Posted by: VPSN | October 19, 2010

Animating public space in Southeast False Creek

Southeast False Creek

Southeast False Creek. Photo by Joming Lau

At City Council today, Councillor Suzanne Anton will be introducing a motion to animate public spaces in the Olympic Village neighbourhood.  In response, the VPSN has offered tentative support.  We like the idea of animating public space and making them more inviting and inclusive, but have identified some points that need to be clarified.

The Southeast False Creek community – in the news for all sorts of reasons of late – is the site of some fantastic public realm components, many of which were guided by the 2006 SEFC Public Realm Plan prepared by Stantec, PWL Landscape Architects and Commonwealth. As with most new spaces, it will take a little time for their true public qualities to emerge.  We laud Councillor Anton’s idea of creative programming to support this, but want to take the opportunity to flag a few questions around the timing and scope of animation, the type of programming, and how it fits in with public space animation in other areas of the city.

Here’s an excerpt of the letter we sent to City Council:

The SEFC development, as the city’s newest community, is the site of a diverse array of strong new public space features – including several plazas and greenspaces, a seawall extension, the habitat island, public art, Creekside Community Centre and a lacework of streets and pathways that promote walking and biking.  The False Creek Public Realm Plan (2006), in planning for these features, provided a clear and articulate direction that has produced admirable results.

We note that the thrust of the motion being considered comes from the desire to increase the “animation” of the site and to create a welcoming environment.  Furthermore, the motion hopes to accomplish this with a series of temporary measures that include:

(a)  Inviting coffee, food and newspaper kiosks to locate in the main square;

(b)  Inviting buskers to perform on weekends or when the area is likely to be busy;

(c)   Facilitating programming in the square;

(d)  Encouraging programming and decorations for the holiday and winter season; and

(e)  Allowing parking in the medians of 1st Avenue.

In offering our qualified support for the overall intent of the motion, we want to raise a few points/questions on the specifics.

  1. Timing of “animation” aspects – Given that there are large portions of the SEFC that remain empty, we are concerned that an animation and programming scheme at this point might be premature and unable to achieve the desired results.  This is particularly true if the intent is to do this during the winter months, when weather will hamper the likelihood of people wanting to attend any food, busking and programming opportunities.  This is not to say that it can’t be done, but rather that care must be taken so as to ensure that it doesn’t result in an underwhelming experience for visitors or residents.  The timeframe for planning this – if the holidays are a launch point – is particularly ambitious.
  2. Distribution and funding of other public space animation work – The present motion raises questions around whether the City is able to support projects in other communities – particularly those with whose neighbourhood could also benefit from such assistance and whose resident base is more robust.  The sort of supports identified (increased vending opportunities, programming, etc) would be a boon in many neighbourhoods throughout the city.  On this note, the VPSN continues to support the allocation of funding for community-based public events that animate public spaces.
  3. Programming the SEFC public plazas – We are supportive of work that will inject publicly-accessible programming and events into the public plazas (including the main square) within SEFC.  To this end, we would encourage the City to make this process as straightforward as possible, by ensuring low or no-fee arrangements with community groups, artists, musicians and small-scale street vendors who can assist programming the site with a variety of activities.
  4. Programming vis-à-vis Food Opportunities – We note that the South East False Creek Urban Agriculture Strategy (2002) identified a farmers market as an option for the main square.  Given Council’s recent approval of a two year trial zoning for Farmer’s markets (July 2007), and given Council’s desire to promote locally produced food, we would like to see this component specifically identified within the motion.
  5. Extend programming from plazas to all public spaces – The present motion focuses on the main square; however this is only one of many types of public space that are available.  Extending the animation program throughout the neighbourhood will help to vitalize streetscapes and pathways and gathering spaces – thus assisting the whole neighbourhood to come alive versus one interior component.
  6. Promoting sustainable transportation options – The SEFC neighbourhood is an award-winning green community.  The idea of allowing street parking on the street median seems to send a contrary message when other options might be available.  Given the proximity of two nearby SkyTrain facilities, as well as several bus lines, it would seem more appropriate to investigate ways to encourage people to visit the site without using their car.

Our work over the last five years has taught us that the animation of public space is dependent on more than temporary measures and results from a variety of factors, including proximity and density of residents, presence of attractions of one form or another, good design, sufficient furniture and amenities, and most importantly time for it to organically develop.

While we support the present motion in principle, we are concerned that the result could be  an animation scheme in which activities are programmed into a space for a few days and then disappear – resulting in a program of activities that feels artificial and forced (that is, a more of a ‘festival-like’ approach to public space animation).  By contrast, we feel that a more strategic approach would see the City proceed with only nominal interventions now in order to more fully support a robust animation program at a later date.  This, in turn, would support the real substance of vibrant public spaces – that is, the presence of a large number of residents, a variety of cultural and institutional uses, retail facilities and commercial spaces and a diverse array of visitors, versus a wall of empty condominiums and quiet streets.

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