Posted by: Andrew Pask | February 11, 2011

Change Through Public Space – Review

Earlier this evening a few of the VPSN crew and I had a chance to check out the first of a new dialogue series called “Change Through ___.”  The kick off event was a conversation on “Change Through Public Space” and it looked at the way that public space can lead and influence positive social change.

The organizers — Trina Isakson, Casey Leung and Tylor Sherman —  did a good job of assembling a trio of discussants on the subject, each of whom touched upon key dimensions of public space, it’s use, regulations and impact on city life.  The three – Gordon Price, Samantha Jo Simmonds and John Richardson – took turns making some initial remarks. After that, the organizers split us up into a series of small discussion groups.

First up was Gordon Price, former City Councillor and Director of SFU’s City Program – who started off by posing a two-part question: how do we shape public space, and how does it shape us?  He then noted some of the great definitional challenges that come from understanding what is meant by “public space.”  Price then zeroed in on the SeaWall – a public space that he feels defined Vancouver: “It’s our identity… it’s the postcard.”  In an urban culture that “uses the city as a workout”, the Seawall has become our pre-eminent promenade… but one that, ironically, would probably never get built if it was proposed today.

Next came Samantha Jo Simmonds, the Creative Director at Public Dreams – the organization behind the fabulous ‘Illuminares Festival (among other things!).  Simmonds moved the discussion towards public art, and in particular, the use of public space for active participation in art and culture-making activities.  She noted a distinction between the type of experience that viewers of the Celebration of Light (fireworks festival) might have compared to those engaging in an event like Parade of Lost Souls — where the former is an example of a more passive consumption of art, versus the latter which requires participants to formally engage with the process.  What then comes from this, she posed, if not a broader, richer sense of engagement with the community.

John Richardson, founder of Pivot Legal, wrapped up the introductory remarks by taking the discussion in yet another direction, zeroing in on the use of public space as a form of expression, or a “canvas.”  Using the example of low income individuals panhandling, he noted how the use of public space has been legally entrenched as a forum for communicating social issues.

Richardson then talked about the stratification of uses of public space that come from competing economic classes… and how that leads to one element of spaces being contested (for example, the ‘conflict’ that might emerge between homeless people sleeping in parks versus people engaging in a recreational activity.  Finally, he noted the increasing role of security firms as vehicles for controlling public space,” policing its use on behalf of private interests.

The three put an interesting set of ideas in circulation, and the ensuing small group discussions were lively and energized. There was lots to discuss and debate — everything from bike lanes to advertising in public space, to crime prevention design, to the notion of ownership, “turf” and more.  Too much to get into here!

All of which made the dialogue space itself and pretty decent gathering place in its own right.  We need more of these sorts of spaces for discussion.  These sorts of events provide a helpful antidote to the all-too-often caustic exchanges you see onthe web.

Good work Change Through___ folks – I’m looking forward to more of these sessions!

For more on the Change Through ____ series, check out their MeetUp Page.



  1. Thanks for the timely review Andrew! It was great to meet you last night and great to see many of VPSN supporters out. My mind was expanded I and I hope that was true for other attendees. Looking forward future engaging discussions.

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