The Surface of Engagement

At the Oakridge Open House I was intrigued to hear opposing views of the development proposal. One resident of the neighbourhood said it’s about time; another expressed deep concerns over the fit of this project to this neighbourhood.

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A few days before the open house I was asked whether I could provide illustrations of street height views of the project. In the previous stages of the proposal, the developers’ illustrations showed birds’ eye views which raised concerns as to how pedestrian and human scale details would be taken care of.

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The model on the right shows in gray, the anticipated buildings that could eventually, be developed across the street from the Oakridge Centre. In my computerized model I was asked to show the existing conditions, which can be seen above, at the right side of the left image.

Even with the updated boards of the proposal the skeptics remain suspicious. The abundance of ground level illustrations in the room was impressive. Still, until a project is actually built, its success or failure is a matter of speculation.

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Participation of residents in the shaping of their city’s neighbourhoods is a challenging task. This relates to the discussion with Robert Reich where the evidence and extent of inequality in our society are creeping upward. The city’s need to remain economically viable is a business opportunity to some and an affordability threat to most. How sensitive and successful Vancouver’s handling of this challenge is, remains to be seen.

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Interface of Engagement

The funny thing about engagement is that at a certain point in life we all seem to have it, then it is challenged by varying degrees of disillusion, then we are at a loss at what it is all about and how to achieve it.

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Technology has its way of being discovered, explored, exploited and manipulated. Here is a photo taken by my webcam. The device, my cell phone, was used to shoot my computer screen. In it a scan of the same device lying beside a chocolate bar is inserted into a blog entry that I’ve posted as a preview to the item you are reading right now.

My evening of October 3 started at the Oakridge Open House and continued into the heavily decorated hall of the Orpheum. Tweets containing questions from the audience were printed on cards and handed after walking on stage to be read by Anna Maria Tremonti and then to be addressed by Robert Reich…

But before this tiny piece of occurrence, there was reference to the displaced Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Squamish people on whose territory the event took place; we had mega screens showing us crowd-sourced videos of engaged Vancouverites, followed by pre-recorded questions from prominent figures of society.

Robert is a funny guy. To my ignorance, he served in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997 (Wikipedia). He’s a funny guy that takes life seriously. The evening with him was too long sitting on my butt, listening to mostly interesting stuff.  The problem is that no matter how smart the presenter, or how important the message, the hall seemed to me a bit too big for this discussion.

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Robert’s message that resonated the most with me, talked about the need to increase our society’s investment in early age education. He pointed to the first five as the formative years of any member of society. Our daughter is already nine years old so when I got back home, all I could offer her was this pretty satisfying bar of chocolate.

Everything these days seems to be so absolutely BIG. And so was this evening at the Orpheum. SFU’s intentions of providing meaningful engagement falls into the established trenches of business growth.  Vancity, the core sponsor of this event, was represented by CEO Tamara Vrooman, who inevitably and inelegantly pitched her organization’s services. On our way out we were greeted by volunteers who handed us a chocolate bar from another sponsor. Yes, this was a free event and I appreciate the effort.

But engagement is a matter of choice. I have chosen to go to the Oakridge Open House. I then continued to the talk with Robert Reich. Anna Maria Tremonti was as fluent and enchanting as she usually is on radio, where I hear her most. On a single transit ticket I managed the first two rides, one on the 43 bus, the other on Canada Line. Then on my way home I hopped on the Skytrain from downtown to 29th Ave.

Then I got a message from a dear friend that she’s getting married. Which is a completely different kind of engagement.

More to come…

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)

Disaster by the books

July 9th 2013: Mary Rowe’s presentation introduced great insights and room for thought for our engagement in urban living. Mary is Vice President and Managing Director of the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS). At times She sounded as if urban living is still questioned by some populations around the world. But her talk mainly focused on the issues of small scale activities within the urban realm: how individuals and neighbourhoods are key forces to consider when planning for disasters. The list of massive scale incidents since the turn of the 21st century is significant and includes floods, pest infestations, hurricanes, earth quakes and more.

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Aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. (SOURCE)

Following Mary’s research into disaster stricken regions her concerns evolved: rescue and restructuring efforts by the authorities started to look like systemic acts of demolition of whole neighbourhoods. When residents of the destroyed places had noticed these acts, the intentions of authorities became suspect. One of the strongest messages from the talk was the need for awareness and action in all fronts of urban infrastructure. But when using the word infrastructure, social issues such as education and services should be taken as part of it: the residents of a city are also its owners.

A fascinating reality of urban life and management is the seamless ties between the built environment and the life it supports. Our technologies continue to facilitate more and more opportunities to interact with and protect us from the natural environment. However, no tool human kind has built to date has been 100% fail safe. The city is our most complex tool and we are maybe its most important component.

So I listened to the presentation and was intrigued by the discussion that followed. Eventually my thoughts brought me to a few feedback streams. Planning is a result of experience. It is also a trait we tend to employ even without experience. In many cases we plan our solutions to deal with experiences from the past, which are never going to repeat the way they have occurred.

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A Street Scene in New Orleans from December 2012. (SOURCE)

Mary Rowe advocates for stronger reliance on local communities in determining their fate. A few arguments were raised in favour of seemingly contradictory policies: large scale systems were proposed as the better investment. In any society on our globe a varied set of balances are always waiting to be explored. The process of debate results in the story we eventually live. This is why the question ‘What is your story?’ is a compelling one.

Whatever we call disaster we always try to avoid, mostly by planning. We learn from the past and try to anticipate the future. We always wake up to the realization that disasters don’t happen by the book.

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I’ve heard about this presentation, ‘Community Based Resilience: Frontline Stories from the United States and Canada’ when only a few seats were left to grab on the sign up page. 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

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.

Meeting at the VSB

In late 2010 a decision was made to keep Carleton Elementary in Vancouver open. At the time I was looking for a location to work on for my urban design assignment. It seemed interesting to contemplate what that location could become if it did shut down.

I was also and still am involved in a community exploration of ideas relating to amenities that our neighborhood could benefit from. We know that if we had a list of priorities, contributions made by new developments through various levies could go to proper causes. In my assignment I tried to employ the list of priorities when working on my proposal.

Any first step of analysis leads me through three basic questions:

  1. What is it that we have?
  2. What do we want?
  3. What do we need?

So what is it that we have?

Walking up and down the streets surrounding the school yard very quickly brought me to imagine this location to be a cultural center. I called it ‘The Guy’ with a wink to the historical values this place has and the need to bring it up to date with current days’ lifestyle and energy.

Indeed the reality of this location can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. This place is noisy and rattly. But much of that traffic can also become a source of visitors. The Joyce Skytrain station close by expands the potential of mass access  to the site.

What do we want?

In the Collingwood Neighborhood House on Joyce street, a process of ongoing consultations with residents of the neighborhood resulted in what is currently a draft of “a community-based strategy to identify and secure social, cultural and recreational amenities in Renfrew-Collingwood. The strategy calls for

  • Ongoing Communications with the City
  • Affordable Housing
  • Community Facilities
  • Community-Based Arts and Culture
  • Public Spaces

The objective of the strategy is to establish a process in partnership with City, relevant senior government ministries and the private sector, so that priorities identified by the neighborhood can be implemented in keeping with the area’s current needs.”

Along Kingsway between Boundary Road and Nanaimo Street, developments are in various stages of completion or approval.

The Guy Carleton School site is conveniently located to serve the anticipated flow of potential audience.

Within the lower mainland, a cultural hub in this location looks like a project waiting to be initiated.

What do we need?

It has been shown that the neighborhood’s residents are committed to the historic value of this place. My proposal starts with moving the two room schoolhouse in line with the two bigger structures. This would form the Heritage Row that should provide a compelling sense of continuity and progress in a historical context.

Buildings along Kingsway will be a logical filler of function between residences to the west and commercial spaces to the east.

More spaces of various scales and uses should provide room for programming.

The spaces between the buildings are as important as the buildings themselves.

The layout presented is mostly a case for studying ideas. Some of them might be a better fit in other locations; some could be integrated into one and so on.

When we ask these questions, they always have more than one answer. What they also do is raise more questions.  The fascinating challenge and responsibility is to provide solutions that address as many of the community’s needs in a balanced way. In this case, I hope we are heading towards a creatively productive process.