Vol. 21 No. 8 • February 26 - March 4, 2015 In Our 20th Year Serving Greater Hamilton

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Expressing Vibrancy

by Jenny Gladish
May 15 - 21, 2014
Here comes the neighbourhood

Arts organization CoBALT Connects and its Expressing Vibrancy project partners are seeking 500 citizens to participate in an interactive survey about neighbourhoods as the year–long study becomes the first to utilize McMaster University’s technology–enhanced LIVE Lab research auditorium. Here’s a closer look at what they’re doing.

    It’s a typical weekday on James Street North in Hamilton. A woman pushes a stroller and stops to examine the produce in a sidewalk stall. A small group of men forms outside a bar, chatting animatedly and smoking cigarettes. Brilliant brushstrokes of acrylic paint fill a canvas in a gallery window. Hurried pedestrians navigate a construction project, where a heritage building’s façade is temporarily hidden away. A student waits for a bus, and glances at graffiti scrolled on a wooden fence, while cars honk on nearby Cannon Street.

    This is a neighbourhood expressing itself, and these are the signs of culture that mark it.

    Hamilton–based organization Cobalt Connects is paying close attention to how culture plays out in the urban environment, and what it all means for cultural planning, a place–based approach to planning and development. The project is called Expressing Vibrancy, and along with two research labs at McMaster University, the City of Hamilton, and social enterprise the Centre for Community Study, its goal is to determine what makes a neighbourhood a vibrant place.

    Next, the study moves into McMaster University’s LIVE Lab, and is looking for upwards of 500 citizens representative of the demographic fabric of Hamilton to make up its first audiences. There, participants will view immersive audio–visual clips from Hamilton neighbourhoods. Participants’ responses will be collected using touchscreen tablets. Of the hundred participants in each session, ten will be hooked up to non–invasive sensors that will measure heart and breathing rates, natural brain activity, and skin responses. It’s one of several layers the project will go through as it uncovers which features of a neighbourhood contribute to a sense of attachment, belonging and pride.

Vibrancy’s the word

Neighbourhoods have been getting a lot of attention recently, with studies honing in on safety, walkability and transit, among other hot–button topics. But when sidewalks have been widened or bike lanes added, what are the features of a neighbourhood that enable it to express the culture of its citizens?

    The initial inspiration for Expressing Vibrancy was sparked by a single word – vibrant. This word turned up through cultural plans authored by communities across the province over the past five years. Cities and towns large and small all wanted the same thing: vibrant street scenes, vibrant and creative communities, healthy and vibrant neighbourhoods and businesses. While it looks good on paper, there were a couple of problems: First, there was no common definition of what it meant for a place to be culturally vibrant. Second, since everybody tends to have a different definition of what it means for a neighbourhood to be vibrant, we needed to find a way to capture a multitude of opinions.

    If a common language could be found around cultural vibrancy – and a way to measure it – cities and towns could determine tangible goals, and plan more effectively for future growth. So, about one year ago, with provincial funding meant to bolster cultural planning activities, Expressing Vibrancy got to work.

Hitting the streets

Last summer, more than 200 Hamiltonians, aged 14 to 84, were given clipboards and sent off to explore the streets of eight Hamilton neighbourhoods. Ottawa Street, Locke Street South, Westdale Village, Concession Street, Waterdown Village, James Street North, Downtown Dundas, and Barton Village became the testing grounds for observing culture in action.

    Participants observed the sights, sounds, smells and interactions taking place on city sidewalks, and a survey they took helped pinpoint a number of themes. These survey results provided the first glimpse into how a city collectively defines its culture, and the type of neighbourhood features that matter to people.

    This process gave way to a fascinating pile of data, and a collection of thoughts, opinions, and perceptions about neighbourhoods. But to stop the study there would be uncovering only one piece of the cultural puzzle.

This is your brain on culture

One of Cobalt Connects’ partners in this project is the team at McMaster University’s LIVE Lab, an acronym standing for large, interactive virtual environment. It’s within the recently completed Institute for Music and the Mind, a one–of–a–kind lab that allows researchers to study the neuroscience primarily behind musical performances. But the possibilities for what can happen in this facility are limited only to the imaginations of those utilizing it. What makes this environment unique in the world is that the LIVE Lab is equipped to measure the physiological responses of its audience. So, what was once subjective and anecdotal becomes scientific data.

    Expressing Vibrancy will be the first study to make use of this environment, and instead of music, the experience of moving through a neighbourhood will be replicated, the sights and sounds now brought to life through its constellation sound system.

    “Understanding the psychological responses people have to neighbourhoods and cultural amenities will hopefully reveal some interesting findings,” says Jeremy Freiburger, Cobalt Connects’ founder and cultural strategist leading the study. He notes, too, that this is uncharted territory for the field of cultural planning. What makes the project unique is how it arrives at its conclusions. The many layers of community engagement built into it, and partnership with an academic institution has meant it has the ability to dig deeper.

    Neighbourhoods, Freiburger says, are where our lives play out, and from a city perspective, its streets are what facilitate meaningful interactions and memorable experiences. “The philosophical goal of these plans is to enhance the creative sector and to build strong, connected communities that celebrate their culture,” Freiburger continues. “But the functional goal is to give the municipality and the community a common language and tangible goals to accomplish together.”
How to get involved:

If you would like to participate in a LIVE Lab audience session, please contact us at 905–777–0787 or info@expressingvibrancy.ca

    This opportunity requires a commitment of about two hours, and participants will be compensated for the cost of parking, or HSR travel to and from campus. High school students participating in a session may count the time toward their required volunteer hours. V

Jenny Gladish is CoBALT Connects’ Communications and Brand Lead.

The audience sessions:

Tuesday, May 20th – 10am
Wednesday, May 21st  – 7pm
Thursday, May 22nd – 1pm
Thursday, May 22nd – 7pm
Friday, May 23rd – 11am
Friday, May 23rd – 4pm
Saturday, May 24th – 11am
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