Although I live near Norquay Park, I have a strong connection to Grandview-Woodland. Ever since I moved to the east side in 2004, both Commercial Drive and Hastings Sunrise have been a regular shopping district for me. I eat there occasionally, visit the parks, their libraries and many other facilities. Like many others in the city, the Broadway/Commercial SkyTrain station, is a regular commuting hub of mine.
Given my bond to the area, I decided I wanted to participate in the Grandview-Woodland Neighborhood Planning workshops. I’ve been to three, since the Citizens’ Assembly began. The Britannia-Woodland Sub-Area event took place in the Vancouver Opera Rehearsal Hall on December 6, 2014. The Wise Hall was home to the Nanaimo Sub-Area workshop on January 17. The get-together for the Hastings Sub-Area happened on February 14, 2015 at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
My interest in this process is layered. I came to Canada with training in industrial design and gradually shifted interests to the urban realm. My involvement in community consultations has been divided between quite a few neighborhoods. The following can be seen as an interim, three-part summary of my impressions so far:
From Participation to Ownership
Three topics keep intriguing me when dealing with community engagement: Participation, Contribution and Ownership. The workshops that the City of Vancouver is holding are dedicated to exploring residents’ interests and insights for the neighborhood in the next 30 years.
In the hall of the Vancouver Opera rehearsal building, tables were arranged by topics: Local Economy, Arts & Culture, Heritage, Parks and Public Space, Social Sustainability & Social Issues, Transportation and Housing. What I feel is working in favor of the planning process is a good combination of participation, contribution and ownership.
Participation: one of the most challenging issues of setting up a workshop is attracting a significant audience.
Contribution: when residents do participate, their contribution to this process can be significant.
Ownership: when you come to a workshop and contribute to its discussions, chances are that your care and attachment to the neighborhood increase.
Interestingly, half an hour before the workshop, as I waited outside the Britannia public library, I 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 to himself. “So, you’re complaining?” I asked him, intrigued by the scene and curious to tap into his message.
We chatted for a while, sharing a bit of our respective histories, and when the library opened at 9:30am, the man slipped inside with the rest of the waiting crowd. I headed a few blocks south to where the workshop was about to begin, reflecting on the encounter as one that makes this neighborhood unique.
The issue of homelessness was mentioned quite a bit throughout the day: focusing on concern for those who seem to be entrenched in this type of living. My earlier interaction made me think of how, for better or worse, the homeless are our symbol for everything that’s bad about gentrification. Whether one needs to move away to a cheaper space or is at risk of being thrown to the streets, talking about the homeless is not only an expression of care to those who are there, but perhaps also a tangible fear for our own fate.
This spurs the 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, then trust, education and futility are a real challenge to its purpose. This interesting article expands a bit on the topic.
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.
The limits of change and imagination
We all have a common inclination to resist change. When I suggest going for a walk, my daughter’s immediate response is ‘no’. It’s much more convenient to stay where she is, but as soon as we’re out she’s completely transformed: every few steps there is something else that interests her.
The process of community-generated recommendations for a neighborhood-wide plan is an opportunity. We have the opportunity to influence the shape and function of a whole neighborhood, in a positive way. But, like my daughter, we are often stuck in what seems to be the default ‘no’ response. Just because. So, with adults much more time and resources are required to step away from this tendency and shift gears into a constructive discussion.
How can you imagine planning for 30 years ahead? It starts with maps.
Maps on the tables, a map on the wall, tracing paper and felt pens. The changes anticipated for Nanaimo street and its adjacent blocks dominated by single-family houses were generally those involving densification. The facilitators in the room did a good job of explaining in words and diagrams the broad concepts. When people express a concern about height, there were a variety of solutions to maintain sunlight, air flow and views.
There were moments in the workshop at the Wise Hall where a presenter uttered the words “No Change” and the whole room burst into cheers of approval. No change to zoning around the parks. No change to this, no change to that: cheers, cheers and more cheers. However, most people know and understand that change will come. It’s happening right now.
A more constructive question, then, may be: what change would you like to see? When the discussions focused on amenities, green space and transportation, valuable information was gathered. This was the planning process, at its finest.
Residents’ feedback can directly inform planners’ recommendations to City Council. Without them, the policies coming out of this process are much less effective in providing us with the services we could have. It is very difficult, perhaps virtually impossible, to predict what changes will eventually yield – whether they will ultimately succeed or fail – but we need to contribute to our shared future.
There are two useful ways of looking at the process of change. When I talked at the table with my fellow residents, I likened the addition of height within the Nanaimo Sub-Area to the work of a sculptor: one method employs the gradual addition of matter to the base, until it feels right; the other is chiseling pieces away from the block, until you expose the shape you want. The idea was to explore the maximum massing, as an exercise in community sculpture. With the maps available, we can take each region and consider its context. Whether it is the adding of mass or the chiseling away method, each area can accommodate additional space, be it retail, office, residence or industry.
Our discussion around neighbourhood planning needs to move on to formalizing the limits of change. Refusing change will not prevent it from happening. When the change is formally and positively directed – with the right input from the community – the policies constructed based on these discussions will reflect the change that we all need.
Tooling Our Language
Words are one of the core tools of human communication. They are pivotal to our survival, as a species, and the source of inspiring opportunities and depressing dangers. Our ability to reach high levels of collaboration is based on stories that have united us, over time. We remember stories and pass them across generations; verbal and written descriptions shape the way we see and interact with our environment.
“No matter what we say, our words will be wasted in the sphere of politics and development.”
This, at least, is a common fear I’ve observed in the community consultations I’ve attended. Indeed, words are also a source of much misinterpretation and even distortion.
We can’t let that discourage us from participating in civic life, however. Spoken or otherwise, our words lead to action. My personal challenge is often articulating insights with words that reflect my intentions. Our challenge, as a society, is to strike a fair balance between individual needs-and-interests and those of the community. The more we invest in articulating our interests and concerns, the better we pave the ground for sustainable action. Our words then become building blocks and stepping stones. A short anecdotal story can speak to the latter:
While walking along the Hastings Street in preparation for the Sub Area event, I was pondering phrases and issues to support the dialogue in the workshop. My first phrase is a question: How much of the local economy relies on visitors?
Immediately on arrival at the intersection of Hastings and Nanaimo one notices the east-west descending slope. Some of the building fronts are stepped, in response. This feature shapes a distinct character for the area and could become a message into the future: perhaps Shaping form in response to topography.
As soon as you step away from Hastings Street, the relative quiet of the blocks is a pleasant surprise. Pandora park is being renewed and its field house is home to a group called ‘Dance Troupe‘ for at least the next three years. It will be interesting to see how well the park serves the growing community. Could this Sub-Area benefit from another park between Pandora and Woodland? Our future could benefit from Exploring unlikely opportunities.
Pender Street, between Victoria Dr. and Templeton Dr. has a unique tree-lined median that I wish we saw more of in our city’s streets. Landscape design such as this could encourage fantastic social activity, if well thought out. With the large number of residents expected to move into the neighbourhood, a median such as the one on Pender could be a lovely landing, gathering and departure spot. The phrase I subsequently coined based on the latter was, Enhancing existing features.
The more I go to community events like the ones in Grandview-Woodland, the more I hope I gain. They provide layers of exchange that reach beyond their immediate purpose. For those of you wondering about some of the other phrases I came up with over the course of my walk around Hastings, here is the final list:
- How much of the local economy relies on visitors?
- Shaping form in response to topography.
- Explore unlikely opportunities.
- Enhance existing features.
- Maintain a flow of all traffic modes.
- Develop programming that supports the built space.
- Develop space that supports required programming.
The city is arguably our most complex tool. When we gather to discuss the future of that tool, I find it fascinating to reflect back on the word. It’s useful to see the connection between words and buildings, words and streets, words and landscapes. Apart from having functional purpose they all communicate a variety of needs and interests. They have a language of their own. The gatherings in Grandview-Woodland are an intriguing opportunity to both read the language of the place and spell a compelling story to live and tell for the future.
A full list of Grandview-Woodland workshops can be seen here.
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. His main blog focuses on urban issues at yaronstern.wordpress.com