Block 51 Oct 15 and 17th events: a summary

November 5, 2012

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].

Comment

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

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6 Responses to “Block 51 Oct 15 and 17th events: a summary”

  1. Roger Kemble Says:

    Voony I checked: bus 360 does traverse New Exhibition Road, London UK with one stop.

    For calling you a liar I apologies.

    Sin embargo I disagree diametrically with your shiny trinket” obsession. A city is a cultural organism: far more complicated that moving a few baubles ad minions on a track.

    Fortunately London and your Paris matured well before techno-besotted meddlers could interfere.

    And I do not appreciate interference from your less than elocutionary acolytes either.

  2. rico Says:

    Don’t worry Roger most readers try and ignore you too.

  3. Rico Says:

    I probably should have noted that this is one of your best posts. Good job.


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


  5. […] we have mentioned before, the Vancouver geography of public spaces has changed with the introduction of the Canada line, and […]


  6. […] That is following up the disastrous “block 51” public consultation, which has left a sour taste with many observer, as we have already […]


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