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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?!

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.

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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.

Arbutus Amble Walk

What would a good question be for an urban railway corridor that has been handed to the care of residents almost two decades ago? Arbutus Amble Start Starting at the platform of the former Olympic Line near Granville Island, it was another warm summer day, to be out enjoying the city. It is immediately evident that the landscape throughout this walk is unique. On Saturday August 9 I’ve participated (part way) in the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) walk. On the one hand we were required to occasionally cross heavy traffic; we were constantly surrounded by various types of human built structures. On the other, the natural/wild and cultivated growth along the way serve as a softening setting that has an undeniable charm that might even be considered magical.

The invitation to the walk seemed alarming: “The CP deadline for removing gardens and other structures along the tracks was July 31. … We’ll be on the look-out for any changes that have been made since the deadline passed.”

The community gardens along the way that I had the chance to walk through were still in place. The CP Rail deadline must have been an official notice without much intention to be enforced strictly. But the discussion in Vancouver will no doubt become complicated and confrontational.  There has already been some media coverage of the topic (see bottom of this page).

We all seem to want our city to be a great place to live in. What makes it great is an ever changing set of components, naturally occurring and manufactured. Following are just a sampling of phrases, each with their own implications:

Leave It As It Is: hearing this is very common when residents are asked about their neighborhood.

Enhance Its Public Character: interpreting each of these innocent words entails a world of controversy.

Common Development: do I hear residential? commercial? Just think of what clashes occurred around the Rize and Grandview-Woodlands: will this be another anti development battle front?

Re-introduce Railway Traffic: is it at all possible that such an option makes sense?

Who are the stakeholders in this story? We were probably not more than ten interested individuals participating in the walk. Even if we can imagine that any resident of Vancouver benefits from the Arbutus Corridor as it is today, what would make us engage and participate in determining its fate?

A walk along the tracks is a natural step in experiencing the play-field. I find this urban space charming and unique. However, my feeling is that a significant vision for its future is needed; a significant vision that is strongly inspired by the nature of the corridor at its current state. Could it reflect the interests and needs of Vancouver residents? What is the critical mass required to actually generate and fulfill that vision?

I had to leave the tour at an early stage: my ten year old daughter was naturally more inclined to following lady bugs and eating ice cream. One of the ideas that popped up at an early stage of the walk was using the tracks as an infrastructure for food, arts and culture carts. Would they be restricted to festivals or operate throughout the year? Well, that was just an idea. So many more are possible. What are yours?


 

A quick sampling of media coverage:

“CP Rail gets its gardening claws out” (Vancouver Sun, August 6, 2014)

“CP Rail’s deadline on Arbutus corridor comes and goes, but gardens remain” (Global News, August 6, 2014)

“Vancouver, CP Rail far apart on value of Arbutus rail corridor” (Globe and Mail, Monday, Jul. 28 2014)

Citizens involved in the debate have set up a Facebook page: Preserve The Arbutus Corridor

Flaming

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Outside the bistro I’ve noticed JJ Lee, who I’d seen for the first time in one of MetroVancouver’s sustainability breakfasts. It was the first Wednesday of June and the Flame was having its last session of the season. I’ve been going to this storytelling event for quite a while now and each occasion has had a charm of its own. After asking whether he was about to speak, I shared with JJ my appreciation to the story I’d seen him telling and what had brought me to the event that day. We shook hands and I went back inside to sit with Ruth and Aviad who would be returning soon to Israel.

Storytelling is all around us. We grow up listening to one another and our life becomes a story. When I had completed the urban design program, one of the skills that seemed to me worth developing, was that of storytelling. Urban design focuses on the well being of people in the context of the built environment. My aim as a designer is to employ my skills for the benefit of balanced urban living. Understanding the human story can be useful in my process.

Being content in life seems to be a search that many people struggle with. I feel fortunate to have experienced what had come at me in life while making the most out of each opportunity. At times it felt like a struggle but the feeling of being fortunate has continually grown in me. The very few minutes I’ve shared with JJ Lee have shown me how simple making the most out of opportunities could be.

He stepped up to the stage and greeted the audience and hosts in his friendly manner. Then, in the still quite noisy surroundings of the bistro’s chattering I’ve managed just barely to hear him. He had addressed me, who he’s seen for the first time just seconds before, in name. It usually takes me a few times before I manage to remember new people’s names. Then he thanked our friends for spending their late moments in Vancouver to enjoy that special gathering of storytelling.

What I try to take from storytelling is geared towards design. My whole life I’ve been playing with concepts and ideas and turning them into tangible outcomes that enhance people’s lives. Stories connect us. Design strives to make connections. The struggle to be content is not an end result: it is a process that ignites in us the joy of being who we are.

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