Places to Play

Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors. 

Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.

In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.


I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me. 

Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares. 

Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.

Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!

Catching our Breath in Nice

It’s been a year since the Artist and I left for Europe. In looking back at my posts, I’ve realized I haven’t written about one of the eight places we visited. So, last but not least . . . Nice.

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Nice felt like the Waikiki of France. Tropical. Laid-back. Beautiful views and turquoise blues. Hotels slung along the shore, such as Hotel Negresco with its signature pink dome.

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Nice was a perfect place to catch our breath after the bustle of Paris. We had two nights here before moving on to the Cinque Terre. Our only agenda was to walk la Promenade des Anglais, explore le Parc de la Colline du Château (Castle Hill), and relax.

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As you can tell by the photos, Nice is sunny and warm, even in October. We climbed the winding steps at the eastern end of la Promenade which brings you to the 16th-century Tour Bellanda, the only remaining part of a medieval castle that stood atop this hill (you can see it in the photograph above).

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Castle Hill was the city’s original site. It was dismantled by soldiers during the French occupation under King Louis XIV in 1706. This limestone rock is a natural formation standing 93 metres tall. There are plenty of footpaths at the top, castle remnants, an impressive waterfall built in the 18th century, playgrounds, and cafés.

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It’s a beautiful place to wander, have a picnic under a tree, and take in the views of la Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) to the west and the Port of Nice to the east. You can also see inland to the red-tiled roofs of the city and the Provençal hills further beyond.

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The cherry and cream-coloured Hôtel Suisse at the base of Castle Hill drew my attention with this plaque honouring James Joyce’s sojourn in the city, where he began Finnegans Wake. I’m wrapping up my project of writing a poem for every place we visited on our trip and this plaque provided the inspiration for my Nice poem which I’m quite excited about. It’s a departure from my usual style.

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La Promenade is dotted with beaches. We couldn’t stay here and not hop in the water, though we got about as far as our knees before the wind proved too much. We found Cinque Terre a better/warmer spot for actually swimming in the Mediterranean.

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We ate our favourite dinner of the whole trip in Vieux Nice at a restaurant called Le Tire Bouchon. We stumbled upon this place and felt especially lucky when a British couple at the table beside us told us that this is the best spot to dine in the city (apparently they come to Nice often and have tried a lot of restaurants). The Artist ordered steak and I had a lamb shank served on the creamiest bed of mashed potatoes. Quelle présentation!

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There’s a wonderful flower and produce market called cours Saleya that we enjoyed wandering through and buying some fresh fruit. The streets in this old part of town never cease to surprise with their unexpected turns, oddly shaped and squished buildings, and peek-a-boo glimpses of architectural gems. And with colourful flags overhead, the streets exude vibrance and cheer. We didn’t know if it always looked this way or if there was a festival happening at that time, but we really loved the vibe in Vieux Nice.

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Cycling the Arbutus Greenway

I had seen others doing it and it looked like fun. So today was the day I finally hopped on the Arbutus Greenway for myself.

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This former railway track was recently converted into a paved pathway, connecting Marpole to Granville Island. It provides a designated north-south route for cyclists and walkers to get from one end of the City to another, something sorely lacking up until now.

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I loved it. It was so convenient to hop on 70th Avenue in Marpole and ride to 41st and onto Southwest Marine Drive to meet up with some friends at UBC. On my way home, I took 16th Avenue back to the Greenway so I could cover most of the path. It’s 8.5 km long—here’s a map.

These vibrant poppies and purple wildflowers near 70th were a delight to see as I started out.

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Community gardens line the right side of the path as you’re heading north. Someone had fun with these scarecrows.

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I loved seeing parts of the City I hadn’t seen before. I was riding slowly up Vancouver’s spine, admiring houses that belong in a fairy tale, smiling at strangers standing in gardens with a hose in hand, and breathing in the scent of wildflowers spilling onto the pavement.

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It was a leisurely ride devoid of traffic and steep hills! Most of the intersections had helpful signage that indicated to cross with pedestrians at the light, like you can see these cyclists doing at Arbutus and 16th.

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Benches and portable toilets were available along the way. The biggest hill from this point riding south was winding through the Quilchena neighbourhood. But it provided some fabulous new lookout points, including slices of ocean.

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Something to note is that there aren’t many trees along the trail so shade isn’t an option, which you really notice on hot days like today.

Between Nanton Road and Quilchena Park, these colourful rocks stopped me in my tracks. Their messages and the conversations they inspired were my favourite experiences along the route.

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Painted all colours of the rainbow, they are as diverse as the people I saw using the path: cyclists, walkers, joggers, seniors, kids, families, rollerbladers, people in wheelchairs, skateboarders, you name it.

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“Pretty cool, eh?” An oldish man spoke to me from the walking side of the path and I said, “Totally cool.” He pointed a little further down where a plaque explained this public artwork done by York House Grade 2 students, a Vancouver Biennale project.

I told him this was my first time on the path and he said he walks parts of it almost every day. “So it’s well used?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” he replied. He said it’s packed on the weekends and he’s particularly encouraged to see a lot of seniors walking with canes on it. He said many seniors don’t feel safe navigating heavy intersections, so this designated route gets more people out enjoying nature and the city who wouldn’t otherwise. I completely get that as a cyclist who doesn’t love riding on busy streets!

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Near the sign, I spoke with another man who was admiring the rocks. He said this Greenway really was a case of “build it, and they will come.” Apparently it’s just a temporary path though with plans to make it into “a destination that fosters both movement and rich social interaction – inspired by nature and the stories of the places it connects” (from the City website). I kind of like it just as it is though, with the exception of adding more public art and trees.

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I ended up having a third conversation with someone along the Greenway when I stopped at 57th Avenue to pick up a few things from Choices Markets. One of the Rainbow Rocks said “Make community” and these friendly encounters with strangers seemed to affirm the spirit of that message already, an experience I don’t take for granted in Vancouver.

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Snaps of Summer

A holiday Monday with sunshine like this called me downtown to walk Stanley Park with a friend. The Rose Garden was in bloom so I snapped some pics of that as well.

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Afterwards, I explored Robson Street and enjoyed this patch of public space set up with picnic tables and an outdoor piano at the intersection of Robson and Bute. Great for people watching!

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Here’s a piece of public art at Robson and Jervis called Jasper.

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From the Vancouver Biennale website:

Jasper is a whimsical sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist John Clement. His trademark steel spirals with bold primary colours invite children to touch and play. The turns and loops of Jasper challenge the inherent properties of rigid tubular steel and the result is an implied movement with the sense of twisting right out of the ground.

Whenever I walk by this sculpture it reminds me of balloon animals popular at children’s birthday parties. Or my coil bike lock. No one was playing on it at the time but I like public art you’re invited to touch. If public art is meant to bring art where people are (because not everyone goes to art galleries), I appreciate works that call for different forms of engagement rather than the traditional “looking only”/observer-observed relationship. That being said, some public art provokes more thought than others and while the form is fun, I find the content strongly lacking in this piece. I think good public art brings form and content together in striking ways. What about you?

Hope everyone is enjoying the Canada Day long weekend!

Hello, Marine Gateway

Part of my rationale in choosing Marpole when I moved to Vancouver in 2013 was not just the cheaper rents, but the access to downtown and Richmond via the new Canada Line SkyTrain station at Marine Drive and Cambie Street.

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Where there’s a SkyTrain station, development always follows, and now when I walk to that SkyTrain station, I see soaring residential towers and a whole new shopping hub that has been named “High Street” (I don’t know if I’d go that far since it’s not offering anything out of the chain store norm, but you know marketers…)

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I have to say I am happy Marine Gateway has arrived in my neighbourhood— a neighbourhood that I love yet is sorely lacking retail shops and more variety of restaurants.

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No longer will the Artist and I have to go downtown to see a movie in theatres—we can walk fifteen minutes from our apartment! I am particularly excited about the Winners and Shoppers Drug Mart for the convenience factor.

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I walked around there the other day, checking out which stores have opened so far. Tim Hortons and Dublin Crossing are still in the works (shown above), but Starbucks, Shoppers, CIBC, BMO, T&T Supermarket, and A&W are up and running. (A&W is my favourite fast food joint so this addition really thrills me).

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There’s even some public art in the plaza! Here’s a statue of Simon Fraser by Ken Lum, the explorer after which the university is named.

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And on the pavement, some writing about the history of the surrounding places.

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On the stairs leading down to the bus loop, I discovered some more public art that looks like it might be back lit at night. I couldn’t find a plaque so not sure what it’s about, though I’m guessing it’s an homage to the Musqueam people and their tools/ways of life who lived in this area first.

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Here’s a complete list of the calls for public art at Marine Gateway.

Marpole is certainly getting more attractive features, and it will be interesting to see how this affects traffic and housing and rent prices that I hope can remain affordable for this neighbourhood I call home on the edge of the city.

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life

“Everyone has a hotel story.” So says the tagline of the feature exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which ended today.

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life

The exhibit traces the evolution of the hotel from seventeenth-century dak bungalows (government structures put up for European travellers living and travelling in India) to self-contained miniature cities. The exhibit looks at four main themes surrounding the phenomenon of the hotel: travel, design, social, and culture.

I particularly enjoyed the design part, in which ten models of world-famous hotels were displayed in a rectangular room with architectural and historical facts.

Imperial Hotel in Tokyo designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

The real hotel

Raffles Hotel in Singapore designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell

The real hotel

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown LA is a good example of a city within a city—but this “hotel city” seeks to offer protection to its guests from the “other city” with its dark, reflective glass and lack of formal entry. You’re not sure when you’ve officially entered it because the exterior skin folds in on itself, reflecting where you’ve come from but not revealing what you’re about to step into. With four identical towers, the structure almost intends you to get lost in it. Literary critic Frederic Jameson calls this hotel the quintessential postmodern space or “hyperspace”, a word he uses to describe a space that mutates so fast that the human body and mind has difficulty keeping up with it.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles designed by John Portman & Associates

The real hotel

Jameson writes in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

The mini-city of Portman’s Bonaventure ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds it: for it does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather its equivalent and its replacement or substitute. That is, however, obviously not possible or practical, whence the deliberate downplaying and reduction of the entrance function to its bare minimum.

“Design” room featuring wall of hotel diagrams

These next two models are the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The back side (right picture) “reveals a cross-section of multiple and diverse scenes recreating a microcosm of the urban life around it—a labyrinth of interweaving public and private space.”

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Here are a few of my own photos of the Waldorf Astoria from my NYC trip two years ago:

IMG_6242 - Version 2IMG_6210The exhibit stressed the role of the hotel as a liminal space between public and private; individual and collective. As the quotation above says, you’ll never know who you may “collide” with in a hotel. The hotel collects a motley crew of individuals and arranges them into private rooms and communal spaces (lobbies, pools, restaurants) for varied lengths of time, a constant motion of inhaling energetic faces while exhaling wearied ones.

When I returned home last week after seeing the exhibit, I began to think of my “hotel story.” After all, everyone has one, right? Then I realized that as informative and entertaining as the exhibit was, it missed a big part of the hotel experience for Gen Yers like me. It gave space to the hotel and the motel, but what about the hostel? The only time I’ve stayed in hotels is when travelling with my family as a kid. As such, I can think of hostel stories more readily than I can of hotel stories, and I know many of my friends would say the same. In fact, this is the only way we travel as adults—I would say it’s even more conducive for “generating random but fortuitous collisions,” especially collisions with other solo travellers who then become your companions to take on the city. I know the exhibit can’t include every configuration of the hotel experience, but this gap stands out to me as a significant one as modern-day hotel culture, especially for young people, includes the hostel.

Wallpaper in Llayers Llove Hotel, Room 307, Tokyo designed by Richard Hutton

In any case, the exhibit provided a fascinating overview of the hotel and its place in history, travel (whether by airplane, car, or train), design, and culture (including famous artists who created in hotels and historic moments that happened in their spaces). After walking through the exhibit, there’s no denying that hotels have significantly shaped modern life in some form or another.

How has it shaped yours? Do you have a hotel story?