Article, Social Justice, Urban Issues

Meet Steve Tornes: Urban Studies graduate, community engagement coordinator, BC wine guru!

January 26, 2022

As we step into 2022 with anticipation for the new engagement opportunities this year will bring, we are excited to introduce Steve Tornes, who has recently stepped into the role of interim Program Coordinator for SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement (SFU VOCE). 

Steve is an SFU alumnus with a MA in Urban Studies, who has an inexhaustible passion for all things related to urban planning, data, politics, and literature. Throughout his studies, he has focused on the ways that transportation collides with space, equity, and everyday mobilities — with these interests culminating in his thesis on the Vancouver Bike Share Program.

Having recently joined us in November, Steve has been coordinating upcoming events, dealing with all things administration, and spearheading the creation of The Trip Diary — a Below the Radar mini-series that will delve into the issues and inequities of transportation within Vancouver.

We sat down with Steve to learn more about his academic interests, how his keen enthusiasm in transportation developed, and the experiences he is looking forward to having with SFU VOCE.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Steve, we are very excited to have you here working with us, and bringing with you your expertise on urban transportation. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

First off, thank you for having me. So I am someone who was born and raised in Vancouver. I studied English Literature and Political Science, then moved on to Urban Studies where I wrote my thesis on the Vancouver Bike Share Program. I enjoy backpacking trips and hiking, and while travelling I’ve invested myself in wildlife and landscape photography. Some of my favourite hikes have been in Iceland and Japan, and of course, BC.

Overall, I'm just someone who loves trying new things. For example, I do a lot of data work, but that was something that I just one day taught myself to do — rather than formally studying it. I usually look at a subject that I have no expertise in at all and just ask myself, “can I learn about this?” “What can I do to keep learning and keep growing?”

Backpacking in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Steve Tornes.

What drew you to this position with SFU VOCE?

I have been a listener of Below the Radar for a few years now. As someone who studied Urban Studies at SFU, this is a podcast that gets around the department. As well, I previously worked with Am Johal on a research project that was looking at transit subsidies for people of low income. So I got to know him, I got to know a little bit about SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. And when I saw the application to apply, I thought that this would be a really nice change from previous work that I was doing.

How has your experience working with SFU VOCE been so far? Are there things you are hoping to do or learn, any particular experiences you are looking forward to?

I really enjoy working here. It has been such a great experience so far. And just with my interest in always learning new things, I feel like I have already learned a lot here with my time at the office. And I know there is still a lot more for me to learn as well, like how to properly use a Mac, and more about creating graphics for the podcast.

For experiences, I have been asked to do a podcast series on transportation. This is something I'm really excited about. In a way, it will be the culmination of so many different skills, experiences and ideas all coming together at one point.

Photo courtesy of Steve Tornes.

My favourite kinds of projects are those that take months, if not years. I love the slow growth and development because it feels so fulfilling by the end. So that is what I'm really looking forward to with "The Trip Diary."

And on that note, can you tell us a bit about this upcoming original series? What has been exciting, surprising, or challenging about creating "The Trip Diary"?

So I think it's really important to think about equity in relation to transportation. So what I want to look at is, how does transportation and commuting, commuting patterns, and the way we design transportation, affect our daily lives? How do these forms of transportation impact our experiences and identities? What are the equitable components that we need to consider? And what is the future of transportation in the Lower Mainland?

I also want to try to make this series a little bit artsy and fun. So I’m planning to use aspects of the podcast medium, like duration and soundscapes to help transition between guests and themes. 

A challenge of this series will be that it is really hard to describe some of this research in audio form. For example, one guest’s research is on body mapping, which is the relationship between one's body and geography and how one moves and commutes. And so body mapping is a process where there are drawings involved. Describing it won't do it justice. It’s kind of like describing a data table. You lose the beauty of looking at the artwork. So the challenge will be how do we describe that kind of research and those kinds of experiences on a podcast?

What made you especially interested in urban studies, and transportation? 

I had finished my undergrad in Montreal and returned to Vancouver. And I felt very lost, not knowing what should be the career now that I had finished my studies. And I went to the library and I picked up The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. And it was truly a life-changing book. It was all about how to make vibrant communities. How often policies would destroy existing communities, because they weren't considered “clean” or “good” — those might have been ethnic communities or communities that were unstructured. 

And she also had such amazing descriptions of sidewalks, and I think she called it the ‘sidewalk ballet.’ And once I read that book, I would walk around my own community. And then things started making more sense. I started noticing things that I didn't before. I think it was that loss that I had in terms of not knowing what to do, plus finding a brand new world out there, that made me start looking at the Urban Studies program. And the more I learned about it, the more I fell in love.

Image of Steve holding up “A Good War” a book he was a research assistant for.

What sort of social and political lenses did you develop throughout your studies, and how have you applied those into your past work experiences — and now with the VOCE office? 

I remember that one of the most transformational courses I took was a feminist political theory class in my undergrad. That completely changed my understanding of gender identity and power. And how there are institutional forces that benefit one identity over other identities. As someone who has been involved with a lot of equity work, in general, JEDI principles have a big effect — justice, equity, diversity, inclusion. I feel like a lot of that falls under the feminist political theory that I mentioned, just because it is all about equity and equality at its basic core.

A picture of Steve working with “The Place and Space Collective” podcast, as a part of the Society + Space journal.

Postmodernism also has a huge impact on my thought process. It’s all about not looking at a thing in and of itself, but what is our relationship to the thing? And how does that inform why we say something is important or not? How do these relationships inform our thinking, the stories we tell, and the actions we take? For example, what are the stories of Vancouver and how does that inform our identities? When I was growing up, we learned nothing about Indigenous history. I swear I did not hear a territory acknowledgement until very late in life. But when I heard my first territorial acknowledgement, I started seeing a lot more place-makers in the community showing what different locations mean.

I started hearing a lot more Indigenous people talk in their own languages, and about their own history through themselves. And that completely changed my understanding of who I am, to say that I am a settler on this land.

For how I apply these lenses, with my thesis, I applied them by using different perspectives and descriptive mediums. As a postmodernist who is really interested in the medium, I would love to see how much I can break the podcast medium as much as possible without destroying its core. I know that sounds way too grandiose and a little bit pretentious, but I want to try to break the form a little.

You’ve spent some time working in the wine industry, and as a result, have turned into our team’s personal consultant for finding good BC wines! Would you mind sharing any wine tips for readers?

So I specialize in BC wine. For the best bang for your buck or just to improve the chances of picking a good wine, look for the VQA on a bottle. VQA means Vintners Quality Alliance. It means that the grapes are 100% made in BC. It also means that it comes from a designated region in BC. The important thing there is oftentimes a lot of wineries or brands in BC will import their grapes, and then create their wine. The problem is they have almost no control over quality or even taste. So, the wine may turn out to be really good. It may turn out to be terrible. But they have no choice on the grapes they import.

The other thing to keep in mind is every region does wine differently and focuses on grapes differently based upon their region. The climate as it is right now means that BC is better when it comes to Rieslings, a white sweet wine popular in Germany. And for Pinot Noirs, famous in northern France. 

A promotional card for a wine tasting night that Steve hosted. Illustration by Shannon Welsh.

If you pick a BC Riesling or BC Pinot Noir, it'll likely be better quality than any other BC grapes, but even compared to the world. You'll also have grapes like Merlot, Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, which are good anywhere in the world. So those are still safe bets. They may not be specific to BC, but you can't go wrong.

What are your reflections as someone who is a Metro Vancouver commuter with a special interest in transportation?

Transportation, to me, is so much about possibility, but also limitation and constraint and barriers. Because of the Vancouver housing crisis, oftentimes you have to live far away in order to have a place that is affordable. Which means that transportation now becomes a major issue. It may not be predictable. It may not be reliable. It may not be frequent enough. That could force you into driving.

The way in which transportation in Vancouver is set up right now is based upon the thinking of modernist urbanists from the early 20th century — to separate your workspace from your living space. We can do better, and we can move on from that.

And speaking to my thesis on the Vancouver Bike Share Program — one thing that arose is that the sharing economy is probably one potential future of not only Vancouver, but for transportation in general. As an example for parking, either the parking spot is empty with no car in it, or there's an empty car in a parking spot with no one really using it. This use of space is incredibly inefficient. Imagine if we were able to take all that parking spots that were unnecessary, and turn them into locations for affordable housing. How would that dramatically change our living situation? The most expensive part for high rises is underground parking. How much cheaper would those spaces be if we did not force developers to have a minimum of parking spaces? And then with all that in mind, how does the sharing economy change all of that — our conception of space, our conception of movement, our relationships to each other? Because we would then have to share those spaces even more.

Stay tuned for Steve’s upcoming podcast series, “The Trip Diary,” releasing summer 2022 on Below the Radar. Subscribe to our mailing list to ensure you don’t miss it.

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