Guest Feature by Michael Klassen
There’s evidence that our community connections are made more tenuous by modern urban living. There was a time when the neighbourhood school and local church stitched together the fabric of community. Today, a parent is just as likely to enroll their child out of the local school catchment as in, while our churches struggle to maintain their flocks in an increasingly secular world. It’s got so bad that the Vancouver Foundation is funding a study on our isolated lives, and seeking ways to bring us closer.
As a volunteer community organizer, I’ve seen what a struggle it is to get people involved in their own neighbourhoods. In Vancouver’s boroughs, there are many obstacles to making a connection with your neighbours – language and cultural barriers, poor urban design and lack of public space, distractions such as TV and internet, and yes, even the lowly remote control garage door opener. It’s possible that you could live in our city and never have any human contact with your neighbours.
The times demand that we use our imaginations to strengthen communities, like building homes that have a stronger connection with the street. With the internet we’re more connected than ever, yet we’re arguably more disconnected as communities at the same time. It’s likely we spend more face time with our smart phones and computer screens than talking face-to-face with friends or loved ones.
A few years ago, after enjoying some New Year’s Eve revelry with fellow parents, I wrote exuberantly about how technology pervaded neighbourhoods in an essay titled The Last Desktop. At the time, I asked how can we use devices like smart phones to create hyperlocal experiences. I saw the potential use for lamp standards along our streets – those hollow poles with a few wires dangling within – to act as digital beacons or bulletin boards.
Thanks to the extreme industriousness of a fellow volunteer and community leader named Lilli Wong, we took advantage of a neighbourhood matching grant to create yet another project in our Fraser Street neighbourhood. It was a chance to revisit the idea of turning lamp standards into community listening posts. I discussed the idea of “digital placemaking” in a blog post as the project got underway. Lilli ended up doing all the heavy lifting, including designing and facilitating a set of ten historical plaques. She would even enlist Vancouver historian John Atkin as a consultant.
The finished product we dubbed as Vancouver Street Stories. There are ten plaques in total – nine are along Fraser Street, and the tenth is nearby the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House (our non-profit partner) located on Victoria Drive. With the Street Stories project we had three goals:
- Show some neighbourhood pride by sharing part of the area’s history;
- Recognize that history is always being made, and to provide a venue that is less static than just hanging a plaque;
- Create ways for members of the community to share their stories and connect.
That’s why we came up with a tag line: “Find the Plaques to Make History“. Each of us are able to add our mark as every plaque is stamped with a QR code that connects to a web page with a comment form. Each plaque also has its own Foursquare check-in, for those who are familiar with the popular geolocation app.
For example, with Foursquare if you happen to be nearby Fraser Street at the intersection of East 33rd Avenue you’ll find the The Legend of Simon Hirschberg plaque. That location will link you to the Foursquare check-in, where you can leave your stamp by posting a tip for future visitors.
The ten plaques – each depicting a bit of local history – are labelled as follows:
- Streetcars of Fraser Street
- Lost Streams of Vancouver
- History of Fraser Street
- Ruth Morton Memorial Baptist Church
- G.W. Ledingham and Company
- Sir Richard McBride Elementary School & Annex
- The Legend of Simon Hirschberg
- Mountain View Cemetery
- History of South Vancouver
- Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House
The truth is with an experiment like this you do not know what parts of it will work. It will take some brave souls to start commenting and checking in to get things rolling. There is little doubt, however, that this practice will be emulated in the future by others, possibly connecting the next popular social media platform or application with a point on the map, a piece of history, and the people who live and work nearby.
Mike Klassen (@MikeKlassen) is a communications professional, community organizer and co-founder of City Caucus.