Art & Culture
May 3, 2021

Crooning in Robson Square on a Sunny Afternoon

(Click title for videos.)

Buskers are quickly discovering that the 800 Block is the best place to perform in the city – quiet, spacious, lots of seating and a receptive audience.

This performer perfectly captured the mood of the day (add his name, if anyone knows), using the square like a stage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Art Gallery, a performance of another kind altogether:

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It’s open!  The block in Robson Square from Hornby to Howe has been closed for about a year and a half for reconstruction (it’s complicated when you’re rebuilding a road on top of an underground building, I guess) – but now Arthur Erickson’s original vision for the square is complete.  Pedestrians (and bicycles) only.

And it’s a bigger space than I anticipated:

That means there will be lots of things happening simultaneously – demonstrations, performances, exhibitions, people hanging out, eating, ‘gramming, meeting, just trying to get someplace else.  And then being distracted by some of the best people-watching in the city.

Here’s a 360-degree video of literally my first minute in the square:

I love how the movement flows almost as if directed – the people walking and eating, the cyclists circumnavigating, the guy in the chair giving hand signals, the skateboarders performing almost on cue, the man on his laptop, and then back where we started.  Even the sirens and boarders providing the soundtrack.  None of it planned, all of it naturally choreographed.

 

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The permanent closure of the 800-block Robson and its redesign (close to the original vision of architect Arthur Erickson) must be getting close to opening.  It’s taken a surprisingly long time, likely because of structural and upgrading issues.

When looking eastward over the fencing, the symmetry of the new space and its urban context becomes apparent:

There are bleacher/steps on both sides (suitable for protests and performances of several sizes).  Then the view opens up.  Horizontal blocks frame a narrow 700-block Robson (likely to be partly pedestrianized in the future?)  Towers rise on either side.

Same elements, slightly different scales, combining to create an harmonious composition with a colour pallet and stonework consistent with the Square.

One obvious question: there’s no separated or distinguishable bike lane.  Is it assumed those cycling through the square will use common sense and etiquette to yield, that they should dismount when the block is crowded, or divert around the square using the Hornby Bikeway?

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Vancouver Deputy Mayor Heather Deal has a number of portfolios – usually all the ways to make sure our City is becoming delightful – including Arts & Culture. She is passionate about the topic and a Councillor Liaison to the Arts & Culture Policy Council so I asked her to tell me more. She shared stories about her conversations with Vancouverites on public art. 1. Poodle on a Stick

Poodle (no official name) by Gisele Amantea got negative media when someone from the area complained that Main Street isn’t a poodle neighbourhood. Which is awesome because public art got people talking about the identity of their neighbourhood.

There were also complaints about cost and it not being a local artist (both based on inaccurate reporting).

(TP note: How many of our public art pieces have their own Twitter account? Follow @MainStPoodle)

When people complain to me about the poodle, I ask them what piece of public art they do like.

2. A-mazing Laughter

9/10 answer: A-mazing Laughter at English Bay – a Vancouver Biennale piece. So I ask them 3 questions about it:

Does it reflect the West End?

How much did cost?

Where is the artist from?

No one can answer that. Not one person to date.

(TP: I was able to answer all 3 – including who negotiated the counteroffer and donated it.)

3. The Third Piece

Then I ask for opinions about a third piece of public art. Very few can name one. Some come up with Myfanwy MacLeod’s The Birds in Olympic Village.

Some can name Giants by OSGEMEOS on Granville Island – another biennale piece from an international artist team.

4. I love it when people talk about our city.

Art is a great place to start that conversation. Learn about the hundreds of pieces of public art in Vancouver at the City’s website here.

5. Notice art.

Think about whether you like it or don’t. Look it up and learn about the artist and their inspiration.

Did you know that the poodle was made by an artist living in the region at the time and that it was inspired by the antique shops on Main Street? (TP: I had no idea.)

We also want to encourage people to think about what they like and want in public spaces such as art (murals, pieces, etc.) and what type of programmed space, festivals, and unprogrammed squares or plazas they’d like.

Ask yourself: Do you want to be entertained? Amused? Challenged?

Reminded of something in our history, negative or positive?

Awed? Do you want to be able to interact with it?

Does it compel you to take a selfie with it?

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Even though Adam Fitch is working up in Thompson-Nicola, he’s keeping his hand in when it comes to Lower Mainland issues.  Notably, on the op-ed page of the Vancouver Sun today:

The most appropriate solution (for rapid-transit to UBC), with due consideration for costs, regional transit priorities (i.e. Surrey, etc.) and time frame (10 years from now to build the subway at a minimum) is to build a mainly street-level light rail along the CPR corridor, the Arbutus corridor, and West 16th Avenue to UBC. Compare this route with a Broadway subway on cost, construction time and capacity, and it prevails.

And in my email box, with this proposal to elevate Robson Square:

 
  • A simple circular plaza, elevated over Robson Street – a large new space for gathering and temporary installations
  • Accessed by stairs and spiral ramps, contains numerous glass panels to minimize shading
  • Allows buses to pass through on Robson Street.
  • Provides shade and weather protection on Robson Street.
  • Enables pedestrian bridges over Hornby Street and Howe Street, to connect to adjacent buildings – Sears/Nordstroms, for example
  • An iconic piece of architecture.

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[Oh look over there: Isn’t that Cornelia Oberlander reaching for a pitchfork?)

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PART 5, the conclusion, of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street. 

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.  Part 4 is here.

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Conclusion: Conceptualizing and Understanding Transit

This isn’t just about Robson Street. It’s actually about how transit is understood, what its purpose is, and how it creates and interacts with vibrant, pedestrian‑oriented urban spaces.

One justification for choosing to close Robson to transit might be found in the Transportation Plan’s “hierarchy of modes.” According to this, Vancouver’s priorities for moving people are:

  1. Walking
  2. Cycling
  3. Transit
  4. Taxi / Commercial Transport / Shared Vehicles
  5. Private Automobiles

This is a strong policy statement, but there’s a danger of applying it too glibly. There’s a need to reflect on what transit is and how it relates to other modes. The placement of transit in the middle of the hierarchy is apt. When setting targets, transit is, along with walking and cycling, a desired way to move people. But, when it comes to planning pedestrian‑friendly spaces, transit is something to be pushed away, lumped in with private autos. The statement seems to be that as many people as possible should ride transit, but it should be kept out of sight.

First, this ignores the contribution transit makes to an active and vibrant pedestrian realm. Many urbanists are quick to praise Vancouver’s urban form—a “streetcar city” with walkable linear corridors throughout the city—but dismissive of Vancouver’s current transit network, and unaware of the geometry that sustains it.

The City’s summertime street‑closure program, Viva Vancouver, for instance, claims to be about “reducing cars on city streets,” but its highest profile “activations” take place on transit streets, particularly the Granville transit mall. The fact that our best pedestrian streets are also transit streets isn’t a coincidence, but at the moment it’s treated only as an inconvenience.

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But, even more importantly, understanding modes as discrete choices ignores that a major purpose of transit is—as Jarrett Walker argues in Human Transit—to accelerate the pedestrian. Transit uniquely provides personal mobility that allows travel across the entire transit network as a pedestrian, giving rise to strong pedestrian spaces across the entire city. If we close Robson Square to transit, we’re prioritizing the pedestrian experience on one block over the experience of travelling across the city as an “accelerated pedestrian.”

Vancouver is on the leading edge of an issue that many cities are going to have to confront: in dense cities moving toward sustainable mobility, hard choices have to be made about how road space is allocated. A conversation about the purpose, role and structure of public transit needs to happen very early in the process; without that, we’re pretending that conflicts can be avoided and that “careful planning” will let us achieve everything we want.

If Vancouver can’t contemplate a public square with transit running through it, then it’s limiting the effectiveness and future ridership potential of transit service through some of its densest neighbourhoods. But, more broadly, if cities, urbanists, planners, architects and others don’t understand transit, then we’ll continue to be speaking different languages. The #5 Robson will be forever circling the square, and we’ll still be trying to square the circle of how to meet ambitious targets for increased transit ridership.

This misunderstanding isn’t deliberate or malevolent; rather, it’s structural. Vancouver is a wonderful and frustrating place for transit. We have an extraordinarily integrated transportation system, but it depends on complex relationships between numerous municipalities and regional and provincial governments. Everyone supports more and better transit, but a consensus on how to plan, deliver and pay for it remains elusive.

We have strong and ambitious goals for an expanded frequent transit network but few clear paths of how to get there. Robson Street is a small piece of this bigger picture. Building transit ridership in Vancouver depends on a fast, frequent and legible transit network, and building and maintaining that network is a challenge shared by all the players who have a stake in Vancouver’s transit system.

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PART 4 of the extended essay by a guest writer, Peter Marriott, on the question of transit on Robson Street. 

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.

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Future Possibilities

The City mentions that Translink will be conducting a “service review” of the Downtown core, once again suggesting that “careful planning” will give us a better bus route if Robson Square is closed. But, in fact, a service review that focuses on building transit’s ridership is likely to find that Robson Square is an even more important transit route than it is today. Rather than “helping guide improved bus routes,” closing the street to transit actually means closing the door to possible improvements.

An immediate improvement to the #5 line, for instance, would extend it to Waterfront Station and route via Granville both ways instead of making a one‑way loop on Richards.

This requires no new trolley wire or other infrastructure, but it would require a commitment from the City to provide more consistent transit service on Granville (the reason the #5 has been routed via Richards is that when Granville is closed, all other southbound services are rerouted to Howe, but the turn from Howe to Robson is impossible. Because Granville is closed so often, Translink decided in 2011 to route the #5 via Richards at all times).

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But the real gap (and opportunity) in Downtown Vancouver is that Yaletown and Downtown South are severely underserved. Keeping Robson Square open to transit allows for transit service on Robson and Davie to be extended east to provide continuous service along the entire length of their respective streets, creating a downtown transit network that provides direct and convenient connections between downtown communities and the broader transit network.

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A transit network like this could support a better pedestrian environment and better public spaces, too. A decision to prioritize transit along with walking and cycling could lead to the development of a transit‑accessible greenway all along Robson, as the City once considered. Better transit service to the east side of downtown could go a long way toward redeveloping Larwill Park as a public square.

These are my concepts only, but the broader point is this: a review of transit service in Downtown Vancouver that actually attempted to increase ridership, legibility and accessibility would likely find that Robson Street needs a two‑way, frequent, continuous transit service. In fact, I don’t see a plausible way for any other line to effectively serve the east end of Robson, which currently has only one‑way loop service from the #17 line. Closing off the possibility of transit service through Robson Square permanently limits future options to build Downtown transit ridership.

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TOMORROW: Conceptualizing and Understanding Transit

* Bold emphases mine.

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Further to the posts below on Robson Street transit (“Circling the Square”), Ian Fisher provides some data:

In 2011, the #5 Robson carried an average of 9,400 riders/weekday, and the #6 Davie 9,100. Both routes are scheduled to run at least every 9 minutes during the day, more typically every 5-7 minutes, though congestion can clearly affect the consistency of the service.

Better yet, he provides a link to data for all the routes of the bus and trolley system – here.  Just scroll down to find “005” .

Here’s a sample of some of the data:

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As canadianveggie says:  “Statistical gold!”

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