Gathering spaces act as a vital component of the public realm, at both the neighbourhood level, and in the city core. When designed to be flexible, such spaces allow for a variety of activities: markets, performance, rallies, and the everyday pleasure of meeting friends and people-watching. Vancouver’s network of parks, while not evenly distributed across the city, go some way towards meeting this need. But a separate system of core and neighbourhood plazas and squares – “hard-scaped” surfaces (e.g. paved or stone), accessible design, compelling landscaping, opportunities for modest programming and amenities that support public life – would strengthen the city’s overall liveability and quality of life, and enhance local identity.
A legible network of plazas and gathering places, of varying shapes and sizes, distributed across each of Vancouver’s 22 neighbourhoods. The downtown should have a formal ‘heart’ – a grand gathering place in which a range of activities can take place year round. At a neighbourhood scale, there should be a series of smaller gathering spaces that reflect the character and needs of each area.
(1) Embolden Downtown Vancouver with the creation of new and renewed public gathering places on the street level of the 800-block of Robson (an expanded Robson Square), the north side of the Art Gallery (also known as Centennial Square), and on part of the former site of Larwill Park (currently the Easy Park parking lot at Georgia and Cambie). The Robson Square ‘complex’ (including street level and sub- and above-ground areas) is especially well positioned, and ideally proportioned, to fulfil a prominent role as the People’s plaza the urban heart of the city.
(2) Ensure a well-defined system of neighbourhood-scale gathering spaces, by enhancing existing plazas and squares and planning for the creation of new spaces. These should include more than the temporary gathering areas created through the reallocation of road space during the summer months. Rather, they should be permanent, well-designed, and vehicle-free… and should function as natural places for the community to come together.
(3) Don’t let the riot get in the way of public gatherings. The events of the June 2011 Stanley Cup riot were terrible on many levels. But it is important not to use this event – extremely rare among the many large public gatherings that take place in the city each year – as an excuse to clamp down on big events. Learn from these and other events, develop a layered approach to big gatherings that features additional programming that will occupy crowds, and plan for a measured response to the security needs that may be present. Possible lessons learned? Olympics: a little too much security. Stanley Cup street party: a little more needed.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Activate existing capacity – Not all gathering spaces need to be created anew. Vancouver already has many under-utilized spaces, privately-owned plazas, and property assets that could be used more effectively. Consider modest improvements, a call for community involvement, new strategic partnerships with property owners, and an invitation to develop programming and events to support renewed community spaces.
Where appropriate, plan for capital acquisition. Funding is tight, but this doesn’t mean that dollars should not be invested in building our public space assets now.
Inscribe and enact - Ensure that relevant civic policy initiatives – such as the Transportation 2040 Plan update (to be completed in 2012), the Downtown Public Space Plan (timeline TBD), and community planning activities (ongoing) – reflect the goal of enhancing gathering spaces. Specific projects, such as the proposed relocation or refurbishment of the Vancouver Art Gallery, should also reference and support this goal and be viewed through a public space lens.
Crowd-source – The Where’s the Square Ideas Competition resulted in a number of ideas for a ‘grand gathering place’. Consider sourcing ideas for neighbourhood spaces from neighbourhood residents. Take it to the next level – empower residents as part of the place-making process in areas such as funding, construction, and some general maintenance.
Expand the creation of ‘temporary’ public spaces – The City’s Summer Spaces (Open Streets/Viva Vancouver!) program has provided the opportunity to experiment with a variety of new public space interventions. This program, currently funded on an interim basis, should be made permanent.
1> Good spaces to congregate: ensuring more and better places to gather
2> Good spaces for connection: facilitating better, more active and sustainable ways for people to move
3> Natural spaces: for habitat, heritage and recreation
4> Spaces that are healthy, safe and welcoming
5> Spaces for culture, economy, learning and play
6> Spaces for expression and engagement