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Aug 28, 2009

by Richard Borbridge, VIA’s Vancouver Urban Planner

While the debate continues about future of public civic space in Vancouver, we have a perfect opportunity to think about one important role and reason for public space – fostering conviviality. Lisa Peattie, Urban Studies professor at MIT, defines conviviality as the quality of lively socialness, expanding on the social learning theories of Ivan Illich that see conviviality as “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment.” In a planning context, convivial cities are those that provide opportunities for casual social connection between people in the city — communication and collocation — whether though complementary urban design or market-driven development of third places.

Conviviality is tightly connected to Ray Oldenburg’s concept of “third places”, those besides home and work, which lend space to convivial interaction through cafés, pubs, diners, and hangouts – places that are active in promoting a sense of community and shared experiences between friends and familiar strangers. Vancouver at a glance is not short on third places, but the recent struggles to find art and performance space in our “creative city” highlights the narrow definition downtown Vancouver has fostered.

Public open spaces have a critical role to play in our civic and social infrastructure, which has been predicated on the existence of free spaces and an unencumbered right to free association and expression. Think of convivial spaces as our Olympic free speech zones – only less ironic. Conviviality may even inspire anti-establishment movements or new demands on governments. Planners are especially susceptible to critique in these situations, by recommending and defending their existence and convivial spaces, but they are also responsible to the governments that these movements may defy.

Since conviviality as a concept carries the advantage of existing outside economic frameworks – being exclusively non-material – it cannot be “coerced or bought, but the resources used in the production of conviviality—space, seats, food and drink… may be sold or rented or ceded by owners and governments.” This has tended to typify Vancouver’s response to public spaces, concentrating on development projects and streetscapes while never quite achieving that one landmark civic site.

Robson and Granville streets often sited as the great aggregators of people downtown, but as the domain of businesses and disruptively, of traffic, they are only embraced when the collective energy can’t be contained after a hockey game or Presidential election. They are inadequate for a gathering function and too often manic conduits that people are more apt to shut out with a phone call or ibuds. These should serve as great streets for watching the ebb and flow of humanity but we’ll have to see how the new street furniture pans out before sealing their fates. Inclusively we have the Art Gallery – both sides of it – one for “alternative” crowds, though no larger than a couple hundred, the other for issues, stalking you from Sears to Café Row.

Vancouver is in the middle of the debate and obviously hungry for a fresh and functional civic space, a place separate from – or at least not focussed on – cars and commerce is key. So whether at the centre or the edge, it is most vital that we soon find a place to find our voice since, as Peattie believes, “in human happiness, creative activity and a sense of community count for at least as much and maybe more than material standard of living.”

So find a third place and try on a little conviviality this weekend…you wouldn’t want Vancouver to be the next target for a Coors Light ad would you?

For photo credits, see above links

One Comment

  1. Good points Richard…does Vancouver close off some streets at certain times and make the R.O.W. the civic space? So many great European examples of this kind of people friendly transformation…using electronic bollards that allow taxis, truck deliveries and emergency vehcles to pass through when necessary. Did I see this in Montreal?