Monday, January 18, 2010

Mighty Matt Hern's salons

As part of the launch of his new book Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future, author Matt Hern has organized four coffee house 'salons' around Vancouver.

Each event will feature presentations by speakers Matt interviewed during the course of writing his book and a short reading, with lots of time for conversation, questions and discussion. Matt sees each event as" a great opportunity to meet, talk, argue and consider the future of Vancouver with some compelling thinkers".

These events are all free. Please pre-register. You are welcome to just show up - but if you pre-register he’ll save you a seat – there are only 30 spots and they’ll all be full. To sign up contact Matt Hern -

SUNDAY, JANUARY 17th, 6:00 pm
Rhizome Café (Broadway and Kingsway)
All great cities have a certain flavour and vitality. How does a city get that life and vitality? How does Vancouver get some flavour?
-with- David Beers, Michael Geller, Joan Seidl, Marcus Youssef and Matt Hern.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 28th, 7:00 pm
Riddim and Spice (1945 Commercial Dr. - at 3rd)
A great city has to take care of its people. But what does security mean? What is real safety? Who has a right to the city? How might Vancouver be designed so that ‘city air’ really does make people free?
-with- Am Johal, David Eby, Harsha Walia, Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 30th, 7:00 pm
Riddim and Spice (1945 Commercial Dr. - at 3rd)
What is a great city? Should Vancouver even be trying to be one? What would a great city look like here?
-with- Frances Bula, Erick Villagomez, Gord Price, Carm Mills, Dustin Rivers and Matt Hern.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31st, 1:00 pm
The Purple Thistle Centre (975 Vernon Dr. – at Parker)
A great city has to be an ecological city. What should urban agriculture look like here? What does ‘food security’ really mean? Can a real city feed itself – should it even try? Does ‘greening’ the city undermine its social vitality?
-with- David Tracey, Conrad Schmidt, Cease Wyss and Matt Hern and co-sponsored by COPE’s Freedom of Speech Series.

Last night's event included David Beers of The Tyee, Joan Seidl of the Vancouver Museum, Marcus Youssef, a prominent player in the local theatre scene and me. The restaurant was packed and after a reading by Matt from the chapter in his book dealing with Montreal, we were asked a series of questions about what gives a city its 'funk'; the importance of public or common places; whether Vancouver is a no-fun city; and how we can make it a better place.

While I like to think that the featured speakers did a very reasonable job...David Beers kick-started the evening's discussion by comparing the the city to his teenage son's bedroom, and Marcus was very entertaining throughout, Joan often talked about the importance of understanding the city's history.....I was particularly impressed by the quality of the commentary by the audience and the questions asked. As my wife said on the way home, there really wasn't one inappropriate remark...everyone was quite thoughtful, and genuinely interested in making Vancouver a more lively and special place.

One of the topics of discussion was whether 'master planning' is necessary or a hindrance. Matt's view is that people should make things happen in a more ad-hoc and incremental way, rather than allow planners and developers to design places for us. I noted that one of my former professors, Peter Pragnell once suggested that good planning was simply good architecture side by side. However, I no longer agreed, and thought that many of the great places in the world, such as Paris or the Grande Place in Brussels happened because of a master plan. Unfortunately, we do not have many well designed public urban spaces in Vancouver....the VAG lawn is a successful gathering place despite its awful design. I lamented the design of the new open spaces next to the convention centre....what a wasted opportunity, but maybe they can be repaired.

One of the themes that ran through the discussion was the need to bring more vitality to many public places.David Beers and I both suggested that the seawall, for all its beauty is too dull, and I described my efforts when designing Bayshore to have more structures on the outside of the walkway, along with a pier at the end of Denman Street, a waterfront bridge, and places to buy ice-cream, etc. I also thought we needed more street vendors and musicians, not unlike what one finds in all Asian cities.

Suzanne Anton suggested that what we needed was more 'commerce' in such places.

We also discussed the need for further relaxations of our liquor laws and other regulations. Many people noted how the things that make Montreal so special usually can't happen here for 'health and safety; reasons. (Although not that many people die in Montreal from the things we are not allowed to do.)

In terms of how to make more things happen, Matt talked about his efforts to organize community picnics, and I mentioned Matt's efforts to start car-free days in Vancouver. As one of the audience members correctly pointed out, sometimes the design of a space is important, but more often it is the organization of activities in that space that is more important.

When one of the audience members questioned whether it will take 150 years to change the rules we currently have to live with, all of us were a bit more optimistic. What with the new social instruments like Facebook and Twitter, blogging and alternative media like The Tyee, it is possible to promote new ideas and gain community support for them. Yes, it does take someone like Matt to help organize things, but it is possible. I referenced Clay Shirky's book 'Here comes Everybody: Organizing without an organization' as a good example of how to do this.

I like to think that everyone who came last night enjoyed the experience. I certainly did, and would urge people to attend the future sessions if you can. And again, congratulations to Matt Hern for getting his book published. While I don't agree with much of what he has to say, I certainly admire and envy him for pulling it off!


Reid said...

Another important theme that I picked up on from the discussion on Vancouver's vitality was one that both connects and situates us all: the importance of age. David mentioned that young people (teenagers and people in the early 20s) are often those most responsible for 'zones of becoming', and Joan feared that Vancouver was suffering in the funk department from a greying population. In general I do agree that the younger demographic is often most publicly creative, spontaneous, and most likely to do something that challenges our societal norms. However, if age is the main determinant of all this behavior, I feel I should have seen more transgressive behavior my last five years at UBC.
I wonder if Vancouver's own young age is partially responsible for its alleged lack of funk. As the youngest city in North America, will Vancouver naturally acquire funk and flavor over time? Or are the city's bylaws opposed to change and a total hinderance to Vancouver's adaptability?

Brenton said...

Thanks for the review, Michael. I hope to make it out to the next few.

For those wanting to push the city to further relax liquor and fun-allowing laws, there's a meeting at City Hall on the 20th, I think.

Chris said...

I really enjoyed the coffee house. Lots of stimulating ideas tossed around, but still more questions then answers.

The debate between safety and fun was an interesting one. I had never really considered it before.

Suzanne Anton's comment about needing more "tacky t-shirt vendors" kind of scared me. Although I'd like to see more commerce on the seawall, especially the Coal Harbour side, I don't want a overly-commercialized space appealing to tourists.

Converting one of our downtown streets into a pedestrian only zone could be one way to get a funky space and a destination for people to hang out in.

I was surprised that no one suggested that Vancouver will never have Montreal's funk. Matt started his talk by mentioning how beautiful everyone in Montreal was. Montreal is Gucci and Vancouver is Gore-Tex. I don't think that will ever change, and I don't want it to.

michael geller said...

Thanks for these additional thoughts. I should have mentioned the idea of pedestrian streets. I agree with this entirely and am heart-broken at the concrete road surface down the Granville Mall. (As a minimum, it should have been pavers, to facilitate occasional use as a pedestrian zone.) I should have also mentioned the suggestion that we make greater use of the water for transportation. I agree wholeheartedly and think this could contribute to the character of the city. And yes, Gore-tex is very much a part of the fabric of this city....if you'll pardon the pun!