2013 Field School Vancouver: City of Contradications

Vancouver is the second city for Cascadia Field School and our first stop on the road. We arrived Thursday May 16 and settled in to the YWCA hostel downtown. As we toured around Vancouver, the students kept in mind the purpose of our journey in the Cascadia region. For us, urban 'sustainability' involves social and economic dimensions as well as the more obvious environmental ones. We aim to see how each of the sites we visit and people we hear from are actively contributing to sustainability. While the students are searching for successful examples of sustainability initiatives, we also want to question what we see and to question ourselves.

Sustainability is a tricky topic; the challenges and opportunities for sustainable  action are different in each geographic context and for each person who is affected by them. As part of the active learning process we want to be aware of  our own preconceptions about sustainability and about Cascadia, and to avoid jumping to conclusions. Or, as Cam Owens loves to quote, "refusing to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic" - Nietzsche


Day 1 and we're best friends already.


Yaletown and False Creek

On our first sunny afternoon in Vancouver, Cam took the group on a tour of the Yaletown and False Creek redevelopments.

Originally industrial, this area was one of the most polluted waterways in Canada. Expo visited the city in 1986 and used this landscape as the site of the fair. Expo '86 also brought many services, legacies, and landmarks to Vancouver. The Skytrain, BC Place, Canada Place, and Science World are some examples of these.

Much of the land surrounding False Creek was sold to a foreign investor, and was developed into a residential, commercial urban landscape. The planning strategy used for this development is termed "Vancouverism." The philosophy for this theory is based on high density, tall towers set back from the street with human-scale street front bases. This allows residents to enjoy the urban environment without feeling overwhelmed or alienated by the height of high rise developments. Jane Jacobs was influential in promoting this type of planning. She supported high density, low automobile use, walkable, strong and vibrant communities. She also contributed to the defeat of plans for a highway system running through the downtown core. The fact that Vancouver still does not have highways within its municipal boundaries distinguishes it among other North American cities.

The group walking along the Yaletown Seawall.                                                                                                     Cam gives the group a history lesson.

The notion of Vancouverism has contributed to making Vancouver one of the worlds most liveable cities. However, the students questioned "livable for who?" Vancouver is the second most expensive place in the world for home ownership, behind Hong Kong.

The city developed the policy of Social Bonus Zoning, which offered developers to build higher and denser towers in exchange for social or public amenities like parks and playgrounds. An interesting aspect that we noticed on the tour is that many of the green spaces were not tax-payer funded and instead were a product of this zoning policy.

There were mixed views on the effectiveness of the developments we saw on the tour. Many thought the high rise condos were uninteresting, and represented and urban version of the cookie-cutter suburbs. It also seemed that the development was exclusionary and only catered to the wealthy. However, it did succeed in producing an active street scene. This type of planning contributes to sustainability when appropriate commercial stores are incorporated into residential developments such as grocery stores, cafes, and restaurants. After our tour of Yaletown, we hopped on the Canada Line to City Hall Station. We met with Paul Krueger, a planner who works for the city, specifically on the Transportation 2040 plan.

The group with Paul Krueger. 

Paul Krueger - Transportation 2040

This plan was adopted by city council in 2009 as part of the "Greenest City" initiative. It's goals include having the majority of trips made by sustainable modes of transport such as biking, walking, or transit. Vancouver is an exceptional city because it has no more space for road expansion, they can only reduce traffic congestion by reducing the number of cars on the road.

One of the interesting features Paul discussed was the Parklet - a design feature that increases sidewalk space as well as reducing on-street parking. It is a neat way to discourage driving while also adding to the aesthetics of the sidewalk, which promotes a vibrant street-scape. It also benefits the surrounding commercial space.

Robson Street Parklet.

Bike lanes and infrastructure were also important to many students. The Transportation plan includes a strategy that involves painting high conflict areas the color green on the roads. This helps bikers and drivers be more alert and cautious in these areas, which increases comfort and safety for cyclists.

After, Cam and Paul invited us to join them for patio drinks in the new Olympic Village Development. It was really nice to connect with Paul on a personal level and ask him questions about his career path in urban planning. Once the sun had set, Paul recommended to check out the Legacy Liquor Store which has an enormous selection of microbrewery beers. We had a blast!

Enjoying drinks in Olympic Village.                                                                                                                                  Watching the sunset on our walk back.


InSite - Safe Injection Site

Walking to InSite via East Hastings was eye opening for many students. It was a first hand look at poverty and the issues surrounding mental health and addiction in urban areas. We met with Russ Maynard who is the coordinator of InSite Safe Injection Site. It is the first of its kind in North America and provides a safe and secure environment for drug users with clean equipment and access to health, education, and treatment services.

The Downtown Eastside is the poorest urban area in Canada. It is a marginalized community where the majority of residents are isolated from social support and at risk for serious diseases and infections. The Downtown Eastside has an HIV rate of 35%, which is equivalent to that of Botswana. There are also many risk factors for health due to the presence of antibiotic resistant super bugs.

Russ explains the conditions in the DTES.

Russ spoke to the fact that all urban centres have problems with addiction and overdose. The Downtown Eastside has an especially high concentration, which made us wonder if other cities in the Cascadia region were also more prone to such issues.

Insite is a globally innovative solution to addiction but the model is still controversial because its critics argue that supervised injection sites condone illegal drug use. Most of Insite's funding comes from the government, which adds to to the controversy. However, InSite has been successful in reducing Vancouver's overdose and blood disease rates, and provides a holistic way of treating addiction.

Russ defined leadership as solving the problems that have never been solved before, instead of just modifying or managing the same solutions for a problem. This comment stuck with the group, and provided a source of inspiration for us as we think about our futures in regards to sustainability.

One of the major themes from the InSite talk revolved around building relationships and community. We observed a strong sense of community within the downtown Eastside. The residents on the street appeared to have strong friendships and were also very aware of our group and our intentions in their neighbourhood. We felt a sense of being marginalized and it was obvious that we didn't fit in. Despite this, many strangers began talking to us and were asking where we were from. The social vibrancy of the streets in the Downtown Eastside is a distinct feature of the community.


Granville Island

After leaving InSite, we took the bus down to Granville Island. It is a man-made peninsula that was used primarily for industrial activity. Over time, the need for waterfront industrial space in Vancouver declined as it became economical to outsource manufacturing and construction. The island was transformed into an artists' community with a public market, the Emily Carr Institute of Design, and numerous other things. Some industry remains, such as the concrete plant. The island is an example of mixed use, diverse urban planning. At lunchtime, all of us stuffed our faces with lovely local food from Granville Public Market! We ate a range of goodies from pot pie and salad to pastries and doughnuts.

Some vendors in the Granville Island Public Market.



On our way to CityStudio, we toured the south side of False Creek, also known as Fairview. It was designed to accommodate a high percentage of affordable housing. It aims to mimic a pedestrian-friendly Mediterranean village. However, the community seemed to lack a sense of place. We also went through a forest that had beautiful trees, stumps, waterfalls and flowers as well as a pedestrian overpass covered in greenery. This entire landscape was completely man-made. This "green space" made us reconsider our perceptions of the area.

We met Lena Soots and Duane Elverum at CityStudio, which is an energetic hub of leaning and leadership where students design and implement Greenest City 2020 solutions. The city of Vancouver established this unique collaboration with educational institutions in 2011. It prepares students for their careers by providing opportunities for leadership and program management. It also allows the city to access to new sources of knowledge and creativity in relation to urban sustainability.

The importance of leanring names and creating a perfect circle.

Lena and Duane emphasized the importance of dialogue and shifting leadership in the decision making process. They warned against the tendency for planners to "jump to form", or to allow the desired outcome of a project shape the process instead of the other way around. This point fits in with one of the key themes of the field school - refusing to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic. It was refreshing for us to hear about real projects and programs that were the creative products of students like ourselves.

We were so excited we had to take a run down to the water!

It was also an inspiring moment when Duane and Lena talked about the issues surrounding our education system and future job opportunities. Duane mentioned that today's students are creating our own careers, instead of graduating into a statically organized workforce. This really resonated with us and helped calm our job anxieties. It reminded us of one of the class readings by David Orr. It is titled "What is Education For," and can be found here:  http://www.context.org/iclib/ic27/orr/.

Lena and Duane got the group to participate in a fun team building activity that involved pasta, string, tape, and a marshmallow! Despite the fact that many groups felt clueless and lacked direction, everyone came together and enjoyed the process.

The Cascadia Field School Pasta Engineers.


Jean Barman

Saturday morning our class walked from our hostel to Stanley Park to meet with BC historian Jean Barman. Stanley Park was previously inhabited by many First Nations families, but they were displaced from the land over the earlier 20th century. The totem poles on display at the park serve as a reminder of this eviction and are not representative of the local First Nations culture. One point the students thought was very upsetting/displeasing was the fact that the city actually hired its own painters to "enhance" the traditionally bare totems to make them more appealing to tourists.

Stanley Park Totem Poles.


Matt Hern and Commercial Drive

From downtown we took the SkyTrain to Commercial and Broadway. As the group walked down the street in search for food we observed that the area had a vibrant and diverse community. We had two hours to explore the neighbourhood and enjoyed some frisbee time in the park with a dog named Koala. We walked from Commercial to Matt Hern's house and admired his yummy front garden and his many chickens.

Relaxing at the park.

Matt Hern is a radical community activist and author. He is the creator of Car-Free Days and the Purple Thistle, which is a youth-focused art and creativity centre. Matt's approach to engaging in community and social development is based on a distributed power model. This is essentially decentralizing the power and creating a "potluck" of leaders and programs. He claims this allows for easier organizing for large-scale projects. This model is how Matt has been so successful in creating events such as car-free days, which now has over 250,000 participants.

He also embraces conflict and difference as part of the process and stressed the need to preserve difference. One of the points of interest that Matt discussed was the concept of not owning and not renting with regards to housing. The alternative is housing co-ops. This idea is meaningful because there are many in Vancouver and they are currently in huge demand, due to the sense of community they create. We concluded that one neat aspect of housing coops is that they cannot be gentrified. People can't flip them and sell them, and you cannot be pushed out when neighbourhood property values increase.

Walking up to Matt Hern's house.

The students loved being in Matt's home, and found him very welcoming and relatable. We were inspired by his distributed/potluck model for organizing events or enacting change. It made us feel like we have both individual and collective power with regards to making a difference in our communities.

Matt put us to work collecting some chicken eggs.



Vancouver is frequently referred to as the most "livable" city.

During our time in Vancouver we saw beautiful urban developments, complete with white glassy buildings and clean green parks. We saw vibrant street scenes and trendy cafes. But we also experienced some of the economic, environmental, and social issues that make Vancouver a city of contradictions.

On our tour of Yaletown we learned about the extremely unaffordable costs of living for Vancouverites. Matt Hern also touched on this problem when he connected the commodification of housing and expensive mortgages to a lack of community spirit and social activism.

At InSite, the group saw how the sparkling condominiums and boutique shops of downtown gave way to the notoriously impoverished Downtown Eastside, where people struggling with mental health and addiction problems congregated on the sidewalks.

After Jean Barman's lecture we were able to see how Stanley Park's famous totem poles actually commemorated the eviction of First Nations from their lands, instead of honouring Vancouver's indigenous history.

The group noticed how Vancouver caters to an active lifestyle and to sustainable transportation, by providing opportunities for walking, running, biking, and kayaking in the downtown area. At the same time, Vancouver's traffic continues to be among the most congested in North America.

We have learned a tremendous amount in our short time in Vancouver, especially about each other! We had a great time and look forward to the rest of the trip and the other cities in Cascadia!

Written by Kelsey, Lauren, & Graeme.


Vancouver, BC


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