the plump and garrulous chickens in the back of this East Vancouver home seem very contented. Kept collectively by three families on the block, their upkeep and eggs are shared, and they happily cluck away unaware of the notions of community, collectivism, or modern urbanism of which they reflect part of a possible (and charming) future. Unlike his chickens, Matt Hern is very aware of these concepts. In fact, he’s considered an expert, if one with radical leanings, about the future of urban social development. He’s a professor at UBC and SFU, and has written three books and edited a couple more about this subject. Oh, he’s also the founder of this little thing you may have heard of called Car Free Day, coming to a street near you on June 16th. Matt operates according to what sounds like a simple plan: when you do not have what you want, you make it. When a system does not fulfill your needs, create an alternate system that does. Want a sandwich? Having trouble putting on your pants over your shoes? You can fix that! But when what you want is a more flexible, inclusive school for your child, or when the transportation system is about to put a highway through your neighbourhood, this “just go ahead and do it” philosophy becomes a lot more daunting. Unless, of course, you are Matt Hern. In which case, you just casually go about building an alternative school program, or reimagining your city’s relationship with automobile transportation as though it was no different from putting a piece of cheese between two slices of bread.
Well, at least that’s how easy he makes it look. When you meet him, or have the opportunity to hear him speak publically, it’s not hard to see why he’s good at getting people on board with projects such as the Eastside Learning Centre, Car Free Day, the Purple Thistle Centre, and his current Groundswell project: he is an exceptionally charismatic and engaging guy, projecting both amiable confidence and ardent curiosity. “There have been a lot of projects that bombed too, you know,” he says modestly. “You just don’t really hear about them.” The journey began when Matt and his partner, Selena, moved to New York right after university, where Matt began working for The Nation magazine. They soon found themselves moving back to the west coast after Selena became pregnant with the couple’s oldest daughter, Sadie. “We did not want to deal with the American healthcare situation.” Faced with a baby to raise and no suitable employment or childcare options, the young couple started up the Eastside Learning Centre, an alternative school where they could both work (Selena and Matt both had education degrees), and they could switch off caring for their baby girl. The school was a positive learning experience for both founders and students, and in 1997 the school was successfully merged with the similarly-minded Windsor House School in North Vancouver, where Matt continued to work for five years, and where Selena taught until she started her PhD studies recently. Working closely with a group of seven teens post-Windsor House, Matt then started the Purple Thistle Centre, a “youth-run centre for arts and activism,”