British Columbia

Urban planners call for more covered outdoor spaces for people during COVID-19

The City of Vancouver has extended permits for pop-up patios for private business during the pandemic, but some urban planners are asking why more is not being done to create public gathering spaces for everyone in the city to enjoy.

Few options in Metro Vancouver where people can gather outdoors under cover for free, experts say

Robson Square in the centre of downtown, is one of the few outdoor covered public spaces a panel of planning experts could think of in the city where people can gather without having to pay. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When the pandemic struck, the City of Vancouver allowed restaurateurs to open pop-up patios for paying customers, and now, some urban planners are wondering why it is not creating more outdoor spaces for everyone — not just those who can afford to dine out.

The COVID-19 crisis means meeting outdoors this winter is one of the safer options for people trying to escape social isolation. While permits for patios have been extended through the season, there are, according to experts, few options in Metro Vancouver where people can gather under cover for free, and even then, those public spaces may not be equally welcoming for everyone.

Andy Yan, director of SFU's City Program, told The Early Edition host, Stephen Quinn, Wednesday he could think of only two covered places in Metro Vancouver — the ice rink at Robson Square and the shipyards on the North Shore — where people can hang out without purchasing anything.

"That's really the kind of big challenge moving ahead, is making sure that these types of spaces are open and welcome to all," said Yan.

The City of Vancouver has extended permits for pop-up patios through the winter at restaurants throughout the city. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Amina Yasin, a member of the Vancouver City Planning Commission, said some space designs show past planners may have had the exact opposite goal and actually made public spaces unwelcoming for people who do not fit the "Parisian flâneur-type." Flâneur is a French word meaning a person who is lounging or is a loafer or stroller.

"That [which doesn't fit the Parisian model] includes the unhoused population, that includes urban Indigenous people [and] that includes Black people within our cities who tend to be more harassed by police and moved along and not seen as belonging in public spaces," said Yasin.

Patio permit denied in DTES

Andrea Glickman, who sits on the board of directors of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, told CBC the centre has been trying to get a city permit for a heated patio for its service users and have been denied more than once because of bylaw issues.

"You look at anything, like when the Olympics were here, or there's a million different times in Vancouver where these other spaces have been created very quickly and very efficiently with public funding," said Glickman.

She said gathering spaces could also improve people's mental health and possibly reduce overdose numbers for drug users who live alone.

In a statement, the City of Vancouver said it has created small temporary park spaces in the Downtown Eastside for community use during the pandemic and recognizes there is still a need for more heated spaces where people can safely meet in that area.

Yasin likened the recent approach to pop-up gathering spaces in the city to when drinking was legalized in city parks this summer.

"When the need came to the fore for privileged groups of people who now wanted to have access to this form of recreation, [the] city really saw and considered it but didn't think about the legacy of criminalizing specific groups of people," said Yasin.


Ginger Gosnell-Myers, a fellow with SFU's Centre for Dialogue, focused on decolonization and urban Indigenous planning, said there are many open spaces in parks and along streets, where thoughtful solutions could result in places people can frequent for free.

"We cannot continue to design with an exclusionary lens," said Gosnell-Myers, also speaking on The Early Edition Wednesday.

"If we're talking about outdoor spaces that are designed in a creative way and reflective way of our weather and also something that is safe for all residents, not just desirable residents, what does that look like?"

She said to ensure spaces are designed with everyone in mind, and not just the business community, the city should try pilot programs to see what works, what doesn't, and who uses what public spaces. 

To hear Andy Yan, Amina Yasin, and Ginger Gosnell-Myers discuss the need for more public spaces on The Early Edition, tap here.

With files from The Early Edition

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