Vancouver on Edge
Nestled between the ocean and the mountains on Canada’s west coast, Vancouver has been called one of the world’s most beautiful and livable cities . Lucky for us, right? Well, not so fast. Our city also sits on the meeting point of two tectonic plates, which means we face a one in five chance of experiencing a serious crustal or megathrust earthquake in the next 50 years .
“[Vancouver faces] a one in five chance of experiencing a serious crustal or megathrust earthquake in the next 50 years.”
Under this bleak prognosis, our team of five students set out to explore themes of resilience, natural disaster preparedness, and community building at both city and neighbourhood levels through a collaborative, human-focused design approach. This design process, evolving at the epicentre of the City of Vancouver’s discussion on shocks and stresses, has led to the birth of a new NeighbourHub. The NeighbourHub is a replicable and adaptable model that sparks local conversations around community resilience and allows individuals to take ownership of their preparedness long before we feel a rumbling below our city’s surface.
NeighbourHubs are structures that promote community resilience by engaging residents with the collaborative planning of disaster response and recovery plans and stewardship of natural resources. They are located in public parks and open spaces in every neighbourhood, within a ten minute walk of all residences. The design plays on Vancouver’s strengths including an abundance of rain in the wet season, plentiful green space, cycling culture, sustainability design, placemaking via public art, and robust City-driven disaster response planning. It is designed to complement the existing network of Disaster Support Hubs designated by the City of Vancouver.
“…we understand that Vancouver requires stronger social support networks to ensure the population’s wellbeing when other systems fail.”
The local community is encouraged to engage with the NeighbourHub every step of the way. Neighbours will be consulted about the implementation of the project early in the process, and they will be invited to design and vote for the unique identifier, in the form of engraved patterns, on the structure closest to them. NeighbourHub stewards will lead neighbourhood asset-mapping events with the help of local artists in order to produce a hand-drawn map of the surroundings that will be displayed on the structure and replaced on a yearly basis. At the NeighbourHub, neighbours will organize communications via a community message board. They will also generate energy and water for daily use and during disaster situations — all while being independent of the City’s existing infrastructure. The best part is that the NeighbourHub will be used constantly, regardless of any natural disaster, enabling a sense of ownership and belonging among community members.
The structures appear as public art that provides light and shelter on a rainy day. Upon further inspection, instructions explain the purpose of the NeighbourHub and reveal its interactivity. If an earthquake were to occur, Vancouver could experience power outages all over the city leaving residents without use of curital communication devices. For this reason the NeighbourHub features two pedal charging stations that allow users to back their bike into the structure to generate power. LED lights glow to indicate how many Watts of energy are being generated by the user, and possibly the friends or neighbours racing beside them. Power is stored within multiple 12 volt batteries to charge cell phones and the embedded radio, which will be crucial to obtain information during disaster situations when wireless networks are down. Vancouver’s abundance of fresh, drinkable water (in the form of rain) is captured via the structure’s large surface area that acts two-fold as shelter. The rain water is then filtered by charcoal and UV filters to meet municipal regulations and is funneled into a 1500 gallon cistern which, if full, has the ability to provide one litre of water a day to 3,000 residents for the 72 hours following a disaster . Residents can fill their water bottles, and watch the water collection gauge move, giving them a sense of water availability. A community board serves as a platform for sharing information, whether weekly neighbourhood events or crucial skill and equipment-sharing during disaster response and recovery.
Our multidisciplinary team has approached the Neighbourhub project by identifying local assets across sectors that could inform our design. We defined resilience as a population’s ability to develop regenerative solutions to challenges, being both structurally adaptable and socially responsive . By delving deeper into the literature on resilience and previous examples of disaster response and recovery, we have found that the most successful technological projects are those that include and empower the local community members . We have learned that a community’s ability to effectively bounce back from shocks depends on a range of decisions and environmental factors, including efforts to improve social cohesion, and create networks that connect people with institutions . In particular, we understand that Vancouver requires stronger social support networks to ensure the population’s wellbeing when other systems fail. It is anticipated that following a natural disaster Vancouver will be left with limited, if any, access to clean drinking water or power for what could be months . It was made apparent to us that Vancouver needs a way to stock up on the resources that could be lost, and most importantly start the conversation around preparedness .
To start developing our solution, we turned to experts. We have consulted over a dozen specialists and City of Vancouver staff with expertise in planning, energy production, water collection, and clean technology. Each meeting brought new ideas, questions and knowledge that enabled us to refine our design. For example, Katie McPherson, Vancouver’s Chief Resilience Officer, emphasized that each community faces unique resilience challenges; therefore, our design needs to be adaptable to different neighbourhoods. As a team we are working to develop a proposal for the City of Vancouver that thoughtfully aligns with the upcoming Resilient City Strategy, and supports the existing Healthy City, Rain City and Renewable City Strategies and the Greenest City Action Plan.
In order to create a design that meets the needs of the Vancouver population, we have sought public participation in the design process. We hosted a focus group with the Engineers for a Sustainable World UBC chapter, whose members provided insight on the technological components of the structure. At a WinterAction event under the Cambie Street Bridge, we invited passersby to design identifiers and realized the importance of a creative platform in public spaces. In collaboration with Village Vancouver Main Street Neighbourhood, we have hosted a community conversation and asset-mapping workshops, which showed us the importance of including information-sharing features in the structure. By connecting with Ann Pacey, the leader of the Dunbar Earthquake and Emergency Preparedness group, we adapted our communications model to mirror existing efforts in the Vancouver community. As our iterative design process continues, and throughout the implementation of NeighbourHubs, we will continue to co-create resilience in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods.
Today and Tomorrow
We hope to propose potential options for implementation that fit within the City of Vancouver’s existing disaster planning framework. We hope — more purposeful than any of the physical resources that NeighbourHub provides—that this structure will prompt conversations among community members as people learn about its capacity, and start to think about individual steps they can take at the personal and neighbourhood level to plan for emergency preparedness. NeighbourHub will be a replicable model for facilitating discussions around social connection, civic engagement and preparedness for citizens to overcome diverse threats, such as social isolation and/or exclusion, climate change, drought, and earthquakes, both today and tomorrow.
“We hope … that [The Neighbourhub] will prompt conversations among community members.”
NeighbourHub will be a replicable model for facilitating discussions around social connection, civic engagement and preparedness for citizens to overcome diverse threats, such as social isolation and/or exclusion, climate change, drought, and earthquakes, both today and tomorrow.
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-  McPherson, Katie, and Katia Tynan. November 2017. Personal Communication