SFYOU: Leo Dittmer, RADIUS, and Neighbourhood Resilience

An interdisciplinary approach to helping people in neighbourhoods feel more connected

Photo: RADIUS "We have a tagline: a home away from the neighbourhood."

By: Meera Eragoda, Arts Editor

Photo: RADIUS

Editor’s Note: This interview was done prior to COVID-19 quarantine measures.

Name: Leo Dittmer

Pronouns: He/him/his

Department Affiliation: Faculty of Environment: Human Geography

Hometown: Clavet, Saskatchewan

Favourite bird: “Chickadee. My grandparents had them at their farm and they had a really big window in their living room so I would just sit in the window and look at the birds.”

I sat down with Leo Dittmer to learn more about his experience being enrolled in the RADIUS SFU program this semester. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a great shirt with small printed roses all over it. He had just gotten Veggie Lunch in MBC and had come to the realization that perhaps he should have heeded the warning of the person serving him that the spicy sauce was quite hot. His laugh was exuberant, which was delightful to hear.

Dittmer is an undergrad in human geography, though he switched majors from interactive art and technology (IAT). He was at Langara College when he took an urban geography course that really set off his passion for it.

“It was really cool to understand why humans have made cities and why we live the way we do, and how sometimes the way we live doesn’t work for us but we still live like that [ . . . ] It’s also an interesting topic because more and more people are living in cities.”

I recently learned about RADIUS and got curious. According to their website, RADIUS is a “social innovation hub based out of the Beedie School of Business, SFU, and located in the heart of Vancouver at the Charles Chang Innovation Centre.” Their mission is to run “programs to collaboratively develop, test, and accelerate innovative responses to tough social problems.” 

The specific program that RADIUS runs which Dittmer is in is called the Civic Innovation Change Lab (CICL). The ideal applicants from SFU are third or fourth year students in any department. This semester they included people studying a range of subjects from health science to gender studies, and even one who wasn’t previously an SFU student. The CICL is meant to help students develop and implement real solutions to existing problems.

Every semester’s CICL has a different theme. Just last semester, that theme was Neighbourhood Resilience. Along with Dittmer, there were 13 others who were accepted into the cohort.

When asked about his experience, Dittmer states: “Coming from what is literally classified as a village, it’s really interesting to learn about cities. It’s so cool.” He adds with a laugh, “Stars in my eyes.”  

Given his passion for cities, the CICL, and specifically this semester’s topic of Neighbourhood Resilience, appealed to him. He heard about it from a friend and since he was interested in business, decided to apply.

“I thought that [experiential] learning would be cool. I’d also contemplated taking some business courses [ . . . ] It’s not super business focused but [ . . . ] you do want to create a project that could fund itself.” 

He expands, “The topic [ . . . ] is something that comes up in geography a lot. I had just taken GEOG 312 Geography of Natural Hazards and we talked a lot about resiliency and how people can recover from natural disasters [ . . . ] I thought it would be cool to do something [with] this.”

Dittmer explains what neighbourhood resilience means by explaining that the City of Vancouver’s neighbourhood resilience plan is intended to help “neighbourhoods to recover or bounce back from long-term shocks and things like that. Also [ . . . ] short-term shocks and everyday stressor type things, like affordability, racism, loneliness.”

The idea that Dittmer’s group (one of four groups in his cohort) is working on is called the Neighbourhood Clubhouse. “We have a tagline: a home away from home for the whole neighbourhood.” The idea is to have a kind of semi-open, semi-private space in a neighbourhood where people can drop by, hang out, and meet each other.

Their inspiration came from doing “a really big survey that got a lot of attention. Over 200 people filled it out. And we did a bunch of in-person interviews and research.”

Dittmer was concerned about a survey conducted on the people in Vancouver. “We found that [ . . . ] over 80% [of people in Vancouver weren’t] close with a neighbour of theirs.” 

Dittmer believes this is important because “neighbourhood resiliency is really important for disaster recovery. And also just makes your life better. That’s one of the hard things about the Lower Mainland. People are so spread out and so far that [ . . . ] if you can know people in your neighbourhood and be like, ‘This is somewhere I belong and I know these people and I can talk to them,’ that’s something that really helps.”

And Dittmer can relate. I ask what his thoughts are on his own hometown of Clavet in light of all the geography courses he’s taken and he jokes, “I don’t know why anybody lives in a village.” 

Following this, Dittmer then gets serious and admits one of the things he misses is being physically close to the people he cares about. “There are people I care about in the Lower Mainland, but everybody lives all over.” 

On how the Neighbourhood Clubhouse would be different from a community centre or a library he explains, “We’re envisioning a space for the people and probably run by the people as well.” People would be able to bring in food, board games, books, and be as social as they like. The goal is to have it be very accessible, but Dittmer acknowledges they still have to iron out some kinks.

“Do we want people to pay some kind of membership to upkeep the space? Do we want it to be locked up at night? Those are the kinds of things we’re still trying to figure out.”

There are also other types of barriers that come from people being hesitant to take advantage of collective and communal resources. As Dittmer explains, “Something that I heard a lot when I was doing interviews with people in Vancouver is that there’s a lot of social anxiety or there’s an assumption that you’re not welcome in whatever spaces.” He says people seem to think, “Oh that space is not for me. It’s for whoever or it’s for these very cool hipster people.”

Relating this feeling to the project, “I think that’s something we’ve been thinking about from the beginning: how do we advertise the space as being for everybody, and [that] everybody is completely welcome here, and we want everybody to come in and give it a try? And that’s something we’re still figuring out a little bit.”

Dittmer, however, seems heartened by the abilities of everyone in his group to achieve this. “I love doing interdisciplinary projects. I love working with people from other disciplines.” He explains that it’s the different perspectives he appreciates the most.

In addition, he’s hopeful in the project because of the ability CICL has to be “working adjacent” to the City of Vancouver. “Every Tuesday, we’re at City Studios, which is run by the City of Vancouver, so we use their space but the employees have been very helpful [ . . . ] One of them has been working to get us in contact with the person who runs the Thingery [which are lending libraries that the community contributes to].”

“We are talking to someone from the VIVA Vancouver team; [the team] focuses on activating public space in Vancouver. He was giving us some insight as well [ . . . ] So there’s definitely been lots of City people involved.”

When I asked Dittmer what he thought was one of the most memorable parts of CICL had been so far, he didn’t have to think long. 

“Our midpoint presentations. It was all of our classmates, all of our instructors, all of the people from City Studio, and we also had four guest panelists that came. There was somebody from RADIUS, a person from Vancity who does their community projects, a planner from the City of Vancouver, and someone from Beedie. Getting to do our midpoint presentation in front of them was one of the scariest things I’ve done in my undergrad, but it was also really cool and interesting [ . . . ] At that time, we hadn’t selected an idea. We had kinda come up with three ones that we would be interested in doing. They gave us feedback on everything, and it was very scary but very cool.”

The business exposure he’s had through CICL has met his initial interest. “I was just thinking it would be interesting to explore how our economy works, and maybe some ways we can function outside of a typical capitalist paradigm. And that’s one kind of interesting thing that has come up a lot in our course: the sustainable innovation of it. And social innovation. Creating something for good. Something that can hopefully fund itself and keep operating so you don’t have to rely on money from the City or from grants.”

So does this mean Dittmer is hoping this project will actually be implemented after the program? Definitely! 

“It’s not any kind of guarantee but that’s the mindset that we’re in. We would actually like to be able to do it [ . . . ] There are quite a few grants and things [ . . . ] so we’re really hoping we can keep pushing it forward when [CICL] is done.”

As for the future, Dittmer believes, “It would be really cool to work in community planning, like planning cities. I think that’s some of why this topic and this project have been so exciting for me. I would love to run with this all the way to the end.”

He’s also entertaining the idea of doing something in the arts or with writing. Dittmer’s passion, energy, and drive shone through to me and I was left with the feeling that whatever he goes into, I’m sure we can expect some very interesting things to come out of it. 

As well, I’m struck by how innovative and socially-conscious SFU’s CICL program is and I would encourage everyone reading to take a look at their website for more information.