#occupyvancouver dominates the news this week. Thousands of people gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery for Occupy Vancouver's first General Assembly on Saturday. Many people are prepared to camp out for some time, though the ban on staking tents to the ground and cooking with propane makes this more difficult.
The Tyee asks people why they have chosen to take to the streets.
We Day. Meanwhile, another gathering for change: as 18,000 youth participate in We Day, where Mikhail Gorbachev and other speakers presented on the value of community service and youth engagement.
The Missing Women Inquiry is off to a rocky start with protests as several groups have chosen to not participate. Many groups are concerned that the lack of funding provided to advocacy groups for legal assistance for is a serious impediment to having their voices heard, and without their support for the process, it is uncertain whether the Inquiry will acheive its purpose.
Powwow. A huge powwow took place in the Downtown Eastside to honour First Nations elders.
Re:CONNECT challenges Vancouverites to reinvision the city's eastern core and viaducts as a vibrant space.
No more pictures. Jeff Wall laments the loss of photogenic buildings in Vancouver.
Local food. A few months after being featured in MOV's Home Grown exhibit, the Home Grow-In Grocery closed suddenly, taking customers' deposits with it. Now the store has reopened with new owners, who are trying to regain the trust of their customers while building our local food infrastructure.
Ethnic enclaves. Is it time for Vancouver to have a Pinoytown?
Image: Ariane Colenbrander
Is it possible Vancouver has taken the wrong approach to billboards all this time?
Since the 1970s, when City Hall restricted the use and location of billboards—notably only a few years after banning new neon signs—Vancouver has waged war on outdoor advertising, seeing it as an affront to public space. A series of amendments passed between 1996 and 2009, brought further restrictions. According to a 2009 City Hall report, “between 2003 and 2008, about 300 billboards were removed largely due to site redevelopment. In the same period, about 35 billboards were added, generally in industrial areas.”
Remember the billboard atop the Lee Building at Main and Broadway? It was removed after a protracted legal battle between the building’s owner and the City that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. (More on the story on CBC.ca; a picture of the now-billboard-free building appears above.)
Recently, the billboard issue resurfaced when the Squamish Nation erected a digital billboard on band land at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge (details here). The sign was a long time coming; planned for years and protested by residents for just as many. Originally, the plan called for 18 billboards to be put up on various reserves and Squamish land around Vancouver, the North Shore, and Squamish. Ultimately, they decided on just six signs in four locations. The dimensions of the signs were scaled back, too.
Other cities take a far harder line on outdoor advertising than we do: West Vancouver prohibits ads on bus shelters; in 2007, São Paolo enacted a Clean City Law, effectively banning all billboards, making pamphleteering in public spaces illegal, and putting new restrictions on the size of storefront signage. According to this story in Adbusters magazine, 70% of São Paolo residents approve of the new measures.
What’s most interesting to us in all this is how extreme people’s reactions are to billboards: loved (”they’re a part of living in a big city”) or loathed (”like driving through a giant Yellow Pages advertising section”). Beloved public squares in Europe are covered in advertising. And what would New York’s Times Square be without their massive, flickering screens? None of this is to say that we’re New York, or that we want to see the kind of concentration of billboards that lines ferry terminals or the island highway between Victoria and Nanaimo, but just how far will we go to create a message-free city? Is there a middle ground between bland and saturated we’ve yet to explore?
In the 1940s and ’50s, downtown Vancouver streets were visually arresting and lined with artful, occasionally garish, neon signs and billboard signs. (Fred Herzog photographed this billboard on Georgia Street in 1968.) Today, it seems we’re less a city to look at than one to look through. So-called “view corridors” direct eyes through glass towers to the water and mountains beyond.
There are some signs of life on the streets, however. The Vancouver Art Gallery is using its exterior walls more and more as exhibit space. Currently, the Georgia Street facade is covered by a hand-painted floral mural by artist Michael Lin. The Robson Square side of the building is running a loop of incredible films that are drawing crowds. The redesign of Granville Street is all about recapturing our lit-up past—albeit carefully—from the lamp standards to the proposed screening space on the Sears building. Would we be willing to trade some outdoor advertising space here to help fund such public events and new public art?
Here’s another idea we find inspiring: in Los Angeles, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture procured 30-day billboard donations and commissioned 21 artists to create new works and effectively “take over what is perhaps one of the most exclusively commercial sites of public architecture we’ve got.” Dwell magazine has an online slideshow of the various works; it’s well worth a look. We think it’s the kind of intelligent thinking that makes a city a vibrant, compelling place, and maybe, just maybe, justifies looking at advertising now and then.
Image credits from top to bottom:
In 1959, Fred Herzog captured this image of the intersection of Granville and Robson Streets (a link to a larger image is found at the bottom of this post). Back then, the stretch of downtown Granville Street, between the blocks of Drake and Cordova, had earned the moniker “the Great White Way,” and it was a destination for live theatre and entertainment, lit up with neon signs. If you approached it up the hill to the south, the street radiated like an airport runway.
Only a few years later, that same stretch of Granville would change dramatically, beginning a slow and steady decline. In the 1960s, City Hall passed a bylaw banning new neon signs. In the 1970s, Granville Street was reconfigured into a transit mall, accessible only to public transit buses and pedestrians. Then Eaton’s opened their large, windowless white box of a store on the northwest corner of Granville and Robson (now Sears). The design wasn’t popular at the time, shutting out the street as it did, but people shopped there anyway, and in the new Pacific Centre Mall connected to it. Most retailers moved inside, too, their old stores replaced by tattoo parlours and sex shops. (Vancouver may have rallied against inner-city freeways, but it didn’t oppose the shopping mall; its impact on street life is just as profound.)
Herzog’s Granville Street may be long gone, but the energy of that time was a major influence on the latest redesign of the street, now very-nearly completed—and years in the making. If you’ve been to Granville recently, you’ll have noticed the changes; the street has undergone a major exfoliation. There a rawness to it: new double-wide concrete-and-basalt curbs supply parallel parking by day and become crowd-friendly sidewalks by night—newly planted street trees are overwhelmed by their width. Design elements and street furniture by PWL Partnership Landscape Architects and Pechet and Robb stand in gleaming contrast to some of the scrubbier buildings and businesses. Instead of typical streetlamps, vertical light tubes line the street, riffing off the shape and intensity of the old marquee signs (see image at left, also taken by Herzog).
The overall redesign concept was conceived by Elizabeth Macdonald and Allan Jacobs, leading thinkers on “Great Streets” (Jacobs’ 1993 book of the same name). The question is, will Granville become just that? The great street it once was, connecting the east and west sides of downtown? Our next post will explore that question, looking at Macdonald’s and Jacobs’ great streets philosophy.