When we read last week that City staff were recommending the permanent opening of the 800-block of Robson Street as a public plaza, we couldn’t help but be excited about the possibility of finally having a year-round, central gathering space in downtown Vancouver.
Having lived for a number of years in Toronto, and also experiencing the great public spaces in neighbouring cities such as Portland and Seattle, we’ve always felt Robson Square was a missed opportunity in the city’s urban and social fabric.
Each summer since the 2010 Olympics, we – like many – have made a point of visiting VIVA Vancouver’s Robson Redux – enjoying the potential this square has to offer when opened to people. And each autumn, we are utterly disappointed to see the space given back to motor vehicles, and the vibrancy diminished, as fewer people stop and gather at what is arguably the most central spot in the downtown peninsula.
So when a copy of the staff report to Council landed on our desk last week, we were very pleased to see support from City staff to make the pedestrian plaza a permanent one.
Robson Square was designed by world-renowned Vancouver architect, Arthur Erickson, with the intention of becoming Vancouver’s largest public space, after Stanley Park and the seawall. Erickson saw it as a place to provide “An introspective view of the city”.
However, upon its completion in 1983, it was reconfigured to allow buses, and then eventually private automobile traffic, becoming what we know today: a 90-metre, two-lane block flanked by generous sidewalks.
“The street severed the idea of Arthur’s central public space in half, prioritizing motorized movement through the square over place-making for people,” notes city planning consultant Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner.
With Vancouver being such a desirable place to visit and live, and its downtown core enjoying high levels of foot traffic, why is the creation of a plaza on the 800-block and development of a public square so important?
According to the report, “Well located, carefully designed, and thoughtfully programmed public spaces can generate a broad spectrum of urban livability, health, and economic benefits for residents, visitors and businesses.”
For context, we simply need to look at New York City’s amazing transformation of Times Square. When former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan visited Vancouver last month, she described how – with some paint and lawn chairs – they transformed a space choked both by cars and pedestrians to a welcoming gathering space loved by visitors and residents alike. She also recognized the potential here in our own city, urging those in attendance to be brave and make the changes needed to create a vibrant, connected city.
“Repurposing under-utilized space, including roads, just makes sense,” states Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer, a fervent proponent for accessible public spaces. In truth, Robson Square consistently sees higher foot traffic than people in vehicles, who opt for the nearby arterials, West Georgia and Smithe Streets.
In spite of these high volumes of foot traffic that make the corridor a difficult place to stop and relax, plaza-like activities have started popping up more and more. As the report points out, “This activity is significant because it is the actual living expression of a partially realized public gathering node.”
The benefits have been no clearer than during the summer openings, when VIVA Vancouver’s Robson Redux – as a means of testing the site’s feasibility – has taken over the space with installations meant to encourage stopping, relaxing, and enjoying the heart of the city.
As a part of the City’s report, they have cited statistics from last year’s event, and the numbers are quite compelling.
Comparing the foot traffic from June to that of July and August (during the Redux), the number of people walking through the square increased by nearly 50%. When those travelling through were surveyed, 98% resoundingly stated that the summertime plaza contributed to a vibrant and fun environment.
Even the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), whose members have been known to be reticent to change, sees the benefits of a central public space. VIVA Vancouver polled businesses in the DVBIA, finding that 77% were in favour or neutral to a permanent plaza at the 800-block of Robson Street.
Charles Gauthier, President and CEO of the DVBIA, cites that many of us have grown accustomed to seeing similar plazas in Europe, recognizing that “Part of these experiences are what create lasting memories.”
Last year, to mark its 25th anniversary, the DVBIA partnered with SFU Public Square to run the innovative (and now award-winning) Reimagine Downtown engagement campaign. Over the course of several months, they invited those who live, work, and play in the city centre to share their own vision for Downtown Vancouver over the next 25 years, and a permanent, central public square was one of the top requests from respondents.
“We hope the plaza will become a place for festivals, numerous events, and a place for regular public gatherings,” suggests Gauthier. “We want to see this place look like it was intended by Erickson, 40 years ago.”
“What the Olympics showed us, and every seasonal closure since,” Toderian reminds us, “Is that there’s a real hunger for that central gathering place idea – and that’s when it’s just a barricaded street with curbs. Just think how well it will work when it’s actually designed as a real, permanent square!”
Of course, opening the square to people on a permanent basis doesn’t come without some valid concerns. Specifically, what happens to the Route 5 Robson / Downtown bus?
In previous summers, TransLink has re-routed busses to accommodate the temporary installation in late June, returning to its regular route in early September. While the compromise has worked in theory, its inconsistent and unpredictable nature has caused frustration and confusion in transit users, particularly seniors living in the West End.
It is this concern for their patrons that has made TransLink one of the most vocal stakeholders in this decision. As such, while they would prefer the 800-block to remain open to motor vehicles, if the choice is between annual temporary changes or stability, they will lobby for consistency for their customers.
In the report, a suggested re-routing for the #5 bus has been provided by staff, which would have the bus travel from Robson, along Burrard to Pender, before reconnecting to the original route. This would affect direct access into downtown from the West End, in the slightest of ways, but would become a more predictable and permanent solution for transit users.
Even if the staff report is approved by city council this week, there is still much work to be done to make the completion of Robson Square a reality. To date, no specific design for the plaza has been commissioned, and staff must resolve management issues to address ongoing stewardship and programming of the space.
Regardless, the Province of British Columbia will close the square to vehicle traffic this coming summer in anticipation of scheduled maintenance work. Due to this construction, VIVA will also not be creating an installation this year, but options are being explored for the space in conjunction with the 19th Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference taking place at the nearby Sheraton Wall Centre in September.
If approved, City staff will initiate the public engagement processes with regards to the space, as well as researching possible funding mechanisms for the design, construction, and ongoing stewardship of Robson Square. These findings will be reported back to council at the end of 2016, meaning it will still be some time before Vancouverites will witness Robson Square’s untapped potential on a full-time basis. But we’re on the right track.
As the report points out, “Robson Square represents a tremendous opportunity to celebrate Vancouver’s vibrant urbanism.” We wholeheartedly agree.