Posted by: VPSN | December 3, 2010

Expanding Robson Square – how to make it happen

As we noted in our post yesterday afternoon, the City has taken a good step forward in securing the 800-block segment of Robson Street (between Hornby and Howe) for a public square.  They have also taken steps to embed this plan within a larger public space program from the Downtown (something that will lend the planning for Granville Street and Yaletown other proposed sites a greater degree of coherence). 

We feel that the discussion at yesterday’s Council was very positive – and gave rise to a good degree of consensus between the different parties.  As one Councillor noted, “we all want this square.”  To this end, we are particularly pleased that the idea of an expanded Robson Square was singled out as something that requires priority attention amongst other public space initiatives – as this provides some security against  the idea of an expanded Robson Square (and the golden window of opportunity that is currently in place) from being lost amidst a larger discussion of Olympic Legacies and downtown public space.

That being said, there are a number of items that will need to be followed up on:

  1. Transit planning – one of the items that was flagged during yesterday’s meeting was the potential impact on transit, and in particular the #5 bus which runs to and from the West End.  It was clear from the discussion that Council had different ideas about whether the buses should be left running through the space or re-routed, and what the implications would be either way.  The feedback we received from transit planners prior to drafting our response suggested that the idea of re-routing was quite feasible, and could be done without loss of access for West End or Downtown residents and visitors.  This, to us, is a better option as it would allow for a greater degree of programming activities to take place in the expanded square.  Regardless, the transit planning discussion is one that needs to happen fairly quickly.
  2. Public and stakeholder consultation – The City has already received tentative support from a range of stakeholders, including the Province, Art Gallery, DVBIA and others.  However, a proper dialogue with all stakeholders and the public at large needs to be undertaken in early 2011.
  3. Planning a square for April 2011 – The other point of ambiguity from yesterday’s discussion concerned the phasing of the public square development.  From the comments that were made, it seemed that some of the Councillors – and the City Manager – were wary that “creating” a public square for April 2011 (to open immediately after the completion of the Province’s renovations on Robson and in time for the City’s 125th Anniversary) was too ambitious. Our position on this is that the 800-block segment should be secured after the renovations are complete, so as to take advantage of the already-changed traffic patterns.  The street could remain closed to traffic, utilized for introductory programming, and named as the new expanded Robson Square.  However, assuming the same degree of public support we’ve recently seen for the expanded square carried through the consultations, the actual design and development work that could transform the space into a functional, hardscaped plaza, could take place at a later point.  This two stage process would also allow opportunities for a potential design competition, community fundraising effort (why not?) and other appropriate planning activities.   

We’ll be looking closely at these and other aspects of the initiative as it moves forward – not to mention the larger Olympic Legacies and downtown public space planning work.  A big thank you to everyone that has shown their support for this initiative.  Stay tuned for more!

You can read our letter to Mayor and Council on the subject below.

The Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) is pleased to be able to support the motion to explore the feasibility of closing the 800 block of Robson Street (immediately south of the Vancouver Art Gallery) with a view to transforming it into an expanded public gathering space. We believe that this action will make a substantive contribution to a number of important City objectives and would be great benefit to the residents of Vancouver. 

We also believe the motion could be further enhanced. In particular, the VPSN would be additionally supportive of a motion that requests that staff: 

  1. Undertake the appropriate planning and financing activities to secure the 800-block segment site immediately following the completion of the Province’s renovation work – and in particular while the current road closure is in place so as to take advantage of existing modifications to area traffic patterns.
  2. Initiate conversations with key stakeholders (including the VAG, TransLink, DVBIA and others) and the public about design and infrastructural aspects associated with repurposing the 800-block segment Robson Street into an expanded gathering place.
  3. Identify the site as a “Quick action” component of an expedited Olympic Legacies report. 
  4. Incorporate the site as part of a downtown public space plan – one that also references and integrates other key initiatives such as the on-going discussion around transforming Granville Street.
  5. Initiate design work to permanently transform the 800-block space, post-renovation work, into a public square – considering opportunities for design competition, fundraising, etc.

I. Background

As an organization, the Vancouver Public Space Network is now almost five years old.  From the time of our very first public meeting, we have been asked why Vancouver lacks the sort of central public gathering place that one finds in many other cities.  Although we have public spaces that are first rate in their design and support a wide array of uses, Vancouver still lacks a central downtown square – something that has been noted in the City’s own planning documents dating at least as far back as the 1930s.

In 2008 we initiated a popular design ideas competition called Where’s the Square? wherein designers were able to submit a concept and rendering for a “grand gathering place” anywhere in Vancouver.  We had almost 60 entrants coming from as far away as Spain and Ireland.  Far and away the most popular choice of space was the Robson Square/VAG grounds.  This area, and in particular the 800-block segment of Robson, was seen by many as “the natural place” for a public square in Vancouver – one that could build on the many architectural and cultural strengths of the area and take them to a new level.  This sentiment was supported by a range of eminent architects and landscape architects, planners, scholars and designers who participated in the panel discussions, workshops and community events that we ran in concert with the design competition.

We note that the vast majority of design professionals that we have spoken to have suggested that a well-designed public square at the 800-block location would further complement and enhance architectural heritage fostered by the work of Frances Rattenbury (Courthouse/VAG building), Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Oberlander (Law Courts, existing Robson Square). 

In sum, our work on this project, lasting almost a year, taught us that there is broad community support for the concept of a public square in 800-block space.

II. Overall benefits to Public Squares and Gathering Places

We also wish to reference a number of general benefits associated with public squares, plazas, piazzas – as types of public space.  These include:

  • Economic benefits – increased tourism, increased investment in local business, improved image of business, potential for direct spending vis-à-vis markets and cultural events;
  • Environmental benefits – potential for traffic mitigation, improvement to pedestrian space, improved environmental quality, potential for ‘green’public design, improved acoustic environment, concomitant increase in urban ‘liveability;’
  • Public health benefits – improved opportunities for pedestrian activity, sustainable transportation and exposure to the outdoor environment; and
  • Social/democratic benefits – enhanced opportunities for gathering, celebration, cultural production, intercultural and intergenerational mixing, political engagement and more.

Each of these serves as a useful and empirically grounded marker for the sort of positive outcomes associated with well-designed gathering spaces.  Given the prominence of the 800-block it is reasonable to assume that most, if not all of these benefits could be rendered with the closure of the 800-block to automotive traffic, and the associated creation of an attractive, well-designed, permanent public square.

III.  Alignment with Current Council Directives

The motion currently being contemplated requests that:

“[City] staff consult with interested parties, including the general public, TransLink, the Downtown Vancouver BIA, the Robson Street BIA, the Art Gallery, and the Province of BC to consider the feasibility of creating a major public square at the 800 Robson Street, with a permanent closure of the street in that block.”

We note that the present motion is complementary to at least two existing motions:

(a) Olympic Legacies (March 2010) – This motion requested a report back on “Olympic Legacy opportunities” in a number of key areas: job creation, encouragement of sport, arts and culture, transportation, public safety, accessibility enhancement and ‘other areas that staff may recommend as an important opportunity.  Subsequent discussion on the motion included reference to downtown public space components.

(b) Robson Square Summertime/Weekend Closure – (April 2010): This motion requested staff to “prepare a report on the possibility of closure of Robson Street, as during the Olympics, on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months.” It was referred to the City Manager with the direction that it be included for consideration as part of the report back on Olympic legacies.

However, we also note that the present motion also offers important additional elements for consideration.  First, it identifies a specific segment of Robson Street, and second, it requests that this segment be considered for permanent closure.  We feel that this is a significant enough difference to warrant the present, separate, discussion – both because it proposes to secure the 800-block (the infrastructure of the space) for year-round public gathering opportunities (versus solely a time-limited programmatic space), but also because a permanent closure will require a different portfolio of planning, design and resourcing activities.

Equally importantly, the 800-block is presently closed for construction and has already changed traffic patterns in the area.  The ‘window’ that this affords is not particularly wide.  The ideal situation, we feel, is to close the space immediately after the Province’s renovation work is completed.  That way, it can be more easily be transitioned into a different use — much the way the Dunsmuir viaduct lane was repurposed for a bike lane (after being closed to car traffic for some time).

IV. Link to a range of key City initiatives:

We note that the proposed motion is supported by a range of City initiatives, including:

  • Greenest City – The GCAT Bright Green Future Report and Implementation Plan – calls for improved public spaces, improved pedestrian areas and place-making activities, and the enhancement (and creation of) well-designed gathering spaces for residents.
  • Vancouver 125 – The city’s quasquicentennial anniversary in April 2011 provides an ideal opportunity for the ‘opening’ of a new, enhanced Robson Square.  The notion of public gathering, of public celebration, of a meeting of peoples, makes a public square an appropriate symbol for this auspicious occasion.
  • Urban Health – The City’s developing Urban Health framework strengthens work around creating a healthy built environment, an improved pedestrian realm and other social determinants of health that are supported by a well-designed, accessible, public realm.
  • Summer Spaces – This program is built around a platform of ‘re-imagining’ city streets as places to gather, celebrate and experience urban culture.
  • Transportation Plan – The current Transportation Plan highlighted the need for improvements to pedestrian areas to support active transportation and neighbourhood walkability.  These, inturn, are supported by a recent motion on pedestrian safety that was endorsed by City Council (November 2010).
  • Ecodensity – Among the recommendations contained in this plan is the call for new gathering spaces and public plazas throughout the city.

V. Other Considerations

The Vancouver Public Space Network recognizes that, in addition to the items identified above, there are other outstanding questions and considerations that need to be resolved as part of a plan to close the 800-block.  Among these, are:

  • Transportation – The #5 Bus typically routes along Robson Street, through the 800-block, though it is currently re-routed as a result of the Province’s renovation work.  Ensuring a high standard of transit access to the West End and Downtown should remain a priority.  Our conversations with transit planners suggest that there are a number of options that could be explored to accomplish this while also allowing for the expansion of Robson Square.
  • Art Gallery Expansion/Relocation Discussion – This issue is currently unresolved and will continue to be explored into the near future.  Despite the potential significance of a relocation, the actual Rattenbury and Erickson structures (VAG, Law Courts and existing Robson Square) are not likely to be significantly disturbed by a move – suggesting that the transformation of the 800-block of the street could proceed without impacting any changes to the Gallery.

In sum, we feel that these items can be attended to as part of a program of normal planning and design work (as with other public realm design work) and should not serve as an impediment to securing the site for a permanent public square.

* * * * * 

In conclusion, the VPSN would like to extend its full support for the present motion, and for the additional considerations outlined on the first page of our letter.  We would be willing to support this venture in any way we can – by providing assistance with any design, planning, or community engagement work that may be necessary, or by assisting with a program of public fundraising that could assist with offsetting the costs of any design work. 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input into this important motion.



  1. Re: the #5 bus…. in my dreams the #5 gets rerouted down Alberni so that we can one day turn Robson into a pedestrian St as well. starting on weekends in summers and expanding from there when people realize how much better it is with space to sit and linger.

  2. […] the VPSN’s attentions have been mainly focused on the closure of the 800-block of Robson, we’re also deeply interested in the future of the north end of the gallery.  Both sites have […]

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