Plaza stewardship: Taking care of our gathering places
By VPSN Plaza Stewardship committee
When a plaza forms a part of urban space, who looks after it? Who oversees its upkeep, who decides what events take place there, and how are these decisions managed?
Approaches to these questions fall within the realm of stewardship: the operation, ongoing maintenance and programming of public space. By extension, stewardship can also encompass the regulatory environment (including its bylaws and permits) that shapes the use of the space, as well as the funding mechanisms that pay for these various items. Almost every public space presents both a need and an opportunity for care-taking.
Recently the VPSN has been studying plaza stewardship models, recognizing that stewardship is one part of the lifecycle of public space: a continuum that includes design, development, social life and renewal. The City of Vancouver has indicated an interest in looking at plaza stewardship, and at the VPSN, we want to strengthen our own work in this regard so that we can advocate for the best approach (or approaches) in our city. Thus in our research we compare stewardship case studies from across North America and Europe, in an effort to consider potential models for Vancouver.
In different situations, the guardians may be local businesses, nonprofit organizations, the municipality or its citizens, or in many cases a combination. Stewardship programs may be voluntary or paid, formal or informal.
Just a few examples of the various methods in use today:
The Friends of Mint Plaza, a nonprofit corporation managed by a board of directors, assumes full responsibility for the publicly owned pedestrian plaza, which measures about the same size as Vancouver’s 800 Robson.
By contrast, Better Bankside is an independent company made up of and led by over 600 businesses. Each contributes a levy that goes toward improving over 10,000 square metres of public space, from planting 250 trees to building and maintaining a pedestrian footbridge.
Yet another approach, from the Netherlands, engages hard-to-house, long-term alcoholics as guardians. As described by the BBC, each is paid a small sum of money, a hot meal, cigarettes and five cans of beer per day to look after city streets and parks.
How about Vancouver?
Beyond documenting efforts abroad, our study takes into account different types of stewardship initiatives delivered here in our own city. While formal open-space stewardship programs may be rare – and related work mostly delivered, at the moment, by the City – there are nevertheless other programs that suggest alternatives. For example, the Green Streets program invites community members to plant gardens on corner bulges and traffic circles, ranging in size from one to over 400 square metres. The City provides compost in the spring and fall and organizes an autumn Green Streets garden party.
Another example is the Parklet program, targeted primarily at local businesses. On-street parking spaces are transformed into animated public spaces through landscaping, seating and even bicycle infrastructure.
More broadly, the opening of Jim Deva Plaza in July 2016 has seen the launch of a pilot stewardship strategy. This is a partnership approach between the City of Vancouver and the West End BIA. The City and BIA are responsible for day-to day use and maintenance, guided by input on longer-term programming by the Plaza Oversight Committee, made up of members from the community.
With recent successes including the transformation of streets into plazas (e.g., 800 Robson) and the delivery of public space as part of new development, we believe that now is an important time to consider who looks after these spaces and how.
If you’re interested in finding out more or would like to share some inspiring stewardship models, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top image: Mint Plaza, San Francisco, a publicly owned space managed by a nonprofit corporation. Photo: Sergio Ruiz on Flickr
All Flickr images by license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode