When Stephanie Chai looks at urban
spaces, she not only sees what they are but also what they could be. An urban
and rural planner by trade, she's been involved in re-imagining spaces in the
Edmonton region both professionally and as a volunteer since 2013, when she
moved back to the city after finishing a master’s degree at Dalhousie
University in Halifax and working overseas in Trinidad. Through re-visioning
projects, she’s helping to build vibrancy in neigbourhoods and communities.
“When I came back to Edmonton, I wanted to rediscover and know the city in a different way than when I grew up here,” she says. “I saw a lot of change happening and momentum building, and I wanted to contribute to it.”
Stephanie has invited me and community researcher Crys Vanier into her home to talk about her community building work with organizations like the Local Good, Media Architecture Design Edmonton (MADE)’s Urban Interventions Committee, and the City of Edmonton Community Services Advisory Board. Her home is on the 14th floor of the Fox One condo tower in the downtown core. Right away, I’m struck by the perfect vantage point on urban space that the view from her living room gives her. It’s dark outside, and the buildings below are lit up brightly. The new Rogers Place arena shines like a silver spaceship.
Stephanie points out Vinci Park 103 parkade a couple of blocks away. It was the site of one of the first volunteer projects she took on with Blink, a group of Edmonton friends who are passionate about “capturing the city’s potential.” Supported by Awesome Edmonton and working with MADE, they reused a piece of #makescape—a system of grass tiles—to transform the space into a pop-up garden party in August 2013. The Parkade Party was a fundraiser for the Boyle Street Community Services’ Downtown Proud, a program for keeping the city core clean. It not only included food and carnival games but also a screening of the iconic ‘50s musical Grease and dance lessons from E-Town Salsa and the Sugar Swing Dance Club.
“There was incredible support from the community,” Stephanie says, “with about 400 attendees and lots of money raised.”
“We wanted to show participants and passersby that our streets are urban spaces with so much opportunity.”
Even closer to home, Stephanie helped turn the narrow gap beside her condo tower and the Japanese Village restaurant next door—a forgotten space in the urban fabric—into the Secret Alley Gallery, the scene of a one-day art installation called Eyes on the Street. The four-foot-wide pop-up gallery featured 21 pieces complete with lighting and drew over 600 viewers who could accidentally discover the artwork while browsing the stalls of the nearby downtown farmer’s market. In staging the art show, Stephanie and the three other gallery co-founders hoped to get people talking about how to make the best use of urban space.
“The gallery was a whimsical, fun approach to helping people enjoy these spaces,” Stephanie says. “If more people have their eyes on the street, it improves safety and vibrancy for everyone.”
When asked how to create vibrancy, Stephanie says that collaboration is key. “I thrive on collaborating,” she says. “I think there’s so much value in it. What I like most is connecting good people and starting the conversation.”
Part of the conversation is finding out what is possible in a community and whether people are ready to change their perceptions of a space. Resistance to change is often an opportunity to learn from other peoples’ views. And overcoming resistance sometimes means you have to “kill them with kindness,” Stephanie says. Allowing people to play and demonstrating how the space can be re-imagined also helps. An example is Streetmix Live!, a temporary installation of an online tool for visualizing street designs that she staged with MADE and Paths for People to help people re-imagine 104 Street. The installation included life-size replicas of trees, bike paths, sidewalks, and traffic that people could move around and remix to see how urban design decisions can affect a community.
“We wanted to show participants and passersby that our streets are urban spaces with so much opportunity,” Stephanie says.
What tips does she have for other people who want to do small-scale community design projects? Stephanie says that it’s important to push through tough spots like securing funding, getting critical community support, and finding pockets in your volunteers’ schedules. Once you overcome these challenges, “things can be amazing.” She also advises would-be re-visionaries to make sure they involve the right people in their projects, look for creative approaches to solving problems, persist—like a broken record—and include vibrancy in the conversation.
“Vibrancy is more about the community than the scale or form of a project. It’s the connection you have with other people,” she says.
As we gather up our notebooks and papers, Crys and I take a last look at the brilliant, sparkling view from Stephanie’s window. I’m a wordsmith and not at all visual, but I know I’ll never see a rooftop parkade, a narrow alley, or even my own street the same way again.