Posted by: VPSN | October 19, 2012

Block 51 recap: drawing the future of Robson Sq and the north plaza

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The first round of the City’s “Block 51” consultations took place on Monday and Wednesday of this week. Both events explored the future of Robson Square and the north lawn of the Art Gallery, doing it up with a program of activities that included presentations, slide shows and collaborative drawing exercises. Appropriately enough, the two evenings took place at the VAG – in a room overlooking the south end of the Gallery.

The VPSN was proud to be an event partner for these two events.  If you weren’t able to make it out, the following will give you a quick run-down on what you missed.

Monday’s event, subtitled a “A Look Back,” started with opening remarks by Councillor Heather Deal and then featured a screening of the 1973 NFB film, Chairs for Lovers (along with popcorn!). The short film details the efforts of architect and illustrator Stanley King and his pioneering work in participatory urban design – and focuses in part on his work with Robson Square.

But the screening was more than just history, as it served as a means to introduce an older, (but just as energetic) King to the audience. King and the staff at his Co-Design firm have been responsible for some pretty cool work over the past four decades.

(A side note – the film helped to provide some context about the opportunities and challenges that the public wrestled with in helping to create a vision for Robson Square. As a way of showing that some of the discussions that are taking place today aren’t new, check out 15:35, where, standing in the midst of the massive parking lot that sat to the south of the old Law Courts, two of King’s 1973 student designers exchange the following words:

First speaker: We should close off the streets

Second speaker: They’ve done it in Seattle

Third speaker: What about all the cars? I just don’t understand what will happen to the cars…

Following the movie, a panel discussion ensued with Bing Thom, Alan Bell, Nick Milkovich – three members of Arthur Erickson’s original Robson Square design team. The trio took turns reminiscing about some of the planning and design ideas that went into the original concept. Ideas that included:

  • Closing the 800-block off to vehicle traffic
  • A lively sub-grade area (where today’s ice rink and UBC are) that would feature retail and transit services along side government services
  • A large reflective pool on the north end instead of fountain

With the panel discussions complete, the evening switched gears yet again and King was given the floor to review the co-design process. Attendees broke into small groups, each with their own graphic facilitator. Ideas for the possible uses attached to the Block 51 spaces were explored and rendered in full colour.

You can see a few of the vignettes here:

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Wednesday’s event was bannered under the heading “A Look Forward.” Councillor Andrea Reimer presented welcoming remarks and the event was MC’d by Vanessa Richards. (Those of you who rocked out at our karaoke kiosk events this past summer will remember Vanessa as our charming karaoke host).

Speakers included:

  • John Atkin (who gave an overview of the changing shape of the north plaza);
  • Lon Laclaire (the City’s Manager of Strategic Transportation, who presented on Olympic transportation planning and the connection with Robson);
  • Jenn Sheel and Krysztina Kassay (City Engineering staff who administer the Viva Vancouver program – and who spoke on their work with the 800-block of Robson)
  • Heather Forbes (VPSN Chair – who gave an overview of some of the Network’s activities on Robson Square – and the larger search for a public square in Vancouver)
  • Matthew Soules and Joe Dahmen (designers who produced the 2012 Pop Rocks installation that ran along the 800-block)

The evening concluded with another round of drawing, similar to that used with Monday’s participants. And as with the first evening, there was something really cool about seeing the co-design process in action. First and best, it was an approach that energized attendees. Participants were still going strong at 10pm, and probably would have stayed longer had the option been there.


Secondly, it was largely an optimistic exercise. Perhaps it was because there were a good number of younger folks in the room, but the dialogue felt devoid of the cynicism that often colours consultations. And this isn’t to say that the various issues associated with the potential redesign of Robson and the north plaza were omitted from the conversation (they weren’t). It’s just that they weren’t the starting point for the conversation.

Not bad for a couple of greyish fall evenings: some good friendly, collaborative dialogue about two important public spaces. All said and done, the public life that was animated in the various discussions that took place looked pretty darn bright on Monday and Wednesday.

Given the subject matter, doesn’t this square nicely with the future of Block 51?

Coming up…

Next up on the Block 51 consultation program is a survey – which will be made available sometime next week.




  1. To Alexandra Venner, Jillian Glover, and the person who posted “Block 51 recap” (I wish I knew who it was), thank you for your posts. I was disappointed that I could not attend the events, but reading what you have written was very helpful and inspiring.

    I want to be involved in the public consultation and redesign process, but it is somewhat difficult to do so from Kamloops, so I really rely on your reviews.

    Adam Fitch

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