The Role of Public Space in Civic Life

Tue, 24 Jul 2018

Landon Hoyt
Program Manager, SFU Public Square

When I travel, I am not usually one for sitting around on a beach or relaxing on a cruise. Though that does sound amazing, my favourite way to travel is by exploring cities. I recently took a trip to Montréal for the first time, and I simply could not shut off my inner urban planner. When I am in a city that is not my own, I am constantly comparing and absorbing ways in which things can be done better at home in Vancouver.

Most of these comparisons focus around public space and how it is being used in the urban landscape:

  • Is it clearly contributing to the life of the city?
  • Are people using the space to its fullest?
  • Do spaces actually function in a way that encourages and supports human interaction?
  • Is civic life and culture being enhanced because of this space?

Okay, I may not be explicitly thinking of these when I am experiencing public space myself, but upon reflection, I see opportunities for improvement here at home.

Montréal was a place where I observed an abundance of active and vibrant public spaces from parks, plazas, and squares to restaurant patios, pedestrian-only streets, and open-air festivals. Every major street I walked or cycled through, people were enjoying themselves in the sun with their neighbours. It was a beautiful sight, and it made me yearn for more of it in Vancouver.

Jane Jacobs was onto something when she wrote in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” These places are critical to the livelihood and culture of our cities. What fills these spaces is the ebb and flow of life, whether public events, human experiences, or random activities.

Our public spaces are successful when they are supporting human activity. Putting up a patio for the sake of putting up a patio won’t cut it. That space must contribute to the overall life of the street, by providing a place for a meal or drink, conversation, and eyes on the street. A public square with a beautifully sculpted fountain and amphitheatre will only contribute to the vibrancy of civic life if it is used, and it will only be used if proper mechanisms are put in place to program the space, or simply welcome human interaction and activity. Check out more on what makes public spaces successful over at the Project for Public Spaces.

I’m inspired by the spaces and engaging activities that I observed in Montréal. There are certainly some lessons learned for spaces in Vancouver, as well as unique ideas to integrate into my community engagement work with SFU Public Square. I am so appreciative of the parks, plazas, squares, and open streets and sidewalks that are taken for granted in urban life, as it’s in these places where the culture and vibrancy of our cities thrive.