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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Robson Chronicles: Robson Square: Visions for an Activated Centre

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Robson Square now blocked to traffic is developing as a space with activity fitting to its centrality. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

[Robson is a diverse and dynamic street that defines Vancouver. In 2008 editing-contributor of SpacingVancouver and local urban designer Brendan Hurley published his Master’s Urban Design Project – not technically a thesis – that looked at how to make Robson Vancouver’s “Great Street”. The document – Robson Street: Envisioning a Civic Core for Vancouver’s Downtown – examined Robson Street from block, neighbourhood and downtown-wide scales and offered design interventions intended on treating the corridor through its public realm and development as a complete and active link that helps to define the civic nature and structure of the City’s core. SpacingVancouver will be presenting excerpts and analysis from this document and its author as an ongoing series. This week he looks at the power, importance and opportunity surrounding Robson Square and presents some of the design responses to challenges of the space brought up in his 2008 Thesis]

Robson Square is a particularly difficult site to discuss, especially due to its importance to so many in the city. It is an area that I did not expect to start the presentation of excerpts discussion from my thesis work of five years ago. However since first being invited by SpacingVancouver to present my grad project, Robson Street: Envisioning A Core Civic Core for Vancouver’s Downtown, there have been some major recent developments in and surrounding Robson Square that have spurred discussion about what the future of both Robson Square and the street it is named after means to our city.

The Double Cross – Robson & Georgia with Granville & Burrard create a civic geometry for Vancouver’s downtown. A completed SeaWall/Greenway loop would turn these cores into spokes of a public open space “wheel”.
Purple = Ceremonial / Red = Retail / Green = Greenway Seawall [Design: Brendan Hurley 2008]

The project itself broke down the design contexts of Robson Street into seven identifiable character neighbourhoods to develop a concept of a complete and great street extended between clear terminal ends, from Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park to False Creek around BC place. Robson Square is presented as the central fulcrum where the civic energy of Robson and other major downtown streets intersect and are amplified.

There is something special about the Robson Square complex and its defining place in the centre of Vancouver’s downtown. The geometry surrounding of the squat Edwardian former civic courthouse belies a symbolism and grandeur of the space not conveyed by its place in the skyline. This building and its presence in urban space since it was constructed have reflected what is important to our Vancouver society and has influenced how the city presents and sees itself.

The Greening Downtown plan, by Baird & Simpson in 1982, was one of the first plans to effectively articulate the concept of the importance of these surrounding streets as a “double cross” structure defining downtown Vancouver. The four axial corridors in the core: symbolic, ceremonial streets of a large scale – Georgia and Burrard – and two active retail cores with intimate, human scaled, street life – Granville and Robson – extend across the downtown peninsula. Yet at their very geometrical centre sits that Dome and around it are the Spaces that now make up “Robson Square”.
 At each point in its history the uses under that dome represented the height of what the city held dear. In the Edwardian period and past two World Wars its construction and function as a courthouse presented that ideal as the rule of British Law. In more contemporary times the site and its power have been focused on the civic nature of art and culture as the site became reused for the Vancouver Art Gallery. Now with the gallery debating transitioning to new sites that there may be a new function to come. [That discussion is worth another post in itself.]


[From Robson Street: Envisioning a Civic Core for Vancouver’s Downtown]

Robson Square subsection between Burrard and Granville.
Green = Opportunities / Red = Constraints
[Design: Brendan Hurley – 2008]
Robson Square vision plan potential improvements. [Design: Brendan Hurley – 2008]




Envisioned Character of Street


Visioning a future for Robson Square requires in depth study, as a proper concept will need to balance and examine the section’s potential as a civic central place to the city of Vancouver with the many public and private initiatives and programs that continue to compete in the defining of this space. Each of the corridors of the “double cross” will develop their own character as they radiate from this site, but it is envisioned that their intersections could be given special treatments. The treatment of the Robson Square plaza as a place of central connection, gathering, and civic reflection will need to be fostered. Care is required to connect the above to the below, retail to public institutions, and the civic corridors to each other.


The intersections at either end of the Robson Square character area are each important enough to have a physical civic marker, but it may be the Robson Square site as a centre of the network which might require special treatment as a whole. The public space may need gateway statements to help define and demarcate the centrality of that space.


Creating a set of steps on the Cornelia Oberlander’s landscaped garden to face the Robson Steps could create a place of civic interaction. At the same time, the visual connection of an overlook could be made by raising the weather protection domes on either side of the bridging space for users to look in to the Ice Plaza below. Connecting that space to the activity generating subway [Now Vancouver City Centre Canada Line Station] and underground shopping likely requires a negotiated redevelopment strategy to pass through or under the Hornby Street parking structure. The benefits of doing so will make the Robson Square plaza truly a central hub of civic activity that would activate all of its levels reminiscent of Rockefeller Centre in New York.

Development Along the Street

Redevelopment and working of storefronts to face Robson Street has been relatively successful on the western side of the section, except for where storefronts step back from the street. Incorporating street fronting retail into the garden hill, or gallery building of the central civic block is best programmed as food, or supportive activities for the public institutions. Kiosks for street food and market events can be included, especially if the plaza is pedestrianized. The most crucial site for redevelopment in this section is the north eastern block that is part of Pacific Centre mall. Incorporating if not maximizing ground oriented retail on all sides will activate the spaces around that block.

The design rendering of James Cheng’s renovation of Pacific Centre’s department store anchor. [Image: Cadillac Fairview]

Key Activities and Buildings Along the Street

Sears’ Redevelopment: The Sears site can be considered one of if not the most valuable properties in the city, but it needs major redevelopment to capitalize on that potential value. The southern edge could be the site of a major landmark mixed use tower that could reflect play off the energies and style of this central place. Such a tower should have a retail base, and could even dedicate a portion of that base to continued department store use or to a cultural or entertainment anchor. Other floors could include a mixture of office or hotel uses. The basement of development on this block should include a retail connection to the City Centre Canada Line Station and incorporate a passageway to Robson Square’s Ice Plaza.

The Vancouver Art Gallery has expressed a desire to expand its space and operations in the coming years; without massive redevelopment of their site this central civic institution may have to move leaving the civic building vacant. One opportunity to maintain this civically defining use at the centre of the city would be to allow its expansion across the street, connecting it by a bridge or tunnel to the neighbouring block. It could be incorporated as part of a possible street level activating podium for the currently blank TD tower at the corner of Howe and Georgia. An expansion for UBC Downtown could be also be a possibility for expansion redevelopment or reuse of either towers’ midlevel floor space or into a vacated gallery building.

Plazas like Pioneer Square in Portland are be contained and defined by furniture, art, and landscaping. The columns act as both wall and gateway. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]


As part of the central business district this area is populated with tower forms, which help define this the lower central block and plaza spaces. Tall gates at either end might help enclose the central plaza. The recent initiatives and debate on whether or not to add a large roof to the plaza is not new, they were suggested even before Ericksons design. Priority of pedestrian improvements and transit access of the lower plaza should take precedence over a flashy roof structure. [2012 Note: The Roof Plan for the Plaza was abandoned shortly after the Olympics, instead a replacement to the glass domes occurred. Recently released designs for the new Nordstroms department store at Pacific Centre extend smaller and activate retail at the lower the edges, but it is unclear how they will connect to the surface level.]


With improvements to Robson Square, pedestrians increasingly use this space and dominate it during peak and event periods. Paving to evoke pedestrian priority across lanes that intersect the street and over the street level plaza will also improve the pedestrian experience. Providing for street level connections into the plaza with improved crossings and at the mid block may also be warranted.

The current block to traffic is rather makeshift with road maintenance barriers. Work must be done to make this pedestrianization and any associated gateway to function for wayfinding and clear access. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]


Pedestrian-only strategies in the central block will complicate traffic patterns, as the one-way couplets on either side face directions counter to flow, and may even break continuity of street activity. Adaptability in design – to react to changing needs – will be crucial. Options for removable or automatic bollarding of the Robson Square plaza should be used to block private vehicles and even public transit access through this central space, yet maintain the ability for those patterns to be reintroduced at other times.

[2012 Note: The repaving of the Robson Street bridging plaza after the Olympics – which was a strong case for pedestrianization itself – did not take into account any adaptability. The high curbs have hindered the ability for street furniture and activities to spill outside of the roadway space or to reduce bicycle conflicts. Plastic highway engineering barriers have been placed at the entrance to the plaza space to block traffic in a pedestrian trial that has been extended into next year. Hopefully a more artful barrier can be used to protect the space.]


Transit access is a strong draw between levels. A connection into Pacific Centre and the Downtown Centre Canada Line Station would inject and draw users and visitors into Robson Square as a critical hub of transportation activity. Bus routes connect on either side and their stops could be utilized as active social spaces if they were associated with vendors and public amenities.

Along Hornby the separated bikeway has enhanced the pedestrian activity in the colonnade of trees into a much more important allee leading to and defining the square. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

Street Trees

Extending a streetwall of trees through the Robson Square Plaza is not a priority, but creating or maintaining a canopy on the surrounding streets is, especially between Hornby and Granville Streets. Similar to a recommendation the Greening the Downtown Plan of 1982, a continuous boundary of trees, possible with a double allee, around the Robson Square Complex including would bound the public space of Centennial Square and help connect pedestrian edges southwards.
[2012 Note: The allee of trees beside the law courts has been fortified with the inclusion of the separated bikeway. Without even accounting for cycling traffic this intervention has improved the pedestrian activity and experience along Hornby.]


With this site’s civic nature, providing free to use seating and other comforts is crucial to keep non shopping users on Robson. Public washroom facilities, public art, pedestrian oriented lighting, movable seating and tables, and kiosks for vendors might be included in the plaza levels to benefit users experience of them. Street food is difficult to include with current health laws. Ports in the street and plaza space for vendors to access utilities could reinvigorate a culture of varied street food in this section. [2012 Note: the activity generated from the Viva Vancouver and Food Cart programs have gone a long way to improving the experience in this place.]

Public Spaces

Public spaces should be edged with active uses, have access to the sun, be effectively connected to other sites, have appropriately greened and furnished, and be activated and animated with civic programmes and people, not by mere commercialization and advertising. If executed well this space is what will proudly represent our city for years into the future.


Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is acting as Editor of SpacingVancouver, but also consults as director of the UrbanCondition design collective.