity. Can we imagine people in Vancouver celebrating Christmas with lanterns salvaged from the landfill? The Moon Festival in Renfrew Ravine is not that alien to the concept. Are we necessarily looking for crazy ideas?

QEC StreetClosure

I love to hear someone say: “Oh, you can’t close Broadway! It’s an artery.” Well, it’s not that I have a desire to stop traffic on Broadway, but we sure can…, if we want to. Considering whether an idea can work or not, if we want it – we can make it work (“Yes, we can!“).

There is a risk with crazy ideas to turn people off from participating in community consultations. However, other people might be attracted to radical proposals and push for even more extremes. Then again, when residents feel something threatening to their lifestyle is about to happen they show up in droves. But do we need controversy to bring as many people to the table or something else? What is the balance? How to make 25 people signed up to an event actually show up? Give them food, Jocelyn said. Jocelyn is Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House’s Executive Director. This to me sounds radical enough.