Michael Alexander retires as Director of City Conversations

Tue, 13 Oct 2020

After more than seven years of coordination, creation and commitment, Michael Alexander is retiring as Director of City Conversations. 

The series of lunch-time meetups has been a pillar of SFU Public Square’s programming. It has ignited powerful discussions on urban planning and design, art and architecture, the environment and the economy, food and health, housing and transportation and more.

Michael played a pivotal role in shaping these conversations, bringing the idea for an open venue for Vancouverites to learn and express their opinions on civic issues to SFU in 2013. With support from The City Program, SFU Vancouver and SFU Public Square, City Conversations was born.

To honour Michael’s hard work and vision, we asked some of those that worked closest with him to share their thoughts and memories.

On to the tributes…

Michael, I feel extremely grateful to you for being the disruptor, creator and visionary that you are. City Conversations has become an extremely important civic convening space in the region and has elevated dialogue on urban issues for over seven years.

One of the aspects of your work that I appreciated was your provocative programming. You didn't shy away from difficult conversations or difficult people. And in so doing, you helped to spark a broader movement of dialogue and discussion on urban issues. I don't think it is an accident that so many people in our city think of themselves as urban planner wannabes. You helped to make thinking and talking about urban issues cool and interesting.

– Shauna Sylvester, executive director of SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, co-founder of SFU Public Square

When I look back to when I first arrived in Vancouver as a grad student 10 years ago, City Conversations was just launching, and I was honoured to step into a volunteer role in supporting the new event. This led me to build relationships with Michael and SFU Public Square that I now cherish dearly. City Conversations and the leadership from Michael was undoubtedly what led me to be so engaged with not only SFU, but the new city in which I now call home.

From the outdoor conversations at Lot 19 to the ongoing controversies of money laundering, each conversation is unique, inspiring, and definitely thought-provoking, and Michael brought that buzz that has made City Conversations the go to event for civil discourse in Vancouver. Thank you, Michael, for your dedication to this project and for your belief in critical thinking and discussion on issues that matter in our community.

— Landon Hoyt, director of the Binners’ Project, past program manager at SFU Public Square

Michael Alexander is an immigrant – from America, mostly San Francisco. And like most immigrants who adopt Canada (as Canada adopts them), he brought a particular affection and insight to this place – Vancouver especially – to which locals are often oblivious.

It surprised him that there wasn’t more awareness and lively discussion about local issues and the people responsible for shaping his new home. As much as he appreciated the contrast with his homeland, that Canadian reticence was sometimes just too cautious for its own good.  Perhaps it was a lack of sufficient opportunity for open discussion, polite of course, in the public realm that he could help remedy, and, in the process, nudge along civil debate.

From the time Michael suggested the idea to SFU’s Centre for Dialogue to the first City Conversation, it was only about a month – lightning speed in academia. And it was an overnight hit – one that has lasted years.

With City Conversations, the immigrant came inside.

– Gordon Price, urban planner, SFU Centre for Dialogue fellow, former City of Vancouver councillor

Thank you, Michael, for your commitment to SFU's community engagement in Vancouver. You came to us as a volunteer with an idea, then made City Conversations an integral part of our civic engagement programs. The background work necessary to convene City Conversations so regularly for seven years, with outstanding guests exploring critically important issues, and with robust, spirited and respectful dialogue among the large number of participants: this represents a huge contribution to citizen engagement in the city.

Michael, you can retire knowing that you've left an impressive legacy of urban community engagement.

– Laurie Anderson, executive director of Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

Michael’s retirement provides me a moment of reflection. It is through supporting the City Conversations program for the past 4 years, that I am able to enrich my volunteer involvement with SFU Public Square. And because of that, I am afforded opportunities to diversify my peer group, to develop new skills, to discover tools for collaboration. Who knew I would learn to live-Tweet (or to even understand the concept)!?! I’m grateful to Michael for encouraging my deeper understanding of urbanism and urban design, and to a greater appreciation of the effect of urban planning on all of society.

– Karen Dar Woon, longstanding volunteer with SFU Public Square and City Conversations

City Conversations