Where’s Vancouver’s Public Square?

Vancouver Lacks a Public Square

This week, I have recapped Spacing’s visit to Vancouver as part of their cross-Canada road show to promote their first national magazine issues and announce the launch of Spacing Vancouver. During the discussion that occurred at the launch, a lively discussion occurred on Vancouver’s lack of a public square. This discuss also touched on the implications of the lack of a permanent gathering space for public celebrations, riots and protests.

Logo for the Vancouver Public Space Network's "Where's the Square" Design Competition

Source: Vancouver Public Space Network

The Importance of Public Squares

Public squares are the heart of many cities. They offer a central place for accessible, year-round activity. This included daily activities such as meeting a friend for lunch, people watching or playing chess. It also includes more irregular events such as community celebrations and political rallies. Not only are public squares importance engines of culture and the local economy, they play a vital role in fostering community connections and quality of life.

No Place to Party…

Mayor Miller addresses the assembled crowd on Nathan Phillips Square during Pride Week 2010.

Unlike most other cities of it’s size (and indeed most cities), Vancouver lacks a large public square for public gatherings. Lacking a permanent public square, Vancouver often resorts to closing of streets when we want to celebrate. This occurred both during the 2010 Olympic games and more recently during the Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup run. Other street based public events include Car Free Festivals throughout the City in June and VIVA Vancouver weekend celebrations on Granville Street during the summer. Additionally, there are annual parades such as Pride, St Patrick’s Day and Santa Claus.

…or Protest

Keep Translink Public Rally in Vancouver, November 21, 2007

Source: dooq on Flickr

While Vancouver seems to make do for public celebrations, that is only one purpose of a public square. We still lack a place that acts as a centre point for civic life in the city. Sure, it’s easy to close a street for occasional events and celebrations such as the Olympics, parades or sporting events. It is more problematic giving up a street for a longer time than an evening or day. Yet more problematic is gathering which aren’t preplanned, such as the impromptu mourning of the death of a national icon.

What is most troublesome, however, is a lack of a gathering space for events that may not have the blessing of our governments such as political protests.

A Long Lingering Issue

This is not a new issue. Vancouverites have been talking about a lack of a center point for civic life for decades. I can distinctly remember the commentary that surround the APEC protests in 1994. More recently, the Vancouver Public Space Network held a held a “Where’s the Square?” Design Competition in 2009 with over 50 entries,

Should We Repurpose WAC Bennet Place?

BC Centennial Fountain:  Bronze fountain by R. H. Savery and Alex Svonboda in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery in WAC Bennet Place

BC Centennial Fountain. Source: @pkdon50 on Flickr

One of the most talked about locations for a public square in Vancouver is the open space on north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This site has received renewed attention lately with the expansion of Robson Square on the South side of the Gallery (and next to one of the top public spaces in the city.) this idea would require relocating the fountain in middle—a gift to the City by Premier W.A.C. Bennett in 1966 to celebrate Canada’s upcoming Centennial.

While this space has it’s merits, it also has it’s drawbacks:

  • First is the relocation of the fountain itself. I agree that it’s location is problematic, even if the plaza wasn’t turned into a public square. It is, however, an icon of our provincial and national heritage—something that is lacking in Vancouver.
  • The size of the square is comparatively small, especially for large gatherings. I’m not sure that the square could hold the tens of thousands of people who could turn out for a G20 or WTO type protest.
  • The hardscaping that would be required to hold large crowds as well as lighting and sound requirements for broadcasts, etc would leave the square feeling desolate much of the year. While Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto was named one of Canada’s best public spaces in recognition of its role as Toronto’s gathering space, the fact it remains largest empty much of the year. it only reaches it’s full potential during celebrations, protests and over Christmas when a skating rink is opened.

There is no doubt that WAC Bennet Place needs improving. It would be a great place for a food truck rodeo, a future home to Viva Vancouver celebrations and perhaps a downtown Vancouver farmer’s and crafter’ s market. These type of uses occur more often and are better suited to the smaller size of the site.

What About City Hall?

The north lawn of Vancouver City Hall during the Olympic Games

Source: SFUVancouver on skyscraperpage.com

My preferred space for a public square in Vancouver is the north side of Vancouver City Hall. Yes, it would also need some hardscaping, is located outside the ‘heart of the city,’ and is not that much bigger that WAC Bennet Place. It also has several strengths:

  • It is the heart of civic life in the city. I have always found it strange that a creative place like the Art Gallery has become the de facto public square in Vancouver. Having a public square next to the city’s center of government makes much more sense to me, especially as a venue for political protests.
  • It’s is located closer to the geographic center of the city and is easily accessible from multi directions and multi modes of travel, including the recently opened Canada Line. Indeed, this is one of the reason this site was chosen in the first place. City Hall was built in 1936—Vancouver’s Jubilee—a few years after the amalgamation of Vancouver, Point Grey and South Vancouver. Residents of the newly merged Point Grey and South Vancouver were leery of City Hall being in the heart of ‘old’ Vancouver.
  • The sloping landscape of the north lawn makes a natural amphitheater for public gatherings
  • While a community demonstration garden was recently installed, the parcel of land remains lightly used most of the time, not surprising as it is outside the downtown core. Some hardscaping to accommodate crowds may actually enhance the space as a plaza for city hall and nearby employees. It could also act as a community square for the Fairview and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods and the Cambie corridor.

The Best of Both Worlds?

After reflecting a while of the location of a public square in Vancouver and going back and forth between the Art Gallery and City Hall, I came to a realization. Why can;t both become important gathering places? WAC Bennet Place could be used for celebrations and special events such as future playoff runs, while City Hall could be used for more civic oriented events and public protests.

Final Thoughts

The lack of a public square is a notable absence inVancouver’s urban fabric. However, it hasn’t stopped Vancouver from being a city full of celebrations, protests or riots. The city has hosted global celebrations such as Expo 86 and the Olympic, local festivities such as Celebration of Light, and large scale protests such as APEC 97 all without a dedicated large-scale public square.

As discussed at the Spacing event, a public space requires more than just infrastructure. Good public spaces they need continuing effort, investment and iterations. As the top 10 lists (and the overall top 100 list) show, good public spaces evolve over time in response to how people interact with them.

Such interactions are often time different that what initially envisioned or anticipated, and will change over time with changing social demographics, norms and technologies. Meanwhile, public spaces that were created for specific events, such as Jack Poole Plaza—home to the Olympic torch—often fail as public spaces after the initial event. Any plans for a public square in Vancouver will do well to recognize this reality.

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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.
  • Greg Andrews

    Demolishing Sears and replacing it with a square is the best thing that could be done downtown.

    • A provocative idea Greg; but one with a lot of merit. Sears (aka ‘the bathtub’) is a big tear in Vancouver’s urban fabric.

    • Greg, 

      Your idea has some merit  Something needs to be done with that block.  It currently adds nothing to the urban fabric. 

  • Jason Pfeifer

    Not really understanding how current City Hall would make a good public space considering there is a good amount of public space outside of it already that is fairly weak as a public space.  History gives odds to expanding on what is working versus forcing something in a space that currently isn’t.

    Also, there are other historic arguments for City Hall being located where it is: to be further away from poor and working classes that would have a say protests and politics in the city at the time.  The Robson Square is not too bad, if you could connect it to the square on the other side and completely cut if off from traffic, this would be best.  Unfortunately, this would basically mean knocking down the VAG, and as a historic building is not so appealing an idea.  However, there aren’t really that many places in the downtown core where a square of a significant size could easily be conceived without knocking something down.

    It’s interesting that Vancouver as a city on the edge largely has it’s public life most activated on its edge: people’s natural attraction to water and development of the seawall leave it to be the most enacted public space in the city.

    • History gives odds to expanding what is working, then we will never have a public square to be proud of. Bennet Place is also a weak public space…. We need new thinking and the willingness to invest in significant hardscaping to make any existing place a viable public square.  

      Remember that Canadas ‘best’ public square (Nathan Philips in Toronto) is poorly utilized 90% of the time, and a safe distance away for the poor and working class neighborhoods. It really only coming to life during events and protests.  The fact is that what make a good location for large gatherings rarely make good public places the rest of the time.Also, the demographics of the city and of Mt Pleasant have changed dramatically since the site of City Hall was decided in the 1930s.  It is now located next to the intersection of Vancouver’s major East West (Broadway) and North South (Cambie) corridors and served by excellent transit connections.  It will become even closer to the ‘heart of Vancouver as both Cambie and Broadway see extensive infill development in the coming decade.However, I can also see the merit of having a public square downtown… Perhaps Greg’s proposal to know down the Sears ‘bathtub’ deserves some consideration.