Can Western Canada's largest metropolitan area ever be livable again for both rich and poor?
SFU's Meg Holden endeavours to find meaningful solutions to a complex problem
Metro Vancouver is bracing itself for another growth spurt.
A million new people are projected to make the city home over the next 25 years, giving rise to pressing questions of how the city’s 22 municipalities and one treaty First Nation will accommodate them all.
SFU’s Meg Holden, for one, is hopeful that this monumental task can be done sustainably. Working in the service of creating more sustainable and just cities in Canada and around the world, her research crosses urban, social and environmental domains, and takes a pragmatist approach that focuses on action research and evidence-based policy and planning.
In 2004, Holden founded the Regional Vancouver Urban Observatory (RVU). Locally and with partner cities throughout the UN-Habitat Global Urban Observatory Network, the RVU helps cities globally make better urban planning decisions through information- and capacity-building.
“RVU’s overall mission is to get to a point where what we measure about urban development matches political and resident values and goals,” says Holden. “This involves extensive public participation and working with partners to promote the importance of considering soft values when bolstering hard measures of progress in communities.”
Holden is also leading the aptly named Getting to Groundbreaking (G2G) project which produces annual reports on the residential approvals process in Metro Vancouver. Spearheaded by the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association, G2G is a collaborative research venture with partners including the Urban Development Institute, the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, Metro Vancouver, Ryerson University and local governments. Its aim is to evaluate the region’s long-range ability to supply diverse housing needs without jeopardizing affordability, livability and environmental sustainability.
G2G’s annual reports have revealed insights into housing and development trends and how approval processes and fees vary across the region. They also give voice to public sentiments about development. “G2G aims to create a more transparent process and open dialogue about what works best from all sides with the end goal of a supply of homes that meets the growing region’s needs.”
Holden's other research projects include Ecourbanism Worldwide, a look at how model sustainable urban neighbourhoods impact urban life and wellbeing. Their approach aims to challenge dominant stereotypes about the roles people and organizations play in city building, and to shed new light on the spaces available for compromise in urban form, policies, and human behaviours in order to create more sustainable cities.
The race to build a more sustainable urban future is on, and not a moment too soon. Holden’s research of cities in transition highlights the importance of considering the social, political and cultural dimensions of change.
“Across all my projects, I’ve found that democratic processes of social learning stand to offer the most value to all manner of efforts toward instituting sustainable and climate resilient plans and initiatives in the urban world.”
Dr. Meg Holden is a scholar of urban studies and geography, specializing in urban sustainable development in policy, planning, theory, ethics, and popular expression. Dr. Holden's research takes place in the cities of North America, particularly the Cascadia region, and in cities internationally that have aspirations and plans to work toward sustainability, resilience, and liveability. Teaching graduate courses in Urban Studies and undergraduate courses in Geography, Dr. Holden supervises students investigating the evolution of sustainability thinking, culture, policy and practice in a number of domains, locally and internationally, as well as urban planning, policy, development and civil society topics more broadly.
Q & A with Meg Holden
What motivates you as a researcher?
The opportunity to contribute to institutional change toward sustainability.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
When thinking about transition toward sustainable cities, there is no alternative to “becoming native to our cities.” This means continually positioning and repositioning myself as a researcher in live debates with others who are making the decisions affecting the city.
What advice would you give to yourself on the challenges you’ve faced as a researcher?
Even when a process or relationship fails, there is learning, and the failure may come back as success in ten years’ time.
Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?
In my daughters.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?
Attention to the value of cities as sites of human social, environmental and economic potential; as sites where we can grow and be ready for change.
SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?
For colonizing the region’s two downtowns, Vancouver and Surrey, and embedding in both the structures and systems necessary for smarter city-building.