Vancouver Design Nerds ‘re:THINK Housing Idea Jam’ seeds winning ideas in City of Vancouver’s housing competition.

In the fall of 2012, the Design Nerds hosted and facilitated a Design Jam bringing together 125 people to brainstorm new housing ideas for the City. The diverse group, including designers, architects, and a panel of judges, jammed for three hours leading to the submission of several proposals, two of which came out among the City of Vancouver’s re:THINK Housing competition winners. It was a wonderful experience to be a part of the whole re:THINK Housing process and to witness what happens when individuals come together to make their great ideas heard, and seen.

Organized in collaboration with Gen Why Media and with support from the Vancouver City staff, the re:THINK Housing ‘Idea Jam’ aimed to engage members of the public in a lively and creative dialogue to advance the City-initiated re:THINK Housing Competition. The jam was to be a springboard civic engagement exercise in the larger re:THINK Housing competition and exhibition.

re: THINK HOUSING Ideas Jam from Gen Why Media on Vimeo.

Vancouver’s Housing Affordability Issue
Framed by ocean, mountains and an international border, the city of Vancouver sits on a small head of land known as the Fraser River delta. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that with an average of 28,000 new people arriving each year to live in this geographically tight area, the city has experienced dramatic increases in housing costs. Despite a median income lower than the national average Vancouverites bear the highest housing cost in Canada. By end of 2011 home ownership costs for a basic detached bungalow — including mortgage payments, utilities and taxes — consumed 91 per cent of a typical household’s pre-tax income, reported RBC. Even 1- and 2- bedroom condos fall outside realm of affordability for most families. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2011 fall survey Vancouver is also the most expensive place to rent.

For the majority of Vancouver’s workforce, long-term residency has become an increasingly unrealistic prospect. So there is an urgent need to explore, discover and design new ways to solve the housing crisis. Olga Ilich, co-chair of  Mayor Gregor Robertson’s 18 member ‘Task Force on Affordable Housing’, summarises the challenge as one simple question: ‘Where will our children live in Vancouver?’.

The Design Jam
The jam itself endeavoured to generate interest, form teams and strengthen community bonds. Addressing the competition categories of ‘Building Bold’ and ‘Vibrant Neighbourhoods’, it emphasised the universal jam ethics of anything-goes, blue-sky thinking and easy-enough-to-pitch-in-an-elevator-ride ideas. We worked with City Hall staff closely to maintain a tight grip on the setup and briefing of the large group present, as well as placed cue-cards and posters around the venue in order to keep participants focused on the task at hand.

This was about solutions after all, and we encouraged people to think outside the box. Some groups jammed on designs for new kinds of houses; some explored the idea of converting streets into houses; many considered mixed-use housing; others considered utilising the city’s broad expanses of water and ocean by sketching out ideas for floating cities; others took a look at land taxation, property taxes and policy rules; there was a team entirely devoted to housing co-operatives; another team focused on designing a game called ‘Polyopoly’ that would be used to educate people about sharing, rather than hoarding property; and some borrowed from the positive examples set by other cities around the world – cities experiencing similar strains: Tokyo, London, Amsterdam etc. The list of ideas was (as it should be) endless. Of course, as with any rapid-brainstorming event, some of the ideas presented were unrealistic or perhaps too ambitious, but what the Jam-space does is provide a chance to explore our boundaries – in a safe public setting. At the Jam we have the opportunity to stand before others and present our ideas in a way that we don’t often get to – and yet should.

The reveal and awards
To say that the Design Jam was successful is an understatement. 125 participants packed into the event (many of whom had never been to a jam before) and the process was captured on film by Gen Why who produced a short video explaining the process. After the jam teams were formed and they spent the following two weeks putting proposals together for the competition. More than ten of the teams from the Jam submitted ideas to the competition, and many were in attendance to listen to the speeches and performances at the competition exhibition. It was amazing to see how well developed the ideas had become in such a short space of time – many were well researched, fully rendered and presented with convincing graphics.

One month later, the re:THINK Housing awards ceremony was held at the beautiful new VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre, attended by a multifaceted audience: from media to business representatives, City Staff and competition hopefuls. Design Nerd members Alicia, Julien, Robyn, Ashley and Marten arrived buzzing with expectation about the reveal – not just because we wished our own entries to be selected, but because we feel much affected by this issue. We are the ones who struggle to pay the bills and who demand something that we can pass down to our children, a place that has ecological, as well as financial value for them. Many entries came from outside of Canada, as well as from the rest of Canada. Amongst the thirteen ideas that won were Christina DeMarco’s Thin Streets and Robyn Fenton’s Missing Typologies, both of which were were explored and developed on during the Design Jam. For a full list of winners, head here.

The Big Picture
On a micro scale, the results of the jam and of the competition in general begin to map a new framework for affordable housing and inform the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability with city policy, planning and design in mind. The task force continues to work on this issue and updates can be found here. We were glad to be a part of the closing presentations of the competition and to engage in a process that digs deeper into the issue of affordable housing, asks tough questions about where we are heading as a community and provides glimpses into what steps we should be taking if we are to get to greater housing equality.

On a macro scale, the re:Think Housing event speaks to a new kind of civic engagement, by creating opportunities to work for citizens to engage and act on issue that affect them in their own lives. It lets us know where we might be heading, and although it doesn’t solve the problem outright, it gives us a sense of things that we can help move the conversation on from a ‘problems’ to ‘solutions’ dialogue. The Vancouver Design Nerds look forward to continuing our relationship with Vancouver City Hall, Gen Why and other partners for similar projects. Soon, we will tackle the issue of transportation, public art spaces and homelessness. Watch this space.

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