Nature & Public Spaces
August 18, 2006

Barrie Mowatt's comparison

Barrie is the driving force behind the Sculpture Biennale detailed in Price Tags 86 – (Click and take the tour.)
He’s just back from Northern Europe, with an interesting observation on Vancouver:

Just returned from Scandinavia, Baltics and Russia.  Very impressed and surprised at how beautiful Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Riga, etc are.  Amazing parks, waterways, walking and bike paths.
What I discovered most is much what you have said in Price Tags 87.  Vancouver has nowhere for people to gather and ‘party’ or ‘protest’.  WE have no inner-city squares where people walk through or can congregate … probabaly afraid they will become gathering places for the unwashed, etc. Hence our parks are primarily along the water’s edge, on the edge of the city.  No room for congregating … only passing by!

I wonder if the design to design-out public-squares like you find in every European and South American Capital was intentional !
It would be nice in the newer areas of the city that are being developed to create public parks/squares and to build amenities and living accommodation around them so that people have to criss-cross through them to get from a to b and in better weather actually congregate … ike Place des Vosges in Paris, the park in Riga between the Embassy district and old town, or the large plazas in reconstructed Vilnius.

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Disclosure: This is an idea taken directly from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, who asked his readers to send him pictures of what they see outside their windows.  And the results are intriguing: windows into people’s lives as well as their circumstances. 
Here’s a view from window of Stephen Rees, a Richmond, B.C. reader who also puts out his own blog:


The early morning view out of the window next to my computer.
We converted this central bed to a vegetable garden last year, and this year we are overwhelmed with zucchini (go away for a weekend and they become giant marrows). We also have lots of herbs, mange tout peas, french beans, green pepper, aubergines, lettuce, leeks and tomatoes – not bad for a single raised bed 7′ x 4′ and a few pots on the patio.

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August 17, 2006

Great vacation time in Montreal and Vermont. 
For a perspective on public spaces in Montreal, check out the latest Price Tags – Issue 87 – which you can download on my web site ( or click directly from here:
Usually I have to wait for the next issue of PT to provide feedback.  Now I can do it on this blog.
As you’ll see, I wrote some positive comments about Parc Emilie-Gamelin (also known as Place Berri) based on the activity I saw there. 

Here’s another perspective from PT reader Dan Freeman:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with your laudatory description of Place Berri in downtown Montreal (Jan Gehl’s book “New City Spaces” makes the same mistake, in my opinion)

While it has some strengths, it is a problematic public space. Based on my experience/observation of this square (most recently in July) it has far too much unprogrammed open space. There are no activities, cafes or vendors here that could draw people to this space in the heart of the city. There is also very limited comfortable and practical seating. Not enough is in the shade, and there isn’t much that would encourage conversations between people – just the usual benches and ledges around some of the edges.
As a result, most of the space is largely empty (except for the odd skateboarders in the blank plaza), and its edges are usually populated by the city’s homeless population who set up camp in the shade and sleep/lounge throughout the day. While they are certainly as entitled to using public space as all other citizens (and in fact the homeless likely depend on it more than most), their overwhelming presence discourages many others who live/work/study downtown from hanging out there. We need to create public spaces which are inclusive and provide places for multiple communities to feel comfortable on a daily basis.
I won’t deny that Place Berri is a fantastic place for public events/concerts/gatherings/protests. It most definitely is. And Vancouver desperately needs such a space. My (exceptionally controversial) suggestion: rebuild much of Robson Square to create a public plaza across the street from the VAG. Don’t tell the architects though, they LOVE this Erickson work, ignoring its failings as a piece of the urban infrastructure.
But I digress. The problem with Place Berri is that it fails ‘the rest of the time’. Public spaces should be designed and programmed for major events, but need to work first and foremost as great every day places.
Thanks once again for the amazing photos and ideas you share through PriceTags. It’s truly an exceptionally generous contribution to the city’s urban dialogue.

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Off to Vermont for a week to do a little cycling, then up to Montreal for the end of the Out Games.  I’ll keep in touch.
Glad to see that the blog is generating some buzz.  Pete McMartin responded to the jab below with a few of his own.  Check it out – and add your own.

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July 26, 2006

First night of the fireworks at English Bay.  Just us and a quarter million of our neighbours. 
I’m not sure why photographers try to capture fireworks, or sunsets.  The result is always going to be a little disappointing, since you’re turning something that generates light into something that reflects it.  So we get a little arty instead.
But here’s something you might not have seen if you don’t stick around after the crowds have dispersed.  Down on Beach Avenue by the Aquatic Centre, there’s a convoy of sanitation trucks waiting to move into action, preceded by a phalanx of motorcycle cops, their lights ablaze.
  As the parade gets underway, there are cheers from the balconies above; people applaud from the curbs.  Someone even has a trumpet.   This must be a thrill for guys in the Engineering Department.  Talk about respect.
And for boys, who are genetically programmed to get off on trucks, the engineering parade must be a bigger blast than the fireworks. 

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Seattle-ite Patrick McGrath asked the following question in a comment to the “Density Game” below:

Are high rises the best way to move people into the urban core? How do they compare to 3-5 story apartment blocks in terms of their affordability and population density?

Well, Patrick … it depends.
As the post notes, the density for highrise and lowrise can be exactly the same. In fact, the highrise could be less dense – assuming we’re comparing floor area, not population. For instance, a 20-storey building with floorplates that are 5,000 square feet in area on a lot that is 25,000 square feet has (I simplify) a Floor Space Ratio (FSR) of 4. A five-storey building that almost covers the site would likely have an FSR of around 4.5. The lower building would be denser.

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Just over two years ago, when I was first started Price Tags, Khenko was on the cover of No. 28. Khenko is Coast Salish for the Great Blue Heron – in this case, the wired version.

Artist Doug Taylor had a vision for a work of art that would celebrate the bird’s return to False Creek: sail-covered blades to capture the wind and move the gears that in turn would raise and lower the wings of the heron. He had a model too:

Now it’s not just a model. Khenko is flying. The sculpture was raised last Friday.
You can see the sail-blades from Granville Island. In fact Khenko is visible from many points along the Creek, since it’s placed at the southern-most point of George Wainborn Park, on the north shore of False Creek, just east of the Granville Bridge.

Back in 2004 I wrote: “This is going to be amazing.”
It is.

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In municipal politics, “density” is a code word. For some, it’s synonymous with urban decay, or more mildly, a less prestigious neighbourhood. For others, it means diversity and vitality or smart growth.
But almost everyone associates density with height: the taller the building, the denser. And because that’s often the case, it seems to make sense, even when it isn’t true. Typically a battle over development turns into a debate over height. Some communities consider the battle won when a building is reduced in height, even if the density doesn’t change.
There’s also confusion over the exact definition of density. Is it calculated, for instance, by including all open space – the roads, the setbacks, the parks? In other words, the gross density. Or is it a calculation of so many square metres on the building’s footprint – or net density? And then there’s population density versus building density, calculated as floor-space (or FSR). Or how about the number of people per unit? And so on.
Since I live in the West End (often said, inaccurately, to be Canada’s densest neighbourhood), and have sat through a lot of public hearings, I’m acutely aware of the confusion – and often surprised at how urban problems are sometimes inversely proportionate to height. Today, for instance, there’s a good article in the New York Times (here) on the fabled Casbah, an historic district of Algiers.

Not much over three storeys. But a lot of people are crammed into those courtyards:

“… the quiet, private spaces have since given way to overcrowding. In 1958 the Casbah’s 175 acres were home to only 30,000 people [a gross density of 171 people per acre]. Those numbers swelled as the battle for independence gained strength, and people crowded into the city to escape reprisals by the French. More than 80,000 people live in the Casbah today. [457 people/acre.] Each house, intended for as single family, now holds as many as 10 poor families.

So how does that compare to the West End, where three-quarters of the buildings are five storeys or more:

With respect to population density, not even close. In the West End’s 500 acres (Burrard-Georgia-Stanley Park-English Bay), there are 42,120 people (2001). Gross density is therefore 84 people per acre – middling by world standards – and almost country-like compared to nearly 500 per acre in the Casbah.
More importantly, the 28,000 households average out to 1.5 people per unit. In other words – and this is what counts – the West End, though a high-density neighbourhood, is not overcrowded. That, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, means too many people in too small a space. It’s what people want to get out of as they get more affluent, though they may search out a high-density neighbourhood if it offers what they want.
So, if the West End is not Canada’s densest neighbourhood, what is?

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