Spacing out on W.A.C. Bennett Place

Post by Gord Price in


The north lawn of Vancouver's Art Gallery has great potential as a gathering place

Great fun participating in the launch of Spacing magazine’s national editions – including Vancouver – that was also part of the City’s consultation on the Transportation Plan.

Publisher and Creative Director Matt Blackett was leading the road show, and hosted a panel to discuss the Top Ten Public Spaces in Vancouver. (Here’s Stephen Rees’s summary and opinion.)

Erin O’Melinn of the Vancouver Public Space Network had a lot of great insights, and has thoughtfully posted them on the VPSN blog here.

This jumped out for me:

Well-designed spaces strategically strike a balance between things that make us feel safe and welcome and things that let us push our normal habits: we want a sense of publicness where we know we belong, but we want to share it with people that are very different from ourselves; we want openness that allows us to people-watch, but we want a sense of enclosure so we don’t feel too watched ourselves; we want prolific transportation options to get there, but then we want to be buffered from fast moving traffic when we are there.

Maybe that helps explain why there isn’t a great public space in the centre of the city (the Canadian winner for best public space was the Seawall – the ultimate in an edge environment). Even though the space in front of the Art Gallery steps on the south side was recognized, it lacks the size to handle anything beyond a few hundred people.

The solution, in my and many people’s opinion, is to re-do the plaza on the north side of the gallery – an opportunity that may arise if and when the Gallery moves and Bing Thom’s idea of an underground performance hall prevails.

The main problem with the current space is that fountain in middle – a gift to the City by Premier W.A.C. Bennett to celebrate Canada’s Centennial, if I recall – that cuts up the plaza. Awkward landscaping, too much soft surface, the absence of proper facilities for lighting and sound, the incidental relationship to surrounding streets – all make what is a first-rate location into a second-rate public space.

So here’s a proposal: Canada’s 150th anniversary is only half a decade away – surely enough time to have a competition, allocate funding and undertake the construction, all in time for a first-class birthday party on first-rate public space.

And we can name it after W.A.C. Bennett if we’re going to trash his fountain.

- Post by Gordon Price. He is Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. He also writes, teaches and consults on urban development and planning. He served six terms as Councillor for the City of Vancouver, from 1986 to 2002, as well as on the board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro) and TransLink, the regional transportation authority.This column was originally posted on

Follow us on Twitter @CityCaucus. Follow Gordon on Twitter @pricetags.


The fountain tells a story.
There is a very important plaque facing the fountain.

Where's my VAG renewal form? The current exhibition is world class and not to be missed...however, I would seriously question this city's and province's priorities if renewing/relocating the
Art Gallery happens before St. Paul's Hospital is replaced.One can foresee an earthquake scenario where a complete building collapse will result in zero emergency services in the middle of a disaster area. It's a wonderful thing to fantasize about future party spaces,
but they really do deserve to be an afterthought to the realities of dealing with this city's safety, peace and security.

The way to turn this into a functioning public space would be to pedestrianize some or all of the surrounding roads, so the plaza runs right up to the buildings that define it, becoming a truly accessible part of the city. For example, just taking out one road (in front of the National Gallery) has transformed Trafalgar Square. Around the edges the gain of space would make the area used by the fountain irrelevant.

The same principle could even apply to the war memorial or the desert outside the library, it's the roads that kill the potential for public use.

@ Gerry McGuire

Is this the improved level of debate you propose for Vancouver? If so you've already marked yourself out as loser.

What a weird video you posted. 5 seconds of footage = gridlock? Then a bit showing the NDP...? Then a blurb arguing against urbanism? Odd.

Big Stinker...LOL but so true on so many levels...

I guess you didn't notice that it's a response to David Hadaway's comment. It all relates directly to that. I could have shown you ten minutes on the same gridlocked two blocks, but your time is almost as important as mine, isn't it? I could have shown you the crowd scene on the library plaza that he says doesn't cut it as a public space, but I happen to like Godin's speech, and you can hear the crowd very well. The Plaza is good enough for Jack Layton and a major labour rally but not for the wanna-close-the-streets urbanistas? Too bad. Now go waste someone else's time, weasel.

Well, with half an hour to spare, and not being used to being so rudely dismissed as writing BS, I thought I'd clarify what I meant regarding "W.A.C. Bennett Place".

If we look at the world's most successful public places, let's say Piazza San Marco in Venice;

they are very pedestrian accessible. You can move from any point on the perimeter to any other location freely, activities in the square are readily serviced by the surrounding buildings, which are what define the space.

Then let's look at the least successful. For example Parliament Square in London;

The problem isn't the quality of the surroundings (although I've chosen a picture showing the charming old Victorian buildings opposite Big Ben rather than the clunky new office building), it is the fact that the space is inaccessible and defined by the roads around it.

It isn't "anti-car" to say this, which seems to elicit a Pavlovian response, it's simply easily observable fact.

Now our square is defined by roads on three sides and by its buildings only on the dead side of the VAG. Give access into the building through its portico or basement story and it will improve the ambience enormously. Lose the road on the Vancouver Hotel side and it could really start to be a pleasant functional space. I'm not saying it would be easy (although it's also not that hard) just that the problem is not the fountain and the solution is not some underground mega-project!

Uhh, ok Gerry. Thanks for the personal insult. And you're running for Mayor?

For once, boohoo, I have to agree with you! This man needs to get a grip on himself.

You can run against me if you want, we're holding open nominations-but you'll have to come out of your hole first...

David, I owe you an apology, even more so because a late best friend of mine was iatse. Boohoo, hiding behind a screen name, not so much...

Why are you so pissy with me?

Who is 'we' anyway?

a) Sleep deprivation and b) Vancouver Citizen's Voice has about eighty signed members so far.

I'm turning off my PC and going to sleep. ttyl

Just to clarify something here.

@david hadaway,
I am not reading Gerry's comment the same way you are..I think it was a joke...BS..and if you watch the video, "Big Stinky" get it...BS...

I'm just playing devil's advocate here, but I think there is a misunderstanding...

@ Boohoo come on pretty weak come back..if Gregor can call the citizens of Vancouver "F&*%king Hacks"... and he's the Mayor.. a candidate should be entitled to the same .

Where is the difference??

"if Gregor can call the citizens of Vancouver "F&*%king Hacks"... and he's the Mayor.. a candidate should be entitled to the same .

Where is the difference??"

A race to the bottom of the barrel eh? Good luck with that philosophy.

Ha ha
You started the incline to a lower level when you tried to slam another candidate.

Slam him? I said the video was weird. Hardly a slam. He then called me a weasel. Either way, 'it's ok cause gregor did it' is an interesting philosophy, I'll have to watch if that continues lol.

As for the article, I think the muddy grass needs to go asap. Reinvent that space completely. It's too open, too soft and always feels temporary. A competition to design something urban and permanent sounds fantastic. I'm sure there's no shortage of amazing ideas.

I think you mean the war of the car, where car drivers demand hugh swaths of the city without being willing to pay for the real cost of all the space they consume.

What's the real cost of earthquake unpreparedness? So similar to the way the possibility of a riot was ignored. This whole thing is about a trivial sideshow just like the bike lanes. The misallocation of time effort and money on "feel good" projects is the real issue here. I see the renewal/replacement of St Paul's as an overriding priority in the near future. Any debate about that?

Gerry I couldnt agree more,the fluff they are promoting sickens me when we have real grown up things to assure the safety of our people.These special interest groups refuse to accept the true harm the numbers clearly show as long as they can have their selfish ways.They constantly try to claim some kind of moral high ground because they ride their bike from kits to downtown on sunny days,give me a break,its more like the imoral lowground.

I would suggest the idea of rebuilding St Pauls on its existing site is likely to be fraught with delay and expense. It would be much better and cheaper both short and long term to build new to the highest standards on the vacant rail-yard site, New and clear road access could then also be provided to efficiently serve the entire city, which would be crucial in the event of a disaster. Does any candidate have the b***s to face down the outcry from the Westenders, however?

As my old exam papers used to say - 'Discuss'.

Having the ability to think of more than one thing at a time I also suggest that we have to deal decisively with the city's homeless and housing crisis, reform our ridiculous licensing laws, shake out the city bureaucracy, rethink the grid-iron plan with modern traffic management technology and use this to restructure our public spaces, stop subsidizing Bombardier (or SNC Lavalin) with Skytrain (or 'cheap' substitutes) and prepare for a cost effective mass transit system, and there's plenty more!

In other words the next election is about a lot of issues, or should be.

David I think the density of the west end the last time I heard was 40000 per square mile,and thats all within walking distance to St Pauls,I would agree access would be nonexistent to the rest of the city if the bridges were out.I wonder if you could provide more density info for the rest of the city as per distance to hospitals.

Sorry David I should have said that 40000 number was some twenty years ago,Its surely higher now but I could be wrong.

There's not much to disagree with here. Will flesh out my response after work. Thanks.

"The city's homeless and housing crisis"
requires reforming a top heavy delivery system, a forensic audit would be a good start. Intense resistance is likely.

"reform our ridiculous licensing laws" not sure what you're referring to here, but there's quite a widespread call to license cyclists. Patio licensing for restaurants and bars requires them to pay for lost parking revenue! Compare that to the free "ride" received by cyclists when hundreds of parking spots disappeared on Hornby St.

"shake out the city bureaucracy" a never ending process. Maybe it's time to start requiring staff in sensitive positions to file financial disclosure statements.

"rethink the grid-iron plan with modern traffic management technology and use this to restructure our public spaces" this is multifaceted and involves difficult analysis and prioritization.A planning process where all mode users are considered and accommodated a la Monderman has imho the most promise.

"stop subsidizing Bombardier (or SNC Lavalin) with Skytrain (or 'cheap' substitutes) and prepare for a cost effective mass transit system"
Amen to the first part. The second part suggests something that is anathema to transportation professionals-who are dedicated to getting cars off the road by building financially unsustainable transit systems that often only temporarily achieve that goal-market pricing of public transportation. A politically incorrect non-starter, yet far, far greener than distorting living/working/travelling patterns and aggravating urban sprawl through extreme tax and spend subsidization of the public transportation system.

And the hospital...the exact location IS a can of worms, as you suggest. The closer to it's current location the better, I believe. If you mean the railyard at Main and Terminal, that's a bit far and unless the railroad and bus depot disappeared, not the most quiet place for a hospital. Maybe it's going to have to stay where it is despite the difficulties involved in that. What is a certainty is that the hospital must take priority over the Art Gallery.

"but there's quite a widespread call to license cyclists"

By whom? No one to my knowledge has yet to come up with a workable plan or a valid rationale for this idea, which has zero traction in the rest of the world and as far as I know, no reputable backers or evidence there would be a benefit to the public from such a scheme.

Until those issues are addressed, there's no point in making it harder for people to access a low-cost, low-impact method of personal transportation.

Yes, I may have seemed to plunge into the St Pauls matter. Somehow a first paragraph got missed out where I suggested that discussing one matter does not prevent us also being aware of others or realising that there are differing viewpoints that have to be considered. For example gman's point about Westend population density versus mine about rest of city access.

Note to self - be more careful when transferring comments written in TextEdit!

Gerry, that stupid BS answer of yours got you back one vote. And it's not David's. I thought you wanted to be different than the putz residing inside City Hall. I thought you would throw an apology...still, nothing. Good luck!

Check out!

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