What would Jane Jacobs say…?

I was passing through the Surrey Central Skytrain Station the other day when I noticed something a little unusual.  Underneath the escalators near the bus loop, there is a park bench and a lamp.  This would be normal enough, except that it is all enclosed by a high, wrought iron fence.

The juxtaposition is a little strange – you are simultaneously invited into this welcoming space while emphatically being told to keep out.  Now, why the park bench and lamp are so precious as to be in need of protection was not immediately evident to me.  There was no obvious indication of a gateway to Narnia, or anything…

This got me thinking of how we use space in and around many of our Skytrain Stations.  It seems that the goal is to move people through – no loitering.  This makes sense from a transportation point of view, but not necessarily from a community planning point of view.  We have unintentionally created spaces that are largely empty and, for many people, a little intimidating outside of peak commuting times.

Jane Jacobs advocated for mixed use urban spaces, and for densification as a means to create critical mass capable of sustaining vibrant communities.  The area around the Broadway and Commercial Skytrain Stations come closest to this ideal in my mind.  With the mixed use space (commercial, office and, nearby, residential) it has achieved somewhat of a town square feel.  Diverse people hang out, shop, or go for coffee in and around that corner at all hours (excellent for people watching, let me tell you).  A sense of safety is maintained by what Jacob’s called “eyes upon the street”.

Contrast this with most of the other Skytrain Stations on any given evening.  They are largely abandoned aside from some rather shady looking folks and, rightly or wrongly, they instill a sense of anxiety.  It’s true that urban development does not happen overnight, but we may want to pay closer heed to Jacob’s recommendations by creating more welcoming, multi-use spaces as these transit hubs evolve over time.

New Image.BMP

Off limits bench at Surrey Central


The view from inside a CBC radio show… looking out on a Métis nation…

So, a colleague and I attended the sixth annual UBC – Laurier Institution Multiculturalism Lecture last night.  I was held at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, and was hosted by the good people from CBC’s Ideas program.  Incidentally, they will be broadcasting this event on June 25, 2009.  I assure you that it will be well worth a listen.

After a welcome to the Musqueam territories, we were treated to a “conscious hip hop” performance by Miss Christie Lee, who hails from the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.  Her music combined elders’ voices, funky beats, and rap lyrics in both Hunquminum (a Salishan language) and English.  She emphasized respect and pride in culture, wherever we’re from.  For me, her performance highlighted the dynamic, living nature of Aboriginal cultures in contrast to the static portrait we are often fed.  Christie also plugged Beat Nation, where you can find out about a number of Aboriginal hip hop artists.

John Ralston Saul then took the stage.  He spoke to the central themes of his latest book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada.  There is nothing surprising in Saul’s premise that Canada is a “small m” métis nation, i.e., that our politics and society have been shaped significantly by Aboriginal worldviews.  His more provocative statement is that Canada will not move forward until we align our political structures with this reality rather than relying on 19th century, colonial myths – the two founding nations construct being one example.

Saul also criticized the political elite’s insistence on holding separate conversations with Aboriginal people and newcomers to Canada rather than involving both constituencies into the dialogue that began in earnest at the time of first contact.  Immigration is one example of where Canada parts ways with its former colonial masters.  We accept well over 200,000 new immigrants each year, 85% of whom become citizens within five years.  Saul calls this immigration as adoption (an Aboriginal conceptualization) in contrast to the USA’s “melting pot” or the racialized approaches of many European countries.

BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Shawn Atleo and UBC Associate Dean for Indigenous Education Jo-anne Archibald then joined Saul on stage to answer questions from the moderator and, in turn, members of the audience.  I am not going to lie, it seemed that some of the people asking questions wanted to hear their own voice rather than what the panellists might have added.  In spite of this, they did manage to offer some interesting perspectives.  At the end of the evening, Chief Atleo called on Ms. Archibald as well as Bruce Dumont, President of Métis Nation BC, to present Saul with a traditional First Nations paddle.

I was struck by a few little ironies throughout the evening.  For example, it took the husband of the Queen’s former representative in Canada to bring recognition of Canada’s Aboriginal underpinnings into the mainstream discourse.  Maybe this is appropriate given the Crown’s special relationship(s) with Aboriginal people; however, the Vice Regent also represents the colonial myths that Saul would have us abandon.

Another irony is that it took Saul’s tool of trade – the written word – to highlight the importance of oral traditions in constructing shared understanding.  Finally, Saul’s new book was printed in the USA, the very bastion of the monolithic capitalist ideology that he also criticizes.  I get that he would probably not describe himself as a nationalist in the conventional sense of the word, but it still seems incongruent given much of his message.

Nevertheless, I stayed for the reception after the fact and shelled out the $35.00 for a hardcover copy of Saul’s book so I could get it signed by the author.  I am strangely gleeful to have this and, luckily, it is an engaging read thus far…

Must… resist… coffee chain…

I work in a downtown, low-rise office building, which is cursed with having one of the big coffee chain stores located on the main floor.  Right by the front door, no less…

I am usually so good about brewing my own coffee, a habit I picked up when I worked in an office located in the middle of nowhere.  Okay, it was Burnaby, but there wasn’t very much around…  Anyway, I have gotten really lazy lately, and have been buying my morning brew with increasing regularity.

At first, I justified it be telling myself that I had just changed jobs and was making a little more money.  Surely I deserve to treat myself as a reward.  Then I told myself that things were quite hectic right now.  It’s okay to buy myself a cup of coffee if it saves me some time when things are a little crazy.  But really, when are things NOT crazy?

I also told myself that I was being much more economical than those people who buy one of those fancy drinks seemingly every morning.  My coffee is only $2.00 (with  a dime off if I bring my own travel mug!).  But even if I only buy my coffee three times each week, that’s still $312 per year.  On coffee!

I even tried to tell myself that I was supporting local jobs during a major recession.  Although it is a chain store, they pay above minimum wage and provide employee benefits.  And their employees get free coffee.  Lucky employees…  I don’t think my $2.00 caffeine habit is really propping up a multinational corporation, however…

Putting aside my rationalizing, it’s still a chain, the paper cups are still bad for the environment, the coffee trade is probably not equitable for producers, and I am still needlessly wasting money.  Alright, I will brew my own coffee at work from now on.  After this morning, though – I am running a little late…

Postscript – I went and bought a big bag of Fair Trade coffee after work today…

Art imitates life imitates art…?

I will admit it up front, I am not an art critic.  That said, I recently heard about two “art installations” that struck me as particularly unusual.  The April 6, 2009 podcast edition of CBC’s Dispatches included a feature on the production of an advertising campaign for a perfume called “Greed”.  For the television advertisement, Roman Polanski directed A-list actresses Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams as rivals, locked in fierce combat over a bottle of the irresistible essence.

The punch line is that “Greed” does not exist.  Conceptual artist Francesco Vezzoli dreamt up the non-existent product and corresponding advertising campaign to explore the simultaneously attractive and repulsive elements of consumerism.  The end result was an art installation at the Gagosian Gallery in Rome.  Reactions were mixed.  Some people seemed to feel that the timing was poor in light of the current economic troubles.  Others didn’t get the joke at all.  Vezzoli does not proclaim to offer a message, but instead claims to hold up a mirror to society.  He states “we are not wasting money, we are entertaining ourselves”.

The other so-called installation was featured on a late-night re-broadcast from the Deutsche Welle network (yes, insomnia again).  Daimler, the automobile manufacturer,  recently allowed the Rimini Protokoll theatre group to turn its annual shareholders’ meeting into a twelve hour staged production in Berlin.  The audience was made up of shareholders or voters by proxy, most of whom wouldn’t have known an IPO from a dividend but nevertheless wanted to see the show.  The viewers were riveted  as Daimler’s executives addressed their lagging fortunes

I will leave it to others with more refined tastes to judge whether or not either of these installations actually qualify as art, but both struck me as somewhat bizarre.  Vezzoli may offer a commentary on the unrelenting greed that  has brought the global economy to its knees, but is he really saying anything new about this excess?  Daimler’s shareholders’ meeting was opened up to a whole new audience, but to what end?  And what does it say that many actual shareholders were willing to hand their voting rights over to disinterested third parties?

Art can exist simply to be pleasing aesthetically, or it can act as a lens to focus our attention on aspects of the human experience that deserve contemplation.  I am all for art as social commentary; however, I believe there needs to be a next step – do I come away with an increased awareness, or am I called to take some form of action – big or small.  Without this next step, the interaction between art and the connoisseur seems incomplete…

What a beautiful day! So, why am I so grouchy?

Today, it truly feels like we have thrown off the last vestiges of winter and are finally able to enjoy the warmth of spring.  I have been trying to come up with a cheerful post in keeping with the weather, but somehow I just can’t quite do it.  Instead, I am going to rail about the things that some of my fellow transit passengers do that make me crazy. If that’s you, stop it!

  1. Smoking in line – I get enough carbon monoxide from the traffic, and do not need your second hand smoke on top of it.  Before you get all up on your high horse about me wanting to quash your civil liberties, have a look at the signage,  See the one with the picture of the cigarette with a line through it?  It means no smoking!
  2. Hogging seats – While we are on the topic of signage, there’s a sign that says that elderly people and people with disabilities have priority for the seats at the front of the bus.  If that does not describe you, then please let someone else have your seat if they need it.  And please don’t block an entire seat with your bag – it’s not my problem if you feel compelled to pack all of worldly possessions along with you on the bus.
  3. Talking like there is nobody else there – I get that it is a public place and that people will be on their cell phones; however, I do not need to hear the gory details of why your significant other is a complete loser.  I also do not need to hear you curse your significant other out – and neither do the toddlers that are on the bus along with us.
  4. Clipping nails – Yes, I hear the rest of you saying, “you’re kidding me!”.  On at least two occasions, I have been along for the ride when someone pulls out the nail clippers.  Unbelievable!  Enough said.

A little consideration for our fellow passengers would go a very long way.  Whew,  now that I got that off my chest, maybe I can get on with enjoying the sunshine.  Cheers!

C’est le metro, boulot, dodo…

I learned that expression in my university French class, and it has always stuck with me.  Basically, it means “it’s the train, work, sleep”, and this expression perfectly captures the tedium that can settle in on daily life.  Maybe I need a vacation…

Anyway, I commute to work on the Skytrain, Vancouver’s much loved and much loathed rapid transit system.  One advantage over driving is that I am a much nicer person when I get to work.  The other is that I hate wasting time, and I find all kinds of ways to use the hour long ride each way.  Blogging is perfect for the commute!

In this category, my plan is to capture dispatches from the Skytrain – interesting happenings (when they occur), what’s going on along the route, etc…  Let’s see how much content I can come up with between point A and point B…


Courtesy of rumble1973, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

Public Broadcasting from Around the World

So, last night I had another bout of insomnia.  Who knows why – some random worries, something I ate – whatever.  The one and only good thing about insomnia is that I get to listen to CBC Radio One’s late night offerings.  On weeknights, this consists of radio shows from public broadcasters around the globe.

I caught two shows, one from the Netherlands and one from Sweden.  “Curious Orange”, the Dutch show, featured prominent bands including the Electric Barbarians.  Their track was sort of experimental, acid jazz –  slightly reminiscent of the Propellerheads.  It turns out that the Electric Barbarians are on iTunes.

The Swedish commentators broke down their national political scene.   Alarmingly, one party with decidedly anti-immigrant in sentiments appears to be making significant gains.

I can’t remember which broadcast it was – must have got a few minutes of sleep there – but there was a piece on French President Sarkozy, who has called for an ambitious architectural reimagining of Paris to encourage densification.  Nothing on this scale has been seen since  Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s work under the auspices of Napolean III in the 1860s .

While these particular broadcasts hailed from Europe, CBC regularly features shows from Africa and Asia as well, and it is fascinating to hear different perspectives on current events – both in terms of what stories are covered in the first place, and how they are covered.

I’d encourage you to give CBC a listen if you find yourself battling a bout of late night insomnia.