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.

OP-ED articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Think City. To make a submission to the OP-ED section of the Think City Minute, please email editor@thinkcity.ca for details.

Public square at Robson Place

Yes, I was attending an event at the Vancouver Art Gallery last evening and it was impossible to get in at the front or the right side of the building. The area looks a mess. I think a proper public square, a la European towns and cities, would be a great solution to making that spot exciting and habitable. Let's get on with it, shall we? Like most government projects in recent years, it's jutst sitting there, like an eyesore. cheers, C. W.

Art galleries, casinos and public space

Colleen, agree and agree! Do we need to spend $350 million on a new Art Gallery? Does a sprawling casino on some of the best land remaining on False Creek really serve the public? Oh, can I mention that the more acceptable redevelopment of the PNE is estimated to cost a quarter billion? Enough with expensive megaprojects already! Let's make this city's human scale the core of it's livability.

Where is the Square

I live downtown and I enjoyed the Square and it's activities during the olympics. It would be real nice place to hang out and enjoy some activities there again.

Thinking outside the box.

Well, while it is true that "The function of these areas was for military parades and other public shows of power": Red Square Moscow, Tiananmen Square Beijing and Plaza de la Constitución El Zócalo La Ciudad de Mexico City etc there are many fine squares, particularly in Latin America, that are mostly for peaceful purposes: arborous markets and meeting place. Phillip ll of Spain enacted The Law of the Indies in 1680 defining some very enlightened urban design principles . . . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_the_Indies . . . that we enjoy today. In fact it is most unusual to find a Latin city that does not have a central meeting place for administrative and peaceful purposes, boy-meet-girl socials and even the dreaded auto da fé. I'm thinquing the intimate Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires to expansive gardens of Viveros de Coyoacán to Alameda Central Centro Historico. It will be great to see Robson Square come back to life again. I got a note from Susan Anton some weeks ago saying it was on . . .

Where's the damn square?

Think outside the box

Dave Crossley is missing a vital piece of history when he speaks of the "great cities of the world" having town squares. The function of these areas was for military parades and other public shows of power. Access to the internet replaces the archaic functions of the square as a forum of communication. Many of these great city squares are located in close proximity to political housing, which downtown Vancouver cannot replicate. Political demonstrations and marches are already held on the grounds of the current art gallery, which is able to accommodate hundreds of people on the lawn and stairs. The use of a town square is negligible in a city with this much rain. We don't need to frame an area of cement to feel like we are a world-class city. Discussion about closing Robson for a block should be framed in terms of human geography in making safer areas for pedestrians to traverse, and not the urban planning of a bygone empirical age.

Public spaces

I am heartened by this conversation. I want to ask firstly, is the moving of the Art Gallery a certainty? I wish it were not. I think a satellite addition is a better idea, allowing what already works for the city to continue. the Art Gallery is the best public gathering place we have. Indeed, let's build on what already works. We urgently need a public square. I agree. I agree Robson is the place to put it. Another concern for me is the casino expansion which will gobble up another beautiful middle of the city space that should have a public focus, building on the success of Science world and the public access for pedestrians and cyclists to the False Creek green space. A huge casino will destroy the welcoming public feeling there. Along with public spaces, we need funding for program that create the opportunity for using and enjoying those public spaces. The recognition that that public activity - meeting, discussion, recreation, participation in public expression - is an essential value that builds community and civic responsibility remains weak in Vancouver. We have become inured and even cynical about real estate and its use. We are used to seeing it disappear into the realm of private profit, whether it's our city scape of or the fast disappearing agricultural land reserve. Let's change this! Where's the Square?!

closure of Robson Square

It's true that massive traffic chaos has not ensued as a result of the street closure although pedestrian traffic moving from Hornby to Howe is pretty chaotic. It is absolutely NOT true that transit re-routing is working--not if you are a West End resident, dependent on the Robson bus. Not only is the bus still operating on the routing change established for the Olympics a year ago, it does not enable seniors (of which there are many in the West End) to access department stores or downtown movie theatres or the Orpheum--unless they are able to do a lot of walking from the bus stop to their intended destination or take several buses where once, one bus would suffice. This acts to convince the elderly that they need to restrict their lives to two-or-so block. I'd call that a hidden chaos--imposed on residents with an ever-reducing number of options in their lives.

Robson Square

Many people may not remember this, but as it was originally designed by Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Oberlander, Robson Square WAS a proper public gathering place. It has served for decades as a place for people to relax in the sun, to congregate for protests and to meet friends. The problem is not that the square needs fixing -it's that it needs to be rescued from the bad fixes it's had over the past few years - especially those that took place during the Olympics! That new roof over the skating rink is ugly and completely out of character with the simplicity of the original design. Immediately after the Olympics, hoardings were placed over and around the square that are still there and which rendering the square inaccessible to everyone. I fear that there are other interests at stake here that have plans for the permanent commercialization of Robson Square. True public squares are just that - public spaces - not places of commercial activity - like the stupid zip-line. The square needs to be returned to its rightful place and its original beauty.

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