The image of reality

What seemed obvious to me has been reflected in its full power as I was watching Scot transform the street – line after line, one color after the other. Scot Hein, Vancouver’s senior urban designer, who I’ve mentioned previously, reacted to people’s ideas and thoughts with quick hand gestures that filled the paper with new shapes. The paper was a long print of the East Broadway corridor at 1:500 scale. From my experience, most people are very cautious at pointing a drawing tool in front of a surface. Fear of the blank page it is called when it’s a… blank page. On an already complete image such as the one that was in front of us, the concern is usually the fear of making a mistake, destroying the image.

This didn’t seem to bother Scot. A thought of turning a street section into a pedestrian-only place was expressed: a green or brown marker was pulled out and suddenly we had public realm added to the neighborhood. An even more straightforward concept of adding trees where few currently exit: an array of green circles quickly decorated the line of gray structures facing the street. The proposed underground Rapid Transit was then mentioned: Sidewalks effortlessly encroached on what we know of as a six lane artery to turn it into a four lane street. And so on, ideas gradually and confidently took shape in front of our eyes. What started as an image of existing reality, that everyone knows is in need of substantial effort for change, ended, in a matter of about two hours, completely transformed.

This is the power of urban design. You walk along the streets of your city and are faced with reality, be it pleasant or dreary.  It’s easy to look at a balcony and think of what you’d like to change in it to make it better. It’s much more complicated to walk a whole block and imagine its future. The set of skills and experience of the urban designer facilitates that process. By looking at existing conditions as a platform of components we then take the liberty to move the pieces around whether it makes sense or not. On paper or in model it is absolutely cheap to make mistakes. Fixing them is quick and fun. The audience, the community is then a valuable source of feedback and reflection.

It’s never certain what of the drawing that came out of the workshop on Sunday, November 18th will make it through to reality. However, by putting things on paper we’ve achieved at least the following points:

  • Reaching common ground in understanding what is conceptually possible
  • Building a sense of ownership over a piece of our city
  • Creating an opportunity for positive anticipation from a challenging development process

Making the move from one reality to another requires more than just an image, fancy as it might look. The process of building that image in collaboration with the people who will eventually use the space can help in its realization. You never know how it will work until it’s done. For this I say, the easiest thing is to plan for failure; planning for success is not much harder.

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