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Your vote on public square for Vancouver kindly requested

May 21st, 2009 · 24 Comments

The Vancouver Public Space Network has been running a design competition for a new public square in the city that would give it a heart and gathering place that it hasn’t had until now.

Vancouver’s lack of a main plaza has always been a bit of a puzzle to some. People like urban planner Lance Berelowitz, author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, have theorized that it’s because Vancouverites see the parks and beaches bordering the city as their plazas. That wasn’t good enough for the VPSN, which has put on this imaginary competition to at least get brains fermenting on this topic.

The network got 13 entries and is now asking the public, i.e. you, to vote on your favourite. There are two days of voting left, so get in there and make your voice heard. The info and entries are here.

An interesting tidbit when it comes to public squares in Vancouver. I was informed by a reliable source recently that, although the large open space on the Georgia side of the Vancouver Art Gallery might seem like the logical place for public gatherings, the provincial government has worked to prevent that by holding on to ownership of the land under the fountain. That’s to ensure the fountain isn’t removed, which would give the plaza a lot more holding room for large demos.

I haven’t checked to see if that’s true, but it’s an excellent urban story in any case.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Chris

    Just a note that the VSPN had over 100 entries, and 13 were short-listed.

    My personal favourites:
    050 “Rain Garden Square” at Granville Street Bridge (North Side)
    025 “Rainmaker Square & Rain Garden” at Main and Kingsway

  • Michael Phillips

    I know this comment couldn’t possibly come at a worse time, but I would urge people to consider one of the Robson Square do-over options. If Vancouver has a natural geographic heart, it’s the area between the Art Gallery and the Law Courts and the fact that the majority of this area is cut out from the street, from sunlight, from spatial continuity, from the view of pedestrians when it could quite easily be a large and vibrant street-level public square is really a tremendous failure (I do genuinely feel awkward writing this at this time but I really think it’s true, sorry A.E.).

  • Darcy McGee

    If Vancouver has a natural geographic heart it’s Queen Elizabeth park.

  • Public squares in the Spanish-world (and likely many other places, but I’m more knowledgeable about Spanish America) evolved in the space between Church and State. The ritual public square usually has a large cathedral on one side, and a large government building on another (or on the two or three other sides).

    People gathered there needing church or government services, and sometimes to protest or stake the legitimacy of their grievance before God and the imperial power of the day.

    Keeping this in mind, perhaps the ritual Vancouver square should be in front of city hall? or, in that square across from the Cathedral on Dunsmuir? Neither of which were options, btw.

    The former Law Courts area does have some historical authenticity to it, in this place-of-state regard, however. So, given the limited options, my vote will go there — the problem is there are too many options in and around Robson Square, so the votes will get diluted.

  • not running for mayor

    Vancouver’s always been a city where it’s people are attracted towards the water. Build the square over water, a giant floating square. The best part is that it could be moved around to different areas, maybe spend the winter in false creek, the sumer at English bay, the fall in coal harbour, spring just off Kits beach, the possiblities would be limitless. Access would kinda suck but it could be made to work. Of course I don’t have an artistic bone in my body and could never have submitted an idea.

  • Good for Wendy.

    She’s got it right. Spain’s Phillip II set up the Laws of the Indies that show public places even today.

    You’ll be hard pressed to find a town in Latin America that doesn’t have a place of community focus.

    Vancouver has its own version of Phillip II: Bob Rennie. And he knows not of how or which about PUBLIC PLACE . . .

  • Darcy McGee

    I like this. Maybe we could build a pedestrian & bicycle only bridge to your floating island, allowing safe crossings from one side of False Creek to the other.

    Granville Island serves as something of a public square, although there’s either too much parking or not enough, depending on your perspective. (I also know locals who never go there as a result of their own cynicism.)

  • oscar

    i like 028 “Robson Reinvented” at Robson Square

  • real_urbanist

    My vote goes to 070 “Robson Square2” – the connection made between the new VCC station and Erickson’s robson square (rink level) is key here, and has multiple positive implications. It’s the only one that truly addresses this potential – plus the main space allows for multiple uses/functions. Clearly the best one.

  • michael geller

    I applaud the public square discussion. The city and region definitely need more public squares and gathering places…I was always hopeful that one such space would be created as part of the Convention Centre Expansion…

    As for the provincial title to the Art Gallery space, the province holds title to the entire site…and it has been contemplated that if the Art Gallery was to stay and expand, much of the expansion could occur under the existing plaza. Indeed, one could imagine some very exciting design possibilities for that space, including a semi enclosed public space…it might still happen…even if the Art Gallery does relocate, the future tenant will likely do something to enhance that area.

  • Michael,

    A big smile may well be good for business but it is not necessarily good for the city.

    “Where’s the Square?”

    Huh! So far we wont know because none of the locations make for people places. Most, especially 018 and 025 are just “have fun with Illustrator.”

    The rest cannot meet GRAND PUBLIC SQUARE: no defined edge, no place for farmers’ produce, no subtleties of squares within squares (PPS7), no connecting inter-connections (PPS8) . . . traffic noise interrupting performances etc.

    In response to Appendix B Question 1: What do those short-listed have that existing places do not have?

    Courthouse may have been yesterday’s epicenter but that ain’t were the people are!

    Everyone will arrive by car; so where’s the parking?

    “Square” as with FormShift, the usual players will ovulate profusely then forget whole exercise, simply because none of the thirteen show substance.

    Vancouver’s “cognoscente” is far too self-satisfied/timid to go out on a limb for creativity. The local planning/development/architect/academic coagulate just cannot handle such stuff.

    Sorry to be the old grouch. I’ve seen too much irrational exuberance.

    Sadly, we learnt nothing . . .

  • MB

    Perhaps one of the key criteria in creating a square is its ability to accommodate crowds of all sizes. I counted four that could put on a major outdoor VSO or jazz concert or regional celebration. Two of them are in the centre of the downtown peninsula (Robson Square), and only one offers a large canopy.

    The heart is in the centre, not the edges, though the edges remain important to exercise our obsession to view outward, not inward.

    Among the edge sites, the NE False Creek location is the least important from sheer lack of human mass. This is another reason to not locate the new art gallery there (as proposed by our premier who’s lack of cultural vision knows no bounds), but to keep it on Georgia Street, Vancouver’s invisible ceremonial way.

  • Chris

    For anyone interested, here’s one entry that didn’t make the final 13, but I really liked: Lantern Park

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    I really like the idea of an “organic” walkway over the railroad tracks connecting the new (and awesome-looking) Carrall St. Greenway to CRAB park (I really don’t like the signal/video tower with flashing LEDs part of the idea, though). Anyone who has been to the Jazz fest knows what a great public space Maple Tree Square is, and connecting Gastown more directly to the waterfront is long overdue (my first time in a council meeting in the early 90s was over a plan to put a horrible glassed-in walkway with elevators on each end across the tracks, a plan which was mercifully killed).

    This looks like the Greenest site design. It is only a five-minute walk to Waterfront Station or Stadium and would connect the Greenway north to False Creek and west to the Seawall extension, so it is perfect for foot/cycle access from all over town. The combined space of park, plaza, and Maple Square can easily hold thousands of people. And there’s obviously plenty of history in the square with the Gastown Be-In/Riot and the first City Hall (a tent) being erected here – kind of like in Wendy’s history lesson. It is also the northern terminus of the border between Vancouver East and West, making it a democratic choice. Water and mountains on one side, historical square and birthplace of the city on the other, all connected to seawall and mass transportation. Seems like the perfect place for Vancouver’s public square to me!

  • OMG this isn’t about what you personally like or dislike: we are talking Grand Meeting Place for Vancouver. That’s VPSN stated requirments.

    For such a place there is criteria Project for Public space.

    OMG again this discussion is like listening to a bunch of kindergarten kids in a lollipop shop.

  • PS MB edges are not about ‘view.’ Edges, described by “build-to” lines of enclosure, define the space: very very important.

    NEFC is the essential location: 2000, units are planned, Bosa towers are close, so are many other populations. Also Cooperage Heritage and does not disrupt exisiting facilities.

  • gmgw

    Thre are a number of basic criteria that are necessary for any “grand public square” in any city, not only Vancouver:
    …It has to be close to the center of the city. i.e. the zone of greatest human activity. The suggestions for Main and Kingsway and CRAB park, et. al. as sites, while no doubt well-intentioned, make no sense. Why on earth should grand public gatherings be stuck off in some area far away from the city’s active center? The powers-that-be would love that for political demos– out of sight, out of the public eye, out of mind– but if you want maximum public awareness of/visibility for your cause or event, you want to be where the majority of people are.

    …It has to be a dedicated public square, free of cars (i.e. *not* something like Maple Tree Square, where major rerouting of traffic is necessary for any public event such as the JazzFest’s Gastown concerts)… this reflects the seriousness of the public-square concept and conveys the idea that it’s not an “ocasional, as-needed” concept.

    …It has to be close to as many major transit routes as possble, to enable easy car-free access from all parts of the city, both to avoid traffic jams and parking issues and to facilitate access by the car-challenged.

    …The square should combine pleasing aesthetics and design with high functionality– perhps some kind of dedicated stage or other obvious centerpiece. It should also have full-time, dedicated supplies of water, power, and media hookups. (AND public washrooms!!!)

    …It should have tolerant neighbours who will not object to the crowds and/or “noise”– public speakers, bands, what-have-you– associated with its regular use.

    …It should have a weatherproof surface of some kind. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that poor lawn in front of the Art Gallery churned into a mudhole during demos on rainy days.

    It should be secure, both from the POV of the police and of attendees. If things ever get out of control at an event and the attendance of police or emergency services is/are required, this should be made easy…. another design issue. In addition, it should not be backed up against an impregnable barrier (water, large buildings, dead ends) so that large or small groups of people who need or want to leave in a hurry are unable to.

    …Above all, the concept needs the firm and ongoing support of the civic government. Restrictions on usage would have to carefully weighed. I would have no objections to such a space being used, for instance, for an anti-choice rally one day and a pro-choice rally the next, as long as neither was disruptive or injurious to the public peace; but I would have a problem with a neo-Nazi skinhead rally featuring white-power bands. But who am I to decide? Let the Charter of Rights deal with that one, I guess.

    …I’m short of time here and in any case that’s all I can think of right now. If anyone else would like to add to this list, feel free to jump in. Choosing a location prior to determining basic criteria such as these is, it seems to me, putting the cart way out in front of the horse.


  • Sean

    My main concern is that before long it would be overrun with rabble-rousers, panhandlers, junkies, et al.

  • Darcy McGee

    gmgw: I’d add one thing to that list

    ….government doesn’t get to tell me where it is, though they probably have to build it. public squares happen and evolve, they aren’t dictated

    as to your 5th point…Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto doesn’t have a weather proof surface, and it is most definitely a public square. My recollection is vague, but I don’t believe Trafalgar Square as one either.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    I suppose I could wonk-off and argue through all the criteria, but it’s pointless since I know no-one is going to seriously consider CRAB Park area for this square. One point, though. If you stand on the SW corner of CRAB Park it is about 300 meters across the tracks to Waterfront station. So to say that a waterfront park this close the epicenter of the City’s whole transportation system is inaccessible and “far off from the city’s active centre” is absolutely remarkable, not because it’s wrong, but because IT IS TRUE.

    And it exactly proves my point that the City needs to FINISH THE JOB and connect the Carrall Street Greenway to CRAB Park and get on with the Seawall extension (it’s only about 250 metres to the Sun building deck). If you’ve ever tried to skateboard from CRAB Park to Coal Harbour, you’d know that you have to go on a Dantesque journey through the dark bowels of Canada Place, an underground parking lot, and a mondo-lock jungle before you finally find Beatrice on the other side. I guarantee this simple elbow connection (the final link in the green ring road, if you will) will have a profound effect on human activity and economic development in this depressed little corner of the city.

    I sat in CRAB park yesterday and looked at the jaw-dropping view of the harbour and mountains capped by the Lions, Stanley Park, the Canada Place sails, watched the Seabus pass back and forth, a cruise ship embarking, the skytrain screech in and out, helicopter landings, fishing boats and tugs docking, a sailboat drop anchor off the beach, the West coast express, floatplanes, tour buses, huge freighter loading, trains shunting, with kids! (including mine) playing in the park, dogs romping and yuppies yipping, Skinhead lovers holding hands, crackheads playing Frisbee, two Chinese wedding parties taking photos on the dock… and I wondered what our definition of “the epicenter of human activity in Vancouver” is?

    Shopping on Robson?

    Personally, I think our city’s founders got the location of the main square right the very first time.

  • I await the jury’s choice of “WHERE’S THE SQUARE?” with trepidation.

    So far their choices have, in my opinion, allowed technique to overwhelm content, trivialized the exercise!

    “NE False Creek location is the least important from sheer lack of human mass.” Oh indeed, MB! . . . check

    A considered well planned NEFC is really the best for population, location at Skytrain Stadium, and least disruptive!

    And most importantly, located to where downtown’s epicenter is moving . . .

    I fear the discussion of weather sealants on the paving is, to say the least, the last of issues at this stage: we do not even know if the winner will fly . . .

  • A more humane and honest NEFC

  • real_urbanist

    I must disagree with aqua/urbanismo’s comments re the quality of the submissions. While it is overwhelmingly obvious that sour grapes is behind your comments, to criticize all entries as “technique over content” or “fun with Illustrator” is missing the IDEAS behind each submission.

    This was an IDEAS COMPETITION – not a call for tender docs, or for a design-build project. It was about ideas. Any of us that enter competition regularly know full well the environment we’re walking into – they are about illustrating an idea concisely, building the scheme with supporting illustration, images, vignettes, etc, (regarding of technique, Illustrator included) all within the confines of the competition brief for program and entry parameters. To call out all entries as without merit (again, because your entry was not chosen) and to write off the entire competition discussion as ‘a bunch of kids’ undermines the good principles of urban space that you talk about earlier. It is also getting old reading it post after post.

    As far as the alternative NEFC scheme, I can’t say I’m not surprised the FormShift jury didn’t select it as I believe it fell short on descibing the scheme and lacked appropriate drawings (building sections, etc). As far as illustrating the principles of good public space, I must admit it does not come out in the drawings you submitted. Again, competitions are not solely about the idea, but about how that idea gets portrayed in the submission. It’s the first rule of Competition101.

    Sorry if this is personal, but I get tired of reading the same posts day after day…

    I, for one, am looking forward to the winners in this competition, and am glad it has spurred so much good discussion on the importance of hte public realm.

  • ” While it is overwhelmingly obvious that sour grapes is behind your comments, to criticize all entries as “technique over content” or “fun with Illustrator” is missing the IDEAS behind each submission.”

    Really real_urbanist, no need to be petulant. Of course sour grapes but not overwhelmingly so: already acknowledged that.

    Sin embargo I enjoyed working on “the Square” and given the opportunity will do so again.

    Note, please, how Cooperage is the fulcrum of smaller, ambulatory interconnected, places defined by their surrounding buildings.

    It is certainly a more humane and honest than NECF

    Formshift’s jury was so obsessed by technique it completed missed the essential purpose: Eco-density and Climate change policy. Ditto “Square.” Certainly no GRAND in the 13 short listed.