I took a trip in my home town last week, a trip that took me years into the future. My guide was a Placemaker who doesn’t live here and, although he has visited several times, probably doesn’t know Murchies from the McPherson. But he navigated the future of our region as if he was a native, visiting from decades ahead, on a sympathy mission to keep our spirits up, to offer hope to those of us trapped in the darkness of Now.
Mark Lakeman lives in Portland and it is there he developed his design craft. The City of Victoria Council invited Mark to visit our fair land to share his wisdom on the topic of Placemaking. You see, Mark is somewhat of an expert on the subject, having cut his teeth on improvements to his own neighbourhood in Portland that included – no surprise – fighting city hall. Many years and lots of workshops later, Mark now serves as a Director with City Repair, a grass-roots, non-profit organization based in Portland that helps communities around the world repair the damage done by cars, by straight-edged city planners, and by cut-and-dried capitalism.
As an architect, Mark has a keen eye for potential, and that was the question put before him as he contemplated our urban setting. What is the potential for Placemaking in Victoria?
On Monday, May 11, Mark joined a gaggle of urban design professionals, a gargle of city counsellors, a giggle of city staff members, and a google of other residents, about 70 all together, in an excursion into this garden city’s future. Over a period of about six hours, we collectively jumped through one time portal after another, chasing visions that were always one step ahead.
We began with a mass bike ride along a route selected to expose the unique challenges that Placemaking may address. First stop: Rockland Avenue in that quiet, shaded strip of asphalt north of Christ Church Cathedral, adjacent to Pioneer Park. Mark described what he saw with his broad vision, ranging from the historic importance of this street to a future where it returned to that role. This is a good example, he said with a twinkle, of how a street can become a story. Closing this part of Rockland to cars recalls the “place” it served for many decades before the automobile. There is extra value when a street such as this small segment forms a critical link in the network. As the air shimmered in time travel mode, Mark noted the tree canopy above echoed the tree roots below, creating a cradle for human activity.
On we flew northward up Vancouver Street, passing through the Harris Green and North Park neighbourhoods. This could become a major north-south bike and pedestrian corridor, linking residential areas with commercial operations and Central Park. Controlling car traffic on Vancouver is critical, as are the crossings at Fort, Yates, and Pandora Streets. Mark drew attention to the straight street lines. These contrast with how humans once lived in small groups, drawing together into circles of protection against the elements and enemies, recalling the Conestoga Trail Boss’s cry, “Circle the wagons!” We need to get rid of the grid, and dispense with straight line cities that ignore our human needs for community.
The trip continued to Quadra Village, at Quadra and Kings Street, where a few participants took on the role of visioning. We could close Kings Street to cars, someone said, introduce a traffic circle, and slow the cars on Quadra, maybe a mural in the intersection, a pedestrian square, perhaps a skate park. A bike corridor on Kings should connect with the Galloping Goose Regional Trail. Mark added his view of the value in using public streets in unique ways, such as blurring the property lines so businesses can spill out into public space, allowing more cafés with outdoor tables and eroding the straight edges.
The bike group next headed east on Haultain, noting the major challenge of crossing Cook Street, to Haultain and Belmont, where a few small stores, services, and a coffee shop share an intersection. As we gathered at this wide point in the road, it became obvious that some drivers use Haultain to bypass busy Bay Street. Several people spoke now, expressing their hope for a future of traffic calming, pedestrian orientation, bicycle travel, and rapid transit. It could be a people space, they said, with more boulevard gardens, affordable housing above the small retail shops, and banners across the street to demark the village. Mark noted that a city is more than just a place to generate commerce. It must be a place for grandmothers to sit and share stories, a place of diversity, and a place for community to evolve.
Begbie Green was our next stop, where busy Begbie turns into a busier Shelbourne at Pembroke Street. This spot has several challenges, most of them relating to its design for the car culture, but that didn’t stop the now-emboldened time-travelers. A berm could help shield the site from traffic noise, allowing a secure park for kids to play. A covered picnic area would attract residents and other citizens, and trimming some of the heavy shade trees would allow more sun. Removing some of the asphalt road surface would permit more creative uses for this important corner.
For the bike tour conclusion, we gathered in North Park Village at the corner of Cook Street and North Park, between the Parsonage Café and the WIN store. The persistent vehicle traffic on Cook Street triggered a landslide of ideas for reclaiming public space in this area. This short section of North Park could be closed to through traffic, encouraging more open-air benches and restaurant tables. A bulletin board would turn it into a community gathering space, as would a sculpture garden, trees with edible fruit, a solar book kiosk, a mural on the WIN store wall, a pedestrian park, with affordable housing above the retail stores.
The magic of time travel didn’t end when we parked our bikes in Centennial Square. In the two-and-a-half hour charrette that followed, more than 70 participants gathered in the City Council Chambers to put some of the visions gathered on the bike tour onto paper. Armed with maps, flipcharts, pens and enthusiasm, we broke into eight tables of creativity, as determined to record the future we saw on the bike trip as an artist tries to capture a landscape. Mark invited us to be open to the ideas of others in our groups, and left us with an important word on action. The ideas generated this day and in the near future must be implemented soon, or people will stop believing in the process.
And so it came to pass that we returned to the here and now, back to our respective lives but forever changed thanks to a day with Mark Lakeman. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the experience was watching the often hard lines separating city staff member, citizen, city council member, and urban professional gradually melt away under the power of one shared belief: Placemaking has a place in Victoria.
Guest Author Bio
I am trained as an urban planner and risk manager. These days, I am trying to move my community into a positive future through cycling, urban gardens, and placemaking.