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.


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?


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.


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?!

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.


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.

Room & Space

Some more thoughts following my recently published piece on


Politicians should prioritize investment in culture.

People care about Culture.

Urban life can be pretty simple provided you embrace its complexities.


Everything is connected to everything.

Between expectations and reality, our mission is to find the balance that works for us.

Elections are insignificant if you don’t participate in the matters that matter to you.


The search for a balanced reality is an ongoing effort.

A Ship Called City

Gathered around the table were roughly twenty people. Each with a little known set of knowledge, interest and understanding of city planning. The table was covered with a long print of the East Broadway corridor between Main Street and Prince George at 1:500 scale. We all got back from about an hour’s walk that had covered the region shown in the aerial view in front of us.

How do we start our discussion?

Property lines are shown for illustration purposes only and do not reflect legal documents.

Scot Hein, Vancouver’s senior urban designer, took out a red marker and began drawing dash-dotted lines marking properties around each structure. Some looked small compared to others. Gradually, visible patterns revealed themselves on the paper. In the street walk people could feel the space, notice the environment, see the details of the neighborhood. Now, on paper, that marking process made the connection between reality and plan.

“So what is it that you do all day in design, draw nice pictures?” my grandmother has asked me years ago.

Even the seemingly simple act of talking with an audience and drawing at the same time is a highly intellectual endeavor. Although he confessed to not being good at it, Scot handled the task admirably. What we saw on paper compared to what we’ve experienced on ground started to make sense. The technical process of giving shape to impressions is in fact the magic of reaching common ground for discussion. For everyone in the room to be able to participate in the process, a communications barrier needs to be removed. That simple drawing of lines in front of people’s eyes allowed Scot to relieve us from the confusion of where to start. At the same time it puts all of us close together as a team of collaborators.

From a skeleton, scientists have the insights and tools to show us a full illustration of extinct creatures.

In urban design we take the skeleton, be it the map of our city or any scale and shape of grid, and envision the future. For that future to be compelling to as many stakeholders as possible, the workshop conducted on the Sunday, 18th of November, was a great tool for engagement. Gradually and confidently, Scot, with input from the audience, has transformed the heavily abstract image of East Broadway from an image of neglect into a vision of opportunity. Nothing and no one can promise us success in this story.

Broadway East is worthy of attention. It requires the help of a caring crew. When I’ve heard of the Weaving Policy, People & Place Together (WPPP) I signed up for its workshops with a sense of curiosity and opportunity. What I found in the first meeting on November 3rd inspired me. There’s still work ahead. Contributions from many people and directions will no doubt strengthen the process. To me it looks like we are all trying to join forces in adding features onto the skeleton of a ship. Together we then send it to sea knowing we’ve done our best.

Property lines are shown for illustration purposes only and do not reflect legal documents.

Déjà Future

Significance is tied to context.

On November 3rd  I happened to participate in a gathering that seemed interesting enough on paper. The invitation was not without promise:

Meet up at the Neighbourhood House to connect with local residents, local business operators, land owners along Broadway East, people active in local service organizations, and other volunteers who are already doing original things to enliven our shared spaces in the community. Share images and stories of “great streets, great places” elsewhere, talk about which ideas make great sense for Broadway East, review what was heard during numerous walkabouts with people who live or work in the neighbourhood, learn more about intriguing activities that are already happening on or very close by Broadway East, and look ahead to next steps in the revitalization work and how to hang together as an action group. Oh, and there’s a lunch feast as well as a feast of images and ideas and good conversation!”

In the past two years I have participated in meetings held at the Collingwood Neigborhood House (CNH) on Joyce street in Vancouver. We were and still are detailing needs of the neighborhood’s residents and pro-actively participating in its development. In the mid eighties a similar process successfully generated the insights into community engagement that facilitated the establishment of useful amenities in the Collingwood Village area.  When I joined in 2010 the discussions for this round of community effort I was intrigued by the concept of collaboration for the sake of balanced urban development.

Based on this experience I was curious to see how things work in other neighborhoods. After all, if we can transfer insights and share processes between local societies, the whole city could benefit.

As I stepped into the gathering room of Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House (MPNH) it felt good. A relatively large audience gathered to participate in an evening that was thoughtfully facilitated by Sylvia Holland, an independent planner who was hired for her role in the process. East Broadway, a busy section in Vancouver of an urban arterial is in need of the already approved community plan. What worked well almost thirty years ago in Collingwood should have a similar impact in Mount Pleasant. If community engagement is maintained on the same level we’ve experienced this month at MPNH, we should be heading towards success.

This was one meeting in a planned series of gatherings (pdf). Vancouver has been changing ever since I moved here in 2002. As fast as changes have been, you don’t always notice them on the go. So when I got the chance to notice the degree of engagement in the room, the prospect of change was almost tangible.

When the meeting reached its conclusion my feeling was of history in the making.

Pass it Over

This post is part III in a series. To read part II click here.

Yes, I love driving but exploration comes from physically being in a place. Walking gets you there.

When we reached Portland we were scheduled to participate in a Seder. It was the first evening of Passover. As people inside the house were preparing and organizing the table, Gabe, my mom’s cousin showed me a bit of the outdoors surrounding the property. For a real estate investor, which he is, many issues considering his daughter’s purchase of the house were a cause for frustration. It was interesting to hear these issues as part of my ongoing education in urban design and planning. It is also fascinating to notice how family affairs intersect and influence decisions that otherwise are mostly a matter of business making.

Apart from being a family visit, we were on a four day Canadian Easter weekend. This meant two days driving (from and back to Vancouver, BC) and two days enjoying the city (Portland, OR). I was curious to get a feel of the downtown which is said to be successful thanks to a pedestrian friendly street grid. Being there with my own small family made the exploration more casual and entertaining than formally academic or professional. With Inbal, our seven and a half year old daughter, we had many opportunities for having fun that professionally could be a good sign for a successful urban setting.

It is eight years since our last visit to Portland. In its old and in its new location, Powell’s bookstore is a treasure for the love of reading. I am a great fan of electronic word consumption (a fancy term for avoiding the specific mention of amazon.whatever). But I have a feeling we still need that magic of rubbing shoulders with others, smiling at each other occasionally, asking questions and just physically experiencing the social aspect of intellectual wealth. There was even a middle aged employee I believe I’ve seen in the shop in both of our visits.

When we returned to our hosts’ home and mentioned our lunch at Virginia Cafe’, they were surprised to hear it was still there. Although it is not an obscure little place, the finding did give us a sense of being urban explorers. It was another designer I knew that told me once about her revelation when taking a child of friends for a walk in the city. She started by trying to interest him with design details of buildings, various aspects of planting and so on. Then after a very short walk the young guy pointed to a water meter in one of the yards. Apparently he was fascinated by it  and spent a considerable time in watching it and asking questions. Kids don’t need our effort. Our attention is the best care we can provide.

And a city is also a vast playground. It’s always great to have dedicated features to attract and amuse us. Then we can also walk up and down stairs, pass through the occasional yard and let our feet and senses guide us.