The Money and The Run

It’s interesting to fund raise.

Money is everywhere, but maybe not always where I might want it to be.

I have always admired people who engage in fundraising. My admiration comes from the impression that the act of convincing people to part with their money is a steep uphill battle. There are events you can see where the organizers managed to attract unbelievable sums. Then others stay in the realms of covering expenses at best. Most fundraising, as far as I can tell, is done as a volunteering act. Successful fundraising seems like a full time engagement.

Another part of my admiration stems from my own un-ease with trying to be in their position myself.

So when I decided to participate in the Scotia Bank Half Marathon and 5 Km Vancouver Run, I relieved myself from the stress of how much money I will manage to raise. It’s going to be a trial and error process. I will sweep through my mailing list and try to send as many calls to action as possible. There are people I know better than others in my mailing list.

However, I am in this for a cause that requires a very simple decision: donate or not. On the part of my prospect donors, the decision might be complicated by many considerations: one might have just sent money to a different cause; another might object to participating in fundraising; someone else could very well be excited to join!

So in my communications, I want to reflect the excited side of the decision. Reflecting back on people I’ve seen fundraising in the past I find connections in me to their traits: relentlessness; positivity; commitment. 

The section just north of the cycling tunnel that is the halfway of the 5 Km course.

When sending a call for donation to dozens of people, it’s my choice – not anyone else’s. I’m approaching it as an engagement similar to platonic love. All who receive my call are participating in this event whether you donate or not. For this I am grateful. I am inspired to move on.


Expect a weekly post until the event on June 23. If you are interested in stories like this, click “Follow by Clicking Here”, on the right side bar.

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Unintended Consequences

I was intrigued to hear on the radio one day a report about the soon to be unveiled 108 Steps, a work of art by Khan Lee. I live a few minutes’ walking distance from it. I saw the preparations for its installation before I was aware of its future purpose.

And the talk about the glass cladding to protect the work from climbing is what caught my attention most. It’s one of public art’s troubling challenges these days. Democratization of our institutions has brought a lot of progress to our lives. However, a creeping, unintended side of this process can be noticed in the occasional behavior of normal people. One that can be called “lack of respect or appreciation”. I see it as a basically natural behavior. If you can climb something, you will always find someone willing to do that.

But in urban public space this simple human trait invokes a counter reaction. On the one hand that reaction is just as natural as the urge to climb, yet on the other, just as occasionally – misguided, authoritarian or plain stupid. Let’s protect the public (in this case) from climbing.

Nothing of what I have said so far and about to say is in any way intended to dismiss the value of 108 steps as a piece of art. I like it a lot. I’d love to climb it yet I have no intention of doing so.

For the first five meters up the rungs of the sculpture, a tempered glass shield has been elegantly attached. You can hardly notice the glass. But it’s there. I walk along Kingsway admiring the piece. And my thoughts wander in amusement over the concepts of art. The questions that it raises. The debates it evokes. Isn’t the glass part of this art? 

“Glass Ceiling” I think. They brought the glass ceiling to the ground. The term originally symbolized that invisible barrier in the upper echelons of society. Women on their journey through institutional hierarchy, immigrants, minorities etc. This sculpture says no!

The glass ceiling is more democratic than that. The glass ceiling has reached street level. It is now for everyone. It is hard to notice but it’s there.

No one shall climb anymore.

Was that the intent of the artist? I’m sure it wasn’t. But this is Art


If you are interested in stories like this, click “Follow by Clicking Here”, on the right side bar. Thank you for your visit.

Stories from the NIMBY, Stories from the BING

What are we talking about when we remember the dead? I’ve recently helped my family in Israel produce a book in memory of my father. He passed away a year ago, roughly at the same age as Bing Thom. Both were dreamers. One of them, a city dweller. The other, a city builder. Thom was on a trip to Hong Kong when he passed away, October 4, 2016. I saw Bing talk a few years ago, at a Lulu Series lecture in Richmond. My impression of his achievements was that they amount to much more than just drawing nice buildings. He had a profound understanding of politics, social benefit, marketing and business making. He knew how to connect. Remembering the dead can inspire our own engagement with life.

bingthom-projectsIn late November, I receive an email from Westbank: “Bing Thom & the Future of our City ” December 6th, 2016. Knowing it would generate high demand, I sign up immediately. A few days later, I stand in line outside the Rio Theatre, roughly fifteen minutes before ‘open doors’. For Westbank’s marketing machine, this venue is an easy choice in promoting their development agenda. The planning process in recent years for Grandview Woodland has raised enough resistance and suspicion in the neighbourhood. The Rio is physically and symbolically in spitting distance from the intersection of Commercial Drive and Broadway. Bing Thom Architects (BTA) is involved with Westbank in the proposal for the Safeway site precinct at Broadway and Commercial Drive.

The snow from the day before hasn’t melted away yet, but it wasn’t too cold outside. As I work on preparing my phone to show my ticket, the guy ahead of me realizes he doesn’t have one. I try to help him solve his issue. I later see him successfully enter. I talk briefly with a downtown resident who worked in a kibbutz in the seventies and then the doors open. My screen is scanned and I find a seat in the middle of an advanced row: good view of the stage; broad connection to the audience.

It’s too dark to read through the program I was handed. Within the rows of seats of the theatre I find myself wondering how long we have until something meaningful starts. Maybe fifteen minutes to 7 pm, I stand up. If we are going to continue sitting until nine o’clock, I better stretch a bit. From the motion surrounding Ian Gillespie’s arrival, a few minutes before 7 pm, it looks like everyone was waiting for him. Is it him? The band on stage seems to be enjoying themselves. Later I see in the program, that the hour between ‘open doors’ until the event starts was planned into the agenda. This is not the right venue for spending an hour waiting.

I kind of learned to appreciate Ian’s performance on stage from previous events. He’s personal, visionary and charming. His vision is obviously “limited” to massive scale business opportunities. Is there anything there for me or you, the small-scale Vancouverite? Is he the developer that will save The City? Are any of us? Who WILL determine the future of our city?

In his closing remarks, Ian mentions Leslie Van Duzer and her great work at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, but when he exits the stage, Hellen Ritts—Director of Marketing and Communications at Bing Thom Architects—replaces him. Hellen’s introduction to working with and for Bing provides a heartwarming transition to the rest of the evening. It’s interesting to hear from her about Bing’s way of promoting his staff by challenging them to stretch their own limits. He seems to have been a father-figure to many who had encountered him. The loss of a leader can be our opportunity to be empowered.

Then it’s Michael Heeney, one of BTA’s principals. He surveys the professional impact of Bing Thom on the global “industry” of architecture. He weaves into his story the wider context of urban and political development. My two highlights from Michael’s presentation are Bing the connector and Thom the developer.

When Leslie Van Duzer appears onstage, she is accompanied by the panelists. They occupy the sofas waiting for them: Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City; Bruce Haden, who is establishing his own practice following a partnership at DIALOG Architecture and ; Sonja Trauss, founder of SF BARF, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, as well as Michael Heeney.

Van Duzer’s moderation is somewhat dry, academic, a few anecdotes worthy of branching into comedy, engagement and questioning, but at times slow paced. Montgomery’s edgy discomfort is a promising spark of light in an otherwise stifled discussion. Sonja’s inclusion in the panel is an intriguing piece of casting. A Grandview-Woodland Citizen’s Assembly member might have been a more inspired or insightful contributor to the exchange. Who knows.

When finally the audience has a chance to participate, quite a few members have already left. Some trivial, yet worthy questions start to flow and then a white-haired fellow a few rows ahead of me states: “Build cities for people somewhere else. I like my detached, single family home residence. I was here first.” he expresses his typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) view in admirable honesty.

Montgomery’s sharing of his controlled rage with the NIMBY’s words is, on the one hand a welcome comic relief. On the other, it is a moment in the discussion that illustrates our weakness as a democratic urban society. Dealing with the development pressures of a growing city has always been a matter of massive experimentation. NIMBYs Hate Change. Change eventually comes.

No single person has the power to resist Big Money. Democratic urban societies are a random collection of individuals trying to advance individual dreams. Their degree of education is hardly a tool in use for the benefit of urban well-being. The panelists on stage sound intelligent and educated. The NIMBY in the audience baffles them. If they are so dumb-struck by a single audience member, what chance do we have with our professionals in dealing with City Hall? Some of us need to become Bing the connector and Thom the developer.

Earlier in the discussion, Sonja’s remarks reflected nicely on the reality of people’s views in light of a person’s position in life. If you own property and are not in any significant pressure to earn your living, your interest in densification might be low. This easily translates into resistance to change. The current illustrations of disconnect, between interest groups in the world come to my mind. Vancouver’s own planning mess at City Hall is one; Brexit is another example; the election of Donald Trump to president; Sonja’s own call for less planning illustrates a conflict on a personal scale; the 2015 Transit Referendum anyone?

For me, these are research worthy topics, showing our own failure to engage with those who ascribe to a NIMBY attitude. Find out where they are right and work with them on solving the challenge; on dissolving their fears.

We are all born with at least a thread of NIMBY in our vocal fold. By understanding the NIMBY we can advance beneficial urban development. We can make progress either by working with our neighbours or building new connections. Instead, we trench ourselves in holy knowledge of what’s good for society. “Why can’t they understand how stupid their own ideas are?” Why should they?

The existing balance between democracy and indoors discretion doesn’t always benefit social good. This balance seems to me to be the struggle we will always face in promoting well-being in our community. Whoever has control over resources, be it land, knowledge or anything with a price tag, will not surrender it willingly. I’m left with a sense that a crucial point in this evening’s opportunity was missed.

I walk out to the chilly sidewalk outside the Rio Theatre strangely inspired. In his anonymity, my father touched the lives of the many people he knew. With his wealth of awards and the societies he’s touched, Bing Thom is still relatively anonymous outside of professional circles. The loss of people, which for some leaves a void, can transform into a space for action. All of us have an opportunity to work with that space for the benefit of generations. Leadership is not a role exclusive to the elected few; Bing Thom’s model of development is a significant take away from the evening.

Anarchy is not always a threat; our challenge is to harness the power of change into a positive driving force. Let’s Make Vancouver Ugly Again; this paraphrase on Trump’s election slogan doesn’t have to be taken literally. There is promise in the changes Vancouver is going through. Whatever threat we can think of, can become a source of growth. By embracing our inner NIMBY we can benefit from its strength.

The evening in memory of Bing Thom ended in Bruce Haden’s reminder that Bing left us with a legacy of pushing boundaries and boldly exploring possibilities. I can live with that.

bingthom-gw


Many thanks to Erick Villagomez for his editing of my article, that appeared first on Spacing.ca. The title above is a paraphrase on an album by PJ Harvey.

Is the ‘Grouse Grind’ a reflection of Vancouver Culture?

If my
first impression of the Grouse Grind was of a touristy experience, it still
held a charm that allowed me to occasionally go back and enjoy it. The
intensely corporate context of the site is still physically challenging and
socially compelling.

In 2003 I took a photo that managed to capture the magic of that year’s
climb. The first time we took our daughter with us in 2006, she bravely slept
most of the way up, sitting on my shoulders, her head resting firmly on mine.
In 2009
my parents visited us from Israel for the first time. Our relatives from
Portland joined us to spend some family time with them. We all went out to
enjoy the place, most of the pack taking the cable car. Phyllis, my relative’s
wife and I took what turned out to be the bonding experience of walking up the
hill.
A few
years later, my in-laws were seriously injured by a car on a visit to Germany.
This happened just a month before we were scheduled to have a family vacation
in Israel. The timing was such, that sticking to plan was the most helpful
choice. They were helped back home by Anat’s brothers. We kept on with
preparing the now slightly changed context of our visit. Just two weeks before
flying to Israel, we took Inbal for her first on-foot Grouse Grind. Inbal, then
nine years old asked me after completing the course: “do you think grandpa
would manage the climb?” “Sure.” I responded. “Even grandma
could.” Inbal, in surprise: “You think so?” “Of
course.” I continued. “She might not want to, but she definitely
could.”
It is an
atypical warm summer in Vancouver this year. Still, nothing compared with other
regions in the world. Again, in a few months we are scheduled for a visit in
Israel. Anat’s parents are planning their vacation in Tanzania a few days from
now. Inbal’s second climb to the Grouse was an uneventful, enjoyable weekend
experience.
However,
my impression is that the place has become even more touristy; even more
corporate. The socially compelling side of the physical challenge looks to me
now a bit like an anthropological observation opportunity. I enjoyed walking
along a family whose daughter, younger than Inbal, patiently waited for her
parents, guiding her even younger sibling. The effort makes for talking to be
minimal, but the occasional exchange with others gives a curious sense of
community.
While my
leisurely pace is still that of a fit person, the many competitive climbers
make me think of the diversity of participants in this venue. In the past I was
amused to think that although walking up the path is not for everyone, it could
sometimes feel like you’re in the middle of a downtown sidewalk. I was reminded
of that thought while braving one of the narrower sections of stairs, close to
the top.

Some
people were a step or two in front of me, a few behind me. Not a lot of room
for passing or letting others pass. You just wait patiently for the next
widening of the path to make your move. If at any point someone lets you
through, a quick thank you is all that is exchanged. Then the breath and steps
of a quicker climber were getting closer until I hear from behind an impatient
“excuse me”. There isn’t a lot of room to move sideways so I continue
climbing. When she asks again and passes the pack I am with I’m not sure
whether I’m amused or irritated. As a newly minted Canadian I probably should
have said “Sorry”. Being who I am I’m happy to have avoided a
confrontational “Excuse me!”

To Assembly And Beyond

A city in change can be fascinating and inspiring, as much as it can be sad and depressing. This is true, I suspect, for its residents and its governors, its business owners and developers. The city is a tool, a mechanism, a product. It is just as well an environment, a living space, an organism.

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The last session of three roundtables has been an interim conclusion to a promising process. Its promise, in light of the above, is plagued with question marks and challenges. The seven sub-areas of Grandview Woodland have each a set of unique characteristics. Together they form a whole that has the quality and charm of a metropolitan village.

Is this charm reason enough to leave things as they are? How can we productively articulate a set of directions that facilitate a healthy change?
150507-MechanismsAssembly-14It is evident that members of the Assembly have invested a considerable effort in this engagement. They have generated a list of recommendations that will be presented to City Hall later this year. The last roundtable was dedicated to fine tuning the various points for each sub-area.

Cedar Cove – The Edgy Residential Land
Hastings – The Industrial High Street
Britannia Woodland – The Rental & Affordable Stock
Grandview – The Residential Heritage Enclave
Nanaimo – The Truck Route & Historic City Boundary
Commercial Dr. – The Heartbeat of The Neighborhood
Broadway & Commercial – The Regional Transit Hub

For each sub area a table or two were assigned for discussion. From the two tables I participated in, the buzz of emotions was tangible yet somewhat subdued. There was urgency in the air mixed with despair; confusion alternated with decisiveness.
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Around the first table residents who want things to stay as they are sat beside a developer who is expecting zoning to allow more than four stories. More people than probably anticipated arrived at the Croatian Community Centre. As this was the last event where residents could participate in consultation, some frustration trickled into the discussion.

At the second table our facilitator was looking for specific feedback over points in the recommendations document. To me  they all seemed reasonably comprehensive. It looks obvious to me that the recommendations will never be perfect. What we need now is a look into the next stage of engagement. The Assembly members have gone through an admirable process of learning and contribution.
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One of the fascinating outcomes of the work of the Citizens’ Assembly in my view is the increase in connections. Neighbors got to know more about each other, more about their common interests as much as their differences. Residents experienced in a tangible way the tools in use for urban planning. Connections are what makes a city work. We need to make sure connections remain a priority in the management and governance of Vancouver. Wherever they are weak, our job is to strengthen them.

It is worth paying attention to the layers of connection. The following points are quick notes I’ve taken as discussions around the table evolved:

  • Within sub areas – enhance and improve the flow of pedestrians between streets and blocks.
  • Between sub areas – minimize or eliminate the separation between sub areas.
  • To adjacent areas/neighborhoods – Grandview Woodland is defined by thoughts and definitions. It also influences and is influenced by what people in and out of it are doing.

The wealth of ideas and insights from the work of the Assembly is dynamic. It can continue to nurture the productive connections created while the Assembly existed. As the Assembly is about to disassemble, established channels can facilitate the continued connections. New ones could surely emerge.

Possible channels could be the City website (Vancouver), the Commercial Drive Business Association (CDBS), Vancouver Public Library (VPL), Kettle Friendship Society (Kettle), The Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society (VAFCS) and other agencies. Each could have an interface established so that the engagement expands instead of being wrapped up.
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We need to support the achievements of the Citizens’ Assembly in making sure the discussion continues. Values & recommendation, zoning & policies are all open to interpretation. The documents we will see are generated in response to a commendable process. To fully benefit from the investment in this process, mechanisms of exchange need to be enhanced and maintained.

A city in change uses tools and mechanisms that become a product. That product is the environment we all live in and make into our life. It’s not about whether any of us wants change or not. The city is an organism that constantly changes. Participation in the process is the life of a city. We need to make sure that the tools for participation evolve with the changing city. This city is essentially who we are.

At the corner of Victoria and Ferndale

Playing music at the corner of Victoria and Ferndale: Brandon, Nao & Yuka

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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?

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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?!