Paul Liberatore

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Vancouver lacks dynamic public spaces

Vancouver lacks dynamic public spaces: architect

A concept design for the redevelopment of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s north plaza, which is a prime example of a much-needed urban space.


Vancouver needs to focus on building public spaces in the centre of the city that are as dynamic as beaches and the seawall around its edge, according to a Vancouver architect.

Brian Wakelin said the kinds of urban spaces he’s talking about aren’t parks, but places such as Italian piazzas that can used for many different purposes, from outdoor markets to concerts.

“I’m not talking about spaces being used every day that are all important — such as grassy fields and park benches and playgrounds,” he said.

“We need a variety of spaces for the way Vancouver is growing: spaces that aren’t muddy and soaked in the winter that are suitable for people with different levels of accessibility. I think we need a larger definition of the kinds of spaces in the city for different kinds of folks.”

Wakelin is a principal with Public, a local design and architectural firm, which has just been awarded the $50,000 Prix De Rome in Architecture by the Canada Council for the Arts. The award will allow Public to study public space in cities that include Rotterdam, Tokyo, Singapore and Oslo.

Wakelin said he agrees with designer and author Lance Berelowitz, who said in Dream City that Vancouver is a place that lives on its edges but lacks vibrant public spaces in the centre.

“Cycling and running on the seawall are great things and so is strolling down Robson Street,” said Wakelin. “But there are other kinds of things that people want to be able to do and Vancouver doesn’t have those kinds of spaces. In the middle of the city, we don’t have urban hardscape spaces. We make due with temporarily closing down Georgia Street or Robson Street for big sports festivals.”

Wakelin said the base research cities are Rotterdam and Tokyo, which share similarities with Vancouver. Although both have a long history of settlement, they were extensively rebuilt after the Second World War.

One of the significant redesigns of an urban public space in this city, he said, is the plaza on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Nik Milkovich, principal of Milkovich Architects Inc., is leading the plaza redesign team, which includes Berelowitz.

“That’s a really important project,” Wakelin said.

“They’re small steps. Great cities in the world take bigger steps and Vancouver is a big player now. We need to step up and change business as usual.”

In Vancouver, he said, the influence of the real estate industry means that condominium towers and private space comes first, public space second.

“I see lots of people interested and expressing concern about changes in the city, the pace of development, the cost of the city, the changing skyline. No one is really asking about the quality of spaces for people in the city,” he said.

“We want to engage the general public in what we want to do and expand the conversation.”

Wakelin said one of the challenges in coming up with new ideas is having to deal with people who are say “no” to innovation.

“Time and time again, you have a litany of people who know how to say no,” he said.

“For people with jobs like mine, you need to come with the arguments of, ‘Yes, you can, and here for example is someone else who has done it. These are the mistakes they made and learned from that and they’re still alive and everyone is moving forward. We can do it too.’”

Wakelin said his firm hopes to present its findings at the 2016 Vancouver Biennale as well as a public exhibition.


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