Blood Alley redesign – addressing equity and inclusion
Blood Alley – or Trounce Alley, as it’s formally known – runs parallel to Water Street in the heart of Gastown. It’s an interesting space that was redesigned in the 1970’s as part of the revitalization of the neighbourhood. Despite some initial promise, it’s never quite hit its mark as a public space, feeling more like a space for transitory movement than lingering or gathering.
The City has initiated a redesign process for the space, and recently held a series of drop-in events to share draft concepts.
We wrote a letter to the planning team working on the project to share our thoughts. Here’s an excerpt of what we had to say:
…We’ve had a chance to participate in the City’s online and in-person engagement activities, but wished to follow-up with a letter outlining some observations that we hope may be of use. We offer these in the spirit of constructive critique, and because we want the design effort behind the revitalization of this space to be as strong as possible.
First, we’d like to start by reiterating that we are broadly supportive of the overall intent to refresh this important public space, and noted this in earlier correspondence to the City supporting the DTES Local Area Planning Process (LAPP). Blood Alley Square is a key gathering space in a neighbourhood that has a shortage of these sorts of places.
With that in mind, we feel it important to note that Blood Alley Square is also a space where design has the potential to deliver a powerful message about how Vancouver will address equity and inclusion, given the extreme proximity of significant and conspicuous wealth and serious poverty. As you know, issues of income polarization are becoming all too characteristic of the city as a whole, but they are particularly acute in this area – located as it is at the intersection of historic Gastown and the Downtown Eastside.
While we appreciate that heritage, trees and waste management are important issues, we are concerned that they were defined as the key phase one design considerations for the renewal of the Square, while social context and social heritage are to be considered at a later stage. It’s unclear to us why these considerations would be separated and sequenced in this fashion given that public spaces are fundamentally people places. Stated another way, we suggest that the functions of public life, community stewardship, and the social use of these spaces by a diversity of community members, should be prioritized before those of heritage, waste removal and the like.
Our hope for this stage of the design process would be to see the options strengthened through stronger input from the local community. We are concerned that the present concepts (showcasing two options for the site) lack vitality. We attribute some this from the preliminary nature of the designs. Other aspects may come from the fact that the redesign of the space is now preceding the redevelopment of the buildings that catalyzed this initiative. In our opinion, though, it is also almost certain that the concepts have been challenged because they do not adequately reflect a richer sense of aspirations for public life and social use found within the broader of a diverse DTES/Gastown community. The relative absence of these inputs seems to neutralize many aspects of the the two design concepts – rendering them strangely ‘flat,’ Overall, we feel the design concepts simply do not do justice to Blood Alley’s potential for flexibility as a public space, nor the significance of the site for its various user groups.
While we commend the City for holding several drop-in events and surveys, we are concerned that participation in the process to date may not have adequately involved members of many of the Downtown Eastside’s more vulnerable communities. (For example, the consultation report notes a relatively limited amount of input from area renters; while input from local First Nations – given the significance of this part of Gastown – is unreferenced). The DTES is, in addition to being the home of marginalized communities, inherently diverse, something that should be recognized in public engagement activities.
We appreciate that the City highlighted the enabling policy found in sections 12.3.5, 12.3.4 12.3.3 of the Downtown Eastside Plan (2014) in these redevelopment efforts. These provisions outline the importance of inclusive and community-led programming and stewardship for public spaces in the neighbourhood. The VPSN feels that these goals should provide the redevelopment a driving and defining narrative, while still addressing heritage and waste management concerns.
Blood Alley is a space of major social, cultural and historical value to a diversity of Vancouverites. Its redesign is not just an important moment in our city’s history – it also has the potential to set an example for design and consultation in areas where stakeholders are rich in difference. Let’s both acknowledge this and treat it as such.
UPDATE: A few days after we wrote this letter, we received a reply from the City thanking us for the input. The email went on to note:
As you mentioned, the redesign of Blood Alley Square is directed by the Downtown Eastside Plan. Policy 6.2.2 states the intent of the redesign, which is “to rehabilitate Blood Alley Square and Trounce Alley, to improve the public realm, increase safety and introduce programming, with support for community stewardship as a shared space, including opportunities for the low-income community.” This policy, and the nine social impact objectives in the DTES Plan (page 11 of the Plan here) will continue to guide the project.
In addition to on-going engagement with local residents and community groups, I want to update you that our consultants are organizing a workshop with local groups to specifically discuss the Stewardship Strategy. The strategy will look for opportunities for local groups/residents/artists to be involved in the programming and on-going stewardship of the square. The opportunities to create employment for the maintenance and cleaning of the square is also a topic we will discuss.
This is an encouraging response. We’ll be following the issue to see what happens next.