Public spaces serve a variety of purposes. In addition to serving as places to meet, or move through on the way from Point A to Point B, they also provide an important tableau for arts and economy, education and more. In so doing, they invite people out into the streets in order to enjoy the city’s shared and public spaces – which in turn leads to a layered and vibrant public life. The more uses attached or adjacent to a public space, the richer the tapestry of social activity that is connected with it.
Planning and programming of public spaces that allows them to be flexible enough to support a wide range of activities – from artistic performance to cultural production, from local business to community markets, from the exchange of ideas to the trace of hopscotch and the scribble of sidewalk chalk.
(1) Legalise neighbourhood play – Sidewalk chalk drawings, tire swings tied to street trees and driveway lemonade stands. Believe it or not, these are among the many things that are currently disallowed because of the sweeping ‘catch-all’ language of different City bylaws. People aren’t necessarily being charged with infractions as a result of these things, but it seems time for the City to relax a bit and to revisit the rule book, to reign in Officer Buzzkill. Initiate a review of relevant City bylaws with a view to supporting a more vibrant public life.
(2) Reduce zoning and licensing restrictions on neighbourhood pubs, restaurants and entertainment spaces – This is meant to: (1) allow these sorts of spaces to exist in areas other than neighbourhood high streets; and (2) allow the neighbourhood venues that do exist to do so with less restrictions. One of the great characteristics of cities such as Portland and Seattle is that their zoning regulations and licensing systems allow neighbourhood-scale nooks of retail and food-service businesses to exist within largely residential areas. In Vancouver this sort of activity has mostly been ‘zoned out’ of the allowable uses in many parts of the city – except along the obvious commercial corridors and downtown… and even there obtaining a liquor primary license can be next to impossible. In the interests of enhancing neighbourhood character, walkability and shoring up the local economy, it’s time to revisit this.
(3) Support the creation of workshop spaces for creative production – In many parts of the city – particularly areas with a large proportion of high density rental or condominium units – the availability of workroom and workshop space in which to tinker on creative projects is scarce to non-existent. Not only are artists studios in high demand, but spaces for everyday people to be creative are at a premium. Community Centres, School Board facilities and other public or semi-public spaces should be made more accessible so that residents can make use of workshops, tool sharing libraries and other facilities within these spaces.
(4) As part of the creation of a new or re-imagined public space in the city, create a purpose-built market space – In other cities around the world, the tradition of a market square is popular – a space that can be used for art one day, farmers another, bookselling, and more. Such spaces incubate small-scale businesses while proving popular with residents and tourists alike. Consider supporting the opportunity to support the transformation of an existing downtown space – perhaps an alley or underutilized plaza – into a market area. Support this transformation with investment in appropriate weather-proofing and utilities infrastructure.
(5) Make laneways and alleys more liveable! Vancouver has an abundance of under-utilized spaces in its network of secondary laneways of alleys. Develop a “laneways and alleys” strategy that examines this resource, identifies opportunities and transforms these into more-usable public spaces. Foster a spirit of creative thinking by creating mechanisms for local business and community groups to utilize these spaces for patios, retail outlets, markets and more. Balance, of course, would be the key – because it’s important not to forget the critical role that these spaces also play in goods movement, waste disposal and the location of utilities.
(6) Expand the city’s capacity for creativity – Vancouver has taken good steps forward in supporting art in public spaces – from events like Viva Vancouver! to the larger policy themes in the new Cultural Infrastructure Plan. It’s important to maintain energies here, but also to recognize culture in all its forms. Vancouver and other cities benefit not only from formal arts and cultural activities, but also from small-scale, grassroots events that engage the community in public spaces (think capoeira at Woodwards, or breakdancing at Robson Square). Let’s start to look for ways – neither bureaucratic nor regulatory in nature – to enable more grassroots, spontaneous and ephemeral performance, programming and installations.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Reduced licensing fees and insurance requirements – In 2010, Council introduced a $100 permit fee for neighbourhood events. Completing this licensing process also often requires liability insurance. This means that events as simple as a block party can cost up to $400 even before spending anything on the party itself.
Bylaw review and amendments – The Zoning and Development Bylaw, the Street and Traffic Bylaw and the Park Bylaw are among many forms of regulation that introduce unreasonable restrictions on aspects of public life… like, say, not being allowed to be in a City Park after 10 pm. These need to be stricken from the record.
Activate existing capacity –Vancouver has untapped capacity in its existing public space inventory, particularly in its lanes or ancillary spaces, that could be significantly enhanced through investments in programming. Creating good public space doesn’t have to be about significant capital costs. Developing mechanisms for community-driven activities could empower local organizations to partner and assist in reducing demands on City funding.
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