Thursday, June 18, 2009

BC Land Summit: Preparing for Thrivability ~ In Conversation with Mark Holland

by hans peter meyer

Over the course of the May 20-22 BC Land Summit in Whistler, BC, Communities in Transition interviewed several participants and speakers. One of these was Mark Holland, a principal and co-founder of HBLanarc Consultants, and proponent of the "8 Pillars of Sustainability " as a community planning tool. Mark is widely recognized for his leadership in sustainability planning.

hpm: Tell me a bit about what you're doing at the BC Land Summit.

Mark: A good number of the projects we've been working on [at HBLanarc] caught the attention of conference planners and a number of our staff, including myself, are presenting. Primarily we're presenting on 3-4 different areas. One is on environmental protection of the foreshore. Harriet Ruggeberg, one of our environmental planners, is here talking about a development rating system she led called Green Shores. This establishes a number of different guidelines and rating systems and priorities for how to develop in sensitive riparian areas. This is very exciting.

We've also got several teams talking about climate change. Some are talking about climate change in general terms, but quite a bit of the focus right now is on transportation or more "active" transportation. In particular, they're talking about developing strategies and unfolding the model for communities in BC that have to include green house gas emissions (GHGs) targets in all their official community plans going forward.

We're also doing work on urban food systems and the future of the agricultural land reserve, and strategies for preserving our food production capacities. This is especially important as there is increasing pressure on our agricultural land. We're looking at some alternative strategies and agendas for something we call "agricultural urbanism." This is about how to design and structure communities so that not only are they highly productive in terms of food, but they celebrate food, educate people about food, and actually endow the overall food system, through transfers of profit from some of the development into food education, among other possible areas.

The final topic we're talking about relates to some theories we've been working on with others around urban vitality. We think that diversifying urban society with many different types of people is a positive thing if there is common ground, and that where these differences can find common ground and build community, new friends, and new social capital – these are actually predicated on sharing activities. Communities that have a lot of shared activities are the most vital and the most interesting. So some of what we're doing here is developing the theories around this. What we're presenting on is what we call "subcultural precincts" – parts of the city that can be really exciting as locations for these kinds of shared activities.

That's a pretty wide range of things that we're presenting on, and I'm sure I've forgotten a few things. The Summit is a really good opportunity to get all the professions that deal with land together, and have a conversation about what's new.

hpm: How does this year's Land Summit compare to the 2004 BC Land Summit?

Mark: It's hard to compare them. There's a new kind of energy or pressure today. Some things, like climate change and the forces bearing down on cities are generating a new sense of creativity and – dare I say? – 'urgency.'

With this Summit I'm seeing the next generation of land use professionals coming forward. A lot of the people who were just beginning their careers 5 years ago are now moving into leadership positions in their organizations. We're getting a lot of new energy, a wave of new thinking coming forward. It's really exciting.

hpm: What are some of this year's highlights so far?

Mark: That's hard to say. I've actually been presenting more than observing. But there were a couple of things that came out today that I think are very interesting.

In one of the sessions we heard from a pollster named Angus McAllister. He was talking about the idea of activity and how we understand the people who live in cities. He brought forward the new models that pollsters are using for demographic work right now. Most of this data right now is used – with the exception of government stats – to drive marketing, to drive sales of things to different groups of people. He started to notice that amongst all the different demographic groups, and all the differences that pollsters and marketing people are trying to identify – he started to think that it was actually more interesting to notice what all these different groups have in common. And that maybe we need to start building our cities and communities about places and things we have in common, rather than focusing on how we are different. [Editor's note: An upcoming posting of the CIT Information Resource will feature an interview with Angus McAllister.]

Another presentation I really liked came from David Zirnheldt. He's a former BC cabinet minister, and he's a farmer in Beaver Valley near Williams Lake. His farm has been in the family for 5 generations. He was wearing a suit jacket, but his hands were those of a working farmer. And the way he spoke, it was an eloquent presentation about the dynamic challenge we are beginning to face around the social contract to do with our food systems. He spoke with real power about the social contract we have with farmers. Very, very thoughtful and wise call for all of us to look ahead and re-invigorate what has become an entirely market commodity system, with a new sense of morality, one that isn't part of a market commodity system, but one that is rooted in the future of our province.

Those were just two examples. There were a number of others that I found quite exciting as well.

hpm: What's coming up in the conference that you're looking forward to?

Mark: Tonight's presentation by Robert Kennedy Jr. will be good. We're going to get a 'big picture' leadership view from someone with very strong vision on the role of government and elected leaders in moving toward sustainability. I think this is going to be quite interesting.

There are a couple of other people I'm quite interested to hear from. One is Brent Toderian, the next generation director of planning at the City of Vancouver, and a very strong advocate of interesting things. Another is Sherry Wagner, from the Deep South of the US. Her thoughts on "livability" and "what makes the city a great place?" are important. We're all arguing for denser cities, for more people to live in less space, for good reasons. The question is, once we get everyone there, what makes that place a profoundly exciting place to live, what makes it more than a dormitory? What makes it into a really dynamic place? Some really interesting things there.

There's also going to be more on the Olympic Village. This is going to be one of the leading residential developments in BC when it's done. It's building on years of work that Whistler's been doing on climate change. So we've got a few really top folks here – Brent Harley, Mike Vance, Joe Redman – really sharp people who have a lot of years of experience and commitment to Whistler. It's been a big effort to bring this class of event to Whistler and it should be exciting to hear from them.

hpm: Is the BC Land Summit important?

Mark: This question came up in a presentation – it was asked by one of the professors from the University of Northern BC. He asked this during a session on planning for food. He said, "The planning and design professions have left food behind: We've foregone some of our responsibility."

As the conversation went on it became apparent that there are a lot of things going on right now that require a different kind of leadership on the part of professionals – leadership that will step forward to engage the public debate. 40-50 years ago, planners and architects made some very big mistakes about urban renewal. People, and even the professions themselves, got very concerned about leaving experts in charge. So we've moved entirely away from an expert-driven agenda.

In some ways this is very good. However, as we move into this next chapter – the next 50 years, but particularly the next 15-20 as we basically decide whether we keep the earth's temperature rise to within 2 degrees or whether we let it run away to at least 4 degrees, and the huge implications that this has for us – in this next chapter we have a lot of knowledge that we need to learn and share. I think we're going to move into an environment where architects and planners are leaders. Not just fulfilling our transactional responsibilities and roles, but actually having to step forward as some of the leaders and scouts for society at large, on how we do things.

This has not really been the role we've taken with today's highly consultative planning. I'm not saying that we need to set aside the consultative planning. But we're going to need to develop ways of doing this that are more more relevant, highly educative, and more strategic.

What's important about this Summit is that it is the venue for the joint AGMs or conferences of the provincial architecture institute, the society of landscape architects, the professional agrologists' association, and the planning institute. These are four of the fundamental professions that essentially work together, and research, and know, and work with the complex issues of where and how we build, and how we maintain that. To get them all together for a few days, in a great place that helps create an open frame of mind – when you get them all together to share on a number of related complex ideas, it allows a non-prejudicial discussion. Many of us work together on different projects. But we play different roles. We're not really allowed, due to client relations or responsibilities, to explore these complexities. This conference allows us to share some of the most current things we're thinking in a non-prejudicial and open way.

We need more of these, not less, if we're seriously going to grapple with the ingenuity challenges and strategic solutions that are required for BC's towns and communities to not only prepare for, but to prepare to thrive, prepare to prosper over the course of the next 50-100 years.

End note:
The 2009 BC Land Summit was a gathering of over 800 land use practitioners from across the province. The Summit took place over May 20-22 in Whistler, and was hosted by
• The British Columbia Association of the Appraisal Institute of Canada
The Real Estate Foundation of BC was a major funder of the event in 2004 and again in 2009.

©Real Estate Foundation of BC / 2009. We encourage the reproduction of articles on this website non-profit educational purposes. Please notify the Foundation and the author of all reproductions, including in-house uses.

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