- 1 The Study of Block 51 as an Urban Public Space
- 1.1 A Brief History of Block 51
- 1.2 What is a Public Space?
- 1.3 The Transportation Network
- 1.4 The Design of Public Space
- 1.5 Footnotes
- 1.6 Bibliography
- 1.7 Group Members
The Study of Block 51 as an Urban Public Space
Block 51, the block that currently houses the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), is arguably the heart of Downtown Vancouver. Aside from the aforementioned VAG, a tourism and cultural draw in its own right, it has been the space of many public gatherings and political expression such as the start of the Critical Mass Bike Rides, the site of the annual 420 Celebrations, and the initial home of the Occupy Vancouver movement.
Block 51 also played a central role during the 2010 Winter Games. 800-block Robson St. on its southwest side was closed to vehicular traffic and transformed into a pedestrian plaza for nightly celebrations. It was flooded by visitors and locals alike at all times who watched musical performances, witnessed fireworks displays, and ziplined across from the VAG to the BC Courthouse. Further closures occurred for the last 2 summer seasons for Viva Vancouver, the City of Vancouver program about “transforming streets into vibrant public spaces”. With Picnurbia in 2011 and Pop Rocks in 2012, the summertime plaza asked people to slow down and socialize in the busy city centre. The success of these recent developments has led the city to consider a permanent pedestrianization of 800-block Robson.
Recent developments have created opportunities for the City of Vancouver (CoV) to find alternative uses and plans for this urban landscape. Our issue of concern is how Block 51, as a distinct urban landscape, can be shared between competing interests and uses, including: as a space for protest and public demonstrations; as a symbol of city branding; a venue for public art; and, as an important transportation corridor (cars, transit, pedestrians and bikes).
Starting last year, the CoV initiated a public consultation process to investigate the following:
- Transportation impacts and adjustments related to the potential permanent public plaza
- Design possibilities and programming options for a year-round public square
- The public's current and desired use of the 800-block of Robson Street and the North Plaza 
To date, no plans have been announced or circulated. This presents an opportunity for citizens, residents, urbanists, academics and students to be engaged in the future of a public space. We will investigate how changing a public space through pedestrianization will affect its use and the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood. More specifically, we will look at two key factors that concern stakeholders in the space:
- the downtown transportation network and
- the design of the space
We will start with a brief overview of the boundaries of Block 51, highlighting its significant elements as well as their history. It will be followed by a discussion of public spaces and will serve as the framework for the subsequent analysis of the transportation network and space design.
A Brief History of Block 51
Block 51 is the legal name of the city block in Downtown Vancouver bounded by W. Georgia, Howe St., Robson St., and Hornby St.
What makes Block 51 a distinct urban landscape in Vancouver is the North Plaza bordering on W. Georgia St., the old Provincial Courthouse that houses the Vancouver Art Gallery, and 800-block Robson. Each one serves a different role depending on the intended use of the space.
The North Plaza and the Former Vancouver Law Courts have a very intertwined history. Vancouver’s population grew at the turn of the 20th century by serving as the control and distribution centre of the province’s staple/resource-based economy. Such growth required full judicial facilities beyond what the original location of the courthouse at Victory Square can provide. By 1906, a new building was erected at the current site of Block 51 as designed by Francis Rattenbury, the same architect of the Provincial Legislative Assembly. A two-storey annex was built in 1914 on the west side by Howe St. to accommodate the city’s continued growth, which today serves as the entrance to the VAG.
Included in the design for the Former Provincial Courthouse is the North Plaza which served more of a ceremonial role rather than a civic one. W. Georgia St., on Block 51’s north side, was designated as a parade street for events and festivities. As a large open space in front of a provincial government institution, the North Plaza served as a reception area for visiting dignitaries. The first photo below show the North Plaza during the visit of the Duke of Connaught serving as Canada’s Governor-General, while the subsequent photos show W. Georgia’s continued role as the parade route for the city.
1912 Opening Ceremony for the Visit of the Duke of Connaught. Photo from the Vancouver Archives
1946: A military parade for the Diamond Jubilee travelling west in the 800 Block of Georgia Street. Photo from the Vancouver Archives
1960's aerial view of Downtown, with future site of Eaton's Centre, Pacific Centre, Robson Square and Law Courts indicated. Photo by the City of Vancouver
The next evolution of Block 51 came during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Downtown Vancouver, being awash with parking lots at the time, was abound with opportunities for redevelopment. Differing plans were developed by both the Province and the City concerning Block 51 and its immediate environs. Block 51 came to how we know it today after much negotiation between the CoV, the BC Provincial Government, and alterations to the design of famed architect Arthur Erickson.
Erickson's original proposal was firmly rooted in the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier where pedestrians and cars, transit, and commercial trucks were separated from each other via a multi-level structure. He intended to reshape the area in order to help it compete with increasing power of suburban shopping districts.
Changes to the original plan came due to changes in the civic and provincial government, unresolved issues on land ownership, and a renewed level of civic engagement triggered by the freeway protests. The city took issue with Erickson's separated multi-level transportation approach that eliminated 800-block Robson St. Pedestrians would go through bridges at other points in Blocks 51 and 61, while buses would have been rerouted around Hornby to Howe and back to Robson. By 1974, Erickson and the City agreed to a bus-only block, which would serve the residents of the West End. 800-block Robson was then changed to all-vehicle access when even at peak hours, the street was barely used by transit. The development of Cambie bridge at one end of Robson St. also gave pressure for increased usage of the road connection.
Tracing Block 51’s history shows the amount of change the space has undergone over the last century. The design and use of the space has adapted to the changing intentions of provincial and civic governments as well as a number of private stakeholders such as civil society groups, architects and residents. Current consultations and its future outcomes are just the most recent changes in Block 51's history as a distinct urban space in Vancouver.
What is a Public Space?
We intend to analyze the impacts of pedestrianizing 800-block Robson and redesigning the North Plaza through the framework of public spaces. An overview of the research on public spaces show a continued discussion of what they are and how we can analyze them. Similar to the idea of place as “locations infused by a variety of meanings”, the idea of what exactly is public space differs from person to person.
A Question of Ownership?
Throughout the book, Canadian Cities in Transition, authors have used the word public to describe goods and services owned and/or provided by governments as opposed to being owned in “private” by individuals, businesses and corporations. Larry S. Bourne and R. Alan Walks describes policing, schools, hospitals and parks as public goods demanded by urban residents, funded by civic governments, and offered equitably.  In Fillion and Bunting’s discussion of Canadian urban development, they described neoliberalism to include an “enhance reliance on private enterprise and market mechanisms leading to privatization of public enterprises.”
Both descriptions refer to issues of ownership and in these instances, government-ownership. Similarly public spaces can be described as spaces owned by the government, may they be civic, provincial or federal. With the rise of municipal socialism from 1840 - 1875, democratically elected civic governments tended to offer the goods and services demanded by citizens and residents. As governments are funded by tax dollars, it can create a sense of a collective ownership on government investments into infrastructure and amenities such as roads, parks, and schools. In this sense, Block 51 is a public space as the land is owned by the provincial government and leased to the City of Vancouver until 2074.
Yet, this sense of ownership is challenged and muddled in our era of neoliberal urban development. With the decline in tax revenue, increased economic competition and increased demand for services, governments have resorted to leveraging the private sector in urban development.
For public spaces, the sense of ownership is challenged by the popularity of bonus spaces where city planners approve higher density developments from property developers in exchange for contributing to public goals such as integrating park space with their projects. Vancouver uses the same strategy through the Community Amenity Contributions as well as the stated policy of having at least 2.75 hectares of park space per thousand people. Németh's conclusion, in his study of privately-owned but publicly accessible spaces, is that ownership matters as it manifests in the management practices of that space. Private owners have “the ability to exclude certain types of people and certain types of activities” but are “held to less stringent standards of accountability and oversight.” Even though similar management practices may be present in government-owned public spaces, there is an opportunity for change, protest and control from citizens and residents.
A Question of Accessibility?
Discussions about management practices also speak to another element of public spaces, namely accessibility. Private spaces such as homes and corporate offices are not publicly accessible. You will need to ask permission to enter someone’s house or go through a series of security checks before entering corporate offices. Public spaces on the other hand, are expected to be accessible by everyone with minimal restrictions. Many public spaces have rules and restrictions such as library and school hours or no smoking and fire safety rules at public beaches. What makes accessibility in public spaces different is that when permission is needed for access, it must be granted neutrally and without prejudice.. People are drawn to public spaces because they evoke a sense of democracy while being in the company of others; a place that fosters connectivity and community.
From these descriptions, accessibility is not only defined by one’s ability to enter the space but also what you can do once within. Accessible public spaces have what Pomeroy describes as “weak frameworks”, where all uses of the space are not strictly defined and controlled by the government, management or private stakeholders. It has the flexibility to accommodate diverse intentions as well as the opportunities to foster spontaneous interactions, including civil protests and demonstrations. For Block 51, questions about accessibility were at the heart of the Viva Vancouver installations and the Occupy Vancouver Movement.
Visitors to the 2012 Pop Rocks installation at 800-block Robson questioned the comfort-level of the bean-bag like creations by describing them as “beds for the homeless”. One of the designers was also quoted as saying: "The city ... didn't want it to be so comfortable; they were worried about it attracting a homeless population.” Similarly, the City initially had a “wait and see” approach with Occupy Vancouver when the movement created a permanent tent city on the North Lawn of Block 51. City staff and Mayor Gregor Robertson only moved to evict the protesters when a woman died of a drug overdose, citing safety and security concerns. Critics of the move however, argue that Occupy Vancouver was the safest place for marginalized people because volunteers provided essential services not provided by the City. Both examples show the importance of creating an accessible public space by asking questions such as who is the space accessible to and what makes the space accessible.
Ownership and accessibility are just two dimensions of public spaces. Other scholars have argued for discussions regarding other dimensions such as governance, social interactions and design. For the purposes of this analysis, ownership will include discussions around governance issues, while accessibility includes topics around design and social interactions.
The Transportation Network
Block 51 as a Transportation Hub
Block 51 is a major transportation hub for Downtown Vancouver. Both Vancouver City Centre and Granville Skytrain stations are only 2 blocks away, while Howe Street serves a number of bus routes going south to Granville and west to Kitsilano and UBC. The #005 on Robson St. is one out of the only 2 routes that provide a direct connection to the West End, one of Vancouver's most dense neighbourhoos. In their 2012 supplemental plan, Translink intends to increase transit service by 7%, especially along popular bus routes. Its impact on Block 51 will be felt through an increase in pedestrian and transit use.
Vancouver’s bike share program is also set to start in 2014. In accordance with the 2012 plan, the city approved an increase in funding to $6 million for Translink to integrate cycling into the transportation system. The program will place 125 accessibly located docking stations for the bikes at which they’ve noted will be every 2 to 3 blocks in the downtown area. With the implementation of this new program, there is a high probability that several docking stations will be placed within or close to Block 51. Due to the bike share program, the area will gain additional uses as a location to facilitate and embark on their transit excursions.
Block 51 is also located in Downtown Vancouver or the city's central business district (CBD). CBDs grew from businesses' needs to be in close proximity with each other for cheaper transportation, innovation through interaction, and economies of scale. Proximity also exposes a business to more competition that leads to the standardization of business and labour practices in order to attract high-skilled employees. The concentration of people, the standard 9-to-5 workday have led to an abundance of trips made just before and after these hours and an increase in traffic within Block 51. Usage also increases during the summer months due to VIVA Vancouver's invitation to stop, sit and relax at 800-Block Robso, which capitalizes on Vancouver's love of the outdoors.
Accessibility via Transit
As previously mentioned, many were inspired by the success of Block 51's role during the 2010 Winter Olympics and Viva Vancouver's summertime plazas. It has increased pressure on the city to consider permanently closing 800-Block Robson all year round. The road closure will mean rerouting the #5 Robson/Downtown bus to start by W. Hastings and Richards Street and go onto Robson via W. Pender and Burrard Sts. as well as extending the travel time for passengers. The closure also means an elimination of an important street connection to the West End, which concerns many residents of the neighbourhood, especially the elderly. 
If Block 51 continues to be considered as a public space, residents, citizens, planners and civic government need to ask, "Who is it accessible for?" Pedestrianization eliminates car traffic on a narrow road and makes the space accessible for cycling and walking. It will continue to provide pedestrians with a safe and accessible atmosphere during their downtown endeavors. Visitors can easily access both sides of Robson Square while protestors can occupy a larger area for their demonstrations. Yet, the elderly and seniors will experience a reduction in accessibility as it does not serve as a direct connection to their homes. Most perspectives around the use of public spaces center on activities within them, the concerns of West End residents is desire to go through them. A similar concern was brought up by Vancouver's City Council regarding Arthur Erickson's original plans which also eliminated 800-Block Robson.
Translink has regularly noted that they perform service changes around 4 times a year to optimize service and increase efficiencies. Translink has stated that the rerouting is a seasonal change that will revert back to its original route come Labour Day weekend. They has also made a public notice on their site stating that public concerns regarding the rerouting of the #5 bus is under review due to the disturbances caused as reported by the public. Although the road closures impacted bus routes, 
The Design of Public Space
Vancouver’s Block 51 is recognised as one of the busiest pedestrian spaces in the city. The design of the space is composed of wide sidewalks and narrow lane widths that encourage pedestrian movement while minimizing vehicular flow. Over the years, the design of the sidewalks, along with the adjacent plaza spaces, have become significant public spaces. This is displayed by the informal programming or uses that have appeared, such as impromptu chess games, busker performances and a range of street vending. These spaces, especially the south facing steps of the VAG, serve as an important social landmark. Publicly accessible space such as Block 51 serve many functions and needs, and is incorporated into a number of planning approaches, from New Urbanism to economic growth and development schemes, with the understanding that public spaces are necessary to create a safe and sustainable urban environment. However, the traditional functions of Block 51 are frequently challenged by new trends that have emerged in public space provision and management.
The recent political and economic shifts that have occurred in the mid- to late twentieth century have accelerated changes in the way cities provide and manage public space. In addition, deindustrialization and suburban growth cause cities to compete against one another to attract capital investment by making themselves as attractive as possible. These fundamental shifts in the political economy of cities have resulted in a transformation in how public space is produced. The planning and design of many metropolitan areas are organized around growth promotion, amenity creation, ensuring quality of life and providing safe, sanitary, business friendly downtowns. This has resulted in several significant changes in the design of urban spaces such as Block 51.
Privatization of Public Spaces
First, the provision and management of public space have become increasingly privatized, with developers, property managers and local business associations taking the lead in providing and maintaining parks, plazas and atriums. These privatized public spaces include the traditional suburban shopping mall, but also gated communities, and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). As a result, hybrid ownership and management regimes have emerged, which involve both public and private sectors in complex relationships. In Vancouver’s Downtown Core, there are few publicly-owned plaza spaces, with the exception of public streets. The plazas that do exist, associated with office and retail buildings in the central business district make up the majority of publicly-accessible (but privately-owned) downtown public spaces. Thus, these spaces are generally not available for public programming, demonstrations or other impromptu activities. A significant portion of Block 51, adjacent to 800-block Robson Street, is also owned and operated by the Province and its lease holders. Therefore in order for Block 51 to have a design more like a public square and less like a closed street, some modifications to the street surface will have to be considered. Specifically the CoV should coordinate plans with these stakeholders to identify the best options for modifying the block. Ultimately, the use of City streets through temporary, permanent or partial closures provide a significant opportunity for creating open spaces in the downtown. 
Security of Public Space
Second, planners and designers have placed increased emphasis on securing public spaces, especially after harmful occurrences of 9/11 and the 2010 Olympic riots. Over time, Downtown Vancouver has evolved into the Lower Mainland’s social gathering hotspot. During the Olympics and many other large public events such as the annual Canada Day celebrations, the Celebration of Lights, and the Vancouver Jazz Festival, large public gatherings make broad use of the public realm — streets, civic plazas, parks and other civic facilities. Given the large residential population in downtown Vancouver, many people live near or facing the public spaces used for these gatherings. A general consensus exists among planners, developers and consultants that publicly accessible spaces must be perceived as safe in order for them to fuﬁl their potential. The real and perceived safety of a public space remains a top concern for the majority of the public.
Year-round Use of Public Space
Next another concern is making the public space suitable for year-round conditions. While Block 51 may thrive during celebrations and large public events, a common concern in regards to the design of the space is how it will accommodate a year-round use of the block as a public square. A common assumption held by a number of stakeholders is that very few people will use or spend time in the square during the colder, wetter winter and spring months, leaving the square empty for a considerable portion of the year. To respond to the fluctuations in the use of a public square during the course of the day, week, and year, flexibility needs to be built in. A high degree of flexibility in how the space can be re-configured to the desires of different users was needed. For example, the use of moveable street furniture vs. having street furniture pre-configured and bolted to the street. Additionally, a successful square requires several designs and management strategies. The is exemplified through the success of squares such as Bryant Park, the plazas of Rockefeller Center, and Detroit’s new Campus Martius change with the seasons. Skating rinks such as the one in Robson Square, outdoor cafés, markets, horticulture displays, art and sculpture help adapt our use of the space from one season to the next.
Bryant Park, NYC Photo from Jean-Christophe Benoist
Rockefeller Centre, NYC Photo from Mr Bullitt
Robson Square, Vancouver "Photo from Shaund Wikivoyage"
Accessibility of Public Spaces
Lastly, the need to create a welcoming and socially inclusive space is a major component in the design of Block 51. To be successful, a square needs to be easy to get to, but it must be easy to get to for everyone.The best squares are always easily accessible by foot: Surrounding streets are narrow; crosswalks are well marked; lights are timed for pedestrians, not vehicles; traffic moves slowly; and transit stops are located nearby. A square surrounded by lanes of fast-moving traffic will be cut off from pedestrians and deprived of its most essential element: people. The accessibility of the space must address people with mobility issues so that they are able to participate and be involved with city and public events.
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Therise Lee, Zack Lee, Brandon Tims