OP-ED: Robson Square Makeover Needed
By Dave Crossley
Where’s the square? That was the question posed by the Vancouver Public Space Network in 2009 when it held a design ideas competition to highlight Vancouver’s lack of a purposeful central gathering place – a true town square.
As anyone who has visited the great cities of the world (not to mention many charming smaller towns) knows, a lively town square adds something truly valuable to the heart of any urban community.
Whether it’s New Year’s Eve in Times Square, a protest rally in Trafalgar Square, or a weekend market in a small Italian village piazza, such public gathering spaces and the activities they host contribute something vital to a community. And its something Vancouver has been lacking for a very long time.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics many residents and visitors experienced, even if only temporarily, what a truly vibrant urban square feels like. With the temporary closure of several blocks of Robson St. the area came alive with tens of thousands of people.
Many of the thousands who thronged Robson Square and the nearby streets were drawn to the activities on offer during the Olympics – such as the zip-trek line that had folks lined up for hours, the skating rink, the free entertainment, and the nightly fireworks show. But others simply came out to join the crowds and soak in the festive atmosphere that had taken hold in the heart of Vancouver. It was truly a place to be.
For those two short weeks in February 2010, Robson St. and a portion of Robson Square came alive. Even some hardened Vancouverites dared to suggest that our city might finally be shedding its reserved attitude, and well-deserved reputation as “no fun city”.
Unfortunately, as the light from the Olympic flame became a distant memory, the tents were folded, and the traffic returned to the streets, Vancouver quickly returned to its old staid, conservative self. Quickly it became apparent just how temporary it had all been. With the one small exception of the subterranean skating rink, which was back in gear this winter, Robson Square returned to its old self as well.
Indeed, several media commentaries about the utter lack of any civic activity or celebration this past New Year’s Eve noted how embarrassing it was for a city that prides itself on being cosmopolitan and world-class.
While countless throngs celebrated under fireworks in Sydney, and partied under the dropping-ball in New York, thousands more rang in the New Year at the Seattle Center and the Space Needle, and partied with a concert in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.
Meanwhile Vancouver’s streets were kept clear of any public gatherings. Where’s the party? As anyone who’s tried to plan an event knows, you first need a venue. Where’s the square?
But Vancouverites should be asking – does it have to be so? The answer, of course, is no. How our public spaces are designed, redesigned, utilized and operated should be the topic of vigorous public debate and discussion.
And there has indeed been some discussion about including a public plaza in the proposed new art gallery on the Larwill Park site (the old bus depot site behind the Queen Elizabeth theatre). However, this location on the eastern edge of downtown butted against the Beatty St. escarpment presents several difficulties.
It is an uncomfortable edge-zone far from the commercial and entertainment heart of the downtown. It is not nearly as well served by public transit. The surrounding buildings do not provide the same sense of enclosure and intimacy – contributing to the exposed mouse-on-the-snow feeling. But most importantly, it is not where Vancouverites choose to congregate to celebrate playoff hockey victories, or hang out on warm summer nights. Historically, that place has been Robson St. and good planning builds on and improves what already works.
Recent developments provide the perfect opportunity to once again urge our civic leaders to seize this issue and make some concrete progress. At present, a large portion of the northern part of the Robson Square complex is behind fences, as it undergoes repairs and maintenance. To facilitate this work the single block of Robson St. between Hornby St. and Howe St. has been temporarily closed to traffic.
Vancouver Councilor Suzanne Anton, among others, has quite rightly asked why this street closure can’t become permanent, and the space given over for a much-needed public square?
Massive traffic chaos has not ensued as a result of the street closure. Transit re-routing seems to be working. So why can’t a re-configured Robson Square that includes that one block of Robson Street become Vancouver’s missing town square – permanently? Well, as that brief time during the Olympics demonstrated, it can, and it should.
Even if there were general agreement and support for moving forward, there would be issues and challenges. There would need to be consultation with the public and interested parties such as UBC, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and others. A successful vision and design would need to be developed. And funding would need to be secured to make it a reality.
But in a city where we spend millions of dollars putting a new roof on a sports stadium, and almost a billion dollars building a convention centre, surely we can come up with the money to design a relatively small, compact but vibrant town square for the people of Vancouver.
The city and the province already own and control the space – there’s no need to buy up land, or displace private property. The street is already closed, and the space partially dug up. As we enter an election year, now is the time to build up steam in support of building the town square Vancouver deserves.
What’s missing is political vision, leadership, and a commitment to make it happen. The conversation has started, but it needs to go beyond general platitudes. We need leadership to make further progress. Only then can the practical challenges of funding and design be tackled to answer the question “Where’s the square?”
Dave Crossley is a resident of Vancouver, and holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree (Honours) in Geography and a Certificate in Urban Studies from Simon Fraser University.
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