A city’s buzz is highly associated with the liveliness of its plazas – the shared outdoor spaces adjacent to buildings and parks, whether privately or publicly owned.
To celebrate Jane’s Walk on May 4, The Places Project hosted a walk that explored a variety of plaza spaces in downtown Victoria (BC, Canada) and the curious walkways that connect them. Our route was intentionally a mid-block route. Like many cities, Victoria features some blocks that are relatively long. As none other than Jane Jacobs herself noted, short blocks are better – better for pedestrians because they allow more options for movement and better for retail because they provide more of those high-profile corner locations.
But in any city, you work with the infrastructure that’s there. So we took a walk cutting through Victoria’s long blocks that run between the main streets of Douglas and Blanchard.
First, our group of about 20 (downtown residents, families, planning professionals, architects and community activists) gathered at the open-air atrium in front of the Central branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. It’s one of those spaces that is immediately and obviously good and bad. Its glass roof protects one from the elements. But it’s a 1970s era design – dark brick and concrete on all sides, with little colour or humanity.
The atrium is graced by a great central sculpture by the late Victoria artist George Norris. Unfortunately, there is no plaque or other information about the sculpture (that we could find) so the community appreciation for the work hits a dead end.
Buskers sometimes perform on the raised steps around the sculpture and for them the acoustics are reasonably good. The problem is that, aside from the buskers, the square is not inviting. Sometimes that’s due to the breezes that whisk through the space but on this sunny spring day, the temperatures under the glass were comfortable. Still, everyone in the atrium except us was on the move – using it as a shortcut or coming and going from the library. The issue, as we could see from some of the other spaces that we visited, was the lack of variety in activities that the space supports. No food carts, no vendors, no adjacent shops, no cafe = no one sticking around.
There also appears to be a usage policy issue – one member of our group told about sitting in the courtyard, working on a university paper, and being told by a security staffer that the space was “closed” after library hours. This despite the fact there are no gates or doors to be closed or locked on the courtyard’s connecting entry points.
Curious connectors and lively spaces
So we set off northward and – to the surprise of some participants – were able to walk 5 blocks without having to go out to the main streets on the ends of the blocks (Douglas and Blanchard). This is due to the City of Victoria’s very good mid-block pedestrian crossings – they all have curb bulbs and are clearly marked – and to a lesser extend the semi-secret passageways through the middle of each block. Those passages range from outdoor walkways (in most cases, ones that don’t align to allow a clear line of sight) and an odd series of indoor retail spaces (most of which provide nothing to indicate you can actually walk through them). Here’s some observations from our graphic recorder:
The series of walkways through office towers and even parkade structures are a real missed opportunity. When looked at in combination with the mid-block street crossings and some very good open spaces on adjacent sidewalks, the route could be a really cool urban experience. The potential remains untapped. More on what’s happening (and what could be happening) along those passages in future blog posts.
To bookend the walk, we ended at The Atrium building, designed by Franc D’Ambrosio, and lo and behold we saw what good placemaking does.
People stood and chatted and it felt like a community space. Some of the not so secret design features of the space included lots of natural light, many adjacent uses (coffee shop, fast food restaurant, fine dining restaurant, hair boutique, cookware store that offers classes). Plus the abundant use of clear glass so that everyone in all those spaces could see others coming and going, whether those people were on the street or in The Atrium common space.
Here’s a short video on the placemaking decisions that went into The Atrium.
Watch for future posts on other aspects of this walk. We will also have a feature post on the improved plaza design that is included in The Era, a condo development that is under construction on this ‘mid-block’ route.