Stories & Features

What's that buzz? The sound of change at Vancouver's urban spaces

Brightly-coloured bistro chairs have been added to Cathedral Square, a downtown Vancouver urban space facing the 116-year-old Holy Rosary Cathedral on Dunsmuir Street. Show caption
With the beautiful Holy Rosary Cathedral in the background, the park at Cathedral Square is becoming increasingly popular. Show caption
Young visitors head for the hoop installed in an alley off  off West Hastings Street, between Seymour and Granville Streets. It's now an urban playground. Show caption
One of downtown Vancouver's most popular lunch spots is Lot 19, a small park at West Hastings Street and Hornby. Show caption
At the back end of Cathedral Square sit two, protected bee hives, courtesy of Hives for Humanity. Show caption
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'Placemaking' initiatives bring colour and life to places like Cathedral Square

From buskers to bees to pink-floored alley ways, Vancouver's urban parks and alleyways aren't just cleaning up their act. They're getting to be fun.

"When you have a limited inventory of public spaces downtown, you have to explore how to best use the spaces you have, to make them more inviting," says Barbara Fairbrother of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). "What we call 'placemaking' makes these spaces safer and cleaner."

Fairbrother is sipping on a coffee at a JJ Bean location that's an alley-width removed from Cathedral Square, a small urban park that sits atop a BC Hydro substation – the first in North America to be built underground – and across the street from the stunning 116-year-old Holy Rosary Cathedral.

It's a park popular with workers, residents of the local area, ESL students, and pigeons. But its decades-old design (complete with four silo-like concrete vents that help with cooling of the substation below) undermines its full potential.

All that is changing, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the DVBIA, Vancouver Park Board, BC Hydro and the newest occupants of the park: thousands of bees from a pair of hives at the back of the park. Until recently the area of the park behind the vents has been the unsavoury part of Cathedral Square, largely hidden from the pedestrian traffic of Dunsmuir and Richards Streets.

"We recognize that the design of the park hasn't been updated since the 1980s, so it needs some sprucing up," says Fairbrother. "And we recognize that there's some illegal drug behaviour happening in the back there."

Placemaking can help with crime prevention through environmental design. The likes of placemaking.org advocate for "lighter, cheaper, quicker" interventions in a space, and that's the role the bee hives, and the recent addition of brightly-coloured bistro tables and chairs in the park, are playing at Cathedral Square. Music events and workshops will also create more activity at the urban park.

The DVBIA's work with partners at Cathedral Square led to the addition of the tables and chairs in 2016. Volunteers from Hives for Humanity – the organization that installed the two hives in the park – bring out the furniture each nice day, using the loading bays at retailers JJ Bean and Field & Social as overnight storage. The Park Board, with some financial help from BC Hydro, plans to add graphics to the four concrete vents in the park and is mulling over possible refreshing of other aspects of the park.

Bumble bees, honey bees, mason bees and butterflies provide essential ecosystem services by pollinating crops, backyard gardens, fruit trees, and native plants. Cathedral square's activities this summer will include pollinator and garden workshops, including one that where visitors can sample Cathedral Park honey.

"The enhancements seem to be working as we've noticed more people who work in the area using the park and enjoying their lunch on the moveable bistro tables and chairs," said Park Board landscape designer Lehran Hache. "The bees have really added a bit of magic."

The bee hives are designed with a protective fence that not only dissuades visitors from poking at the hives, but also forces the bees to exit the hive at an upward angle that will largely take them clear of those who use the park.

"Hives for Humanity works with people in transition to develop job skills, and to provide volunteer opportunities that give them some regular, daily, positive activities in their lives," says Fairbrother. "It also creates ownership in the work they do, a lot of pride."

Kickstarter campaign raising funds for alley installation behind Commodore

Earlier this year, the DVBIA transformed an alley off West Hastings Street, between Seymour and Granville Streets, into an urban playground complete with painted-pink asphalt, a basketball hoop and lines for a futsal soccer court.

The first in the DVBIA's More Awesome campaign for alley way transformation, the West Hastings location is already dramatically changing usage of the alley. Commercial vehicle traffic is down and, according to Fairbrother, one of the most vital metrics – the percentage of women using the alley – is up.

"Successful public spaces tend to have at least 50% women in them – that's when you know that the space is perceived as safe," she says. "So we often use that as a marker. And at Hastings, we're up in the 40th percentile [of women], where it was around 20% before."

Fairbrother says the alley's sports theme seems to be working. And a nearby school has even held a few PE classes in the alley.

Next up for the downtown is a Kickstarter-funded art installation in the lane behind the Commodore Ballroom, just behind Granville Street between Robson and Smithe streets. The FIELD in Ackery's Alley is a planned project by international artist Alex Beim , whose idea is a light and sound field that will be motion activated as visitors enter the space.

The DVBIA's urban space efforts began with the installation of the first of 10 "Perch" locations in 2014. Known as Lot 19, the small park at West Hastings Street and Hornby, is a popular lunch spot thanks to chairs, tables and a variety of activities including live music. There's a good chance that similar programming, including music theatre and even art workshops could be coming to the Perch location at Cathedral Park down the road.