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 in the next 25 years, giving rise to the question of how the city's 22 municipalities and one treaty First Nation will accommodate them all. SFU's Meg Holden, for one, has hope that this 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). RVU works locally and with partner cities throughout the UN-Habitat Global Urban Observatory Network, which helps cities around the world to make better decisions around urban planning through information- and capacity-building. Says Holden, who is a research advisor to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and to the Community Wellbeing Institute as well as a board member of the international Community Indicators Consortium, “RVU's overall mission is to get to a point where what we measure about urban development matches political and resident values and goals. This involves extensive public participation and work 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.
The G2G annual reports reveal insights into housing and development trends and how approval processes and fees vary across the region, and 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 toward generating the outcome 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 that people and organizations plan in city building, and shed new light on the spaces available for compromise in urban form, policies, and human behaviours 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 it is democratic processes of social learning that stand to offer the most value to all manner of efforts to institute 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. At home in BC, it's the chance to make the case for change in our understanding of ourselves as an urban rather than rural-dependent place.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaboration is the only way in which new knowledge accrues to a social group. Anything else is fundamentalism or willful denial of democracy.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
When thinking about the transition to sustainable cities, there is no alternative to “becoming native to our cities” and this means continually positioning and repositioning myself as a researcher in live debates with others making the decisions that make the city. On days when I am not “in the field,” I think of the Urban Studies skybridge at SFU Harbour Centre as providing some well-needed respite from the continuous demands of engagement. This goes for our students as well, many of whom are already on the front lines of city work, as well as for the research faculty.
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 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 to be ready for change.
SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?
Colonizing the region’s two downtowns, Vancouver and Surrey, and embedding in both the structures and systems necessary for better city-building.