Celebrating a Rainy City

Who doesn’t love summer in Vancouver? Indeed when the sun is shining, when the incessant drizzle hangs up its dreary hat and gives us all a welcome reprieve, it is hard to imagine a nicer place to be. It is on such clear, flawless days that we really take ownership of our city, and start to rank Vancouver up there with the best of them. And as we should.

My beef is that in this town we have an annoying tendency to exalt summer to the detriment of the other, less favoured seasons. How can we forget that Vancouver is a rainy city? Embracing the reality of inclement weather, indeed positioning ourselves to make the most of any weather in any city, involves some bold and thoughtful decision-making. I am not suggesting that we must sideline our love of summer, nor indeed scale down our enthusiasm when it arrives, but we must make some very deliberate design and programming choices to ensure that we embrace and capitalise on the hand that the weather gods have dealt us.20130821-065329.jpg

Building an all-weather city means being smarter about our architectural choices, thinking bigger and with a more integrated approach to our urban planning decisions, and most importantly – calling on our imaginations to re-envisage the public realm in the rain. Indeed, the long rainy season that engulfs our city every year from October to June presents some fascinating and exciting possibilities to show the world, not to mention our own citizens, how a vibrant and exciting public realm could be built in the face of grey skies and endless drizzle. Indeed, think for a moment about the great summer cities – think of travel destinations in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, the South of France. Think of lazing on a white sandy beach in Australia as the surf rolls in. How passé! Summer cities are a dime a dozen. Where can you think of in the world that you want to be when it rains? Not too many places spring to mind, perhaps with good reason, but perhaps Vancouver has found its niche! Isn’t it time that we get creative and spin the attractions of weather on their head?

Take a moment with me here and let’s do a thought experiment:

Let’s picture a city that is filled with warm light in the darkness. Covered canopies and protected pedestrian pathways – still open enough to be inviting when the summer does arrive and providing some protection from overbearing sun, lead the visitor from restaurant to bar to gathering space.

Water-triggering public art installations dance cartwheels above our heads.

Winter festivals lead us into communal spaces; indoor and protected gatherings filled with people keen to make the most of a dreary evening. Public plazas with high rain cover, twinkling with fairy lights and bustling with activity entice us into the night, and help us to while away overcast Sundays.20130820-212448.jpg

Bright, colourful umbrellas adorn our streets. Tourist booths dot our streets and downtown pedestrian spaces, selling the ubiquitous “Vancouver Umbrella” – a collector’s item around the world and decorated in ever-changing editions of brightly coloured images designed by local artists to celebrate the rainy city.

Protected outdoor eating pavilions line the streets, flooding the surrounding streetscapes with light and laughter. The rain, running off the edges of cafe roofs, drips down specially designed rods that illuminate the rainwater in colours emanating from hidden LED lights.ConservatoryCarousel

Dance halls make a come-back.

Differentiated bike lanes wind their way along urban streets, protected by attractive canopies that allow cyclists to get from A to B in the dry. Covered bike storage facilities dot the city.

Permanent mini circus tent-like structures abound along pedestrian thoroughfares, advertising to passers-by the locations of Vancouver’s renowned food-carts – providing protected waiting spaces for people as their gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches are prepared, and housing little picnic tables to eat them at while maybe making a new friend or two.

Hopefully you are starting to get the picture, and hopefully you haven’t taken the lazy thought experiment route and filled the mental frames with images of ‘malls’. Yes, malls too are covered pedestrian spaces, but there is a sanitised controlled quality to a mall that to me seems endlessly unsatisfying and contrary to the idea of community that I am trying to inspire. Not to mention the unavoidable focus on consumption instead of connection to space and place and our fellow citizens. At least for the purposes of this rant, let’s just agree that we can do better than resort to a mall.

But back to the task at hand, I am not trying to take anybody’s love of summer away from them. Au contraire. I am trying to instil a modicum of inspiration for realistic pleasures in a city that doesn’t experience summer all the time. Not even close. The beauty of living in an urban environment is that cities represent exciting possibilities for different pleasures in different seasons. I would love to live in a city that embraces all of them, and tries to be a little bit more visionary, a bit more upbeat, a bit more creative in the face of the uncomfortable and unavoidable realities of weather.