A brief historical context is available here

The war on buses is continuing.

The City of Vancouver is losing no occasion to attack the downtown bus system:

the North Plaza site analysis as presented in the open house material

Even when a design doesn’t need to threat transit, City of Vancouver can’t refrain to do so:
The site analysis, while showing permanent bus stops on Burrard, and temporary ones on Howe, fails to show a single bus stop on either Robson or Granville. Also surprising is the lack of mention of any major transit corridors in the vicinity (Granville is not considered as such!).

That could be due more to ignorance of the site and unfamiliarity of the bus network by the design team, than malevolent intentions. Nevertheless, the result is still a deceptive material, raising questions on the openness and good faith of the city of Vancouver in regard of the Down Town bus service review.

(why go thru the exercise, when it is all decided as eventually suggested on the left?)

Passing the above provocation, which eventually left little ambiguities on the city intentions if it was any doubts left after the disastrous “block 51 consultation” in fall 2012 [1], let’s have a look at the proposed designs

Since the VAG is poised to move to Larwill park (Cambie#Georgia), in a relatively near future, the purpose of the exercise is a bit futile, but as the underground vault below the square is leaking: work on the plaza needs to happen as soon as possible. That somewhat can explain the relatively low profile adopted (e.g. no design competition) for one of the most important place in Vancouver, which, potentially temporary, facelift is budgeted at $3 millions. 3 options are presented to the public:

Plalo Ring

PlaloRing2PlaloRing3 A Plalo Ring, transforming the square as a night club at night? May be for a Nuit blanche event, but permanently?

The focal point of the square is obviously the Rattenbury building, and any design should be driven at making the best of this heritage building. This Plalod ring, not only ignoring the Rattenbury building, but also diminishing it, is probably out of place on the North Plaza. One could also infer, it could create some problem for some events. (lighting issue, and sound reverberation).

The fact that it is considered by the design team, and is a favorite with the public [2] is eventually one reason of despair of the Vancouver culural and urban scene:

Someday, they will propose to demolish the Rattensbury building to increase the size of the north Plaza![4]

Active edge

Some "edge" on the side of the square?

Some “edge” on the side of the square?

The goal of it is unclear: bring some intimacy to the square?… square being surrounded by traffic sewages on 3 of its sides, that looks:

  • A loosing battle
  • and an unnecessary one, since the spaces north of Robson street fulfill this need

All those “edges” seriously limit the versatility of the place, think the Vancouver Sun Run:

  • The Georgia side
  • The fountain along Georgia, seems more inspired by the current “centennial fountain” than anything else. As much as the current fountain, it creates a psychological barrier to the Rattenbury building access. It is worth to note, that a fountain used to sit along Georgia (and is now along Hornby: it is also surprisingly misisng of the site inventory). Why not put restore the historic fountain in its original location?

  • The Howe side
  • The site inventory notice a bus stop at the foot of Howe street, so this design turns its back on Howe, and erect a “wall” there, preventing the transit users to be part of the square life…enough is said!


    the water mirror

    the water mirror – for bottom photos, credit (3)

    May be the rendering is not making justice to the design, which in some sort is reverberating an early Erickson concept for the square: it doesn’t seem to encouter a great public adhesion [2], but it is by far the best option among the proposed ones:

    • It is the most able to address the formalism and ceremonial aspect of the square
    • while offering a versatility of use, and still not offering an empty place

    That is the purpose of such a mirror in Bordeaux, and more recently Place de la Republique, Paris, a huge “demonstrating” square, as we have seen before, that said:

    • Does the water mirror, need to cover all the square?
    • probably not, since it hinders other spontaneous activities

    • Does the water mirror, is a necessary feature on the North Plaza?
    • may be, may be not: the square is somewhat small, and a proper surface treatment and other urban furnishings, can be enough, to both compliment the building, and enlivening the square.

    Place de la Republique, Paris: a skateboard ledge? a speaker corner? a mattress? Basic, moveable and still permanent furnishing, can gather many spontaenous uses, enlivening  the square at low cost.

    Place de la Republique, Paris: a skateboard ledge? a speaker corner? a mattress? Basic, moveable furnishing, can gather many spontaenous uses, enlivening the square at low cost.

    And The red carpet

    All presented proposals seem to be relatively weak, focusing more at addressing the need of a 3 days Jazz festival, rather than addressing the place itself. As such they are relatively uninspiring, especially when compared to the “red carpet” as presented by Hapa collaborative, at the “Where’s the square?”, VPSN design competition.

    Vancouver Red Carpet – Hapa Collaborative – entry of the 2009 VSPN Where’s the Square Competition

    The surface treatment

    All design are based on “Hard landscaping” landscaping because it is “more durable and long lasting”: If Granville mall, where the city believes an outstanding job has been done, is an indication, one should not hold his breath on it. Since, the setting could be temporary, the city could be well inspired to use a compacted fine gravel surface, which has the merit to be much cheaper than a good quality hard surface, and easy to recycle, whenever a new arrangment of the square is required by a different use of the Rattenbury building.

    Like many squares in France, Place Bellecour, Lyon, has a compacted surface, able to accomodate a great range of venues

    Like many square in France, Place Bellecour, Lyon, has a compacted surface, able to accomodate a great range of venue.

    And why not also keep the space as a blank page?… pretty much like Place Bellecour in Lyon, France, which Viva, or other group could program (instead of organizing a blockade on bus routes), and revisit our options when we will have more clarity on the future use of the Rattenbury building?

    [1] see “block 51” public consultation, which has left a sour taste with many observers, as we have already noticed here and there. In despite of all evidences, VPSN, a group advocating for aggressive pedestrianism and co-organizeer of the block 51 consultation, unsurprinsingly and sadly, still believe it was a good consultation.

    [2] According to a poll by Vancity buzz (3 stunning design revealed for new Vancouver art Gallery North Plaza, Kenneth Chan, VancityBuzz, Oct 1st, 2013), 65& of its polled prefer the “plalo Ring”, while 20% prefer the “wet” concept, with 8% liking the “active edge” one.

    [3] flickr user hisgett

    [4] This is paraphrasing Victor Hugo, whose famously said, “somedays, they will destroy the cathedral Notre Dame, to increase its parvis”, about the Haussmann work in Paris

    That is from their May 7th, 2013 issue, which is rich of Transportation perspective,…,
    and eventually illustrates the dichotomy of thought on it between the Western world and Asia

    Jaywalking is responsible of the Beijing traffic woes

    As you could know, Beijing is facing massive traffic issues, and here like too often in North America before, it is considered that the pedestrians are the problem. Enforcing the jaywalking laws is not an easy matter but it is deemed necessary by chinese,…this to be a “world class” country… at par with the USA…
    In Vancouver, Councillor Heather Deal, whose devoted great amount of VPD time and taxpayer money to enforce the local jaywalking laws, couldn’t agree more [5].

    In the Meantime, it is worth to note that in the not so “world class” countries such UK or France, jaywalking is legal as in many other European countries, and still it is generally safer to be a pedestrian there than in Vancouver and more generally in North America.

    Cycling in Hong Kong raises a safety issue

    The edition contains not less than 2 articles related to cycling in Hong Kong: “Cyclist see open roads up ahead”, and “Cyclists face uphill ride on buses, MTR”.

    Cycling is pretty much foreign to Hong Kongers: the fact that the Chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling alliance, Martin Turner, is a British raised individual is tale telling…And when cycling is considered it is mostly for recreational purpose, could lament Martin. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidences seem to show that cycling is on the rise in Hong Kong, like anywhere else, but it seems to be little appetite to quantify that:

    Cycling seems on the rise in Hong Kong, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find a free spot to park your bike, before boarding the Transit system

    Cycling seems on the rise in Hong Kong, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find a free spot to park your bike, before boarding the Transit system – notice Police can seize bike tied to the handrail – Credit Photo (4)

    Statistics show that bike accidents are on the rise too. Helmet laws and bike licensing, are called by some quarters, to reverse this worrisome trend!

    Turner has another opinion, and is lobbying for bike rack on bus, like in San Francisco, or Vancouver,…a North American specificity not seen Europe. This promise to be a tough sell, but there is lot of things to do to improve cycling in Hong Kong beside that:


    Hong Kong bike lane (Along Ting Kok Rd, Kong Kong NT): More often that not, Hong Kong's cyclists are expected to walk their bikes to the Bike path... and dismount at intersections...what by the way is usually not respected! -credit photo left (4), right, Google

    Light Rail or Monorail in Kong Kong

    The debate concerns the redevelopment of the former Hong Kong’s airport: Kai Tak, which still look pretty much like below:

    View on Kai Tak, the Former Hong Kong Airport.

    View on Kai Tak, the Former Hong Kong Airport.

    The Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) of Hong Kong has a grand vision for the site, which seems reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s cite radieuse, including a “people mover” under the form of a monorail [1]:

    Proposed Monorail for Kai Tak new districtHkMonorailArtistView

    Proposed Monorail for Kai Tak new district

    Veolia operating The Hong Kong Trams, is making the case for a tramway. Many readers of the South China Morning Post support this idea. Norman Y. S. Heung, project manager at the CEDD Office, explains it is “Practically impossible to accommodate tram system at Kai Tak”, because taking too much road space (sic)…Worth to note that most of the area is not even built yet!

    Many other arguments are advanced in favour of the Monorail, which is also presented as a tourist attraction… but at the end the quality of the urban environment is not one of them. It is also explained that the “walking environment will be improved by provision of footbridges and [underpasses]“ (sic).

    So Does the Kai Tak’s monorail will look like the Chongqing one , or does Hong Kongers will push for a different street experience, may be on the model of the Kunming’s Zhengyi Rd?

    Left, Chongqing (China): An avenue with a Monorail (opened in 2011) - Right, Kunming (China): Zhengyi Rd offers a Bld experience, which at par with the ones more traditionally founded in Europe - credit photo left (3), right, (4)

    [1] See the video and other information at Hong Kong CEDD

    [2] Old Cat

    [3] South China Morning Post

    [4] VivenDesign

    [5] Vancouver launches campaign to educate ‘fragile’ pedestrians, Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun, February 07, 2012.


    December 18, 2012

    Michael Green has submitted an unsolicited proposal for a multi venue art gallery [1].

    (Thought he mentions that he “would like to re-open this discussion”, the comment section of his site is closed)

    • I don’t think too much of the multi venue idea (also proposed by Bob Rennie [3]); which if considered, should be region-wise, and not Vancouver centric, to bring culture to people, rather than expect people to travel to the most improbable locations to see a tiny part of what the VAG has to offer.
    • I guess the idea to build, even underground, something in Stanley park, is just plain provocative, in a try to generate some media attention: Stanley park should be a nature sanctuary.

    That said, a good idea emerges: the use of a bridge for something else than transportation.


    Michael green is envisioning an art gallery under the Granville bridge

    The idea beyond the infra-urbanity neologism

    Vancouver, is a city of bridges. One has always to cross a bridge to move around and bridges are part of the Vancouver DNA. but so far bridges have been seen only as infrastructure -we like to routinely replace- designed as pure links, like freeways, with no urban contribution whatsoever. That is, the bridge is not considered as a place of exchange or life in itself. Thought some efforts have been suggested to improve the bridge experience, they should be considered as a starting point [2]:

    The Granville bridge green way proposal by City of Vancouver is an improvement on the existing layout, but as proposed, it could deprive the pedestrians of one of the Main bridge asset: the vistas on False creek

    With Granville bridge, we have an opportunity, to change that, be with an art gallery or something else, in its truss, encouraging strolling on the bridge, and taking advantage of it (rain shelter) to bring the city one step forward. In that sense the Michael Green contribution, bringing the old idea of “living bridge” into the debate is welcome.

    [1] A fresh vision for the old art gallery, Marsha Lederman, Globe and Mail, Dec 14, 2012

    [2] see Price tags

    [3] Rennie releases proposal for multi-venue art gallery system, Marsha Lederman, Globe and Mail, Dec 12, 2012

    Sydney: BRT tunnel and trams

    December 17, 2012

    Sydney is confronted to bus congestion in its Core Business District (CBD):

    6,000 bus enter into the Sydney CBD per day, 1000 during the peak hour. Too many bus routes lead to a poorly legible network

    Beside a poorly legible network (Sydney has 850 bus routes) [7], the great number of bus routes is also a source of inefficiency : thought that the offering bus-seat capacity could be great, the practical one could be much less on a given corridor (over-supply on some bus routes is not compensating under supply on others)

    The European solution

    It is a problem many European cities are facing, and in Europe, it is in general the impetuous to switch to LRT – the rational is simple:

    • A modern Tram replaces 5 buses
    • Associated network consolidation allows a better adjustment of the offer to the demand, as well as a better legibility of it
    • A Tram, being electric powered, generate less noise, and pollution

    Hence trams improves the livability of the city. Generally, European modern trams are not justified by speed or urban development opportunities, which are very limited in mature cities but mainly by ridership. They operates on trunk lines fed by bus routes:

    • Passengers have to transfer

    The fact that the transfer from bus to tram, is not compensated by a time gain (like it could be from bus to subway) is one of the main drawback of such an approach. Providing a superior service and experience is a way to compensate for the disagreement. The European solution in Sydney’s CBD could be the vision proposed by Gehl Architects [2]:

    Pedestrian George Street with LRT, in a typically European arrangement.

    Pedestrian George Street with LRT, in a typically European arrangement – credit picture (2)

    The Australian approach

    Australia is land of the finest BRTs. Tunnel a BRT is a solution, natural enough in Sydney, to be considered, in despite of its price tag; $2 Billions, for a ~2 km tunnel. The rational is simple:

    • A BRT can avoid a transfer

    The debate

    BRT vs LRT, the context of the debate - Left: Bus volumes entering the Sydney City Centre during the two hour morning peak - Right: proposed BRT and LRT alignment and cost. The full LRT is 12 km long with implementation cost estimated at $1.6B

    You could expect the government agencies, ministries and other actors to debate on facts, and not on opinions to lobby one system over another:

    reading the different reports [3][4][5] will prove you wrong.

    Below is how the debate has occurred between two New South Wales (NSW) government outlets, Transport NSW, favoring the LRT, and Infrastructure NSW (InNSW), an “independent agency”, supposed to not base recommendation on politic allegiance, favoring the BRT:

    InNSW estimates the current demand at 9000 pphpd in the corridor [5]. The different system are assumed as below by the different actors:

    System InNSW [5] Transport NSW [3] Certu [6]
    BRT Capacity 20,000 3,500
    LRT Capacity [9] 9,000 12,000 6,000
    LRT Frequency 2mn 2mn 3mn

    The numbers provided by Certu (a French agency), are for reference. They are considering optimal surface operation conditions (signal preemption possible, perfect interval maintained) signaling the typical area of relevance for a given technology. Thought the numbers advanced by the Australian authorities are theoretically possible, they most probably supposes a compromise on the level of service:

    High capacity BRT, like the one pictured in Brisbane come at a  cost

    High capacity BRT, like the one pictured in Brisbane come at a cost – credit photo (1)

    The InNSW report contains lot of fear mongering on LRTs, but what is noticeable in the case of the both approaches, is that none quantifies travel time, neither expected operating cost, not even speaking of a cost/benefit ratio.

    More importantly, beside removing bus of the surface, the BRT tunnel tries to address a problem different from the LRT: the former addresses regional access-and so doing tend to largely duplicate an existing rail corridor- while the later addresses the more local access into the CBD. One will find some more detail, especially question about the BRT approach in [8]

    The urban approach: George Street

    As suggested before, the tram choice over a tunnel BRT is not only a transportation choice, it is an urbanistic one too: George street is a 2.5km long street, it is the major Sydney spine. Jan Gehl compares its potential to the one mile long Barcelona’s las Ramblas [2]:

    • Both are bounded, by the sea on one side, and by a major commuter railway station on the other
    • Both are of similar with, 22 to 30m for George street

    The Cost of the different approaches for George street:

    BRT Tunnel [5] Surface LRT [3]
    $2B $500M

    InNSW suggested that George street -20 to 30m width- is not wide enough to accommodate both a tram and pedestrians, and explains that segregation of transport and pedestrian activities, or aggressive pedestrianization, is a better objective [5] (There is very few street of this wide successfully fully pedestrianized [10]). the Bus BRT is considered as a rapid transit with 2 underground stations [5].

    George Street cross-section – as proposed by Gehl architects – credit (2)

    Jan Gehl touted the concept of overlap use, with trams sharing the urban space with pedestrians, supporting thriving activities on the rather wide George street, and the neighboring alleys and lanes. In fact Transport for NSW states in [3]:

    International experience indicates that the pedestrianization of George street without activation by light rail could reduce safety and accessibility, leading to a decline in retail activity.

    The surface tram option is envisioned with a stop every 350m, so the tram is considered as a people mover. Evolving in a shared space, its average speed will not be much better than 10km/h on George street – Rest of the alignment is in a more “suburban” environment, so average speed outside the CBD should be more competitive with existing option

    Some questions

    At the end the LRT has been chosen over the BRT. Nevertheless, considering the expected passenger volume, one could still question this choice:

    Shared spaces work well when traffic is light :

    • Crossing the street is unimpeded by traffic (that is one advantage of fewer trains over more buses)

    In the George street case, the demand suggests a train every mn, so starting to create a “wall” of trains:

    Too heavy LRT traffic can compromise the "sharing space" concept

    Too heavy LRT traffic can compromise the “sharing space” concept

    But what could be of more concern, is that the system could be under-sized. The considered 9,000 pphpd requirement suggests that the debate should not have been a BRT versus trams one, but eventually trams versus a heavier rail mode, including a grade separated LRT – that is the Ottawa direction – or extension of the Sydney Cityrail (a S-bahn or RER equivalent). The later is fortunately on the menu [7], and hopefully will go in a direction to reduce the pressure on the tram.

    Lessons for Vancouver.

    Th Sydney LRT choice has generated some interest in Vancouver here and there : The Sydney choice is done to address problems very different of the ones faced either by Vancouver or Surrey. Still, the underlying motivation, for the heavy transit investment, is mainly to address existing demand. It also shows you are better to understand what objective you are trying to pursue, before embarking into a technology debate, which can lead on exaggerated and misleading claims.

    If there is one lesson to be directly learned for Vancouver, it is the idea that [3]:

    separating pedestrians and transport is contrary to good planning practice and international experience, which shows transport and pedestrians should be integrated to support thriving cities

    Transit at  Sydney Town Hall

    Transit at Sydney Town Hall

    Integrating transit into pedestrian oriented streets, is also the only way to have an extensive and still successful pedestrian friendly street network. In other word, let transit work, is the first and probably most important step toward bold pedestrianization scheme: An important lesson we could learn more especially fromWellington, NZ.

    All $ figure in Asutralian $

    [1] flickr user SHOROC

    [2] George street Urban design study, Gehl Architects for City of Sydney, January 2012

    [3] Sydney Light rail’s future, Transport for NSW, December 2012

    [4] Metro Transport Sydney’s position on LRT

    [5] First things first, Infra NSW, October 2012.

    [6] Tramway et Bus à Haut Niveau de Service
    (BHNS) en France : domaines de pertinence en zone urbaine
    from Transport/Environnement/Circulation (TEC) n° 203, September 209.

    [7] Transportation Master Plan, Transport for NSW, December 2012

    [8] transportsydney.wordpress.com blog.

    [9] That is considering a 45m long train. Fine grained Sydney downtown grid doesn’t allow for much longer trains on George street without hindering access to lateral streets

    [10] New York City’s Broadway at ~80 feet wide is one example, but the pedestrianized block around Times Square see a traffic of 350,000 pedestrians/day – a uncommonly high volume.

    Normally, the both, complementing each others, work in harmony, but it happens that an aggressive pedestrianism agenda can conflict with Transit geometry

    The Wellington’s Golden Mile case

    The Wellington Golden Mile is an area of Down town Wellington, New Zealand, including noticeably Manners Mall, an historically important Transit spine:

    Manners Mall/ Cuba Street circa 1920
    a busy transit corridor, lot of retail, lot of people – credit photo (1)

    Aggressive pedestrianism: the Kiwi version

    Manners Mall, strategically located, full of shopping opportunities and pedestrians, made an ideal target for pedestrianization, what has been done toward the end of the 70’s. That was allowed by rerouting Transit on adjacent streets:

    The pedestrian Manners Mall was just a small segment, putting buses on a 'slight detour' - credit photo (9)

    They put a bus lane through my heart

    In 2008, the Wellington city council came with the project to reintroduce buses on the pedestrian mall:

    Reintroducing buses in the once pedestrian Mall, make the bus network much simpler

    The reasons for this project were to end the Transit issues caused by the rerouting (involved by the Pedestrian Mall) [2]:

    • poor journey time reliability
    • indirect routings
    • poor legibility

    Needless, to say, the project has encountered fierce opposition: the arguments are known:

    • What the heck such a few meter of pedestrianized road make a problem?
    • There is plenty of road where the bus can goes: Why absolutely there?
    • Give me a break: It is only a 5mn walk to the bus!

    An example of argumentation:

    MannersMall-ForumExtract2 examples of discussions surrounding the pedestrian/transit trade off in Wellington’s Golden Mile (click on pictures for better readability)

    In despite of the local Green Party support for the plan, citizen feedbacks were overwhelmy negative: 74% opposed to the re-opening of the pedestrian Mall to buses during the first public consultation [8], a sizable facebook group was constituted, and even a song has been written in defense of the pedestrian mall [3]:

    Alas for the pedestrian Mall, it is a case of Transit geometry. If one want to reduce auto reliance and have more pedestrians on the street; attractive transit is key, and good transit geometry is paramount. The Wellington people understood those reasons and the proposal was implemented in time for the 2011 Wolrd Rugby Cup.

    Today The buses are flowing down on the once pedestrian only mall. Pedestrians are also the winner of this new configuration: A more direct bus route, open more pedestrianization possibilities, while still keeping pedestrian area accessible by transit, and here it was eventually an argument able to sell the project:

    The bus returning on Manners mall, allow  more street to be pedestrian oriented space, than before

    The buses returning on Manners mall, allow more pedestrian oriented streets than before

    The new configuration, not only make sense from a transit perspective, but it also makes sense of a pedestrian perspective, by joining 2 pedestrian areas (that is via Cuba street), now irrigated; and not circumvoluted; by transit

    That is in accord to the usually successful pedestrian philosophy at play in Europe, which is not to make life more complicate for transit, but to improve the city livability by discourage automobile use (see also [4])

    Transit geometry

    AFAIK, transit geometry is a term coined by Jarret Walker, to recover some different transit concepts, which are concretely exposed on a real life example in part 2 from the circling the square series, by Peter Marriott, on the Pricetags blog. The transit geometry concept boils down to mirror the desire lines one (concept often associated to Gaston Bachelard [6])[10]

    Aggressive pedestrianism

    Thought successful pedestrian areas are more often than not the result of a comprehensive transportation plan, addressing well identified problem, as seen in Europe [4], but also, more recently in New York [7], aggressive pedestrianism is a philosophy at 180 degree of it:

    • A Vancouver example

    A Bob Ransford’s post nearly perfectly syncretizes the aggressive pedestrianism philosophy. It illustrates why transit arteries – the path of least disturbance for motorists- are the main targets of the aggressive pedestrianism movement, which unfortunately is still getting lot of traction in Vancouver:

    For the out of town reader (and apparently the not so out of town too), What is at stake in the case raised in the Bob Ransford’s post is not 100 meters of road, but the fact that this 100m are on an important transit spine of the Vancouver network, with no obvious rerouting alternative [5].

    [1] City of Wellington

    [2] Central Area Bus Operational Review, Final report, Opus consultant, Wellington NZ, November 2009

    [3] “Manners Mall Emo Song”, Robbie Ellis, 2009

    [4] Transit as part of the urban fabric

    [5] see block 51: oct 15 and 17th events, a summary, and Peter Marriott’s Circling the square series

    [6] La poetique de l’espace, Gaston Bachelard, 1958, Paris

    [7] see NYC DOT press release Release # 06-56, October 12, 2006; See World Class Streets: Remaking New York City’s Public Realm, New York City DOT, 2008

    [8] Restoring the Golden Mile :Summary of Consultation, Wellington NZ, 2008.

    [9] www.aktnz.co.nz

    [10] “mirror” because geometry is a rational term whereas “desire” is apriori not. In the case of Manners Mall, the sunny side of Manners mall has sidewalk 20% wider than the shaded side mirroring the pedestrian “line of desire” – Pedestrians, as transit users could prefer journeying thru vibrant street than others for reasons expressed in [4] (which could have to do with some anthropological gregarious trait of humanity among other reason)…

    On October 15th and October 17, It was a so called “public consultation” on the block 51 respectively titled “a look back” and “a look forward”. If you were not made aware timely by social media like twitter, there is little chance you could have attended it, since it was quickly sold-out (sic).

    The Panel of the first evening was a discussion involving Bing Thom, Alan Bell, Nick Milkovich – three members of Arthur Erickson Architects at the time of building the courthouse complex, reflecting on the 1973 design [7]. In the second event a short 6mn lecture by different speaker was given. The historian John Atkin gave an historical account of the north plaza [5]. Lon Laclair from city of Vancouver was here to talk of how great the Olympic experience was. Jenniffer Sheel and Krisztina Kassay from Viva Vancouver, the brains behind the Robson square programming, gave an overview of what has been done on the square. They didn’t explain why the programming need to be exactly in the middle of Robson street to be successful-and not let say on Bute at Robson [6], but were apparently wanting to make the point that according to them, “people don’t want traffic at all here”. Heather Forbes from VPSN explained that an overwhelming majority of entries to their “Where’s the Square?” design competition selected Block 51 as the heart of Vancouver, omitting to mention that the people choice was the North plaza, but noticing that solutions can be found for other user/need, like transit.

    Lausanne, la Sallaz, in Switzerland: Square programming is popular in Europe. Usually it concerns non 'self-sufficient' space, or temporary underused space, like this one (left picture): the programming is poised to give place to buses, in a new arrangement of the square called 'espace rencontre' (meeting place) where buses mingle with the pedestrians (right) - credit photo left (1)

    Her speech was followed by Matthew Blackett from Spacing Magazine, who, probably not briefed enough on the agenda concerning transit, incidentally presented those “solutions” starting with London’s Exhibition road:

    People waiting the bus 360 on the renovated London’s Exhibition road by Gehl Architects.

    He followed up with Pioneer square in Portland, Oregon:

    Pioneer square in Portland is well served by Transit (2)

    and ending with its preferred, Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb (Croatia):

    Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb, where the transit go right into the middle of it, is the “best” square according to Matthew

    Since Matthew Blackett is from Toronto, he couldn’t have mentioned Yonge and Dundas square. He doesn’t like the electronic billboard, which are “cheapening the place” in his word, but it his hard to deny it has been a successful place since its opening in 2002:

    Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas square has been a resounding success since its opening in 2002 – credit (4)

    You will have certainly noticed that all the great places presented by Matthew have a transit component, and it is probably not accident to the success of those places. The bus along Exhibition road was rerouted on a very nearby street (Queen’s gate) during its construction, but once completed, the bus came back, certainly for good reason!

    The talk session of the evening, was closed by the Pop Rocks designers Matthew Soules and Joe Dahmen presenting how they have designed their huge pillow from recycled roof material of Canada Place [3]. They proposed some interesting design guideline fro Robson Square, summed up in the below artist’s rendering:

    A rendering of Robson square integrating Matt Soules design idea:, flat surface; playful pavment; interactive street furniture, example of Rotterdam’s Schouwburgplein hydraulic lamppost was given – credit (13)

    The last hour or so of the evenings was a co design workshop, driven by Stanley King’s team co-design [14].


    Speakers were certainly interesting, but beside the fact the public was not provided opportunities to interact with them, the whole session was missing key points to a public consultation:

    What is the problem?
    No proper diagnostic of the Block 51 has been done:

    • No metric has been provided on the amount of traffic: how many pedestrian, how many bus rider…: does there is a space allocation problem there? [8]
    • No geometry analysis of the space has been provided
    • When come public space, the audience was seeming to think of a one size fit all [12], what is not necessarily true, and it seems that a wealth of diverging opinion has been expressed. Using the Olympic celebration to explain how the place can be is like using your last family gathering to explain how your dining room can work routinely. It is irrelevant. Spatial Geometry of space is important; A failed party in the large living room, can be transformed in a success in the tiny kitchen [9]; and that supposes to have some known metric.

    • No analysis of what is working and what is not has been done
    • It seems to have been an non spelled rule; worship of Erickson work is mandatory; preventing any honest and franck diagnostic of the robson Square deficiencies.

    • No context analysis has been provided
    • The site has been presented on a North-South spine. That was effectively the original Erickson idea. But nowadays, Robson square is dominated by an East-West flow. No discussion on the future of the VAG was opened: The organizers seem to think that a place-making can be done independently of its context, what seems perfectly silly.

    What are the solutions?

    Since, in fact no problem was identified, the whole function of the consultation was to find a reason for the only proposed solution: “full closure of Robson square to all traffic“. That was the apparent purpose of the co-design exercise.

    What are the potential impact of the proposed solution?
    No evaluation was provided at all

    • Transit?

      Apparently, the organizers didn’t find useful to invite Translink to the consultation table. Transit is considered as a second thought, not to be integrated in the urban thinking of the place, what is a striking departure of successful placemaking. Transit has several implications, among them:

      • Operating cost of the re-routed line
      • impact on handydart if people can’t use regular transit
      • impact on the ridership at large, due to lack of clarity, speed, good network connection, involved by transit change
      • impact on pedestrian safety: transit riders are pedestrians, and have them boarding/alighting in safe spot is important (today bus 5 is rerouted thru Burrard, one of the most pedestrian accident prone arteries of Downtown)

      They are not the only reason Transit is important

    • Street vibrancy
      In Vancouver, vibrant streets, with flourishing retail businesses, are more often that not correlated to transit rich corridors. Transit has certainly been a causation effect in the past. could it be still true?

      • The example of the struggling Cambie village area after loosing good transit access and visibility need to be compared to the recently flourishing areas next to the Yaletown station

      Could it be different with Robson? Why?

      There is also the problem of the Robson street segments between Burrard and Hornby and between Howe, Granville and Seymour. Traffic closure between Howe and Hornby, involves a drastic motor traffic reduction on those segments, while a successful Robson square involves an increased pedestrian traffic. We could have one without the other making those segments unappealing as it is the case now – but one could fairly assume it is also due to building construction/renovation. That said, it is hard to see how a space reallocation on Robson square can’t involve one on those segments, and then come the subsidiary question: Will it be enough pedestrian to make this stretch of Robson of success? [10].

    The displayed lack of sophistication in the discussion surrounding the pedestrianization of Robson square is for the least, curious [11]:

    • It eventually helps us to understand why pedestrian squares are largely a failure in Vancouver, and more generally in North America.
    • Georgia#Granville tends to replace Robson square as the natural meeting place in Vancouve.

      Georgia#Granville tends to replace Robson square as the natural meeting place in Vancouver.

    • It helps also to understand the lack of forthcoming of some other spaces, like Georgia#Granville: A very busy corner since the advent of the Canada line, one which could tend to replace Robson square for some functions, like demonstration, but more importantly, people meeting. The subway station entrance hindering considerably the space when it doesn’t need to do witness this lack of forthcoming. Similar observations could be done at Yaletown, where the subway entrance is turning its back to the square

    What is wrong with this idea of Robson square? answer has not been provided – credit photo City Of Vancouver

    [1] 20mn romandie, July 6th, 2012

    [2] Project for Public Space

    [3] see ‘Pop Rocks: Soft Urban Boulder Field’ Installation / Matthew Soules Architecture + AFJD Studio

    [4] flikr user sean_marshall

    [5] The post Block 51: North Plaza capture most of the presentation

    [6] That is a spot identified by the Vancouver’s transport 2040 plan

    [7] The post Vancouver courthouse Blocks 51-61-71: The Final Erickson proposal fueled by insight of the conversation, capture part of it

    [8] Normally any reallocation of space is preceded by a careful study of traffic, pedestrian, transit riders, and vehicles. Of course, that was the case for London’s Exhibition road, On the section illustrated in this article, there are ~4000pedestrian/hr vs 550car/hr at peak hour (Exhibition Road Monitoring, August 2012). What are the number for Robson square?

    [9] Verbatim of Jan Gehl, Livable Cities lecture, Richmond city Hall, Jan 27, 2011.

    [10] Robson street is 80′ wide. There is virtually no example of pedestrian only street in Europe with such width. New York Broadway Avenue, at ~80′ wide, could be the closest, but the pedestrianized block around Times Square see a traffic of 350,000 pedestrians/day

    [11] for matters of comparison, one can refer to the Paris’s place de la République renovation involving space reallocation in favor of pedestrian. the project is €17millions, what is relatively benign in the Paris city budget of €8billions. Nevertheless, the public consultation process is order of magnitude more elaborated that the one in place for Robson square. It includes the elaboration of shared diagnostic on many aspect of the space, walk tour,…

    [12] For more idea about the different function of a public square, see Geography of Paris squares or plazas, oct 29th, 2012

    [13] vivendesign.com

    [14] The company site explains well the process. A 1973 movie, related to the block 51, was projected in the first evening, chairs for lovers, which introduced the “co design process”. co-design has also a blog

    I am a member from Transport Action British Columbia, an organization which has already addressed its concerns about the streets closure impacts on transit users, and more generally on the blatant lack of consideration for surface transit by the current city-council [1].

    Those concerns have also being raised by other organization as mentioned by Kathy Roczkowskyj on the Stephen’ress blog:

    “The closure of Robson is inconvenient for all transit users but is a real burden for seniors and disabled individuals. A number of organizations (BC Coalition of Disabled People, West End Seniors Network, etc.) sent letters to the Mayor and Council opposing the closure but their concerns have not moved the Mayor. In fact, even though the closure is supposed to be “temporary”, it was extended into the fall by the Mayor even though there is nothing going on on that block now. I attended a forum on October 26th at Gordon Neighbourhood House where the vast majority of the participants opposed the closure due to the difficulties they now had going to doctor’s appointments, etc. City staff who were present could not explain why the closure was continuing through the fall except to say that the Mayor had ordered it. And the City staffer present who was in favour of the closure’s main reason for the permanent closure was that they had discovered that the architect’s original plan from the 1970s for that area included a pedestrian walkway. What kind of reason is that??”

    Kathy is right, an original plan is not a good reason [6], and even less relevant when the reading of the original intend is not correct![5]

    On October 15th and October 17, It was a so called “public consultation” on block 51 – that includes Robson square- which could have confirmed the Kathy feeling. Transport action BC, has expressed its concerns on it as below:

    October 31, 2012
    To: Mayor Robertson and Vancouver City Council
    Re: Consultation on the permanent closure of Robson Street between Hornby and Howe

    Transport Action BC is concerned with the way the city has organized two “public consultations”, held on the evening of October 15th and 17th. Topics of these consultations included the permanent closure of Robson Street between Howe and Hornby, a proposal involving significant impacts on the transit network viability and attractiveness:

    Far to expose and address the different issues induced by such a proposal, the consultations focused only on the pedestrian experience of the space and largely ignored the impacts on the public transit network.

    Furthermore, we have been surprised that:

    * The public consultations were advertised as events titled “block 51”, a legal lot description name, which, could have been too esoteric to attract people beyond the already civically engaged circles.

    * We were asked to share personal information with a private corporation, Eventbrite, for the simple purpose of attending a public consultation

    * A public consultation was advertised as “sold-out”, but at the evening events, roughly two thirds of the seats were empty.

    * The public consultations appeared to be co-organized by an advocacy group, Vancouver Public Space network (VPSN), which has already a well-established and publicly known opinion on the use of Robson square.

    * They were no visible City of Vancouver staff available, with whom the public could have shared their concerns on the present and future use of the Robson square area.

    Though the October 15 and 17th events brought a valuable contribution to the vision of our public spaces, we take issue at having the city calling them “public consultations”, when we believe they were not. We urge you to revisit the public consultation process for the Robson square area:

    * with a format which can engage a large number of citizens, representative of the diversity of the city, and allow them to register their concerns;

    * and have this consultation organized by groups which are neither stakeholder, nor can be suspected of pre-conceived opinion on desired use of Robson square.

    We recommend that the public consultation should include information of how other cities have successfully dealt with the transit/pedestrian dilemma in the organization of their public realm.

    We also would like to point out that urban experience and accessibility are two keys and correlated elements of a vibrant city and one shouldn’t take precedence over the other. Beyond Robson square, we remark that the public demand for more pedestrian friendly streets coincides mainly with historic Vancouver transit routes and we suggest that the city should initiate a reflection on how both the transit and pedestrian experience can be improved in a public space which we ultimately need to share.


    Patrick Rault – VP Transport Action Britisch Columbia

    CC: Charles Gauthier – Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association; TransLink Board of Directors; Andrew Pask Vancouver Public Space Network

    Councillor Andrea Reimer was seeming so embarrassed by how rigged was the consultation, that she feels the need to assert that “it is not a done deal[7],…ah!

    “Consultation” on October 15th: Picture taken during the panel debate with Bing Thom. The public had no opportunity to ask questions, just quietly listen. If you have not been alerted by Twitter or other similar medium, soon enough, there is little chance you could have attended this “consultation” which was “sold-out” – credit photo City Of Vancouver

    It is worth to stress here that Transport action BC has no formed opinion on the future of Robson square. Numerous of its members seem to support the concept of pedestrian priority squares and streets, as outlined in the Vancouver Transport 2040 plan; and this on a public realm much more extended than Robson square; pedestrian priority being not equal to pedestrian only. But, this organization believes that ad hoc rerouting of bus routes, leading to a dysfunctional Transit network, this, to apparently fit an ideological agenda, is not an acceptable way to move forward. A definitive decision on Robson square can’t be done without assurance that the transit issue can be addressed in a satisfactory manner:

    As of today, it is not the case

    Rerouting is an option, not the only one, and not necessarily the one offering the best compromise [2][3]

    Possibly in a damage control operation, a released city survey, on November 1st, has this opening page:

    A Note on Transit and 800-block Robson Street

    The #5 Robson bus is an important transit route connecting the downtown and West End and people to key downtown destinations, such as transit hubs, the library, shopping and theatres. TransLink and the City recognize that an accessible, convenient, reliable and understandable transit route is what makes the # 5 Robson bus function well.  The current re-routing for the #5 Robson bus is challenging for many and regardless of Council’s decision on creating a permanent public space on 800-block Robson Street, TransLink is currently planning an improved re-routing to the #5 Robson bus.  TransLink will be conducting a service review of their entire downtown network that may help guide improved bus routes.  TransLink will work in partnership with the City on both the service review and the short-term re-routing improvements for the #5 Robson bus.

    Beside noticing that the note’s author didn’t find relevant to include the VAG and the provincial Court House as Key downtown destination (sic), this note raises questions:

    • If TransLink is currently planning an “improved” re-routing to the #5 Robson bus, what is so secret to this improvement it can’t be shared with the public?
    • How Translink can plan an “improvment” without input of the public? …It could be a significant departure of their usual practice

    Incidentally, it happens that Transport Action BC met with Translink representatives on October 4th in New Westminster. There, the question of “improved” bus route has been raised, and the then given Translink answer seems to contradict what the survey states and this for good reasons:

    Translink will wait for the introduction of the Compass card to collect meaningful statistic on trip origin/destination, before considering route alignment change

    No doubt that the city survey will find the public overwhelming supporting a very mysterious bus rerouting: here a typical question the public is asked (Answer choice is either A, B or C)

    Based on your answers from the previous questions about what you would like to be doing, tell us how you think 800-block Robson Street needs to function in the future?

    A.  As a permanent public space: 
         i. Vehicle free every day year-round

        ii. A flexible pedestrian space offering several ways for people to interact and enjoy a plaza space
       iii. An improved permanent re-routing of #5 Robson bus

    B. As a summertime public space: 
         i. Vehicle free every day in the summertime
        ii. An inviting pedestrian space offering unique seasonal opportunities to enjoy the sun

       iii. An improved re-routing of #5 Robson bus during the summer

    C. As an occasional special event space:
         i. Vehicles on the street every day year-round
        ii. Street occasionally closed to cars and buses for special events
       iii. An improved #5 Robson bus detour during special events


    …Such a survey is beyond ludicrous and certainly doesn’t worth the trouble.

    Whatever one own preference for the future of Robson square, one should feel embarrassed by the adamant lack of openness and transparency offered by the current “consultation” process, which is clearly nothing less than a masquerade:

    Gratuitous attack on the Vancouver Transit network- credit photo (4)

    [1] In term of transit, the only legacy of the Robertson’s administration, so far, has been policies having as consequence to reduce transit lane efficiencies, when not outright barring buses to use them (Granville)

    [2] Example of how European cities routinely deal with pedestrian and transit: Transit as part of the urban fabric

    [3] Price tags is “celebrating” two very relevant examples, very relevant because showing Transit has been integrated in the project in a smart way leading eventually to great space without compromising accessibility: That is a very significant departure from the Vancouver approach… and can explain why project like it move with less angst there

    [4] twitter user REALTOR Blair Smith

    [5] See our historical series on it.

    [6] “Finding a good reason” was the object of the consultation held on October 15th and 17th.

    [7] Verbatim of Andrea Reimer intervention at the Block51 event, a look forward, October 17th, 2012

    In a complex urban environment, each square will tend to be specialized toward a function rather another one: Square are not in competition but compliment each other. Hereafter is an essay on the geography of the Parisian squares:

    Le Louvre (Cour Napoleon)

    This place is not a people place, it doesn’t mean to be. This square is the heart of the French DNA. a 1000 years mille-feuille of History in the making. The headquarter of the old regime, transformed into a monument to the culture, is supposed to represent what French are or at least think they are, and it does quite well:

    Cour napoleon, where the Louvre’ s Pyramid sits – credit (11)

    Place de l’Étoile

    Like for the Louvre, this place is designed to have you overwhelmed by the “grandeur” of the State. The Arc de triomphe built by Napoleon is a monument crowning 500 year of planning of the Royal axis, originating from the Louvre. The hill where it sit on has been leveled, giving it a concave slope, enhancing the overwhelming presence of the Arc, sitting in the middle of a 240 meter diameter round place:

    Place de l’Étoile is a very large traffic circle. Going to the middle is usually done thru underpass – credit (2)

    Étoile-Concorde: Champs-Elysées

    En route from The Louvre (old regime) to the Arc (new regime), it happens to be the Concorde, where the last french king, Louis the XVI has been guillotined. Where French celebrates is on The Champs-Elysées, between the Concorde and Étoile, a vast public space able to contain one million people, with huge plazas, Etoile and the Concorde providing very comfortable overflow, and entry/exit point.

    The Champs-Elysées on New year Eve (here 2006) looking toward The Concorde – credit (5)

    The size and topography of the Champs-Elysées help people to appreciate the size of the crowd. The celebration like above suppose to close the 10 lanes of traffic the avenue is normally supporting: A celebration on the Champs-Elysées means not “business as usual”.



    Demonstrating is also part of the french DNA, and demonstrating supposes to walk, from one point to another:
    Those points are usually République-Bastille-Nation, in that order!

    Demonstration at Republique – credit (3)

    Place de la République one of the largest Parisian square is 283x119m is well suited to accommodate large crowds. Beside it, it is not a necessarily inviting place. It is currently under renovation: respecting its history, its current use as a place to vent social message, while making it a more inviting space, especially outside demonstration time, was one of the challenge the contestant had to address. A water mirror, is part of the answer:

    A water Mirror, as seen in Bordeaux, can “activate” large esplanade, while still leave it clear of encumbrance when needed – credit (1)

    Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville
    It is a “people place” per design, and the PPS editors like it [7], but this 155x82meter square is not a self-sufficient one, where people will intuitively go. they will go there only knowing the square is hosting some events, usually sponsored by the City:

    Paris- Hôtel-de-Ville is a place for programing; ice rink in winter, beach volley in summer, all sort of fair in between – credit (4)

    Place des Vosges

    A plaza in word, a park in theory, this almost perfect square, is a hit with many urbanistas for good reasons.. like Rome’s Piazza Navona, reaching Place des Vosges requires journeying along minor, often hidden streets. Then away of the crowd and noise of the surrounding city, you find an intimate, secluded, and still comfortable place. The square dimension, 127×140 meters,as well as the building lining help it, contribute to it. It is surrounded by a street allowing a light amount of traffic contributing to a safety feeling at any time any season.

    Paris Place des Vosges, the oldest suqare of the city is requiring some effort to be found

    Place Dauphine dating of the same era work a bit differently- may be too small and carry an oppressive feeling. Place Vendôme, has been designed along the Place des Vosges model (same size), but again it is a colder place. In Paris, Palais Royal, offers almost a similar setting

    Place George Pompidou

    Better known as Place Beaubourg, or simply the Piazza, it has been created ex-nihilo by architect Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and opened in 1977. In despite of its relatively novelty and use of modern architecture in a city full of heritage building, this square works very well at the difference of many other one created in the same period. Due to this, it makes it a very interesting case study:

    It is facing a Modern art museum known as Beaubourg built at the same time by the same architects. Like Sienna’s Piazza del Campo, the 170x65m square has a slight declivity along its narrow edge, which allow people to appropriate the space like it was a beach: it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the pavement, facing the museum, which happen to have corridors and stairs on its outside facades, offering continuous movement of people to watch from the square.
    Like Place des Vosges, this square is not obvious to find, and offers some respite, step away, of the capharnaum, the Halles can be:

    Paris Place George Pompidou, is a successful square created ex nihilo

    At the difference of Place Des Vosges, this square is fully pedestrian, and is surrounded by cafes and other shops.

    Fontaine des Innocents

    Place Joachim du Bellay is a name very few locals know, but no Parisian ignores its fountain:
    When they need to meet, Fontaine(fountain) des Innocents is the natural rendezvous.

    It is easy to understand why: It is strategically located [10]

    • It is at the cross road of the main Parisian arteries.
    • Today, it sits midway between the Parisian subway hub (Châtelet ) and the Regional Express Rail network hub (Les Halles)

    However, it is not directly on the way, rather on a “corner” of the intersection, so that the traffic doesn’t pass here. but, more important:

    • the square’s size, 53x80m, is big enough to accommodate a substantiate activity making a good hangout, but small enough to be able to recognize a person in it (see the notion of social field of vision in [9])
    • and the square design is perfectly appropriate:

    Fontaine des Innocents IS the meeting point in Paris – credit (6)

    This square is also surrounded by Cafes.


    Paris’s Place Stravinsky, a “secondary” but still lovely place – credit (11)

    This geography is far to be exhaustive, Paris has many other squares, of various size, various features, some more interesting than other… what we have presented are what we see as the “staple” squares of Paris, and we can see some features emerging, noticeably regarding the size of the square:

    • Different square size are needed in a big city, to accomodate the different function
    • And still, the square where people feel comfortable to stay, will tend to be in the 120x120meter

    This size could be not purely arbitrary, and could have to do with our field of vision- we tend to not recognize people beyond this distance and from smaller distance, we tend to be able to describe people facial characteristic – the ~100 meter range lie in between [9].

    [1] flickr user hisgett

    [2] flickr user ar56

    [3] flickr user tofz4u

    [4] flickr user babicka2

    [5] Franck prevel via Le Monde

    [6] Projet Les Halles

    [7] PPS page: Paris’Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

    [8] See for example: Squaring public space with human needs, Lisa Rochon, Globe and mail, Nov 25, 2011. Curiously enough Vancouver bloggers like Lewis n Villegas and Stephen Rees, will use this square to illustrate Vancouver specific problematic. For the record, architect Ricardo Boffil had a project to built a place inspired by Place des Vosges at Paris The Halles: Parisian didn’t like the idea, and their mayor, then Jacques Chirac, basically “chased” the architect…

    [9] Cities for people, Jan Gehl, 2010

    [10] Paris, les Halles :introduction to its anatomy

    [11] vivendesign.com

    Block 51: the North Plaza

    October 26, 2012

    This post is assumed closing our historic errand series of the Blocks 51-61-71:

    The north Plaza of Block 51 is the square sitting north of the VAG. Thought it is part of the block 51, and more generally of the Block 51/61/71 complex, this square has a life of its own.

    After the opening of the second courthouse in 1912, This square will very quickly become the ceremonial Vancouver square. Its location along Georgia street, providing frontage to a preeminent and formal government institution, makes it almost a non brainer:

    Mayor James Findlay welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Connaught to a civic reception at the newly-completed Vancouver Court House on 18 September

    The early days

    • A first fountain, commissioned to sculptor Charles Marega in 1912, had been installed as a memorial to King Edward VII right along Georgia. It was initially equipped with bronze cups on chains, but these were quickly stolen and never replaced.
    • On august 29, 1913, a flag pole has been erected in the middle of the square. It was said the tallest flag pole in Canada

    The Vancouver Court House square

    It was apparently a staple to be photographed on the front step of the courthouse,and the Vancouver archive are full of group picture [1]

    1966: The Centennial fountain

    respecting the formalism of the space, the city idea for the square in 1964 was as pictured below:

    1964: City vision for the block 51 north plaza (4)

    It happens that W.A.C Bennett had another agenda. He commissioned R. H. Savery (design) and Alex Von Svoboda (sculpture/mosaic) to design an “XXL” fountain, 72’x26′ and 16′ high:

    The Savery/Svoboda fountain model, showing the original plan for the plaza

    According to [5] quoting an official report: the “symbolic twin-pillar centrepiece” is “meant to represent mankind rising from the sea and depicts gods of Celtic mythology”.

    The $250,000 fountain will be controversial right from the beginning, and will be called the secret Bennett Project[5], erected behind blind walls. W.A.C inaugurated it at night, during a rainstorm, after having inaugurated the Grouse tramway, on December 15th, 1966. The semi-private ceremony was perturbed by a so called act of vandalism: someone had poured detergent in the fountain, making huge bubble [4][5]

    The old fountain has been put in storage up to 1983, when it has been reinstated along Hornby street.

    Vancouver people have never been fond of this fountain [2] and we can give here a couple of keys why:

    • The fountain looks over-sized, in respect of the square size, and more especially the old courthouse building
    • Disregarding aesthetic taste, The chosen Artistic choice, doesn’t pair well with the Neo-classic building

    To be sure, the Vancouver administration hasn’t made any effort to improve the fountain setting, and the fact that the today VAG is turning its back on Georgia doesn’t help the matter. More generally we can consider that all the intervention on the Rattenbury’s building after 66 (lobby on ground level, rooftop patio…) are unfortunate acts of vandalism

    The Erickson proposal

    The Erickson view for this square in 1966, was not much different of the one of the city:

    1966 Erickson/Massey Proposal: The view along Howe Street looking south

    In his 1973 proposal:

    • It was envisioned as a largely hardsurfaced plaza — adapting itself readily to multiple uses according to [6], but model photography suggest nothing much more than a lawn

    This part of the complex design has never been implemented, allowing the Centennial fountain to stay up to today [8].

    2009: the VPSN competition
    In 2009, the VPSN held a design idea competition, “Where’s the square?”, and one of the co-winner of the “people choice” was HAPA collaborative, with their entry, “red carpet”:

    Vancouver Red Carpet – Hapa Collaborative – entry of the 2009 VSPN Where’s the Square Competition

    We will find some remarkable analogy with the City Hall 1964 vision, and this HAPA proposal epitomizes quite effectively what is the Vancouver collective conscience and wish for this space. It also shows a remarkably solid consensus overtime on the idealized vision of this square.

    2011 The Concert-hall by Bing Thom

    On March 4, 2011, The Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society proposed a Bing Thom plan for a 1,950-seat concert hall underneath the existing plaza fronting Georgia Street.

    The 2011 Bing thom proposal for an underground concert hall – credit (3)

    notice how this vision fits well with the HAPA proposal.

    [1] Verbatim of John Atkin intervention at the Block 51 event, a look forward, VAG, Oct. 17, 2012

    [2] That includes John Atkin, who even qualified it as too noisy![1]

    [3] concerthallcomplex.org

    [4] VancouverProvince, December 16th, 1966

    [5] VancouverSun, December 16th, 1966

    [6] heritage vancouver society newsletter, Volume 17 Number 1, June 2008

    [7] Redevelopment in downtown Vancouver : report No 5, City of Vancouver, 1964.

    [8] In fact the fountain is excluded of the Block 51 lease agreed between the City and the Province. That along original negotiation line dating back January 1974- (Vancouver City council mn, January 8, 1974)

    This post follow up on the history of the Blocks 51-61-71

    Prologue: The 70’s at City Hall

    The 70’s was years of intense civic engagement worldwide and public interest for civic participation was something city hall, controlled by the NPA for the last previous 40 years, was not prepared to deal with. The Chinatown revolt on the freeway plan in 1967 is something the city hadn’t see coming.
    That had eventually lead to the formation of “The Electors Action Movement” (TEAM), and COPE in 1968, which made inroad to the council in 1968 (Philips and Hardwick for TEAM and Rankin for COPE). the four ensuing year, 68-62 was electric ones at city hall. Each development put forward by the administration was supported by the NPA, fought by COPE and TEAM, and ended to be defeated in drama, the apex of it being probably the third Georgia crossing in 1972, resulting in a full blow fiasco for the couplet NPA/administration. The only major project of the time which had been able to move forward was the Eaton center (sic). The NPA and the city administration was so distrusted that the NPA didn’t even present a mayoral candidate in the December 72 election, which was won by the TEAM. The first major decision of the new mayor, Art Phillips, had been to dismiss the director of planning of the time, Gerald Sutton-Brown. other dismissals and administration re-organization was on the TEAM menu leaving a vacuum in the city hall affair


    The W.A.C Bennett government is defeated by the NDP, in the Provincial election of August 1972. The Provincial plan for the Vancouver Courthouse is stopped. Naturally (sic), considering his previous work on the site, Erickson will be the architect of choice.
    The Premier of the time, Dave Barrett, had said something, Bing Thom, then member of the Erickson’s team, translated as “You need to go fast, because we don’t gonna be reelected” [3]. This and the fate of the aborted previous project was also more than an encouragement to do so.
    In the meantime the consequence of the politic turmoil at city-hall, involving many dismissals among civil servants, was leaving a vacuum in the Vancouver civil administration giving the Erickson’s team pretty much free rein on what to do in the city, so allowing a speedy process [3][8] :

    Ownership question

    As seen before, the Erickson proposal was to locate the provincial offices on block 61 and the court house on block 71, leaving block 51 for civic activities. To move forward with this spatial organization required to resolve some ownership issue:

    • Block 71, including lanes, was sold to the Province for $4.6 millions in 1974
    • Block 51 is leased to the city of Vancouver, by the Province, for $1 per year for 99 years started on August 29th, 1975
    • In return, the city of Vancouver leases street sub-surface and air-space to the Province for 99 years started on August 29th, 1975 [1]. exception are
      • The city own the air-space above Robson
      • The Province can sublease Smythe and Robson sub-surface (it can’t on Howe).

    The province was also proposing to install and maintain street furnishing including trees on Robson street, and other detail which could still need to be sorted out.

    Civic context

    The original 66’s design for the block 51-61-71 could have been built with minimal alteration but two important things had happened in the previous years:

    • Following the freeway revolt, the rapid transit idea was getting steam, especially with Rankin as alderman [9], and a plan for downtown was as illustrated above, which was calling for a rapid transit station at Hornby and Georgia
    • More importantly for the project itself, was the public outcry at the tower, but also the conveyed idea that block 71 could have been a green-space

    People didn’t want the tower, but wanted the green-space.

    The 1973 Erickson analysis
    The city was seen like illustrated below, where Robson Square at the highest point of the peninsula, is not considered at the crossroad, but as a destination in itself [10]:

    73 Erickson case analysis of Robson square. It is at the center, but not a connector (notice how Robson and Granville are clearly disjointed)

    The concern for the building height and its corollary, shadow, starts to commend the shape of the court house:

    73 Erickson case study: Height and global shape of the court house, are assumed to minimize shadow casting

    That leaded to the below proposal in late 1973, early 1974:

    Overview of the Erickson project in 1974

    The city Square (left) is located south of Robson on Block 61 while that the east part receive a sunken plaza (right)

    Some striking elements:

    • Robson street is interrupted between Howe and Hornby, both being only connected by a pedestrian passerelle.
    • A sunken Plaza on the East side of the block 51/61, featuring a food court on block 61, and a sculpture garden on the block 51
    • A “city square” on the block 61
    • The north side of the old court house, facing Georgia, is in the original proposal a large reflecting pond. This aspect of the design disappears very quickly -the model above seems to show a lawn- certainly due to the lease term of the block 51, which excluded the Centennial fountain

    Those elements will be altered in the subsequent project development, but basically the overall design is already fixed:

    The Erickson proposal in 1976

    A low profile building, with terraced garden designed by Cornelia Oberlander supposed to emphasizes north-south pedestrian continuity between the blocks with multi-level; pedestrian connections[11]

    The thing will be built pretty much as planned. Nevertheless the city took issue with at least three components of the proposal.

    The rapid transit station location

    • To accommodate the rapid transit plan of the time, the proposal was provisioning a station access along Hornby on block 51.
    • For some reason, the city didn’t like this idea and was wanting it along block 61. That is what has been built [3]

    The Trees

    Erickson architects was planning to have London plane trees on Howe and Hornby street, and had purchased them right at the start of the project [13]. While a staple and beloved tree in London, Paris or New-York, the city engineers objected to this species, and provided numerous reports explaining that the Acer rubrum was a better choice. This curious bickering could have passably irritated the Erickson team, but the Acer rubrum has been the planted species

    Robson street

    Mirroring his fordism view of the city, Erickson was looking at keeping separate the Robson shopping mall (then made of small shops) of the Granville one (then envisioned as the high end fashion mall) [10]:

    The bridging of the Robson street shopping area with Granville one was not something seen as desirable in the Erickson view, who was preferring to see them separated - credit (10)

    The bus routing was supposed to support this vision:

    The center is not seen as at a crossing of major road/arteries, but as a destination. credit (10)

    Accordingly, the original vision was calling for an open sunken plaza without at grade connection between Howe and Hornby to de-emphasize Robson. Nevertheless, it was a telecommunication duct below Robson they couldn’t realistically move, also they have choosen to ” hide” it below a pedestrian passerelle [3].

    The city engineers didn’t like too much this idea for the reason below [4]:

    • A too narrow strip above the sunken plaza was breaking the continuity of sidewalk along Robson street, and they wanted to preserve the ability to return the traffic in case of the scheme was not working as expected

    By early 1974, The province, the city and the architect, AEA, will agree on a bus only connection. Arthur Erickson rationalized the agreement as below:

    “The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square, whereas the present car traffic would present and irreconcilable conflict.”[12]

    • Robson street was one way street at this time, with a peak transit traffic of 11 bus/hour in the West direction, leaving the transit lanes empty most of the time, what was not seen as a best use of the road space by the city:

    The city was calling for foundation allowing a 4 lanes -80 foot- wide street (what has been granted), but was satisfied with the construction of a 3 lanes- 50 foot wide- street (that is the Robson street width between the domes). Another problem at this time was the Connaught bridge (or second Cambie bridge) landing at the foot of Robson at Beatty: the city was pushing its views by painting them as interim, up to a relocation of the Cambie bridge, able to move the traffic away of Robson.


    The defeat of the NDP government in the 1975 general election, by the son of W.A.C bennett, Bill Bennett could have signed the abandon of the project again. Something, Bing Thom among other had worked at avoiding by pleading their case to the new Premier [3]. The Province court will move in the new building on September 6, 1979. The entire complex cost had been reported to be $139 million in 1979 [2]. The Vancouver art gallery will move in a renovated old courthouse building in 1983

    The project will have received several awards, more noticeably, It won the American Society of Landscape Architects President’s Award of Excellence in 1979, where the jury commented on the “extraordinary integration of landscape architecture with architecture–consistent and coherent.” Envisioned as a “linear urban park, importing nature into the city“. In 2011, The RAIC architecture jury rewarded Arthur Erickson Architects with the Prix du XXe siècle. The jury had commented

    Thanks to its splendid horizontality and its complex system of landscape terrace, pools and waterfalls, this vast urban landmark is able to embody a West Coast sense of space and relationships. Bridging between law and the arts, it epitomizes the urban monument in its highest civic aspiration”


    [1] The originally proposed lease was on a 50 years period. it has been extended to 99 years , and starting date choose, to match the lease agreed with the Pacific center.

    [2] This day in history: September 6, 1979, VancouverSun, September 6, 1979

    [3] Verbatim of Bing Thom intervention at the Block 51 event, a look back, VAG, Oct. 15, 2012

    [4] Memorandum to Vancouver city Council, Blocks 51/61/71, November 29, 1973

    [5] It was in this post 72 context, that Stanley King came to propose his co-design method, object of the movie chair for lovers

    [6] Robson Square, The Canadian Architect, May 2011

    [7] Urban Development Standards: The Block 51-61-71 Project, Arthur Erickson, JAE, Vol. 29, No. 3, Canada (Feb., 1976)

    [8] It was also an opportunity for Erickson to have the city adopting much of its proposed standards and guidelines [7][3]

    [9] see The case for rapid transit in…1970

    [10] Development standards case study 1. Arthur Erickson Architects, Vancouver B.C. June 21, 1973

    [11] Department report, Vancouver B.C. June 21, 1974

    [12] 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974

    [13] Following Erickson recommendation, the Province bought, at apparently discounted price 300 London plane trees which had been over-ordered for the World’s fair in Spokane, WA. Later the city refused to plant them, they have ended on a waterfront promenade in Victoria [14]

    [14] Seven Stones, A portrait of Arthur Erickson, Edith Iglauer, University of Washington Press, 1981


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