It’s often been said that Vancouver lacks a civic centre. We have no town square or any pedestrian malls. For many years, the closest thing to a city gathering place has been the steps and courtyard of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Many protests and celebrations have wound up there over the years, but it doesn’t replace the street-level culture that exists when there is a dedicated public space.
Travelling to Europe or Latin America (or even Montréal) shows us what we’re missing here. Even the smallest town in Mexico seems to have a zócalo where cafés line the perimeter and couples promenade in the evenings. For the traveller, it can provide an anchor from which to spin out one’s explorations; for the resident, it’s the centre of public life.
Vancouver gets a small taste of what this can be like when the annual Car-Free Day closes down streets in several neighbourhoods across the city. Street hockey, dance parties, roller derby and jump rope are just some of the activities folks were able to engage in, once the traffic was re-routed and pedestrians flooded the street.
This model temporarily assuages the city’s need for an outdoor public life, but it’s not enough. The temporary nature of the squares means that the permanent architecture of city squares can only be approximated. Street parties can also be an able-bodied only affair, with buses re-routed as well as private cars. A permanent city square would be physically accessible, as transit would be built around it, not diverted from it. Vancouver Public Space Network has been arguing for a public square in the city for some time now. They’ve got a number of posts on the subject, which I encourage you to explore.
This isn’t to say that I don’t love and support Car-Free Day, it’s just that it’s a tantalizing, fleeting experience of what our city should have every day. Beyond the vision of a public square for Vancouver, Car-Free Day also suggests some other interesting possibilities – what about closing Commercial Drive to traffic altogether, while running accessible light rail along its length? The Drive is already famous for its café culture; wouldn’t it be lovely if the city turned the street into a sort of plaza, where people could enjoy our mild weather for much of the year? Extended awnings would of course be necessary in our rainforest climate zone, but that’s no barrier.
Car-free day every day? I’m in.