“What if most people’s priorities are NOT culture? Maybe politicians actually DO respond to residents’ demands.” My question came in response to one of Michèle Smolkin’s concluding comments about politicians. Her assumption seemed to have taken as obvious that politicians should respond to people’s demand for investment in culture. What’s fascinating about this discussion is that you can hear it happening almost everywhere. And the question is not only about what culture is. A transforming city has to ask itself what culture it wants to preserve as well as what culture to promote. The fact that any of us feel like investment in culture is not happening does not mean People don’t care about Culture.
‘Built City’ is a series of lectures offered by the Museum of Vancouver (MOV). On Thursday, 10th of October, the first in a line of three gatherings tackled a familiar topic, Cultural Spaces. It has been wrapped in a thoughtful perspective: uncommon views of Vancouver’s urban spaces. Two speakers were invited to the museum’s lecture hall: Brian Wakelin, partner in Public Design and Michèle Smolkin, a former Radio Canada film maker. The discussion was moderated by Jennifer Cutbill, a designer and member in Lab of Housing Alternatives (LoHA).
A number of gatherings have caught my attention recently. They’ve covered topics such as garbage collection, economy and urban development. Following are just a few of them: At the Orpheum, Robert Reich provided some life long insights relating to expanding of inequality in society. His talk strongly relates to economic realities we face in urban life; Introducing new food scrap/waste regulations in lower mainland municipalities were discussed in Metro Vancouver’s Sustainability Breakfast (PDF). The need for sensitivity to culture was one of the challenges presented; The massive scale of the Oakridge Centre redevelopment (PDF) has more than one connecting point to the discussion at the MOV.
Brian Wakelin provided images and thoughts relating to projects his firm has been involved with in recent years. Michèle Smolkin brought a preview to her soon to be released documentary, ‘Out of It? Reboot the City’. To start the discussion with the audience, Jennifer invited the two onto the stools arranged in front of the room. What better ice-breaker than this: “What’s the difference between Vancouver and yogurt? Yogurt has culture.” Whether it’s Capital C or small c, the culture of a city is indeed a matter of debate. It starts with words, goes on to questions and sometimes results in action.
The Museum of Vancouver’s efforts to rebrand itself since 2009 have resulted in a valuable platform for meaningful debate. The scope of engagement that ‘BuiltCity’ has generated is impressive. In the audience were councillors, scholars, professionals and activists. Could there be a better variety of people in the room? Absolutely. But I have come to believe that reality leaves a lot of us under the impression that it’s mostly the same people coming to the same events. Between our own expectations and reality, the mission is for you and I to find the balance that works for us.
In the Oakridge Centre redevelopment one could sense frustrations of residents with developers; similar to those in creative professionals with community members. When Wakelin was involved in the development of Powell River’s new library, he was surprised to experience resistance from the town’s residents. When you are passionate about your work it can be challenging to face, let alone accept, reality. You might find yourself at a loss with people who oppose even such beneficial items as a library. So stepping back to question your own expectations is a healthy move. The new website for Powell River’s library shows hardly a trace of its past challenges discussed above.
An interesting point that Smolkin made was that we elect our government just to realize that when “the right thing” needs to be done we have to fight for it. My own experiences as a creative individual allow me to sympathize with this emotion. But the reality is that our society is made up of infinite variations of individuals. Our social structure is at a constant shift. One might look at their own noble intentions as a winning case for action. When it comes to community engagement, expecting the unexpected is probably the best form of preparing.
The various avenues of advocacy allow us to broaden our outreach. The City is the most available target for addressing our urban interests and concerns. However, the provincial and federal levels need to be aware of the issues at stake. On the other hand, institutional and business levels should never be neglected. In his talk at the Orpheum on November 3rd, Robert Reich made an observation relevant to this discussion: “we need to get out of the blame game”. The gathering at MOV has been a drop in the ocean of forces directing our city’s development. As Smolkin stated, the focus of her documentary had been people who took action into their own hands.
Some Final Thoughts
Discussions like the one organized by MOV are a valuable contribution to our city’s culture. Wakelin’s comment about the need for space in the act of creation sounded like a humble realization. Urban disruptions as documented in Smolkin’s movie are usually appreciated only after their turmoil has settled. They are part of the larger scale process of change we all experience. That change can be directed in productive and even creative ways and supported by discussion, reflection and policy.
In the air at the MOV’s lecture hall, the question for politicians, planners, community leaders and the rest of us was: Are we following expectations or leading the way to a balanced reality?
YarOn Stern is a designer dedicated to urban living. His training as Industrial (product) Designer in Israel, introduced him into the industry of Architecture and Construction in Vancouver. In 2011 YarOn completed the Urban Design certificate program at Simon Fraser University. You can see him in community events around the lower mainland and beyond, listening to insights and sharing his stories.