A couple days ago, I tweeted a link to a blog post written by Frances Bula, the ever-productive urban affairs/Vancouver City Hall writer. Followed for her forward-thinking and pragmatic reporting, Bula proposed three ideas the city should adopt to keep the Olympic vibe alive. Specifically: adding an aboriginal museum downtown; removing red tape around street food and sidewalk cafes, and; coming up with incentives to keep people using public transit like they did these past couple weeks (i.e. free transit attached to event tickets, temporary U-passes, etc). The complete post and the 47 other suggestions it’s spawned to date are linked here.
Whatever the outcomes of all this city-making-from-the-ground talk—and maybe it is just talk—it’s been pretty incredible to see the conversation unfolding everywhere, especially outside the usual circles. This is precisely the kind of citizen engagement that local writer and educator Matt Hern advocates in his just-published book Common Ground in a Liquid City (AK Press 2010). In it, he calls on Vancouver to find a new, organic, participatory way into its future.
Each chapter is based around a city case study. Some of the cities are an entertaining mess (Las Vegas), others admirable (New York, Portland), and all of them compared against Vancouver—make that East Vancouver. (Hern’s blunt analysis—East Van = authentic and noble; Rest of Vancouver = not—will be familiar to his followers.) He advocates strongly for the rejection of the globalizing forces he sees as threatening diversity of “place” and calls for “a thoughtful relocalization of pretty much everything.” The vision calls for steadfast citizen involvement at every turn: “City-building leadership cannot fall to experts, bureaucrats, or planners. People have to make cities by accretion: bit-by-bit, rejecting master plans and letting the place unfold.”
Many of the statements made in the book are contentious, intentionally so. (I would argue that as in New York and Paris, some of Vancouver’s best decisions—particularly those made in recent years—have come from master plans, which Hern is very critical of; see chapter four.) Wherever you sit on these issues, he has pulled together a diverse group of often lesser-known approaches to city life and related them to what’s happening in Vancouver now. “Even in the face of the Olympics, the Gateway Project, and an increasingly brazen corporate governance structure, I think we still have a real chance to remake this city using some compelling, radical urban traditions and examples.” It all makes for fascinating dinner-party fodder (especially his ideas around class divisions here), and can serve as a primer for the brainstorming sessions playing out on places like Frances Bula’s blog. Track down a copy and tell us what you think.