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Canadian Studies Co-organizes Association of American Geographers field trip to Vancouver and Whistler

April 30, 2011

Above: Participants in front of the First Nations Cultural Centre in Whistler.

By Alison Gill, Simon Fraser University

From April 12th -16th over 7,000 geographers converged on Seattle to attend the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. On the weekend prior to that a field trip entitled “Vancouver and Whistler: Seeking Sustainability” was, co-organized by Dr Alison Gill, a professor in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Nadine Fabbi, Associate Director, Canadian Studies Centre, University of Washington. With the excellent assistance of Leoule Goshu, a graduate student in the College of Education at the University of Washington, the 15 participants headed for Vancouver on the Amtrak train early on Saturday morning April 9th.

The focus of Saturday afternoon’s walking tour was False Creek, a redeveloped industrial waterfront in the heart of Vancouver. This provided a wonderful laboratory for examining the evolution of thinking around sustainable urban planning. After a very brief (2 minute!) voyage across False Creek on the small Aquabus ferry we arrived at Granville Island to get lunch in the bustling Public Market. Granville Island was developed in the mid-1980s as a redevelopment project based around mixed use including cultural, educational, commercial and some remaining industrial uses (including a cement factory). It is a vibrant people place that serves tourists and residents alike and is internationally acclaimed as an example of a very successful festival marketplace.

Due to a tight schedule, we then embarked on a ‘brisk’ walk (did I hear someone say ‘forced march’?) along the seawall that edges the 1970s residential development of South False Creek. Although preceding the era of “sustainability”, this development embodies many features that we now recognize as elements of sustainability. It represents a classic example of 1970s cutting edge urban and architectural design following emerging principles of ‘environmental design’ that gave precedence to issues of environmental and behavioral aspects of the quality of life. The influence of the work of Christopher Alexander who wrote “A Pattern Language” is clearly evident with such features as low rise buildings representing a humanness of scale, aesthetic features, parks, landscaping, and a heterogeneous social mix of residents and properties.

The view north across False Creek towards downtown and the North Shore Mountains showcased the second phase of development along the shoreline – that of the redeveloped Expo 86 lands. Bought by a Hong Kong developer, this high-density inner city neighborhood was developed in a style that became known as “Vancouverism” which features ‘point tower and podium’ development whereby narrow glass high-rises sit upon a broad base of street level development for commercial or residential development. The development is internationally recognized as a successful master-planned community for bringing families into downtown core and the architectural style has been emulated in cities around the world.

Our final stop was the new (still under development) Village at False Creek, a state- of-the-art sustainable residential development that was used as athletes’ housing during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Our guide was Scot Hein, a senior designer with the Urban Design Studio for the City of Vancouver, who was very engaged in this development. Our tour began with a visit to the Neighbourhood Energy Utility Centre where sewage from the neighborhood is converted into energy for heating buildings. It is one of many innovations showcased in the development that seeks to demonstrate how to be a “green city”. It is part of the City of Vancouver’s overall goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. All buildings in the development are all gold standard LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified and the community centre is platinum rated.

On Sunday morning we headed by coach along what we had billed as “the spectacular Sea-to-Sky highway” to Whistler. Unfortunately it was pouring with rain and foggy. Nevertheless, our visit to Whistler was excellent, thanks in part to the hotel supplying large umbrellas! Dr Peter Williams, a Professor with the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, joined us. Peter and I have been conducting research in Whistler for the past two decades examining many aspects of growth and change. Our recent research looks at the emergence of new models of sustainable governance. Whistler has long been an innovator in environmental management in mountain resorts destinations. The latest innovation broadens governance and management approaches in its development of a new comprehensive approach. This was the theme of our commentary as we walked around the resort village. Also joining us was Ian Ponsford, a current PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University who worked for four years for the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee as a sustainability planner. One of the legacies of the Games is the striking Squamish-Lillooet Cultural Centre where we ate “traditional” food for lunch. The First Nations are new stakeholders in the governance structure in the resort community.

Our cold afternoon in the rain ended with a wonderful ‘fireside chat’ and reception back at our hotel. We were joined by three guests who led us in a very lively discussion on sustainability: Erin Romanchuk and Naomi Devine from Whistler Centre for Sustainability and Dave Waldron, a consultant, who had worked on Whistler’s environmental management strategies and on establishing the Natural Step process that forms the basis of the new sustainable governance approach.

The following morning, despite early morning snow showers in Whistler, the skies cleared and the sun came out for our return journey to Vancouver allowing for a few photo stops en route. While Vancouver looked its most spectacular with sun, blue skies and snow covered North Shore Mountains, our Monday visit was to see the less glamorous face of Vancouver. Abigail Bond, Assistant Director of Housing Policy for the City of Vancouver met us and took us to the fringes of the Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood of poor and homeless people and drug addicts. This area has presented persistent social and housing problems for the City. However, as Abigail demonstrated in her presentation to us in the newly developed multiuse Woodward’s building (that includes market, non-market and social housing components), progress is being made to address the problems.

Our final trek, a quick jaunt to get a sense of historic Gastown, the cruise ship terminal, the new conference centre, the classic art deco Marine Building and Chinatown, brought us back to the railway station for the bus ride back to Seattle. It was a hectic three days but we all learned a lot – including the organizers!

Alison Gill is a Professor in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University. Her primary research interests lie in the relationship of tourism to community planning and development. Alison has conducted research in Whistler and other mountain resort communities for the past six years. She is especially interested in considering what effect the development of tourism has on the social, political and economic processes and structures of communities.

This project was supported, in part, by funding from the Center’s Title VI grant, U.S. Department of Education, International and Foreign Language Education.