Shaping Vancouver 2024: Community-Based Planning Conversation 1 Apr 16, 2024

This event will be a conversation with Irwin Oostindie, Director at VOOR Urban Labs. We will have a wide ranging discussion with Irwin on decolonization in urban planning, the importance of community engagement in neighbourhood planning, the relationships between urban planning and heritage, and the criticisms of community planning, community work and community solutions in the Vancouver context. 

We thank SFU Vancity Office of Community Engagement for their support in delivering and presenting this event.

We also thank Jak’s South Granville for their support.

Guest- Irwin Oostidie

With more than three decades track record in complex cross-cultural environments, Irwin has worked for multiple local governments, First Nations, public sites, as Executive Director for multiple non-profits, and founded multiple community formations in Vancouver’s inner-city and suburbs. An expert in urban planning, social procurement, community cultural and economic development, he is also a thought leader on redress and reconciliation in Canada. He is happiest at work co-designing multi-stakeholder solutions to complex problems facing impacted communities.

One on One Conversation with Guest

What do you think that heritage is and what is your involvement in it? You’ve been invited to talk about heritage in other contexts, but you’re not a traditional “heritage” expert.[9:50]

Irwin Oostindie began by describing himself as a Dutch settler and giving his own land acknowledgement. In his definition of heritage, he focused on the idea of “redress” and the need to push the conversation on heritage from reconciliation towards redress. He argued that the construction of public space and civil architecture has roots in heritage, which can be a lens to understand those processes. While he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a heritage practitioner, when he looks back at his professional life, he sees that heritage has been a huge part of it. 

For example, Oostindie was the first communications coordinator at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre; this has informed his perspective. The origins of the Roundhouse lay in a group of white, middle-aged, middle-class heritage activists coming together on a rainy Tuesday morning to stop the bulldozers from tearing the Roundhouse building down. Because of their actions, we have one of the most amazing community arts centres in western Canada. Oostindie argues that this is a great use of heritage. Further, while he worked at the Roundhouse, he was able to put up an exhibit focusing on what Sen̓áḵw looked like and what had happened in that space in the past to educate the community.

Oostindie also helped run the North Vancouver Arts Council. While he worked there, he began to understand that heritage comes from a white tradition, in terms of what’s valued and not valued. As much as he thought he understood redress and the role of settlers, he emphasized that there’s still always a lot to unpack and unlearn. 

For example, he mentioned how, we think of reconciliation, we tend to focus on residential schools. But we don’t talk about the other 90% of the colonial system. When Oostindie was at the North Vancouver Arts Council, they used to have a folk festival where people of colour would basically ‘perform’ for white audiences. At that time, they didn’t recognize that multiculturalism was a white supremacist policy that centred their ‘inclusive society’ on whiteness and, as a result, they brought in new immigrant communities to perform as subjects. For Oostindie, learning about heritage helped him realize how much he didn’t know.

Up until the pandemic started, there was a strong opinion that Heritage was the heritage buildings. That changed, in part, because of the pandemic and the equity movement. But, now, there’s an idea gaining momentum that heritage can be stories, food, different attachments that people have to places and experiences in the city. That’s where heritage has moved to. For some people, that fracturing away from one solid concept of a heritage building has been difficult—how do you bring all those pieces together? How do you prioritize? What do you think about that change? [17:10]

Oostindie began by discussing a heritage project that he did with his daughter and his father and how it made him reframe his own definition of heritage. They did a reenactment of when his father was in hiding in Amsterdam during the ‘hunger winter’ of 1945 and kids were sent to farms about 200km away. His daughter reenacted this walk and Oostindie documented it. His daughter then told her story at Templeton High School. The story connected the tales of liberal democracy in the Netherlands and Canada and the exceptional relationship between these two nations.

As Oostindie looked at the audience during the event, he realized that every kid in the building had a grandparent who was in a war. So why had we privileged the connection with the Dutch? He reflected that all of the kids in the audience could interview their grandparents about war and democracy. Rather than reenacting these narrow nationalist tropes, he argued that we should empower all young people to talk about their family histories. 

Oostindie also discussed how nearly all of us are new settlers here in Vancouver and we need to recognize the genocide and colonial processes that we have taken part in. These things weren’t that long ago. Oostindie drew upon his own history growing up in North Vancouver: when he was a kid, he thought that the best part of growing up in North Vancouver was playing in the forest. But he didn’t realize that—5 years before he’d moved there—the place where he lived had been a forest. All those forests were cut down for development. He didn’t understand that he was a part of the colonial process of North Vancouver because, when you grow up in it, you think it’s normal. But now he can look back and see that how his parents had the ‘good fortune’ of buying land for $10-20,000 that’s now worth $1.5 million. But his indigenous neighbours didn’t just accrue $1.5 million in wealth in one generation. 

Oostindie argued that these types of discrepancies in wealth and privilege are with us in our planning decisions, community decisions, and neighbourhood plans. We can call ourselves a ‘city of reconciliation’ (and there has been good work done), but we haven’t tried to do a neighbourhood by neighbourhood reconciliation program. Oostindie argued that we need to do more to make reconciliation real: we need to have neighbourhoods, churches, universities, and schools inventory what happened and honour that. We need people to understand what happened in their own locations. Then, in our planning for the next 5-10 years, our knowledge of being in community together can be rooted in a historical understanding of place. He argued that we missed that opportunity in 2014 but we can still do it. 

Oostindie affirmed that heritage is not only the brick and mortar buildings that are fashionable in Yaletown and Chinatown, but the living heritage as well: the Chinese elders who live in those buildings; the trees and the forest. Oostindie reflected that he had once heard a former city councillor talk about how parts of Vancouver were ‘underdeveloped’ by the indigenous communities, but that comment ignored the genocide that wiped out 95% of the indigenous community. It also ignored the agricultural food forests that were here. Settlers don’t notice the systems that the colonial genocide wiped out. Living heritage is complicated.

[26:10] I’d like you to talk more about neighbourhood by neighbourhood reconciliation plans. How would you do this when a lot of people don’t see the issue the same way? There are examples of land development, such as the former RCMP headquarters on the Heather Lands site—as an act of reconciliation that building is being removed. Some people think that’s great and some are very unhappy about it. How do you deal with that? 

Oostindie argued that data is a profound tool to resource conversations about heritage. For example, when we talk about the new Vancouver Art Gallery building, people often focus on the Musqueam influence on the building’s facade but ignore the fact that very, very few indigenous artists have shown their worn inside the building. For Oostindie, reconciliation would at least mean a permanent Coast Salish gallery in the new Vancouver Art Gallery, but he thinks that the Vancouver Art Gallery should actually be owned by the First Nations and leased back to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Oostindie further explains the parallels he sees between the site of the  former RCMP headquarters and the site of the new art gallery. The Vancouver Art Gallery was built on the original military parade grounds of Vancouver, which is a site of enormous harm. Sites like that are being torn down and repurposed, but Oostindie argued that we also need data and archives to tell these stories. 

[31:48] Checking in to make sure that everyone is okay because this is an intense conversation. What are some of the reactions that you’ve gotten to some of your talks at other places about your statements? 

Oostindie answered that this is difficult; heritage is a big issue and it’s city wide. Primarily, he said that he tries to be accountable to his Coast Salish friends and teachers. From there, he relies on people being professionals. With his team, he’s helped produce symposiums to train arts, culture, and heritage organizations to do redress and reconciliation. But these conversations are hard when you’re in a room with city policy staff, researchers, small NGOs, and the Vancouver Art Gallery director. In that situation, who is the audience? Oostindie tries to focus on speaking from the heart and using stories. 

Oostindie argued that it’s imperative to understand the failure of reconciliation and how reconciliation functions as a spectacle that perpetuates colonialism as an administrative tool. It’s easy to critique reconciliation and make assessments about the marginal outcomes that have happened. But, Oostindie asked: “are we better equipped now to have emotional conversations?” He argued that, at large, society is ill-equipped to have these conversations. When we talk about these heavy issues facing neighbourhood, he asked: “how equipped are we at having these conversations, especially when there are people being shut out of the conversation and process so they get used to being guarded and feeling like they have to fight for their neighbourhood and values?”

[35:29] How can we get equipped with what we need to be equipped with? 

First and foremost, Oostindie emphasized that we need to recognize that very few of us have been here for more than a generation, or two, or three. Having listening skills and humility are necessary to do good work in neighbourhoods. 

He said that, because we’re not familiar with the culture of denial that we’ve grown up in, it’s easy to think of ourselves as a “Canuck nation.” But this denial and lack of knowledge of where we come from has made us susceptible to the continuing influence of the real estate industry. For example, the real estate developers argue that we need a Skytrain to UBC. Oostindie challenged this notion, asking, “Why? To build more towers? Why aren’t we getting mass transit for the actual masses.” He argued that the community has not been shown the complexity underneath these billion dollar decisions. It’s good that the MST Nations will get to develop lands at Jericho, but Oostindie hoped that UBC will pay for the transit out there, rather than having taxpayers pay for something that will disproportionately benefit UBC and residents at Jericho. 

To take another example, Oostindie mentioned how the city has done many planning exercises at the area around the Commercial Drive Skytrain. The Grandview-Woodland Area Council has their own views including an updated Britannia Community Centre, which had been in the plans for 15 years. But some local politicians wanted towers and in the end, the community can’t have their community centre until they accept the plan to build towers. Oostindie argued that the whole process would have been easier if all members privy to the decision could have put their cards on the table and had a planning exercise where everyone heard everyone’s needs and expectations. Then we could have had a difficult planning conversation where we were all prepared to compromise but we could also be excited about the outcome. Right now, Oostindie argued that these things are done to neighbourhoods and they don’t feel like they’re part of these decisions. He wished that we could create a culture of working together and gave an example of what happens in the Netherlands around complex community decisions.

[42:14] So, have you done something like that? Where people are willing to be transparent about their motivations and objectives? 

Oostindie mentioned that he was able to do something like this with Friends of Grandview Park about 10-15 years ago. At that time, there were discussions about emptying the caretaker buildings in the park. The Parks Board and the VPD decided that the caretaker buildings should be used as a community policing centre and the board signed off on it. When the community found out that the caretaker was leaving and was going to be replaced with police, they asked about the process to decide what to do with these buildings. 

Oostindie helped organize a process with the community where they could talk about their vision for the park. The community wanted afterschool and youth programming in the caretaker building. In the end, they did not get that. Oostindie reflected that the process was humbling for him. He’d been very idealistic as a planner but he learned that community voices weren’t necessarily important to the city. In the end, it was actually a positive thing that people saw that their voices weren’t heard. Nothing changed, but it was a powerful experience for the community. Sometimes important lessons come from failure. The community learned what they had in common and what they wanted. They lost the fight but may still win the war. 

[45:33] One of the criticisms of that is that, when you give people that voice, you might not like what you hear back. For example, sometimes people contact us because they think we can stop a development in their neighbourhood and they will say ‘we don’t want this here — it would be better on the arterial or a big street’. One of the problems with that is that a lot of big streets have small businesses and that’s a lot of pressure on them to “develop” and there’s probably no way for them to come back because the prices are going to increase. 

Oostindie mentioned Wes Regan’s work on gentrification and how commercial displacement tends to result in non-mom and pop shops and cookie cutter shops. Oostindie also discussed how arterials are a complicated issue: we want more density and better mass transit. But we don’t necessarily want our day cares put on cancer-causing diesel fume routes. Working class neighbourhoods have 24-hour trains going through them and more diesel traffic. The city is building 11-story buildings 5 meters away from diesel trucks and then housing low and middle income families there. Oostindie asked, “Why are we subjecting working class families to that level of pollution?” He argued that we need to harness regulations and economic power to be accrued more equitably. Some people are concerned about single-family homes that they grew up in. They have this cultural nostalgia, but it’s only 1-2 generations old. 

Oostindie mentioned the new federal budget had a lot of funding for housing and public lands, but little for homelessness or for voters who are not voting federally. He argued that we need to look at root causes: we don’t recognize that the homelessness that we see is due to the Social Credit government shutting down Riverview Hospital and displacing people; the massive health crises caused by fentanyl; and how the Federal Liberals killed the national housing program in 1995. If we look at the roots of homelessness, we can trace it back to not recognizing that public housing should be a norm. He comments on how the use of words and jargon in planning (such as “affordable housing” and “social housing” which may not have the meanings they are generally understood to have) powerfully affects civic participation.

[55:14] I want to ask the cynical questions: this idea around complex engagement—the argument against that is that people can’t handle all this information and misinformation. Most people don’t have the time to handle it all. Is it too much to ask regular people to process and make sense of all this. Isn’t this why we rely on experts? 

Oostindie quoted Jane Jacobs, the American-Canadian author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, saying that she would critique those middle-class white professionals who host those open houses. Oostindie opposed the idea that planning cannot be done by the community. He acknowledged that there can be strategic delegations of authority and tasks, but he doesn’t think we should acquiesce our rights to our neighbourhoods and we should call out neoliberalism for what it is.

Oostindie emphasized that people have rights to the city and their neighbourhoods. He wants to equip people to participate meaningfully. He mentioned that platforms for education are extremely important including events like this because they play a part in that schooling process where we can share approaches and methodologies. 

Equipping people to participate as community planners is an exciting and rich tradition. For example, in Maplewood Flats, Oostindie has been doing a project to fund a 3 year school for adults to teach about native plants, but it’s really education curriculum about indigenous knowledge and settler denial about indigenous knowledge. His goal has been to train people to go out into their own neighbourhoods with this knowledge. He argued that we need more of these kinds of platforms. 

[1:01:20] I think what you’re describing is a different type of human participation in societal life. It’s beautiful but difficult. With neoliberalism and this shift to the government offloading social problems for the market to fix. This conversation about community plans and neighbourhoods—we’re not the only ones doing it. The bigger problem is neoliberalism but so what? We’re so entrenched in it. Society is so structured in it. In the news its always interest rates because we’re forced to look at that. We used to have a more welfare oriented way of approaching housing, but we don’t think about housing as a right anymore because it made more sense to certain governments to have an ownership society that was tied in with cuts in social services. You’ll sell your house to pay for stuff or reverse mortgage your home. We’re tied to neoliberalism even if we don’t like it.

Oostindie called for imagination. He said that we need to imagine how we can partner with community centres to make community plans. He argued that we need to take these conversations to where people are; that too often these spaces are filled with people who look like him. We can go to planning events and lectures that cost $50 and have cocktails, but we don’t see working class people there. We only see the professional planning class. But if we think only technocrats can do planning, then we’re lost because we’re forfeited our rights to public spaces. Residents should be able to make these decisions. We may lose these fights, but imagination is critical. When he was at Roundhouse, they brought 10,000 Vancouver residents to the headlands to learn about Squamish culture. Those 10K people told two friends. There is work that small groups can do to change Vancouver.