Photo courtesy CityStudio Vancouver

What If 1,000s of Undergrads Took Up City Building While in School?
Vancouver one of 7 cities reclaiming education through learning that builds a city

THE LEVEL OF COGNITIVE, energetic and creative surplus that is unleashed when undergrad students are asked to help build their cities has happily astounded Duane Elverum. It’s also swelled his sense of urgency around shaping the conditions to spur this unleashing more and more.

“I feel a vibration. My heart beats faster, my hands start to sweat, when I think about how do we move faster, how do we get this going, how do we put this on the big wheel so to speak,” Duane tells Axiom News.

Seven years ago Duane launched CityStudio Vancouver with his colleague and fellow Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor, Janet Moore. In very simple terms, the studio matches universities’ capacity with civic needs. Besides activating the unleashing mentioned above, the studio is shrinking the gap between higher learning and municipal government. It also represents a new way of distributing problems.

“In our world, the academic world, where I come from previously, and the architecture world where I started my career, the problems we have in society are given to some experts or some narrow groups to solve,” says Duane.

“They’re really not distributed to the demos or the democracy in very effective ways, other than voting. So we were very interested in a new model of problem distribution.”

Imagine if part of the learning of thousands of undergrad students was to build their city while they’re in school. Duane envisions “a generational wave that could literally transform a city overnight.”

CityStudio Vancouver has actually done experiments with thousands of students putting things out that, if scaled up, would mean “everyone would see a different city in the morning.” 

  Keys to the Streets was a CityStudio Vancouver project. Ten pianos were placed in an outdoor public space with a bench and a rain cover and looked after by a community steward for the summer months. The project continues to this day, now stewarded by Pacey’s Pianos and the Pianos on the Streets program. Photo courtesy CityStudio Vancouver

“Our mandate is to deliver experiments that help the city learn what they can and can’t do, or should and shouldn’t do in a place, so we consider these things urban acupuncture in a way,” Duane says.

Having such experiments constantly popping up around the city signals to citizens that Vancouver is an experimental culture, “that we’re learning how to be in our city.”

‘We Don’t Have an Environmental Problem; We Have a Human Problem’

Janet wanted to save the whales and the planet; her undergraduate degree is in marine biology.

Now, as a professor of professional practice with the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, her work is grounded in the idea that “we don’t have an environmental problem – we have a human problem,” Janet tells Axiom News in an e-mail.

“With 80 per cent of the world living in cities we need to find a way to live together and have less impact on our global ecosystems,” she writes. “We really need to figure this out as we only have one planet.”

Janet was spurred to found CityStudio as a “simple change in a system.”

“It’s crazy to think that we designed cities and universities that don’t work together,” Janet notes. “It’s time to fix that as the intellectual capacity in a city with a university or college is immense. Let’s use all that thinking to solve local problems and experiment with new ways of working together.”

  “Why should students wait to finish school to work on complex problems? We have so many wicked and complex problems in cities. Why wait to get working on them?”

The commitment Duane holds to this work rises from deep and life-stirring relationships – the mentorship of three professors early in his career. Two of these professors have passed away, one recently.

“I owe my entire life as an adult to the influence of these mentors and I promised them, ‘I will pay you forward,’” says Duane, a professor of more than 19 years with University of British Columbia and a visiting professor and associate with SFU.

“So for my part in this project, I’m holding a kind of mentorship piece, an investment piece in (students’ lives) helping make them whole, helping them see that they can be whole and that they can contribute long before they leave university and how that can change their lives.”

A Shocker

This month an official from the Tel Aviv Ministry of Education and three levels of government from Seoul, Korea visited the studio on different days to learn about the model. In the past, the Mayor of Copenhagen has visited. Conversations with interested parties from Barcelona, Berlin and Boston have happened.

“It’s kind of a shocker,” Duane says of the interest. “The phone doesn’t stop ringing.”

Seven other efforts have now been modelled after the Vancouver initiative – five in Canada and two in Australia. A global network of city studios has just been created.

“What’s next is how do we learn seven years ahead of the city studios in the network, so that we can continually share our learnings around how we’re doing it here in Vancouver,” Duane says. “And then also how do we invite the learning from these cities in Canada and Australia, because they are learning faster than we are in many ways.”

Longer term, over a period of several years, the ideal is to weave a network of ideally 20 to 30 Canadian city studios as a national model for the ways that learning can be placed at the centre of a city.

Duane pictures a future where “we’ve normalized civic action in higher education and co creation is a natural part of city building with students at the centre.”


So in seven years of doing this work, what have Duane and Janet noticed?

  1. It doesn’t help to have a good idea unless you’ve built all the relationships along the way to catalyze or activate the work. “We’ve noticed that every link in the chain needs to be attended to and cared for and nurtured. New language even has to be designed and shared to facilitate each link in the chain.”
  2. Mapping power is one thing but mapping power that says yes is actually the key. In other words, positions can be very important in the work, but the people are so much more so. “We’ve noticed that if we can map and find the people who say yes before they fully understand the project everything works much better,” Duane says.
  3. Around the world and in Canada, big cities tend to be less curious about the CityStudio model than mid-sized cities. “There is something about the mid-sized cities that see this immediately as an advantage. There is a kind of social capital that they see immediately being activated.”
  4. Within the mid-sized cities, it’s the second-tier universities that are often more intrigued than the top-tier universities.”
  5. The projects started seven years ago in collaboration with the city have become “commonplace.” “We were a part of a wave where the city was becoming more open and innovative – we were caught up in a larger process and environment of innovation,” Janet says. “There are more public space activations, more parklets, more street murals in Vancouver – we are not responsible for these projects but we were part of a big push for more creativity and innovation. CityStudio emerged as a result of a progressive mayor and council and the city staff that enabled the innovation - it has been a very exciting and active ten years in Vancouver.”

A New Possibility for Education

As of 2016 Canada had 96 universities, with 1.8 million students enrolled.

Duane reckons the university as it is today will not be recognized in 20 years. Higher learning in Canada is on the cusp of a revolution, he suggests. Its leaders include SFU and its current president Andrew Petter. The question vibrating through this revolution is, “What is the role of university in community now?”

For Duane, the CityStudio model represents a way to add to this revolution.

“CityStudio is a new way of thinking about how young people interact with a City,” Janet notes. “Students are keen to get engaged in community, to get useful skills to increase their job prospects and young people have been born with media reminding them that the planet is burning and social inequity is rampant.

“CityStudio is a simple model that aligns students and faculty with city problems so they can problem solve with real world impacts. Why should students wait to finish school to work on complex problems? We have so many wicked and complex problems in cities. Why wait to get working on them?”

The Risk of an Injustice

Back to the urgency yanking at Duane, part of it spills out of knowing that students face more obstacles than they should to participating in city building and getting credit for it.

Some requirements for graduation can actually block students from joining the CityStudio efforts.

“Educating a student but not letting them build a city as part of their education, I think we’ll look back and see this as quite an injustice, or maybe a bit of a wrong turn over the last 30 or 40 years, in education, especially given where we are now in building cities,” Duane says.

Vancouver has about 100,000 undergrads. To date, CityStudio Vancouver has only worked with 5,000.

“It’s like wow, seven years, 5,000 students, we are not going to get where we need to be unless we can work with 10,000 students at once. And I think it can be done. There is more than enough work to be done, and there is enough help needed by city staff.”

The possibilities for generating transformative change are great, Janet agrees, potentially greater than ever before because of the foundation that’s carefully been cast.

“In the seven years that we have been working with the city we have built a lot of trust between our partners,” she says. “We have developed relationships between faculty and students and city staff that have flourished. I used to spend a lot of time explaining to staff what we thought was possible and now there is a clear understanding of how students can move projects and prototypes forward in the City. Students bring hope, optimism and exciting ideas to the City staff and the staff are keen to listen and learn.

“I am now thinking about what is next for CityStudio? What kinds of development projects could we do together that would shift cities towards places of equity, affordability and social/ecological justice? There is a lot of work to do in Canadian cities to ensure that we have more equitable housing, new economies and new ways of living together on this one planet.”

- More to Come

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