By Thomas Guerrero
Last month I had the wonderful opportunity to address the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network Annual General Meeting. Rather than talk about Sidewalking Victoria, I decided to talk a little bit about place and how that applies to placemaking itself. Here are some of those thoughts transposed into a blog post.
Placemaking is so much more than arranging planters, painting lamp standards, and putting in some benches. It is certainly comprised of those things but when it is successful placemaking changes everyone’s perspective of the city. It changes that mental map of the city that each of us has. It brings places to life.
So how do we envision place as an idea? Let’s think of downtown Victoria. From Belleville Street at the south end of downtown to Chatham Street in the north is about 1200 metres. Within that very defined and relatively small space there are a multitude of places. Think of all the places that you could tell a friend to meet you for a coffee, or on a street corner. How many places you could go to sit down next to a piece of public art or in a lively square. In just the small area we call downtown there must be thousands of places. And the really cool thing is that each of us that live here have most of them mapped in our brains already. If I asked you to meet me at almost any of the places I could think of downtown, we would have no problem finding each other. That is some serious density of place.
To understand just what this density of place is, you need to imagine the other end of the spectrum, at least locally.
Most of us can picture the Pat Bay Highway. Now think specifically about the Pat Bay from Saanich Municipal Hall to the Ferry Terminal. If you were to draw a line between those two points on the map it would be just over 25 kilometres. That means now that we know that downtown Victoria is about 1200 metres from top to bottom, you could stack it and every single one of those places that we have in our head over 20 times in that distance. I know that when you go off the highway and visit Sidney or Brentwood Bay there are some great places, but thinking of the highway itself, apart from the occasional view, the passing McDonalds’, the gas stations, the place density is significantly depleted.
Here is another way to look at it. Imagine if you were dropped in the median between the Quadra overpass and the Broadmead overpass, where could you say you were except between the Quadra overpass and the Broadmead overpass and yet the distance between those two points is greater than the entirety of downtown Victoria and all of its places.
So now we have thought about place, and lack of place, what about placemaking? Again when we think of all of the places that together make up Victoria, each one has its point of creation when it became a “place”. some of them because a combination of food and style created a great restaurant that people wanted to visit; and others because organically a set of stores came together to create a shopping district that was different than anywhere else. A lot of places came to be though, because people who cared about place and placemaking wanted them to.
To give you a specific example of how that last point works, if you lived in Victoria in 2004, fifteen years ago, which really is not that far in the past, you could definitely tell someone to meet you in Cook Street Village, Chinatown, James Bay Village and even Quadra Village. But in 2004 you could not have told anyone to meet you in North Park Village, no one would have known what you meant at all.
A few years later in 2007, when I was on the North Park Neighbourhood Association, we sat down with CitySpaces Consulting and the City of Victoria and told them that there was a bunch of businesses on Cook Street (And they likely said you mean Cook Street Village?) but no, we meant the ones that lined Cook Street through North Park and Fernwood. We said, those businesses there, they are our village, but no one thinks of it that way. If fact no one really thought of it at all. So an engaged group of us worked with the Fernwood Community Association and the businesses along the street and we started to pull together a plan. We did put in some benches and planters for sure, but the most important thing that we did was give the village a name. Of course that was not enough because we also had to tell people about it. So we did tell people and we put up signs. Now only 12 years later most everyone in Victoria knows what I mean by North Park Village, we had created a place.
That is amazing power of placemaking; yes you put in planters and benches, but more importantly you change people’s perspective, that internal map of the city that is etched across their brain.