Thursday, August 17, 2017

Good ideas picked up elsewhere: Montreal pop-up park

This park would be entirely unremarkable, the size of a full city block, surrounded by office buildings from the sixties, bus stops along two sides, dropping some 15 feet or so from north to south, full of concrete pavement and retaining walls, were it not for its proximity to the university of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), the proximity to the Gay Village and the fact that it sits at the eastern edge of the Quartier des Spectacles and has a Metro subway interchange at the corner. Except, none of these anchors could actually erase the square's drabness. The Montreal Gazette described it as "one of the dreariest spots in all of downtown Montreal", windswept, used as hangout by the homeless but otherwise empty. But all the strong surroundings put the place on the map for an experiment. And the experiment transformed the drab Place Emilie Gamelin, named after a local beatified Catholic sister) into the Jardin Gamelie that I will describe.
Jardin Gamelin Montreal

Peering up the entirely desolate Rue Labelle, essentially nothing but an alley ending at the square, I spot strings of light and the sound of music. Getting closer I find a greenhouse built of corrugated transparent plexiglass on the southern edge of a lively plaza, raised flower and garden-beds in wooden boxes, there is an illuminated neon sign spelling Jardin Gamelin, two fire engine red shipping containers converted to a bar and food stand just like at Montreal's Old Port. A stage, large umbrellas, tables and chairs on a flat concrete surface move into view. On the rising lawn people observe the activities in Adirondack chairs. A few modernist metal frames provide a sense of closure towards the rear without blocking views to and from the street.

In the center above it all hovers what looks like a large fishing net sagging in the center as if a large catch would drag it town. Someone was watering the plants in the greenhouse and then locked it up. There were young folks all around, at the tables, walking, sitting, watching the karaoke singer on the stage. A wooden arbor designed as if were to hold the mistletoe to kiss under leads to a set of toilettes trailers instead,  a less exciting but certainly useful street-edge to the west. A painted sign board there explains the park with cute little cartoon drawings of the various design elements of the new jardin.
Greenhouse and gardens at Jardin Gamelin

The park revival isn't the creation of the municipal parks department but a pilot project undertaken by the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership, Pépinière & Co., a non-profit urban design group, specializing in pop-up placemaking. The team was rounded out by Sentier Urbain, an urban agriculture collective formed in 1993.
Pepiniere describes the project on its website:
Les Jardins Gamelin is a new place of culture and gathering for the Montreal community in the heart of downtown.
Overlooked by Janet Echelman's impressive work "1.26", the concrete slab of Place Émilie-Gamelin has been completely renovated into a large public terrace structured by urban agriculture bins and recycled pallets forming seats. The creation of a cafe- restaurant-bar in containers makes it possible to bring a commercial offering to the center of this square, while a round stage offers a place of cultural infusion and expression making this space a new public agora. (translated from French).
To create a “place” out of space, there needs to be lots of life and plenty to do according to the concept of the urbanists and break the large space down into more intimate pockets using the warm materiel of wood for there movable and temporary structures. Jardin Gamelin offers dance lessons, lunchtime concerts, fitness breaks and DJ Sundays and the gardens that make it part of the neighborhood. Clearly, it takes many different community partners to create success.

The overhead fishing net turns out to be, in fact, a fishing net, installed by the Massachusetts artist Janet Echelman who specializes in aerial sculptures.  The net starts to become the true centerpiece of the whole Jardin once it gets dark and the net begins to glow in all kinds of colors thanks to poles in the four corners of the square who bath the net with a variety of colored LED light beams.

The woman from the non-profit in charge of the programming tells the Montreal Gazette in 2015 when the space was freshly converted:
“We wanted people to feel safe here. We wanted to create an ambience that would welcome them, and a kind of bustle that would make them want to stay. Really, we have been flabbergasted at how positively people have responded. These are people who said they would never before have brought their children here. And now they have re-appropriated the space.” 
Someone from the gardening Sentier Urbain collective adds:
Sculptures Jardin Gamelin
"I feel a lump in my throat when I see street people and office workers and university students all sitting around in the same park enjoying the same music and the same space.It’s not often we all get to be together like this”
Indeed, the place doesn't feel gentrified. The homeless sure still use it, but they are not the only ones anymore. The north end is still used for handing out food to the homeless in the spirit of the plaza's namesake.

Temporary pop-up features and non-profit involvement don't make this make-over cheap. Staffing the gardens, the toilettes, maintaining the installation, the programming, it all requires healthy operating funds.

But instead of a multi-million dollar year-long reconstruction that would be the normal route a municipality or a business partnership would take, this downtrodden plaza was spruced up in one mere month and for a comparably low capital budget in favor of a stronger programming and operating engagement.

This approach is quite in line with the principles of the place-making experts at the Project for Public Places in New York which advised Baltimore's Downtown Partnership on the redesign of Center Plaza. Less construction and more programming would be a much better approach to whatever deficiencies Baltimore's public spaces present. If the Downtown Partnership would have taken the approach of the the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership for McKeldin Plaza we would be in a much better place.
Simple improvements softening concrete

Baltimore has its own pop-up public spaces. There is the Y-Not Lot in Station North and the form of Sandlot on the former Allied Signal site as an initiative from the developer to enliven a space that would otherwise dead. Although the case of Sandlot isn't comparable to McKeldin Square or to the Jardin Gamelin, it provides just like the Montreal site evidence that temporary structures and strong programming (including drink and food sales) can do a lot more than expensive construction itself.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Place Emilie Gamelin

Concept rendering

Theater students on stage enacting a play

Cartoons explaining the design elements

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