Posted by: VPSN | December 31, 2011

Five public space highlights from 2011

As midnight draws near, people in cities around the world will be gathering to celebrate the arrival of the New Year.  Some will be convening at friends places, some in living rooms, some in restaurants and clubs, while others, in abundance, will be gathering in public squares and plazas.  Wherever you happen to be tonight, we wanted to take this opportunity to wish you the very best for the upcoming year.

2011 has seen the role of public space in cities thrust into the headlines – both in Vancouver and around the globe.  The VPSN team have taken time over the last few days to discuss some of the key events of the past 12 months … and in the spirit of reflection we’ve put together a short list noting five of the year’s public space highlights.  Like all lists of this sort, there are missing pieces – so feel free to post your thoughts on what you think are the public space high notes of the year.

Tahir Square - Jonathan RashadTahir Square – by Jonathan Rashad

The Arab Spring

2011 started (and ends) on a revolutionary note … with a series of popular protests in the Middle East.  Democratic uprisings that had started in Tunisia in late 2010 continued into January, triggering calls for revolution in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Libya and, more recently, Syria.  Without a doubt the most visible, potent and positive manifestation of the call for regime change came in the occupation of Tahir Square in downtown Cairo– which captivated the world in the early part of the year.

The Egyptian Revolution, as this aspect of the Arab Spring was subsequently called, saw crowds of up to 200,000 gather to protest against President Hosni Mubarak (who subsequently left office in mid-February).  Images of the growing crowds were beamed around the world on a nightly basis and served to highlight the place of public gathering places in the political functioning of cities.  The role of public squares was nicely summarized by the Globe and Mail’s John Allemang who noted that

“The city square is the original social medium, the place where power is openly asserted and contested…[B]y being vast and visible…these meeting places can make democracy’s aspirations more real.” 

Vancouver125-Matt Schroeter April 6 Vancouver 125 Light Show – by Matt Schroeter

Vancouver 125

The City ofVancouver– that is, the incorporated municipality – turned 125 years old on April 6.  The event was marked by two major civic events: a live performance in Jack Poole Plaza and a larger Summer Live festival in mid-July.  Both were free, fun and family friendly events that, while not overly birthday-ish, did a great job of adding to the city’s roster of outdoor events.  We heard more than a few folks remark that they wish that these events would be held on an annual basis.

But the live performances were only part of the celebrations.  The most notable aspects of the birthday, in our humble opinion, came in the smaller projects that helped to mark the anniversary: the 2011 PuSh festival ran a series of powerful theatre pieces linked to the city’s history; the City, CBC and Provincial Archives collaborated on a series of short-film retrospectives; the WE Vancouver event at the Vancouver Art Gallery that featured a series of manifestos for the city; and 10 of the significant pieces of writing associated with Vancouver’s literary history were republished.

The Vancouver Riots… 

What served as a noble run at the Stanley Cup turned sour in the waning minutes of the Canucks Game 7 series against the Boston Bruins.  The mid-June night – warm, rain-free and filled with hope – saw thousands of hockey fans gather along Georgia Street to watch the games on giant TV screens.  But after a few hours, with the team losing badly, the atmosphere had changed.  When the final whistle blew, a small group of disgruntled fans, attended by a large retinue of spectators, set about lighting fires, smashing windows and looting downtown stores.  The riot lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

The post-game events were fueled by the potent mix of booze, testosterone and frustration that had been swirling with considerable abandon since mid-day… but they were also nudged along by something far more potent and ominous, and something that received too scant coverage in the three official investigations that were undertaken in the wake of the event: simply put, many of the participants were having fun.  In fact, the people our crew saw while moving through the downtown core were laughing, posing for pictures and congratulating one-another.  It was a profound and frightening example of the prevailing norms of the city being subverted, of ‘ownership’ of the streets being wrested by a demographic (mostly young males) that are often portrayed as being apathetic and dis-invested, and of a perverse form of self-destructive behaviour being enacted as a form of finger-raising autonomy.  In the process the Greater Good took a beating, as did innumerable store-fronts and the city’s better reputation.  It was a reminder of how quick civility can disintegrate.

And yet, even before it was over, the events of the riot served to catalyse two interesting side-effects.  First, even as the riot itself was unfolding various online initiatives were being activated.  Some helped to mobilize the clean-up of the city, while others were focused on locate perpetrators by asking people to post images of rioters.  The latter highlighted the significant role of social media and crowd-sourced surveillance in urban environments.

The second side-effect was literal.  In the days following the riot, hundreds of people wrote messages on the plywood covers that had been erected to repair smashed windows.  Chalk writing decorated sidewalks, police cars were decorated with notes, and windows were embellished with apologies and proclamations that Vancouver was better than all that.  As part of working through challenging public events people need the chance to express themselves in a public fashion.  In the case of the riots one very negative form of claiming space was literally over-written by another more positive one.

(Another good example of this sort of ‘public processing’? The chalk paint memorial to Jack Layton that filled Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square following the passing of NDP leader Jack Layton in late summer).

occupy vancouver - neal lantelaOctober 15 “Occupy” Rally – by Neal Lantela

Occupy Vancouver… and elsewhere

The bright-coloured tents, tarps and signs that filled Centennial Plaza at the north end of the Art Gallery provoked a vigorous debate about a whole range of issues – from increasing economic inequities (the enriching of the 1%) to the nature of democratic engagement.

Part of a global phenomenon known simply as the “Occupy Movement,” protesters carried with them a range of issues and demands.  From this, the long-term impact of the movement (still on-going, though currently without the legal ability to set up an encampment) has yet to be ascertained, but the immediate effects were notable.  After the October 15 rally that saw the first tents set up, local media slathered themselves in a frenzy of pro and con pieces, political parties jostled for position and everyday Vancouverites – many of whom were more ambivalent than might be expected – sat back and watched.

From a public space perspective, the movement served to spark a debate about the role of public space.  The sterile confines of Centennial Square– half covered in bark mulch and the site of an ugly fountain, previously bereft of much regular activity, came to be described by opponents as a “much loved public space.” Opponents decried the occupation of the plaza, while proponents declared that it was more of a public space than ever before.  If ever there was an example of “contested space” in 2011, this was it.

Elections, elections, elections…

It was quite a year for ballot-casting.  First up was a federal election in early May, followed by a Provincial by-election later the same month.  The former contest brought us a Conservative majority and a new Official Opposition – but was particularly notable because of the absence of any mention of an urban agenda on the part of the three leading parties.  The latter saw the elected leader of the BC Liberals, Christy Clark, squeak out a victory over NDP challenger David Eby.  It was a close race whose twists and turns will foreshadow the upcoming 2013 provincial election.

But the big public space noise came in the November 15 civic election.  With literally dozens of candidates vying for role of Mayor, Council, Park Board and School Board, there were lots of debates to be had.  Featuring prominently in the platforms of frontrunners and newly elected were public space issues such as the viaducts, bike lanes, neighbourhood well-being, public transit and urban agriculture.

Civic participation in the local contest was up a few points this time ‘round, though that seems like small consolation given that just over one in every three eligible voters cast a ballot.  The real story concerns the shifting fortunes of Vancouver’s political parties: the near complete elimination of COPE, the continued marginalization of the NPA, and the introduction of the Green Party to Council chambers… all against the backdrop of a sweep by Vision Vancouver.  The next three years will be interesting ones!

Finally, a personal note:

This year marked the 5th year of the VPSN… and we had the pleasure of celebrating our birthday in May 2011 surrounded by a whole lot of our good friends.  We’ve had a lot of fun doing the work that we do… and we’re looking forward to the next five years and beyond.  Over the next 12 months we plan to advance our work on an expanded Robson Square, a Downtown Public Realm Plan, and a range of other issues.  In fact, we’ll be publishing a route-map of our key issues and projects very shortly.

In the interim, we thought we’d conclude with a few resolutions for the new year.  (Another incomplete list, but you have to start somewhere).  Here’s three of the many things that we’ll be working on over the next few months.

1.  New website launch.

You may have seen our new logo and newsletter roll-out this year.  As part of the VPSN Communications work, we’ve also been busy developing a new website.  This will launch sometime in spring of 2012.

2.  Better reporting on public space issues.

We do our best to keep on top of the urban issues that shape Vancouver… but we know we can do better.  Our pledge for 2012?  More and better non-partisan reporting on the issues affecting the city’s streets, parks, plazas and other public spaces.

3.  More public space events.

The VPSN got its start hosting public meetings, workshops and walking tours on public space issues… and we’d like to amp this part of our work up in the new year.  Look for more guest speakers, more presentations and more debates.  Got an idea for a topic?  Send it our way!

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