We are living in a time of master plans, big ideas and the grand gesture for public space and street making. There are war-like strategic titles used to describe the beautifying and repurposing of streets and public space, and meaningful groups that will come in, work in neighbourhoods, design what neighbours want, and with a budget, will implement it. There is guerilla this, tactical that, harsh military names for those with a mission.
But what happens if you are in a neighbourhood without a budget? How can you make streets and public spaces attractive if you don’t have cash? If you are Peter Wohlwend, living on Windsor Street sandwiched between the commercial streets of Kingsway and 12th Avenue in Vancouver, you start with a bench. And I like to think of Peter’s incremental and mindful intervention in the terms used by my dear friend Cornelia Oberlander-“Invisible Mending”. Invisible Mending describes Cornelia’s work in landscape architecture that is so clever and so well placed that no one really can think of a time when it was not always like that. There is a subtlety and a mindful directness, with gentle community care. And that would certainly describe Peter’s approach.
I was a city planner for this Kensington-Cedar Cottage area and the shiny new cityplan that had just been approved recommended the implementation of a “Greenway”-a street where walking and biking priority was ahead of vehicular traffic-along 37 blocks, from 12th Avenue to 49th Avenue.
Trouble was that a “Greenway” was a misnomer. There were no funds for the special treatment of this 37 block street that connected three schools, and four parks along its length. The street was used by short cutting traffic, and was generally a place where locals hurried into their houses and locked the doors. The street was also so anonymous, that a section of it was taken up by local prostitutes, with the accompanying traffic directly outside one of the primary schools.
Peter Wohlwend’s house is on a corner, across from a school and in the middle of the prostitution stroll. Peter was on the Dickens Crime Patrol, which went out at night to walk the streets and provide neighbourhood eyes on the community. He talked about crime, he knew who the prostitutes were and when they were walking, and he did an extraordinary thing.
Peter bought a park bench from a hardware store and installed it on the front of his property. Just after he installed the bench, I walked by. I could not believe that a resident would make such a community and public welcoming gesture on this street. I went up to Peter’s door, introduced myself, and asked him about the bench. “Well”, Peter said, “the bench cost me $40.00 but I had to pay another $80.00 to install a steel rod into the ground so nobody would steal it”. And then Peter described how the bench was being used in the neighbourhood, not by people in the drug or prostitution trade, but by older seniors lugging their groceries from the bus stop and the stores on Kingsway Avenue, who stopped and sat on the bench half way through their walk home. How the Grandmothers and Grandfathers rested and sat patiently on the bench waiting for their grandchildren to come skipping out of the school across the street. Somehow Peter had known that the bench would be the icebreaker, the invitation for the street to start being for the people that lived there, the people carrying groceries home.
Peter introduced me to his wife, Midori Oba, who was also a very accomplished gardener. Peter then questioned why no one could garden the area between the curb and the sidewalk-which is city owned boulevard. The boulevards along Windsor Street are very generous, four meters wide in some areas, and could look spectacular if gardened.
It was a good question and I as a bureaucrat had a good answer. All the city services, the pipes and wires that keep the city buzzing are below the ground between the curb and the sidewalk. The City would not allow it.
Peter looked at me and said “the plants won’t hurt the city services. It is worth trying”.
And in so stating, Peter and Midori taught me the first tenet of neighbourhood invisible mending-1. If you want to do something innovative and different, call it a Demonstration Project.
And that is what we did-we obtained permission from City Hall for a “Demonstration Project” on the city owned boulevards in front of all the houses on Windsor Street for 37 blocks.
Who knew that this “Demonstration Project” would be adopted as city wide policy?
Who would have guessed that Peter and Midori would be awarded the “Neighbours of the Year” award by the B.C. Association of Neighbourhood Houses for their community focus and dedication?
Here is how we did it.
(photo credit-Peter’s Bench-Jean Sorensen,”Western Living”)