May 31, 2019

A Night with Jeff Speck: Cars Moving Slowly, Deep Walkability & Recreating the Traditional American Town

“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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Chris Fair helps places — communities, cities, regions — think about the future.

That thinking drives the design of everything from the branding of a destination, to the design of streets, buildings and other public spaces, and what is put in them in order to make a city not just liveable, but loveable.

Fair’s belief? That if you stop looking at how people behave, and begin understanding how people may want to behave in the future (in part through creative disruption, and of course big data), you have the best possible chance at helping a place realize its full economic potential. Beyond tourism, this applies to business attraction and retention, not to mention drawing in the talent that keeps economies bumping along.

In some cases, this approach — thinking about lifestyle and what sorts of experiences might resonate with people — can actually save a city. In his opinion, this was the case with one of the most interesting revitalizations of a downtown in the world. (For that answer, you’ll have to listen in.)

In the process of explaining his placemaking approach and the rationale behind it, Gord gets the Calgary-born creative to reveal how his company, Resonance Consultancy, was inspired in part by his passion for skiing and his eye for opportunity; casting aside creative writing two decades ago to leverage the Intrawest investment in Mont Tremblant into his own company, a bilingual media outlet. Today, Resonance has an international footprint and is known for helping translate contemporary lifestyles in a way that local governments can “get their heads around”.

Some interesting questions are posed, and not necessarily resolved in this conversation: Is Vancouver a resort city only for the rich, or a real place? Does liveability necessarily equal prosperity? Should we make Vancouver less attractive so more people can afford to live here down the line? How do we prioritize public amenities so they don’t just result in elite experiences?

And of the superstar cities of the 21st century, where does Vancouver rank?

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If you follow Vancouver politics, you don’t need an intro to Melissa De Genova.

In just her second term as Vancouver councillor, De Genova suddenly has the second-longest tenure of anyone in council chambers, and has also become (surprisingly, to some) one of the more credible authorities on policy, staff relations, and council protocol. Maybe even one of the adults in the room.

Falling on the heels of three consecutive Vision Vancouver council majorities — in which De Genova was a favoured and frequent combatant — it all still seems so…off. De Genova? The voice of reason? Champion of affordable housing? Responsibly wielding the gavel…as deputy mayor?!?

Yes indeed. In this new era of Vancouver Council, black is white, up is down, and everything is slightly batshit crazy. Yet, MDG (as she’s affectionately and slightly obviously known, duh) is quite possibly the throwback NPA leader we’ve all been waiting for.

In this snappy interview, in which Gord is joined by friend of the podcast Rob McDowell of The Independents, MDG talks about the past, present and future of Vancouver’s political scene. What did she learn from her 5-term Park Board commissioner father? What coercive, even threatening, tactics did past Vision councillors use against her? What’s Kennedy doing right?

And most importantly, who’s having lunch?

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Legendary is not a term to be taken lightly, but neither are the accomplishments of TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement), the municipal political party formed in 1968 in Vancouver by Art Phillips. TEAM steamrolled into City Hall with an 8-seat majority in 1972, and is credited with steering the city into a direction which is often recognized as upholding a world-class standard for quality of life.

Similarly, living legends are rare. But, in the case of V. Setty Pendakur — as with Vancouver council in the TEAM era — the ‘legend’ label just isn’t up for debate.

Transportation engineer, professor at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, self-described agitator, family man, and the city’s first (and still only) member of council of South Asian descent, Pendakur is one of the central figures from that TEAM blowout. His opposition to the city’s long-planned downtown freeway brought him into the political fold, and the ’72 election result dealt with that issue decisively.

And that was just the start.

In just a single term of elected office — which, at the time, was just two years — Pendakur either directly led or influenced some of the most important changes this city has ever experienced, feats of urban planning and engineering whose reverberations are still felt today. The Stanley Park Seawall (and its curious connection to housing development); the waterfront plan, which led to the connected public paths from False Creek to the west side beaches; the Development Permit Board; the Property Endowment Fund; the social planning department; CD1 zoning; and the institutionalization of community consultation.

Pendakur dishes on these backstories, plus his impression of public life as a member of a visible minority over a generation ago. He speaks to what it means to be Canadian today. And he tells us which category of civil servant he considers to be most like a buffalo.

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Public transit consultant Jarrett Walker says the value of his work with municipalities around the world is never predicated on delivering his own recommendation. Instead, he says he “fosters conversations, leading to confident decisions”.

That might get his firm Jarrett Walker + Associates the job. But as he demonstrates during this enlightening and entertaining chat — Price Talks’ second live recording at Gord’s West End apartment —”convening people in the presence of reality” is Walker’s true skill.

What does that look like? He discloses some of his interdisciplinary secret sauce, various processes and approaches to helping North American cities re-think how to move people. And some of it sounds very much like child’s play.

Walker is well familiar with Metro Vancouver’s complex political, geographic, and fiscal environments for transportation-related capital projects — he worked and lived here a decade ago as consultant to TransLink — and has some compelling advice for the audience.

(An auspicious collection of academics, advocates, and regional and municipal government leaders, with journalist and knitter non-pareil Frances Bula keeping everyone honest. Listen closely to the questions, and play a little game of “who’s who”.)

One such nugget: get over your reluctance to fight for municipal self-determination in transit. Another one, eminently Google-able for extra colour and context: take on the ‘elite projections’ of technocrats like Elon Musk when discussing what the future of transportation should look like.

Oh, and of course a few thoughts on ride-hailing. On Uber and Lyft: “People who can afford it become completely addicted to it. And it only works as long as not many people use it. It can strangle the city.”

Enjoy.

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The Sea Captain is the newly unveiled public art piece, held aloft from the ceiling of the newly upgraded Surrey Central SkyTrain station on Expo Line. It’s also, perhaps, an apt metaphor for themes covered in  this episode.

Themes like encounters with colonialism, and the different forms they can take. Figuring out how different peoples live together in one place.

Gord explores these, and many other themes related to culture, settlement, and “the Canadian experiment”, in his wide-ranging discussion with Sukh Johal.

Johal, a Surrey-based realtor and passionate advocate for slower, safer communities and responsible land use, tells us a story that begins in an unexpected corner of the British Commonwealth. We get a peek into Sikh culture, the impact of change on Surrey’s urban youth in the ’90s, and today’s South Asian culture that is largely responsible, over the last 25 years, for buoying Surrey into second place amongst BC’s most populous cities. (In terms of both population and area, it’s like two-and-a-half Richmonds.)

There’s never been a discussion like this before on Price Tags. The respect, the ‘just so’ flattery, the crisp enunciation — like a true politician. (Sukh, not Gord.)

And what about the Strongman in the title? Someone up there with Trump and Putin. And it’s not who you think.

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