Reflections on a Vancouver Waterfront Walking Tour


Participants listen during a stop on the Vancouver waterfront walking tour last week.

Last week I attended a walking tour of Vancouver’s waterfront area, hosted by SFU’s City Conversations and held in conjunction with the Placemaking Leadership Forum. It was one many events scheduled for Placemaking Week and was attended by more than 100 people. As a first-time participant of a walking tour, only having previously studied this technique in our IAP2 Techniques course, I found it interesting to observe such a powerful, yet under-used, tool in action.

To follow are some of my observations, and a few things you may want to consider if you are thinking of using a walking tour as part of your next engagement.

When and why to use a walking tour

Site visits and tours tend to lie closer to the inform level on the IAP2 engagement spectrum, because the setting makes sharing information easy and collecting information from participants more challenging (though not impossible). Tours are often used earlier in an engagement project to help familiarize stakeholders with an area or site that will be discussed in subsequent engagement activities. A great effect of the walking tour is its ability to connect the proponent with their stakeholders, and the stakeholders with each other, in a way that many other techniques don’t (think about the small-talk made while moving from one point to the next).

Site visits help inform people through experience. They help people understand the physical realities of a space, such as scale, perspective and the interrelatedness of the features there. Site visits are a great tool for kinesthetic learners, or anyone who benefits from getting up and moving around to a new environment and situation (pretty much everyone).

For the Vancouver waterfront tour, all of these aspects came powerfully in to play – the spectacular waterfront panorama, the towering high-rises and the intricate web of transportation networks meeting in what I learned is the most diverse transportation hub in all of North America. None of these interrelated elements could have been captured so well in a workshop / meeting room setting or online.

Careful consideration of logistics is paramount

As with any kind of engagement, being well prepared is essential. There are many things to plan for and consider with a tour. In addition to what is being said and how the engagement is organized, the route must be planned, and accessibility and possible barriers must be considered. Think: audibility, sightlines, supporting materials, stairs, transportation, timing, weather, etc.

The waterfront walking tour was well organized and flowed smoothly. The group was easy to spot at the meeting place, maps with images and sketches of the area to be discussed were distributed, the group moved on time from one mapped discussion point to the next, and presenters had a megaphone so each of the 100-plus participants could hear (as long as it was turned on). In a brief discussion with Steve Brown, one of the organizers, I learned that a lot of preparation had gone into making sure the event logistics flowed smoothly. It showed.

Make sure you communicate the purpose

As with any engagement technique, you should have your objectives clearly defined in advance. What are you trying to achieve, how can participants contribute, and why did you choose this particular engagement technique to accomplish the objectives?

This is my one, and only, criticism of the Vancouver waterfront walking tour. While I was able to understand, eventually, that there was no current plan for a public engagement on the development of the waterfront, there were times when this was implied. At one point we were told that the tour was our chance to understand what had been done with the waterfront development so far and why, and that the conversation afterwards was a chance to share our feedback and ideas. However, there was no clear mechanism for recording these questions and ideas, and no information was given on how feedback would be used.

I gather that this event was organized as a way to showcase the past, and imagine the future, of the waterfront area during Placemaking Week, as well as generate general enthusiasm for improving our waterfront landscape, but it would have been useful to have these objectives clearly stated for participants. It seems this was not decision-based engagement.

Overall, I was pleased to see an under-utilized engagement technique in action – especially along our spectacular waterfront on a warm, late summer day. I was impressed both by the thought and preparation that went into the tour’s development, and also the technical expertise that has created our waterfront in its current state.

I do hope that the ideas shared and the aspirations of the organizers come to fruition at some point, as now I can visualize how even more spectacular our waterfront could be.