The Promise of Lot 5 – Part 1 (Context)

Lot 5 – Stasis.

I hate to keep beating the same, smug, travellers drum, but please can we take a moment to step back from our political bickerings, use the world as our muse, and think creatively?

We need to learn to demand more from our urban environments, to ask how we can adapt them to facilitate the good life. We need to build our cities not simply as places to locate our beds, but so as to better connect with the world around us.  We need to seek from our cities a manner of living, of being, that will help us to tread lighter on the earth, and also to benefit from the human connections that surround us.

In all fairness, this is not an easy thing to do.  In order to really maximise the potential of our neighbourhoods we have to make a mental shift as citizens, and discover how to overcome the passive role that we have written for ourselves, to become engaged and influential actors.  There are significant real obstacles in the path to affecting change, to consensus building, be they frictions with those already tasked with doing the work, or a lack (or excess in a different direction) of political will, or the inevitable fears of economic limitations.  But first, before we can demand anything we need to learn what it is that we want, and then learn how to ask for it.  We need to consider the physical, geographic and climatic realities of where we live, and in so doing we need to get creative, and to think boldly.  We need to learn how to look around us and borrow from that great reservoir of successful ideas, otherwise known as the history of humanity.

Because here’s the thing that we seem to forget in so many of our discussions about urban design:  this is not a new thing that we are doing, building cities.  We, as humans, have had an awful lot of practice.  We have an enormous record of failure and success to reflect upon.  We are not creating in isolation.  Anybody who has ever travelled knows this, viscerally, and anybody who has ever read about the world or studied history can surmise it.  When we are inclined to dismiss an idea as impractical, or too expensive, or impossible, or too radical – we should perhaps first ask whether it has been achieved elsewhere, and whether it succeeded, and how, and what were its pitfalls.  When we are challenged creatively to deliver a solution to an under-achieving corner of our community, we should perhaps seek solutions that other cities have discovered, or rediscovered, and challenge ourselves to build off the accumulated intellectual and creative wealth of our neighbours and ancestors.

I noted in earlier posts that the North Van Urban Forum recently had the opportunity to listen to guest Graham Macdonald, a Graduate associate of the University of Toronto, as he presented to us his masters thesis on  ‘Creativity in Vanuatu, and Social Urbanism in Medellin, Colombia’.  Looking at his photos of Medellin brought me back to the roots of NVUF, when we first started trying to foster a community conversation around the potential inherent in Lot 5 and the Central Waterfront.  Looking at those pictures and getting inspired by their example reinvigorated my desire to amp up that conversation.  It begs the question, why are we not maximising the potential of this city and thinking bigger about what we can accomplish here?  What is holding us back from seizing that potential?

At the beginning of June I returned from a vacation in Spain, an overdue return to Europe and the birthplace of my interest in architecture and urban design, seething with a kind of quiet anger at the state of public space in modern North Vancouver, and indeed the Lower Mainland.  After my wife and I had spent several weeks losing ourselves in the ancient winding streets of Southern Spain, stumbling upon hidden plazas filling quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) with the post siesta crowd as they emerged to sit, to chat, to eat, to people watch, ducking in  and out of public squares and narrow alleys, drinking beer and Rioja and dipping fine bread in a thousand local varieties of tasty salmorejo (something like cold tomato/olive oil soup); it incensed me to return to a city that made us beg as citizens for one good decent public space that wasn’t to be simply a pet capital gains project of a mega-developer.

As I settled back into routine I cooled down, and learned to look around again and appreciate local delights.  But the fire lingered.  Of course I recognise that it is not a like comparison to line North Van up with the city builders of ancient Europe.  The Spaniards have suffered for their culture, and had to endure centuries of religious oppression in order to obtain the kind of architecture that I long for.  The Spaniards also have a more consistent understanding of sunshine, and consequently built their cities in accordance with their climate.  Fellow Europeans, from Italy to Greece to Great Britain, all managed to build incredible legacies of urban design and architecture, but on the backs of slavery and hardship.  European design is not blemish free, and it is filled with examples of urban design failure.

But failure is a great place to start learning.  One can recognise fundamental differences and flawed histories while still learning lessons from elsewhere.  And just because we can identify a long and flawed path to an ultimately satisfying conclusion does not mean that we need to tread the same steps to achieve a similar result, or at least recreate some of what makes that end result successful.  Indeed the source material for good urban design can come from anywhere.  A lot of very old cities are doing some very modern things in order to maximise the human connections that make living in a city worthwhile (see Medellin).  A lot of very new cities are also taking their cues from very ancient places and trying to re-learn forgotten techniques for creating communities.  And the drive exists in our own neighbourhoods, latent perhaps, but palpable, to support such efforts.  Friday night markets in North Vancouver’s Shipbuilders Square give us an inclination of the hunger that North Vancouverites harbour for energetic, vital public spaces.

One of the signs of a city on the verge of coming into its own is the willingness to try different  things.  Greater Vancouver is growing very skilled at establishing temporary spaces that pop with energy and creativity (see Granville St in the Summer time; Robson Square; Shipbuilders Square night markets; Stanley Park outdoor cinema).  What Vancouver needs to learn is how to connect the dots.  How to make permanent that energy and to bridge the dead zones between special events.  How to not simply leap on the good weather bandwagon and stage an event because the sun is shining.  It is that bridging that takes true boldness, and the kind of creativity that we need now.  Vancouver needs to stop listening so intently to the soothing self congratulatory tones of the likes of the Economist, whose ‘most liveable city’ list annually lulls us into a false stupor of accomplishment.  We need to challenge ourselves to sieze upon the potential for liveability, and actually learn to live.