VANCOUVER WOULD BE COOLER IF #180: It Had A Central Square Like Most Other Cities
by Ellen Johnston | I am not the first person to mention this, nor will I be the last to bring it up. But I feel that it needs to be stated again and elaborated upon if we are going to truly grow as a city and live up to the goals and claims we have for ourselves. I’m speaking about the fact that Vancouver, despite winning many liveability polls, quality of life surveys and accolades attesting to our success as an urban environment, lacks something that almost every great city in the world has: a central square. If a city is like a living organism, a central square is like its beating heart. Vancouver has great fingers and toes, natural parks and beaches which lie upon the peripheries of our city. But we just don’t have an urban, central gathering space that can, in any way, aproxímate the great central squares of the world, like Trafalgar Square in London, Rynek Glowny in Krakow, Piazza Navona in Rome or even the Zocalos of smaller cities like Puebla and Oaxaca, in Mexico. Robson Square may be the closest Vancouver has come to building a purpose built gathering space, but its very design is conducive to exact opposite of what great central squares should be. By being built underground, it does not attract foot traffic; it is hardly a place where someone would choose to eat their lunch on a sunny day, and it is difficult to imagine a public protest happening down there, since almost nothing can be observed from street level. If the very purpose of a central square is to gather people together, placing it out of sight is essentially tantamount to pressing a self destruct button. It will fail.
And so, I give you:
Five reasons why Vancouver needs a central square:
We need to bring people together rather than push them to the periphery. Beaches and seawalls are great, but instead of gathering people into a central area, they disperse them along a fine line that runs from the northwestern edge of downtown all the way to UBC.
Central squares provides a forum for public meetings, protests, arts events, festivals, and gatherings. These are all things that our city needs more of.
A central square would provide an urban alternative to Stanley Park. If we do not want to be classified as a resort city, then we need to stop acting like one. Nearby hiking options do not a great city make. They are a fantastic amenity, but they are by no means the basis for urban living.
Central squares encourage better architecture, because the walls that surround them add to the aesthetic of the location. Like a beach, in which the geographical background greatly enhances the experience, the background of a city square defines its ability to draw people and to be successful as a gathering place. Vancouver needs more places that encourage better architecture.
It will apply a measure of diversity to an urban landscape that is overwhelmed by condos. It is fantastic that so many Vancouverites live downtown, but simply building housing untis and units alone does not define “living”. Public spaces are important because they encourage people to live with each other, rather than side by side, yet all alone, in little boxes in the sky.
So the question is, what would we demolish to make room for one?
Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether tramping through the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver and attempting to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since that is not a full time gig, she fills her days with the study of African dance and drumming, writing, piano, and running her own cookie company, Cookie Elf. She grew up in Vancouver, studied in Philly and London, and hopes to see even more of this great big world in the future.