Do We Need Green Space or People Space?

If you have ever attended a public hearing for a new development, you will know that a common concern is the lack of green space planned in and around the proposal. I have touched on this before and my frustration with it. This concern has been bouncing around the city lately in response to the proposal by Jawl Residential for the Mazda lot in Harris Green. Apparently at the public meeting with the developer and the Downtown Residents Association someone made the comment about the lack of green space in Harris Green to a large round of applause. This moment is alluded to in their letter to city council on the project as well. So there is a feeling amongst at least those that attended the meeting that there is something missing in their community and that the answer to fix it is “green space”.

What I want to do is pick this apart a little in the context of this project and Harris Green, but also discuss what I think often gets conflated, and that is green space when what is actually wanted is people space.

So first, if you want to be completely technical about the boundaries of Harris Green, it’s true, there are absolutely no parks within it. This sounds terrible unless you consider that the entire area is just twelve city blocks and that if you further consider that the area around it does have significant green space. The neighbourhood is actually named for a park that runs along the border between Harris Green, North Park and Fernwood, with the largest portion sitting fully within the borders of Fernwood (If you are a long time reader you are aware of my feelings about the current borders of our neighbourhoods and this is yet another great example). Still it is there and it runs for three blocks. To the east along Yates street, at the top of the hill by the current fire hall is Central Middle School with its very large playing field. Just a block south of the border of Harris Green sits Pioneer Square Park. And just to the north of Pandora Avenue sits Franklin Green Park. So when it comes to publicly owned green space there is a lot around Harris Green.

It isn’t just the publicly owned green spaces either, there are also a number of privately owned spaces that are open to the public. As part of the agreement with the city when the Regent Park towers were built at Yates and Vancouver, there was a requirement for a publicly accessible mid-block walkway and also some green space. There are at least two stretches of very nice seating areas in this development. Across Yates from here is also the relatively new community garden that sits on privately owned land. Given all this space it makes you wonder what the concern that is being raised is all about? I mean all this space must be overloaded with people and therefore there is a need for more right? Unfortunately this is not the case, you can walk by any of the places I just mentioned now and go by on the nicest day you can imagine in the city and with the exception of Pioneer Square at lunchtime, you will find them deserted. Just today I walked through each of them and yes, it is January, but it was also a Sunday with 10c weather with the sun shining. I had each one to myself again except Pioneer Square which had a few homeless people sleeping in it. So the current green spaces are plentiful and relatively empty, so what is the concern?

When you walk around Harris Green one of the biggest problems that the area has is the large one-way streets that funnel cars relatively quickly past it. One of the largest benefits of the bike lanes along Pandora and Fort Street has been the slowing down of this traffic that has made both of those streets a little more pleasant to walk along. I still think the city should have taken the opportunity to take those changes to the next level and returned all of the streets in Harris Green to two-way traffic. The second issue is that until recently, with the exception of Fort Street, Harris Green has been covered with surface parking lots. It was an all round people hostile place. There hasn’t been, and still really aren’t places that you can go and just be in public with people. I would say that the closest place that you can go to simply be with people is the Harris Green Village Centre, that houses London Drugs, Market on Yates and a number of other businesses. You will often find people sitting on benches here; buskers playing music and people sitting outside of the grocery store having a coffee. This raises a couple of questions. Why is the area around a parking lot and some larger stores so busy with even people sitting down to enjoy the place, while the large expanse of Harris Green is empty? The answer is that we don’t really need more green space; we need people places!

The potential people place on the Mazda lot

The potential people place on the Mazda lot

Strangely enough, the proposal for the Mazda lot completely lacks any indications of pure green space, but it does have what I think might turn out to be an amazing piece of people space if it is designed correctly. Just at the corner of Yates and Cook there is a large piece of the corner that indents into the project and given the right additional people ingredients, could be a new nexus in the city. In fact, my main concern with this proposed public space as it is shown, is the large amount of grass which takes away from the ability to use it year round. This square has the potential to be an amazing people place.

I am not really sure why there is so much push for green space when what we actually need is people space. As I was walking between the various green spaces in preparation for this article, I paused to take some pictures in Pioneer Square. I was admiring the cathedral and noting the quiet of the square, but I could hear kids screaming and laughing, which reminded me that there was a new public space across the street so I walked over and despite it being January the playground was packed with kids and parents. The interesting thing about the new park space at the courthouse is that it is mostly hard surface and only is about a third turned over to grass and trees. It is definitely a people place first.

I think that we need to be thinking about creating great places that attract people rather than simply creating additional green space that will sit empty, we can’t afford to let land downtown go to waste like that.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any favourite people spaces in Harris Green that I may have overlooked?