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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Spacing Road Show

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Spacing Road Show – SFU 28 June 2011

Wosk Centre

“Talking Urbanism & City Design from Coast to Coast”

Brent Toderian

Said that the city is “thrilled by the partnership” with the magazine (the event was also part of the consultation on the transportation plan). This “collaboration raises our cool factor” because there is a different demographic for this event compared to the people we usually see at City events. He stressed that although it was partly about transportation they “want to go beyond how we move to how we be in space”. He cited Jan Gehl’s experience in Copenhagen when he recommended street cafes: the Danes said “We’re not Italians” but their behaviour has since changed and they now embrace street life.

The City wants to emphasize public space: “we are increasingly taking civic life to the next level and the riot will not derail the process”.

Spacing publisher Matthew Blackett
Started by thanking the sponsors who had made the road trip possible. This was the best turnout so far . The collaboration with re:place now means that is on line. Spacing started in 2002 in Toronto by a group of “urban curious” people looking at public space issues. They felt that the professionals understood the issue, the need was to convince  the regular resident. It was to become an outlet to talk about public space issues. Transit for instance was treated as a exclusive concern but instead of dealing with “silos”, we should also be talking about density, development, design. One of the earliest issues that they dealt with was postering. The fight to save private (non-c0mmercial) postering. “Freedom of speech is a thjousand times more beautiful than clean lamp posts.” There have been 20 issues to date. Each covers a theme – water, transit etc and they use local blogs “to do daily stuff”.

They hit upon the idea of using buttons as fund raisers. They are cheap to produce but people are willing to pay for them. They have since added magnets. These were based on the designs used for subway stations but without TTC logo and over 200,000 have been sold! They have also tried highway buttons, and on the city’s anniversary former component city logos (names like East York which disappeared with amalgamation but still command local loyalties). Don Cherry’s recent remark sparked the response with pinko buttons “left wing pinko” “bike riding pinko” sold 30,000 sold – nationally. They attempted to get an endorsement by promising funds for Cherry’s anti cancer charity  but he responded  “There [sic] still left wing pinkos to me” !

There is now a cross Canada urban blog network. The tour launches the first (paper) national issue. They have found that there are the same issues in every city – transit, waterfronts, public space, community, neighbourhood. In the most recent survey they picked Vancouver’s Seawall as Canada’s best urban public space. The top ten list also included Granville Island.

Stanley Park seawall

Stanley Park seawall - No 1 Public Space in Canada - my photo on flickr

Erin O’Melinn (Vancouver Public Space Network)
Her presentation can be found here.


She created the map above of the top ten spaces in Vancouver which showed that they are all together around the core. This may be because of the “great transportation opportunities”. In great public space,  cars are not king and “it feels like an outing, different from everyday”. Getting there is part of the experience. People don’t want a carnival band in their backyard. She also pointed to the failure of Jack Poole plaza and the “underbelly of Robson Square”. We are repurposing transportation spaces: streets can do that but where does mobility fit in? There are problems in giving up a street for a longer period of time than one parade day. Places being lively is what is important not current transportation patterns.

Gordon Price

He opened by commenting on the low average age of the audience: “something is going on”. He wanted to explore their ” generational perspective”.

He said that the were two kinds of public spaces – destinations and “on the way”. His own personal favourite space is 2nd beach – which is part of what makes the Seawall great. Vancouver is shaped around 19th century streetcar grid. He cited the intersection of Denman and Robson where the two gas stations have gone. It was once typical of the motordom city but has since transformed. In his view the streetcar city is the best form that has been developed.

There is no Vancouver equivalent to Pioneer Square in Portland [OR]. “We have no left over spaces”. Although Pigeon Park was left over from the interurban. When we want to celebrate, we stop traffic – 72nd and Scott Road in Surrey – how did they chose that?

Erick Villagomez
He found the question “what are your public spaces” to be highly subjective. It depend on the way you interact with the city. He asked what is the process of selection? There was a short list of 50 across the region that included Surrey and the North Shore [none of which survived the selection process]He said that it is not only hard to define, but how do you choose between them?

Shawn Micallef
is the senior editor of Spacing and specializes in the long “psycho-geographic walk”.  He said that he felt as though “I am on a business trip cheating on my partner” (i.e. the City of Toronto).

Why we did a national issue was the discovery that in indierock circles they speak of “Monronto” i.e. despite the claimed differences between the two cities as far as indie rockers are concerned they are the same. Canada is an urban nation. A lot of that so called identity junk would drop away if we recognized that. 80% of us are NOT rural . Our day to day lives have nothing to do with the Rockies or the Prairie. We have to slowly shift our idea of what Canada is. It is very significant that cities were not mentioned once in the recent national election debate.

We do urbanism really well in Canada

Granville Island

Granville Island also made the national top ten list - my photo on flickr

What makes these spaces successful?

Erick – connections

Gordon  – The blue green edge: all human beings attracted to it. Loops. For most of the history of the city the waterfront was not open. False Creek is even more recent. The 8 to 10 km loop is an ideal workout. Can choose to cut it off and don’t need to retrace your steps

Erin – permanent – move through space – uncertainty about what to do with ourselves when we have spare time. You can walk and you don’t need to talk. There are no awkward silences. You feel like you are doing something.

Shaun – In Toronto people are in a constant state of anxiety but they make eye contact in Vancouver.

Toronto is now, slowly, embracing its beach culture – the height of modernity meeting nature. he cited the intersection of Denman and Davie as one the best examples of Vancouver’s public space.

What can Vanvouver export (to other Canadian cities)?

Gordon – Waterfront as public realm, and not commercialised

Erick – Transportation : Commercial Drive shows how it is done – the mix of commerce and movement is the foundation of good cities

Gordon – Issue of the car: transportation choice no 1 is still the car. We tried to create spaces without cars – Leg in Boot Square – doesn’t work at all. Can’t drive to it or stop at it. We had to acknowldge that without auto access it doesn’t work.

Erick – Public spaces are also good places for anarchy. Vancouver  has no gathering space at City Hall compared to Toronto – we protest in front of the Art Gallery. Van designed that deliberately. You have to expect that and can’t be afraid of it.

Gordon – the fireworks are a good example –and show that we can do a big public gathering. We need a  hard surface wired for sound and light

Erin – the riot was after a series of games: there was a huge build up of the “us vs them” mentality. The lesson is that we should not leave the crowd to their own devices

Shaun – “kindling is everywhere” – We ought to focus on the 99% of the time when everyone is on the streets and it works. Creation of Nathan Philips Square – Terry Fox and the Iraq protest. No do dads


  • places just happen organically
  • people take to the streets because there isn’t anywhere else
  • arterial roads becoming cruising strips
  • the success of Granville Street

Toderian sum up – importance of not moving through: to get twice as many people you either have to attract more people which creates pressure on transportation OR you encourage people to stay twice as long (Jan Gehl). That is what should have been talked about.



I must admit to some reluctance to attend this event. I spend most of my time on line and I do not buy “dead tree” glossy magazines with adverts. I have no subscriptions now to any paper publications. I also am deeply suspicious of anything sponsored by big banks in general and BMO in particular. Their only interest is in increasing their own, already immense, profitability.

It also seems quite out of place for this to be a car based road trip. Yes they brought their bikes and went for long walks but driving across Canada seems a bizarre way to connect into the need to reduce auto-dependency in cities. The magazine is nicely produced and the advertising not too intrusive. Clearly like the federal government funding they get, it helps and does not get in the way much. The use of buttons as fund raisers is clever, but I already have way too many buttons as in this city they get given away at so many events. If anyone wants Vancouver transit buttons, let me know. I will happily pass them along as they just sit in a drawer.

I was very pleased with Toderian’s summary as he captured exactly what I was thinking. The riot is a huge distraction. The media love it, as do the political reactionaries. Public space is needed for large, relatively infrequent events. But it is much more important to get the everyday right. What I learned at the last provincial election in East Richmond is that we have no public space at all. Everywhere that people gather is private space. Unlike Steveston – which has the waterfront – all we have is a dog walking park. And strip malls – private land, where canvassers can be told to leave. If I wanted to hold a rally, I would have to use a school playing field – which is all that our parks are. There is nowhere here to linger and people watch. Good public spaces positively encourage loitering. And while benches were mentioned, no one highlighted the significance of movable tables and chairs, which have been the key to success in converting streets in Manhattan to livable public spaces.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 29, 2011 at 11:31 am

5 Responses

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  1. Stanley park Seawall as Canada’s best urban public space…that is odd.

    I am curious Toronto’s Yonge#Dundas or Montreal’s rue st denis fare in this survey? too urban?


    June 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm

  2. “What can Vancouver export (to other Canadian cities)? Gordon – Waterfront as public realm, and not commercialized”

    Obviously Gordon hasn’t spend time on the islands in toronto harbour. Except for a relatively small area (by the ferry dock to Central island) that is overcrowded with families eating fast food, the beaches on the Western outer part and the boardwalk by Ward’ island are great quiet places. There is even a nude beach..30 minutes tops (walk + ferry ) from the subway stop on the mainland.

    The great boardwalk along the East end beaches, past Coxwell avenue, is another lovely place…and only a few blocks away from nice shops and small restaurants.

    Other parts of the waterfront have been recently made much more user friendly and not that commercialized either.

    The huge difference with Vancouver is that Toronto is a true city..i.e an agglomeration of buildings of various ages and styles used for various purposes (the grand Victorian house near Bloor st West and St George where I rented a studio in the late 1970s is still around, along with its old neighbours. There are huge chunks of the city, right close to downtown, that are nothing but nice old houses) while Vancouver is a great natural site (though not as spectacular as some other seaside cities) still waiting for a real city….

    Red frog

    June 29, 2011 at 10:51 pm

  3. […] was leading the road show, and hosted a panel to discuss the Top Ten Public Spaces in Vancouver.  (Here’s Stephen Rees’s summary and […]

  4. “The huge difference with Vancouver is that Toronto is a true city..i.e an agglomeration of buildings of various ages and styles used for various purposes (the grand Victorian house near Bloor st West and St George where I rented a studio in the late 1970s is still around, along with its old neighbours. There are huge chunks of the city, right close to downtown, that are nothing but nice old houses) while Vancouver is a great natural site (though not as spectacular as some other seaside cities) still waiting for a real city….”

    Spoken like someone who has never visited Vancouver…


    July 5, 2011 at 3:38 pm

  5. I don’t think the editors of the mag were let out of their Toronto offices. They have Vancouver’s Water Street as “Waterfront” street. Voony, Stanley Park in my books is right up there with Central Park, NYC, and the Park Blocks in Portland… but it is not so much “urban space” as “urban amenity”. Not too fond of Dundas and Yonge, though. Love the “Barnes Dance” crosswalk (works better in Rodeo Drive, L.A.). But, really, is the fronting architecture doing urbanism? Or is it just doing its own thing?

    Frog Red, Miguel… somewhere in the blog-o-sphere I came face to face with this realization: Toronto is the Great Whore of Canadian Urbanism.


    July 27, 2011 at 1:05 am

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