January 28, 2020

Who’s Not Here? Reflecting on a Dialogue about Public Spaces

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Who’s not here?

This was one of the main questions posed on November 21, 2019 to a room filled with attendees of “Smart City Talks: Putting People First: a dialogue on Vancouver’s public spaces” hosted by Urbanarium and UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

This key question was asked first by Jay Pitter, author and placemaker whose practice mitigates growing divides in urban centres, and similarly posed by additional speakers, John Bela from Gehl Studio, and Kelty McKinnon representing PFS Studio.

As my first time attending an Urbanarium-hosted event, I enjoyed the evening’s dialogue and it likely won’t be my last. The discussion was thought provoking and interesting – but above all, it was bold and honest. No bushes were beat around on this evening as panelists shared what was on their mind loud and clear. Whether they agreed with each other or not.

The discussion was guided by three defined topics:

  • Equity and diversity. How do we promote stronger community ties and social connection through the design, programming and use of our public spaces
  • Vibrancy. Describe a challenging public space in our city. What would it take to turn it into an amazing place?
  • Funding. Who should pay for great public spaces and what are the unrealized opportunities?

In each one of these categories, points were raised about bringing human elements into the design of public spaces, how social challenges can be mitigated, and the value of public spaces for all people – no matter their age, mobility level, culture, ethnicity, etc.

But let’s go back to the initial question: who’s not here? The goal of sharing this question at the very start of the event (it was on Jay Pitter’s very first presentation slide) was to use it as a lens through which to view the design of public spaces. When public spaces are being created or changed, cities often have a method to engage and consult the public, whether that be a survey, public open house, workshop, or other method. However, the presenters made it clear that this is not enough – and I agree. We need to figure out what brings us together as people and communities but also what makes us distinct as different people will navigate public spaces in different ways. We need to do a better job of seeking out those that aren’t present and figuring out how the public space can serve them as well. It’s not easy but by designing spaces for those who are – and aren’t – currently there, we will create more value within the space.

The first example that comes to mind for me is the redesign of the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station. In February 2019, I attended the New Westminster Transportation Forum. The focus of the day was accessibility and inclusivity in the region and there was definitely a focus on public transit. During the afternoon workshop, attendees broke out into discussion groups.

This is where I learned the most during the day as a number of people with visible and invisible disabilities shared their lived experiences with the rest of the group. An example that stood out for me – and speaks to designing spaces for everyone – was brought forth by a visually impaired woman. She explained how the glass walls around the SkyTrain station, that are so aesthetically pleasing to others, appear to her as a terrifying ledge with no protective barrier.

Similarly, someone else with visual impairments expressed that they had difficulty with the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station since doors now open on both sides. How are they supposed to know whether to turn left or right when they can’t see the world around them?

So next time you’re in a public space – whether that be a park, a roadway, a beachfront, a parklet – ask yourself who’s not there and how can we change this space to serve them?

Image source: Urbanarium

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  1. “Who is not here?” is a great question to ask about any planning endeavour. I’ve applied it more often to development than the design of public space, but the self-selection bias that the question challenges is the same. Unfortunately, decision makers and public officials are currently only beholden to those who are here and can make noise. They should be continuously reminded of that inherent bias.

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