In Vancouver, students help solve municipal issues

CityStudio Vancouver is proof that academic work can contribute to the improvement of urban living environment and services to people.

Generation Y, as we call it, is well informed, aware of the dysfunctions of our present society and conscious that a transition is necessary. Many of those students want to get involved, but they don’t know where to start and few opportunities exist to participate. For their part, municipalities don’t have enough resources to face the multiplicity and complexity of urban challenges: growing demand for energy, traffic management, waste recycling, housing of low incomes residents, etc.

Based on this context, Dr. Janet Moore and Duane Elverum have created a structure that matches the city’s means and the students’ creative capacity: CityStudio Vancouver.

I met Duane Elverum, current CityStudio Co-Director, in their workspace, located in some City offices by False Creek, in the heart of the city of Vancouver. The site is like the man : open and welcoming.

Duane Elverum – CityStudio Co-Funder & Co-Director – and a CityStudio Student

Specifically, CityStudio offers students two ways to get involved: work on a project for the duration of a semester as part of one of their courses or participate in a 4-month intensive program, a bit like a semester abroad, except that instead of going elsewhere, students explore their own city.

CityStudio - Janet & Duane.jpg
Duane Elverum and Dr. Janet Moore

When I was there the class was from Simon Fraser University’s Semester at CityStudio, which is directed by Dr. Janet Moore. Each class has 20 students who choose a topic they want to work on and form teams of 4 students with the aim of creating multidisciplinary groups. Currently, 7 universities are involved in the program. A team can thus be composed of an art student, a geographer, a planner and an aspiring scientific historian. This multidisciplinary approach promotes the development of original ideas while creating links between students from different universities. On the top of those inter-universities relationships, the CityStudio incubation allows the young people to work directly with City staff as well as various Vancouver organizations and associations.

« We gain a better understanding of the different partners in the field we are working on. » shares a CityStudio student of the class of 2016. « Some of the previous students even obtained a position within the organization with whom they worked. »

Thus, the model of networking and cooperation developed by CityStudio helps to retain young people in Vancouver. Young people whose desire is to make their city more sustainable, more convivial, fairer and safer.

CityStudio student teams tackle very diverse issues.

dog-binVancouver has the ambitious goal to become a zero waste community by 2040 and one of the City’s priorities is to divert 100% of the waste that is going to landfills. With this in mind, a class of 2015 team decided to deal with the issue of the dog waste in parks. There are an estimated 245,000 dogs living in Vancouver, producing over 28,000 tons of organic waste annually. After researching international case studies and local business opportunities for decoupling dog waste in Vancouver parks, students put large, red, clearly labeled bins throughout John Hendry Park exclusively for dog waste, whose content was collected and treated by a local business. The pilot project had such a success that the Waste Management Division of the City decided to extend it to 2 other parks. We can now find 500 red bins in all other the parks.

This is not rocket science but without the experiment City staff would have done nothing.

Among the more inspiring projects, 2 young students sensitive to sexual harassment in public transportation started a blog allowing anyone to anonymously submit photographs or stories that were personally traumatic. The blog was taken up by the media and just a few days after opening, dozens of testimonies were being shared every day. It was an instant success. So much that a member of the CityStudio team was called to sit on BC Transit Public Safety Committee. Realizing the issue’s importance, Vancouver launched a campaign against Manspreading*. Moreover, Transit Police has developed a free mobile app for the victims to report any incident. Those solutions could inspire other cities that struggle to diminish harassment in public spaces, including Paris, that has just launched its own campaign.

What is the secret of CityStudio, to make sure that each project developed aligns with the City’s interests? And above all, what can explain the involvement of 130 municipal employees?

« When the City develops a target like “We are going to plant a hundred and fifty thousand trees in the next 20 by 2020.” We are very interested. That becomes our project too. » explains Duane. « And we say to the mayor “We have students that want to help you figure out how to plant those trees.”, and they say “Yes please”. » Simple as that! « Well, actually, then the real work begins.»

Thus, the most interesting documents for CityStudio are the strategic plans that describe the specific requirements that staff are paid to deliver on, such as: the Greenest City Action Plan, the Healthy City Strategy, the Renewable City Strategy, the Engaged City Work Plan and the City of Reconciliation Goals.

« Everyone is overworked and the last thing a city staff wants to do is to start something else. So you have to ask : “What are you working on? What is on the side of your desk that you don’t have time for? What excites you about your work? Would you want 20 students to work on a project that excites you?”. »

« We’re not trying to fulfill an agenda. We’re aiming to help you to fulfill your agenda. We add value to the city by providing a service» shares Duane. And almost everyone says yes.

CityStudio is funded through all the partner universities and two philanthropic foundations. They are supported by the City with in-kind services: the space but also a staff person, that operates as the general manager. Duane adds that money is not the problem but the institutional habits are sometimes challenging.

The hardest problem is getting students in here from all the different schools. « Each university and college has unique graduation requirements. Sometimes students have trouble finding space in their required course, and usually an exchange needs to be related to their field of study to get credit. »

« We don’t often think that students from different fields as a community that have a similar shared interest. »

By developing new projects on the ground in Vancouver, CityStudio fosters citizens’ initiatives. Thanks to the trusted relationships they have with the City staff, the organization can put projects on the ground that break the rules, projects that normally require permits. A good example is the installation of several chairs by the class of 2015 students in front of their studio. Their aim was to offer people who pass by a place to relax, to chat and to admire the scenic view, as well as an opportunity to design the place as they want to, by moving the chairs around. This project is kind of a replica on a smaller scale of the installation of garden chairs in Time Square.

In one year, nobody has stolen or trashed the chairs and many residents expressed their wish to create other meeting places. Thus, they succeeded in creating what Duane calls an « instant tradition ». It’s like this type of initiative had always existed.

In the meantime, the City seems less reluctant to let citizens take over the public space.

Duane is working towards a world where « every city will have a CityStudio. Because you need the students to be part of the search for better problems and better solutions. » The spreading is on: Victoria (BC) has had its CityStudio since 2015, and the mayors of 4 other Canadian cities are launching one. Many pioneer European cities have also already contacted Duane and Janet to export the model.


* Manspreading, or man-sitting, is a neologism used to describe a man sitting in public transport with legs wide apart, thereby covering more than one seat.

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