Connecting in the urban environment

Last week was packed with so many great events that I needed some days of reflection before blogging about all those exciting and inspiring insights. First of all, I attended the Opening Night, City Conversations, and Rain City Chronicles events of the SFU Public Square Community Summit and the Carbon Talks lecture.

Moreover, I volunteered at the Student & Youth Conference of the SFU Public Square Communit Summit, the Built City @MOV lecture with Ray Spaxman and Brent Toderian at the Museum of Vancouver, and Heritage Vancouver’s “West End Remembered” walking tour and I crossed “I walked across Vancouver” from my bucket list by joining 20 other people for the first ever Main Street Mosey.

In this blogpost, I’d like to take a summarizing look back at the SFU Public Square Community Summit events that I’ve attended. In the face of the Vancouver Foundation’s “2012 Connections and Engagement Survey” and with more than ten diverse events centered around the topic of “Connecting in the Urban Environment”, SFU hosted a unique public summit where people of all ages and backgrounds discussed the multifaceted topic of connecting in the urban environment.

With this inaugural Community Summit, SFU showed which role universities should play in today’s connected world: Engaged universities should be open and active members of their communities that foster the dialogue not only with their students but also with the general public, especially on important topics such as the general summit theme of urban isolation and disconnection felt by many people in Vancouver or the specific issues of public space, transportation, housing, and schools that were discussed at the Student & Youth Conference.

So, it is of utmost importance that SFU continues this exciting dialogue through its Public Square initiative: “In SFU’s community of communities, it is every place, every open space, every exchange, debate or casual conversation – in person or online – that contributes to respectful, productive and, sometimes, inspiring dialogue on any and every topic of public concern.” (SFU President Andrew Petter and Chancellor Carole Taylor)


Opening Night: Be a Catalyst for Change

SFU Public Square’s Opening Night at the Orpheum set the stage for the week-long community summit with a high-level panel discussion featuring Vancouver Foundation’s Vice President Catherine Clement, Toronto artist-activist Dave Meslin, former Vancouver Director of Planning Larry Beasley, and author and radio host Nora Young.

According to Catherine Clement, there are many solutions to the problems of urban isolation and loneliness, from big urban design issues to small things that individuals can do, such as inviting your neighbours. In fact, the more people talk to each other, the more they trust each other, take care for each other, and do things for their community.

Dave Meslie then talked about his Toronto City Hall art exhibit “The Fourth Wall” which aims at establishing a two-way dialogue between City Hall and citizens and getting people more connected to their neighbourhood. The 36 recommendations that emerged from this project include ideas like creating a “City Hall School”, redesigning public notices, or providing childcare opportunities for public meetings. Dave urges people to”raise our expectations for our cities and establish a new culture of participation where people feel that their participation is rewarding, useful, meaningful, wanted, and respected.”

Larry Beasley presented Vancouver’s Emery Barnes Park as an example for a publicly owned place that embraces transit, walkability, density, and mixed use and has become a shared space for everyone. In fact, all kinds of people mingle and connect in this park as the nearby located retail spaces, community centre, childcare centre, food stores, cafes, and a neighbourhood that was planned for many different people (social housing, familiy housing, market housing) draw very diverse people. This shows that by designing a park that is not only a beautiful but also an inclusive place for all people, a socially responsible government and citizenry can mitigate social isolation.

Finally, Nora Young spoke about the role of technology in overcoming urban isolation. In her opinion, there is a data revolution in which the bottom-up, user-generated, social, ubiquitous, and continually updated digital data that we are generating in our everyday lives can contribute to change. In particular, digital technology faciliates sharing and tools like Fix My Street, Meet Ups, or Social Camps can help people make connections. So, in order to make the city of the future a collaborative one, we have to ensure that people who are socially isolated are not also information-isolated.


Student & Youth Conference: Our Voices

This conference was designed for youth by youth and interactively explored issues of urban isolation and disconnection that young people are facing. While the morning sessions included scenario-based group activities on the issues of using technology to connect activity and addressing norms, the afternoon was packed with a presentation by Dave Meslin and four parallel facilitated dialogue sessions on the important issues of urban housing, public spaces, transportation, and the role of schools in creating connections.

In his talk, Dave Meslin presented three of his projects that fostered community engagement. Guerilla Gardening is about reclaiming public spaces and making people’s voices matter in times when media representation of activism turns people away from it. With the Downtown De-Fence project he showed people the difference between fenced and open communities so that he was allowed to put their fences down. This shows us that schools, bike lanes, transit lines, etc. can change and it is our effort that can change something.

As Dave said, “it’s a revolutionary act to get someone to change their cities, even if it’s something small.” Moreover, “you don’t need to be a big NGO to make a difference – just be creative, fun and positive.” Another project that fulfills these criteria was his City Idol project where people contributed ideas to make their city better and the winners received election campaigns to get them and their ideas into office.

In the following four parallel dialogue sessions, young people had the chance to speak to decision makers on the aforementioned four important issues. The results of these dialogue sessions and the other activities will be included in a report that will be presented to decision makers, conference participants, and the public in the future.

With regards to schools, one valuable suggestion was to give academic credits for community engagement as this is often more valuable in life than what you learn in the classroom. In particular, creativity and collaboration have to play a bigger role in our academic system and the over-emphasis on grades today translates into society’s perception that something is only valuable if you get money for it.

The dialogue on public spaces highlighted that there are already many good examples of awesome public spaces in Vancouver. Nevertheless, it is important to get a much broader understanding of what public space really is and to meet people where they are as people from different cultures, age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. create their own spaces and places. So, let us democratize how we shape space, break rules and go beyond design (think about how we use and occupy thesese spaces).

The session on urban housing touched the omnipresent issue of affordability but quickly became a conversation about community and home. It was mentioned that there should be opportunities for social engagement (food preparation, dining, common laundry, car sharing, etc.) and community building, that being part of a community is also about sharing responsibility, and that it is important to pay attention on what a community looks like for everyone in the different stages of life and to recognize cultural and social communities within the larger community.

Finally, the transportation dialogue discussed the issues of safety, education, and affordability as well as better public transportation options for suburban areas. Moreover, young people’s stories reminded us that there’s an opportunity for front line staff like bus drivers to set the tone, to get conversations started, and thereby to help people feel more comfortable and overcome the barriers of connecting.


City Conversations: Lonely in Vancouver

In the City Conversations, Catherine Clement from the Vancouver Foundation presented the main results of their research that was the underlying theme for the Community Summit. Their survey of 3,841 Metro Vancouver residents was more than just a loneliness survey as it focused on connections, engagements, and barriers on the three levels of friendship, neighbourhood, and larger community connections.

31% of respondents think that Vancouver is a hard place to make friends and 24% are alone more often than they would like to. In this regard, the fear that Vancouver might become a resort town for the rich as well as diversity challenges and the importance of interaction were highlighted. In fact, the more people begin to speak with each other, the more their trust level, their optimism about their neighbourhood, their tolerance about people who are different, and their participation in the community go up.

Sentis Research used this data to create a model that shows the drivers that can change people’s attitudes and influence their actions. According to one of the model creators, this was based on a scale for caring and involved residents in which people who had higher scores generally were most optimistic about their neighbourhoods, felt their neighbours would work together to solve local problems, participated in neighbourhood and community projects, attended a neighbourhood and community meeting, and volunteered.

There are two drivers of change that would move people up on the caring and involved residents scale: Freedom from discrimination (creating a sense of belonging by connecting across boundaries) and conversations with neighbours (get-togethers with neighbours creating trust). In short, people will become more engaged the more they are free from discriminiation and talk to their neighbours.

Finally, Daphne Bremham from the Vancouver Sun replied that maybe it’s not as bad as numbers indicate. In her opinion, we need to think about ourselves as multi-citizens who are engaged and connected in various neighbourhoods in Vancouver and beyond. As she writes in her article, “the tightly limited geographical definitions for neighbour, neighbourhood and community overlook other increasingly important, social media interactions, especially when you consider that Vancouverites are more connected than other Canadians.”


Raincity Chronicles: Extra Ordinary

Finally, the sold-out Raincity Chronicles storytelling event once again showed us how many engaged people enrich this city with their great and inspiring ideas, stories, and projects: People who have brought their communities and neighbourhoods together, like 11-year-old Nathan Coburn who has received grants for his origami Christmas ornament workshop and yarn-art projects, Graham Anderson who has founded a co-operative urban delivery business that uses cargo trikes, or Caroline MacGillivray whose Beauty Night Society has given over 16,000 life-makeovers to women who live in poverty.

Posted on October 1, 2012 in Democracy

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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