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?!

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Technology and behaviour

The stamp on my disposable cup said “Without the internet.” I was visiting the Faraday Cafe on 434 Columbia Street in Vancouver. Beside the front glass of the space, many used cups were placed with phrases added to the existing one. I also finished my drink and added a few words to share my perspective.

Julien Thomas has opened a café that blocks wireless signals from reaching its customers. A few years ago I’ve read a disclaimer at JJ Bean explaining their stand on not providing wi-fi in their coffee shops. I’m not sure whether they are still doing that but at the time I was wondering if it really is necessary for a business to engage in such issues. With or without access to communication tools (A.K.A. Technology) it’s people’s behavior that determines their degree of engagement with each other.

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What are the questions we ask ourselves in the context of our needs? I remember the emotional effort required to discuss with my wife the issue of using her cell phone in the presence of friends in a coffee shop. I’m trying to compare that effort with the effort invested in putting up the Faraday Cafe for the days it will operate. What I feel is at stake here is made up of many layers, branches and threads of thought. Maybe a significant one is the balance between confrontation and engagement.

It seems like almost everyone feels the challenge of giving our attention to the people important to us. That attention requires emotional investment that is acquired in time and reaches unique and many times incompatible levels. Face to face or through a variety of tools, our control of communication is a magical mess. Are you listening to me? Do I hear you?

As well and unintentionally Julien has come up with a design layout that in itself invites contemplation and discussion. For any of its achievements, this display is a great opportunity to foster awareness. Take away any part of your habits or routines and your awareness to its importance as well as its substitutes can improve.

What is a coffee shop without coffee?

How hard is it to turn off your device?

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?

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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?

People Are Human Beings Too

July 9th 2013: This is another part of my response to the talk ‘Community Based Resilience: Frontline Stories from the United States and Canada’. (Go to the first part here)

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Two comments by members of the audience reminded me that an opportunity to share insights was one of the reasons I go to public discussions.

1. “In a disaster, people of Vancouver will be at each other’s throats”

The honesty of this comment doesn’t prevent me from looking at it as defeatist. There’s a funny little phrase from an obscure little song that says, “People are Human Beings too” *. The conflicting streams of our own existence lie at the heart of this phrase. Yes, people definitely are capable of being at each other’s throats. In times of crisis, the intricate web of social structures displays its strengths as well as its weaknesses. In our planning for disasters we can only try to provide resources and erect barriers for what we’ve already recognized as human traits.

It is valuable to acknowledge our own capabilities of destruction when discussing the needs of the future. We all are used to asking ‘Why’ and other questions. Why would people be at each other’s throats? Who were they in documented incidents? What would have prevented them from unwanted behaviors?  What would facilitate support and collaboration? Planning for disaster is not only learning from the past. It is also an opportunity to know something about ourselves today. We create a reality in the present for the benefit of the future.

2. “I think some of those places need to be removed”

If a neighbourhood is destroyed you have people to work with. The removal of a broken place is definitely an option. The farther away you are from that place the easier it is to suggest it. What Mary Rowe stressed in her talk was the conditions that had built up to become the disaster. In New Orleans the collapse of infrastructure exposed the ongoing neglect in the various layers that support a society. There’s a need for balance between our search for perfection and the reality of breakage and renewal. If your house is broken you are mostly free to decide whether to leave it behind or fix it.

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Can we really plan for disaster? Or, is what we call disaster really it? The danger  people face following a disaster is no longer bad infrastructure. Their danger is a return to the process that has dragged the already fractured infrastructure to its knees. Planning for disaster can be surprisingly easy. By making sure that our habitat is built and maintained in response to its surrounding you achieve the first step. Providing access to resources in the event of restructuring is the next. This step is bound to be a challenge. But if the first step is done right, the other might not turn into an overwhelming struggle.

The story of a place is made up of the intricate fragments of human life and their connections to it and each other. An engaged community doesn’t need endless resources to become one. People have been resourceful throughout history. As the means for communication become more available and far reaching, our societies can become more connected and collaborative. The circles of engagement are what makes us resilient.

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The talk was presented at Robson Square by Bing Thom Architects and the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. It was led by Mary Rowe and discussed with Moura QuayleJoji Kumagai and Gordon Price

* PUGGY BaPITA, 1974: Protest Song (Antibiotics)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

We all are developers

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It didn’t start on my last visit to the Design Nerds. The idea that developers are a menace to society was always strange to me. Whenever voices in a large audience express these anti-developers cry outs, it’s hard to argue with them. Not only do I not make a living as a developer, the cheers are usually decisive and noisy. In my last visit to the Design Nerds on November 22nd, one of the speakers in the evening was Leslie Shieh, a neighbourhood scale developer. As one, she’s honestly expressed her frustration from her own encounters with resentment and mistrust. That was already after my call to the Beedie Group that resulted in a fascinating exchange.

It looks like November 3rd happened a long time ago and still it feels almost like yesterday. A lot has happened since and much more is still ahead. After the November 15th gathering at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House (MPNH) I managed to schedule a meeting with the management of Beedie Living who are the lease holders of the Kingsgate Mall. This mall is strategically located beside what is defined as Broadway East. It made sense to me that the Beedie’s presence in the consultation process at MPNH could be just what a true collaborative process needs. As part of my exploration of the urban planning market I’m looking for ways to learn through active participation and experimental initiatives.

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So in November 19th Rob Fiorvento, director of development for the Beedie residential division, suggested meeting at the end of January 2013. It wasn’t a big surprise for me that the time frame was that generous or in other words laid back. What I wasn’t expecting was his mentioning of two other managers that would be at the meeting with him. This is when I quickly “recruited” Sylvia, our facilitator for the Weaving project (WPPP) and Joyce, from the City of Vancouver Planning. I had thought that they would have a lot more to say about the topic of Broadway East Revitalization than I could possibly know.

My idea was to talk with them about what participation in community consultation can yield in terms of benefits to all sides involved: I was inspired by the stories of the development of Collingwood Village from the nineteen eighties; my assignment from Simon Fraser University for the Guy Carleton School also served as reference for possibilities. It turns out that the land on which the Kingsgate mall is built is owned by the Vancouver School Board. Introducing a cultural component to its redevelopment has very good chances to attract support from many stakeholders.

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What we’ve learned in the January 30th meeting with Rob and his managers wasn’t earth shattering: developers have complex challenges in managing their business. The Beedie group’s interest in contributing to the well being of urban life seems honest enough to me. This was in essence my summary for our meeting: “My impression from the November 3rd session at the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House, was of experiencing History in the Making. Now that we have yesterday (January 30th) behind us I continue to feel that History is being held in good hands.

When it comes to details, processes and complex interactions I’m sure the challenges will not hesitate to show up. I’m honestly happy to have helped open this window of discussion with the Weaving PPP and The City. I’m looking forward to updates and progress.”

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All images are edits of the timeline Sylvia Holland posted on the boards for the meeting of January 30th, 2013

Our participation and involvement in issues relating to what goes on in our neighbourhoods can be time consuming and frustrating at times. This doesn’t mean we should let things happen without us, the residents. If we don’t express our voices, no one should know what our needs and interests are. Developers are there for a specific business case. We can say no to everything they propose and delay progress for all of us. We can also make room for listening and considering ideas, asking questions and proposing alternatives. A city is the most complex tool human kind has devised to sustain its existence. Our city needs us to work together. We all are developers.

Scrutiny

I guess I am hopelessly optimistic.

Scot Hein‘s Markers and Marks

This is probably why I am attracted to trouble makers.

On Sunday, November 18 the City led an urban design workshop at the Native Education College (NEC). City planners started with brief presentations that allowed the audience to focus and orient themselves with the relevant information. Joyce, the Mount Pleasant Community planner, showed a set of slides that reviewed the plan approved in 2010. In one of Joyce’s slides there were a few words that caught someone’s attention. Jon, a retired member of the community was emotionally vocal about the misleading nature of the presentation.

It took a while until the presentation continued as planned. Before the audience gathered in three groups for walks in the pre-defined regions, I got hold of Jon to understand in detail his concerns. My understanding of it was that different words were used in previous documents than those currently presented. History shows that such gaps are fertile grounds for misunderstandings and buildup of distrust. The proposed and approved development of the Rize project on Broadway and Kingsway was brought up on Sunday of the workshop as a close and relevant example (123, and more…).

An interesting example that stays in my mind for impressive community engagement is the fight against the proposed expansion of the Edgewater casino (123, and more…). I guess this was an easier battle. The interests here were more clearly defined and divided. But the sprouts of distrust have gained some height nevertheless.

In the development and revitalization of Mount Pleasant – proposals are much more complex, the variety of players is much broader. So whether Jon’s mistrust of the City and developers is justified or not, his pointing to the issue of discrepancies is valuable. My belief is that most, if not all players in this field have good intentions. Land owners, developers? Yes, they want the most profit on their investment. Business owners? Yes, they all want more paying clients. Residents? Yes, we all want to have quality of life.

Yes, developing a city to accommodate all of its tax payers’ needs and interests is challenging. Believing we can reach a balanced solution probably makes me a hopeless optimist. “Trouble Makers” can point to details that are potentially drivers of eventual imbalances in the big picture.

I sometimes wish I was a trouble maker. The trouble is that I’m a maker. Hopelessly and optimistically so.

PWL‘s illustrator’s quick hand