Monday, February 9, 2009

Where's the Square?


Any healthy city has got to have one decent main square. I don’t care how many parks, pedestrian walk ways, sea walls, bike paths Vancouver boasts, a city without a main square lacks a solid pulse; it lacks an incubator for community. We do meeting up online really, really, well. But right now, we kinda lack the physical spaces to do it in real life.

Sure, Vancouver has plenty of ‘squares’, but it lacks a grand open space for us to gather. Most Canadian cities don't possess the typical main square that European urban centres do. It’s not our fault, we just kinda sucked at urban planning back in the day. But let’s look to the future not to the past, ok?

Vancouver cries out for an urban space with a fountain and some naked angels spouting water, and some cafés with cloth umbrellas and wicker furniture. Or at the very least a central area so that we can hold free concerts, stage some demos, or just sip a coffee which isn’t ‘to go’ and watch the world go by.

Yes, we have Victory “Square”, Granville “Square” and Robson “Square” but does ANY one acutally go there? The closest thing Vancouver has to truly filling the role of square isn’t even a square, but STEPS! Hey, I like the VAG steps, don’t get me wrong. When the sun is shining I sit on them on my lunch break and take in the crazy lady who gyrates to a stereo on wheels or admire how the side walk artist uses spray paint in novel ways. That said, Vancouver is really missing the type of “grand public square” that could – and should - act as a centre point for civic life in the city. I mean, the poor break dancers need more room to do the worm than an expanded side-walk! Even arch nemesis Toronto has in recent years created a grand central square at Dundas and Yonge. It has funky fountains, slick paving stones, some stylized furniture and plenty of space to do whatever. While the visual onslaught of electronic billboards and condo towers make it a bit too, um, Blade-Runnery for my old-world sensibilities, T.O. deserves points for effort in recognizing that its downtown desperately needed a square.

And Toronto's square has succeeded in getting people to gather and take a time-out in a very commercial, hectic, urban core. So Vancouver! Catch up! Use some land slated for a few condo towers to make a square. Communities will thank you for it.

Check out this list of urban squares around the world, for some inspiration. Take your pick. These cities do some neat stuff with squares. Tehran's is a little weird, in my view. Maybe we shouldn't model ours on that one. But that's also open to debate.


The fireworks festival was great for creating community. Masses of people gathering along Vancouver’s shores and exclaiming “Ooooo” and “Aaaaaa” = bonding, plain and simple. It was also a very expensive and somewhat environmentally detrimental way to get us all together. Still, the summer and our community will be worse off now that the festival has been canned. Fireworks, beyond being really cool, tapped into our desire to gather and share in something collectively. A square could help fill that need on a daily basis without millions of dollars going up in smoke. Sure the fireworks created more business for the downtown core. But they also created a lot of garbage and car traffic. So, if we could just repeal some of the most draconian fireworks legislation in the world, build us a square, we’d not only have ourselves a kickin’ place to meet up, display our talents and have our voices heard, we'd also have a great spot for lighting off some rockets come New Year's!


Theodora Lamb said...

Squares are cool. But they're also tourist magnets - not that there's anything wrong from welcoming visitors but they don't exactly attract "fringe" society... you know, the kind of people who would use a square to start a revolution. Cities and governments also like to throw their weight around in places like a city square... "who's turf is this anyways?"...sort of a West Side Story sort of thing, you know?

Hmmm, maybe that's the solution to creating epi-centers of community.... breaking out into song and dance in random back alleys and underneath bridges, singing about how squares are so cool... "play it cool boy... reeeeal cooooooool."

Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

I totally agree - i dare you to find a gathering of native londoners in Trafalgar square for eg.. Still, a good square can offer something for everyone. And while I like how Vancouver attracts spontaneous de-centralized community gatherings throughout the city - and "the public sphere" is alive and well (the vancouver public space network, big supporters of the square concept, has even started to host sky train and sea bus parties, sometimes with a pirate theme, no less) we still need to make room for a fixed space for our tourists, our coffee shops, and for our barricades. Singing "we need a square" to the rooftops and alley cats is a great start.

K-Ho said...

Squares can also be places where bad things happen (e.g. Tiananmen Square) we'll want to avoid that.

On another note, I have hung out in squares as a tourist...and so it would be wrong of me (and us) to get frustrated with tourists hanging out in our squares. Plus, sometimes tourists can be hotties (those Swedes aren't always super friendly...but man are they ever sexy)!


John Horn said...

Hi there GVB,

You had me at "naked angels". Here at UBC the students complain once a year about the lack of a square/courtyard/open space. So, is this a Vancouver phenomenon? Is it a North American phenomenon? Is it really even a problem?

Personally, I hate squares. And do you wanna know why? Because they're outside, open and sunny. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but, for the most part, Squares are not about shade. And, even if there is shade (like with a few trees or umbrellas), man, the UV just gets right in there and cooks people.

Now, I might not be the majority (de Tocqueville told us to fear your tyranny, anyway), but this is what I think and this is how I feel. Wide open squares invite Sun worship, and nothing good has ever come from that. Just ask the Aztecs, or 24-year-old fake 'n' bakers who look 40 and will get a new, stylish kind of skin cancer very soon.

In conclusion, I am anti-square (unless it's totally covered). I am also anti-Sun. And I am more pro-square than anti-square, but I really only sway from anti-to-pro on the square issue if the Sun gets taken out of the picture somehow.

And I'm working on that one...

- John

Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

well, it was the Incas not the Aztecs. And sun worship got them to the top of the heap in South America until Spaniards bearing disease and pestilence came along. Also, it's bound to rain in a Vancouver square a lot of the time, that's why I propose graceful arcades and awnings which you can enjoy. Still, point well taken J-..i mean, Tocqueville.

John Horn said...

Godfrey, I think you need to do a little more reading about the Aztecs:

And, hey, if you want to lead a band of heathen Sun worshipers in a massacre of sexy Swedish tourists in the middle of some Burgessonian square (I sorta skimmed the other comments), well, that's totally your prerogative.

All I'm saying is that I won't be a part of it.

A tres bientot, Sunny.

Anonymous said...

Godfrey is not alone!

Where’s the Square? Visionaries wanted.

The Vancouver Public Space Network is currently running a Design Ideas Competition. The “Where’s the Square?” contest is open to anyone who feels like they have a plan for a grand gathering place inside the city boundaries.

We’re looking for ideas from city-lovers, planners, artists, philosophers, architects, urbanists, students of any discipline and visionaries from all walks of life. The competition has some fairly straightforward parameters covering the size,accessibility,
programming and utility of the square… but after that, it’s all up to you. Most importantly, we don’t have a set location in mind. Instead, we’re looking for entrants to come up with a plan for where the square could be situated.

The “Where’s the Square?” Competition runs until March 20, 2009 and is open to individuals or teams. There will be two prizes, based on a juried review of the entries as well as a “people’s choice award.”
A variety of other supporting events will also be taking place throughout February, March and April.

Interested in participating? The Competition Brief and other related materials can be accessed at the VPSN’s “Where’s The Square?”


“Where’s the Square?” Competition Brief:

For more information:


Vancouver Public Space Network
Box 2754, Station Terminal
349 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 3X2

Kurt Heinrich said...

I figured this post might be of interest to the VPSN. Nice!

Stewart Burgess said...

squares have historically been places of power. in general, absolutist governments have been the big proponents of grand squares and boulevards (i know gregor is not an absolutist mayor so this should not be a problem). absolutist governments express the increasing centralization of power with the construction of a grand square, typically in their capital city.

in the same way these kind of squares centralize the focus of an individual city and its inhabitants. why do you think tourists always head to grand squares? because they are concentrated way-finding nodes. seeing as though vancouver is trying to actualize ideas of eco-density by creating smaller focal points within the city's fabric, why should we focus our efforts on a single monolithic open space?

let's instead do that song and dance thing.

i also feel that such projects are anti-solar urticaria sufferers. = )

Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

Neither Vision, NPA, COPE have absolutist leanings (well, maybe the NPA), so if a monolithic space were to materialize, i don't think we'd need to fear the erosion of democracy. My vision of a grand square compliments other more decentralized gathering spots. I don't really follow how a pedestrian square gets in the way of eco density. Then again, I don't know too much about this concept.