Activating New Spaces: The Arbutus Greenway and the Value of Public Art

Article by Haroun Khalid

In March 2016, more than 20 years city planning and policy efforts came together when the City of Vancouver officially purchased 42 acres of land passing through neighborhoods from False Creek to the Fraser River. The new Arbutus Greenway project, already accessible to cyclists and pedestrians, aims to offer a shared passageway connecting Vancouver’s residential and public spaces. What’s particularly interesting about this endeavor is that the Greenway offers an exciting chance to see how public art ventures intersect with the process of urban development. To learn more, I sat down with Maggie Buttle, the Senior Project Manager of the Arbutus Greenway Project, and Eric Fredericksen, the city’s Public Art Programs Manager

From an artistic perspective, the realization of the Arbutus Greenway represents a chance to open up new spaces in the city for creative expression. So as to integrate art completely with the design process, Mr. Fredericksen explained that: “We now have an art consultant form a core part of the development team.” On this subject, Ms. Buttle added “this inclusion of artists in the procedure is meant to bring new perspectives and a different focus” to the city planning approach to prevent shutting down valuable opportunities to foster a creative and inspiring city. The development of this “art intelligence,” as Eric called it, enables the planning process to more holistically reflect the cultural environment of the community.

Image courtesy of the Vancouver Courier

The implementation of an urban development plan on the scale of the Arbutus Greenway is a lengthy affair, and is at the moment still in the early days. However, the prospect of bringing about the Greenway has been on the City’s horizon since the Arbutus Corridor was first highlighted as a potential site in 1995. The reclamation of land for public use became official city policy five years later, and a purchase was finally executed in 2016. As of this point, the project’s planners have conducted considerable research regarding successful examples of greenway projects across the globe, and have begun public consultations this January. “Our landscape architect looked at hundreds of examples from cities around the world,” Ms. Buttle informed me. “Having said that,” she went on to say, “we want the roots of this project to be in the Vancouver context. This is to say that we want this project to reflect the place that it occupies, not as an afterthought, but as a thoughtful and seamless piece.”

This project contributes to a number of ongoing targets that form pivotal parts of Vancouver’s identity—notably including the city’s bid to become the greenest city in the world. The goal of public projects like the Greenway is not simply to provide space for circulation along the Arbutus corridor, but to allow the city’s constituent parts to be “connected and interrelated with each other.” In effect this should take into account the complex activities and relationships between spaces, and allow those elements to create a cohesive network that creates value for the community.

Maggie Buttle, Senior Project Manager of Arbutus Greenway

 So how do art and design overlap with this idea of ‘placemaking,’ or promoting the uniqueness and well-being of particular places within the urban setting? Public art installations are intended to form part of the project’s overall goal of activating different spaces in the built landscape and encourage people to engage with the city. “It brings a sense of familiarity to the project,” Maggie explained, “and reminds you that you’re in one unique place.”  With respect to the Arbutus Greenway, public consultations and planning efforts for its final form are only just beginning. At this stage, we are still unsure of the extent to which art planning will be integrated to the designs once they are submitted.

Nonetheless, using the Greenway to exhibit locally-based and community-informed works of art would provide space for locals to construct their own neighborhood identities. As we’ve seen from other cities spanning the globe, high quality public space can be an effective tool for fostering social gatherings and inclusion. Linking the city together in this way has enormous potential to create offshoot effects. But the aim of the Greenway is not to dictate the values of the city or to guide neighborhood life; but instead to provide a platform for it to unfold and take its own course.

From across the table, Mr. Fredericksen followed up on that thought. “One of the great strengths of this city that people might not know about is the richness of its cultural communities.” Meaning that there already is an extensive artistic scene in Vancouver, but these diverse cultural spheres often tend to exist in close networks, or self-containing “boxes.”

“The work that I am interested in involves taking ideas from specific realms and bringing them into the city’s public realm,” the Public Art Program Manager reflected. Effectively, this describes setting art loose on to the complex environment of Vancouver. After all, this diversity is what’s incredible about the city, and opening up the city offers a potential gold mine of cultural and artistic exchanges.

There are, of course, a number of challenges to be overcome when trying to create a platform for artistic exchange. For example, it took more than twenty years, for the city to successfully purchase land from Canadian Pacific Railway. Needless to say, the previous owners had a different vision for the land on which the Greenway is presently situated. Moreover, there are a number of different stakeholders who would be affected by competing proposals for the Greenway. As such, finding a balance between the needs and desires of diverse circles throughout the city can be a delicate matter. In the end, the planners agreed, “not everything needs to be subject to a popularity contest.”

Eric Fredericksen, the City’s Public Art Programs Manager

Another thing that I found especially thought-provoking from my conversation with Maggie and Eric was the emphasis placed on the merits and challenges of an interdisciplinary approach. When trying to form a coherent design between planners, engineers, politicians, artists, different or conflicting stakeholders, and the public at large, it becomes plain that forming a coherent plan can be an arduous process. A broad range of perspectives and disciplines need to be brought in and considered before plans are opened to the public. From this messy process of urbanism arise a number of obstacles.

“One thing that was tricky for me,” Eric remarked, “was learning to talk not as a planner, but as someone trying to bring an artistic perspective to the process.” Trying to bring about a humane, livable city through art entails issues of bridging the ‘language gap’ between disciplines. Finding a common vocabulary with which to clearly communicate new ideas takes time, and requires Fredericksen to act “almost as an interpreter.”

On a concluding note, Maggie and Eric told me that public art initiatives tend to receive broad support from Vancouver. The challenge of implementing artistic endeavors, although they do exist, do not stem from public opinion. In fact, public feedback that the project team received earlier this year shows that ‘public art’ ranks among the more frequently requested elements to be incorporated to the Greenway’s final designs. Vancouverites want artistic programs and their enthusiasm for activating new spaces and creating a livable urban environment sustains projects like the Arbutus Greenway.

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