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Education on the Boardwalk

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This summer, you won’t find the Geography 464 class at UFV. What’s unique about the course, beyond creating a city planning vision for Abbotsford, is where the class meets. Geography 464 (community planning and development) lectures will be held in one of downtown Abbotsford’s new hotspots, Boardwalk Café.

Geography 464 is taught by both Cherie Enns, associate professor in geography and the environment, and Nova Hopkins, instructor in graphic and digital design. The class is an urban planning studio. This semester they’re taking on historic Abbotsford laneways as their project. Their homebase is Boardwalk Café.

“We’ll have a lecture, then spend time organizing projects in the downtown area,” said Enns. “It’s summertime so I think it makes it way more appealing that you get to be out and working on your project and talking to people.”

City lanes and alleys are often seen as wasted, unusable space. Some consider them unsafe areas. But Cherie Enns believes they can be turned into vibrant and animate places, even if they’re not at this point.

Students in the class will create planned vision concepts for the downtown area of Abbotsford, focusing on connecting and using these laneways.

“We’re hoping for long-term change. I want to see students’ vision and ideas, and inspire businesses and communities to be part of transforming those spaces also.”

Enns approached Darin Graham, co-founder with his wife of Boardwalk Café, at a meetup of local entrepreneurs and young business people in Abbotsford. That’s when the idea saw fruition.

The class takes place Monday evenings, and Boardwalk isn’t open Mondays, so the arrangement worked out well for both parties.

“We were really attracted to the idea. If you look out our window at the back, it’s not super nice,” said Graham. “There’s this ally back here which runs between the liquor store and this building and goes around the corner. It’s not really that nice of a space but something like what she’s proposing could work in there.”

Boardwalk has also looked at getting involved in multiple ways with UFV and the Abbotsford community and is open to hosting other kinds of activities.

“We want to be a part of a cultural shift in Abbotsford that sees Abbotsford as a destination,” Graham said.

The class focuses on real-world neighbourhood planning. Students will define a problem, collect data, and analyze the issue; then they’ll create their vision.

Enns said that planning courses are often problem-based. In this course, the problem is the laneways and the students will be given the skills and organized into groups to interact with professionals and local businesses to solve their problem.

“What makes it unique is it’s interdisciplinary. You don’t have to be a geography or graphic design student, you just have to be interested in the operation and having an impact in a historic area,” she said.

The technique to be used in the laneway project is called “tactical urbanism.” It describes the creation of low-cost developments to create a welcoming and inspirational environment in typically less welcoming neighbourhoods. Back alleys are a prime example of where tactical urbanism thrives. A huge benefit of the tactical urbanism approach is students get to see real changes happen quickly. Long-term plans often get delayed and can take years to complete.

In 2009, New York’s Times Square became colonized by a “pedestrian plaza” where vehicle traffic was blocked off and hundreds of low-cost lawn chairs were placed throughout the space. Although it gained both criticism and praise (for taking place in such an iconic locale) the idea was loved by most pedestrians. Geography 464 will think along these lines.

“It’s being part of the change. Tactical urbanism as a concept is short-term change, low-cost change, to demonstrate the possibility or potential for greater transformation in place,” said Enns. “An example would be taking an empty lot or rundown area and try to modify the space with activities and furniture or whatever. It demonstrates the possibility of that space, and in so doing you begin to initiate change.”

Cities like Vancouver and Toronto have adopted tactical urbanism in some parts. Non-profits like Livable Laneways in Vancouver organize and clean up laneways to transform them into pedestrian-friendly spaces.

Abbotsford’s downtown is already going through a community planning and visioning process. Abbotsfordward, the city’s official community plan, includes a downtown core with plenty of public space and an emphasis on walkways and bicycle lanes.

“The stuff that Cherie was talking about doing in her class, even the projects that they wanted to do with taking what they’re learning about and actually doing it on one of the streets here, I think that’s huge and something that Abbotsford hasn’t necessarily had previously. It’s something we’ll be able to benefit from,” Graham said. “She’s got a lot of practical emphasis in what she wants to do. It’s not just teaching head knowledge, her students get their hands dirty and I really appreciate that, it’s something I value.”

On June 10, at the same time as the Abbotsford farmers’ market, the class will put on one of these pop-up demonstrations. The class will decide exactly where and how they want to set up their display.

“Learning should and can happen not just in the classroom. For this class, historic downtown Abbotsford is our classroom, we just happen to be meeting at Boardwalk,” said Enns.

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