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Gender + Sexuality
Urban Planning + Architecture

Women's Pharmacy Designed by Students

To fill void on tough street, funding needed.

Raphael Lopoukhine 29 May

Raphael Lopoukhine is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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Proposed site of Lu's on Vancouver's Hastings Street.

Architecture students are trying to make a difference through design, hoping to improve the health of women in Canada's poorest neighbourhood. Amongst a sea of predatory profiteers in the Downtown Eastside, they designed a woman-friendly pharmacy to be run as a social enterprise by a local women's health collective.

Take a stroll down East Hastings and you might pass a half-dozen pharmacies -- did you miss them? No Shoppers Drug Mart or mom and pop operations here. Many of these so-called pharmacies are small, dingy and your friendly neighbourhood pharmacist is walled off behind two-inch thick Plexiglas. Most offer nothing but jugs of blue looking Kool-Aid. Of course it's not Kool-Aid, its methadone for recovering heroin addicts. There are 19 licensed pharmacies in the Downtown Eastside and 13 that dispense methadone. Earning 10 bucks a daily dose, on the street these pharmacists are dubbed "the legal drug dealers."

"When all you are doing is dispensing methadone, you are not a pharmacy, you're a methadone clinic," said Caryn Duncan, executive director of the Vancouver Women's Health Collective (VWHC), adding that would be OK, if it is done in a way to help addicts, not just turn a profit.

The women faced with a lack of options are escaping the Downtown Eastside to fill their prescriptions and access health services, she said. To put a stop to that, Lu's, a Pharmacy for Women, is planned to be located in the front of a 100-year-old building at 29 West Hastings Street. The profits from the pharmacy will be re-invested into the collective's services located in the rest of the ground floor, about two thirds of the building. (The VWHC provides women with health information, workshops, advocacy and access to health practitioners.)

Designing women

When the architecture students started the design project in the second semester after the first few months were spent researching the project, they dispatched three women from the Downtown Eastside to take photos of their environment. They hoped the women would capture an image that could act as a catalyst for the design. It did, but not like they expected.

"A lot of the photographs came back with bars and gates and all the places they weren't allowed to go," said Hoff.

As a result, the front gate -- a needed security feature -- will be, instead of the usual forbidding bars, an enlarged cherry blossom. It will be lit from behind during the night, injecting some life into a relatively dark night time streetscape. Throughout the rest of the building, the cherry blossom theme continues and intermingles with soft lines, light and inviting design. Though the pharmacy does not exclude men from filling prescriptions, the architecture student's design aims to subtly keep them outside, like a TV that only plays soap operas.

Funding needed fast

Planned to be finished by the end of the summer, the UBC graduate students are currently holed up in their professor's condo feverishly writing appeals to friends, developers, and fellow architects -- pretty much anybody who could spare a dime. If they don't raise $120,000 soon and attract the necessary skilled trades people, the project could be shut down or considerably scaled back.

"I hope not," says UBC professor of architecture Inge Roecker, adding that if the money doesn't come through in time "...we definitely would have to strip down to the bare minimum, but the reason why we as a school jumped in was to show that design really matters, that it can create a better environment that can change how people interact."

Architecture that doesn't gentrify

Embedded in the modernist movement since the turn of the 20th century, architecture as a tool for social improvement has not been without its controversy. The French architect Le Corbusier's design to remedy the ills of the Parisian slums with cell-like apartment towers was a regrettable design adapted for public housing projects across North America. Instead of birthing a utopian society, they became fertile grounds for crime, drugs and riots. The latest architectural urban "slum" fix is now the flip side of the coin, where new designs for a neighbourhood attract wealthier people, squeezing out the poorer residents.

"In the Downtown Eastside, ideas of high design are creeping in with elements of gentrification," said UBC student Andrea Hoff. "So when a venue is well designed, the people from the neighbourhood are no longer welcome in that space -- this project turns that on its head."

For the health collective running a social enterprise pharmacy, it is a win-win situation. They get a stable source of income to fund their services, after repeated and sustained cuts from every level of government, while women get to interact in a women-only environment with pharmacists that are actually concerned about their health.

As it stands today, all of the funding for the development of the pharmacy is currently coming from private sources. The VWHC and City of Vancouver are in discussions about providing some additional funding, but it will first have to go before council for a vote and that wouldn't happen until June, said Downtown Eastside social planner Jessica Chen.

Social enterprise: is this new?

In 2003, Canada spent 17.3 per cent of its gross domestic profit on social expenditures, down from a peak of 21.8 per cent in 1992, ranking Canada 18th out of 24 developed countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With declining public investment, do the actions of the health collective mirror a general growing trend in Canada?

"I couldn't tell you overall whether there is increase or decrease in it, but there is certainly an increase in media coverage, interest and public attention," said James Tansey, chair of business ethics at the UBC Sauder School of Business and co-founder of the social enterprise company Offsetters. "It may be a retreat in government direct service delivery, but lots of these initiatives rely on granting to get started and that was certainly the case in the U.K."

In an effort to raise funds, the architecture students have started a web-based campaign at Give Meaning. And though the students are ready to get their hands dirty, they need skilled trades volunteers, such as a contractor, electrician, demolitionist, a plumber and someone dedicated to help build the cherry blossom gate. It's not a lot of work, but with today's market rates, any bit will help, they say.

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