Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities - Gender and Women's Rights

Long before universal suffrage, Roe vs. Wade, bra-burning, the Eveleth iron mine, Hilary Clinton, or the exporting of women's rights to places like Afghanistan, a woman named Ching Shih watched her husband die in a hail of musket fire.

It was 1807 and Zheng Yi, a pretty darn good pirate in his own right, just got put down by the Royal Navy. A power vacuum emerged. Hundreds of Chinese pirates were looking for a leader. An opportunity presented itself. And on to the scene emerged the greatest pirate in the history of pirates. She called herself Madame Cheng.

Madame Cheng was ruthless, wily and charismatic. She immediately seized the opportunity (totally embraced planned happenstance, by the way) and consolidated power within the Chinese Pirate Confederation by leveraging her positive relationship with the members of her husbands professional and social networks. Madame Cheng also took a huge risk. As she cajoled and negotiated and charmed her way to prominence in China's pirate community, Madame Cheng took on a young lover; the adopted son of a fisherman named Cheng Pao. And here's the kicker: she made the kid head of the Red Sea fleet, which was the biggest and most important in the Confederation.

The move was shrewed and effective. Madame Cheng had an eye for talent, as Cheng Pao had grown up in a "floating community" of Chinese junks, adhoc houseboats and strung-together waterlogged debris. He had an uncanny understanding of the sea and Cheng Pao used such abilities to carry out his wife's master plan, which, really, was nothing short of dominating the Chinese shipping routes from the Strait of Malacca to Australia.

By 1810, Madame Cheng's pirate fleet was larger than those of most countries navies. She commanded between 600-800 coastal vessels, hundreds of small, river junks, and tens of thousands of pirates. Recognizing her growing power, the British, Portuguese and Chinese eventually banded together to stop Madame Cheng. But they didn't. Following thousands of deaths - pirate and seamen alike - Madame Cheng decided to belay the bloodshed. From a position of power, she negotiated a peace treaty with the colonial powers and Chinese authorities and, following the agreement, sought an early retirement with her husband, Cheng Pao. Through organization, relationship-building and recognizing top talent, Madame Cheng created a pirate fleet the likes of which no one has ever seen (or well ever again see). And for three years she ran the shipping lanes of the China Sea and Strait of Malacca for decades.

Now. Madame Cheng wasn't the only successful lady pirate. Anne Bonny and Mary Read are probably the most famous female pirates. Actually, they arguably made the inspiration for Johnny Depp, Calico Jack Rackam, famous by association. The three sailed together from 1718-1720 in the Caribbean, after Rackam, a charismatic fellow (not unlike another Captain Jack we know and love), was elected by his crew following the former captain was declared a coward and executed. Rackam, who was engulfed in a fairly tawdry relationship with Read, brought to two women aboard during a stop in Cuba, and the women joined the crew in pillaging small sloops and coastal fishing villages all around the Caribbean.

Life was good (there was even an alleged love triangle between Bonny, Read and Rackam), until 1720 when Captain Jonathan Barnet captured Rackam's ship. Get this. All the men, including Rackam, hid below deck as the Royal Navy ship approached. Bonny and Read, who Barnet claimed could "swear and fight as good as any man," charged the approaching sailors, killing and wounding dozens before they were finally captured. And while Rackam was quickly hanged, his body put in a cage near Deadman's Cay, Bonny and Read, who - I kid you not - were both pregnant at the time, were allowed to have their children before returning to trial. Read died before re-trial, but Bonny escaped with her child, never to be heard from again.

Amazing stories, sure. And what does this mean for our current communities here on Earth? Well, I have some findings to report:

Leading women today agree with John's idea. Okay, maybe, but probably not really. Still, having met Fiona Walsh (FM Walsh & Associates) and knowing her to be pretty darn brilliant and that she has a great sense of humour, check this out. Let's see how Madame Cheng's piratical example lives up to the three main components of Ms. Walsh's Women in Leadership Program:
  1. Develop a professional "BIG PLAN" and have a "Plan B". Check! Madame Cheng's initial plan was to, well, dominate the China Sea and Strait of Malacca for another few decades. Plan B was to retire. Well played, ma'am.
  2. Understand your professional value (your reputation, specialized skill set, existing network) and build on these three components. Check! Madame Cheng (not to mention Bonny and Read) had fierce reputations. Cheng's skill set involved top-level leadership, industry knowledge, talent recognition, and the motivational aspect of organizational behaviour. And she leveraged her husband's network to become leader of the Chinese Pirate Confederacy. Brilliant!
  3. Build a powerful business network that will support your advancement through the world of business. Check! Beginning with the appointment of Cheng Pao, Madame Cheng surrounded herself with a variety of new business partners (river-going junks was a new idea, not to mention a very lucrative one) as well as a range of existing power brokers from the colonial and Chinese/Japanese/Singaporean/Filipino/Vietnamese business communities.
Hilary Clinton running for President shouldn't be a big freakin' deal! Well, yes, it should, because a woman leading the United States (arguably the world) is an amazing and inspirational concept; however, Madame Cheng, nearly two hundred years ago, showed us that women can not only succeed in a man's world, but can absolutely and totally change the game. She took on Britain and Portugal and various Chinese city-states. That's like Hilary taking on the economy, Climate Change and adultery! Point is, we shouldn't be surprised. Women are, quite clearly, better than men at most things. Even piracy. Probably politics. More often than not, it's just a matter of timing.

Women are unmeasurably powerful. Thing is, our economic measuring/value-system has been written by men for hundreds of years and, admittedly, is a tad biased. Get this. A recent study by the United Nations Human Development Index revealed that unpaid work, such as volunteering, caring for the young, old and sick, household management, do-it-yourself housing, food-growing, and community service, accounts for $16 trillion per year. The vast majority of this work is done by women. Further, a recent University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business study estimates the annual value of a stay-at-home-mom at $138,095 and points out that these community leaders work an average of 51.8 hours of over time per week. Now all we need are some metrics that measure this kind of contribution instead of just GDP...

Should we be surprised that the greatest pirate in the history of the world was a woman? Not really. Ladies, you might just need to embrace your inner-pirate. If you take one thing away from the story of Madame Cheng, let it be the part about recognizing an opportunity for success and seizing it. And when you do, be sure to collaborate with other women and share your success. Honestly, there are a lot of us out here who are excited for you to run the world. Sorry we've screwed it up so badly...

Good luck, and have fun with it!


Monday, March 30, 2009

When Work Effects My Community

When you get busy at work its really easy to turn in on yourself, and your interests and ignore the outside community. Sometimes, I find this happening to myself. These days, I have a full time job along with a new contract and a new volunteer gig. I'm excited about all of this, but also conscious that over the next three-four weeknights I'm going to be at work/working for most of the night.

That means little time to see my lovely partner and even less to see my wonderful friends. It also leads to more time perched in front of the computer and less time wandering the Drive, shopping at the Co-op, sipping Java at the bump and grind, or volunteering at a Climate Cafe. Even reading and cooking (my two big passions) seem to fall by the wayside. These are all things that make my community worth living in, and unfortunately, they're also the things that seem very often the first to drop by the wayside.

Finding the work, life, balance in a routine of work, life, hustle can be tricky. I think these days, more than anything else, it's important to be, at the very least, conscious of these issues. Many people aren't and woe is them. The other trick is to make sure that its a short term issue and doesn't turn into a long term problem.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Family Dinner

A wise man once said a family that eats together, stays together.

Our group of friends is family. We spend a lot of time coming up with ridiculous email games (that's right John and Godfrey, I'm looking at you), singing karaoke, drinking coffee, playing settlers of Cataan, and generally chatting.

One of the neatest expressions of our little community happened this Sunday night. It came about from an impromptu decision to pool resources and combine, my left over chicken, new Co-op salad, and pasta initially bought by John for four into a hearty meal for six. We even had some spare avocados that someone brought which we created some tasty Mango-mole (sans mangos)

"One of the brightest parts of my weekend was family dinner," said a rosy cheeked Theodora Lamb afterwards.

The dinner was neat for a few reasons. First its very impromptu nature showcased how close our community circle was. Second, the fact that everyone came from different directions to make a communal feast was illustrative of a collaborative approach that we hope to replicate and spread to other facets of life. Finally, the fun was amped up from lazy Sunday night to general Saturday night-like merriment.

It's all a process that needs to happen more often.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Woodwards to Transform the DTES

Next year, a community may be remade before our eyes.

It's all connected to the Woodwards Project, a new high rise multi-use complex soaring above the derelict buildings of Canada's poorest neighbourhood.

It has been over 6 years in the making and has seen squats by housing advocates who worried about the gentrification of the poor community.
The message was heard loud and clear at city hall and by the developers and architects involved in the building project. Inclusion, not exclusion.

Unlike the soaring towers of glass characteristic of yuppie Yaletown, Woodwards is going to be different. Of the development's 536 suites, about 40% will go to non-market housing. The mix of tenants will range from the urban chic who dine nightly at bistros like nearby Wild Rice, to less advantaged folks, some of whom have just made their way off addiction and the streets.

I spoke with one future resident shortly after he received notice that there would be a space for him. He currently lives at one of the emergency shelters set up by Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. He's a smart and articulate guy with a university eduction and spattering of mental illness that eventually led to substance abuse issues that he's now recovering from. His favorite place to hang out - the library, where he can access the net and read to his hearts content. His luck in landing a spot at Woodwards was not lost on him.

In addition to housing, Woodward will also house Simon Fraser University's new Centre for the Contemporary Arts (a perfect venue for the "struggling artists"), office and rental space for non-profits, as well as retail grocery and drug stores. There's even word that negotiations are going on between the development's large retail tenants and local non-profit Bladerunners, which finds work for street youth and recovering addicts on construction sites and now, it would seem, local businesses.

This new project isn't going to solve homelessness in the city. But it's certainly the right model. The idea of integrating the most vulnerable into our communities rather than ghettozing them is the right way forward. I'm excited and proud to watch the transformation of the neighbourhood before my eyes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Our community just got Sexier!

And our community got greener while it got sexier, too! It happened on Wednesday, March 18 at Pane Vero Cafe & Bakery on The Drive. And it happened because the team at Climate Cafes got together with two amazing presenters, Carolyn and Jes, to have an interesting, entertaining, informative, interactive, and, well, amazing conversation about environmentally friendly sex.

Like I said. Amazing.

About 25 of us huddled at the front of the coffee shop to hear Carolyn and Jes share intimate details on the big picture of sex as it relates to the health of our planet's population, the environmental impact (from "birth to death") of contraceptives like condoms and IUDs, how to properly use and dispose of these contraceptives, suggestions on sexily saving energy, and, most importantly, creative ways to turn household items into sex toys! After all, reducing consumption by reusing what we already have (think of really, really fun new ways to conceptualize and use ping pong paddles or a wooden spatula!) is a great way to be sexy non-consumers.

And then there was the part where the audience learned about shaving a cucumber down to a "personally appropriate size" and using it for pleasure. Honestly, the evening was totally about building community and sharing knowledge, but this was one moment that saw one very confused patron - who showed up halfway through the discussion - furrow her brow, turn on her heel and head back outside. Fair enough. Using vegetables in the bedroom, I suppose, isn't for everybody.

Climate Cafes is about bringing environmentally-savvy people together to discuss climate change issues and brainstorm (or learn about) "next steps" that can be taken to demonstrate basic, every day applications that will affect the planet in a positive way. Here are some ideas and strategies that you, the sexual consumer, might want to think about as you prepare to make romantic moves in the future:

There's a lotta people here: can Mother Earth support and sustain so many people? Probably not. Definitely not at the rate we're going. So, we learned about the myriad of birth control and safer-sex options out there. Check out the Climate Cafes website or Options for Sexual Health for more details. Green or not, when it comes to sex, keep it classy, safe and know your options.
Products "from birth to death": what environmental impact do condoms, birth control pills, IUDs, diaphragms, dildos, whips, vibes, lubes, and/or sexy panties have on the planet? From production to disposal, what do you need to know about items on the above list? For example, recent findings show that there is actually more fish-population-affecting estrogen in a pesticide like DDT than there is in a birth control pills. Also, think about buying lingerie or toys that are organic and locally made. Climate Cafe-er, Emily Jubenville, has some cool ideas on where to look and what to look for.
Intimately Environmentally Sexy: saving energy and making things hot at the same time couldn't be simpler. Share a steamy shower with your partner and save some water, or turn out the lights and light some candles to make things sexy and energy efficient (just don't get caught up in the passion and burn the house down).

Oh man, and I almost forgot. We learned that menstrual blood can be used as fertilizer for house plants and that there is a depot in Vancouver where you can recycle your sex toys. Like I said...amazing!

So, Gumbooters, stay sexy. Check out the details at www.climatecafes.ca. And, most importantly, have fun with it!


Friday, March 20, 2009

Dirty Talk, the good kind…oh yeah baby

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
-Margaret Atwood

In the spring, at the end of the day, here in Vancouver, I smell like a lot of things: sweat, my perfume, the perfume from the girl next to me on the bus, teriyaki chicken, wet cement, soft water, coffee with milk, chlorine from the pool, car exhaust, pillow drool and fabric softener. The smell of dirt is noticeably absent from my “bouquet.” I think I’ve been getting little cues from the universe telling me this has to change; that I need to get a little more intimate with the dirt in this city.

This year, I was introduced to the Hindu Spring Festival of Holi – it’s the festival of colours. Holi fell on the full moon in February, before the vernal equinox this year. On that day, I was smeared in red; coloured powder wiped right across my face. Fires are lit during Holi, just as they are during Nowruz, the Iranian New Year celebrated on the first day of spring. The tinge of fire, black ashes left over, back into the dirt, back into the earth: these are the images and experiences that have welcomed me into spring this year.

I think it’s a good start to the season even if it’s not a clean one. It’s encouraging and it makes me want to add a little more soil to my smell. Getting in a little face time with dirt can be a tough thing when you live in a city. I’ve got access to a gymnasium floor, tiled pool and imported sand that lies next to the water along English Bay – but not vast amounts of good, clean dirt.

So, as my ode/resolution/promise to the spring of 2009, I’m going to try and pay a little more attention to dirt; where and how it competes with the city and whether the two can share a peaceful co-existence. I think I’ll start with the little bit of dirt that’s buried below the tree potted in the cement outside my apartment. Time to get down and dirty.

Theodora Lamb

Monday, March 16, 2009

Madness in our Community

Culturally, are Canadians merely Americans who pride themselves on - and define themselves by - not being American? Or is this madness? Well, folks, the Madness is nearly here.

Many of you know what it is and why everyone gets so mad about it. Okay, here's the deal: the "madness" refers to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which takes place for three weeks in March and April. It involves 64 teams and is, arguably, the best example of amateur sport this side of the Olympics. For a Canadian's information, in Downtown America, the worshiping of sport goes a little something like this:

1. NFL Football
2. NCAA Football
3. NBA Basketball
4. NCAA Basketball
47. NHL Hockey (ranked after bowling, darts, poker, and the WNBA)

Weird, eh? Hockey barely makes the top 50! Moreover, this tournament - this madness - is unequivocally huge. Hundreds of millions of American and Canadian viewers tune in to watch and Las Vegas usually covers well over $300 million in legal bets and, get this, over $2.5 billion is spent annually in office pools and illegal gambling. Nearly half (41%) of Americans watch the tournament and over one quarter (27%) participate in an office pool which results in nearly $3.8 billion in lost productivity. The above picture is a pretty moderate example of how seriously schools (and all the alumni, townsfolk and administration) take this sporting event. Heck, whenever Arkansas plays, Bill Clinton shows up to cheer on his team!

Needless to say, whether it's participating in an office pool to choose the unlikely winner of the 64 team tournament or collaborating with your high school basketball team to pick the perfect bracket and do a little trash-talking or slathering on some paint, funky outfits and intoxicating yourself en route to actually attending a game, this event is a perfect and amazing exercise of community. It's also a harbinger of Americanization for Obamatown's northern neighbour, Canada. Data is hard to come by, but recent findings show that millions of Canadians tune in to watch the games, compete for the title of "lost productivity per capita" and spend millions of dollars in office pools. Thing is, not only does Canadian talent make up less than .1% of the players and coaches in the tournament, but we have our own university basketball playoffs here! Sure, only eight teams compete in the CIS Men's Basketball Championships, which means it lasts, like, a week. And sure only, like, four of the players can dunk. But, come on, are we really so starved for basketball talent that we need to look to American players, commentators, coaches, fans, and advertisers for athletic entertainment?

Yes. We are. March Madness is an over-indulgent spectacle built on the backs of some of the hardest workers in the world. Winning it all has as much to do with luck as it does with mental and physical preparation. And it brings people from every race, culture, socio-economic-background, intellectual-level, and profession together to celebrate victory and mourn defeat (except on the court...as Chris Rock says, "we're 10% of the population and 99% of the Final Four!"). And it's a beautiful thing. No offense, Canada, but Hockey wishes it had as much clout in this country. And, for the record, Rome would be jealous of these games.

American college basketball is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Whether its ticket sales, merchandising, advertising revenue, or television rights, the schools and the NCAA rake in very healthy - if not slightly gluttonous - profit. The student players, aside from scholarships, sweet hotel accommodations and a meager stipend, see no part of the revenue (a recent New York Times article argues that much of this process is reflective of "modern slavery" in the United States). There's no salary-cost, like in the professional leagues. [Insert comment about this reflecting American Corporatism here]. Communities go to war during this event, too. Bright colours, paint, songs, chants, filthy limericks, and dastardly pranks are all part of the madness. And in the end, only one community can win it all.

Other than being invented by a Canadian, the March Madness basketball tournament has little or nothing to do with the Canadian community. But we watch. OUr networks carry it. We can get Pay Per View packages for $100. Why does this happen? Why do millions of Canadian sports fans look South of the border for their basketball-stimulus package? Well, for starters, the talent is greater and the drama-of-sport plays out on a much, much grander stage. Like with Obama's administration, Canadians really, really want to be a part of this installment of the American Dream. More Canadians play basketball than hockey* and more Canadians watch American Idol than Canadian Idol. This is big sport, big business, big community. And it leads me to just one unfortunate conclusion: we might live in Canada, but this is definitely North America.

Whether it's Obamania, House, the Superbowl, Hollywood, Springsteen, or College Basketball, we're all mad about somethin' non-Canadian.

And, quite honestly, I feel a little weird about it. Not good or bad. Weird. How do you feel?


*definitely more play soccer than hockey, and, since basketball is the second most popular sport on Earth after soccer, I'm going out on a limb and calling this a "fact" today...it may or may not be true, but it's from the gut!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hockey Community Faces a Strike

This evening will be an interesting one. The seamless "community" of sports fans, hockey players, managers, and GM vendors has been shattered by the breakdown of negotiations between unionized GM workers and the arena. Despite this, the games must go on - and they will.

When fans arrive tonight, they will likely see several hundred (of the seven hundred) unionized workers picketing outside the game between the Canucks and the LA Kings.

Will they be blocking the gates and effecting the overall hockey community? Will you have to cross a picket line to get to your seats? Apparently not.

According to UNITE HERE Local 40 organizers, workers want people to enjoy the game, just not enjoy any of the overpriced drinks and food they normally shovel in during a match.

Hit Aramark Management (the concession oweners) in the pocket book but not the fans. The BC Fed will even be passing out peanuts to symbolize the wages these workers get relative to other "workers" in the arena. That's the way to demand a better cut and martial a strike to make a point without any collateral damage on citizens.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Community of Literary Judgement

Dear readers, Book Club (or The Circle of Literary Judgement, if you're about addressing our organization by the official nomenclature) has arrived.

Check this out: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090306.wbkclublandmarch07/BNStory/globebooks/.

That's right, on Saturday, March 7, 2009, the Globe & Mail, Canada's leading newspaper, officially endorsed The Circle of Literary Judgement as Canada's coolest and most amazing book club.* More or less. I'll let you be the judge (after all, we're all about judging!).

So, who are we? Basically, Book Club represents a cross-section of the Canadian Community - provided you accept said "community" to be one of twentysomething, upper-middle-class, white, university-educated, semi-entitled, environmentally-friendly students and young professionals from Vancouver. Theo, Kurt, Stewart, Phil, Michelle, and John make up Book Club (Phil and Stew aren't pictured, which is why our "Album Cover" isn't as good looking as it could be). For the record, we're always taking applications from prospective members.

Peter, the Globe reporter who interviewed Michelle and I (the co-founders of "CLJ," as Peter calls it), responded to our submission to the paper's Clubland section, which profiles a book club from somewhere - anywhere - in Canada, with the line, "is this real? I hope this is real." Yes, we are. And, yes, we really are a bit ridiculous and revolutionary. Let me explain.

Many book clubs out there actually discuss literature (some, truly, do not, which is why they don't have staying power). Many do so exclusively and pretentiously. Many do so while drinking wine and eating thematic food. Few do so while drinking wine, eating delightfully and creatively themed-food and competing for a trophy and the title of "the Judgiest Literary Judger." And few groups require haikus, faux-pretentious signatures and an interpretive dance as part of their application process. Point being, the club was founded (see article) on Michelle's goal of creating a book club that revolted against revolting literary pretentiousness. We are playfully serious and smart as whips and, most importantly, we don't take ourselves too seriously. Seriously. We buy into a community where laughter is paramount and we believe that the first thing you must know about being smart is that you're stupid.

This one time, at Book Club, Kurt, Godfrey and Elise (a member we had to excommunicate for her philosophical commitments) put on a skit about a scene from Milan Kundera's Immortality. Kurt played the role of "the tire" that is stabbed by Professor Avenarius. He hissed. It was magical. It was Oscar worthy.

Twentysomethings. Recent findings show that we/you do not read "books." Sure, we read a lot. We read websites and blogs and text messages. And with every lol we are slowly destroying the English language. Book clubs are a great way to incorporate literature into your daily/weekly/monthly dose of words - not ones that are shouted by pundits or American Idols or Jack Bauer, but words that are written. So, start a book club today. Not only will you save the English language and the written word, but you will also build and/or expand your community!

Here's how book clubs build community:

Discussion, sharing ideas: books inspire ideas from everywhere. Presenting ideas, discussing them and reflecting on concepts as a group creates a shared understanding. People will rarely agree on everything all the time, and they shouldn't; however, arguments and debates test our intellectual mettle as well as inspire people in the room. For example, when someone, say, Stewart Burgess, makes a point about architecture that reveals an un-discussed and wholly unique aspect of character development in Ender's Game, well, that's just the stuff that makes one smile and say hmmmm. And when Theo Lamb slyly pipes up with an "I disagree" and throws down a "and it's not just because I'm a dramatic red-head!" to drive her point home, well, it's just a beautiful thing that gets everyone's ire up in just the right way. And then there's Phil, who argues that video games played here in Canada are controlling robot soldiers in the Middle East. Like I said, seriously...

delicious food + delicious people + stimulating conversation + tasty drink = healthy and engaged community. It's an easy recipe/equation.

sitting in circles - with no top and no bottom, no head and no foot - makes everybody feel included and equal. Just like Stalin would've wanted it. Wait...that's not right, is it?

there are a litany and a bevy and a myriad and a buttload of studies out there that prove the connection between laughter, health, wellness, creativity, and sex appeal. When you combine all of the above things laughter will undoubtedly ensue. And the best kind of laughter, too, belly laughter - the kind that is contagious and amazing and makes your club/team/community the stuff of legend - mostly because the neighbours will probably ask you to keep it down.

For your information, The Circle of Literary Judgement is taking applications for new members. Because, well, we're all about building community. Especially in litearary ways!


*may not have actually "endorsed" us or would go on record as saying that we are the "most" cool and amazing, although the reporter was really, really excited to talk to us.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Building community centres without...community

Our big studio project this term has been to design a community centre based off one of several long-span (read really big room) precedents. My studio prof has literally won a Governer's General Gold Medal in Architecture for her community centres. Our community centres consist of a large gymnasium area, lounge, social kitchen, meeting rooms, and washrooms/changerooms. They are designed on a north/south axis with the appropriate light control devices to create beautiful, indirect natural lighting. Thermal comfort is an issue of concern with detailed studies into the insulative qualities of the latest in architectural materials. Counters and stairs are based on the dimensions of the human body to enable ergonomic access to the various facilities. Dynamic spatial sequencing is of key importance. Sounds good so far eh?


Should not community centre should be centred around a community and involve the active participation of community members in the design process? What does the nieghbourhood need? Who will use the facility? What are the cultural and social values of the community?

As it is, a whole year of architecture students have learned a few great things about design, and one important lesson. The community is secondary to your design genius. Astute commentators may say that this is a school project and they can only do so much, and that we are learning many different and relevent 'first principles of good design'. Definitely true, given that as David Clark says "the architect is both an agent and mentor/teacher of a client". However, note in which order we are learning these roles: firstly mentor, then agent. By ignoring the stakeholder consultation aspect of the design process the school has effectively prioritized our egos over the well being of our 'client'.

In some cases this may be an appropriate response, but surely the last project on which we impose high ego-based design is a community centre. And surely not under the leadership of one of Canada's top community centre designers, at least according to the design fraternity.

Or does this expose a certain weakness among that self-same fraternity?

There are numerous other 'long span' structures from which we could learn these principles. Save the community centre for a time when we have the time and space to carry out some consultation, at least in theory.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

An Island of local foods, thriving theatre … and dirty, dirty exhaust fumes

This past Saturday, I took advantage of the clear, crisp, sunny day and a few free hours to ride my bike down to Granville Island. As I whizzed along (well, maybe ambled is a more accurate term …), the fresh air did wonders for my spirit, leaving behind thoughts of impending biostatistics midterms and laundry piles at home. As I made my way past the tennis courts and Kids’ market, a slightly (OK, very), ridiculous perma-smile on my face and a saunter in my bicy-stride, I saw before me an illogical and incoherent sight: vehicles. Dirty, polluting, resource-depleting vehicles. And not just a few. They were everywhere. Is this some kind of Emily Carr inspired performance art piece, I asked myself? Surely this must be a group of forward-thinking, sustainability-minded students making a statement. Sadly, this was not the case. There really were an abundance of vehicles stuck in a horrific traffic snarl around the Island. The Island was replete not with the smell of local fare and the sound of street musicians, but with the smell of exhaust and the nerve-grinding sounds of honking cars and revved engines.

As of late, there has been increased hype around making Vancouver’s built environment more conducive to biking and walking. The benefits are evidence-based and success stories can be seen in many European countries (Denmark and Holland, to name a few). Active Transportation (i.e., walking, biking or rolling) has numerous environmental and health benefits, as well as economic and social ones. Cities that are more pedestrian friendly have been linked to increased local shopping and retail sales, and a more vibrant sense of community. Tourists find pedestrian-friendly cities more welcoming, and tend to spend more time and money in places where walking and cycling is more accessible.

I understand that, well, Vancouver ain’t no Copenhagen. We’re simply not at a place, be that politically or logistically, where a large-scale infrastructural overhaul can take place to make Vancouver’s streets just as accessible to bikes and pedestrians as it is to vehicles. But baby steps can be made. And I propose that making Granville Island car-free be one of those baby steps. There are plenty of public transit options around the Island for individuals to get to the entrance. We might consider creating more opportunities for street car linkage and increased bus service to the island. For those individuals who simply must take a vehicle, limited paid parking stalls can be kept available, with revenues going towards more sustainable transportation options.

As it stands, the beauty and distinctiveness that is Granville Island is being sullied and tarnished. And what kind of statement do we want to make in the world when they visit our beautiful province in 2010? I suggest we take this small step, make a statement about what we, as Vancouverites, stand for, and save this little Gem of an island from the tarnish of exhaust.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Community Gardens Coming to City Hall

That's right. Gone will be the green grass lawn of city hall. Replacing it will be a beautiful series of community gardens. The move came shortly after the forming of a new green team (not this green team...) by Mayor Gregor Robertson.

The new gardens will be administered by folks in the Fairview community and city staff and will be coordinated in partnership between Vancouver city hall and SPEC (the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation).

The expansion of the new community gardens is a great step in the right direction. However, there's still a ton more that can be done. What about the long BC Hydro rail line that stretches through the west end? Envision with me, the entire route, straight through Kits, Arbutus Ridge, Kerrisdale, and onwards, paved with a cycle friendly "greenway" (to borrow from Copenhaegen, self proclaimed city of cyclists) and lined on both sides with community gardens maintained by the scores of apartment and condo dwellers we're increasingly going to see appear as we densify our city.

That's the dream, but community gardens at city hall is a nice first step.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Multicultural Mafia

These days gangs are big news. Since January, 11 people have died by gun related violence. The shootings have thrown a spotlight (again) on the prevalence of gang living in our midst.

In the old days men like Lucky Luciano, Tony Soprano (yeah, I know he isn't real, but his character he plays is), Hal Bruce Porteous of the Hells Angels or local Indo-Canadian gang-star Bindy Johal led ethnic crews that shared a cultural and linguistic heritage. They may have dealt with outsiders, but membership and promotion came to only those "in the family". In the smash hit Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese sketches it out for through his character Henry Hill, who can never become a "made guy" on account of his Irish roots. The reasoning behind all of this was the shared community experience, based on ethnicity, ensured respect for the gangs core principles and protected against outside infiltration from cops or "others". Similar traditions were embedded into other gangs, be they Chinese, Russian, East Indian, Vietnamese, or Irish.

Nowadays, the big gang making many of the waves around the city is the UN gang. Modeled on the Italian Mafia with initiation inspiration taken from the Chinese Triads, this new gang has grown from a handful of Abbotsford high school friends into a potent criminal organization employing around 50-100 core members and hundreds of other associates in the space of a decade. They deal predominately in exporting and selling pot and cocaine, but also have been known to dabble in extortion, kidnapping, weapons trafficking and cross border drug trafficking.

What makes the UN gang so interesting, is their apparent departure from traditional single ethnic membership into a multicultural gang that recruits players of East Indian, Caucasian, Persian and Asian backgrounds. A recent picture of the gang published in 24 hours shows the diversity of their membership.

The UN gang's success in creating an organization that's able to connect its members through mutual interest (ie criminal interest) rather than blood. It's a good bet that their diversity has helped them penetrate a variety of communities that would otherwise be off-limits if they were a uni-ethnic gang. This type of multiculturalism is the darkside of building community. But its also interesting that it would come out of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, a place where we've had ethnic and cultural mingling for several generations. Will older style gangs embrace this new organizational model? Two generations from now, on the hit TV vid "Sopranos 2050" will Tony Soprano III defer to his made guy and conciliar Jon Ca Lee?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dodgeball: Building Community through the Pain and Degradation of Others

Sometimes communities need to band together in order to fend off and/or thwart an external tormentor. The external force could be anything. It could be aliens, the UN Gang, zombies, rabid raccoons, Hummer owners, ninjas, pirates, or Republicans. Point is, how can we - as a community - receive the proper training to repel external threats. The answer, my friends, is dodgeball.

On Tuesday night, my good friend Krista invited her brother (Kurt) and I to play a little dodgeball at BCIT. Kurt couldn't make it because he is/was sick or dead, I can't remember which, but I was happy to go along. And - wow - was it ever worth it. I got to play on a team that had fun, gave me some exercise and taught me some key moves to repel invaders.

I've played dodgeball a few times before, but never on a court/surface so big. There was a no-man's land for crying out loud! It was totally possible for players to be trapped behind enemy lines, so to speak (again, I'll point out that playing dodgeball, like any team sport, simultaneously builds community and prepares us for fighting zombies).

To be honest, during the game my high school athlete persona kicked into action, and I concentrated hard on dodging, diving, dipping, ducking, catching, and hurling balls with great vigor and no remorse. Given the size of the court, we all ran a lot too. Needless to say, I was looking out for myself and my teammates, and not really taking it all in. But in between games or after I took a few balls to the face and got knocked out, well, I had a chance to stand back and take it all in.


Maybe it was because of the two teams playing, but there was little to no degradation, humiliation or pain to be seen. In fact, rarely have I ever seen such things on the dodgeball court. There was/is a lot of fun to be witnessed, though. For example, one of the players on the opposing team could not stop smiling for the entire game. Whether he got someone out, caught a ball, dodged a blow, or took one to the face, the kid just had this amazing, perfect grin spread across his face the whole time. It was contagious.

Speaking of the contagiousness of this particular game, just type "dodgeball" into Google and/or YouTube and see what comes up. This second-tier "sport" (let's face it, people) has inspired a whole weird and amazing online community, with a litany of creative and entertaining "how-to" videos as well as some particularly amusing examples of hits, misses and spectacular outfits.

In conclusion, there are two main findings on which to reflect.

First, holy crap did we ever have a fun time of it last night. Thinking about the young man on the other team who couldn't stop smiling if he tried is making me smile today. Dodgeball is ridiculous in every way (sorry to all the serious, balls-deep players out there). You can't help but have fun whilst playing. The game represented social, cultural and ability leveling at its very best. It was a beautiful, inclusive experience!

Second, I will simply say that if the Roman Empire had played a little more dodgeball and done a little less gladiatorial spectating, they wouldn't have crumbled so easily under the needling, constant attacks by the "barbarian" invaders from Downtown Germania and elsewhere. So, to you, the community, I challenge you to get involved, be active and start dodging everyday household items at your earliest convenience. Because, when the revolution/invasion* comes, it will be important to know how to get out of the way.

Good talk. I'll see you out there!


*I don't mean to scare you, but the Work Less Party is actually much, much, more active and organized than you might think. Ironically, they're working hard to change our collective lifestyle, and aren't against employing ninja zombie robots to get things started. I'm just giving you a friendly heads-up. Good luck!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fixing Broken Communities: Harvard, Celebrities and the Cult of Me!

Long story short, since my summer job with the federal government, I've been offering career advice and guidance to students and young people from a myriad of disciplines, backgrounds (cultural and socioeconomic) and styles.

Two articles that flashed across my screen this week have me deeply troubled. Young people of the world, you are the only ones who can save our global, national, regional, municipal, and neighbourhood communities! The first step, stop watching reality television; specifically, American Idol. Please, let me explain.

The first article I'll address was written by Siobhan Rowe, the Oh, and By the Way columnist for Vancouver 24 Hours; no offense to Ms. Rowe, but it wasn't so much the article that caught my attention as it was the study on which she was focusing her lens. She addressed the cult of celebrity and the Oscars. I'd like to talk about career development.

Here are some rather disturbing findings from Ms. Rowe's article. In their book, The Ego Boom, Canadian authors Steve Maich and Lianne George refer to an American study which found that more college freshman want to be an actor or entertainer, rather than a veterinarian, doctor, social worker, or member of the clergy. Given the choice between fame or comfort, 29 per cent of today's young people would choose fame. This kind of narcissism is why people born after 1980 are being called the "me" generation.

And then there are the MBAs from Harvard who killed Wall Street and the banking system.

Well, that's what Kevin Hassett, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprize Institute, thinks about narcissism as it relates to the infusion of the financial system with the "best and brightest" from around the world. In the 1970s, Wall Street was run by "regular" and "normal" people; the industry was a cross-section of North American culture, skill and intelligence. Ideas on Wall Street and Bay Street came from everywhere. The best and brightest tended to become engineers, astronauts, doctors, and, perhaps, lawyers. And then Ivy League MBAs, drawn to the industry for a variety of reasons - including salary and lifestyle - arrived on Wall Street. Suddenly, risky financial models were being created to justify the bloated salaries of the over-educated movers and shakers of the finance sector. Hassett's argument is supplemented by a report from Amy Brunell, who argued that the an Ivy League MBA education has large implications for real-world settings, because "narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decision-making performance and can be ineffective and potentially destructive leaders." Does every MBA from Harvard become, as Hassett implies, a powerful leader because of the confidence-infused, narcissistic traits that came to fruition during their education? Hardly. But he does have a point, and this is it: "Wall Street didn't die in spite of being run by our best and brightest. It died because of that fact."

So where does this leave us? What does it have to do with The Gumboot and our community? What about your career, reader? Why are celebrities and MBAs from Harvard harbingers of social destruction? Here's the where, what and why:

Community and the overall livelihood of our planet depend on "we," not "me." The above two examples are probably the most exaggerated forms of narcissistic, self-centered approaches to life, the universe and everything. Now. As a global team - which we totally are - none of us are going to get anywhere unless we work together. Obviously, there's a strong argument for entertainers (ideally, they're our poets and storytellers) and financial experts (our bankers and money lenders that drive the economy) to maintain a prominent role in society. What I'm saying is that if you're a student looking for a career, think about your options.

First, you gotta do what you love. If you have to act, then you have to act. Remember that these days, though, there's more at stake than just one person's happiness. Sorry to break it to you. Second, we have enough actors, musicians, and Paris Hiltons. Not to mention nearly 100,000 un-employed professionals from Wall Street. We need doctors and nurses and engineers and community organizers and environmental stewards; people who can bring everyone up to a new, better level, rather than make the rich richer while perpetuation the notion that such a practice is a good idea, if not supercool and worthy of a college freshman's life-goal (editor's note: I'm thinking mostly of hip hop videos, The Thomas Crown Affair, and questions like "who are you wearing?!"). Third, there's more to life than money and fame, people. And, get this, with the series of pipes and tubes that is the world wide web, well, anyone can be famous!

So there it is. Students of the world (or the seven of you that read this blog and the three of those seven that tell three of your friends...so, like, the nine of you that hear about this), where and how we work is arguably the most effective medium through which we can create so many wonderful changes that will help our communities.

As your summer work search approaches, think about putting "we" before "me" - it just might change the world.