To most Vancouverites making their way through the sidewalks, plazas, parks, and promenades of the city, the idea of ownership only enters the consciousness when we encounter a "Do Not Enter" sign. The distinction between truly public space and privately-owned, public-accessible space is often blurred, but the distinction is an important one, governing how space is managed, maintained, and used.
This subtle shift is happening across Vancouver and it deserves our attention. Once the purview of the city, the delivery of privately-owned publicly-accessible space (also known as POPAs) is now becoming the responsibility of the development community and is a de facto ‘community amenity contribution’ amongst a menu of other options that are traded for density and ultimately for profit. While this may seem obscene and is a cause for concern, perhaps it should be viewed as a potent opportunity for a city in need of well-designed, well-managed, and vibrant outdoor spaces, despite being incongruous with the very nature of truly public space.
Joseph Fry, founding principal of Hapa Collaborative, believes this trend is the result of many different challenges but is most easily summed up with one word – commitment. On the surface, the request for more spaces that benefit citizens seems like an easy sell, but many don’t consider the costs. There’s the initial question of funding and oftentimes the discussion ends there.
“The investment in public space gets disparaged as frivolous, unnecessary, and – my favourite – ‘a waste of taxpayer dollars,’” says Fry. Yet, investment in public realm is really a fraction of public money invested in infrastructure, in health care, in education. “We will have people lose their shit over a $250,000 park pavilion, yet that same amount of money in transportation dollars buys you roughly a left-turn lane. We have done a terrible job of putting the cost of public realm in perspective to everything we invest in as citizens and an even worse job of demonstrating the disproportionate positive impact of public realm on civic life.”
What Fry is observing is that savvy landowners understand the value of this investment and are applying the principles of good urban design to projects that are inherently private but function as public places. The even more savvy developers see value in not only designing and building these spaces but providing ongoing programming, management, and maintenance, often funded by events and activities in the space. “While cities often struggle with building maintenance budgets for public realm, we’ve seen great examples of fully private or hybrid public/private partnerships that deliver with greater success, and ironically borrowing from truly public management models.”
The City of North Vancouver partnered with Quay Management Group to build, design, operate, and maintain the Shipyards, the new hub of activity on the Central Waterfront that includes a children’s splash pad in summer and an outdoor skating rink in winter. Director Park in Portland, Oregon, which operates as an "outdoor community centre," has a $300,000 annual operations budget that is augmented by event rentals in the space and revenue from café sales and underground parking. Next door to it is Pioneer Square, often described as Portland’s living room. This truly public plaza is managed by a not-for-profit group that runs 400 events in the space annually, with an operating budget of no less than $1.9 million, funded by a combination of public and private money.
Today, many mixed-use urban development proposals emphasize a renewed commitment in privately owned public accessible space that invites the public with playfulness, curiosity, and delight. Fry nods to a conversation with a client who exemplifies that new ethos perfectly. “In our first meeting, we described our commitment to public space. He agreed: 'We know we will make our money above street level. But what we will be remembered for is what we do at street level.’ We quickly realized that he understood his role not just as a landowner but as a citizen, and the commitment is clear every day we work together.”
This is one of many examples of private projects borrowing from the design principles of public spaces, borrowing from the lessons of public realm advocates like Project for Public Spaces, or Vancouver’s own Happy City. One great example: Hudson Pacific Properties and their significant investment into the revival of Bentall Centre and the many publicly-accessible, privately-owned plazas and walkways along Burrard and Dunsmuir Streets. While the plazas are clearly associated with the buildings, the improvements invite people to use the spaces as de facto public plazas, blurring the property line between sidewalk and plaza. At the same time, concierge and maintenance staff are present but not insistent, and a range of events animate the space without co-opting truly public space for private use. As one of the largest contiguously-owned parcels in the downtown, Bentall Centre is seen – by both the owner and city planning officials – as a significant and important space for civic life in the downtown, regardless of ownership.
There are questions that remain: does private space masquerading as public realm invite conflict over who is truly able to use these spaces? What if ownership changes and the commitment to management and maintenance disappears? Will this model result in a deterioration of truly public place, where funding to build and manage these spaces is already challenged? Among those questions, however, are a few provocations: who will be the true champions of public space in our city? How can private investment and public amenity leverage each other, creating a whole better than the sum of the parts?
To answer these questions, we just need to look at places where investment in public life is really on display, and where the development community plays a role, large or small. “When we invest in the design construction and management of public realm, we are investing in public good: arts and culture, health and wellness, commerce and real estate, social equity and community safety, infrastructure and education, sustainability and community resilience, all the things we hold dear as citizens.” says Fry. “Whether you are a city official or a developer, there is a realization that that $250,000 left turn lane doesn’t give you that kind of benefit.”
Landscape architect, urbanist, cultural placemaker: committed to building places that linger in public memory and are built to last, that ebb and flow with daily life and therefore become beloved by the people they serve; and that reveal stories otherwise unseen.