send to a friend
Send us your feedback

Place Making

The Art of the Unpredictable

Memorable experiences are directly related to places and time. There is a certain symbiotic relationship between the creation of memories and the influence of the physical environment, built or natural, upon human activity. It is therefore important, in the “creation of place,” to recognize this influence and understand how to properly shape perception and experiences through effective urban design.

Urban design excellence can appear accidental, as with many European cities, where places have physically evolved over many years, and layers, of intervention. The most memorable of these places usually perform well when analyzed for contextual quality, comfort and activity. The necessary ingredients of placemaking include a cogent ensemble of buildings that shape spaces through their form, scale, materiality and detailing, combined with an effective response to human comfort with respect to sun, noise and smell, and providing a theatrical backdrop for the observation and enjoyment of human interaction.

As designers, we observe and apply these recognized placemaking qualities in our contemporary civic context during a time of rapid urbanism. Yet, while we may understand and apply historic lessons, the question remains whether this is enough to “create place.” Urban design excellence may instead be best achieved by being purposefully incomplete, especially if the physical change is happening rapidly without the benefit of time’s patina (the establishment of “context”). Incompleteness, and related unpredictable opportunities for use and participation, may best lead to places that become memorable, because they will evolve towards something more authentic over time through ongoing intervention, programming and use.

Thus, a successful designer may set the stage, but it is the “theatre of the place” that is most important in creating meaning and memory. Placemaking can occur at many scales and under opposing political ideals. It can be active or passive, expressive of culture and ethnicity, historic or contemporary, permanent or fleeting – or any of these qualities in combination. Notwithstanding any such qualities, placemaking is only achieved if there develop individual and collective connections to, and identification with, the place through the creation of significant meaning and memory. The role of the design process is to understand these insights and leave room for the unpredictability of transformation over time.

Scot Hein, Architect and Senior Urban Designer, City of Vancouver

Heritage and Place

The intensity of the transformation of the area, from wet land to dry land, from natural to “man-made”… is significant for making us consider the meaning of progress.
– Foreshore Lands Statement of Significance, 2004

Every place is the product of layers of history, natural and human. Heritage advocates say these layers are critical. They create a unique identity, born of geography and circumstance, informed by knowledge of what has gone before. They tell us who we are.


Salmon icons are etched into granite blocks at the amphitheatre to mark historic spawning routes. Source: PWL Partnership, 2009

Early planning for SEFC was heavily focused on the new challenge of sustainability – to the point, says Hal Kalman, where heritage was at risk. Kalman was Chair of the Vancouver Heritage Commission when it met with planners Ian Smith and Mark Holland in the late 1990s.

“They were throwing around the word sustainability,” he says. “But in the process of planning an environmentally sustainable neighbourhood they were going to demolish every trace of the existing neighbourhood.” The Commission argued the community should be “brand spanking new” but “recognized as only the most recent of many layers of history.” The argument was accepted, and heritage conservation was enshrined in the SEFC Policy Statement.

In 2004, as Principal of Commonwealth Historic Resource Management Ltd., Kalman contributed to SEFC as a consultant, identifying the “character-defining elements” that give the place its identity. Some were tangible – a few remaining industrial buildings, the zig-zag shoreline made of boat slips and storage sheds. Others were less tangible, such as retaining open space behind the Salt Building, in recognition that a boat landing once entertained a stream of traffic at that spot, as boats came to load up with salt.

“The only sensible way to march into the future is with a sense of the past,” says Kalman. “We learn from history. Those who don’t make terrible mistakes.”


Heritage elements are woven throughout SEFC development. Planned sidewalk medallions explore the relationship between SEFC’s ecological heritage (rich estuarial hunting ground and trade route for Coast Salish people) and its industrial heritage (shipbuilding, metal fabrication and salt refinery). Source: Sarah Hay, 2008

Contextual Design

Heritage and Sustainability

“Heritage conservation is about learning from history, but it has to do with sustainability and culture too. Culture has to have roots and branches. If you cut off the roots the branches die. No one is saying, ‘Let’s freeze time and give us back the 1900s.’ In the real-life city we say, ‘Give us the 21st century – but give it to us with the knowledge that the 21st grew out of the 20th,which grew out of the 19th.’ We believe in keeping the best of the past and integrating it with the best of the present and future.”
– Hal Kalman, Commonwealth Historic Resource Management, Ltd.

The Shipyard

SEFC is characterized by three distinct historic areas that retain an industrial identity. The City Worksyard, the Shipyard and the Railyard inform the design of three distinct neighbourhoods within the SEFC community.


The Shipyard Plaza recalls a huge lofting floor, with sweeping lines on the pavement outlining various sections of a ship’s hull. Elsewhere throughout the village, inset lines in paving surfaces will mark the locations of the False Creek shoreline as it shifted over time. Source: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, 2007

Millennium Water, the 2010 Olympic Village, sits in the shipyard district – context that can be seen in detailing throughout the site. The waterfront and public plaza bear particular evidence of this heritage, which provides unique definition to the contemporary community through forms, materials and structures that evoke memories of the past.

The Shipyard Plaza

A vibrant commercial focus along Manitoba Street from First Avenue to False Creek is to act as a “heart” for the community, anchored by the Salt Building… and a community square.
– SEFC Official Development Plan

Where once the hulls of great ships were shaped, a lively urban gathering space now comes to life. The plaza and commercial centre were designed by Chris Phillips of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (PFS) and Norm Hotson of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden.

“Their idea was to work with the processes of shipbuilding,” says Mike Derksen of PFS. “They chose lofting, and reinterpreted it in the built form using the patterns that were produced.”


Illustrative plan of the public plaza. The curves rise naturally as the landscape grade changes, creating seating areas. The plaza features granite pavers and is permeable, allowing absorption of stormwater. A children’s water play area is located at the plaza’s north end. Source: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, 2007

Lofting is the process of laying out a full-size working drawing of a ship to begin shaping its parts. The Shipyard Plaza is effectively a huge lofting floor, with sweeping lines on the pavement outlining various sections of a ship’s hull. Some lines rise three-dimensionally as the site grade changes, providing a built-in seating area. Light standards on the plaza take the form of the varying ribs of a ship.

“They inserted just the right level of poetic references,” says Tilo Driessen of the Vancouver Park Board (the plaza is considered park space). “It is beautifully designed.”

At the plaza’s south end, the Salt Building will re-open as a brew pub and restaurant. Areas of wooden decking will remind pedestrians of the piers that once punctuated the shoreline. The faint smell of the ocean will continue unchanged – reminding not only of seafaring ships, but the natural estuary that existed long before.


Light standards on the plaza are shaped like the ribs of a ship. Source: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, 2007

Public Art

In 2007, with the SEFC Public Realm Plan complete, the City commissioned the SEFC Art Master Plan. A public process helped define how art should reflect the history, sustainability ethic and forward-looking nature of the new community, and set the stage for a public art selection process.

This process led to the choice of Vancouver artist Myfanwy MacLeod to develop a signature piece of public art for the central plaza in Olympic Village.

“She proposed two giant sparrows, 15 feet high – nicely scaled for a public open space that bridges between the monumental building scale and the human scale,” says Senior Urban Designer Scot Hein.


“Old World Sparrows,” by artist Myfanwy MacLeod,
has been commissioned by the City for the plaza. Source: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, 2007

“By highlighting a non-indigenous species that’s now considered invasive, Myfanwy really picked up on the future challenges that face us.”

In addition to the sparrows, financed by Vancouver’s public art plan, Hein says the Olympic Village development will include three other significant pieces of art, either paid for by the developer or as part of the approval of the Neighbourhood Energy Utility (NEU).

“Millennium wanted a private courtyard in its signature building. So the negotiation was,
‘In exchange, give us something special.’ So in the middle of the water courtyard there’s this fibre optic serpentine reed-like piece of art that is going to be so beautiful at night – kind of like the northern lights.”

The five ventilation stacks at the NEU will be hung with three-storey LED panels that can be programmed to light in any colour – or to indicate the total energy usage of the neighbourhood. A “stainless steel gazebo” is another artistic installation planned for the waterfront. Most art pieces will be installed in the new development after the Olympic Games have ended.

Artwork interwoven into the public realm often serves as a social catalyst or as a way to reveal complex ideas and issues…. At SEFC it is critically important … to stimulate understanding that will lead to a greater sense of shared responsibility and caring.
– SEFC Art Master Plan, 2007


Planned as a model of sustainable development, SEFC is a “complete neighbourhood” where goods and services are within walking distance and jobs and housing are linked by transit. People live, work, play and learn here.


Illustrative plan (top right) shows approximately 26 acres of parkland, including wildlife habitat, play areas and opportunities for urban agriculture. Source: PWL Partnership, 2006.

SEFC amenities include:
• Approximately 26 acres of park land, including habitat, playgrounds and opportunities for urban agriculture;
• One community centre and recreational (non-motorized) boating facility;
• One elementary school, three child care facilities, two out-of-school care centres and eight family day care centres;
• Mid-size grocery store and community-serving retail/services;
• Five heritage buildings and an opportunity for an inter-faith spiritual centre;
• Mixed housing component to provide diversity in housing type and tenure;
• A central location in terms of pedestrian, cyclist and transit connections:
o Rapid transit Canada Line at 2nd Avenue & Cambie Street
o Skytrain at Main Street Station
o Street car along 1st Avenue
o Transit improvements along Main Street
o Bus route along 2nd Avenue
o Public ferry dock
o Three greenways/bikeways

– City of Vancouver Information Sheet


Concept sketches show the mid-size grocery store and community-serving retail and services that will open onto Shipyard Plaza. Buildings feature arcades (recessed storefronts), creating a variety of public walking and gathering spaces. Source: Design International, 2007.

Rendering of the public plaza at SEFC.
Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, 2007

Previous Topic: Overview

Next Topic: Parks + Waterfront