Reflections on Vancouver’s Public Spaces

Yesterday, I posted Spacing’s top 10 public spaces in Canada and Vancouver. I promised I’d be back with some commentary on the panel discussion that occurred at event. Here it is, along with some commentary and personal perspectives:

Title Slide from Spacing Road Show presentation in VancouverIn support of the launch of Spacing’s first national issue, publisher Matthew Blackett and editor Shawn Micelle visited Vancouver on June 28th as part of a cross-Canada tour. The event was also part of the City’s consultation on the Transportation Plan update.

At the event some of Vancouver’s leading urban thinkers joined Matt and Shawn, including:

Each panelist responded to the top-ten best public spaces list contained in the magazine. They also talked about the connections between public space and transportation planning. Here is a recap of what they had to say:

The Private Lives of Public Spaces

Map of Spacing Top 10 Public Spaces in Vancouver.

Map courtesy of Erin O’Melinn, Vancouver Public Space Network

During his remarks, Erick Villagomez noted that identifying public spaces is a highly subjective activity. One of the ironies of public spaces is that they are popular for highly private reasons. They are where we each interact with our city on a personal level. Or as my friend Sophia noted on Twitter, public spaces are where we are personally woven within the [urban] fabric of our city. While we may come together in similar places, we often do so with different motivations.

Erin O’Melinn eloquently expanded on Erick’s observations in here comments about what makes a great public space. She noted that “well-designed spaces strategically strike a balance between things that make us feel safe and welcome and things that let us push our normal habits.” She then said that “we want a sense of ‘publicness’ where we know we belong, but we want to share it with people that are very different from ourselves.” Erin also observed that “we want openness that allows us to people-watch, but we want a sense of enclosure so we don’t feel too watched ourselves.”

Erin’s observations tied directly into Erick’s comments about public spaces for private reasons. This is why many of the best public spaces are multi-use, or in some cases, multi-modal. To me, Vancouver’s Commercial Drive best represents these traits. The commingling of commerce, community and movement on Commercial form a solid foundation for a great place. It is no wonder that the Drive is one of the top ten public spaces in Vancouver. For more of Erin’s thoughts, check out her comprehensive post at the Vancouver Public Space Network blog.

Spaces Going Places

Tweet from Robert W. White (@rbrtwhite) that reads: "Erin O'Milenn - Vancouver's top public spaces are for activity: "We walked the Seawall" is more 'Vancouver' than "We sat around" #spacingyvr"One of the most telling comments during the panel discuss was by Gordon Price. Gordon raised the distinction between ‘destination’ places vs ‘on the way’ spaces. Erin echoed this meme, noting that Vancouver’s top public spaces are for activity and not loitering. Saying “we walked the Seawall” is much more ‘Vancouver’ than “we sat around.”

Looking at the top ten list of Vancouver’s public spaces, it is clear that we are a city of ‘on the way’ spaces. While the most notable observation is that the top public space in Vancouver (and all of Canada, natch) is a ‘on the way’ space, other top public spaces like Granville Island, Pigeon Park and even Kits Beach are intersections where’’on the way’ spaces meet ‘destinations.’ During her comments, Erin noted that these places are popular because they are places where there is life between buildings. Such spaces remind us of our interwoven urban fabric. They are places where we come together to exercise to shop, to gather or simply to relax and watch the city walk by.

However, the popularity of ‘on the way’ spaces is not limited to Vancouver. Of the top 100 public spaces in Canada, over 40 fall into the going places category. While the most popular public spaces were parks (i.e. ‘active’ destinations) with 33, there were only 12 public squares, 8 buildings and 4 markets. Under ‘on the way spaces’ there were 22 waterfronts, 8 neighborhoods, 7 streets and 6 bikes and pedestrians zones.

Spaces on the Edge

Gordon Price also noted that many of our top public spaces, including the Seawall, Stanley Park and the beaches are on the ‘blue green edge’ of where nature meets ocean meets city. There is a universal attraction to such places. Think of how often we plan vacation of coastal locations and natural attraction.

Where’s the Square?

What do we do when we want to celebrate? We stop traffic. —Gordon Price

There was also a lively discussion on Vancouver’s lack of a public square and the implications for public celebrations, political protests and event riots. I’ll be covering this in a separate post tomorrow. In the meantime, check out Gordon Price’s views on the topic.

Implications for Urban Planning

Many of the observations made during the Spacing event have immediate implications for Vancouver. Currently, the city is under going a major transportation plan update that will guide much of the city’s development until 2040 and beyond. The number of ‘on the way’ spaces in Spacing’s list is directly related to our transportation planning.

Tweet by Sophia Sengsuriya (@sengsuriya) that reads: "Transportation not just about cars and moving, but places to be and places to gather. #spacing @spacingvan"If Vancouverites view our transportation infrastructure as not just about moving people, but as public places where we can be together, city planners need to take note. Moreover the fact that seven of Vancouver’s top ten public spaces are in or near the downtown core also has implications for transportation planning

One of the reasons many of Vancouver’s top public spaces are for ‘moving people’ is the city’s transportation infrastructure. As Gordon Price said, Vancouver is a “5 to 50 (km/h) city.” We don’t have any freeways bisecting the city. Even our major transportation thoroughfares are limited in scale and not built for speeds much higher that 50 km/h. This is due—in part—to the fact that Vancouver’s current street pattern evovled around a 19th century streetcar grid.

The result is that the city is perfect for multimodal transportation. Buses, cars and bikes can share many roads. Without vehicles speeding by at high speeds, our sidewalks are comfortable and inviting for pedestrians activity. When you add the Seawall to this mix, the city becomes even more pleasant to get around in a multitude of fashions.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for having places where people can loiter and connect with one another. During his closing remarks, Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian noted it is important to have public spaces that people do not simply move through. He recalls a comment made by Jan Gehl: to get twice as many people you either have to attract more people (which creates pressure on transportation) OR you encourage people to stay twice as long. This is an interesting distinction which needs to be examined much deeper in he context of both public space and transportation planning.

Personal Perspectives

While I can see the merits in the need for creating places to linger in Vancouver—especially increasing the number of sidewalk patios and pocket parks—I do not see it as an urgency. Vancouver has long been associated with being a city on the move. We owe our existence to the CP railway terminus and our seaports. Also recall that one of the major themes of Expo 86 was “World in Motion.” 🙂 It is not surprising that such a city celebrates spaces to move and not places to sit. Moreover, public spaces like the Seawall are popular precisely because they link destination places like Granville Island, First Beach and Stanley Park. In other words, our ‘one the way spaces are popular in part because the allow people to get to destination places.

One of the themes of Expo 86 was World in Motion

Via Vancouver is Awesome

I think Vancouver better be careful trying to fix what isn’t necessarily broken. Remember that one of these places that people ‘move through’ was just named Canada’s Best Public Space. Other than the lack of a real ‘city square’, Vancouver has an abundance of great public spaces. Where the opportunity lies is to find ways to continue to link these places as well as celebrate our vibrant street life.

However, if the city is serious about creating places to linger, a good places to start is our ‘high streets’—areas like Commercial Drive, Denman St. and West Broadway which already attract a lot of people. If the city can work with local businesses to increase and improve the patios, existing gathering places, and ‘in-between spaces along these corridors, we can not only attract more people—increasing connections and commerce—but also encourage people to spend more time there—increasing community.

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

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