Blogging “The Public Square as an Economic Space” Event
Tonight, in a packed community hall with eager community members perched on gym mats and kindergarten-sized chairs*, city councilor Andrea Reimer, economic development planner John Tylee and UBC geography professor Trevor Barnes offered very different perspectives about the economic value and potential of public squares.
The event at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, was organized by the Vancouver Public Space Network, whose upcoming events can be seen here. Not having a chance to film the speakers, I decided to try sitting in the back and typing madly. The flavour of each presentation is briefly presented below.
*Sincere thanks to the guy who let me take the last grown-up chair!
Trevor Barnes: Professor of Geography, University of British Columbia
Trevor Barnes began by evoking his childhood in the English town of St. Austell. Its Aylmer Square was “geometrically a square, but culturally a route to the outside world” and represented worldliness and urbanity to local youth.
Marketplaces historically have been located in public squares, where cultural and economic pursuits coexist, and where they “connected the known world to the city.”
Building on Jane Jacobs’ work connecting economic resilience to healthy cities’ functions as everyday meeting places, Dr. Barnes concluded by evoking Vancouver’s role in the postindustrial “knowledge economy” and its need for clustering.
John Tylee: Vancouver Economic Development Commission
John Tylee pragmatically insisted that public spaces are critically important for economic development not only for “micro, historical, Jane Jacobs reasons”, but because their contribution to livability is critical for the competitiveness of city regions.
To compete for talent in global markets, Vancouver must use its public spaces to competitive advantage, showcasing local uniqueness and appealing to young and skilled workers, without whom local economies are unsustainable.
Mr. Tylee suggested that the new Vancouver Convention Centre’s grand-scale waterfront square may have an important role to play for Vancouver in the future, but he also insisted on recognizing the importance of a variety of small public spaces.
Andrea Reimer, Councillor, City of Vancouver
Showing images of famous European squares and drawing on their histories of displacement, invasions and grand monarchial schemes, Ms. Reimer suggested that the historical moment when civilizations start clamouring to purpose-build grand public squares is generally when they are overextended and at their apex. Before the Age of Oil, monument-building was hugely labour-intensive and resource-intensive, showcasing technological capacity, power, and, perhaps, boredom of the powerful.
Public squares of course have an important place to play in the economic and social life of a town, but they must be designed well. North American society is past the age of purpose-built, single-use design for public space. Giant, expensive monuments like BC Place (in use approximately 8 hours per week) will not exist in the future.
Using existing spaces more intensively offers many opportunities for innovation. Examples include increasingly frequent car-free days on public streets around the world, and the reconfiguration of San Francisco city hall’s lawn as public gardens.