Jacobs and Florida and Gehl oh my! Who really influences our local politicians?

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Scholars of urban studies or urban planning were probably not all too surprised to hear Kirk LaPointe cite Richard Florida as someone whose ideas have influenced or inspired him when thinking about cities, and Vancouver in particular. My friends over at the Vancouver Economic Commission drank the Richard Florida Kool-Aid at least 6 of 7 years ago and if you ask me it’s partly why Vancouver’s tech and startup community has been booming in this past half decade. VEC is always on the hunt for space, for angel investors, for partnerships that can aid in the growth of this sector, and they should be proud of their work in this regard. This isn’t a bad thing, those are great jobs, but I’ve been critical of too much focus on high-tech and not enough on brick and mortar businesses, the range of SMEs that employ the vast majority of Vancouverites for the past few years. I’ve also been critical of the role they see tech playing in the context of the DTES local economy, but I’ll save that for another time. It’s worth noting that although Florida gets tomatoes thrown at him as a high priest of gentrification (metaphorical tomatoes) he has also come out calling for a higher minimum wage to ensure livability in cities like Vancouver.

LaPointe’s answer is not unexpected because it points to a focus on economic growth, in my opinion. I might have been more shocked if he cited good ol’ Logan and Molotch but Florida’s ideas about cities, innovation and the modern workforce (a workforce of culture consumers and place makers) is not at all out of the narrative that the NPA has put forward this election. Why are we scared about Kinder Morgan? It’s going to create jobs right? Florida is also someone that many would probably not have been surprised to hear Robertson cite too, but my SFU Urban Studies cohort felt pretty much across the board that Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida, despite being thought provoking and influential in public discoures, were both yawners. Pretty obvious choices, maybe even populist choices.

But Jan Gehl!!

Who the hell is that?

Jan Gehl is a highly respected, internationally renowned Danish Architect and urban designer whose focus is on pedestrian friendly (let’s say “active transportation friendly”) urban design and use of public spaces. His book Public Spaces, Public Life explores how Copenhagen has been steadily transformed over the past few decades to become an increasingly livable city powered by active transportation and active use of public spaces.

Here’s a nice little video his firm Gehl Architects did.

Gehl has studied how people move through and utilize or behave in public spaces for decades. He’s big on the idea “activity centres” and spaces between buildings. One of his principle ideas is that within a distance of 20 minutes any resident of a city should be able to make their daily needs, live, work, play etc. Here in Vancouver Vision has set a goal of promoting “walkable neighbourhoods” and has given priority to pedestrians. When we see street closures on Robson for giant bean bags or a public coral reef lounge area, when we see VIVA Vancouver funds or Neighbourhood Small Grants (Vancouver Foundation) going into micro-activiations of communities (like the now heavily anticipated Alley-Oke event that happens yearly in my neighbourhood of Strathcona) I think we’re seeing Jan Gehl’s ideas translating into policy and funding directives in Vancouver. From both the City and important partner funders like the Vancouver Foundation or Real Estate Foundation. Robertson’s answer of Jan Gehl seemed telling of how he sees the city, especially in light of all the funding that has gone into activating public spaces and into active transportation.

Here’s some relatively recent work Gehl Architects did for the City of Seattle if you read over it you’ll probably notice that a lot of the same principles can be found in City of Vancouver documents around the Transportation 2040 Plan and the Engaged City Task Force. Both initiatives under Mayor Robertson. 

So, how do we summarize? And let’s agree that this is not an exhaustive examination of the party platforms while comparing them to great urban thinkers or current authors or academics. This is an exercise to get us thinking by hearing about what they themselves say they’re thinking about. Jane Jacobs, Charles Montgomery, Mike Davis, Saskia Sassen, Richard Florida, Jim Green, Jan Gehl. They could be influenced by far worse thinkers.

Here’s a super rudimentary snapshot summary that I feel relates to the party platforms if not at least the party rhetoric over the past few months.

Jane Jacobs, Charles Montgomery – concerned about the nature of development, siding with community organizers in Grandview-Woodland, Strathcona Marpole et al. tapping in to populist outrage about towers and affordability and gentrification and related issues (COPE, Green Party, NPA respondents - Pete Fry, Mike Wiebe, Rob McDowell, Meena Wong)

Richard Florida – The city as a centre of commerce and innovation. Educated and affluent workforce. Culturally rich and diverse city with plenty of amenities. Economy over environment? (Kirk LaPointe - although I'm still sure Robertson could've similarly noted Florida)

Saskia Sassen, Mike Davis, Charles Montgomery – Where cities are going, how cities are developing, class tensions, safety, fear, hope and happiness, social capital (creation or erosion of in relation to urban development and design) and cities in a global context. (Geoff Meggs, Vision Vancouver)

Jan Gehl – Healthy and animated public spaces, active transportation and pedestrian friendly cities. The importance of urban design and the relationship between the built environment and social activity in communities. (Gregor Robertson, Vision Vancouver)

If you have another analysis please share a comment below. Now that you know who influences these people GET OUT AND VOTE!


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