City is classroom for this program

September 23, 2004, vol. 31, no. 2
By Roberta Staley



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Judy Oberlander hops the No. 135 bus heading east and settles into a seat, watching as Stanley Park disappears in the distance and the concrete squares of SFU Harbour Centre push through the horizon.

The early morning scenery along the 10-minute bus ride is like that of most big urban centers. Pedestrians stride to work clutching cups of coffee, while commuters lurch from red light to red light in cars and SUVs.

For Oberlander, director of continuing studies' the city program, Vancouver is much more than its 9-to-5 professional façade. It is also a kaleidoscope of seniors, immigrants, students, families, rich, and poor.

Woven among these groups with their unique interests are profound challenges: drug and alcohol addiction in the Downtown Eastside, homelessness, pollution - especially vehicle emissions - and the language and culture gap separating new immigrants from native Canadians.

Such differences, however, should inspire, not divide, says Oberlander. Initiating dialogue between these seemingly disparate groups in an effort to find solutions to problems and build a better community is the key driver behind the city program.

“People come here for professional development and public lectures to learn how the civic system works, take what they've learned, and advocate for something in their community, whether it's better public spaces or less traffic,” says Oberlander, who worked in heritage-building conservation, community development and education in Ottawa and Vancouver before coming to SFU as a consultant in 1992 when the city program began.

Other than the workshops and free public lectures, which have reached more than 22,000 people, one of the city program's most popular parts is the urban design certificate. This eight-course certificate attracts students from a vast range of professions and backgrounds from across Western Canada, including recent immigrants seeking a better understanding of Canadian civic government, says Oberlander.

The certificate recently garnered national accolades, winning an award of excellence in June from the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education at a ceremony held at Niagara-On-The-Lake.

One of the reasons for the program's success, says Oberlander, is the combined support and enthusiasm shown by professional associations and their members, community groups and the university. When a forum on affordable housing is planned, for example, Oberlander will first consult with advocacy groups such as the Portland Hotel Society, Carnegie Association and Smart Growth B.C., all of whom become partners for a public lecture.

“If we engage in partnerships, we can develop programs that will meet all of our needs,” she says.

To ensure the city program remains cutting-edge, numerous sponsors and partnerships have been cultivated. Oberlander points to the $1.36 million City Program endowment fund (the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia and the Lohn Foundation were lead donors), which allows innovative program design and development.

To properly fulfill a mandate of social relevance and social responsibility, the city program must also be accessible to those whose lifestyle or finances precludes travelling to Harbour Centre for courses.

To this end, greater efforts are being made to provide bursaries, present lectures off-campus and post programs on www.sfu.ca/city, says Oberlander.

In the meantime, Oberlander will continue to eschew a vehicle in favour of public transit, doing her small part to make Vancouver a better community. “We need to realize how fortunate we are to live in this climate and this incredibly beautiful part of the world. We have to make choices to ensure it will be here for generations to come.”

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