October 19, 2020

Why Can’t We Have Sheltered Public Spaces and Parks?

Last week I wrote about the international poll on walkability which found North American cities lacking. Those cities have  not thought through the importance of people being able to access schools, shops and services within a three kilometre radius of dwellings. They have also not embraced that housing people at density means having access to nearby public spaces, squares and parks and making the whole experience “lively”.

In Metro Vancouver, parks are planned like they are for 1960’s. It’s kind of intended that Moms and Dads have vehicles that can whisk kids to washrooms and restaurants. We don’t put picnic tables in all parks, and  we don’t install washrooms in many.

In a place that is attempting to house families at higher density, we also have to provide safe,comfortable and convenient access to useable, year round park spaces. And that’s not the half-century old “soccer field in the park concept.” We simply need to reboot what we think open public space is, and centre a new definition of park space as something that is accessible to everyone, and useable twelve months of the year.

Stephen Quinn’s radio interview on walkable outdoor space on CBC Radio  touched on this.

In the 21st century we are not a  city of public washrooms nor do we provide covered outdoor public spaces during inclement weather. There’s lots of talk about this being an equity issue, and it seems odd that these basic amenities are not provided.

But remember the pre Covid pandemic reality was that there were other indoor spaces available that were public, like libraries and community centres. The closure of libraries during Covid was a tremendous loss to citizens, but especially to the homeless and disenfranchised. The library was a place that everyone had access to and had equity. With the Covid closures these important places where people could rely on for washrooms, reading, and getting out of the elements were instantly erased.

The Georgia Straight’s Stanley Woodvine  is a homeless writer that keenly and cogently expresses  that there should be universal access to covered public spaces and public washrooms. There’s also a need for  electrical outlets to be conveniently located to charge cell phones and other devices. (The average cell phone uses 25 cents of electricity annually.)

Mr. Woodvine feels that covered public spaces were not created in parks to stop  homeless from congregating. I think the reason is less sophisticated ~I don’t believe that it was on the Parks Board’s radar for cost and liability reasons.

Sunset Park in the 400 block of East 51st  Avenue did have a shelter installed, but it was for Tai Chi and for picnic tables. The Covid pandemic and the increasing density of the city means that outdoor space needs to be more user-friendly nimble and  practical during inclement weather. That’s where ingenuity needs to step in.

There’s already been some initiatives like the Vancouver Public Space Network’s Life Between Umbrellas project which reimagined what covered outdoor space could look like. The CBC News reported on Sara Bynoe’s project where she is creating an inventory of outdoor public spaces in Vancouver.

But what is really needed is the flexibility and nimbleness to quickly assess, design and implement a variety of shelters for public spaces and parks that can welcome citizens wanting to be outdoors, regardless of the weather.

Duke of Data Andy Yan from Simon Fraser University sends on this article by Alex Wittenberg in CityLab that references the City of Baltimore’s  “Design for Distancing Ideas Guidebook”.  You can download this document here.

This is a collaboration of  the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Baltimore Development Corporation, and the city’s nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center . There are ten plans for creating temporary, low-cost spaces that

“permit physically distant social interaction in urban environments such as streets, alleys, vacant land and parking lots. The selected concepts were drawn from a pool of 162 submissions from architecture and design firms; the plans were conceived around the needs of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, but could be adapted to cities anywhere.”

Here’s the best part:

“These ten designs, which cost between $5,000 to $100,000 to install, are to be built across Baltimore in 17 neighbourhoods with the City kicking in a $1.5 million dollar investment.  Most  neighbourhoods chosen are ones that have suffered from “chronic disinvestment” .

As Keshia Pollack Porter, a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins who consulted on the project concludes

“Can we have spaces that are actually great opportunities for people to gather and gather safely?”

Baltimore is about to find out.

When will Vancouver step up?

Images: PXhere.com, CityLab




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  1. Yes yes yes. I suspect that the real reason why coverage isn’t provided is that if provides a convenient place to sleep. It is about homeless people setting up camp. The canopy that isn’t a canopy at Nelson Park downtown is almost surely to deter overnighting. But if these problems can be overcome, covered public space is a must.

    Ideally, large covered areas would have some ability for the roof to retract when sunny. But this is difficult and risks making the canopy very obtrusive. One concept that I had for a covered town square is having the canopy at the height of the surrounding ring of towers. Say 25 stories in the air. The square in the centre would be a traditional european square surrounding by two and three story buildings and sidewalk cafes permanently protected from the rain, but without feeling like you were in a mall atrium. Because the canopy would have to be integrated with supporting buildings, and those buildings should not be residential, it wouldn’t be nice to look out the bedroom window to a giant covered area, I thought that this might be a useful concept for a regional town centre like Lougheed Town Centre or Brentwood as part of a mall redevelopment that incorporated some office or hotel towers.

    I also take every opportunity to bang my gong about covered bikeways. A system whereby a glass canopy is placed between a tight twin row of trees, think of the sidewalks around the law courts in vancouver, over a bike and pedestrian path. This would be great for main trunk routes and make cycling more of a year around activity for those that are afraid of a little rain. Richmond would be perfect for this and could make cycling huge there.

  2. The safest parks and public spaces are busy places filled with people and teeming with activity every day. These are the spots to provide shelters and cover. Most single homeless persons sleeping under a cover move on when parks users start their day in greater numbers. Larger group picnic shelters can be open but designed very tough to withstand vandalism, and in doing so don’t need to look like Soviet bunkers. Parks and outdoor community facilities with built-in equipment and serviced with utilities that can be damaged can be gated during off hours and rented for large events through parks department bookings. Homeless loners and vandals wouldn’t hang around a wedding party of 400 people.

    Addiction and chronic homelessness are another set of stories that require a better societal response than practiced so far. Tent cities and public disorder are a sign that society has not addressed the core problems adequately, in my view. It is not a good idea to resort to Apartheid design tactics in public spaces under the misconception that it is “fixing” a social problem best addressed under the healthcare, social work and public housing systems.