Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces


July 1, 2014 at 3:43 PM

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Big Ideas: Open Robson Square to pedestrians year-round

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Urban Reef - Seating in Robson Square

Urban Reef - Seating in Robson Square

One of the defining events to signal the start of the summer season in Vancouver has been the opening of streets as part of seasonal pedestrianization programs. Starting with Summer Spaces in 2009, and continuing each successive summer through the VIVA Vancouver program, the City of Vancouver has been piloting, experimenting, dabbling — one might even say, flirting — with streets as a place for a fuller spectrum of expression and connection for the public in addition to their functions for access, conveyance and movement.

Vancouver, the flirtation with Robson Square has been lovely. So lovely, dare we say, that we think it’s time to put a ring on it.

Director Park in downtown Portland, Oregon. Flickr: p medved.

A public square should be a city’s living room. A place for special occasions, celebrations, and big events, but also a place for day to day life, for gathering and socializing. A public square should be an orientation point; a place to visit; a place to take a moment between comings and goings; a space where we can meet people; and a space where we can be pleasantly surprised. We make spaces into places in our minds and collective imagination, when we have the time to get comfortable with them — as we learn their character, discover their efficiencies and eccentricities peeking out from behind the façades of our daily activities. And yes, we make spaces into places when we get to see them through the cycle of the seasons; or indeed, through the broader cycles of human life. A successful public square needs to be accessible, open to everyone, and open all year round, and we think Robson Square can be this — if we give it more of a chance to truly become a place.

Where’s Vancouver’s public square?

Is Robson Square our city living room? Do we have a safe and comfortable, centrally located public plaza where something is always happening, where we can observe Vancouverites, tourists, office workers, children, parents, grandparents, and everyone else that visits or lives in our city? We may have incredible parks and beaches, lively streets and civic facilities, but do we have a place like Director Park in Portland, Trafalgar Square in London, or Piazza Navona in Rome?

Although Vancouverites are flocking back to the city from the suburbs to live and work, we still appear to flee to the edges, often beyond the suburbs, for our leisure. For public space we’ve been described as a “centrifugal city” – with good spaces on the edge, and the absence of a successful year round gathering space in the city centre.

Robson Square was a very successful focal point during the Olympics, and for the last three years,the square has proven to be a great venue for the Vancouver Jazz Festival, which proves that Robson Square can work well as a public gathering area. More casual programming via summertime seating installations (such as this year’s “Urban Reef”) illustrate how well the space can be used for enhancing the everyday urban experience. Why wouldn’t it? Robson Square is at the heart of downtown Vancouver. It’s a major pedestrian thoroughfare. When VPSN launched the very popular ‘Where’s the Square?’ design competition, Robson Square was a favourite location for the creation of a new ‘grand gathering place’.

Because of the Summer Spaces initiatives and ‘Where’s the Square?’ we know people want to sit, watch, eat and gather in Robson Square. We have seen that some activations, designs and seating seem to work better than others. We know from surveys and polls that the idea is a popular one with many residents. But we also know there are some challenges that need to be looked at. For example, the current lighting and evening business closures make the square less appealing after dark, and that there isn’t much shelter from the weather.

However more important than what we know about Robson Square, is the potential that lies in what we don’t yet know, because Robson Square isn’t open all year round.

There is a whole world of possibilities beyond the celebratory, the economic, the playful, or the casual gathering purposes that serve as the primary point of focus of VIVA Vancouver’s summer programming, that we can only explore when Robson Square is pedestrianized full-time and year-round.

Could Robson Square be a successful public space in the winter?

Vancouver Christmas Market; Flickr: Cara kiwinky

How might Robson Square serve as a platform for ever-important political expression? How might Robson Square function as a site of collective mourning or grief?

Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto inscribed with tributes to NDP leader Jack Layton upon his passing. Flickr: Jackman Chiu.

These are questions we just can’t answer with the way we’re using the space now. Seeing the year around, everyday, and spontaneous use of Robson Square allows us to form the kinds of relationships with people that play a key role in countering, or possibly even overcoming, the disconnection cited by so many Vancouverites (clearly captured by the Vancouver Foundation’s studies and report on loneliness).

Important transit challenges

Robson Square is an important block in Vancouver – for visitors using all modes of transportation. We recognize that restricting car access will have an impact on drivers, passengers, deliveries and other vehicles, and that the complete pedestrianization of the space means requires strengthening alternative vehicle routes with minimal delays. But the benefits of better pedestrian conditions at the heart of downtown Vancouver will be a net benefit for the whole city.

We also know that Robson Square is currently part of an important downtown transit route. A permanently pedestrianized square requires finding alternative transit routes which provide an equal or better transit service. Since summer of 2013, TransLink and the City of Vancouver’s Downtown bus review has been looking at how to improve the entire downtown network, including how Robson Square fits in, and we think viable all year alternatives have been identified.

Could Robson Square accommodate both transit and pedestrian spaces at the same time, while excluding all other vehicles? We have seen many examples that exist around the world of public transit vehicles that are integrated with public spaces, yet we have to see discussions at a deeper level on what this would look like for Robson Square. Robson Square (and the 800-block) has a layout is multi-level, and extremely narrow in places. This makes it quite different than most squares that feature bus or tram routing – and it means that conflicts between transit and pedestrians could be exacerbated. Programming of the 800-block with street-level markets, seating, small events and other popular public space activities would be a challenge, if not impossible.

We are confident that a year round solution that improves transit and public space can be found. More ongoing conversations are clearly needed to learn more, and to ensure that any challenges are properly mitigated. It’s important that we make Robson Square a permanent public space that is accessible and welcoming to everyone.

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