The beginning of City Conversations: A forum for Vancouverites

Michael Alexander at City Conversations. Image by Dale Northey.
City Conversations in Vancouver. Image by Dale Northey.

By Amy Robertson

Michael Alexander, a seasoned urban planner, loves the city of Vancouver. To him, it doesn’t just work. It thrives.

A few years ago, however, the graduate of the City Program’s Urban Design Certificate began to notice a problem: there weren’t enough voices in public decision-making.

Alexander has spent years working to make cities better— first in San Francisco and later in Vancouver. “I thought, ‘What do we do about this?’” he says. “There was so little discourse about really key events that were going on in Vancouver.”

His time in the City Program, part of SFU Continuing Studies, affirmed the need to imagine what could be while building a more livable city. Public participation was part of that; the question was what kind of participation would allow all voices—not just the loud ones—to be heard. After observing a similar model in San Jose, Alexander came up with the idea of lunchtime consultations where presenters would speak for a few minutes each on an important urban issue, and participants would respond with questions and dialogue.

“We needed to give Vancouverites an opportunity to talk in public,” he says. “To ask questions in public. To give opinions in public. To question each other in public. Because that’s what wasn’t going on.”

Alexander’s experience with the Urban Design Certificate told him SFU Continuing Studies was the place to begin to turn his idea into reality. He spoke with Gordon Price, the director of the City Program, and within 40 days, he had partnered with SFU Public Square and hosted the very first consultation, which he called City Conversations.

Since then, City Conversations has welcomed over 2,000 people to more than 40 discussions in downtown Vancouver.

Alexander would like to see more conversations throughout the city, and he hopes that the conversations will culminate in public actions such as voting.

“If we can get people talking more about public affairs and realizing that they can influence public decisions—that they are the public—then I’ll be really happy with what we’re doing.”