The Eighth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2006
Berkeley Prize 2006

Report From Winner

Experiencing and Working with Local Communities in Downtown Vancouver

by Andrew Amara

Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

As I arrived at Vancouver Airport, I couldn’t help wondering what the next few weeks would be like. This was my first travel experience outside Africa: over 18 hours of travel from Uganda, across the Mediterranean, Europe and the Pacific Ocean to reach Vancouver. I had expected that there would be somebody to pick me up from the airport, but instead I was given directions on how to find my way around, so from then on I was on my own (friends and family back home find this hard to believe).

I joined a number of other students from around the world and from June 13 through to July 6, we took part various events and activities, which culminated in a design workshop/Participatory Spatial Planning with several communities in Downtown Vancouver. The main events were:

  • Growing Up in Cities
  • World Youth Forum
  • World Urban Forum
  • Global Studio

Most of the time, I used the bus to get around. The transit system was very confusing that first day at the airport, but after a day or two on the bus, it was really easy to use. It took about an hour to travel from my campus residence into town where all the activities were.

Canada is so different from Uganda, from the food to the built environment. The Landscape is animated by the ocean, rivers, mountains and forests. The city centre is a spread of high rise blocks that sit next to the waterfront. Back home, not more than 10 buildings rise higher than 10 stories; in Vancouver, cars are parked in 6-storey buildings. Buses run on electricity. Many things are automated: a machine sells me soda, a machine does the laundry, a machine takes me up the stairs. It took a while to get used to a grid of streets that look almost the same. It is a wonder that I didn’t get lost!

Growing Up in Cities (GUiC)

Over my first weekend in Vancouver, I took part in the Growing Up in Cities (GUiC) sessions. GUiC is an action research initiative that involves young people as co-researchers in evaluating their neighborhoods and working to implement change. The first few days were really cold although the sun was up and shining. Eventually the weeks became warmer.

I got to meet interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral teams and young people from various parts of the world, who are working to understand and transform their urban environments. Part of the agenda was to learn about each other’s projects; what works and what doesn’t in young people’s participation in research planning and action.

For instance, GUiC New Zealand showcased how they are trying to empower and involve the children on the Cook Islands in planning for the shoreline. The youth from South Africa were tackling urban issues by looking at the social problems caused by HIV AIDS.  

One of the key discussions was about building project sustainability and long-term impact. It is important to transfer ownership of the project to young people themselves and provide transparency in all aspects. It is also important to support collaborations among researchers, community-based organizations, government officials and young people.

At the close of GUiC, we drafted principles that will govern activities of GUiC groups.

World Youth Forum

Soon after the Planners Congress, we joined the over 300 international youth delegates in the World Youth Forum. Many shared ideas/inspirations, set intentions and engaged meaningfully in various activities. Participants split up into groups with different focuses: health care, environment, leadership, gender and indigenous issues. We deepened our creativity and developed new capacities. At the end of the three days we made strong recommendations to the UN HABITAT and leaders from around the world.

What I appreciated the most about the forum was the informal setting – free and fun. Such a setting nurtured understanding. For instance one sunny evening my group went trekking along the beach analyzing the intricate ecosystems along the shore line and discussing several ways of protecting our environment. 

In between the conferences we would take tours through Vancouver: visiting gardens, parks, communities and entertainment centers. Water Street (Downtown Vancouver) became one of my favorite spots. I would escape there, in search of a hot Ethiopian meal, sit by the street bustling with activity, or just walk under the shade. The people are very friendly; even the bus drivers greet me.

One Saturday we crossed over to the Northshore and walked up the mountains, through the forest; it was peaceful up there - stunning views. One of the Vancouver’s main water reservoirs is up there. The water is clean and safe to drink straight away. At about 9pm the city closes down and many leave for their homes or go out. However, back in Kampala (the capital of Uganda), that’s when the city becomes alive. One can even go out at 11pm to one of the suburbs near the capital and buy a pair of shoes from the road side stalls.

World Urban Forum (WUF)

The World Urban Forum began on June 19th. About 10,000 participants from over 100 countries gathered in Vancouver for the Third session of the UN Habitat - WUF to discuss a way forward on world’s state of rapidly growing cities: under the theme ‘Our Future – Sustainable Cities – Turning Ideas into Action’. The urban agenda highlighted inclusiveness, with balanced participation from the public, private and civil society sectors. Ministers, mayors, academics, community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector shared ideas and experiences on what would improve the quality of life in the world’s cities. In addition to keynote speeches, there were dialogue sessions, roundtable meetings and networking events.

The global urban population will increase by approximately two billion reaching close to five billion in 2030. How will our cities accommodate this additional two billion people? What city forms are we contemplating? What density and what physical reach are we expecting? What quality of life are we seeking in cities?

The commitments made by governments at the Millennium summit in 2000 had not resulted in widespread improved living conditions among the urban poor. It all seemed to be just “beautiful speeches, awful reality.” Participants felt that there was still a wide discrepancy between what governments said and what they did, and this needed to be addressed.  The former Prime Minister of Canada, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, once stated that, “Human settlements are linked so closely to existence itself, represent such a concrete and widespread reality, are so complex and demanding, so laden with questions of rights and desires, with needs and aspirations, so racked with injustices and deficiencies, that the subject cannot be approached with the leisurely detachment of the solitary theoretician” (Vancouver, May 31, 1976).

It was agreed that there is need for parties – local, state and provincial governments, citizens, the private sector and civil societies – to involve themselves further in urban development, and to work harder to solve urban challenges. This drive must be characterized by innovation and municipal leadership. Partnerships and relationships need to be built in an inclusive manner to better understand the challenges and develop practical solutions. It was noted that transparency and accountability is vital. The public needs to be informed of the problems and of the steps being taken by the governments to address them. 

Particular emphasis was placed on the needs of women, youth and people with disabilities. There was a strong participation of women and youth. Young people stood up to air their views and opinions. It also was encouraging to see representatives from developed and developing countries unite in a bid to develop strategies to tackle urban issues such as poverty. Many formed new alliances through both formal and informal meetings. Participants also presented examples of how they are dealing with urban issues in their home areas. I got to meet many people from different fields and professions; it opened up my eyes to a whole new approach of development and numerous opportunities.  Living and studying in Uganda, I had come to believe that I am really at the ‘top of my game.’ Being in Vancouver has exposed me to design alternatives, solutions and ways of development. I now see more possibilities for towns in Uganda and the lifestyle of the people.

Urban issues have become a major challenge today. Governments need to engage communities in initiatives to plan for and provide decent shelter and basic services for the growing urban populations. Increased financial resources need to be raised in order to upgrade dwellings. The challenge is to shift from relying on international aid to tapping local capital markets. Cities are largely a product of private investment. A lot more can be done if the public teamed up with the private sector in partnerships to develop and plan for urban centers.

Design and planning are valuable and effective tools for urban development and environmental management, while preventing future slum growth. Canadian architect, Arthur Erickson, said it is the “art of composing spaces in response to existing environmental and urban conditions.”

The methods involved need to be re-invented, with a renewed emphasis on sustainability.

Global Studio Vancouver (GSV)

With new insight from the World Urban Forum, we then began the Global Studio Vancouver (GSV) design workshop. GSV brought together 90 students, teachers and practitioners of architecture, planning, landscape architecture, industrial design, community development and international relations from over 15 countries.

It was a constructive, stimulating and challenging atmosphere: different participants, different backgrounds and regions, different approaches, each one contributing innovative ideas, sometimes through heated debates or roundtable discussions.  All this was happening while the World Cup of football was drawing to a climax. Almost everyone was supporting a country or two; we had to wake before 6am to watch our teams play. One day you are jubilating with students from Germany, the next morning you are consoling the Argentineans. 

The workshop (June 25-30) focused on participatory design and planning approaches, and culminated in an event (July 2) to engage the public in a dialogue on possible futures. A Future Directions Forum was held on July 3. In addition GSV participants developed pps:r (people, places, situations, response), a public art exhibit on Hastings St, between Abbott and Carrall St.

We (Global studio participants) had the honor of attending a ceremony where renowned Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, was elected to the Honorary College of Fellows of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada. Thereafter he gave a revealing lecture about his works, approach to design and experiences. He noted that today it is man-made disasters (in addition to natural disasters) that are killing people: for instance when buildings collapse. The architect has a greater role to play today both in planning and rebuilding. He also mentioned some of the conflicts he had with city policy makers: this showed the need for the various disciplines involved in city planning to come together and integrate their procedures and work.

We took part in a series of orientation programs to give us a better understanding of the urban fabric and heritage of Vancouver. Founded in 1886, Vancouver has a relatively short history. Over the years, plans for housing, services, transportation, finances and infrastructure have played key roles in making Vancouver a city that respects the environment and provides residents with opportunities to live, work and prosper. There are residents from around the world speaking more than 70 languages, thriving neighborhood communities, a downtown core, and a broad-based economy. The city also has extensive public consultations in planning and decision making. It was new and impressive for me to see how this works because, back home in Uganda; a public building will go up without any reasonable public discussion.  Vancouver has managed to create a vision of the city as a great place to live, work, shop and play close to home; a city that seeks to become sustainable by integrating economic, ecological and social impacts in decision making.

But during our stay in Vancouver we also learned that the city still has problems it has to deal with. The city has fulfilled the dream of bringing people to live in the downtown. There have been conversions of office space into residential possibilities. However it lacks diversity. Some people are even commuting out of town to work. Is it too suburban to be urban? There is also the question of how many can afford the housing in downtown.

GSV’s main area of interest was the Vancouver Downtown Eastside. The Downtown Eastside (DTES) is an historic area that includes several different communities: Oppenheimer, Strathcona, Thornton Park and Victory Square. It is Vancouver’s “historic precinct” with places like the Gastown, Chinatown and Victory Square. Once the city’s main commercial district and transportation hub, the DTES retains much of its turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, including the former Interurban streetcar station. When the streetcar service ended in 1958, so did much of the area’s pedestrian traffic. Over the following decades, particularly in the 1980s, the city’s commercial core shifted steadily westward and the DTES declined, experiencing an increasing number of vacant storefronts and high unemployment.

Today there are about 12,000 people in the DTES, a third of them Aboriginal. There are many drug users in the area and HIV infection rates are high. There are also high rates of property crime. Our studio was based in the heart of DTES. At first I felt insecure walking down the streets there; young people trade drugs in broad daylight, drink and smoke on the street (I thought this only happened in movies). But when I got to interview and chat with some of them, I realized they are also human beings.

Housing Options in DTES:

  • Hotels; a typical room is 10 by 10 ft, one or two washrooms per floor. Many of the structures are 100 years old and therefore dilapidated.

  • Social Housing; built and operated by the city. Self contained suites with a kitchen and bathroom. There is a 7 year waiting list for applicants.

  • Transition housing

  • Emergency shelters; 850 beads in total

  • The Street 

The welfare provided by the government is a total of $525 per month. $325 of this is spent on rent. Vancouver is losing social housing to more profit making ventures. Some are worried that the 2010 Olympics games in Vancouver will take over potential low income housing just like the 1986 Vancouver expo did. A study recently carried out, presented the Solutions/Goals for the DTES as follows:

  • Planning laws and initiatives that facilitate private development of public low-income housing buildings

  • Low-cost, high quality, efficient housing designs for the low income singles

  • Mixed income building developments

  • Emergency shelter and treatment facility design that addresses NIMBYism

  • Bylaw initiatives

  • Development without displacement

All these should be pursued carefully so that the delicate social setup, supportive network, culture and vitality are not lost.  With this background information we then started working of possible solutions.

GSV was based at the University of British Columbia downtown studio at 425 Carrall St, in Downtown Vancouver (DTES). I think DTES has some of the most vibrant places in Vancouver; there is just a lot happening, and it is all complimented by people from all walks of life and different ethnic backgrounds. I never got used to the food though. We tried dishes in several places; including Chinese, Indian and Thailand dishes. How I searched in vain for plain rice and meat, until I discovered the Ethiopian restaurant.

Global Studio Vancouver Challenges:

  • Can participatory design and planning contribute to improving people’s lives?
  • Can Global Studio put its skills at the service of communities?
  • Can Global Studio add value to the already much investigated downtown eastside?
  • Can Global Studio help turn ideas into action?
  • Can Global Studio develop skills and knowledge that participants can take home and apply?

We broke up into five teams to work on five Community Projects with local community organizations. 

Five Participating Community Organizations:

  • VANDU (Vancouver Drug Users) women’s group
  • Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre
  • Strathcona Revitalization Committee
  • Waterfront Coalition
  • Chinatown Revitalization Committee

Initial Questions:

  • What do people like/dislike about the area?
  • What would improve their lives?
  • What physical changes would help improve their lives?
  • Does the group have a vision for the future?
  • What is the political/planning/historical context?

My group was working on the Waterfront development. The Whitecaps Football Club (WFC) purchased a strip of railroad land between the waterfront and Gastown neighborhood in the Downtown. The WFC proposes to develop a 15,000-seater stadium, elevated 30 feet above the existing rail lines, with the possibility of a second phase of expansion to 30,000 seats. According to the initial review presented by the Town Planning Department, there are five major problems with the proposal.

Problems with Stadium Proposal:

  • Access—how to deal with circulation of over 15,000 stadium users
  • Dangerous goods transported by rail on the central waterfront
  • Form, character and urban design issues
  • Impact on the livability of neighboring communities
  • Impact on future Port Land development.

A range of different stakeholders in the public and private spheres have been deliberating over the issues stated above for some time. In particular the Gastown Waterfront Coalition, a community group composed of residents, business and landowners of Downtown Eastside are opposed to the proposed Stadium. They believe the stadium would be a bad fit for the space, and would significantly affect their fragile neighborhood(s) and communities, overwhelming it in scale, failing to fit the character of existing neighborhoods and filling their streets with noise and people during many nights of the year, among other concerns. They argue that services for the people of the Downtown East Side are a priority need that could be served by the waterfront, through reconnection of the city to the waterfront, provision of public space and social housing, for instance. They want to see a waterfront that will reflect their community, not “another west side or Coal Harbor.”

On the other hand, the Whitecaps team, their owner and the developer Greg Kerfoot, and soccer fans see the stadium as a way to advance the sport of soccer in Canada and establish it as a strong national sport. The proposal is a significant upgrade in seating capacity and location from their current stadium in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. They have determined to their satisfaction that this is the best possible location in downtown Vancouver and are arguing that their proposal will be a public asset to the whole of Vancouver, BC and Canada. They feel that its location close to public transport is ideal, and that their presence in the downtown will serve as a stimulator for revitalization, rather than a burden to the neighborhood’s residents.

The Vancouver Port Corporation is an agent of the Canadian federal government which owns the lands and water rights directly to the north of the proposed stadium site. The workings of their port system may be affected by the development, but a larger issue is the possible (but unspecified) future development of those lands and the stadium’s possible effect on those plans (including views and access to sunlight). During a City Council Hearing that we (GSV) attended, the Port Corporation expressed a willingness to consider a land-swap or the extension of the stadium onto Port lands. However, a stadium is outside the mandate of the agency, so that would involve the federal government directly.

Other stakeholders are CP railroads, Gastown and Downtown Eastside business owners, residents and community groups, city and federal governments and many Vancouver residents. Our involvement as Global Studio was broadly defined as “exploring the potential of the waterfront.” This allowed for a wide brief on our part, with the embedded focus on the Millennium Development Goals and the principle of addressing the needs of the most marginalized 20% of the community.

This was a very exciting project for me: a waterfront site with amazing views to the Northshore and a small historical neighborhood to one side; and a 15,000-seater stadium raised above railway tracks?  Uganda is a landlocked country with several lakes; urban centers however are not built around the waterfronts, like in Vancouver. Because of its status as the last remaining waterfront area in Vancouver, the importance of the Central Waterfront to all of the citizens of Vancouver is undeniable. Should the stadium be built? Should the railroad remain? Should the working port be moved to another area, or strengthened on this land? Should a new central waterfront plan favor office buildings, arts and culture, parks or housing? It’s a question that concerns everyone, and it’s a question that, we believe, everyone should be asking themselves.

Because our stay in Vancouver was so short and our knowledge of the city limited, we decided that our goal for this project was to design a set of tools that would help a broad spectrum of Vancouverites to become engaged in the participatory design and planning process.

Global Studio's Planning Outreach Tools

  • A set of postcards: one of which is blank and encourages people to envision, sketch or write their ideal waterfront
  • An interactive website allowing people to use a kit of parts (such as housing blocks, stadiums, food outlets, trees etc) to create ideas for the waterfront
  • A flash presentation providing a background and summary of the issues and project
  • Development Application signs with information of the project, set up in several locations near the waterfront to facilitate a street discussion.

We also developed different designs for the site to show the people the possibilities and opportunities presented by the site. One of the ways in which we thought our group might have real value for the community was in helping to shift the debate away from the dialectical question of stadium versus no stadium, and as a result our tools aim to help community members to envision a wider set of possibilities for the land in question by presenting them with a series of schematic options before providing them a forum for their own thoughts and expression.

As well as engagement, we wanted the voices of community members to be heard and represented as part of the ongoing debate about this waterfront, and as such, attempt to involve the Vancouver Planning Department in this process. We asked community members to send their completed “visions” on the postcards directly to the Planning Department where they will become a part of the dialogue of the decision-makers in Vancouver.

The different GSV groups had different final products. For instance the Chinatown-group’s interventions culminated in a public participatory planning event along the street, right in the heart of Chinatown. The Strathcona Community group produced a stop-motion video.

During the closing sessions, one of local architects and Rapheal Pizarro, one of our tutors, pointed out that it appeared that we were taken up by this concept of Participatory planning (involving the community in the design process) to a point that we left out our views and opinions. Participatory planning and design is good however, the professional has a responsibility to give guidance and present the best alternative, since he/she brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to the table. “Granville Island (a popular evening destination in Vancouver) didn’t come out of Participatory Spatial Planning, but one man’s brilliant idea.” There should be a balance between the continuous cycle of public contribution and the professionals’ planning decisions. It is also important to have a dialogue in order to understand the situation rather than just collect information.

The time I spent in Vancouver was truly memorable. If I got the chance, I would definitely visit Vancouver again, and hopefully during winter, because I really want to find out what it looks like. I would also love to experience other cities like Barcelona, Geneva or Sydney.

As I boarded the plane at Vancouver Airport, I couldn’t help wishing I could carry the whole set of workshops and experiences back to my classmates in Uganda.

References:

Books:

Douglas, S., Every Building on 100 West Hastings, Arsenal Pulp Press 2003.

Fairbridge, D., ed. The Vancouver Stories, Raincoast 2005.

Berelowitz, L., Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, Douglas & McIntyre 2005.

Wynn, G. and Oke, T., eds., Vancouver and Its Region, University of British Columbia Press 1992.

Hayes, D., Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley, Douglas & McIntyre 2005.

Polakow, V and Guillean, C., eds., International Perspectives on Homelessness, Greenwood Press 2001.

Windsor Liscombe, R., The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver 1938-1963, MIT Press 1997.

Articles:

Condon, P., P. Gurstein and J. Proft. (2003) “The Urban Design Studio as a Catalyst for Change: Fresh Eyes on Gibsons”, Fall, 2001, Landscape Review 8(1) August: 39-51

Lu, D. “The Changing Landscape of Hybridity: A Reading of Ethnic identity and Urban Form in Vancouver,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, vol 11, no.2, 2000: 19-28

Websites:

Debate afoot over new stadium, globeandmail.com, 26 June 2006, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20060626.BCSTADIUM26/TPStory/...

Articles with views from the football fans about the stadium, Friends of soccer, http://friendsofsoccer.blogspot.com/2006_05_01_friendsofsoccer_archive.html

Rezoning Procedures in Vancouver, http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/commsvcs/planning/landuse5.htm

Other:

Whitecaps Stadium Initial Review, a report from the Vancouver Planning Department.

Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium Fact sheet, Whitecaps football club


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Andrew Amara, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
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