Saturday, August 20, 2011

It's All in the Details for Vancouver's Sea Wall

(This article originally appeared on OpenCity on August 17, 2011)

Vancouver has always been good at paying attention to the smaller design details that work to make up the larger picture. A walk along the lengthy, winding and continuous seawall that envelopes the downtown core and parts of False Creek is a lesson in details, with well-designed street furniture, beautifully landscaped parks, scatterings of public art, and a thoughtfully integrated system for both pedestrians and cyclists. It’s often said that Vancouver is a city that lives on its edges, and the seawall definitely helps propagate that.

On this particular trip, I was interested in checking out the new portion of the seawall at the site of the Olympic Village neighbourhood (now just called The Village). The area had been under construction for several years and then cordoned off during the Olympics, so I hadn’t gotten much of a chance to wander around the completed site. The stretch of the seawall along the neighbourhood is some of the best in the city, and, with the proximity to the mid-rise buildings that make up the Village, one that exudes the most urban feeling.

The thing that makes this portion of the seawall so charming is the attention to different details and how they all creatively fit together. Several different materials are used from wooden planks to grass to interlocking brick to sand to granite. The combinations create an interesting and ever-changing texture as you move from one portion to another, allowing also for different levels and separations between uses (lounging, cycling, walking).

The street furniture is comfortable and also ingeniously playful. For example, the metal chairs positioned on the board walk itself are rooted to a pole that allows the chair to spin in circles, so you can face whichever direction you want (or, if you’re me, spin around so fast you make yourself sick). And the street furniture ranges from single chairs, to benches with backs, to benches without backs, to stone blocks. The true accomplishment is how much variety is found without the space feeling disorganized or cluttered.

My favourite example of creativity is found in the long, wooden wave decks about one metre across that dipped every so often to create the perfect spot to fit a reclining body. We’re so accustomed these days to seeing street furniture that seems like it was designed so that no one would want to sit or lie down on it for very long, so it’s refreshing to come across something obviously made for people to be comfortable and enjoy themselves. Imagine that.

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