Posted by: Andrew Pask | February 24, 2011

Favourite places and the people that inhabit them: heritage spots and Granville dance parties…

Decntralized Dance Party - Photo Kevin TranPhoto by Kevin Tran

This just in… a couple of interesting public space-related initiatives that you might have heard about, which combined tell something of a story about public life in Vancouver.  (Okay, I’ll leave it to you to determine whether there’s really a link here: it’s just that news of these two items landed on my desk at the same time and I couldn’t help but think about the connection.)

First up, a initiative coming out of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

As part of the City’s 125th birthday celebrations, the Foundation is launching a project called Places that Matter and is asking people to help create a list of 125 favourite places around the Vancouver.  These don’t have to be public spaces per se (though chances are there’ll more than a few that’ll make the list), but  can include buildings, streets, natural settings and more… including, it would seem, people and events.

The definition is broad and inclusive, and you can submit a photo, as well as a short explanation of why you thing the site is so important.  The only limitation is that the ‘places’ submitted have to have a history prior to 1991 (or 20-25 years old) and be located within the boundaries of the City of Vancouver.  (It’s too bad about the latter part, as it means there will be some favourite places that are excluded as a result (like the Central library building, as well as some of our excellent new community centres and parks.)

The call for submissions lasts until March 15 at which point the public will have a chance to vote on their favourites through to early April.  Once the 125 ‘winners’ are determined, a commemorative plaque will be developed for each and installed over the summer and Fall.  You can also see the spots that have been nominated already.

One other note: you can also check out the Heritage Foundation’s display at the Central Library (interesting venue choice!) this Saturday, February 26 between 10am and 4pm.  They’ll be taking nominations there as well.

Of course places need people in them in order to generate a sense of vitality.  And that’s where the second piece comes into play.  (Or not!)

Tom and Gary’s Decentralized Dance Party – which were part of the lively (and unofficial) Olympic shenanigans a year ago – had planned an outdoor party to coincide with the one year anniversary of Sidney Crosby’s gold-medal goal in the hockey final.  The event, which was to take place this Saturday night on Granville Street, has drawn grumbles from City.  Among the concerns that have been outlined: crowd control, safety, security, sidewalk congestion and sanitation issues.  A letter from the City’s Legal Department has been presented to the organizers, asking them to think twice.

Are we back to No Fun City?

It’s an interesting dilemma, because on one hand, it is important to ensure spaces that are safe for residents and partiers alike.  On the other hand… it’s Granville Street.  It’s Saturday night.  The so-called entertainment district, for better or worse, was created precisely for this sort of aggregation of people.  Shouldn’t we already be able to deal with these sorts of things?  After all, it’s probably the most policed part of the city as it is.  And while the lack of bathrooms may pose a problem, perhaps its time to look at even more public toilets in the downtown.  The buses, well, that’s a decent point.  (Probably should have left them on Howe and Richards, but that’s another story…).

Reading between the lines, the real issue, I think, has something to do with a sort of civic anxiety about the unpredictability of public life – which manifests itself in the effort (some would say need), to maintain control over public gathering.  This is where things like insurance waivers and permits and all of the other tools and mechanisms come into place.

The antithesis of this control is spontaneity – even planned spontaneity of the Decentralized Dance Party sort.  But perhaps we as a city need to start thinking a little harder about how to enable (support, allow–pick a verb…) these sorts of things.  After all, Tom and Gary have done a pretty decent job of throwing flash-mob style parties over the last couple of years, and surely this counts for something.

Talk to planners and engineers about public life and they’ll start to reference about the idea of “programming public space” to make sure it works.  The idea here, is to create a scheduling of activities and events that help to activate a space and provide a degree of animation for public enjoyment.

But while the notion of ‘programming’ space is useful, there is also an equally important need to allow for unprogrammed activity as well.  This is how you achieve a balance of activities and street life that feels authentic, not Disney, in nature.  And this is why Tom and Gary’s gig is so cool — it’s because it’s not really part of the ‘official’ City-sanctioned “Rediscover Granville” narrative… even though it fits with it so very neatly.

Part of the challenge, for people like Tom and Gary, is that being ‘unprogrammed’ and spontaneous within the existing regulatory format can be onerous, costly, and challenging.  First there’s the Special Event Permit fee, then there are insurance considerations, followed by potential requirements for extra police and sanitation workers and other costs.  By the time you’ve added all these items together, grassroots initiatives of this sort can end up costing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

I’m not saying that these items shouldn’t be accounted for.  But perhaps it’s time for the City to review how these sorts of events are handled.  After all, if we’re at a point where we can look at cutting red-tape for temporary performance spaces, then maybe we could also start to think of doing the same for our outdoor gathering spaces as well.


  1. When did we leave no fun city? That wasn’t Vancouver last year: it was Olympictown (a post national non geographic state)

  2. We’re tethered to the No-Fun moniker in a few more ways than this, too.
    Steven Quinn just outlined another in the Globe — getting downtown residents to accept the facts of living in a functioning urban, downtown core.

  3. That’s interesting – I don’t view the phrase “programming public space” in planner speak to mean literally programming a schedule of activities… I’ve always understood it to mean designing a space to support activities and encouraging activities to happen. that can include – ensuring there is appropriate furnishings, identifying partner community organizations that want to use the space, ensuring power/water supplies are available, removing regulatory barriers, zoning appropriate land uses to front onto the space, etc.

  4. @LB,

    Fair point… the term does get used quite broadly: covering everything from design considerations around ensuring that the space is flexible and supportive of “different activities” (in an open-ended sort of way), to the more prescriptive notions around the sorts of activities that ought to take place in a space (a ‘programme of events’… though not so regimented as all that).

    I do think that there’s also a lot of the latter approach that weaves through planner discourse these days… one that comes with the urge to recreate some of the cool aspects that exist on streets elsewhere in the world. There’s a real desire to create lively, open streets that comes without realizing that the truly organic sort of liveliness isn’t something that can be manufactured… it has to evolve. (Which is not to say that you can’t do wonders in a short time frame – witness New York!).

    The ‘cool streets’ that people often visit on their travels have a certain element of friendly chaos on them, randomness, bits of “grit” (to use Matt Hern’s favourite term). They may be regulated, and they may be programmed, but they also are a little more laissez-faire too… and thus have a richer identity and more of a life of their own. That was my point, really, that there’s a sweet spot between planning and over-planning.

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