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November 10, 2017 at 10:44 AM

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Recap: Building our city at the Arbutus Greenway Design Jam

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The VPSN’s Arbutus Greenway project lead, Naomi Wittes Reichstein, provides a recap of last month’s exciting Arbutus design jam. 

On October 27–29, I was excited to participate in an all-weekend pilot event that was – to my knowledge – unprecedented in Vancouver.

As part of the ongoing consultation with residents on the permanent design of the Arbutus Greenway, the City hosted about 100 participants at Point Grey Secondary School in an intensive process of generating ideas. The City promoted this charrette as a “design jam.”

Divided into small facilitated groups, we spent the Saturday coming up with specific design ideas targeted toward themes put forth by the City. For example, we talked about how to enhance biodiversity and access to nature along the greenway, provide spaces for play and learning at all ages and increase opportunities for public art. We talked about ways of using the space to honour the layered history and culture of the area and how to activate the space without overprogramming or commercializing it. On Sunday the focus shifted from thematic concerns to making recommendations for specific locational stretches along the greenway.

Throughout the weekend, experts on subjects from transportation to sustainability to bird ecology were there, circulating among the tables and providing information to help us comment more knowledgeably. For me, this educational component was one of the Design Jam’s most rewarding aspects.

A particularly exciting component of the process was that each table featured a professional illustrator who drew up design pictures of the greenway to capture our ideas in real time as we talked. Staff taped these illustrations on the walls, and it was inspiring to see how our improvised comments took physical form in these pictorial visions. How much of the input will be put to use remains to be seen.

Transportation vs. recreation

A number of debates that have subsisted about the greenway ever since the City first bought it surfaced at the Design Jam. The most fundamental of these, in my opinion, was the fault line between recreational and transportation visions. While expressing support for public transit in principle, some residents also voiced concern about the impact of streetcar infrastructure on the country lane ambience of some of the sections along the greenway, such as the beautiful S-curve at Shaughnessy Heights leading into Kerrisdale.

At other times, being asked to make recommendations on only limited stretches of the greenway met with pushback. It wasn’t always clear to all participants why some stretches were chosen for feedback while certain others were extracted or excluded.

Who was there

Representation at public meetings can be controversial. For the Design Jam, we were chosen by lottery in a selection process contracted out to an external agency. The City’s goal (as explained in prefatory remarks) was to sample all 22 Vancouver neighbourhoods geographically, with a rough gender balance. The City purposefully overweighted the neighbourhoods along the greenway, as the ones most affected by the decisions being made. Having met those conditions, the City then attempted to counter the fact that the younger generations are often underrepresented at consultations, allotting a high proportion of seats to young adults. A high number of seats also went to seniors. I was uncertain to what extent race and ethnicity had been factors in the sampling.

As a result of these assigned weights, the City ended up underrepresenting the age group of 40–59 relative to population size. This to me presented some potential problems. If the idea was to grant greater weight to cohorts that are typically underrepresented, then I wasn’t sure why the middle bracket received so many fewer seats than seniors, who consistently attend public meetings in high numbers. I also wondered who would speak for children when so many of parental age were missing. Children interact with space much more tangibly and sensorily than many adults, and they need places where they can climb. Partly because of likely parental underrepresentation, I made an effort in my own comments to emphasize the need for design features that would help children play and engage.

What’s next?

From here, the City will proceed to developing a “master plan” for the greenway and will engage in another round of public consultation in the months to come.

All told, the Design Jam was an energizing experiment in participatory city-building. I hope the City will use this pilot as a model for future projects.

If you have comments on our greenway advocacy, feel free to contact Naomi Wittes Reichstein, VPSN Arbutus Greenway Project Lead, naomi@vancouverpublicspace.ca.

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