Vancouver, British Columbia
Photo Credit: Space2Place Design
Initial Research by: Desiree Theriault
Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans
Case study compiled in 2017
Project: Oppenheimer Park
Type of Urban Strategy: Green Cities
Type of Project: Playscape
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia
Date Designed/Planned: 2006
Construction Completed: 2010
Designer: Space2Place Design Inc, McFarlane Biggar Architecture
The Oppenheimer Park, designed by Space2Place Design and McFarlane Biggar Architects, has played a vital role in the revitalization of Vancouver’s historic Japantown. The park has become a powerful example of how landscape architecture and architecture can spark positive social change and bring justice to marginalized neighbourhoods.
The project aims to improve the status of Vancouver’s economic and social change, reducing criminal activity, drug abuse, and social stigmatism. The Oppenheimer Park re-design has become a platform for re-shaping the social, cultural, and neighbourhoods. The project is in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which is known as one of the poorest urban areas across the city. The park addresses the needs of all its visitors from the marginalized communities to the homeless and provides a safe space with a multitude of programming and recreational features. The park has been a vital part of the neighbourhoods.
Nestled within the Japantown community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is the Oppenheimer Park. This community has been known as one of the most impoverished urban areas of the City of Vancouver and has provided refuge to homelessness, addiction, and mental illness (Fasla, 2015). Throughout history, the park has served as a platform for criminal activity and has manifested as one of the most dangerous areas of the neighbourhood.
However, with the 2010 park re-design by Space2Place Design and McFarlane Green Biggar Architecture, the area has flourished and witnessed a complete transformation into a safe, unique and inclusive park (Space2Place, 2014). The Oppenheimer Park is now one of the most used parks in the neighbourhood and provides the public with an engaging, imaginative, culturally, and historically rich environment. The re-design has established this urban green space as a step into social justice and provides Vancouver with an example of how architecture and landscape architecture can revitalize a marginalized community. The park has been a catalyst in the evolution of Vancouver, turning the Japantown neighbourhood and park into a stage for protests, ceremonies, rallies, memorials and community celebrations (Southcott, 2012).
The City of Vancouver and Vancouver Parks funded the project with a budget of $1.9 million. The revitalization mission started in 2000, where multiple town-hall meetings, neighbourhood surveys, and park analysis was completed to declare whether or not a re-design would be suitable. It was in 2006, that the funds were released and that Space2Place and McFarlane Biggar Architects would be in charge of the challenging social revitalization. Throughout their research and analysis, it was clear that the mission of the park was to address the ongoing safety concerns for both the neighbourhood, the homeless, and the impoverished communities. The park would need to address these issues while still providing resources that can help the neighbourhood strive towards a healthier and better life. (Falsa, 2015)
The boundaries of Oppenheimer Park are Powell Street to the North, East Cordova St to the South, Jackson Ave to the East, and Dunlevy Ave to the West. It finds itself in the middle of the historic Japantown and has been an essential piece to the Japanese culture of Vancouver.
With the re-design of Oppenheimer Park, the cherry blossom trees line the park leading visitors to engage with the green space, while maintaining visibility to provide safety. The beautiful blossoming trees frame the surrounding community and allow views from each end of the park creating a perfect square for the community to gather in celebration during the Powell Festival. The park also attracts the children of the community with a large softball field, basketball hoop, a playscape, and a community center. The community center welcomes the homeless and provides opportunities for cleaning and rehab programs.
PROJECT BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Throughout history, the Oppenheimer Park has served as a gathering space, baseball diamond, community square, celebration center, shelter, refuge, and much more to the communities of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. It first served as a district for the Japanese immigrants coming to Vancouver for refuge and was rightly re-named Japantown. The area flourished as a vibrant community, filled with cherry blossoms, culture, and history (Space2Place, 2017).
During World War II, many of Vancouver’s Japanese residents were sent away to internment camps leaving a void in Downtown’s Eastside (Falsa, 2014). The area needed to be re-zoned for industrial use, however it remained neglected for many years. The historical Japantown became a haven for the marginalized, homeless, low-income families, immigrants, mental health, and substance abusers. The neglect throughout the neighborhood allowed for an unsafe environment harbouring poverty, sex trade, crime, and violence, stunting the growth of the neighbourhood and stigmatizing the area. In the late 1980s, the park was deemed one of the most dangerous parks in Vancouver (Falsa, 2014).
In 2010, the redesign of Oppenheimer Park aimed to revitalize the neighborhood, enhance its rich culture and history, and provide a platform for social change (CSLA, 2017). The park design establishes site-specific resources for all of the members it has harboured throughout the years; this includes providing facilities for homelessness, addiction, and mental health – while still providing areas for family-oriented activities. A new field house was installed, creating a beacon of hope and light to the surrounding neighborhood – acting as a center for children activities, mental health resources, women-only safety programs, and many more. (Southcott, 2017).
The newly designed Oppenheimer Park changed the urban fabric of the community – allowing it to flourish into the beautiful, historical, cultural, social, and inclusive that it once was (Southcott, 2017).
One of the challenges that faced the communities of the historic Japantown in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was the marginalization and homelessness found within the neighbourhood park. As one of the poorest urban areas of Vancouver, the neighbourhood park served as a hideaway for addiction, drug abuse, mental illness, and homelessness – it was portrayed as a platform for criminal activity and drove away many of the surrounding families. The Oppenheimer park created an atmosphere that resented its neighbourhood and prevented the surrounding residents from being able to walk safely in the area. In an attempt to address this significant disparity between communities and miss-use of the park, it was important for Space2Place and McFarlane Biggar to revitalize and engage the diverse public by firstly understanding the context. This task meant exploring the types of uses the park and organizing meetings and workshops with the neighbourhood's families, homeless and First Nations (Fasla, 2015).
Through extensive research and site analysis, the designers understood that the re-design would need to provide security to the rest of the neighbourhood but also provide a space for the homeless, mentally ill and addicted to seek help and feel comfortable visiting the site. The response of the design is a park that brings together the entire neighbourhood in a safe, united, respectful environment (Space2place, 2017).
GOAL OF THE PROJECT
There were two main goals in mind during the design and creation of Oppenheimer Park. The first goal was to create opportunities for the public to engage and utilize a park that celebrated both historical and cultural significance. To achieve this goal meant breaking down previous “barriers” that blocked views and prevented foot traffic through the park. Breaking these barriers and providing visibility throughout the site creates a more desirable, safe and inclusive park (Southcott, 2012).
The second goal was to develop a playscape that connects the children of the surrounding disparate communities into a park that enhances imagination, spontaneous play and discovery (Space2Place, 2017).
DESIGN, DEVELOPMENT, AND DECISION MAKING PROCESS
The re-design of the Oppenheimer Park was a challenging project due to its wide array of visitors and uses; as well as its surrounding historical context. With this in mind, it was important that Space2Place Design and McFarlane Biggar Architects remained socially aware during the entire process and development of the Oppenheimer Park – ensuring that they could address all of the needs of the neighbourhood in a simple and effective solution.
The design and development began in the year 2000, where the City of Vancouver, as well as the designers, took part in discussions about the Oppenheimer Parks revitalization with the Town Hall, residences of the surrounding communities, and the homeless populations that roamed the park. The research continued in 2006, where the designers created extensive workshops and meetings with the communities and users of the park to get a better understanding of the area. The workshops included over 80 members of the community, including some of the homeless population that utilized the park as shelter. With a thorough investigation of the neighbourhood’s history, culture and social interactions, it was evident that the community was in dire need of a site-specific park that would provide safety to the area.
Space2Place Design and McFarlane Biggar utilized their site analysis and community research to produce a solution that would open up the park both in terms of visibility and accessibility. The park would need to be programmed to adjust to the needs of every member of the community without extrapolating the homeless.
Pathways extend from each street corner, providing ample accessibility to the park and more visibility to the surrounding community. Trees line the park supplying shade to the visitors, however, are strategically placed to enhance views and remove any types of hidden corners. (Falsa, 2016)
On the East side of the park, visitors are directed towards a large oval-shaped field house. The edgeless building creates a soft and gentle atmosphere allowing for better visibility around the entire site. The building provides public washrooms for all members of the communities and offers recreational activities and programs. Additionally, the building becomes a beacon of hope, lighting the night for pedestrians and the surrounding community – supplying more visibility and a safer environment. Nearby, a play area is placed to attract the children of the community – the play area utilizes wood cradles, polished tree trunks, a maze of yellow poles and stepping stones.
The West side of the park provides space to those who wish to relax and stop for a snooze. In particular, this area caters more to the homeless population but also allows them to be more inclusive in the neighbourhood activities. The western side features picnic tables, an open green space for children to run around and play, and seating area for community members to relax. (FALSA, 2016)
The development of Oppenheimer Park has yielded a vibrant, refreshed, and inclusive community that boldly catalyzes positive social change. (CSLA, 2017)
ROLE OF DESIGNERS
The role of the designers during this challenging re-design was to provide an urban strategy that could instill positive social change within a neighbourhood and bring justice to those in need. The Oppenheimer Park, designed by Space2Place and McFarlane Biggar Architect, focused on bringing social awareness to tackle the issues that faced the marginalized communities of the neighbourhood.
Including the community was vital in the re-design and maintaining the needs of the residence. Similarly, it was also essential to address the needs of the homeless and provide safety to those who had occupied the space for many years. By utilizing both landscape architecture and architecture fields, the designers were able to create a park that supplies all the needs of the community and that changes the neighbourhood’s social and economic dynamics.
Oppenheimer Park makes a great effort to provide resources to all members of the surrounding community. The park acts as a gathering space, protest platform, recreational center, and a vibrant cultural and historical heart to the core of the neighbourhood. The park features:
-A brand new field house/community centre with washrooms and public programs
-Sports court with basketball hoop
-Patio space, picnic tables, and seating area
-Arts and Crafts areas
-Outdoor Music venue
The Oppenheimer Park re-design has played an essential part in Vancouver’s ability to induce positive social change. It stands as a great example of how landscape architecture and architecture can shape and transform the urban fabric of a community, neighbourhood, and city.
The re-design of the park has ignited a vibrant community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and has established itself as a stage for festivals, protests, celebrations, and gatherings (Space2place, 2017).
MAINTENANCE AND MANAGEMENT
Oppenheimer Park has many uses in the community of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. However, its primary use is as a community green space and resource center. It supplies its community members with recreational activities, arts and crafts, women-only safety programs, and many more. One of the most important programs offered is the mental illness and addiction therapy – allowing the community to help its more impoverished residence and creating a more inclusive neighbourhood (Southcott, 2017).
The park is managed and maintained by two lead coordinators that handle the parks programs and features. Several other employees are employed to help preserve the greenery of the park and provide resources to community members (Falsa, 2017).