July 9, 2019

A Night on the North Shore: A Conversation with Residents

The Price Talks team hosted its first public podcast recording, held in front of a live library audience in the District of North Vancouver on June 26, 2019.

We’ve lobbed quite a bit of criticism at the North Shore generally over the past eight months, regarding recent decisions about housing, transportation and the public realm, but felt it was time to actually hear from residents.

Joining Gord for the discussion were:

  • Dominica Babicki, formerly Energy Manager with the District, currently completing her PhD in geography focusing on issues related to related to energy, buildings and climate change. A lifelong resident of the Edgemont neighbourhood, mother of teens, and part-time caregiver to both parents.
  • Justin Scott was born and raised in Deep Cove, went to Cap U, and is starting a new career in marketing. He currently lives in an apartment in West Vancouver, and is considering his long-term housing situation.
  • Victor Schwartzman is a Brooklyn native who came to Vancouver via a decades-long stop in Winnipeg. He currently serves on DNV’s Community Services Advisory Committee, hosts and produces Soapbox Radio and World Poetry Cafe on Coop Radio 100.5 FM, and in renting in a social housing complex in Parkgate.

Special thanks to Lynn Valley Town Centre resident, and community planner and facilitator, Steven Petersson for MC’ing and providing invaluable support throughout the evening.

Our sincere gratitude to everyone who attended the evening — a diverse and attentive crowd, with lots of participation and free-flowing discussion. We hope to do this again.

Last but not least, thank you to Meghan and her team at the Lynn Valley Branch of North Vancouver District Public Library. What a perfect facility, in a beautiful community — paradise tucked into the side of a mountain.

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There’s no two ways about it — TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit authority, is #1 in North America for year-over-year transit ridership growth. Seattle’s King County Transit is #2. And Kevin Desmond has led them both.

Desmond, now in his 4th year at the TransLink helm, didn’t emerge as a transit planning professional as a result of education, nepotism, or some cultish, hippie-era, preternatural NUMTOT trip (though, thanks to Gord, he’s now officially hip to the ELMTOT jive).

No, Desmond came to transit by mistake. An upbringing in the Bronx — OK, technically Westchester County, but he could walk to the #5 Dyer Avenue train — was followed by various positions Mayor’s Office of Operations during the mayoralty of Ed Koch, working with New York City agencies implementing public policy.

You know, typical New York stuff, like counting trees (there were 800,000), and helping untangle a parking revenue corruption scandal (big money). Which eventually led to an invitation to join the Department of Customer Services at New York City Transit. And so began Desmond’s love affair with transit — as he credits it, a cloying mixture of public policy, public service, and running a business. His great challenge in ’80s and ’90s New York City? Trying to figure out how to drive transit ridership up in a mega-city of abundant transportation options. His focus was to paint transit as a desirable consumer product, and to do so with the support of “a lean mean, growth-oriented consumer product organization”. And it worked.

Desmond tells Gord all the stories…of how he tried to bring more attention, and money, to the bus system in New York, when the subway tended to suck up all the oxygen….what prompted him to swap coasts in what eventually became a 12-year stint as chief executive of King County Transit in Washington State…how his efforts in the Puget Sound region culminated in a successful $54 billion tax package ballot measure for transit that included a multi-phase plan for high-capacity light rail (jealous much?)…and what ultimately led him to Vancouver.

He also waxes on about Transport 2050, the largest public engagement in TransLink’s history. But what we really wanted to know was what Desmond thinks of ride-hailing players like Uber and Lyft, slagged by Price Talks guests (among many, many others) as malignant, transit-killing tumours on the rumps of cities across the continent.

“Not something to be feared,” he claims. Why? You’ll have to listen to find out.

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More bus routes with greater capacity. Ground level retail in proximity to low-rise residential buildings. Communities designed with walking, cycling, and integrated multi-modal mobility in mind. And yes, rapid transit.

Surrey and Langley are two obvious examples of cities south of the Fraser taking slow, but steady and at times bold, steps towards the future, thanks in no small part to the work done by people like Paul Lee and Nathan Pachal.

In this second edition of our “Predecessor/Successor” series (see also Episode 31), Lee and Pachal explore the similarities between their own outsider experiences, and their respective roles promoting progressive, sometimes unpopular agendas, as both urbanists and leaders.

Lee worked in transportation planning for over three decades in both the private and public sectors, first working on implementation of the ’90s-era regional transportation plan, and most recently managing the City of Surrey’s light rail portfolio (may it rest in peace). Pachal is in his first full term, and fourth year, as councillor for the City of Langley; he’s also the indefatigable author of the long-running South Fraser Blog.

Both of Gord’s guests are used to talking to people about transportation investments, but as often from the prospective of what communities want, as what they really need. And dealing with the political decisions, as Lee learned, that often fit neither category. “Where do we need to win? Let’s build Skytrain there.”

Yet, despite occasionally blips in the process, there may be little doubt that there’s a line connecting the type of work Lee did in the 1990s and 2000s, and what Pachal has seen emerge in his short time on council. In this case (as he says with an almost astonished grin) a bus every 90 seconds in Langley City along Fraser Highway. “Walk 5 minutes, and you’re in a farm field.”

Transportation planners and policy geeks — like these two guys — know the real secret about growth in Metro Vancouver. The really exciting stuff is happening south of the Fraser.

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In 2015, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) undertook a strategic planning process that might have invited a bit of cynicism — give a fancy name and lengthy timeline to a stock-in-trade exercise, and call it transformative.

That exercise, however, was Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver, and it has already proven to be anything but typical. For one, it’s a 25-year legacy ‘vision’ project laid upon a foundation of rigorous research and public engagement. For another, it included recommendations that, unlike many corporate visions, were tied to tangible actions that would change the very face of downtown and how it would be utilized for the next generation.

And as a public expression of that vision’s intention, CEO Charles Gauthier committed DVBIA to “bring something to life” within the first year of releasing the report. So they did — award-winning Alley Oop, the laneway behind West Hastings street between Seymour and Granville, which was transformed from service corridor into a bright, playful public space.

An even better example of the Re-Imagine commitment? The governance structure of the DVBIA itself which, behind Gauthier’s leadership, was re-jigged — Board refreshed, committees disbanded, committees created — in order to empower and energize the organization, and better position it to realize the recommendations contained in the Re-Imagine report.

As a result of bringing the leaders of tomorrow to the forefront of the organization, the DVBIA has, of late, found itself championing a variety of initiatives that, as Gord put it, seem a bit foreign for a business-forward organization. Bike lanes. Child care. Living wages. Why would a business advocacy organization be involved in many of the same issues that are often believed to make business more challenging?

Gauthier answers this question, and many more, with the support of special guests Landon Hoyt and Julianne King of the SFU Public Square research team that led the project. Armed with three years’ worth of data and insights, they compare reality to the plan, and give an honest assessment of how well-positioned the DVBIA is to move forward, both with ongoing dialogue, and the commitment to change.

Championing the Vision: 3 Years into Re-imagine” will be presented to members at the DVBIA Annual General Meeting next Tuesday, as one of the cornerstones of the organization’s resolution to renew its mandate for another 10 years, which will be subject to a vote.

Guess what? We think it might just pass.

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“A lot of people thought we were wildly pessimistic as to the speed with which we were facing this crisis. Turned out we were wildly optimistic.

This is happening faster than those of us who started getting interested in it 30 years ago could possibly have conceived.”

In recognition of the 30 year anniversary of Clouds of Change, the 1989 report from the City of Vancouver’s Task Force on Atmospheric Change, Gord speaks with a key influencers for his originating motion to strike the task force, Mike Brown.

You may know Brown’s name as one of the co-founders of Ventures West (R.I.P.) in 1968, the prototype for institutional venture capital in Canada. Or perhaps for his role in helping Ballard Power land a $1.35 million investment in 1987, on the road to becoming the planet’s first major fuel cell player.

Or perhaps you don’t know his name at all. But you should. That’s because he represents one of the most important, and least appreciated (or perhaps least well understood) factors in the race to deal with the climate emergency — capital. Moolah. Money.

He’s a capitalist, but as we learn in this conversation, from a person who’s been thinking about and working on climate change at last as long as many of this podcast’s listeners have been alive, there may not be any other choice for dealing with this emergency than using the levers of capitalism to make things happen, and fast. The marketplace? All the money needed to power the requisite innovations — billions of dollars, all attracted to speculation about the future — is there.

So people like Brown work at advancing solutions, through places like the Institute for Breakthrough Energy Technology, his incubator focused on helping companies shorten the hardware commercialization timeframe, despite the fact that he’s made his money, and “the real issues are going to turn up after I’m dead.”

He doesn’t have to do all this. Giving colour and shape to his pessimism, and using it to make his rich friends feel a little discomfort. But he also knows that when he drives around his electric car, he ain’t burning sunshine. And so he wants those rich friends to part with some of their hard-won capital, and put it towards something that will make a real difference. As he has always done.

“When I started thinking about this problem, I conceived that it was going to be something that would face my great-grandchildren. By the time we got to the mid-90s, it was about my grandchildren. By the time we got to 2005, it was about my children. Now it’s about me.”

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“There are places we love, and places we hate…at a certain point, we made it illegal to make the places we love anymore, and we were only allowed to make the places we hate.”

So says Jeff Speck, one of North America’s top urban designers, and a leader of the new urbanism movement, in a recent visit — his first — to Vancouver.

As co-author of 2010’s Suburban Nation with his mentors Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (of architecture and town planning firm DPZ Partners), Speck reached a new level of mainstream urban nerd renown in 2012 with Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

Next came its follow-up, a tactical guide for planners, activists, and even the odd engineer, 2018’s Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places. As part of a speaking tour to promote the book, Speck accepted an invitation from Canada Lands Company and MST Development Corporation to make his first visit to Vancouver, and present at the Inspire Jericho Talks series on May 23.

As a sneak preview, he joined us for a Price Talks soiree, our third such live recording with Gord and friends. Speck covers a variety of topics, including: the formative roles played by Duany and Plater-Zyberk and their early work at Miami-based Arquitectonica in influencing his career choice and trajectory; his early interest in helping to recreate Florida’s throwback vernacular architecture (think Seaside, the un-ironic setting for The Truman Show); the bad news about ride hailing…and the worse news about autonomous vehicles; and, of course, what he means by ‘deep walkability’.

“My audiences tend to self-select”, he says modestly — and while this may be true of his clients, once the The Wall Street Journal calls one of your books “the urbanist’s bible”, such self-effacing statements no longer hold water.

Turning Speck’s own words back on him — if you’re interested in urban design, find this guy.

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You might be a fan of Vancouver Councillor Michael Wiebe’s previous work with the Park Board, including the Jericho Lands Agreement, the Biodiversity Strategy, and warming shelters.

Or maybe you prefer his first big hit, as co-owner of eight 1/2, the well-regarded Mt. Pleasant restaurant.

You may even appreciate his 10 years as Park Board staff, or his debut in administrative management in the provincial government.

But if you’re invested in Vancouver’s new era of power and politics, you may only want to hear one thing from this conversation with Wiebe — what Wiebe stands for. And, by extension, the Vancouver Green Party itself.

And on that…will the Greens run out of time before they run out of process?

We find out a little bit of everything in this fast-moving conversation, including Wiebe’s intriguing response to that last question. Regardless, one thing is clear — he wholeheartedly believes in the rationale behind his party’s deference to consensus-building as part (in place of?) decision-making.

“If the process is done right, the implementation will follow.” Wiebe commits not just to bringing process back to politics, but to being part of that process. Even f that means being the political target in the room.

Guest host Rob McDowell joins the fray, to try to figure out how Wiebe and the Greens expect to bring about major change — Rental100, a retrofitted Granville Bridge, a “blue way” creek connection from Science World to New Westminster — without being the decision-makers in the room.

“We’re passing a lot. It’s just that our meetings take two or three times as long.”

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It’s not Vancouver, but it sounds like the Vancouver we want to be: multi-family residential buildings located close to the urban centre. Generously spaced laneways and semi-private lots for kids to play. Sufficient access to high storefronts, services and other amenities, in ever-expanding concentric circles of community, neighbourhood, and city.

It’s Heliopolis — once a suburb 10 kilometres outside of Cairo, today swallowed up by the city. And like most neighbourhoods in Vancouver, it’s highly sought-after by Egypt’s urban elite as a place to live, and invest.

It’s also just over a century old, and has also inspired a namesake design genre (Vancouverism, meet Heliopolis Style). And like Vancouver, Heliopolis has done many things right, and yet could be simultaneously teetering on the precipice of “too much, too soon”.

Houssam Elokda tells the story of his childhood home, the urban/suburban dichotomy he found as a young adult in Halifax, and how Charles Montgomery’s Happy City design philosophy affected him deeply.

It also ended up employing him. Today, at just 26 years old, Elokda is Operations Manager and Masterplanning Lead for the urban planning, design and architecture consultancy born of Montgomery’s book.

Speaking to Gord on a Ramadan fast day, Elokda turns what should be a low-energy, baseline rally on easy topics, into a fascinating serve-and-volley on some pretty deep ideas. About happiness, and the role of ‘tribal’ affiliations. On what architecture can and can’t do, and on finding his footing in Vancouver’s invitation-only culture.

Is there an architecture of loneliness, a way to engineer happiness? Or are people more likely to interact in larger numbers, and in greater proximity, to one other?

And who’s in your tribe?

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Can we create community out of diversity? If so, will it require changing the scale and character of urban forms within our communities…the very change some Lower Mainlanders have recently become notorious for rejecting?

It’s one of many thorny questions tossed around, grappled over, and occasionally outshouted by our venerable host and his subject Mark Busse, Director of TILT Curiosity Labs at HCMA Architecture + Design, and host of the Creative Mornings Vancouver breakfast lecture series. There’s a give-and-go to this conversation that Price Talks has not yet witnessed, or had to edit around…

It begins with a game of Podcast Ping Pong (you don’t know it because Gord just invented it), and ends with a discussion of the possibility that, not only have we not seen the end of Gen X, we may yet have the opportunity to witness their best and brightest contributions to society.

In the middle is a wide-ranging debate about the role of designers — not planners mind you, but a broader creative class — in contributing to the directions our cities and communities take. Often bespoke approaches to prescribing how relationships are facilitated and move in space, and what we could call the ‘special sauce of serendipity’ that has come to mark social interactions in the new communities of the future, today. In places like downtown Vancouver, and Surrey, for example.

And by the way, what is community? Says Busse: “There’s data that says people living in close proximity, sharing and touching skin on skin produces happier, and healthier human beings.” And if that means breaking the bargain we’ve made with previous generations who have come to counted on having homes that the kindergarten class have depicted for generations — detached house, pitched roof, chimney, backyard, and generous garden — then so be it. “Sorry, grandpa.”

And when Gord asks if Gen X has blown it, Busse suggests that, perhaps with the support of a little Millennial tailwind, the best of this generation may be just over the horizon.

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In George Affleck’s world, the only thing worse than the politician who tries to please everyone is the politician who only focuses on the base.

So you can understand why the only thing to possibly vex him more than last council — in which he withstood endless punishment from a neo-leftie Vision Vancouver majority — could be this council, the least experienced in…possibly forever.

The two-time former NPA councillor, alongside friend of the podcast Rob McDowell, joins Gord to dissect the goings-on at City Hall. And if there’s one common theme, it’s that this NPA caucus is very, very different from past NPA caucuses.

No surprise — Vancouver’s favourite artisanal-partisanal political party apparently tends to shape and reshape itself every election cycle (at least according to this particular trio, who would know); the last reshaping led not only to Affleck stepping back, but resulted in a party unable to attract enough voters from the “mushy middle” to elect a mayor, and thus plunging the city into uneasy, unpredictable coalition territory.

So why *did* Affleck extract himself from the last campaign? Who’s shaping the NPA today? Is the 2022 election already looking like  slam dunk, or a problem….or both? And how many NPA councillors have an eye on the mayor’s chair. (Hint: all of them.)

Most importantly, what would he have done about the 420 coughuffle? (This is the discussion that earns us our first E for explicit content.)

We hope to have him back; in the meantime, you can hear more via his UnSpun podcast on The Orca media network with Jody Vance.

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