Visualizing free speech: no-busk Vancouver

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I’ve concluded, much to my dismay, that I lead a fairly rote life most of the time — my commute follows the same path and times, I have my favorite lunch haunts etc.  When I did the Myers-Briggs test a number of years ago, my profile included a statement that made me laugh: “Even in your everyday activities, you often search for the new and the novel. If there is a logical route to work and you have been driving that way continually, you will likely tire of it and look for other routes.”  Though I largely dismiss Myers-Briggs personality typecasting as mostly fluff, there was certainly much truth in that statement!

Which is why I love anything that disrupts the same trite route I take everyday. In the past year or so, the City of Vancouver, aka No Fun City, has decided to “experiment” with allowing performers practice their art at specially designated “entertainment locations” downtown (I place experiment in scare marks because I find it a bit hilarious that something so innocuous would need such guarded experimentation, but then again, I am but a mere American observer in this somewhat reserved, passive country).   It always gives me an extra hop to my step to hear live music or see impromptu performances on the street.  Sadly, this is a fairly irregular activity here in Vancouver, and you’ll certainly never get something like a breakdancing performance on the Skytrain platform either.

I suspect the ordinary person would never notice the signs that designate these special busking areas.  They are placed quite high, are the size of any regular parking sign and often are lost among a number of other parking signs.


I wondered if the signage was for passerbys or for the buskers?  It’s a mystery to me. If they are for the latter, then I suppose it’s no big deal if they are lost in the landscape since the buskers would presumably know about where to look for them.  But for the former, well, without regular or consistent performances (be it the dreary weather or lack of buskers, I”m not sure, but most often there isn’t any “entertainment” happening in these spots), how is the regular pedestrian to know that there could actually be something special happening here?  How are they to look forward to or expect something in this space?  Or, for that matter, how about the performers-in-making who haven’t gone to the city’s website or realized there’s a whole hoop-jumping permit process to be had?  Classic affordance issue here.

Even on a nice (for Vancouver) day, right during rush hour, performers–including some bicycling fundraising set-up– are more or less lost on the sidewalk:

[wpvideo p4ijyKq7]

As I was considering how one could design this space a bit better — possibly a painted radius on the sidewalk as a virtual ampitheater — I decided to do a bit of research into how NYC, a place that does this very well, handles this. I had never noticed any signage there or specially marked spots–performances seem to happen anywhere and everywhere.

It wasn’t long before I realized that is due to the fact that in the US, busking falls under the First Amendment Freedom of Speech and is a constitutional right–there’s been much case law historically around this very issue. Silly American, how could I have not made the connection?!  In fact, in NYC:

In 1970 poet Allen Ginsberg challenged the constitutionality of this ban. The ban was lifted in 1970 after being found to be unconstitutional by Mayor John V. Lindsay. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Even in the subways, this freedom is protected.  From the City Lore site:

You have a right to perform in the subways, on the sidewalks and in the parks of New York City.

Sadly, Canada does not quite have the same take on the matter .  Instead, performers in Vancouver have lots of rules and auditions.  It’s even worse in Nanaimo

In this case, I’m not sure there’s much a sign or well-crafted public space can do–no matter how perfectly designed it is– to fix that.  But perhaps some subversive/snarky signage could help others understand why our sidewalks and urban spaces are often so eerily un-alive and lacking those serendipitous experiences you may find in other cities.



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