By Brent Toderian
Last week, at an event attended by over 300 Vancouverites, we announced the winners of our re:CONNECT Open Ideas Competition regarding the future of our Viaducts and Eastern Core. If you missed my past posts on the steps leading up to the big night, it might help to read here and here first.
Re:CONNECT is the second ideas competition we’ve held as a city in recent years, and the first related to an active work program. Like many North American cities, competitions are still a new skill set for us, but that’s something I’ve been working to change.
The competition generated tremendous public and media attention, with design ideas splashed across front pages and on-line comment sections filled with discussion and debate:
Plans envision transformation of viaduct lands / Globe and Mail
What’s your vision for Vancouver’s viaducts? / Vancouver Observer
Public, professionals submit ideas for Vancouver viaducts / Vancouver Courier
Ideas pour in from around globe to redevelop viaducts / Vancouver Sun
The future of Vancouver’s viaducts: equestrian club, farm or park?/ Canada.com
The 104 submissions from 13 countries inspired Vancouverites to think differently about the possibilities, and for perhaps the first time for many, the thought of something better than the current viaducts didn’t seem so hard to imagine. Although no conclusions have been prematurely arrived at, the slogan on the competition posters, “is this the best we can do”, seemed to capture the tone and opportunity of the moment.
Our outstanding jury did their hard work, and picked their 12 winners and honourable mentions, across the 3 categories, in both fee and free streams. In addition, the public had the opportunity to vote for “peoples choice” winners from each of the three categories. The public response was incredible – over 15,000 votes, and over 1500 on-line comments with great discussion and debate on the individual submissions.
Although its been an interesting process identifying the “Peoples Choice” winners, we’re being careful not to confuse the voting process we’ve used, with a true indication of local public support. Given the many indications of “voting campaigns” on Facebook and other social media, those with the highest scores may be more indicative of better outreach than local popular support. I’ve observed that the results might be more comparable to “American Idol” than a representative survey or municipal referendum. What the people’s choice voting process has been excellent for though, has been spreading the word and creating awareness and discussion, encouraging people to study and consider the submissions, and start to consider new possibilities.
So, to the stand-outs.
The winner that possibly had the most universal praise from the judges, won the most significant category (Connecting the Core) with the greatest prize money. “Darn it”, by Hapa Collaborative in Vancouver, beat out honourable mentions from London’s Studio Egret West and Berkeley’s Maulik Bansal and John Doyle with a simple but powerful proposal to “darn” the holes in the local street network with three ped bridges, while linking the areas gritty industrial past, to intensified green collar jobs, a food alley, art and music venues, habitat corridors and adventure sports.
In the free stream of Connecting the Core, Vancouver’s Ron van der Eerden and Yolanda Bienz received an honourable mention for their submission titled ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’.
The judges deliberations in the Viaducts category were the hardest, and perhaps the most interesting. The jury fairly quickly narrowed the field down to 4 submissions, but after some time found it impossible to pick a winner. The phrase they used was “we have 4 base hits, but no home run.” The judges knew they weren’t obligated to name winners, and should only do so if submissions rose to a level of worthiness in their minds. In each of the 4, the jury found significant things to praise, as well as aspects that caused concern and debate. Ultimately they made the provocative decision not to name a winner, but rather recognized all 4 “for merit”.
One of the 4 merit winners, called ‘- Viaducts = parks +‘, also was named the peoples choice winner for the viaducts category, and perhaps illustrates the judges dilemma best. Although they praised the open-space approach and achievement for the common-wealth through the total removal of viaducts with “upper and lower green spaces, museums, monuments, and elegant boulevards”, they were disturbed by the proposed development’s built form sweeping across the viaducts land, in wedge shaped towers turned sideways to the water. Noting that a key goal of the competition was to reconnect and remove “barriers”, the wall of building form, it was worried, would make the barrier between the waterfront and heritage area worse. The building orientation illustrated creates high value for views, but has long been rejected as an approach in Vancouver, as it doesn’t artfully “share the view” with the urban areas behind – something we routinely do in the layers of tower placement coming off the water.
Despite the built form approach, the overall public vision was compelling, and not surprising when the submitters were revealed – a team including DIALOG Consultants (formerly Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden), which amongst many great works were the original master planners for Granville Island; former City Councillor and now consultant Jim Green; my predecessor and now global consultant Larry Beasley; and leading local landscape architects and urban designers PWL Partnership. A dream team of local consultant powerhouses with a highly conceived scheme, sharing a merit award with 3 other submissions by local thinkers illustrating simple but influential ideas. It really illustrates the nature of “blind” ideas competitions, where the most compelling ideas win.
Two of the other award of merit choices are illustrated below: one submitted by the Vancouver team of Brennen, Aris, Solivar, Poirier, Gleeson, Citak, Odegaard and Handford which rethinks the lands under the viaducts, and another by Vancouverite Tony Osborne which replaces the viaducts with a new green open-space vision including the re-use of the viaducts materials for a new building form. The last award of merit in this category was given to a pragmatic transportation and pedestrian solution from Bruce Macdonald of Vancouver.
Wildcard winners also had interesting results. The judges fee winner proposed a large urban park that drove the reorganization of intensified job space, artistic and artisan uses. It was submitted by AECOM of Vancouver.
The peoples choice wildcard winner, Vancouver’s Chris Doray Studio, was one of the most visually wild submissions, living up to the category name. It’s no surprise it made its way to more than one media front-page during the process.
As I’ve expressed from the beginning though, the competition’s value isn’t merely in the winners, but in the totality of ideas across all submissions. We’ve been studying in detail the whole competition package, identifying themes and common ideas, for use in our work on options development.
Common themes included the re-introduction of water and nature into the area, and the embracing and invigorating of the jobs and economic focus for the area, along with an additive mixing of complementary activities. Many short-term ideas involved “beautifying” the viaducts, through art, colour, plantings or lighting. Many showed active and enlivening public uses under the viaducts, drawing inspiration from places like Millennium Park in Chicago.
Still many others had visions for the reuse of one or both of the viaducts as public spaces and pathways, with imagery similar to that of the High Line in New York.Â This created a lot of local discussion – for example, during a lively panel discussion at the awards event, the moderator asked if cities should worry about the over-replication of the High Line concept. My response was that there is always risk of unsophisticated over-replication of a successful idea, but that doesn’t mean the questions shouldnt be asked. The High Line may become the new “Bilbao Effect” or the “Millenium Park” effect but the important thing is to ask the right questions – how are the values, conditions, scale and contexts the same or different? It doesn’t mean that an elevated park wouldn’t work, but it does mean that careful consideration of real conditions should be involved before a vision is promoted. This, we will do in our process.
On top of the general themes, a few submissions unrecognized by the judges and public vote caught my eye, and imagination.
A submission by Gillian Gray & Máire Costelloe, contemplated modular incubator space for creative jobs, stacked under the viaduct space as an interim use. Although the idea could also enhance the barrier-like effect of the viaducts, this idea could become a pilot for a block, connected with both the city’s aspirations for the False Creek Flats as a “green enterprise zone”, and our community development aspirations for the nearby Downtown East-Side. It could also be an interim or pilot idea in the nearby False Creek Flats.
Robert Stacey submitted a simple but beautiful illustration of a bright and cloudy sky underneath the viaducts (either through paint or lighting, it’s unclear which). A great illustration of a small and simple idea, that could make an existing condition better, as you wait for the right timing for a bigger idea.
Many other submissions are worthy of deeper consideration, and this we will do. Congratulations to all the submissions recognized, and to everyone who put energy and passion into their submissions. Officially, the next steps are to use all this inspiration in the further development of options for the Transportation Plan Update, and the evolving Strategy for Vancouver’s Eastern Core. Less officially though, the ideas have many ways to find homes or influence processes, as we keep them alive at city hall, on the net, and in the community mindset. Perhaps some might inspire creative citizens throughout the city.
Given how many submissions were inspired by the High Line, its interesting to remember that the re-imagining of New York’s great new elevated space was led by two ordinary citizens inspired by an initial study by the Regional Planning Association. This process might inspire great things as well.
Brent Toderian, MCIP, is the Director of City Planning for the City of Vancouver, Canada, and the founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism (CanU).