Frances Bula header image 2

Five ideas from Europe for Vancouver

July 5th, 2009 · 44 Comments

There’s nothing more tempting when travelling around Europe to look at some beautiful aspect of city life or another and think, “Why can’t Vancouver be more like this?”

I had that thought frequently in Bologna, where I recently spent part of a week. It was my first time in Italy and my partner and I were enthralled by the public street life at night. There was a giant movie screen (and I mean giant — at least two stories high) set up in the main piazza all week that showed black and white movies every night, which included a live band playing for the King Vidor silent movie one night.  Close to a thousand people watched, either sitting in the chairs that had been set up, parking themselves in cafes at the edge of the square, or sprawling on the cobblestones to watch until midnight.

In another piazza, San Stefano, a couple hundred kids would gather every dusk in front of the church and just hang out, playing music and talking. (It obviously wasn’t completely idyllic there, since we would see the caribinieri line up just prior to dusk with their vans to monitor the situation — shades of the Granville Entertainment District.)  Behind a church in one sector, the city put on free public concerts some of the nights we were there. The one we went to, with a group that felt like an Italian version of a Vancouver Folk Festival act, drew another 1,000 or so people to a little triangle behind San Domenico church.

And on one pedestrian-only street, the roadway was simply filled up with restaurant tables so that the whole street was like a (less cheesy) version of Mamma Mia, with tables packed with couples, families, and big groups having dinner outdoors.

Of course, it doesn’t take a huge IQ to realize that part of Bologna’s street culture is a product of the weather. It’s so warm in the summer that the most comfortable time for people to be out and about is late evening. And, while I loved Bologna’s blocks and blocks of elegant porticos and for a day thought they’d make a great addition to Vancouver for keeping out the rain, I realized later that they also work because of the sun. The overhang and shadows are appealing when it’s bright outside — in a rainier climate, they’d probably feel oppressive.

But there are features I’ve seen of European cities here where I’ve thought, yes, that would work in Vancouver and why can’t we have that. I won’t bother suggesting bike-sharing or trams, as there’s been a lot of discussion of that already here. My very brief list (and I know some of my well-informed readers like gmgw and Bill Lee will probably have copious information on more) would be:

1. A permanent building for a farmer’s market. Many French cities we’ve been to have a building set aside for small food sellers to work out of, usually called Les Halles. I saw a lovely modern one in Montpellier that looked just the right size for a Vancouver market — not overwhelming, just enough for maybe 20-30 stalls.

I realize we have Granville Island, but it’s perceived by many as difficult to get to and touristy. It would be nice if there were a purpose-built building elsewhere in a more “regular” part of the city and I am nominating for the site the new development that goes in around Little Mountain. There’s already a farmer’s market that operates there on Wednesdays. Imagine that new community with a nice little market building (with perhaps a provision to allow more casual sellers along some of the narrow streets surrounding it once a week) in some part that makes it accessible both to people in the development and outside.

2. Outdoor movies. Okay, I realize Bologna doesn’t get quite as much rain as Vancouver, but it does rain there, great tympanic thunderstorms. If they can figure out how to put up a movie screen that can survive a prairie storm, surely we can. The trick is where. I’d suggest the front of the art gallery, but the noise from Georgia would be annoying. In Bologna, the main piazza is relatively protected from interfering traffic noise. So perhaps the new development along Northeast False Creek, the new plaza in Southeast False Creek or ???

3. A couple of streets closed down permanently to traffic, where restaurants could extend their outdoor tables right into the street. Gastown (a portion of Alexander maybe?), off Broadway in Kits, the little road alongside Stella’s off Commercial Drive or ???  I’m sure there are some places outside of central Vancouver that would be good candidates as well.

4. Tunnels. One of the striking features of driving in Italy, especially the coast that is so reminiscent of B.C., is the way they have opted to tunnel through mountains rather than constructing roads over and around them. It makes for slightly less spectacular driving, but it preserves much more of the natural landscape. Remember a tunnel was the option at one point for the Sea-to-Sky Highway and then was ditched? That would have been the Italian way.

5. More free outdoor concerts. Every town and city we’ve been to in France and Italy has had free music concerts on one or more nights of the week. It’s seen as part of the city’s duty to entertain its vacationless residents, as well as a nice thing for tourists too. I really do get the sense that it’s more aimed at the former because Paris’s Quartiers d’Ete, the series of concerts, dance performances and other events put on by the city in the summer, is very poorly advertised in the tourist sector, while Bologna does not see itself as a huge tourist city.

Again, I realize Vancouver does have outdoor music, but it’s often associated with privately organized festivals or paid concerts. Why not something free put on by the city, especially in neighbourhoods that don’t get served that well? Surrey did a great job last year and this of organizing free music concerts that are nothing more than a chance for their citizens to celebrate together. Surely others could do the same.

That’s all for now. I’m sure I’ll think of more.

Categories: Uncategorized