Urban Oases of Victoria - Pioneer Square

There is no doubt when you walk through Pioneer Square that it is a special place, but I still feel disappointed when I am there. Pioneer Square is perhaps one of the most undervalued public spaces in the city and the strangest thing about it is that it has always been that way, forgotten, neglected and never given the opportunity to shine. Still the passerby can still stop and relax in this space and they should.

The almost impossible to read plaque for the
The History
Pioneer Square or the Old Burial Ground as it was once called, was the first burial ground for newcomers to the Island outside of Fort Victoria. The first burial took place in 1855 and it was the primary burial ground until Ross Bay Cemetery opened in 1873. During that time approximately 1300 people were interred in the grounds. The site had problems even during this time. In particular, the area had a significant drainage problem, which in some examples, required those conducting a burial to stand upon a coffin until enough earth was on top of it to weigh it down. The Old Cemeteries Society of BC has an excellent history of grounds including this story, that can be read here.

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One of the most common stories about Pioneer Square that you will see in its history is the continuous cycle of neglect, public outcry, political promise, followed by more neglect. It is strange that when you walk through the park as it is, with its huge trees and nearby commercial and residential, that more care would not have been paid to the space. Perhaps some of the lack of action is due to a concern regarding the fact that this is a burial ground. This was born out even recently during the last minor improvements that were made in 2013, when work stopped after the discovery of remains just 46 cm below the surface. Little has happened in Pioneer Square since then.

Current State
There is no doubt that Pioneer Square is an urban oasis, even in its current state. It has curving paths, gorgeous old trees, history to stop and read and nice patches of grass to stretch out on. At lunch there are usually quite a number of office workers stopped to eat and chat. Still given its location and the fact that there are so few park spaces downtown you would expect it to be busier.

On a weekend, apart from the few people cutting through, the park is generally left to the homeless. In most other cities, a space like this would be a meeting spot with activity throughout the day, even if it is a burial ground. Even with the work the city did do in 2013, it was really only just a patching of the asphalt and not much else. One piece that has been an improvement was the closing of Rockland Avenue next to the park and the creation of a greenway through the block. This has brought it more in context with the Christ Church Cathedral and its grounds. Unfortunately it has not resulted in a greater amount of use for the square.

A great space for a hard surface plaza
The City has had its focus moved away from Pioneer Square to the green space across from the Cathedral due to an extended homeless camp that resided there in 2016. With all of the damage caused by the camp, there was a need for extensive rehabilitation and a rejuvenation plan. That space is well on its way now to housing a playground and seeing a bright future. Meanwhile, Pioneer Square once again gets forgotten as focus moves elsewhere.

Still a beautiful place now
A Vision for the Future
The key to any successful public space is activity. Give people a reason to go there and experience it, be with other people, and they will come back. There are numerous ways to create this activity in Pioneer Square.

If I had the ability to make the changes myself, I would do it in three ways: enhance the space, create activity, and do more to tell the story.

While the Square, as it is now, does have pathways and grass for much of the year, there it is not a place you want to stop and relax as the grass area will be wet. In Victoria, we have a mistaken idea that a park should have as much grass as possible and this is actually contrary to encouraging the use of a park, unless it is solely for being looked at from afar. Parks should be a place to get to relax anytime of year. To solve this, the addition of a paved plaza area or two in the park would provide year round focal points. One of these, in my opinion would be best located on the corner of Meares and Quadra. In the plaza you could have a collection of benches that would be allow for people to sit without getting their shoes wet. A second one would also work at the southeast entrance to the square.

This no longer works
The addition of the plaza spaces would create opportunities for activity planning. To encourage use, especially on the weekends, the City could allow for some sort commercial activity. In my opinion, allowing local artists to apply for a spot to sell their art would create a vibrant opportunity for people to walk through and enjoy some art and allow artists an opportunity to make some money. From that, some buskers could also be allowed. Another opportunity would be for booksellers to sell used books in the Square. The activity itself is not the point, but instead that there is an event that people will be drawn to.

Once you have a place for people to go and when they are there, something for them to do, the City could add a third element to make the experience more interesting through a historical experience for visitors. The addition of more signage to talk about the early years of the settlement of Victoria and those interred in the Square would be interesting. A bit more complicated would be the addition of an augmented reality experience where visitors could look through their phones and see the grounds as they were through overlaid photographs from certain spots. This is not a completely unknown piece of Pioneer Square, in 2012, as part of the 150 celebration in Victoria, Intrepid Theatre had an art piece that incorporated a walk through the park. Unfortunately, despite signs remaining up now, the website you are taken to is dormant.

It would seem at this point that any attention to the Square would be an improvement over what the City has been doing recently. With the plan for a large seniors residence across the street, having an active and engaging public space for the residents to enjoy should be a priority.

Despite the negative things I have said about the Square as it is now, I would still encourage you to take the time to walk through, read some of the monuments and relax on one of the many benches. It truly is an oasis of quiet away from the city. Let me know if you have any ideas for how to make Pioneer Square a vibrant public space.