Great squares around the world. How does Robson Plaza design compare? Public comment period until December 3rd

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robson squareThe final design for the North Plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery will be shown at an Open House on Thursday, November 26, 2015. The event will be held from 5pm to 8pm at 800 Robson Street (UBC downtown, lower level entrance beside skating rink). The City will also allow public comments to be made in a written form by December 3, 2015.

How does this design compare with other squares around the world? We’ve included a slideshow of a number of well-known squares and outdoor spaces above. Does the North Plaza design (Robson Plaza) have the elements to make it a great square? Or will it be a relatively ordinary public open space? Can we do better?

The plaza design drawings are posted on the City’s development services webpage and further details are available on the Robson Plaza consultation page. The new design would preserve very little of the existing plaza. Prior to the 2010 Olympics, the plaza did have an significant areas of grass before the introduction of the mulch covering, so it is worth considering that the space was never rehabilitated. Vancouver Art Gallery - North Plaza 2008A fairer starting point for a comparison of the current design is to look at the condition of the plaza in 2008.

The big changes in the new plaza design are obvious. There’s the complete removal of the fountain, and of any water element. Almost all of the existing trees would be cut down; the plan calls for the removal of large, healthy mature cedars. Virtually none of the existing elements of the square would be kept. An expanded bus shelter is introduced as a pavilion feature near Howe and West Georgia. This has been labelled as a possible “future food/beverage stand”, hence a portion of the planned bus shelter could be privatized in the future. There’s also a curious series of bollards that go through the eastern part side of the plaza that may create a safety hazard for large crowds (there are more elegant ways to prevent trucks from driving into the middle of the square).

The designers certainly don’t like plant materials. Almost the entire square is paved surface. The planting list of trees and ground cover is non-native (only the dogwood is close, but it’s a hybrid). The Red Maples, Flowering Plums and Star Magnolias in the landscape plan would be still small when planted, given the scale of the square. The removal of healthy, mature cedars from the existing plaza is not respecting the context of the Pacific Northwest landscape or the history of the plaza. The emphasis in the new plaza is on hard surfaces. Is it too bland?

Occupy Vancouver at Art GalleryAnother factor to look at is the ability of the North Plaza to accommodate large crowds and events. There are many climate marches, 4/20 events, social justice rallies in the City and the Art Gallery has become a key location for accommodating these events. Small details like trash receptacles and recycling bins are important. Is there a clear hierarchy of spaces to allow for demonstrations to take place in different parts of the plaza (given the crowd size)? Is there ample power, water and other utilities available for festivals and events? Will the possibility of having a public washroom be realized? Is the lighting sufficient? Is there a better way to integrate the Art Gallery with the square?

The south side of the Art Gallery is also undergoing a design change. A new, glass-clad entrance with to UBC is being proposed to provide a new opportunity to reach 800 Robson from street level. This location, UBC downtown, is also the venue for the Open House.

A number of drawings of the proposed square are on the City’s website. We’ve reproduced a few of the images below for reference:

Robson Square Howe
Notice that only the ends of the planters provide a surface for seating. Widen the edges and seating is available all around the planters! The pink chairs in the renderings (above and below) can be removed at any time.
Robson Square west side near Hornby
The trunks of the planted trees would be smaller and be a maximum of 10-12cm in diameter. The above rendering shows an ideal condition in the future (assuming all trees survived and grew; the branching structure is atypical for Red Maples).
Robson Square Overview
The design would remove the two large evergreens from the square, as well as trees on the Hornby Street side:
Robson Square Trees
trees in VAG North Plaza

4 thoughts on “Great squares around the world. How does Robson Plaza design compare? Public comment period until December 3rd

  1. They should keep the huge magnolia at the corner of Hornby & West Georgia.
    It always signals the start of Spring each year to everyone who walks under its branches.

  2. The cedars aren’t native so I don’t see a big issue with removing them. They don’t add anything positive to the space. And I believe they were moved there from elsewhere so not much history there. I’m not as fussed as you about removing the existing plantings. If properly chosen, new trees will grow quickly. Native species are not usually the best choice in urban spaces, even if it is trendy right now to go local.

    Why is there a problem with private food and beverage on the site? I would welcome it. I just hope the bus shelter is actually functional.

    They have provisions for power and water. I can’t tell if it is enough but clearly it has been considered.

    I think you do need a big open paved surface to hold big events. That is the only practical approach. Grass is not good. The challenge is to animate the space when there are no events and the weather is crap. That’s why I don’t see the issue with food kiosks. Food trucks are a big draw to that area. It is a challenging area – north facing, surrounded by busy noisy roads and unfriendly buildings.

    I hope they do improve the entrance to UBC Robson Square. But UBC needs to do a lot better in its space. It is horrible.

  3. That space would be horrible habitat for a large tree, it would continuously suffer. The risk of vandalism would be immense. Notice in all the great global squares, no trees whatsover. Think of the opposite; a large sculpture in the middle of an old growth forest.

  4. The plaza should have been left as it was. The grass was a lovely place to sit, and well loved for years as a place to relax and eat lunch. Also the fountain is a treasure, and should be maintained and kept functional.
    The removal of the mature trees is a huge mistake!! Some of us enjoy the little oasis that the North Plaza provided year round.
    The people found the little space attractive, they made it theirs, it all happened organically! why change it?! For a dry, paved dull new plaza.? big mistake. leave it be!

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