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Transit Pet Peeves: One person’s contest, another person’s social inclusion setback

Image source: http://buzzer.translink.ca/index.php/2011/04/april-2011-bus-changes-and-the-service-optimization-project-an-interview-with-translink-planning-director-brian-mills/

Image borrowed from the Buzzer Blog. When was the last time you rode a Vancouver bus this empty in the daytime?

Last week, TransLink announced that they are running a contest/campaign on their Facebook page involving riders’ pet peeves in transit. They are encouraging people to people to vote, elimination-style, on the behaviors observed on transit that people find most irritating. The incentives to do so, aside from that wonderful feeling of having gotten your feelings off your chest, are a boat of prizes ranging from branded swag to a new iPhone 4S.

With all due respect to the staff at TransLink — many of whom I know to varying degrees, have interacted with a bunch, think highly of and sympathize with in the nature of their work — this contest leaves a very, very bad taste in my mouth as a person committed to nurturing community and a culture of support for public transportation. It reflects an unsophisticated and unenlightened approach to the question of how to encourage civility, and my hope is this post will shed some light on how it could have been done differently, as many others have also noted in comments on TransLink’s blog.

To be fair, TransLink’s contest does a couple of things.

  • It reminds us of “the rules,” pointing out what it means to be good neighbours, good citizens, good travel companions, in respecting the space and experience of others. Nothing wrong with that.
  • It encourages us to attempt to find some humour in these situations, through the use of cartons satirizing the behaviours they are trying to draw attention to, like listening to one’s music too loud, putting bags on seats, or — heaven forbid — offending someone’s olfactory sense. Ok, nothing terribly wrong with that either.

But as someone concerned with engagement for sustainable urban transportation, who makes a point of tracking the impressions and emotional narratives around transit, I want to draw attention to what else this contest is doing in the course of achieving these objectives.

This campaign encourages us to give voice to our sense of indignance around the experiences we have about transit that are specifically caused by other riders. This essentially encourages us to accept the belief that it is the presence of other people that makes public transit undignified.

I find this highly problematic on two levels. First, it deals a blow in the attempt to frame transit as an equally good, if not better, transportation option compared to the car, with its climate control, pricy isolation and image of rugged independence. Secondly, it is giving institutional support to the use of humour as a corrective for frustration in the social experience of transit. Instead of seeking to encourage compassion for those we share transit spaces with who may have genuine and legitimate reasons for acting the way that they do, dialogue, or civil discourse, this contest feeds our sense of self-righteousness.

Are the sentiments nurtured by this contest going to encourage people who find these behaviours problematic (which may range from everybody to nobody depending on the actual circumstances) to politely engage people in understanding the external impact of what they do? Maybe. A much more likely scenario, is that it will provoke altercations and conflicts between those feel they are in the ‘right’ (they have the rules on their side), and those who may be somewhere on the spectrum between being deliberate jerks, and experiencing what constitutes their life on transit. Mothers feed their children on transit. People who take transit may be time-poor, working multiple part-time jobs having to multi-task not out of choice but necessity. Binners bring their bags of cans and bottles on transit. And as unsavory as it is to think about (and one commenter’s story shows), public transit may at times even be a public health vector. (Just ask Hong Kong.) And yes, people with a wide range of challenges and differing abilities also take transit.

Some blogs have the concept of TransLink’s contest baked right into their DNA. Commuter Contempt (albeit it is based in the US) already illustrates that some of us might only half a beat away from full-on Transit Rage. While the contest’s humourous illustrations and prizes may keep things light-hearted, what’s to stop people who don’t like people on transit to re-direct their rage towards transit itself? Or other people whose use causes perceived “inconvenience” to other transit riders, like the elderly? This contest encourages riders to identify as “victims” of others’ non-conformity and appears to give “justice” to the victims, rather than encouraging people to use situations of conflict as a teaching opportunity for dialogue on the challenges of sharing space.

I think humour definitely, certainly has a place. Humor is fantastic and necessary and human and builds incredible bridges — when it is used correctly. Not to ostracize, scapegoat, or to make us feel good about ourselves at the expense of some categorically defined other. Chances are those others are actual, real people — and they may take some offense to being treated as the butts of an agency-sanctioned joke if someone they are sharing space with is self-righteously attempting to assert power over them.

From the Buzzer Blog. Does that mother look like she modelling respectful, assertive communication to you? Maybe that lizard just got off a double shift and has already missed their stop.

I can definitely see how this emerged from TransLink’s best intentions. “Maximize participation with incentives! Repackage it into a lighter hearted, humourous affair! Get some gallows humour out of joking about a race to the bottom of transit unpleasantness, and get it on people’s radar in an unconventional way. Asking people politely like every other government entity does is boring and going to get us ignored — so let’s doing something more offbeat!”

I’ll even allow that my particular disposition, occasional moments of policy wonkiness, and specific interest in transit puts me squarely outside the target audience for this campaign. As I’ve tried to illustrate above, I’m by no means disagreeing with the general thrust of TransLink’s intentions — after all, as a transit rider, I would personally benefit from having people taking better care of transit facilities and being more considerate of others in the space.

But is this contest the way to encourage riders to be communicative, assertive, compassionate and mindful in negotiating conflicts in space while using transit — or the larger project of building a base of citizens with whom to advocate for the resources necessary to have better services and world-class transit? In my view, absolutely not.

(And for the record, my biggest pet peeve is people who use nail clippers on the bus.)

See also:

Complexifiers and Simplifiers: some necessary nuance

Scott Berkun writes that there are two kinds of people in the world: simplifiers and complexifiers.

Complexifiers are averse to reduction. Their instincts are to turn simple assignments into quagmires, and to reject simple ideas until they’re buried (or asphyxiated) in layers of abstraction. […] They take pride in consuming more bandwidth, time, and patience than needed, and expect rewards for it.

Simplifiers thrive on concision. They look for the 6x=6y in the world, and happily turn it into x=y. They never let their ego get in the way of the short path. When you give them seemingly complicated tasks they simplify, consolidate and re-interpret on instinct, naturally seeking the simplest way to achieve what needs to be done. They find ways to communicate complex ideas in simple terms without losing the idea’s essence or power.

Anybody who’s talked to me in person (especially in the past 6 months) will have no trouble whatsoever guessing which of these two groups I identify with.

This reminds me of a really interesting segment of Iain McGilchrist’s RSAnimate talk about our misconceptions about our left and right brains. Specifically, a section when he describes how both brains doing what they do best in parallel for a completely ordinary situation as being evolutionarily beneficial. (The whole video is fantastic, by the way — well worth the eleven minutes.)

I would argue that favouring simplicity at all times is not only overly reductionist, but that the dominance of that worldview — that complexity and people who respect or attend to it are problematic and negative — has led us to our current quandary when it comes to the unsustainability of humanity’s relationship with its natural environment. At root, it comes down to hundreds (if not thousands) of systems, all pursuing isolated definitions of simple, elegant objectives, preferring to eschew the complexity of the whole in favour of washed hands and patted backs. Only those who cannot afford the going market rate for staying out of the messy “details” — like, oh, much of what we don’t price in the economy, such as women and animals — bear the consequences. Until that rapidly becomes everybody.

The way I see it, a disdain for complexity — particularly in the urban planning domain where I grapple with it most often — is wishful thinking. Oh, if only life weren’t path dependent. If only we were able to pursue system optimal without penalty, switching costs, or the messiness of your legacy system. The world I know doesn’t work that way.

Don’t get me wrong. Simplicity is absolutely essential — when the endeavour is at the scale of how we act upon the world, seeing as boiling the ocean has a poor rate of return. Big fan of user-centered design, right here, and that’s (supposedly?) all about not making me think.

Deploy this mindfully, however, when the project at hand is understanding the world in its wicked, interdependent glory. We very soon will be living the limitations of yesterday’s methods, for those of us who aren’t knee-deep in those endgames already. Something tells me the thinking that got us into this isn’t going to be the stuff that gets us out. Maybe those simplifiers would get something out of figuring out how to play nice with those pesky complexifiers after all. (And the converse: that complexifiers get better at articulating their value in ways the simplifiers can grasp, or, at very least, can’t write off completely.)

What I get out of McGilchrist’s video is that we need to be skillful in deploying, and recognize, the roles and necessity of each mode. Berkun’s post neatly demonstrates McGilchrist’s point that the reductionistic brain is very good at being self-consistent and arguing on its own behalf. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. So, more appreciation, less blanket judgment of the complexifiers, capiche?

I will give Berkun credit for thing: he did manage to get me to write a succinct blog post with a clear point.

Will the smarter city be built by love?

pixelated heart graffiti
Source: ekosystem.org

Jack Mason, an IBMer working on the IBM Smarter Cities Tumblr, wrote a couple weeks ago:

As an IBMer working on Smarter Cities — and a New Yorker for much of my adult life — I’d like to observe that Adam Greenfield doesn’t know me, my motivations, or those of the thousands of colleagues who are dedicated their lives and careers towards the goal of enabling cities, and urban citizens, to become smarter.

Jack Mason later re-blogged his comment on his personal Tumblr which is Disqus-enabled, and further expanded:

Adam: You suggested that businesses that are working on helping cities become smarter are essentially heartless…lacking the love and appreciation of these places that you, presumably, hold. I categorically reject that sweeping, unsupported and contentious assertion. Just as the world is increasingly becoming urbanized, the vast majority of the people in organizations working on intelligent cities have a lifelong relationship with these same places, and a personal, human interest in seeing the cities that they grew up in or call home thrive. Your argument falls right on its face, and that’s why I think people should watch the video and come to their own conclusion on whether your assessment is either fair, accurate or true.

As a former IBMer (16 months at the Toronto IBM Software Development Group) and an unabashed fan of Greenfield’s work and approach to cities, these strongly-worded responses piqued my interest.

Mason was responding to comments Mr. Greenfield made in his talk at the PICNIC conference, entitled, “Another City is Possible.” In the interests of giving full context, I not only watched all of Adam’s talk (available here), I’ve also gone to the trouble of transcribing the section that is summarized in that original blurb, for those of you who are curious but without 25 minutes to spare. It’s a little long but I think it’s very helpful in teasing out the nuance of not only Adam’s point, but the heart of what the IBMer was expressing.

Who are the institutions who are so deeply invested in this rhetoric, who have so much to gain or to lose by ensuring that humanity as an urban species invests in the smart city? If you are in this room, you will probably not be surprised that the institutional players are people like IBM, Cisco, and Siemens. These are people who are in business — not a surprise, in the business of technology. At best they may be system integrators. They might even describe themselves as the missing link between the real estate and technology sectors —this is verbatim, taken from Living PlanIT, the firm building in the Portuguese valley.

I want to make it clear that I’m not faulting these institutions, these enterprises, for being enterprises — they have a role to play in the world, they have a valuable role to play in the world. But I do think it’s interesting and perhaps unfortunate that so much of our urban future is being predicated on the actions and activities of institutions that probably don’t have very much of a sense for design; certainly, as we’ll see, do not have that much of a sense for urbanism, and — I’m going to say this in a very small voice — probably do not love the places they are developing for; probably have never thought about the idea of love, and the idea of a city, and how these things might relate to one other. And my assertion to you is that these things go together very well inindeed as a matter of fact, if you’re thinking about cities in the absence of an affirmative sense of love for the place, you’re probably missing a lot of what makes that city valuable, and most of what makes it a generator of value.

First off, I get what Jack is feeling. As a lifetime inhabitant of Vancouver, one of the most planner-friendly cities out there (evidence: we name streets after them), before I went to planning school and engaged deeply with literature on urbanism, I scoffed at the hoity-toity idea that anyone could tell me anything about the city I grew up in that I didn’t already know, or that the future I desired for my city was rooted in anything less than pure love. Sometimes I still feel that way, even as I realize how rounded my understanding and appreciation of Vancouver has become in the past 2 years.

But I fundamentally think Mr. Greenfield has a point, which I would re-state in the form of the following questions. I don’t do this because I deny the love of New York as place held by Jack or his colleagues. But because it comes back to the first principles and DNA of the organizations in question, not what the individuals in those organizations hold to be central, vital and true.

  1. Does IBM (or other organization) respect the spontaneous, the emergent, and the community-driven in addition to the activities and units which constitute the native tongue of the governments with whom IBM and the enterprises like it can most readily identify with?
  2. Does IBM (or other organization) prioritize the inclusive aims of design, such as supporting choice and conviviality in the course of everyday life for end-users, ordinary citizens and residents, and lead through a process geared towards that outcome? Have their clients empowered them to prioritize these values in pursuit of their work?

While the answer to these questions will answer the question posed in the title of this blog post, I think it’s instructive to determine whether questions like this were asked at all.

What I’ve come to understand about loving cities is that there are two sides to the sentiment. There is an appreciative definition of love — the awe and recognition of the way the physical characteristics of a place and the spirit of the people doing what they do best just mesh. 1

But there is also an active definition — to love in the sense of promulgating, furthering, extending, nurturing to self-replicate. It means appreciating the interlocking patterns in ways that support the full diversity of a space’s users, needs and interests. It means to love not only the city that one knows, but the city as defined by those one disagrees with, maybe even those one despises — and to be at very least aware of it in the thick of defining an intervention, as a first crack at anticipating consequences. I don’t think it’s wrong to doubt whether business-oriented interests have the capacity to consider — nay, to love2 — a city in this way, and to ask that they should as they shape our experience of urban space.

So the relevant question becomes not whether one loves, but how that love is informing the judgments about what we want in the future city. The data we can gather can tell us how we might make certain changes, but not which are the right changes to make. The history of urban planning is littered with good intentions that have left their mark in our collective space and memory. This is what I heard in Adam Greenfield’s talk.

(You may also be interested in my previous conversation on this blog with the founder of Living PlanIT.)

1 — OK, so just how obvious is it that I’ve been (slowly) reading “Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander?

2 — For a while I almost forgot that love has been the centre of my practice.

Convening a conversation between Usability and Planning Professionals

Summary (aka tl;dr)

World Usability Day and World Town Planning Day are two events celebrated very close together, in the first week of November. I propose having a joint project or event to lay the groundwork for conversation between urban planners and user experience practitioners, and the insights each can bring for navigating the urban and information landscapes. I’m looking for conveners who want to help me take this from idea to reality in time for 2011’s WUD/WTPD; we’ll be meeting August 23rd, 6pm at SFU Harbour Centre, Room 7021, to figure out what we want to do and what time we’ve all got to do it. If you work in planning or user experience (or both), consider joining us! And please RSVP (Twitter, comment on this post, etc.)


The purpose of World Usability Day and World Town Planning Day are, respectively, to stage events that draw attention to the importance and contribution of each respective profession on our everyday lives. Usability focuses on making the experience of technology less intimidating, pleasant, and appropriate; urban planners guide the creation of physical places the delight us while meeting a broad spectrum of needs. Both tasks are infused with values and assumptions that result in experiences that are welcoming, useful, and supportive in some cases, and haphazard, unattractive, or dysfunctional in others.

With mobile Internet access getting more widespread, and more people than ever in the world living in cities, I see these two professions having way more in common than different. Consider this:

  • both user experience designers and urban planners often serve as advocates for users of systems, working closely with other professionals with their own traditions and norms, such as (software or building) developers, architects or business analysts.
  • both are empowered to consider the contributions of effective processes to desired outcomes, as well as how those processes become institutionalized in organizational culture and procedure.
  • savvy communication and quality of collaboration is central to both fields.

But there are also some important differences — the scope and speed of projects, how explicitly technology tools figure into the process of work, the particularities associated with public sector or government regulation, and how knowledge and learning is disseminated within the body of professional practice.

Why this? Why now?

A glimpse through some recent headlines gives some important context. In the interests of brevity, I’ll touch only on two:

  • Apple, a company that revolutionized how we incorporate computing into our lives, briefly had a larger market cap than the world’s largest oil company – a highly symbolic moment when it comes to our collective, shifting relationship with the car.
  • In the aftermath of riots that ripped through London, the UK government has floated the idea of shutting down access to social networks in order to keep violence under wraps and to restore social order, recalling the role similar tools played in citizen protests in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

But there are also much more subtle innovations, nascent but promising. Crowdsourced funding for urban improvement projects. Reinvigorating public dialogue. Re-thinking relationships between citizens, government, and life in our communities.

There are plenty of conversations are already happening about the future of technological infrastructure in cities – but people’s rights or values are seldom the primary focus. In order for technology to result in tangible benefit to cities and the world, rather than tools for reinforcing the status quo, this conversation needs to be informed by, if not outright led by, people who live, work and thrive at the interface of people and systems — of information, policy, physical infrastructure, social norms, and the practices of everyday life.

With the World Usability Day theme of Education for Social Change, the interests and skills of urban planners and information professionals are not only intersecting but beginning to compliment each other. We use information to shape our experience of place, and place continues to infuse our lives with meaning we embed back into our personal expression online.

This is the richness of the conversation I wish to start with a WUD/WTPD event. How can we turn everyday moments and interactions in urban space into learning opportunities for positive social change?

As Adam Greenfield put it succinctly in the title of his book (that we’re still waiting patiently for), the city is here for you to use.

Kicking off

I am convening a meeting for volunteers —  planners and user experience professionals — in Vancouver who want to help me get an event for this November’s WUD / WTPD off the ground. It is taking place Tuesday, August 23 at SFU Harbour Centre, Room 7021.

We’ll need lots of help with things like seeking sponsorships, scoping and planning the event, deciding on final deliverables — but we also have a ton of documentation and methods to draw from!

Why volunteer?

  • shape something that’s new and never happened before!
  • network with people doing great stuff in mobile Internet, urban planning and public space issues around Vancouver!
  • develop project management, writing, and collaborate with people who do or build other interesting things!
  • contribute to the learning of your peer professionals at either PIBC or VanUE!
  • become more familiar with the ideas, people and organizations thinking about and working on the interaction of information and place in urban areas

Not in Vancouver?

Consider doing something along these lines where you are! Check out the World Usability Day website and your local planning professional organization — this list from Wikipedia might be good start. Have fun!

Politics: from the belly of the beast to the depths of our hearts

Friend Chris Demwell passed along Kai Nagata‘s personal, detailed, and insightful blog post chronicling the change of heart and realizations that prompted him to leave his position at CTV News. His post flits between the critical, large-scale, and the intimate, small-scale, in a way that really speaks to me and reminds me of what I like to do with my own writing — though, him being a journalist, he is definitely more readable.

Highlighting a few of the parts that really got me (emphasis mine):

Human beings don’t always like good nourishment. We seem to love white sugar, and unless we understand why we feel nauseated and disoriented after binging on sweets, we’ll just keep going. People like low-nutrition TV, too. And that shapes the internal, self-regulated editorial culture of news.


I have serious problems with the direction taken by Canadian policy and politics in the last five years. But as a reporter, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath. Every question I asked, every tweet I posted, and even what I said to other journalists and friends had to go through a filter, where my own opinions and values were carefully strained out. Even then I’m not sure I was always successful, but I always knew at the CBC and subsequently at CTV that there were serious consequences for editorial. Within the terms of my employment at CTV, there was a clause in which the corporation (now Bellmedia) literally took ownership of my intellectual property output. […I]f I ever said anything out of line with my position as an “objective” TV reporter, they had grounds to fire me. I had a sinking feeling when I first read that clause, but I signed because I was 23 and I wanted the job. Now I want my opinions back.

I’ll say off the bat that my views don’t completely mesh with any one political party. I’m not a partisan operative and I never was.

Nagata is touching on something that deeply resonates with my own understanding of politics — a distate for partisan politics and overly-politicized conversations on policy. It permeates and poisons the idea of participation in politics, and what I notice most damagingly, it puts what I feel is the worst foot forward when it comes to modelling the practice of democracy for newcomers to the country. It drives me a little nuts that nuance is constantly sacrificed, but I liken it to a human limit on the precision of collective action, Planck-constant like.

He’s also highlighting another thing that strikes me about those who embrace the concept of the intrapreneur: those who enter into institutions into an attempt to better improve, inform them, re-jig, re-engineer or reform them. My foray into this area is shallow, but my understanding is that one internalizes, deeply, the values and desires of those organizations and institutions, and to steer outcomes and actions by  framing them according to what matters to said institution. It’s strategic and persuasive and requires an unbelievable amount of savvy and patience. And it requires us to compartmentalize what we do: there are those things we get to do that speak to what we truly believe in, the things we want to push forward, and the changes and outcomes we want to see; and the other part that pays rent, keeps the institution rolling along the path its already cut, and doesn’t visibly challenge an institution directly enough to be perceived as a threat.

Nagata responds to this feeling directly at the end of his post as well:

I know I can’t go back to working parallel to the real problems, hiding my opinions and yet somehow hoping that one viewer every night might piece together what I wanted to say. I thought if I paid my dues and worked my way up through the ranks, I could maybe reach a position of enough influence and credibility that I could say what I truly feel. I’ve realized there’s no time to wait.

On a similar note, Sacha graciously responded to a comment I left her on a post she wrote about Embracing her inner Pollyanna. I asked to get her thoughts on how she maintains her can-do attitude, with a blog post called Living in an Imperfect World. Her approach is sound and wise, and is a good reminder not to get caught up in judgments of effectiveness.

It’s prompting me to re-examine my chosen narratives of how change occurs, what the bigger story is for what I contribute, and how who I am fits into all of that — not completely dissimilar to the process Nagata describes for himself next. The closer I get to the institutions, the more intimidating they look as they stretch away from me into the sky.

Awkward as Planned: short-term pain for long-term Olympic Legacy?

Richard Layman linked to a recent post to a PriceWaterhouseCooper report on how Olympic or other mega-event legacy infrastructure can accelerate development by up to 30 years. He comments on how good planning is a big part of leveraging these opportunities into longer-term wins for the communities:

Much of the time, events or projects for that matter, are touted for their economic development power and prospects, and the result ends up being minimal.

It’s because there isn’t really a plan designed to leverage the event/project in ways that extend beyond the confines of the site.

Places that benefit from major events and the construction of infrastructure do so through robust planning in advance.

[…]  Development is heralded as bringing all kinds of benefits, but without specific programs in place to realize the benefits, it can take decades to see results.

It’s the difference between trickle down expectations and planning and creating the programs and infrastructure necessary to realized linked improvements.

He cites Vancouver’s Olympics as an exemplary case. I agree. My point in this post is that the transition between what is and what might or will be can be a challenging and a potentially lengthy process.

Background: Little Mountain – Riley Park

I grew up near Main Street in the Little Mountain – Riley Park area, around 28th Avenue, and went to school at General Wolfe Elementary. There’s something terribly functional about the particular arrangement of the neighbourhood. I’ve heard people chalk it up to its growth post-WWI, and though I haven’t had a chance to read about it in depth, its position from downtown and walkable feel would seem to out it as cut from the same cloth as other streetcar suburbs.

Main Street is (for being where I grew up) my prototypical walkable neighbourhood corridor, and it’s only gotten better since I first moved to the neighbourhood, and Canada, in 1989 (and even more so since we left for East Vancouver in 1996). It was previously known for its overabundance and clustering of antique furniture stores, which has subsided a bit in the last decade as the vintage and children’s consignment clothing shops, cafés, restaurants and the odd record store have settled in. Trever Boddy had a fantastic article about the difference between Main and Cambie a couple years back exploring how the varying atmospheres of Cambie and Main can be traced back to the land ownership trends and history of each respective streets — all the more appropriate for this point in my life, as I now live closer to Cambie Village as I do Little Mountain, but visit both with equal regularity. It’s an area rich with stories and close to people’s hearts, and you can feel it in the space. The recession has left its mark — the Pharmacy downsized and a couple spaces are empty, but it seems most things on the strip thrive.

The Olympic Legacy: Vancouver Olympic Centre at Hillcrest Park

The Olympics’ contribution to this neighbourhood is the Olympic Centre at Hillcrest Park, sandwiched in between Cambie and Main, between a diagonal chunk that cuts through from as far north as 27th avenue, down to 33rd Avenue. It makes a ton of sense from the Olympics angle — there was a curling centre there previously, near Nat Bailey Stadium. Along with the skating rink and Percy Norman pool at the Riley Park community centre across and slightly south of Hillcrest Park, it works as a “sporting megablock” for the Olympic legacy to be there.

One of my friends from high school works for the Vancouver Public Library and she told me that Hillcrest would also be opening a new library. The current library is on Main Street, sharing a storefront space with the Little Mountain Neighbourhood house just north of 25th Avenue. I have to say, I’m really torn by this — I think it’s fantastic that the Neighbourhood House will (I’m speculating) get an expanded space because it’s really quite minimal at the moment. And the new space will definitely a step up for the library facilities as well.

(A) Hillcrest Park, the location of the new library (closer to the stadium than the Google pin). (B) Main and 25th Ave, the major transit intersection. Note the outlines of buildings shown in grey, indicating the density of retail along Main Street all the way down to 33rd Ave (off the map).

Gah, my Walkable, Complete Neighbourhood!

Thinking about the urban design and transportation perspective of what is there now, however, the new location at Hillcrest suffers from a significant decrease in accessibility. The current library on Main Street is served by an articulated trolley bus that runs on a 10-minute headway and is only a block away from an east-west bus route. This makes dropping a book or a DVD off at the library, at most, 600 meters away from a trip to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and several banks!

The new Hillcrest Library location is much, much less well-connected. It is only accessible by the #33 bus, which has a 15 minute headway (12 during rush hour). It’s a roughly 300 meter walk from the nearest bus stop on Main Street, through three blocks of housing. It remains a reasonable walk away from the elementary school, but is less convenient for children who need to take the bus on Main Street, and has also moved farther away, south and west, from Tupper Secondary School (which, granted, has its own library and is at the bottom of a considerable hill away from Main Street). I’m not really open to the argument that a neighbourhood library is fine without good bus connections — seniors and people with accessibility needs do need to get to libraries too, after all.

What strikes me is that the sports complex and the resultant library were put in a location that’s a little off the street grid. The placement of the library there makes sense from a facilities management perspective given its relationship to the Olympics, but from an urban design perspective, I’m not so convinced when it comes to everyday pedestrian activity as it exists right now.

One thing that makes this slightly-less-bad is that this neighbourhood is set up really well for biking, and people definitely bike — to the farmer’s markets and baseball games at Nat Bailey, just next to the library. The bike share, when it materializes, will likely take the edge off the pain of getting from Main to the Library.

The subtle hand of Someday-Maybe…?

What I am open to is the idea that the area between Main Street and Ontario Street, between 30th and 33rd, will enliven over the years, as the intersection of 33rd Avenue and Main Street is the site of a planned new mixed-income, mixed-use housing/retail development. I imagine the plan is for the housing to have enough density to warrant an increase in frequency for the #33 bus, and to successfully create a secondary walkable cluster in the neighbourhood at Ontario and 33rd (where Ontario is also a north-south bike route) accessible by foot and bike from Main and 25th, the current locus of attention, and perhaps to a lesser degree, Main and 41st, another intersection of bus lines. Only time will tell whether they are successful in that work.

Got the goods; temporary awkwardness ensues

New libraries and new swimming pools and skating rinks don’t come cheap, so all-in-all, still a major win for a Vancouver. The plan will prove well-conceived only if the pieces — the transit, the housing, the pedestrian realm and retail to give reasons to walk off Main Street — are all able to come together. I think my skepticism is simply rooted in whether messing up something that currently, demonstrably works in the hope of creating something that won’t really work for at least another 5 years, is a worthwhile planning philosophy. It’s a shame the VPL couldn’t keep the Riley Park library open until the Little Mountain housing residents are actually there to properly use that facility.

Awkward for now. Facilities yay. All in the plan.

Some thoughts on last night

We watched.

We watched on TV. A camera perched somewhere high above the street showed us the scene at the Fanzone on Georgia Street. Wall-to-wall people. We’re glad we’re not there, we murmured.

It was game 5 of the Stanley Playoffs, in Vancouver. I was at the Hurricane Grill in Yaletown — the first bar we’d happened upon showing the game when we hopped off our Aquabus from Granville Island — and I was with a group of urban planning PhD students visiting for a colloquium hosted by profs at my program. Up until now, my investment in the hockey game had been restricted to asking, “What’s the score?” when I passed upon someone transfixed by the sight of little green-blue men scrambling on a white screen for a fast-moving speck of dust. I clapped minimally and made small talk with the other students, asking what their area of focus was and where they’d come from. I know what an icing call is, but I really have little interest in Canucks bandwagonning.

Later, we walked down the Seawall to the Chinatown night market. “Where’s the stadium?” those visiting students asked me. “Where are those crowds?”

Over there, I pointed, vaguely northeast. About … 5 or 6 blocks that way? We later meandered through the downtown eastside — I mistakenly led the group around the block in search of the new 14 Hastings bus and settled for loading them onto a 7 Dunbar instead.

I tracked the mood in the small group I was with, as it shifted over the course of evening. There was a lot of high-fiving going on for the game, of course — people passing us on foot, jubilant after a win on home ice. Parts of our group were nervous but still desiring to see, feel, experience Vancouver. Others in the group wanted to see where the action was and be on the street — the closest we’d come was walking down Abbott near GM Place, but there was ambivalence — the desire to be part of the crowd’s energy, but fear of what it might become as well.

A couple of us mentioned the 1994 riots in passing. There was a sense that we were missing something, but also uncertainty about whether it was something worth missing, or something we would regret. We settled for beers at the Alibi Room, in the basement, the game crowd having long moved on. I left the group waiting in line at the Fortune Sound Club, took my trolley bus the 20 blocks home in my quiet residential neighbourhood, and tucked myself into bed without a care in the world.

I find myself thinking about Game 5 because I had pretty much expected the same for Game 7, win or lose. Maybe a little iffiness here or there, but nothing the police wouldn’t quash in its tracks right away — we’d learned from 1994, right? And we’d shown we could deal with it, as a city, and we were confident we would do it again. Game 7 wouldn’t be different.

These thoughts made watching the actual events of Game 7 that much more startling. To learn that all the civility and positivity of the celebrations would prove to be a rouse was a huge letdown. In its place, broadcast to a city in shock, what people claimed Vancouverites were really made of. Opportunistic, violent, disrespectful displays — doing it for the lolz, mugging for the cameras, the mockery of earned fame.

I agree with everything Alexandra Samuel says in her blog post at HBR.org about what we say about citizen surveillance when we condone its use for this horrific event. I think the key insight and the harsh lesson is that while the riots were not, collectively,  our fault — we have the actual instigators to thank for that, whether they number in the hundreds or the thousands — they are our responsibility to learn from, and to make sure never happen again. All the disowning and finger-pointing in the world based on age, gender, etc. is not going to get the root of the issues and to solve it. Only deep learning and reflection will.

There is so much speculation flying around as to the cause of this. I’m in no position to add to it, but this is the best and most level-headed thing I’ve read on the topic.

I am floored by the outpouring of support for businesses, and social media has proven instrumental in helping people organize themselves into volunteer clean-up crews. I’m also amazed at the stories we are seeing coming out of people who tried to stand up to the looting, smashing crowds. I think Vancouver’s fire and police services did their best, though they were not without fault. And finally, the whole trick with technologies and norms like citizen surveillance is that we can’t just let the cat of the bag when we think we are motivated by it being right. Jonathan Zittrain has made this argument fabulously (this summary makes reference to hockey riots in Montreal in 2008). It will be deployed on us when we like it this time — if we condone its use now, who will be the one to say it is right or wrong next time?

Anyway, getting off social media now sounds like a fantastic idea.

The Crowdsourced City: at SFU City Program, and Open Gov West 2011

Some late reflections on The Crowdsourced City, which describes two things: first, it was an event at SFU Vancouver on May 10th; I then repurposed it as the departure point for an unconference I proposed and led at Open Gov West 2011 in Portland on May 14th.

CrowdSourced City: the SFU City Presentation

This event was put on by the SFU City program. Attendance at the session appeared somewhat poorly forecast by the organizers — many attendees, such as myself, were standing behind the back row of seats and sitting on steps and in aisles, pushing the limits on the fire code. I also recall being somewhat surprised by how slim the turnout was from those who I would consider to have more of a tech background than an urban planning background. I was delighted to see people like Stanley King not only listening in but commenting too — his work on inclusive and open processes for urban design are low-tech but incredibly empowering, and it’s precisely that spirit that I’d want to see tech tools infused with for the future.

This event consisted primarily of walkthroughs and presentations from the makers of three tools: CrowdFlower, Crowdbrite, and PlaceSpeak.

CrowdFlower told the story of its work collaborating with Ushahidi, Mission 4636, and a handful of other projects and initiatives to support relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti last year. (They have a retrospective post examining this work on CrowdFlower’s blog.) I walked in having missed the first half of this presentation, but from what I can gather on their website, CrowdFlower works on mobilizing individuals to contribute effort in the form of incentivized “micro-tasks”, and have created a platform to regularly and repeatedly engaging large numbers of people in simple tasks, and to coordinate that work into a cohesive whole. Though I haven’t had any exposure with to it, offhand it sounds a little like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Crowdbrite presented next. Crowdbrite’s CEO, Darin Dinsmore, started by declaring that public hearings are a huge problem and for almost everyone involved — they put citizens in awkward positions and waste great deal of people’s time, resulting in little if any significant progress for anyone. At one point, Darin spoke of how he did some back-of-a-napkin math on how many city staff were being paid to sit for the length of a public hearing and pointed out that thousands of dollars were going into a meeting format that hadn’t been tweaked or changed for decades. The Crowdbrite platform aims to save time by allowing the public’s feedback to be collected online, with references to what it is they are commenting on, be it a map or a plan. The key to their interface is the idea of the “virtual stickynote”, where people can submit their comments. Other users of the system can then respond to those comments, and they can also be compiled into reports. It has the potential to save huge amounts of time and resources which are currently spent on transcription and processing costs. Darin also wisely spoke that it is just a tool — and that its success is still dependent on a clear and well thought-through engagement process.

PlaceSpeak was the last up. Their public engagement platform is based on the perspective that what you say about an issue is connected to where you live. The site uses various geo-verification techniques to let you “claim” where you live and to associate that location, in a fashion accessible only to the City and not to the general public, with what one says online. Since this session, the site’s plug-in has been integrated with the TalkVancouver.com online public forum site. Out of all the tools, PlaceSpeak struck me as being most interesting in terms of there being a clearer connection to community-based activity. But I also voiced a concern, that where I live now may only scratch the surface of the places I care about. I think there’s a whole can of worms involved, which I won’t crack open here and now, but there were a few people who voiced agreement with me on this point. PlaceSpeak has also since launched a contest called Tag Your Hood.

CrowdCity: the Unconference Session at Open Gov West 2011

I was really intrigued by some of the questions I was discussing with people after the Crowdsourced City session in Vancouver, so I borrowed the title of the session and topics for an unconference session at Open Gov West in Portland, because I felt like it would be a topic of interest for people in attendance there. Despite a few bumps, I hope it was an informative session.

I was hampered by a few things at OGW 2011 which, to me, made the session not all that it could have been. One big piece was that there was no projector in the tent, which meant no hands-on look at any of the three platforms, and unfortunately I wasn’t familiar enough with the three of them to answer questions.

The bigger challenge was a bit of a weirder one, which was understanding that the audience at the SFU City session was primarily planners — people who understood the legal requirements and the functional frustrations of public consultation, and who saw that activity within a larger process. The audience at Open Gov West was looking at everything as an entirely different group. Some of them were government staff but who worked outside of planning. Some of them were from municipalities smaller (and, if David Eaves is to be believed, more agile in rolling out change) than places like Vancouver. To them, the technology was, frankly, completely uninteresting.

And I can understand that. I think the technology that is most interesting and cutting edge is always going to be 5 steps ahead of the technology that is sanctioned or has enough process around it to be comfortable for government. I also think the fact that no one had seen the technologies in question also hampered the discussion a great deal, and that was a combination of me being ill-prepared and just the nature of the particular beast that day.

The biggest lesson for me is that I’m making a nice cozy brain-niche studying the differences between how staff view public engagement in planning, and how the public views those attempts at engagement — but it’s something I need to work harder at articulating for myself, because my work in open government and public engagement in planning is bringing me in contact with different audiences who fundamentally care about different things.

The discussion in this session picked up a bit when I talked about something which really matters to me, which is the fact that all three of these tools appear — it’s early days, granted — to be built to work within what I would consider to be a traditional government procurement process. I don’t know nearly enough about RFP processes to say this is problematic, but looking at government budgets, it doesn’t seem to me that smaller places have the money to buy these kinds of technologies — their need to effectively engage their citizens online is no less pressing. What might open source models bring to this space, or affect how companies envision developing technology for government use? How do models like Code for America, or other cross-gov partnerships (like OpenPlans’ OpenTripPlanner), fit into this space? This was the conversation I personally felt was missing from the SFU City session, and which I was glad to have been able to voice (though in a limited way) at Open Gov West 2011.

Hoping to continue these kinds of conversations with those working in planning in Vancouver, on-line but hopefully off-line as well!