Community Amenities in Vancouver

Liam in his waterpolo cap

I’ve been peripherally involved with the use & planning of Community Amenities in Vancouver for a long time – by being politically involved with the Park Board;as a both a participant and board member for the Vancouver Ultimate League; as a parent of a kid in Vancouver Thunderbirds Hockey; as parent of a kid in Vancouver Vipers waterpolo; and as a parent of a kid in Vancouver United FC Soccer. And, there’s a few things (that are probably in some ways obvious, but let us be explicit here) to note about doing all this in Vancouver. Let’s of course be clear that this is all anecdotal based on my experience and limited conversations with other families.

  1. With the exception of my experience as an ultimate player, community sports is heavily weighted towards the periphery of the city: rinks, pools, courts, fields are all generally on the western & eastern edges of the city. If you live in the centre, you’re pretty much guaranteed a fairly lengthy commute. It is sort of the inverse of the home-job principle.
  2. There are not enough playing-surface resources in the city of Vancouver compared to the number of participants. Ultimate, which has the *most* fields, because of the surfaces they’re willing to use, probably has this best. But it is still not enough. In my experience, from least available to most, it is probably: pools, quality fields, rinks, flat(ish) grass surfaces. I don’t know about baseball, but from the outside, it looks like each “area” has a really nice-looking “home” field where stuff happens.
  3. UBC is a terrible community partner. Each association I’ve been part of has been “forced” to use UBC’s fields/rinks/pools because there’s not enough in Vancouver, but each association complains bitterly about how expensive renting UBC’s facilities are. I’m not entirely sure of the justification for this, outside of free-market economics (supply v demand), but it sucks.
  4. The lack of playing surfaces leads to some pretty crazy scheduling decisions by the related associations. In practice, this has meant my elementary-aged kids are doing sports both SUPER early in the am (which generally sucks more for the parents) – as early as 6:15am Sunday in my experience – and also SUPER late at night – as late as 10:30pm Friday in my experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, this leads to some drop-off in participation.
  5. Compared to kids in related associations in the suburbs, Vancouver kids have way less access & time to their chosen sport. At younger ages, this has translated primarily to my being jealous of how little other parents are paying per hour-of-activity. At older ages (let’s say 10+) this tends to translate directly into a lack of competitiveness. In each sport I’ve participated in, as a general rule, suburban teams play at a higher level than Vancouver-based ones. Beyond that, we’ve seen several Vancouver families move their children, if not their actual domicile, out to be part of suburban associations just to give their kids access to higher compete levels.
  6. At an association level, these constraints put incredible pressure on the few paid staff & mostly volunteer organizers. I’ve sat in on several board meetings, AGMs and ad-hoc parent meetings where participants and/or parents complain about fees, ever-reducing availability of activity-time, and so on. And, at the core, the answer is always the same: the association is making awful trade-offs between allowing access to participate vs cost vs scheduling. These are generally pretty committed fans of the activity, and the wear on them shows.

So, what can be done?

Real Estate pricing in Vancouver means we are pretty unlikely to find large tracts of land in the city centre (increasingly, anywhere) to build new pools/rinks/fields. As far as I know, developers are not incentivized to build these sorts of community-centre amenities alongside developments. While I’ve always been a big fan of the existence of our park board, I increasingly wonder if it being distinct from city council really just lets council punt community amenity discussion out of “prime” discussions, to somewhere no one really cares about (if you’re to judge by average number of votes it takes to win a seat come election time).

I don’t have answers, but do have some things I wonder about:

  1. Could/should the city strike some sort of deal with UBC to allow community groups access to UBC facilities at a deal closer to what they pay for city amenities? What if the city bought all the available slots at UBC and then re-apportioned them via the existing city model? I don’t know enough about the political/fiscal relationship between Vancouver & UBC to know how possible that might be. If only from an operational/staffing view, a single purchase-source would be good.
  2. The Park Board’s operational & capital plans are being set for the future. Much like the issue with class-sizes & schools, they strike me as being planned for what’s there now (and not nearly enough), not what is coming in the future, regarding population size. But, I recognize they’re incredibly resource-constrained (both budgetary & physically). I don’t know what the answer is to that, outside of investment from perhaps all 3 levels of government & private enterprise. I’ve been historically averse to having corporate sponsors of community amenities, but if that would, say, double the available pools & rinks and/or cut costs by some significant %, maybe it would be worth it.
  3. Open up school resources more, including private schools, perhaps via the same methods as with UBC. Ontario’s LCBO gets good deals on booze by being (I think) the world’s largest single buyer of alcohol. Why couldn’t the city of Vancouver do that for space on behalf of the residents, and let associations just have one source, at, hopefully, lower costs, rather than various small associations all competing with each other across various sources?

 

O Vancouver, City that I love

Vancouver has a hard, brittle beauty.

Walk down any street in Vancouver. We are a city of nondescript streets, where very few blocks possess a beauty of their own. But cunningly, cross a boulevard, or turn a corner, and there it is: a sharp beauty that cuts hard; that takes your breath away. Looking across the sea of slender glass towers from a Fairview street (was there ever such an understated name for a neighbourhood? Fair doesn’t begin to cover it. Whenever I see those spires as I cross the town east to west, our collective British origins are unmistakable, that understatement of the obvious such a particularly British sensibility), it can suddenly take your breath – such a startling beauty that it cuts deep. I’ve lived here for 20 years and it still happens with alarming regularity. And like a jeweller appraising a shiny bauble, we can do that here too. Our views change depending on where we are, but there are very few that do not reward the faithful.

Look east from the West Side, back across the downtown peninsula and see the slope of towers crest and fall, echoing sublimely the mountains that loom behind and to the left.

Look west from the east side, cycling along Adanac and see the echoes of our industrial past laid bare, waiting to be claimed by creeping modernity: our tracks towards destiny, the gleaming towers echoed by the shiny waters of false creek, slender sails echoing slender buildings.

Look south from the north shore, and feel the abrupt ending of where Capitalist dreams meet the water which is both a psychological and very physical divide between Vancouver and the North Shore, which conjures up not the sleepy, spreading suburb that it is, but rather the wild, untamed promise of all those mountains it is nestled up against. Look south from high enough and the beauty changes. The downtown no longer dominates, but rather seems a small bastion against a sea of squat structures clinging to the edge of the world.

Look north from anywhere and the city disappears: the mountains are ever-present, and the city simply pales against their terrible promise of inevitable collapse: They are stark reminders that we live on borrowed time. And when the mountains are no longer there it is somehow worse, hidden somewhere in the fog bank or clouds. At night, when the lights on Mt Seymour & Grouse float in the sky there is an assurance, and one when I travel I have come to miss greatly.

Vancouver does not love her children

Vancouver is a city that does not respect her past. She doesn’t care for her own children.  It is a city of immigrants, for immigrants – whether from across the Rockies or across the ocean. We tear down old buildings – where someone we knew grew up, or spent their free time, in favour of the new over and over again. Like cells, old houses subdivide into duplexes, fourplexes. Or two or 3 houses combine then divide into a squat complex of condos, all of which are heavily advertised elsewhere, or sold by the promise of the Vancouver lifestyle, which only the non-Vancouverite can still be sold by, because everyone who grew up here knows that they’ve been priced out. Or the lucky, have ridden that wave and now own a house worth vastly more than they could ever have imagined and think only of selling, and leaving.

No  one I know who sells a house in Vancouver they’ve lived in for 20, 30 years sells to move elsewhere in Vancouver. They go away. And those  in our 20s and 30s and 40s who grew up here. Their salaries don’t match the prices, and so we leave. And only if they return, having earned more elsewhere, and are no longer subject to the low-wage trap of Vancouver, are happy to return to Vancouver as newly-minted foreigners, ready to re-embrace the promise of Vancouverism, leaden with money earned elsewhere to buy, to invest, to pay for the ski passes and boat mooring and cars.

Vancouver is hard

Much like we are physically a thin band of people nestled between mountain  and ocean, this echoes deeply in our relationship. Our business dream smaller, and sleepier than those elsewhere. We temper our dreams of success with our dreams of “lifestyle”. My friends who work here, collectively, work vastly less than my friends in Toronto or New York or Montreal or San Fransisco.

We are the Spain of North America: we all cut out early to get 2 hours of biking or skiing or drinking on patios. And how could we not? We give up so much to live here, so we need to make it worth our while. And we continue to sell this lifestyle abroad and everyone abroad continues to buy into it and then they move here and some can reconcile their old habits with the demands of this lifestyle and some cannot and leave.

Investment here will continue to struggle. What’s a 10 million dollar round in the face of a 200km bike ride with your buddies every sunny day of the year? What’s an extra 25K a year in your pocket when – christ, did you see the mountains today? See you at Whistler on Saturday? And these things that are sold to us as goods; they are indeed goods but they are also a tax on us.These are the taxes we pay to celebrate living here. Because if you don’t participate in the Vancouver lifestyle, why are you here? These are steep taxes we pay, whether or not you take advantage of what they offer you.

And all this living, all this participating, the unspoken problem is that it creates a massive underclass of people barely making it. When those who can are sipping their pour-over coffees at the third-wave coffee-house, the people working there are barely making it, living in shitty apartments with friends in East Van or New West and likely going directly from pouring coffee to band practice, or more likely another job, their dreams “on hold” as they make rent and buy food and drink and live, but live a very different life of loud music and Hastings st and the Drive and not the Sea Wall, and while they too have been sold Vancouverism it is a very different one.

Vancouver has my heart

And yet. And yet. And yet I say all the above like these are bad things and they are not. They are the very reason I love this land like nowhere else I’ve been.

Eastside Mural Tour project: a critique

I want to preface this by saying I love the idea of the Eastside Mural Tour project, for so many reasons: I love Vancouver’s art, particularly the hidden, surprising art. I love graffiti art. I’m a fan of community projects, and projects that celebrate them. I’m also particularly interested in the idea of digitally curated physical objects, and finding new ways to help travel, explore, learn about communities online. That being said, I’m really disappointed with this project – they’ve missed some really simple points that I feel are critical. If you’re a developer on this project, please don’t think I’m shitting all over you for no reason: if you’ll let me, I would gladly pitch in to help.

All that out of the way, here’s the misses:

  1. The site doesn’t really work on Mobile. Load the front-page: the interactive map is done in flash. The site itself isn’t optimized in any way for a mobile experience: but this is a site destined to be used by someone on a device; most likely as their doing their tours.
  2. The most prominent links are to PDFs of the tours; the big, colourful buttons on the right side. However, hidden at top at HTML versions of the descriptions, which actually contain descriptions of the art!
  3. On these HTML pages, there’s no Map of the location. Nor is there any “next stop/previous stop” links to guide my usage of this. Nor do these HTML pages contain the dial-in directions that the PDFs do
  4. The PDFs are not styled in any way, nor do they contain any of the useful descriptions of the stops on the tour – instead, they simply contain titles of the art, in a format that appear to be links, but if they are, did not work for me in any way.
  5. This one strikes me as particularly egregious: The PDFs contain an image of a Google map that contains all the stops on the tour. So someone clearly spent some time building the geo-coded tour – why not embed that map?
  6. No social: Why not at least propose a couple of hashtags for the project, per tour, maybe per site. Pull in comments/photos from Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare to let the community participate in this beautiful project, in this art. Pinwheel is brand new, but given Caterina‘s local origins, they might be very interested in participating.
  7. Data: I couldn’t find these mural’s in Vancouver’s Data set (though maybe I just failed in my search), but why not, given you clearly have all the geo-data for these murals, release that data for others to remix?

There other, smaller quibbles, but those top 5 strike me as major faults that we should fix. The last simply betrays my personal bias towards open data, and in particular, location data.

There’s also some other ways this same sort of tour could be made. There’s a site, MapTales, that exists solely to create these sorts of self-guided tours. I don’t think it should replace the current site, but providing links to another interface would be a nice way to share these tours out in a well-designed, contemporary way. Bringing up Pinwheel again, all of these stops could exist in there. I don’t think they have the idea of “tours” currently, but by creating a hashtag, locating these places, this could open up the ability to extend & comment on by the pinwheel community. I’d also recommend creating “places” in Foursquare for each of the stops on the tours, let people check in there – or at least easily geolocate photos taken there in such a way that the project itself can re-use them.

This project is sub-titled “murals and the spirit of collaboration”, and yet feels so far from being a project that the digital community can collaborate in right now. Let’s fix it.

Editorial Aside

This brings up all sorts of thoughts around the ongoing failure to provide super-easy tools, widgets, add-ons, etc that projects like this could easily make use of. Even most plugins, themes & mapping tools still require programming knowledge to configure and drop into sites. This world of digitally-curated, real-world spaces is really just beginning. We need to find/build better tools for the average person to expose their localities, their stories in a way that works for all.

A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool?

There’s been a lot of chatter locally about startups, startup culture and startup support in Vancouver. (See: Boris, Jesse, Allen, the twitters of @kaler & @igorskee for a quick round up). I’ve also been chatting a bit with Lauren about work-life, and recently caught up with my former boss Jason, where we chatted a bit about how we’ve come to define success.

With all the conversation about startups, I find myself wondering what makes a startup a startup. Must a startup be a product company? What about a Drupal-theming company? My company, Pencilneck Software is sort of a hybrid: We’ve built products – internally, our CMS is now on version 5. I’ve installed it on well over 250 clients’ websites; the newsletter module, before we retired it, sent some 10 million enewsletters. Our eCommerce module has processed upwards of $3 million in sales for our clients; Some 10,000 people have registered for events via our event registration module. 50,000 news articles & blog posts have been published in our News module. (Aside: Man do I love being able to quickly pull aggregate data)

We also build products for other people. But we call ourselves a service company, because the reason we keep getting work is for that: we provide a service – custom code, done right – to a wide variety of people. Also: we’re 9 years old. We’re self-funded and have never not been profitable. We’re now international (well, offices in Vancouver & Dallas). But we face a lot of the same challenges that start ups seem to face: where’s the talent? where’s the money coming from? who’s our audience? Where’s the space? Who can we talk to? Where’s the time?

We started like many startups do: I was employed at another company, but was under-utilized. I had an idea of how to do something differently. I met Jeff, and we combined our forces at started Pencilneck. Initially, we rented space from my former employers. Then we shared space with another small company. Then we got our own office in Yaletown (& man, did I ever feel like I had made it when that happened).

A Somewhat lengthy personal digression

Now I admit I’m not the best member of the local startup scene. I don’t go to events. I don’t blog much about company culture. I don’t look outwards that much. But the very reason why I don’t do all that is what I feel is missing from a lot of this recent chatter: About 6 years ago, I decided that growing big, getting bought, getting rich wasn’t what I wanted. This decision coincided, not even remotely coincidentally, with the birth of my first child. And suddenly that weekend’s worth of work to push out that latest revision just seemed pointless. And squeezing in that extra deliverable for the client this week by pulling a few late nights wasn’t worth missing Liam splashing around in the tub.

When I first told my business partner that I wanted to work only 4 days a week, we had a huge argument – only a few weeks before, we were both still working 60, 70 hour weeks, doing stellar work. But our corporate culture had come to expect and depend on this. & this wasn’t unusual – most of my friends were working similarly. And then Liam was born and I took a couple of weeks off. When I came back though, not only did I no longer want to work weekends, I didn’t want to work evenings. I wanted to leave work at work and come home and be present for my family. Given that I was the main production engine (our partnership has always been Jeff on the sales &  UX end, me on the technical end), this had some dire consequences. And it was rough. But we made it work. And I started working only 4 days a week, which has been amazing.

& Back to the Subject At Hand

The title of the post is of course lifted from The Social Network – you’re probably already thinking the answer is “a billion dollars”. But no. You know what’s cool? Living your life. Enjoying it. Spending time with family & friends. Making money is good, but if you’re good enough, you don’t need to be wildly successful and get bought and make millions. You can make enough and relax and chill and be happy. You can’t build a silicon-valley-style successful startup without being a selfish asshole willing to sacrifice everyone around you. Harsh? Sure. Hyperbolic? You bet. But somewhat true. Because that sort of success takes time. All your time. Whether it’s time at the desk coding, refining your product. Time travelling to sell your product. Time online to support or promote your product, nothing can reduce that time. And that’s time away from everything & everyone else. And maybe that’s a trade you’re willing to make – but you can’t say it’s not a selfish one. Every interview I’ve ever watched with a successful founder talks about their passion for the project and the crazy things they’ve done.

What this all has to do with Vancouver’s startup scene

A common thread amongst all the commentary linked to above is finding the special sauce that will encourage a startup culture here. I think a mistake across them all is to think that we need a startup culture that resembles the American startup culture at all. I’ll admit a personal bias to the lean startup model, but more than that, I bias to the Vancouver model: laid back, just as interested in what’s outside and around as what’s happening in town, and to beat a dead horse just a little more, sustainably. Vancouver’s got a decent number of tech firms that not only have done great work, but have been around for an astonishingly long time. Not only that, but we’re all interwoven. Vancouver’s web-tech community is quite small. My company is built on the idea of partnerships – we don’t do design, so we partner with design firms. Other’s just do strategy. Some just do hosting. And in my experience, we all hire each other as needed. I’ve worked in partnership with at least a score of local companies to either provide expertise or pull theirs as I need it. And you know what’s so great about this? By handing off work as needed, I get to continue a nice lifestyle and get to contribute to theirs too.

Coworking spaces are ideal for the small or solo company. Incubators are great too. So are mentors and advisors. But maybe let’s not teach a culture based on getting big, getting bought, getting out. Maybe let’s teach a culture of being a sustainable business: You want to grow an idea, and need funding? Do something to fund it – trade services, sell something. Hootsuite may be a freemium model, but it grew out of Invoke – a successful firm who could likely afford to fund it – particularly if they built it to solve a problem on a project, or internal use. There’s also the “practice makes perfect” idea to follow: if you want to make money, practice it. Find a business model. Companies that succeed without a business model are few and far between. Get one and get one quick.

There is room in a world of sustainable startups for funders – we’ve always used client work to fund projects, but once, for a particularly out-there idea, we got BDC funding. What I liked about it was that it was a loan – we didn’t have to give up ownership or control to get it. But I could imagine a scenario where taking funding would be beneficial to allow focus. But let’s look at small-batch funding models that enable focus, not massive burn rates.That suits Vancouver more too – we’re a small city with small amounts of capital. Funding a few people for 3 months doesn’t cost that much  – let’s say $20K – and 3 months should be about enough time to get pretty much anything software-related at least demonstrably functional, if not complete. If it isn’t, you’ve probably suffered feature creep. Or don’t have enough focus. You only need to do one thing  well to launch and start making money. I don’t want to sound like I’m shitting all over Jesse (who’s done way more to foster a community and more importantly, exchange, than I ever will) or Boris (who’s arguments around the #MadeInVan and #WeAreYVR at right on point), but I think the focus on funding & acquisition is off a little. There’s more important things. The Mayor’s Greenest City initiative is about green tech, but it’s also about lifestyle: cycling, walking, transit, healthy eating, locavores. Let’s encourage a start up culture that reflects our city, where lifestyle is equally important. When I was first starting Pencilneck, the so-called triple-bottom line was a popular measurement: social, environmental, economic should be equally weighted. Our start up culture, what we want to promote and produce locally might do well to reflect that more.

 

 

Vancouver Foodbank Tweetup Fundraiser – Dec 2 @ Library Square Public House

Let’s raise some money for the Vancouver Food Bank! This year, more than ever, the Food Bank needs our help – more people need their services, and donations are down.

So, Wednesday, December 2nd, I’m organizing a Tweetup at Library Square Public House. Please bring donations, either cash or food to donate to the foodbank. We’ll then give the donations on behalf of Vancouver Twitterers during the CBC’s foodbank drive on December 4th. Thank you to Donelly Hospitality for providing a location!

Details:
Vancouver Foodbank Fundraiser Tweetup
Dcember 2nd, 2009  5:00pm
Location: Library Square Public House, 300 W. Georgia Street

Bring: Cash to donate to the Foodbank!

When donating to the foodback, cash is best – your every $1 will buy $3 worth of food. However, we’re going to stretch that! I’m please to announce that my company, Pencilneck Software, will match the first $500 in donations, so your $1 will buy $6 worth of food. If you or your company would like to match also, please let me know and I’ll add you to the list below:

Companies/Groups matching donations (in alphabetical order):

TOTAL MATCHING DONATIONS: $900

So, are you in?

UPDATE: Can’t make the event? Donate online! My sincerest thank you to PincGiving who are awesome and have donated a “donate now” button to this event, so that we can maximize our contributions to the Foodbank. All donations made between now & December 4th through this button will be counted towards matching donations, so please give! This button will live hear and to the right of my site:

Donate Now

If you’d like to add this button to your site, simply copy & paste the following code below:

<a href=”https://VancouverFoodbankTweetUpFundraiser.pincgiving.com”><img style=”border:none;” src=”https://www.pincgiving.com/images/gateway/buttons-3.png” alt=”Donate Now” /></a>

City-owned fibre: new revenue stream?

I was reading this article on Ars Technica about the town of Monticello, MN, who had tried to build its own 50Mbs fibre network after TDS (the local cable monopoly I assume?) had done nothing. This story ends with (of course) TDS taking the city to court (incidentally, the city won at every level, all the way to the supreme court), and using that delay to place fibre itself. The citizens still won, however, as it was a free upgrade in speed for them.

Cities all over North America are struggling for new revenue streams. Vancouver itself has a huge shortfall, and is looking for new revenue sources. Additionally, Vancouver wants to be the “Green Capital” of the world. So why not run city-owned fibre throughout the city? Currently, people have a choice of Telus ADSL, or Shaw cable, and if you’re downtown, Novus. But the service is slow, it costs a fortune – and there’s no real incentive for either  Telus or Shaw to either lower prices or raise speeds, or generally, innovate – because they don’t really have any fear of competition (aside: Where Shaw does have competition from Novus, their price & service is great). So why doesn’t Vancouver roll out a super-high-speed fibre network itself across Vancouver? Revenue could then be handled one of 2 ways (there’s likely other models too – these are just the 2 that immediately come to mind): either lease the lines to private companies to resell (probably far easier to manage logistically), or sell directly to residents (or simply have residents pay a new annual levy on their taxes). Not only would this definitely make Vancouver an attractive city for business to come to (cheap high-speed internet, yes please!), it would also promote telecommuting, remote work, etc. I would argue this falls in line with the goal of being an “Open City” too – broadband for all makes information more easily accessible to end-users.

Would the initial investment be large? Yes. But I suspect it would pay for itself quite quickly – I certainly don’t, and I suspect that most of my fellow Vancouverites have zero loyalty to their internet-access provider (aside: everyone I know who uses Novus loves it – those who use either Shaw or Telus seem to tolerate it, viewing it as the least-bad option between the two). I also think that this sort of urban infrastructure development is exactly what federal stimulus money is good for (although clearly, this does not count as “shovel ready”).