CHAPTER TWO: Public Spaces and the Physical Environment
Vancouver’s spectacular physical setting has always dominated, with the result that the city has developed most of its public spaces as settings which look onto and acknowledge the surrounding nature rather than as a space to connect with people. As a result, Vancouver has relatively ineffective interior public spaces that allow people to engage. Research on effective urban design, place-making, and social interaction points the way for public space to have an influence on public connectedness, residents’ sense of place and the overall liveability of the city.
2.1 Vancouver’s History and Geography
With its prime location near the base of the Coast Mountains, at the mouth of the Fraser River and nestled amidst the waterways of the Strait of Georgia, Howe Sound, Burrard Inlet, Vancouver has, for thousands of years, been a place of meeting, trade and settlement. Archaeological evidence shows First Nations having resided here 8,000 to 10,000 years ago as the first presence of people in what is now called the Lower Mainland.
Vancouver’s landscape has always dominated perceptions of the city. The last stop on the Canadian Pacific Railway, this coastal seaport city surrounded by natural wonders has always been attractive to the eye. One hundred years earlier, Vancouver visionaries were publicly conjuring visions of becoming a Paris of the Pacific, as noted in early writings about the city’s prime location by prominent town designer Thomas Morrow.
Where was primeval forest yesterday, men are living and trading today and tomorrow there will be a large city, but ‘What will the men of tomorrow say of the city which we of today have bequeathed them?’ Will it speak of them only of meanness and narrowness of outlook; and its topography, fixed more or less of all time, fill them with despair and hamper their commerce and stifle their love of the beautiful at their very thresholds, or can we, by the inception of a wise policy and its steady pursuit, with our eyes ever on the goal set before us, insure that generations yet unborn shall hold our efforts in grateful remembrance.”
Today with a rapidly growing metropolitan population of 2.3 million people, Vancouver is Canada’s third-largest city and is constantly referred to as the nation’s most liveable, laid-back, and spectacular city. Vancouver’s iconic identity exists primarily on the panoramic level, with the splendour of majestic mountains and sparkling seascape weaving its way around the city centre. At least half of the downtown peninsula – about 400 hectares – is dedicated to the lush rainforest retreat of Stanley Park. A 22-kilometre paved seawall was built around the periphery and extended to include most of the downtown peninsula and the adjacent shorelines of False Creek and Kits Point in addition to West Vancouver. These are known as Vancouver’s primary public spaces.
2.2 The Meaning of Public Space
There has been an increasing dialogue in recent years surrounding the importance of “public space.” Along with the spaces themselves has been an enlarging awareness and resulting dialogue around the importance of the term. This includes the discussion as part of a municipal planning process, as a means of grassroots organizing and as community development initiatives. In Jeffrey Hou’s book, Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, he sets out a comprehensive definition of the subject.
Public Space is seen as a constituent element in ensuring positive social relations and well-being as well as a more robust opportunity for social inclusion in cities and communities. It is not only for the generalized public, but also for populations where the potential for isolation and marginalization is higher. The term is understood to have multiple literal and metaphorical meanings and is conceived as: a component for democratic health, a site facing the threat of corporate incursion, and, concomitantly, as an antidote to an increasingly privatized physical (and mental) landscape, and a space of refuge for all residents that comes generally – thought not exclusively – without an admission fee.”
An undeniable connection exists between a city’s public space and residents’ perceptions of a place. There is not only a clear physical connection between people and spaces, but a strong psychological component. In other words, people feel better in certain spaces.
In Rethinking the Meaning of Place, Lineu Castello explains how certain public spaces stand out within the greater space in which people circulate. “Behind the identification of a place lies a whole process of appreciation of the space, which may well be attributed to the perception that people have (or will acquire about) that space.” Our feelings for a place are instilled with a strong connection to whether that place sets the stage for positive interactions and happy memories or serves to illuminate an isolated and lonely ambiance.
Peter Newman and Isabella Jennings, in their book Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, define the satisfaction attached to sense of place as something that “encompasses a feeling of connection to a place, a lived engagement with people and land, and an understanding and appreciation of the patterns and processes in time and space.” Healthy and active cities reap the benefits of a strong sense of place that develops a connection between the social sphere of the inhabitants and the surrounding environment. This connection allows people to enjoy a sense of deeper belonging to the bioregion, including a deeper affection that encourages sustainable practices and community minded initiatives.
Public space is largely integrated into residents’ sense of place and, as Andrew Pask writes in Insurgent Public Spaces, “(public space) has become the leading article in a new, more inclusive, more integrated phase of civic advocacy…. The health and well being of a given public space (a park, square, or walking plaza) is intrinsically linked to the overall liveability of the city. Conversely, a threat to public space in one area (a trend, toward privatization, a sate of disrepair) is a threat to the city’s public realm as a whole.”
2.3 Withdrawal from Public Space?
While public space advocacy is on the rise, there has been a decline in face-to-face encounters in public spaces. This is partially due to current technologies and private interests that dictate city design.
In the last few decades, a number of practices have further challenged what remains of public space in both its physical and political dimensions. Most notably, the privatization of public space has become a common pattern. This is seen with well-manicured parkettes built around office towers, in addition to shopping districts being transformed into themed malls and so-called “festival marketplaces.” Whereas the physical form and appearance of the spaces may look familiar to the traditional public space of the past, their public functions have become limited.
Sociology professor, Richard Sennet, author of The Fall of Public Man, comments on the erosion and decline of public space where “the private and the personal have taken precedence over the public and the impersonal, as society becomes less interested in public matters and more driven by private interests and personal desires.”
In addition to the limited public functions, the privatization of public space has important implications for the political spheres of contemporary cities. In Margaret Kohn’s book, Brave New Neighbourhoods: The Privatization of Public Space, the University of Toronto political scientist writes, “When private spaces replace public gathering space, the opportunities for political conversation are diminished.” And political theorist Benjamin Barber observes “the mall-ing of America has sometimes entailed the mauling of American civil society and its public.”
Despite this recent shift from public to private over the past generation, Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl perceives the main attraction of city space, the same as it has always has been – as a meeting place.
One hundred years ago, the city’s most important qualities were its diversity and sensory impressions and opportunities to meet people. Today it is these same free pleasures that attract and motivate people to visit the city… The Character of new city life requires careful planning and appropriate invitations. People need to feel welcome and experience city spaces as comfortable and beckoning.
Following the character of the city, Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, in their 2002 book Cities: Reimagining the Urban provide a provisional diagram on how to understand the city in a better way. As the title suggests the central theme is to introduce a new way of looking at “the urban.” The authors stress the importance of physical spaces for networks of engagement with other citizens and encounters in the city. Networks are always more or less interwoven with other networks and human encounters are key to the bridging these networks.
Encounter and the reaction to it is a formative element in the urban world. So places, for example, are best thought of, not so much as enduring sites but as moments of encounter, not so much as ‘presents’, fixed in space and time, but as variable events; twists and fluxes of interrelation.
In today’s metropolitan cities the flow of people is massive and occurs at a global scale, but with technological advances propinquity is no longer a measure of distance. The authors acknowledge that ‘thick’, local face-to-face interaction is being replaced by ‘thinner’, at-a-distance communities producing alienation, dysfunction, anomie and stress the importance of face-to-face communication versus the necessity of close contact. “All the technology in the world does not replace face-to-face contact when it comes to brainstorming, inspiring passion, or enabling many kinds of serendipitous discovery.”
Amin and Thrift discuss the connections between public space and politics and the importance of mingling and interaction in the use of shared spaces. Their usage of the term “community” is described as a function of propinquity and flow in the city. They argue that everyday life itself is a further form of community. Everyday life is here defined as, “the ‘whatever’ or white space of conjunctions, meetings and discussions, the part of the event which is non-reducible to the state of things, and that ‘meanwhile moment’ between that which ‘neither takes place or follows’, but is present in the immensity of the empty time.” Using public spaces for the growth of a civic public relies on this interaction and that these ties of civic association provide an alternative to ties of family and kinship. “Cities are theoretically ideal for a participatory democracy, with the presence of institutions, associations, public spaces and social vitality within them. However, in addition to providing a stage for participatory democracy, good public space allows us access to human interaction within the public arena.”
2.4 The Effect of Vancouver’s Public Spaces
In explaining the effect of Vancouver’s public spaces on its citizenry, a disclaimer must be made about Vancouverites and how they have historically been perceived by the remainder of Canada. For better or worse the typical Vancouverite’s personality and sociability have been long associated with the physical landscape of the city. Much has been written about the uniqueness of Vancouver: some say it is the poster child for urbanism and urban planning is Canada, while others say its spectacular setting makes it the most beautiful city in the world. An urban core of glass towers and mixed architecture sits amidst a backdrop of lush green trees and majestic snow-capped mountain peaks with mystical ocean waterways weaving in and out of the landscape. This is the classic image of Vancouver. It is inviting and desirable, but could it also be a source of alienation?
Elvin Wyly and colleagues at the University of British Columbia’s School of Geography articulated Vancouver as an urban anomaly in their article on “suburban involution.” “Vancouver likes to think of itself as an exceptional city, furthermore, Vancouver just likes to think of itself as a city that does not fit the mould, perhaps even a city that redefines the mould.” Vancouver writer and artist Douglas Coupland, in City of Glass: Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver, claimed that “Vancouver is not part of Canada… Vancouverites have much more in common with West Coast Americans, and at the same time remain highly distinct from them.” Vancouver planner and urban designer Lance Berelowitz was acutely aware of this connection in his 2005 book Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, where an entire chapter was dedicated to comparisons to Vancouver’s “alter ego” Los Angeles.  Like the California metropolis’ moniker of “La la land,”  Vancouver has a similar label for the self-centered tendencies of the local culture: “Lotus Land”, adapted by Bruce Hutchison and Allan Fotheringham in the Vancouver Sun in the 1960’s, is a reference to Homer’s The Odyssey in Greek mythology. The hero Odysseus and his crew of mariners land on a fantastical island and encounter “lotus eaters” who invite them to eat the fruit of the lotus. The mariners fall into a state of blissful forgetfulness after eating the lotus fruit. “Lotus-Land” refers to Vancouver’s laid-back attitude, relaxed laws on drug culture, and prioritized time to enjoy nature and its outdoor environment. Chris Robinson’s Island Times Magazine article similarly describes “lotus eaters” in modern terms, as “taking time to smell the flowers, or lotuses, so to speak.” This image of a city of people who exist in a sort of blissful, selfish apathy is framed in part by stereotypical associations with a hippie, stoner, and/or new age culture stemming from Vancouver’s west coast location and close connection to the lush natural environment.
The proximity to nature and the spectacular Vancouver landscape has meant that there is less attention paid to the provision of public spaces. What public spaces do exist are predominantly oriented towards a focal point or view rather than creating public meeting and socializing spaces. This has been identified by some as the reason city residents tend to emit a sense of entitlement or self-centeredness. Several academics, architects and urban planers who have addressed this phenomenon, perceive the impact of Vancouver’s physical setting as the very impediment to the development of more social public spaces.
In his book, Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, Lance Berelowitz posits that Vancouver has reduced its public spaces to serve the private experience along with nature. “This is a young city, and for many of its residents, it is actually an excuse for the place, a necessary inconvenience on the natural landscape; it is a means to an end that has little to do with urban living but a great deal to do with the private pursuit of nature and leisure.” Preoccupied with the experience of nature, Vancouverites reduce their public places to serve private experience. “The public flaneur (an idle man-about-town) becomes the private voyeur.” Thus making the transformation from performer (of public engagement) to consumer of spectacle (in this case nature), a shift that has a profound effect on public culture. This effect is best epitomized in what Berelowitz terms the “cult of the view,” referring to how the natural landscape is the source for inspiration when creating urban form. “There is a strong sensibility that unsullied nature is superior to human artefact, and that the urban form is an intrusion on, and not a complement to, the landscape.”
If public spaces are where civic rights and rituals traditionally occur, then Vancouver is deficient in this area. There is a lack of centralized urban spaces conducive to public ritual and a plethora of outward-looking public spaces around town, where in most cases, the public is rendered passive. The largest example may be the seawall. Lookout points in Vancouver typically place the viewer’s back towards the city while the major public activities are in the contemplation and appreciation of nature. As Berelowitz says, “Public life requires collective activity, but these are platforms of individual and private consumption. When tourists point their cameras toward the surrounding nature, they point them towards the edges of the city.”
Vancouver architect Shane Czypyha examined our underused public spaces in his architectural thesis, The Walking City: The Transformative Role of Pedestrians in Public Space. In that research, Czypyha posited that Vancouverites’ greater emphasis on the relationship to their natural setting has been the cause of ignoring or overlooking the city’s urban spaces or architecture. He argues that most of the central public spaces are quite ordinary. Although the temperate climate is ideal for inhabiting streets and squares, the majority of the city’s prominent public spaces exist along the water’s edge.
With no major public spaces drawing residents and tourists to the centre as in many other major cities, people often flock to the public spaces on the edge of the downtown in droves.
He explains further that in those spaces there is no possibilities to have chance encounters and that the city’s edge-based spaces such as the seawall and the beach are primarily seasonal.“ (Chance encounters at the beach or seawall) only last until September, what about October to April? When you don’t have public spaces that people are flocking to, you’re not going to run into people you know.” He sees the need for more defined public squares and lauds their uses as powerful democratic forums. They are places where city dwellers meet, share ideas, exchange goods, exercise, and get access to fresh air and sunlight. 
Great public spaces contribute to a city’s sense of place. They are attractions for tourists and recreation spaces for residents. They serve as connective points between neighbourhoods. They are what make cities great…. Beyond Stanley Park, and the Seawall, Vancouver has very little in the way of great public space. It has a few small green spaces and a number of decent, if unspectacular public squares.”
Vancouver, despite “its good looks and healthy citizens” has not utilized its public spaces in a very community-minded or socially efficient manner. Berelowitz’ section titled ‘The Missing Centre’ examines how Vancouver lacks the centralizing grand space analogous to Old World cities such as London’s Trafalgar Square, Prague’s Wenceslas Square or Venice’s Piazza San Marco, in addition to public squares in newer cities such as New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. In comparison, the few central spaces in Vancouver are overshadowed by the grand and compelling waterfront edge. Mentioned is Robson Square, carved out of three blocks in downtown Vancouver. It encompasses the Vancouver Art Gallery, the provincial law courts, terraced landscaping and urban space. Berelowitz points out that “this is a square in name only” as it is not a primary, substantial open space. Also referenced is Victory Square at the corner of Hastings and Cambie, another space that remains largely underused for all but one day of year, Remembrance Day.
Berelowitz also analyses Vancouver’s beaches, seeing them as a series of discreet public spaces, in terms of their built environment and social formation and use. He points to the translocation of public life away from traditional sites of political activity (town square, city hall) as being accompanied by a corresponding change in the emphasis of use of public space to one of personal leisure. Historically, the roles of public spaces are essential to the democratic impulse; every city and every society needs public spaces for the exercise of democracy. Vancouver’s only truly democratic spaces are the beaches, waterfront parks and seawall. The city as a natural amphitheatre surrounding a public space of water is never more evident than on Vancouver’s annual Celebration of Light fireworks show. At the moment of climax everyone stands facing the sea, their backs turned to the city, transfixed by the explosive finale. Yet for all his praise of Vancouver, Berleowitz sees the city as having a curiously distorted public culture, represented by its architecture and use of public spaces. He sees the highly organized, tourist-oriented and socially approved public spectacle as increasingly replacing genuine spontaneous public life, with Vancouverites becoming passive consumers of, rather than active participants in, their own culture.