The City of Vancouver’s Community-Led Placemaking: Cultivating Vibrant Public Spaces

Community painting for decorating the rain friendly pop-up plaza (south Cambie Bridge); Photo Source: Robyn Chan

Stroll through neighbourhoods across the city, from Kitsilano to Hastings Sunrise, and you’ll pass by pop-up plazas, community spaces that the City of Vancouver built during the pandemic for safe and inclusive socializing. These areas are composed of picnic benches and other seating, umbrellas for shade, and plenty of friendly people hanging out and catching up.

In the summer, the City of Vancouver put out a call for public applications for their Community-Led Placemaking Program. I applied, and was thrilled to receive a callback. This is my story, as well as the stories of other Vancouverites passionate about contributing to their communities.

“Prior to the pandemic, our VIVA program [platform for public space innovation] did a lot of calls for activations to encourage community to participate in public space. Those had a little bit of a different flavour. They took the form of calls for activations for events or design competitions,” says Danielle Wiley, Senior Public Space Planner, City of Vancouver.

West 13th Avenue and Granville Street Pop-up Plaza – Painting of benches done by Dusica, Koca, and Stepa Erakovic (mother and her two sons); Photo Credit: Dusica Erakovic

But when COVID-19 hit and events weren’t in the cards, the City pivoted toward creating pop-up plazas for people to meet up outside safely. At first, they all looked the same, but gradually they began to individualize. “When we built [the plazas], they looked generic. That was our intention. We try to do our work in a way that holds space for community to fill in. These spaces look more like their local community after the community gets involved, which is great,” says Jordan Magtoto, Public Space Planner, City of Vancouver.

The first stage of the Pop-up Program involved recruiting neighbourhood Stewards to help build the spaces. Magtoto explains that the City adopted a grassroots approach, drawing upon pre-existing community networks to find potential Stewards. Enthusiastic Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) stepped up, in addition to churches, temples, and neighbourhood houses.

Koca Erakovic painting a picnic bench at West 13th Avenue and Granville Street Pop-up Plaza; Photo Credit: Dusica Erakovic

The next stage, the Placemaking Program, launched this summer, inviting community organizations and residents to add character to select pop-up plazas (e.g., East 27th Avenue and Fraser Street, East 21st Avenue and Main Street) through design enhancements or new shared amenities. The options ranged from painting the picnic benches with colourful artwork, to tending planters in the space.

The intent was to get even more people who lived nearby involved. “The activity of a resident coming in and doing some work helps tie them and their friends and their family to the space and allows them to feel a sense of ownership. And that’s how these [plazas] can evolve to become real community hubs,” says Wiley.

Roughly forty applications were received and were accepted in August, with ten of the projects now completed or nearing completion. “Forty residents wanted to get involved positively in each of their neighbourhoods – it was inspiring frankly,” says Magtoto. A 67% female participation rate was also exciting. This high female participation was partly attributable to a partnership with MakerLabs, who shared the initiative with their Tools for Women program.

I was one of the forty applicants who wanted to get involved in the Placemaking Program. In my case, I signed up to build a fibre library for sharing yarn and supplies at Granville Street and West 14th Avenue, a short walk from where I live. Although I had the option of buying a kit from MakerLabs, I created my project from scratch, with the City reimbursing me for up to $450.

Fibre library in process; Photo: Tara Lee

After visiting other fibre libraries around the city, my husband and I enlisted a friend skilled in carpentry to assist us in building the library. There were many, many trips to the hardware store and occasional cursing but, overall, we felt a growing sense of accomplishment. I’ve lived in South Granville for over six years, and this project is my way of claiming the area as a home in which I have a vested stake. Plus, I’m responsible for looking after it, which further ties me to the neighbourhood and the plaza. We’re all looking forward to visiting the library once it’s installed and celebrating our hard work.

Photo Source: Robyn Chan

Robyn Chan also built a little library in her neighbourhood, turning the project into a community-wide initiative. She and two other mothers in her building applied to build a children’s book library at the plaza under the south side of the Cambie Street Bridge.

“So many of my neighbours are so busy with their work, their kids, and getting through a pandemic. I love placemaking projects like this because they get people involved who maybe wouldn’t normally because it’s such a low barrier entry point,” says Chan.

Photo Source: Robyn Chan

The trio bought a kit from MakersLab and some outdoor paint from Michaels. They then hosted a painting party, inviting kids in the neighbourhood to decorate it. “They were very diligent about covering all the surfaces, so inside and outside are all different colours. So, you definitely won’t mistake it for anything but a kid’s library,” says Chan.

Chan loves adding character to her neighbourhood plaza, which already has a ping pong table and picnic tables. She says, “We were already hanging out there and doing stuff, but this makes it a nicer place to hang out. And I think other people see the neighbourhood as a caring and a welcoming place to be.” The group will be shortly holding a fun launch party for their kid’s library, as they continue to forge community in their area.

Photo Source: Crystal Chan

Meanwhile, Crystal Chan’s friend found out about the Community-Led Placemaking Program and forwarded the information to her. “I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to help liven up an area, and add some warmth to a space.’ Ever since I graduated from Emily Carr, I’ve always wanted to engage in a community project and showcase nature in some way,” she says.

Chan, who studied Communication Design, initially wanted to paint directly on the concrete pillars on the south side of Cambie Street Bridge but eventually created vinyl stickers. “I chose to design and install monarch butterflies because they are a symbol of summertime. I also found out that they migrate from South and Central American to southern Canada every year. They are an example of a species that is very sensitive to changes in the climate,” says Chan.

Photo Source: Crystal Chan

While monarch butterflies are black and orange, Chan drew inspiration from the colours of pre-existing chalk drawings on the pillars by making cheery purple, blue, and yellow butterflies. She also placed the butterflies above the chalk drawings so people could continue to add their own artwork to the pillars.

While Chan doesn’t live near the Cambie Bridge south plaza, she passes by it often on her commute and thought it would be an ideal space to enliven, especially being near a community garden and a sea wall. “I think it’s a really great way for people to contribute to a local project, and to help create friendlier spaces for people to spend time in, kind of like the murals popping up around town. It gives a place more character,” she says.

Carrall St picnic tables; Artist: Geentajali Joshi

According to Wiley and Magtoto, the Placemaking Program has been such a success that staff is looking into how it could be repeated or possibly expanded next year. The pop-up plazas themselves have been incredibly popular, with an approximately 85% support rate. Almost all of them are here to stay for the long term.

“These are about people, not the City doing what we think is a good idea. That’s our dream goal,” says Magtoto. As the pandemic situation continues to ease, Wiley is hopeful that the plazas can someday host board game parties, concerts, and other events that bring communities together safely and joyfully.

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