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Wendy Sarkissian Presentation at VIA: Engaging NIMBY with LOVE

Mar 25, 2013
Dr. Wendy Sarkissian goes to a public open house event after speaking to VIA about the need for LOVE in discussions of density.

Dr. Wendy Sarkissian goes to a public open house event after speaking to VIA about the need for LOVE in discussions of density.

 

In March, VIA Architecture’s Vancouver office was delighted to host a presentation by Dr. Wendy Sarkissian. Having just finished series of lectures with Harvard’s Graduate Design School, Wendy stopped into Vancouver on her way back to Australia, where she lives and bases her practice. She talked with our staff and guests about public engagement needed when engaging communities with density and about an underpinning need for love in planning and design processes.  Using the city-building fields’ “psychological” roots to explore the social and emotional dimensions of housing, Wendy enquires on what is missing in higher density housing in North America and Australia and why NIMBYism persists.

Canadian-born Wendy Sarkissian has worked as a social planning consultant and academic in Australia since 1969. The author of eight books on community engagement, planning and housing, she is a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia. Wendy has worked in a great variety of planning contexts, including inner city and suburban community renewal, high-rise housing evaluation and innovative community engagement programs. Her engagement and thinking about the social aspects of housing has roots in her teaching at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s, her forty years of professional practice and her co-authoring (with Clare Cooper Marcus) of a classic book on the social aspects of housing design: Housing as if People Mattered (University of California, 1986).

Nimby Density and Loving Attention in Planning:

The West End of Boston was razed in urban renewal projects that were common in the second half of the 20th Century. Similar devastating impacts are still felt by many communities, and have tainted redevelopment and urban intensification efforts ever since. Photo credit: West End Museum

The West End of Boston was razed in urban renewal projects that were common in the second half of the 20th Century. Similar devastating impacts are still felt by many communities, and have tainted redevelopment and urban intensification efforts ever since. Photo credit: West End Museum

 

Offering her Homing Instinct model, Wendy proposes that if we are to design community engagement processes to address delicate, sensitive psychological issues about our core territories of housing and home, we are going to have to start by showing a lot more love, care and emotional intelligence than we have in the past.

Sarkissian presented to the group that Not-In-My-Back-Yard sentiments often have legitimate underpinnings. Change is threatening, especially where design products are not identifiable or are disconnected to the lives and living of those that will be impacted by development. In many cases the unitary products of dense housing design are not identifiable as “housing” and especially not as “homes”. She suggests that there are 30 years of existing literature and work on the psychology and frameworks for humane housing design. When we ignore the impacts of inhumane design we risk creating palpable impacts, and can reasonably expect that communities will reject and even fight those impositions in their “Back Yards”.

In Seattle NIMBY action halted renewal associated with the Alaska Way Viaduct, which came close to removing the now celebrated Pike Place Market. Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives.

In Seattle NIMBY action halted renewal associated with the Alaska Way Viaduct, which came close to removing the now celebrated Pike Place Market. Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives.

 

Root Shock, the real grief experienced when a sense of place is lost due to neighbourhood restructuring or disaster, fears of potential futures. The NIMBY cases often react to such fears, and neighbourhood restructuring in North America and Australia has a history of massive impacts to communities and neighbourhoods. Wendy spoke of the West End of Boston where redevelopment ripped out the heart of immigrant communities and where she could feel echoes of loss and pain in now desolate places.

In public engagement processes, respect for the legitimacy of community fears must be balanced and addressed with anticipatory processes about finding products that can and could be. Sarkissian presents a necessity to go back to the power of the literature from around the time of that “summer of love” and respond to NIMBY concerns with models and processes rooted in “LOVE”, where:

L is for Listening, ensuring that ideas and concerns have a place to be heard and recorded;

O is for Openness, to provide inclusivity to realize the array of voices and acknowledge those who may be otherwise unheard;

V is for Validation, where respect for local views is also diligent in addressing the contexts of influence and power in decision making that can overwhelm or undermine the impact of engagement for individual and marginalized community members; and

E is for Education, where the process is about expanding on both sides community capacity, literacy, and understanding in terms of sustaining our living earth, with the understanding that our engagement and design activities with regard to density are being carried to enable a sustainable future.

There are many strategies to engaging communities with this “LOVE”, but Wendy warns of the crucial need for diligence in engagement.

A process must understand that people think, process, and produce differently. Wendy referred to Neural Linguistic Programming, wherein the way a world is understood creates and requires products that engage multiple senses. Some people will need multiple formats to deal with the same information, spatial maps, visual imagery, experiential story telling, social interaction, written word, among many need to be thought of and included to facilitate a clear projection of how people are engaged together in a place.

There is a need to be clear and complete on recording and analysis.  “The Kookier the process the more anal retentive the analysis”, she told the group. Creativity, and whimsy is critical in engaging people in the process, but we must make sure that the concepts and valuable inputs are not lost in the pageantry of an event.

 

Public engagement is like a relay race where there is a stringent sequence of events and crucial information needs to be carefully passed forward. Photo credit: State Library of Queensland.

Public engagement is like a relay race where there is a stringent sequence of events and crucial information needs to be carefully passed forward. Photo credit: State Library of Queensland.

 

Navigating contexts of power in an engagement process demands understanding of what VIA principal Graham McGarva calls “pathways to getting to yes”. Wendy presents this carrying of knowledge as running a baton relay race. Unless you are actually in the race, start on time, are at the starting line, running in a lane, carrying a baton [local knowledge or information], are able to jump hurdles on an uneven track, keep the baton in your hand and pass it to someone who can cross the line and hand it to an “expert” [who will inevitably have a “blind spot”], your views have little or no chance of having “influence”.

I had the fortune, after her talk, to accompany Wendy to a City of Vancouver public open house for the Marpole Community Plan. A relatively empty school gymnasium greeted us, along with dozens of boards, so densely packed with text information that they presented a wall of information that inferred [despite the notations requesting comments] that the plan was finished and that comments were only superfluous. While it is noted that the Marpole plan amongst others has gone through a rigorous process, but that the City’s standard Open House engagement model falls short of providing a process where the community feels listened to and LOVE’d about a changing community.

We can do better. We hope to be part of better.

The Open House format of engagement, while dense with information had difficulty clearly reflecting the impacted community's input, ideas, and value. Photo credit: Brendan Hurley.

The Open House format of engagement, while dense with information had difficulty clearly reflecting the impacted community’s input, ideas, and value. Photo credit: Brendan Hurley.

Thanks Wendy for showing us some ways to be better, more authentic, more loving, community facilitators for better cities.