The Seventh Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2005
Berkeley Prize 2005

Sarah Schaefer

Granville Island: Urban Oasis Amidst a Metropolis 

Just as architecture has historically proven itself as an essential aspect of society and human life in its ability to provide a physical identity to cities and respective citizens, so too has the public space proved its worth within communities, often a catalyst to strengthened civic pride and representation. Such evidence has revealed itself throughout centuries in the form of paintings, written documents, and built spaces or ruins that still exist today. For example, a painting executed by Gentile Bellini in 1496 entitled "Procession in San. Marco Square" depicts a scene in 15th Century Venice with St. Marks Cathedral in the background and a parade of citizens in the square carrying Venetian flags and wearing civic colours. Art Historians have unanimously interpreted this work to be a strong symbol of the importance of public space in the development of a sense of place, and perhaps even more powerfully, a sense of self. The following quotation was taken from The Urban Pattern, a publication that addresses the issue of how thoughtful urban and space planning is timeless, and can contribute to a spirited morale within communities.

"People respond to improvement in their community; they are affected and their pride is lifted by evidence of cultural energy in their city. They may not appraise these deeds with accuracy or identify them with discrimination, but they are moved by the existence of urban enterprise that transcends mediocrity."

This concept remains increasingly prevalent today, as modern cities are truly global commodities and available technology allows for the mass-production of buildings, often resulting in a use of material and form that can create a homogenous skyline. Incidentally, such is the case in Vancouver, Canada. It is more difficult for twenty-first century cities to distinguish themselves and establish a strong identity than it was in past centuries when there were fewer urban centres and religion, rulers, and art encompassed a greater role. Now more than ever, our cities and communities need spaces that elevate levels of identity and pride. What would a city be if it were only condos and skyscrapers, lacking a nook to explore and a cranny to uncover? It would be like every other city, and every other city would be like it. It is the unique spaces that we as citizens boast about when describing our cities. I would not entice a potential visitor to Vancouver by saying "You have to see the townhouses in the West end and the 60-storey condominiums downtown". Such buildings need no introduction because these developments are everywhere. What I might say would be something more like "I would love to show you the steam clock in Vancouvers historic Gastown, and take you across the Burrard Inlet to the market at the Lonsdale Quay". But before either of these places, as interesting as they are, I would suggest one other stop first  the place I feel most successfully conjures up evidence of why Vancouver, beyond its green-glass towers and snobbish sophistication, is still a wonderful city: images of urbanity mixed with heritage and natural landscape, an inherent equality among people of diverse cultures, a ubiquitous sustenance, a sense of process with a beginning and an end, and above everything, a great place to be. "You dont know Vancouver until youve been to Granville Island", I would say. You dont know a city until youve been to its enchanted spaces.

Granville Island is one of Canada's most successful re-habilitated public spaces, and was recently named the number one public space in North America by the non-profit organization, Project For Public Spaces. Much of this success is credited to a respect for its heritage and, consequently, the preservation of many of its original industrial architecture, re-adapted programmatically to suit current uses. The Island is comprised of 37 acres of land area and 5.3 acres of tidal water area. It was formed from sandbars off the banks of False Creek and was used by local settlers for fishing in the late 1800s. During the early twentieth century the island evolved into a booming industrial area, employing more than 1200 workers in different trades. Following the Second World War, however, the corrugated tin warehouses began to sit vacant as economic hardship affected the area. It was not until the 1970s that a redevelopment plan to restore public access to the Island was implemented, and the Granville Island Trust created.

Today, Granville Island is a social mecca that maintains its historic maritime and industrial character, and yet has set a standard for modern urban spaces around the world.

Granville Island is not just a destination for shoppers. Nor is it exclusive to craftspeople, students, or families. Its appeal comes from the fact that as a public space, it offers a mix of uses for everyone to enjoy, at all times of the year. No doubt the Island is busiest on the weekends, packed with locals and tourists alike, but it is lively throughout the week as well. The Public Market draws crowds with its offerings of fresh produce, meats, and seafood, and boasts a variety of culinary kiosks from all over the world. Nearby the market, the boatyard facilitates a thriving marine community from kayaks to pleasure yachts. What is unique about this marina is that it is equally as exciting for an avid boater as it is for a curious observer. Whether an individual is seeking physical activity through a kayaking tour or simply wishes to watch boat builders apply an impromptu paint job to the hull of a sail boat, both desires are met here in a friendly and open environment. This duality is a cornerstone of Granville Islands mission as a public space, and is evident in many of its other venues besides the marina.

Down the street from the marina and Public Market is one of Granville Islands most unexpected yet perfectly suitable attractions, cleverly disguised as a mundane industry. It is the cement plant, one of the Islands oldest companies, complete with concrete silos and raw materials. It may also be the only cement plant in the world whose traditionally drab truck barrels are painted with a mural of smiling suns and brightly coloured stars. Anyone with an interest in machinery and heavy equipment will be attracted to this exposed-to-the-public enterprise, as will anyone with an eye for a colourful novelty. The plant is directly beneath the Granville St. Bridge, which connects South Vancouver to the downtown metropolis. As vehicles rush by overhead, to and from busy lives, the hidden existence of such heavy industry below is one of Granville Islands best kept secrets.

The prestigious Emily Carr College of Art and Design is also located on Granville Island. The school is housed in a corrugated steel building, its materiality and colour in keeping with the Islands mandate to remain true to a building type that emphasizes an industrial character. Everywhere on Granville Island, glimpses of industrial colours  predominantly red, blue, and yellow  entice the eyes of passersby, begging an inquisitive approach and coaxing entry into a building. The Art College not only invites its students in, but also offers services to the public, such as gallery viewing and use of the schools library and other resources.

Granville Island gives new meaning to the term window shopping through its commitment to making activities within buildings visually accessible to the public both day and night, and encouraging public interaction at ground level. The existing architectures large doorways and windows provide excellent viewing areas to activities that may include totem-pole carving, glass blowing, ballet dancing, and even fish gutting. The Granville Island Development Plan further promotes this interactive relationship by encouraging tenants to "make use of the basic elements of the street hardware system to support a multiplicity of activity. "

Effective signage directs visitors through, across, within, and beyond the Island, to venues for entertainment, dining, recreation and more. Amenities are also clearly defined; it is not difficult to find a washroom, garbage bin, or water fountain. Granville Island is an extremely accessible public space that caters to the basic needs of all of its visitors, as well as to its own natural environment.

A great public space can and should contribute to environmental preservation. This quality is an imperative asset when evaluating the success of a public space, and considering the state of the environment today, any public space that is neglectful of its natural environment is a failure, regardless of other qualities it may possess. Granville Island embraces its natural environment, and many of its activities depend on it, such as kayaking and the childrens water park. Before its rehabilitation, the site was contaminated due to years of pollution and waste disposal. Decades of clean-up efforts have revitalized the Island and restored the prosperity of its natural environment as far as possible. Green open spaces and ponds are well maintained and interspersed throughout the Island to prevent a sense of bulk building mass in any given space. These voids allow for view corridors through the Island and across False Creek to downtown Vancouver, providing unobstructed patches of sky, land, and water. Furthermore, the Public Market supports local farmers and fisherman, bakers and butchers, to ensure not only the quality of produce but also the economy of the community through self-sustainability.

Committed to a development plan that stipulates a variety of land use opportunities, the recycling of existing buildings wherever feasible, and the use of industrial materials on new buildings such as metal siding, heavy timber, multi-paneled windows and large doors, the Island is a place as visually attractive as it is diverse in its activities.

The site is organized with consideration given to both land area and water area. Location-wise, Granville Island has a bit of everything: waterfrontage, green space, ponds, city views, and a pre-existing built environment that unites vestiges of the past with todays activities. Nearly forty percent of the land area is devoted to public open space, followed by buildings, parking, and roads, respectively. The calculation of water area usage refers to both open water area and floating structures. Of the land space allotted, the majority of programmable uses include Institutional, Maritime, Industrial, Arts and Crafts, Community and Recreation, and Performing Arts, among others.

Public open space is an integral part of Granville Island. The Granville Island Development Plan defines such space as "the area at grade that provides free access to the pedestrian at all times of day and night." The public open spaces of the Island are linked to provide an attractive and continuous environment for pedestrians and bicyclists. Connections are made to other areas in False Creek through various points where the Island meets the south shore. The Granville Island Office develops and maintains these public open spaces and encourages building tenants to animate the open spaces adjacent to their buildings. The Development Plan further states that "through this type of tenant involvement, the diversity and variety afforded the pedestrian is greatly enhanced."

Granville Island is predominantly a walking precinct, however vehicular traffic is allowed. Parking has long been a concern for visitors and residents alike. The perpetual crawl of cars and other vehicles circulating throughout the hub of the island can be distracting for pedestrians and frustrating for drivers. If there is one criticism for Granville Island as a public space, this is it. The area presently occupied by parking garages and uncovered parking could be converted into additional open space if vehicles were prohibited from entering, and in general, lower noise and stress levels. At the same time, Granville Islands commitment to providing a space accessible to all people requires that those who are unable to walk to the island and rely on a vehicle for transportation are accommodated. Therefore, the Granville Island Office maintains that vehicular access to Granville Island is to remain a mode of transportation to and from, however the use of alternate modes of access to the Island is continually encouraged.

What is clearly palpable on Granville Island, if nothing else, is the long-lasting efforts of local citizens to transform a dilapidated industrial wasteland into a vital public space serving the community. Granville Island would not be what it is today had it not been for the insight of a small group of people to recognize and identify its potential. A quotation from an unknown source highlights the effects of the Islands metamorphosis from its origins to its modern manifestation:

"It is a remarkable thing, this island in the middle of a city of two million. Embracing the surrounding metropolitan bustle, Granville Islands ambiance is matchless; its gritty, industrial past is proudly displayed in todays people-friendly, artistic, and energetic incarnation."

In speaking with a friend who visits Granville Island three times weekly  to get shopping done, to go for a sail, and simply to take in the atmosphere  he spoke of his growing feeling that he is a part of something, that he has a renewed sense of civic pride. He enters the Island the same way each time: by foot, under the Granville Bridge, passing by two men in lawn chairs shouting salutations to strangers, past the busker his pocket change goes to, into the realm of the enthralling environment that is Granville Island, and unwittingly, becoming a part of it. Landscape Architect, Shirley Kressel articulates the unbridled power of a great public space to accomplish this sense of involvement among its human counterparts:

"Public space is not merely landscaping and events, to be distributed by private benefactors as suits their needs; it is a social contract, an arena for all to share, created by all of us as a public trust. The public realm is not only a place, but a process, a belief."

When I was six years old, I visited Granville Island for the first time. I have a vivid memory of peering through a glass-smith's sidewalk window, only to have him appear outside a moment later and offer me one of his handmade gems  an object I have kept safe ever since. "This is for being so curious," he said. Nearly two decades later, whenever I am visiting Granville Island, I keep an eye out for any sign of the glass-smith and his workshop. Seemingly inconsequential interactions like this are perhaps not so inconsequential after all; they are indeed a part of the process, the belief. The simple experiences between child and adult, merchant and customer, strangers and friends  carried out amidst physical surroundings that foster environmental consciousness, a multitude of uses and a bit of history everywhere you look  make up the intriguing enigma of this place and are an element of the unabashed desire to return again and again.

Eisner, Simon, A. Gallion, & S. Eisner. The Urban Pattern, 6th Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 1993.

Granville Island Development Plan 1995-2004. Vancouver, BC. 1998.

Kressel, Shirley. Keep the Public in Public Space, May 2001.

Kent, Fred. Rebuilding Communities Can Help Save the Environment, 2000.

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Sarah Schaefer, Dalhousie University, Canada
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