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

Leg in Boot Square

with 23 comments

Leg in Boot Square, originally uploaded by Stephen Rees.

The design is based on a Italian hill village. Very carefully designed public space that does not work. Gordon Price said that this was because it is inaccessible by car. I disagree. I think it does not work due to the lack of tables and chairs. A couple of fixed benches is not enough. In an Italian hill village there would be at least one cafe and a bunch of market stalls too. There are three destination restaurants/pubs a short distance away – on top of the marina. Simply allowing uses in the retail spaces that gave people on the seawall a reason to stop would bring life to the square.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Transportation

23 Responses

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  1. If the residential buildings are condos – the strata councils could be prohibiting restaurants from leasing (or buying) the commercial units (but a food store would likely create as much of a pest problem as a restaurant?).

    I think the sqaure lacks a focus – whether a scupture or a tree at the middle and some planters at the edge. Compared to the similarly situated Olympic Village plaza, this one is quite sparse. It’s also competing with a row of benches on the seawall with a better view over the water. So it needs something more than the view to attract people.

    Fixed tables and chairs were recently installed at Olympic Village Plaza (despite the absence of restaurants, although a food truck has taken up residence in front of the Creekside Community Centre (at least on Wednesday night when I saw it). A food truck (along with tables and chairs or more benches) may be a good start.


    July 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm

  2. I used to live a hundred metres from this square, and walked through it regularly for almost a year. It’s pretty dead space, all right. I think the design had a focal point of sorts, in the shape of a fountain, but I never saw the fountain actually running. The pavers and structures are of high quality—really a shame it isn’t better used.

    Some better benches, or even picnic tables, would help. There’s a tiny bakery just up that alley on the right in the photo, which is just the sort of business to support a lively public space—buy a danish and a coffee, sit in the sun, look over the water. But walkers on the seawall are unlikely to notice it, and residents are more likely to take their snacks home and sit on their balcony. The visible business is a dreary and overpriced grocery store.

    I found that neighbourhood surprisingly car-oriented. At times when there weren’t many visitors walking the seawall (rainy, cold), you just didn’t see many pedestrians—the residents seem to get in their cars and drive away, via the streets behind the buildings, which were often quite busy. Considering the density, I was surprised to find False Creek less busy with pedestrians than where I live now, in the West End.

    There ought to have been tons of cyclists, in particular, going in and out of the buildings, and you just didn’t see many at all. You’d see bikes loaded with Granville Island groceries, passing through on the seawall, but you rarely saw anyone rolling their bike into one of the apartment buildings along False Creek. I don’t claim that it doesn’t happen, but it’s not as common as I’d have thought, given the character of the neighbourhood and the excellent cycling connexions.

    Dominic Brown

    July 1, 2011 at 7:27 pm

  3. Stephen, I think your assessment is correct. I feel I am very qualified to comment because I spent a few drunken afternoons at the local (Stamps Landing) over the years discussing the square with the drunken locals. Stamps has now changed names and gone upscale, cold and corporate, much like the neighborhood, which can only be described as a tense situation posing as a neighborhood. The strata council on the other square declared war on Stamps Landing even though it was very quiet and the drunk inhabitants were regulars who were very civilized and an integral part of the neighborhood. The apartment dwellers made sure there will never be a patio in the square at Stamps and I’m sure they would do the same to other patio permit applications.

    The residents of that neighborhood seem to be very uptight because of their crushing special assessments and their tiny divorce-inducing apartments. There also seems to a lot of very old semi-wealthy people there. It is not a diverse neighborhood. Even the marina is weird. Most of the boats rarely see action and their absentee owners seem to live in Calgary.


    July 1, 2011 at 11:26 pm

  4. Could it be inspired by Capitoline hill in Roma? The graphic on the square pavment has some remotly resemblance with the one of Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitonile Hill.

    On the failure of this public space: it shouldn’t be a surprise…and I am afraid that benches and tables will not change it too much.

    In a previous post of mine, I was writing

    they have designed a nice pedestrian Plaza, but why people would go there? what is the point? The plaza is not visible of the outside, and there is no natural straightforward way to invite people from outside to experiment it about a design for newton and which could apply as well to the plaza…

    it is not the plaza itself which is the reason fro the failure, but it is its very location.


    July 1, 2011 at 11:32 pm

  5. A good example of what tables and chairs do is the Union Market on Union Street just east of Hawk Ave. One little store in the middle of a residential area with some tables and chairs in front that always seem to be occupied and inviting.

    Sean Nelson

    July 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm

  6. I walk through this space often, as many people do. The seawall runs next to it, and the most direct walking route from most of Central Broadway to most of downtown cuts right through it.

    It’s a neat little space, very unique in Vancouver. But I’ve never stopped there. It needs a reason for people to stop there, and I don’t think that fountains or viewpoints really hold people. A view cone, limiting building heights downtown, is defined from the centre of this space, but you wouldn’t notice most of the time.

    I think the back edge of the square is too far and separate to host a restaurant or cafe with seating out in the middle. The storefront with the blue awning might work as a cafe or restaurant, but the slope might work against the possibility of putting tables right in front. Maybe the design of the square, with the barrier, grade change, and slope need to be changed to make this an active space.


    July 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm

  7. I am not an expert of Italian hillside villages but i am familiar with hillside villages in Provence and even more with those in southwestern France, all the way south from the Dordogne (where I worked in a job that required me to drive around the area daily) to the Pyrenees (where we had a vacation home and in the Auvergne Mountains where I lived as a student after graduation.

    Many, if not most of these villages have a square at the top. Sometimes it has a viewpoint on the countryside, other times the viewpoint is on a smaller square off the main one.
    The main square is the focal point of the village life. It has stores, cafes etc. and either a church or the city hall are there too or nearby,,,depending on the available space. The streets/ roads that zigzag from the plain to the top of the hill don’t have too many stores, if any. a small slide show about Montreal du Gers, a hillside town in Gascony. .
    Have a look at the map..major stores are on Place d’ Armes–where the Cathedral is–and on Rue Marchande that leads to it. shows the old town at the top of the hill (a former volcano) and the “modern” town below. Believe me, walking from one to the other is a steep climb–or descent. a planned medieval town, built in a relatively short time, on the brow of a hill in Dordogne. .

    Leg-in-boot square doesn’t look anything like “THE’ square in a hillside village square anywhere (especially the buildings!). More like one of these out-of-the-way squares one finds in countless cities in Europe–and likely in other continents. Squares that, at first glance, do not serve any particular purpose.
    I have seen quite a few of these in Italy as well as in France. They are used as a good weather living room by the families living in the buildings around it. Not having stores /cafes make these squares more “private” and safer for children.

    So it isn’t the square that is poorly designed, it is the buildings around it. If the 2 bottom floors were 2 story townhouses with a small garden in front, there might be some people sitting there on nice days. And the building should have less floors, with outside access to the upper floors-instead of an inside common hallway– to encourage residents to be more visible to one another and mingle.

    Red frog

    July 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

  8. The design is based on a Italian hill village.” is news to me.

    When Leg-in-Boot first opened we used to have dances there on a warm Summer Saturday nite.

    There was a grocer’s store that soon petered out. I haven’t been there for ages but I see, from the photos, another brave grocer is giving it a try: hope it works.

    The real reason for failure has nothing to do with Italy, auto access, chairs or market stalls.

    The main prob. is a lack of critical mass population and, slim as it is, in a lineal configuration: east or west most pop is miles away. Fairview Slopers get in their cars or, rarely, take the bus.

    False Creek South is bounded by water and steep slopes ergo, no one walks. Granville Island siphons off trade to the west and serious weekly grocery shoppers drive to Metrotown.

    Physically the square is a bust because it lacks a sense of wrap around spatial enclosure. Planners’ obsession on opening up to views doesn’t always pay off.

    Restoring the Olympic line wouldn’t work because families wont lug their groceries home on a tram.

    For all the on line gossip, whether it be TX or urban places, so long as Vancouver is Vancouver, nothing will work.

    Now it we could direct the conversation to autonomous urban villages, as Kerrisdale once was, and as so many world cities are comprised today, we may have a chance for a mature conversation.

    In an Italian hill village etc. etc. Well, that’s pretty obvious: Leg-in-Boot it isn’t on a hill!

    Vancouver will never be VANCOUVER so long its self-referential is always to somewhere else.

    Roger Kemble

    July 5, 2011 at 8:24 am

  9. I partially agree with Roger re: critical mass. I would add that its failure is also attributed to the fact the “square” is not THE focal point of the community, nor is it a priority destination. It is left over space.


    July 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  10. @ Roger: “False Creek South is bounded by water and steep slopes ergo, no one walks. Granville Island siphons off trade to the west and serious weekly grocery shoppers drive to Metrotown”.

    I disagree. My wife and I lived in two spots in South False Creek over 11 years. We shopped regularly at Granville Island and the market at 6th Ave x Mobberly, and semi-regularly at Central Market (Cypress x 1st Ave) and the 4th Ave x Vine Safeways in Kits. We didn’t own a car for 9 of those 11 years, and we used the FC ferries as much as we walked or took the bus. Our building had 58 parking stalls for 63 suites, and not all the spaces were taken.

    It was a great experience that we miss when we bought a house up the hill on a tiny lot (otherwise it would’ve been unaffordable) and got jobs in the next city, one that we would seriously consider again in retirement.


    July 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm

  11. @ MB

    City housing manager, Cameron Gray, told a SCARP class I was attending, 1985+/-, “False Creek South is an inner city suburb“.

    I didn’t agree at the time.

    But I agree now.

    Roger Kemble

    July 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm

  12. Inner city suburb? When I think of a suburb I think of a David Lynch movie, dysfunctional relationships with neighbors and lurking horrors. The square in question is occupied by gray-haired yuppie-ish urban reclusives who do not interact with their neighbors. They treat their housing and their neighborhood as a commodity and not as a place to live, which I suppose is the definition of Vancouver.

    If I were to describe the square in non-urban planning nomenclature I would describe it as the square of contemplation in an industrial graveyard. It does sit on a former location of industry. Now it is a semi-resort, much like the rest of Vancouver. Industry has been forced out, along with the middle and lower classes, children and the creative classes that give a city life (and jobs). Perhaps instead of outdoor cafe’s, the square could have public art industrial grave markers installed (like the north side of False Creek does, at the end of Marinaside Crescent). I think the chilled, damp loneliness of the square in winter is a morbidly appealing window into the heart of darkness of Vancouver’s obsession with real estate. It’s unintentional art.


    July 5, 2011 at 4:39 pm

  13. False Creek South is an inner city suburb ….. Couldn’t disagree more about the western half. The Granville Island environs, which is like a very active small town unto itself (it does, after all, encompass the very attributes suburbanites usually won’t find without driving several kilometres: high density low/mid-rise mixed use residential, commericial and light industrial development, enormous visitor pressures year round, and not just by tourists) is anti-suburb.

    Hell, there’s even a plethora of services catering to the marine-based market.

    Perhaps Mr. Gray was making a comment in ’85 based on precepts from the 70’s.


    July 6, 2011 at 9:19 am

  14. You can see companies, landlords, or organizations try to copy or duplicate many venues around the world, but fail to make it successful. Many times, I see what I assume to be two or three story building, but turns out the second or third stories are false fronts, either empty or a continuation of the first story to create very high ceilings.

    W. K. Lis

    July 6, 2011 at 11:34 am

  15. Is there any large (or semi-large) paved plaza in Vancouver that is “successful” as a public open space – particularly if no “events” are organized and hosted there?

    Not Robson Square. Not the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza. Not Yaletown Park. Not the north side of Library Square (but maybe the south side with its amphitheatre). Even the plazas outside of downtown office towers see an ebb and flow of people as lunch hour comes and goes.

    I’ll bet if the circular paved area was replaced with a grassy mound, you’d find a lot more people (even those without dogs) using the space.
    Maybe that would just be catering to Vancouverites rather than trying to emulate someone/someplace else.


    July 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm

  16. In fairness to Vancouver, many towns around the world are only great because they took a LOT of time to mature.
    My birthplace started as a fishing village 2300 years ago, it was long believed. More like 2700 apparently.
    It became a town with paved streets, stone buildings, a forum, an arena etc. (not it isn’t in Italy) around 50 B.C. then it was looted, burned and rebuilt a couple of times…

    A thriving medieval city where Richard Lion Heart lived as a teen (no it isn’t in England), it took until the 18th century for the town to finally blossom…thanks to a royal representative that alternatively cajoled and coerced the locals–especially the businessmen–into tearing down run down buildings, erecting bigger more fancy ones, tearing down whole areas to build wide avenues etc, according to s master plan designed by the royal envoy (not that town is not Paris).
    It only looks even better now because of a big rehabilitation campaign in the 1970s to remove the unfortunate 1950s modernization of beautiful ancient buildings, along with another campaign in the early 2000s to drastically reduce the use of cars downtown .

    The downtown square where we used to live in a big Haussmann style apartment was a cemetery during the Middle Ages. The church in a corner of the square was a car repair shops in my youth. The cemetery medieval cross has changed location on the square at least 4 times since I lived there, the church is now a condo apartment building, with a shop where the church entrance used to be. The square has a thriving cafe, a post office, and one side of it is also the major pedestrian shopping street in town..a street originally built in Roman times.

    But there are several other squares nearby that are tiny and not that lively at all, yet I am pretty sure that whoever live there is grateful for the tranquility. Not every street and square needs to be a bustling place everyday of the year.

    Red frog

    July 7, 2011 at 1:38 am

  17. As someone who lives on the south side of Sixth Avenue near this square I can’t help but think that Gordon Price was wrong about car access. A bigger issue is pedestrian access. Most of the Fairview slope with its pretty dense housing is barricaded from the seawall and the squares of False Creek South by the trolley tracks and its fencing. I can see the seawall from my home but to get to it I have to walk blocks out of the way. I walk most of the time but Broadway, Cambie, and Granville are easier to access than the seawall venues. The inner city suburb comment is spot on — the tracks make FCS like a walled, gated community.


    July 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

  18. I am a moth flying to the flame anytime anyone singles out an “urban room” for discussion:

    “… [the] design is based on an italian hill village…”

    I count 9 stories on demm dahr buildings—and they are on the SOUTH side (blocking the sun)!! Long shadows here we come! Not any Italian village urbanism (hill or not) that I am familiar with, where the side of the piazza where the church or Duomo will occupied is prescribed (north, to catch the light and not throw the shadows).

    “Gordon Price said that this [didn’t work] because it is inaccessible by car.”

    There is just so much more “making” to be done before we dare talk about ‘success’. Who in their right mind thinks success comes easy?

    Here are a few other things that contribute:

    —Critical Mass. LinBSq is as detached from the rest of the city as is G.I. But it doesn’t enjoy the same combined attraction for people. It is a local destination with regional aspirations.

    —The retail mix. This has to be handled much more deftly than it is currently at LinBSq.

    —Pedestrian Links. The seawall is fabulous. But it’s not enough to make it work. The numbers are not there. What we really need is the intensification of the hill all the way up to 9th Avenue (Broadway) with mixed use, and LRT on Broadway. Then, LinBSq might take on some of the relationships between Kits Beach and 4th Avenue.

    —The Olympic Square. Here, the twining of the Duomo (The Salt Building) and an open space worked. However, in spite of the Very Large Birds, the Olympic Scale Budget to add lights and shiny trinkets, the presence of a Community Centre, a Liquor Store Outlet, a London Drugs (not open), and an Urban Fare (not open), the place suffers from the same problems as LinBSq. Condos are too high fronting the square; and the right retail mix has not been achieved. There is no sense of “what the city gives you for free” there, as Rem Koolhas once put it. The residential intensification up to Broadway would also help here.

    —The Devil is in the Details. We can get the residential intensification in the wrong kinds of buildings and the streets will still feel empty. Or we can do the intensification in the “Super Luxe” model, and the people that move in will not put down the neighbourhood jam.

    Ultimately, it is the urbanism of Leg in the Boot Square that let’s us down. How? There are too many ways to post here. I’ve provided a mere gloss. Jot this one down as a good try that got it wrong because it thought it was too easy. Look to Olympic Square as the second try. And hang your hopes that the third will be the charm.


    July 10, 2011 at 12:09 pm

  19. PS

    My comments are added on to RS. That analysis is spot on.


    July 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

  20. The “trolley tracks and its fencing”, while true, distracts the reader from the simple fact that 6th Avenue is an equally big barricade to pedestrian movement. Tthe fencing is there as much to silence the roadway as it is to stop people from venturing onto tracks that may be used for fewer than 100 hours this year. 6th Avenue functions as a 60km/h urban freeway except when the volume of traffic turns it into a 40km/h urban freeway.

    Leg in Boot is really just a wide spot in the seawall. It lacks any distinctive view, limited seating and no good reason to stop. As Lewis noted the lack of sunshine doesn’t help either.
    But even if it was more distinct and offered more, it would still be empty unless the people there wanted to mix with one another.
    In too many parts of Vancouver people hide within their 4 walls and don’t mix with their neighbours. I admit that I was one of them earlier in life. I recall being single and available in the great Mecca of single and available people, Kitsilano, yet I didn’t know anyone who lived on my block except those in my building. It took me two years to discover that a very attractive, but sadly unavailable, former high school classmate lived across the street from me.
    Kensington Mountain View has a vast “suburbia” between Fraser and Victoria with virtually no shops or services. Even the local community centre is somewhat cut off from half its neighbours by the six lanes of terror known as Knight Street. Therefore it’s a very suburban place. Most people get in their cars and drive away.
    Grays Park is a delightful exception. Home to a little school threatened with closure it attracts a broad demographic to the playground, picnic tables, grass fields, basketball court and lawn bowling club.
    Perhaps that’s the lesson for other public spaces. In order to succeed they must appeal to a variety of demographics. The little park has kid spaces, adult spaces, structured areas, unstructured areas, soft areas and hard areas. Leg in Boot is not a park. It cannot be expected to offer a lot of variety, but it’s hard, heavily shaded and short on seating. You’d be hard pressed to pick a worse combination.


    July 11, 2011 at 12:43 am

  21. @ Lewis re: residential density up to Broadway.

    I believe the critical mass is already there (lived there myself for 11 years in two locations). However, it suffers from poor connectivity to the waterfront east of Granville Island and hence the squares and parks.

    West 6th Ave could be called the Great Wall of Fairview, and limiting its pedestrian connection points to Mobberly, the Laurel land bridge and a couple of points near the Granville bridge tends to sever the free movement of feet from the south.


    July 11, 2011 at 9:13 am

  22. I believe that people like to be around people. Whether it’s people watching, or anything else, for some reason, we like to be around people. An example is the art gallery north side. When there are protests, or events, people gather there, and it is a good square. Other days, it’s empty.
    Now, the question is how to make people to go there, and stay there.
    1) there must be seating
    2) buskers would be great. music attracts people, and makes them stay.
    3) some more vendors or/and outdoor cafe. will attract people from their homes and serve as a community gathering spot.
    4) Have a local farmers market there every week. Or, if not a farmers market, have some events like a music festival once a month.
    5) on one corner, put a small play structure, and maybe a sandbox, so kids can stay for a short time.

    The Roundhouse Turntable plaza is another example of a square that needs to be revitalized. Now, it’s under construction:


    July 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

  23. OK folks, agreed. But let’s fire up the Google Earth tool and verify that the streetwall-to-streetwall distance on 6th Avenue is 220-feet. That’s enough for a double tram line, a few lanes of cars and a great street!

    So, what we are really saying is that LitBSq is missing an urban context. And, while it may never become a mecca of urbanism, there is no reason why it could not function as one in a constellation of urban places that locals might link up on their way from here to there.

    Except that there is this great wall of China in the guise of 6th Ave.

    So, once again, attempts to understand urbanism in a single stroke (“add cars”) fail. And what we are faced instead is something like fitting the rug that is too big for the room. Every attempt is eventually foiled by a corner that refuses to lay down flat.

    Urbanism is complex. And we must embrace its complexity. Kicking and screaming every step of the way every time one or another of us passes off the “solution” as being something simple or easy.


    July 12, 2011 at 12:28 am

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