Hidden Gems


Last week, I told you about visiting the Centre for Digital Media’s video game exhibit. On my way out, I decided to take a quick break at Momento, the school’s onsite café. As you can see from the photos, it’s got great design and a light, airy space. They’ve also got good food, including vegan and gluten-free fare, and (perhaps most importantly) know the difference between crema and foam when making you an espresso drink.

It’s a good thing they have the school for an anchor, because Great Northern Way isn’t known as a café culture hub. It’s four lanes of fast traffic through office parks and satellite campuses, a shortcut from the east side to the west side that avoids downtown altogether. Across the street, daunting stairs rise up a blank hill to clusters of 1980s condominium complexes. If the residents knew about Momento, I think they’d be willing to make the trip, especially in summer when the students have mostly vacated the campus. I’d wager they haven’t noticed it, though, just as I almost missed a sign for another café in a nearby office park. I didn’t feel tempted to look for it, since it seemed buried somewhere amidst a sea of concrete. I wonder how well it does?

In a truly walkable neighbourhood, places like Momento aren’t a secret at all, they attract a cadre of regulars and eventually become a draw for visitors, too. In the suburbs, even when visible, they sink.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently, while I was looking after my parents’ suburban home when they were away. Their neighbourhood has grocery stores and other shops within a similar distance to those in my neighbourhood, but you rarely see anyone walking home with shopping bags. There are also plenty of houses within reach of the old main street, but it can’t seem to support a café – people get their caffeine from places that have drive through windows, or head over to a mall if they want to have coffee with a friend.

As development threatens neighbourhoods like mine with suburbification, where only the chain stores will be able to afford rents, what will happen to the shopping style that prevails there now? Will there be a high street renaissance in smaller centres, as the city pushes out the kind of people who like to shop daily and locally by foot or bike? Or will there be a uniform culture across regions, divided only by concentric layers of increasing inequality? And what will happen to the little businesses that populate the nooks and corners of a well-travelled neighbourhood?

I suggest we find them and cherish them, so that they can thrive as long as possible. And to that end, tell me what hidden gems lie buried in your neighbourhood. Where should I absolutely go if I visit? What would I miss if I didn’t have you as a guide?


Wild City

Raccoon prints in our backyard.
Raccoon prints in our backyard.

About ten years ago, when I lived on the other side of town, I did something to offend the crows that lived on my block. Perhaps I got too close to a nest or they resented my windowsill gardening activities. All spring and into the summer, gangs of two to five crows would follow me, swooping angrily, as I ran errands or waited at the bus stop. Even worse, they’d follow me on my regular long walks, once for more than five kilometers. I won’t say that it was the primary motivation for moving back into this neighbourhood, but I was certainly glad to move away from that mob of angry birds.

Those crows weren’t the only animal neighbours I left behind. There was a squirrel that kept digging up and eating the flowers in my window box, until I filled the planters with nicotania. I’d also built an uneasy truce with the skunk that lived near my bus stop. We gave each other a wide berth and things were fine.

Around the same time, I had a tenser encounter with a skunk when I was waiting for a bus late at night, after visiting a friend. The bus stop seemed to be in its path and I had to walk down the pavement half a block or so before it would move through. Across the street from the bus stop, a pair of raccoons were trying to break into a derelict corner store. None of that was as startling as realizing that the dog I saw trotting down the sidewalk at the corner was really a coyote. It stopped and stared at me for a few seconds, then crossed the street and continued on its way.

There is wildlife all around us in the city and many species have found it to be a hospitable place to live. This is even more obvious as suburban developments move farther and farther up the mountains in places like North Vancouver and Coquitlam. Bears rummaging through garbage bins or cars, cougars in backyards, and deer staging garden raids are common occurrences these days.

The problem is that the more we notice wild animals, the worse it is for them. There has been a bit of a frenzy in Vancouver over coyote sightings and aggressive raccoons, but it’s human behaviour that’s at the root of the problem. People feed animals, then lash out when they lose their fear of humans. Better that we keep our distance and keep our cats inside.

We’re writing a new contract with the wild animals that live in cities, as they adapt and thrive here. If we can find ways to manage our encounters with them, they can become part of healthier, greener urban landscapes. Our cities might even play some small part in the wildlife corridors that are being developed to compensate for the habitats lost to development. With respect and a wide berth, we might be able to negotiate a settlement beneficial to all.

Deeply Local: Grandview-Woodland’s Citizens’ Assembly


These are some of the things I love most about my neighbourhood: I can walk the length of the shopping street as quickly (or sometimes more quickly) than the time it takes for the bus to arrive and carry me from one end to the other; the variety of foodstuffs and staples available within walking distance; the wealth of restaurants and coffee shops; brick and mortar bookstores, record shops, and even a video store; the mix of heritage homes, 1950s walk ups, and affordable apartment buildings, many with room for vegetable gardens; a feeling of engagement with one’s neighbours across the district. The things that I don’t love include the increasing unaffordability of the neighbourhood for both residents and small business owners, the proliferation of condos designed to last little longer than a mortgage cycle, and the increasing feeling that our neighbourhood is destined for suburbification and its attendant disconnection from the deep feelings of community that have been built here.

With all this in mind, I found myself inside on a sunny Saturday along with almost seventy other Grandview-Woodlanders, debating the questions around the construction of a Citizens’ Assembly and the part it will play in crafting the plan that will guide our neighbourhood’s future. The City hired a facilitator who specializes in forms of deliberative democracy like Citizens’ Assemblies and over the course of the afternoon, participants had an opportunity to tackle at least two of the structural questions the City put before us. We met in small groups for half-hour periods, then at the end of the day, there was a summary from each of the tables about the most important ideas that had emerged. All ideas were written up on tear sheets that were taped up around the room and at the end of each session, participants marked their priorities dotmocracy-style.

We were encouraged to choose the discussions we felt most passionate about, but a more accurate assessment for me would be that I chose the discussions I was most worried about. My choices were Composition of the Assembly and Community Engagement. Some of the ideas that came out of the first group included: representing three kinds of tenure – owners, renters, and housing co-op members; reserving seats for aboriginal members, whether or not candidates are identified through the initial call out; using a multi-pronged strategy for recruiting candidates that includes outreach to community groups as well as more passive strategies like mailouts; that twenty Assembly members was probably too few and fifty probably too many; and making sure that there’s representation across the district. The ideas that came out of the second group drilled down a little deeper. Outreach by Assembly members to community groups to capture viewpoints that might not be represented by the Assembly, especially those of vulnerable populations. The three levels of the process (City-led, Assembly, and Community) should not be separate, but should inform each other – community consultation should happen in conjunction with the Assembly and the City, rather than separately; the Assembly’s report should be brought to the public for critique and comment on a regular basis; the City’s plan should be both informed by the Assembly’s proceedings and incorporate the Assembly’s critiques and comments.

I hope that when the City finishes gathering the suggestions from the two sessions and the online consultation, that the information is presented in an unabridged form and that the Assembly is constructed on the most representative basis, not just on the basis of demographic diversity, but also with a socially just distribution that accounts for differences in privilege.

I came away from Saturday’s session with a cautious optimism, not because I believe that this process will be the salvation of my neighbourhood, but because I was engaged with so many people who care about the district as much as I do. I know that a number of people felt the session was too constrained and directed by the City – you can find out more about that here and here. My hope is that the Assembly might help shift the focus of Grandview-Woodland’s future away from developers and toward residents and that through this process, the City will come to value the area as the model of liveability (mixed-income, walkable, diverse, lovely) that it is already.

It’s not too late to comment on the Assembly composition debates. You can find the Discussion Paper here and the link to the City’s questionnaire is here.

Income Inequality and Unrest

In the midst of all the news about the riots in England, I couldn’t help but think about the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. I grew up in a time of relative prosperity (for white, middle-class kids like me, anyway) and the gap between the wealthy and most of us was much, much less. University was a given for many of us and it was affordable. Canada’s Medicare system was so much the status quo that it never occurred to us that it could be challenged or eroded.

Now, I realize my nieces and nephews have grown up into a world where none of this is guaranteed or even expected. In Britain, where class and race inequality are even more entrenched, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a youth today.

There’s been a lot of good analysis of both the English riots and the growth of income inequality. Rather than re-hashing their points, I’d like to share some links with you.

While Alternet can always be relied upon for good analysis, one of the best posts I’ve seen about the riots in London comes from the blog Penny Red: Panic on the Streets of London

Here in Canada, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has come out with a number of reports and multimedia tools on the subjects of income inequality and poverty:

Canada’s Income Gap

The Cost of Poverty in BC

And finally, another article from Alternet, pointing out the awful absurdities that occur in a culture committed to widening the income gap:

$230,000 for a Guard Dog

A Photo Walk in Fort Langley

Right now, I can only dream about going on nice, long photo walks with my favourite walking companion.

My walking companion, Roxy, with a flowerbed and streetscape in the background.

I sprained my ankle rather badly last week, so a long walk for me right now is across the apartment. Luckily, I have some pictures from my recent walk around Fort Langley. We’ve had a rainy summer so far, broken with some stretches of sunshine. As a result, water levels have been quite high. The day I was in Fort Langley, the Fraser had even flooded its banks slightly, covering the walking path I’d intended to use.

The path beside the Fraser, flooded by high water levels.

I wandered on the raised boardwalk instead, crossed the bridge to McMillan Island and then walked back up to the town’s historic centre. When I was growing up, Fort Langley was a little sleepy, but the community revitalized it on a vintage theme, in keeping with the tourism that’s drawn by the National Historic Site on the edge of town. What they’ve done is similar to La Conner, Washington, but on a smaller scale. There are a number of heritage buildings nearby, including this church, where my family would often go for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

oss the water toward McMillan Island and the historic Church of the Holy Redeemer.


Boats on the river.

I didn’t take many photos of the town’s buildings, but instead kept to the river, a nearby garden and the restored CN Station.

The restored CN Station, white with dark green trim, Flower baskets hang beside the sign, over a bench. There's a chalkboard showing (fictional) departures and arrivals.


An orange velocipede, which was used for railway inspections, atop the rail.


The old rail line beside the historic CN station.

The smaller details caught my eye that day.

An interesting handmade fence in front of a house.


A fully bloomed rose, yellow in the centre, turning to light pink and then fuschia toward the edges.


A close up of a yellow and orange rose, not yet fully opened, with purple flowers in the background.

Driving into Fort Langley from Langley proper, the outskirts seem just as they were when I was young, but on the other side of town, condo developments are being erected. It seems a shame, so close to the centre of town. It’s so lovely otherwise.

Development a few streets away from the historic town centre.

Creating Community, Car-Free

Jump rope in the street, on the Drive.

It’s often been said that Vancouver lacks a civic centre. We have no town square or any pedestrian malls. For many years, the closest thing to a city gathering place has been the steps and courtyard of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Many protests and celebrations have wound up there over the years, but it doesn’t replace the street-level culture that exists when there is a dedicated public space.

Community groups set up along the street, including No One is Illegal.

Travelling to Europe or Latin America (or even Montréal) shows us what we’re missing here. Even the smallest town in Mexico seems to have a zócalo where cafés line the perimeter and couples promenade in the evenings. For the traveller, it can provide an anchor from which to spin out one’s explorations; for the resident, it’s the centre of public life.

A band sets up in the street.

Vancouver gets a small taste of what this can be like when the annual Car-Free Day closes down streets in several neighbourhoods across the city. Street hockey, dance parties, roller derby and jump rope are just some of the activities folks were able to engage in, once the traffic was re-routed and pedestrians flooded the street.

The Carnival Band promenading through the crowd, down the centre of the street.

This model temporarily assuages the city’s need for an outdoor public life, but it’s not enough. The temporary nature of the squares means that the permanent architecture of city squares can only be approximated. Street parties can also be an able-bodied only affair, with buses re-routed as well as private cars. A permanent city square would be physically accessible, as transit would be built around it, not diverted from it. Vancouver Public Space Network has been arguing for a public square in the city for some time now. They’ve got a number of posts on the subject, which I encourage you to explore.

Smoking grill full of fish, with hungry festival-goers waiting.

This isn’t to say that I don’t love and support Car-Free Day, it’s just that it’s a tantalizing, fleeting experience of what our city should have every day. Beyond the vision of a public square for Vancouver, Car-Free Day also suggests some other interesting possibilities – what about closing Commercial Drive to traffic altogether, while running accessible light rail along its length? The Drive is already famous for its café culture; wouldn’t it be lovely if the city turned the street into a sort of plaza, where people could enjoy our mild weather for much of the year? Extended awnings would of course be necessary in our rainforest climate zone, but that’s no barrier.

Kids collaboratively paint a picture, where cars usually are.

Car-free day every day? I’m in.

A valet bike parking sign.

The Car Free Vancouver booth.

From the Ground Up

The Estate Agent/Souvenier shop.

Plotting out the future can be a daunting task, whether it’s for a book club or a neighbourhood. Conflicting personalities, differing goals and incompatible world views can all get in the way. It’s why generating participation is the bane of any planning process. When it’s as high-stakes as public consultation about neighbourhood development, it’s easy to get discouraged by bureaucracy and lobbyists. Things can get discouraging enough, even, to make folks dream of moving to a new place, to avoid the changes that are taking the shine off their current home and to build something that better reflects their own desires. Unfortunately, one neighbourhood’s fleeing resident can become another community’s damaging interloper.

A letter from "Walmart" left on a neighbourhood doorstep, ominously promising to move into the neighbourhood.

There’s really no such thing as building a community from the ground up, at least not in the real world. But last week, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre presented an opportunity to do so imaginatively, with their home sweet home installation. This piece was created by Subject to_change, a British theatrical company that specializes in breaking down the boundaries of artistic production and putting the spectator into the centre of its pieces. Home Sweet Home has been travelling to sites world-wide since 2007.

A cardboard business, ready to put together, tied up with a welcome message, instructions and suggestions.

The piece begins as a planned community would, with lots marked out and construction materials at hand. Participants could choose to build residences, businesses or community amenities. Over the course of the installation, residents could also become involved with the community’s radio station and council or simply interact with other residents.

The community bulletin board, with lots of notes about zombies and the elusive Councillor Bob.

There were elements of the fantastical involved in the community that developed, like unicorn corrals and zombie warnings…actually the radio station and bulletin board seemed to really run with the zombie theme. But what I noticed, having arrived late in the process, was that the little village seemed to be an ideal version of the real-life neighbourhood outside. There were dog parks, community kitchens, bike shops and co-ops of all kinds. There were very few outsized developments and at least one of these was a seniors’ residence. A number of houses were given over to Canucks playoff fever and there was even a tiny East Van sign.

The tiny East Van sign - you can't tell in this photo, but it lit up like the real one.

This little East Van also reflected our neighbourhood’s anxieties – the biggest threat wasn’t really zombies (or the ongoing campaign against someone called “Councillor Bob”), but the letters delivered to residents promising an enormous Walmart development. In a neighbourhood where long-time residents are worrying about a future filled with chain stores and cookie-cutter condos, the installation encompassed what we love about this place, what we want for it and what we fear is on its way.

Anti-Walmart signs that started to appear once the ominous letter was delivered.

By leaving participants a blank slate, Subject to_change manages to make each iteration of this piece a social commentary, a learning environment and a kind of community carnival all at once. It also allows for artistic expression on a playing field that’s levelled across age groups – there were interesting and provocative structures from kids and adults alike.

A tiny version of a real place (Melk) beside an imaginary one (Beatlemania).

I’d like to adapt this concept to some of the organizations I’m involved with – a day long retreat, complete with paper, glue and decorations, might do more to foster dialogue than any number of meetings.

The village, with one of the installation workers in the background. To the right, you can see the screen where the goings-on were projected.

Activate that Citizenry

Remember Town Hall meetings? They still exist in their original form, but community consultation is increasingly moving to the internet. This seems like a natural evolution – most people spend at least some time each day in front of their computers, while public meetings conjure up images of drafty gymnasiums, sparse crowds and cold coffee. Physical meetings do have their advantages, though. Internet consultation can have difficulty replicating the exchange of ideas that happens face-to-face and it’s also easier to disengage from online conversations than it is to walk out of a roundtable discussion. Different strategies attract different participants and given the low level of community engagement with most consultation processes, it’s smart to make use of more than one.

The City of Vancouver’s Transportation Plan is doing just that, with a series of public meetings set for neighbourhoods throughout the city and a Facebook-based discussion group process. I’ve been participating in one of the online discussion groups and so far, there hasn’t been much participation. I’m curious to see how well-attended the public meetings will be. Transportation can cause heated debate, but it seems that this is mostly reactive, as when the downtown bike lanes were put in place. Planning doesn’t get people as worked up, unfortunately.

Even if participation isn’t high, it’s encouraging to see government making an effort to include public consultation earlier in its planning processes. The Ministry of Agriculture’s survey on the Agricultural Land Reserve is another example of consultation with a potential for getting a wide cross-section of opinion. The preservation of farmland is an issue that’s finally starting to get widespread attention. Allowing people across British Columbia to weigh in on at least part of the decision-making seems like a step toward direct democracy; focus groups and opinion polls can’t compare.

I’m always for a diversity of strategies and making it easy for people to get involved. Having a number of ways for people to engage makes active citizenry accessible.

Transition City, Part III

I’m (finally) wrapping up my series of posts about Moving Through. After the walks were finished, the groups convened at the new Woodward’s Building for a wrap-up moderated by Gordon Price.

The various tour leaders gave summaries of the three mini-walks and were then asked to identify what they would like to see addressed in the conversations around Vancouver’s future development.

Here are a few of the ideas were raised:

Michael Green kicked things off by asking why the most successful neighbourhoods were the least developed. He also spoke about the need to incorporate the street in the used or “activated” space of neighbourhoods.

– Rather than simply building concentrations of dense residential buildings, create nodal communities, with amenities, residential, retail and office space in walkable sectors around transit nodes and cycling infrastructure.

– Extend the principals used in laneway housing zoning to create infill office and retail space.

This discussion, and the MOV project of which it is a part, are very timely. Vancouver residents are starting to demand to be part of the conversation around future development, because it’s our existing neighbourhoods that are being targeted. What we value about this city is at stake.

MOV recorded the speakers during each of the walks, along with the wrap-up discussion. You can find the podcasts here.

Transition City, Part II

Last week I wrote about development trends in Vancouver and the Moving Through walking tours arranged Museum of Vancouver (MOV) as part of their Not an Architectural Speaker’s Series. As promised, here’s a little more about Moving Through.

Three different mini-walks took place in the morning, with a wrap-up discussion for everyone afterward. One walk focused on the role of the viaducts in the evolution of downtown Vancouver, another (using Commercial/Broadway station as a jumping off point) explored the role of transit hubs in shaping the city and the third looked at the impact the Cambie Line has had on those neighbourhoods’ development.

I chose the first walk, which was called “The Path(s) Not Taken: Viaducts, Expressways, and Almost Vancouvers.” The walk was led by architect Michael Green, one of the instigators of MOV’s Not an Architectural Speaker’s Series, along with Brandon Yan and Demian Rueter of Vancouver Public Space Network .

This walk started underneath the viaducts, near the stadiums downtown. The viaducts were built in anticipation of a larger freeway network that was planned in the 1950s and 1960s. A thriving black community, Hogan’s Alley, was destroyed to make way for the viaducts. Project 200 would have also razed Chinatown and Gastown and replaced them with (mainly) office towers. Brandon and Demian of VPSN showed us artists’ renderings of what might have existed if the plans had gone through, then as we toured the neighbourhood, our hosts led a discussion on how Vancouver has developed, what might have been and the changes that are on the horizon. We were supposed to move through Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and Gastown, ending at Granville Square (the only Project 200 building that was actually erected). The discussions were too interesting, so we only got as far as Gastown.

As we walked through Chinatown, Michael Green discussed the ways in which the heritage low-rise buildings interact with the street, which many newer buildings don’t successfully achieve. He spoke about the architectural challenge of making the street usable, active space, rather than being solely concerned with what happens inside buildings.

Green also pointed out that the stadiums and viaducts have acted as a physical barrier to density moving east. There is talk of removing one or both viaducts, which will open up space for more development and erase any clear density boundary between downtown and the eastern neighbourhoods. Near the end of our walk, in Gastown, Green discussed the neighbourhood’s mix of social housing and social services co-existing with market housing and mid to upscale business.

This walk illustrated the tensions between planning departments, developers and existing neighbourhoods. It also brought up a number of questions:

What makes a successful neighbourhood?

What role should citizens have in neighbourhood development and preservation?

What are the criteria local governments should follow when redeveloping existing neighbourhoods?

I have one more post for you on this subject. I’ll be posting a short piece about the wrap up discussion after the walks.