Earlier this month, we documented how light, quick, and cheap pilot projects are changing the way we utilize our streets, drawing from recent examples in Vancouver, Paris, and Calgary. Locally, this process has been lead by the innovative CityStudio, a groundbreaking collaboration between the City of Vancouver and its various universities and colleges; founded in 2011 by Co-Directors Janet Moore and Duane Elverum.
Since its inception, this experimentation hub has launched over 200 projects on the ground. Co-created by staff, students, and community members, they have lead to permanent fixtures such as the Keys to the Streets public pianos, bicycle repair stations at Science World, and the placemaking initiative at Spyglass Place.
Each semester, CityStudio welcomes a diverse group of post-secondary students for an intensive, 12-week program, culminating in a real-life demonstration project. While participants are often given a blank canvas on which to apply their trade, for the Fall 2016 cohort, Moore and Elverum opted instead to focus their efforts on Northeast False Creek, an area currently being redesigned by the City’s Planning Department, since Council’s vote to demolish the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts in October 2015 (a decision, incidentally, made politically easier after their successful temporary closure during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games).
As it spells out in the City of Vancouver’s own Transportation 2040 Plan (a forward-thinking policy document we touched on in a previous piece about driverless technology): “We will use low-cost pilot projects to test new ideas and approaches, we will embrace new transportation information, technology that help achieve our goals and improve efficiency.” CityStudio provides a perfect opportunity to experiment with low-cost, low-risk upgrades, before evaluating the most successful ones, and considering applying them on a wider, more permanent basis.
And so, for a single Saturday afternoon in November, five “trial and learn” (versus trial and error) experiments took place inside CityStudio’s Imagination Zone in Northeast False Creek: A concept inspired by Dublin Studio designed to create permissible spaces where Vancouverites can experiment with more playful forms of urbanism.
"Interactive, Family-Friendly Activities to Do at Night"
Before the class was broken up into groups to start their respective proposals, they were assigned an important task: engage with the residents, businesses, and visitors of Northeast False Creek, and find out how they’d like to see the area evolve.
“We came up with an idea based on Candy Chang’s work,” reveals Sarah Duggan, an International Studies major at SFU. “In 2010, she completed a project in New Orleans called ‘I Wish This Was’, where she left stickers and sharpies near abandoned buildings, and invited people to share their dreams for those places.”
“So we ended up building a three-sided structure out of Corplast,” says Duggan, “And then spent a Saturday afternoon at Carnegie Community Centre talking to people, and having them share what they wanted to see more of in their community.”
“One of things we learned from that session is Vancouverites are looking for more interactive, family-friendly activities to do at night,” claims Tom Nichini, a Management major at UBC. Based on that specific theme, Duggan and Nichini were teamed up with UBC Geography major Jessica Broomfield and SFU Statistics major Grace Lam, and their group of four began brainstorming how they might translate a relatively abstract idea into something more concrete.
"Our Favourite Example Was in Our Own Backyard"
“We began researching case studies of interactive public art in cities around the world,” discloses Nichini, “But, as it turns out, one of our favourite examples happened to be in our own backyard.” The project in question was VocaLites, a temporary, voice-activated lighting installation at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, designed and executed by Railtown-based experiential design studio HFour.
Fortunately, a CityStudio instructor had an “in” at HFour, and introduced them to Co-Founders Ben Z. Cooper and Stuart Ward. “We booked a meeting with Ben and Stuart,” recalls Duggan “And went to their studio to share our goals, and brainstorm how we could possibly work together.” It was Ward who pitched the idea of an interactive, lit-up bike lane, and – after sitting on their list for a day – the group unanimously and enthusiastically agreed it was the direction they wanted to take.
“Making Cycling More Fun and Available to Everyone”
The next step involved researching what the City was already doing around promoting cycling beyond the existing crowd, to the more casual user: “I find a lot of cyclists in Vancouver are serious commuters who are mainly riding for exercise,” insists Duggan. “There aren’t many people that just hop on a bike and go to the store because it’s the easiest way to get there. So a big goal for us was to make cycling for transportation more fun and available to everyone, especially in the dark, wet winter months.”
Working closely with HFour, and periodically checking in with the City’s Planning and Public Art Departments, the students formulated and executed their plan in just two weeks.
The IllumiLane – as it would be named – took the shape of two 50-metre strings of LED lights between the bike and pedestrian lanes of the False Creek seawall. With the use of pressure sensors, the path would light up in a rainbow pattern just ahead of any moving cyclist. If the cyclist happened to be travelling above 20 km/hr, the path would flash red as a warning to slow down. The pedestrian side would be lit in a constant pattern to improve visibility, and make the walkway more engaging.
“Making the City More Livable, Joyful, and Sustainable”
Over the course of the (rather damp and miserable) three-hour installation, the students had passers-by complete a simple four-question survey: “We asked how livable, joyful, and sustainable our project made the city, which are the three tenets of CityStudio’s mission, as well as a more open-ended question to gauge their reaction, and see if there were areas for improvement,” discloses Lam.
100% of respondents felt the IllumiLane pilot made Vancouver a more joyful place, while 90% and 62% felt it made the city more livable and sustainable. 90% of respondents gave positive feedback, and would like to see future, more permanent implementations of IllumiLane elsewhere in the city.
In December, IllumiLane was deservedly awarded the Judges’ Prize – from a field of over 30 projects – at Hubbub; CityStudio’s biannual showcase at City Hall. This, for a project that cost just over $1,300 (funded by the City’s Public Art Department), with another $5,000 donated in-kind by HFour and PortableElectric.
“I Really Think It Would Put Our City on the Map”
Aside from its obvious safety benefits, IllumiLane has potential business and branding implications that could provide an even bigger return on investment. “I love cycling,” says Cooper, “And I’d love to see something like this in Vancouver, because I really think it would put our city on the map in terms of interesting bike infrastructure.”
Cooper points to the boon the local bike rental industry could enjoy if suddenly entire stretches of the stunning – but seldom used after dark – 30 km. seawall route were suddenly made more welcoming and exciting outside of daylight hours.
Many forward-thinking cities – including Auckland and Eindhoven – are seeing the value in building infrastructure that gets people excited about cycling. These hallmark projects – while often carrying an increased price tag – tend to capture international headlines, draw tourists, brand that particular city as a bike-friendly and innovative place, and bring active transportation priorities to the top of the agenda.
“We Hope It at Least Inspires Staff to Be More Creative”
Now that the stress of executing a complex project in a short period of time has subsided, and the final reports have been submitted, the group seems optimistic about the possibility of IllumiLane becoming a reality on the streets of Vancouver. “In speaking to various City staff at Hubbub, a lot of people are really excited about it, including Mayor Robertson’s Chief of Staff,” claims Duggan.
Dale Bracewell – the City’s Manager of Transportation Planning – sees numerous applications of this technology on our growing bike network, especially as his department develops the final design for the Arbutus Greenway. “There are ideas emerging, prompted by IllumiLane, wondering how we can give some cues to people to slow down and enjoy the greenway from both a walking and cycling perspective,” he suggests. A segment of user-triggered LEDs could also prove particularly useful in areas where the disused rail line intersects with an active roadway, serving as a simple, cost-effective way of alerting drivers to crossing pedestrians and cyclists.
Either way, Duggan is fairly pragmatic about IllumiLane’s impact: “Even if it doesn’t get implemented, we hope it at least inspires staff to be more creative in the way they design and build infrastructure,” she states cheerily. “We would consider that a huge success.”