Community Correspondent: Give Vancouver neighbourhoods the tools for change

Community activism, creativity alive and well in Mountain View

Soon my wife and daughter will mark 10 years since we have resided a half-block off Fraser Street. Like so many who have settled in this neighbourhood - dubbed Mountain View because of its proximity to the Vancouver cemetery - we feel privileged to be a part of this community. We benefit from the close access to transit, fine public schools, places to dine, shop and play at, and of course, good neighbours.

Though I had lived all over the city, what immediately attracted me to Mountain View was the community activism. We had barely emptied the moving van when we heard about the struggles our neighbours had faced to make the streets safe here for families, and welcoming to newcomers. Tapping into the spirit and creativity of community was something envisioned by the CityPlan initiative, which city council adopted in 1992.

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I could see our new neighbourhood would not only provide an opportunity to get involved, it looked like it could be fun, too.

We worked hard to mark Mountain View on the city's map. Neighbourhood clean-ups were practically like parties. We met to plan annual activities such as community BBQs, applied for neighbourhood matching grants and organized safety patrols.

We combatted graffiti with city-provided paint supplies stored in my garage, and by painting empty walls with attractive murals. The community also collaborated with the city on a unique traffic-calming project that used old railway ties as curbs.

To stay connected, our volunteers erected bulletin boards, maintained community email lists and eventually created a website that I have maintained since 2004. Lately, our "Vancouver Mountain View" Facebook group passed 100 members.

Mountain View helped to establish a new city category for street banners - "the neighbourhood society." In 2011, we persuaded a bottom-line conscious housing developer to ante up thousands of dollars to help pay for new banners. We recently pushed the digital envelope by creating the "Fraser Street Stories" place-markers that allow you to interact with your smart phone.

The lesson of Mountain View is clear: give communities the resources they need to shape their destiny and to help cities evolve. These creative place-making concepts, preached by Jim Diers in Seattle and Dave Meslin in Toronto, underlie the "radical" ideas behind the 20-year old CityPlan initiative. Today, however, you can barely find any mention of CityPlan on the city's website (helpful link: http://bit.ly/vancityplan).

As a result of these community improvements and other factors, new high density developments are coming to Fraser Street. Yet those of us living nearby do not know what this change will ultimately look like.

Where, for example, can we expand public space in proportion to the increasing numbers of new residents? As housing costs rise, can we make raising a family here as attractive without the luxury of a backyard? Reviving CityPlan might help us to answer questions like these.

Admittedly, asking citizen stakeholders to design their communities does have its risks. But the experience in Vancouver proves that we can benefit from a bottom-up approach to planning neighbourhoods.

And the best part about it for those who get involved, it can be a whole lot of fun.

Mike Klassen (@MikeKlassen) is a Vancouver communications and public affairs professional.

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