How Vancouver should reimagine Robson Square

With the city planning to permanently close off a section of Robson Street, we asked two urban experts how it should be done

This spring, city council voted to permanently close off Robson Street between Hornby and Howe, transforming the centre of downtown Vancouver into a pedestrian-only plaza and making Arthur Erickson’s original vision for the square a reality. With the concept design still in the works, we spoke with former city planner Brent Toderian and Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, about how Vancouver should reimagine the plaza. Kent says Vancouver could learn a lot from Perth, Australia, in particular, which redesigned its own sleepy square, the Perth Cultural Centre, in 2009: “It went from a pretty amazing empty space to the biggest destination in Western Australia.”

Pershing_Square Los Angeles’s Pershing Square

People PowerBeautiful art and architecture don’t matter if there aren’t any people to enjoy it, and Kent says that Los Angeles’s Pershing Square—known for its colourful art fixtures—is an example of that. “It’s all of these shapes and forms, but there’s no real reason to be there other than to sort of look at them,” he says. As a result, the city is currently in the process of looking for a new design.

culturalcentre The Perth Cultural Centre

The Perfect DateThe Perth Cultural Centre is home to a number of attractions, including the city’s pre-eminent theatre, museum and art gallery, but the addition of restaurants and seating areas makes it a multi-use destination. In order to achieve that same status, Toderian says, Robson Square would benefit from small retailers, restaurants and more food trucks.

Street LifeNever underestimate the power of people watching. “You can have an interesting use, like a gallery, along the edge of a public space, but if you can’t see into it, then that’s only of use to the people who are coming to the space to go to the gallery,” Toderian says. “What you want are transparent edges that have something interesting to look into. It’s street theatre.”

Cultural-Centre-Perth The Perth Cultural Centre

The Cool KidsWhen in doubt, make sure that a public space appeals to kids. “What attracts children attracts everyone,” Toderian says. That means elements like water, interactive art and programming are big draws. The Perth Cultural Centre, for example, has an outdoor play space with instruments, interconnected talking tubes and walking stilts where visitors can experiment and test their balance.