A Trust Experiment

I co-direct CityStudio Vancouver with SFU Semester in Dialogue Director Janet Moore. We work with students and city staff on experiments that help us learn how to improve the city.

One year ago today we launched an experiment in trust at CityStudio; we placed 2 inexpensive pink plastic adirondack chairs in the plaza at Spyglass dock. For two weeks people used these chairs. They would eat their lunch in these chairs. They chose the chairs over the benches. They’d move the chairs in front of the benches so the low wall became a foot stool. They thanked us for the chairs. We loved to see people use them — they would stop and sit, lean back and exhale as they looked out across False Creek.

Our chair experiment revealed how easy and important it was to make our beautiful city feel a bit more comfortable, like when you’re at the lake, or in your back yard.

I’d often go hang out with people sitting in the chairs and we’d talk. Sometimes they’d say that they wish they had chairs like this in their city. Or that they love to put their feet up but there aren’t many places where you can put your feet up in the city. They’d ask where the chairs came from. Or they’d say they just love to lean back and look. They smiled a lot.

Then one day I arrived in the early AM after a wind storm to find that the 2 chairs were gone. Stolen? Blown away? We never found them, but we learned that a simple inexpensive addition to the plaza had made a big difference in how people used the space and how it felt.

That September when the new CityStudio cohort started, we told them the story of the chairs and that we wanted to expand and refine this experiment together as a warmup project. We would design and build 5 adirondack chairs and leave them out all year. “They’ll get stolen. They’ll get vandalized. They’ll get thrown into False Creek. Maybe. Let’s see.”

Our instructor Andreas Eiken designed them and led the student build. We placed them on the sea wall and we linked them together with a cable.

We invested in this experiment with high quality materials and Andreas’ time and expertise. The students invested their time, energy and ideas. Adding it all up, the time and the cost of materials and finishing was high enough for us to ask, “Are we going to leave these out over night?”

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We did leave them out. All night, every night for a year. And nothing happened. No damage, no graffiti, no vandalism. During the day they’d get moved around and every morning we reset them and watch how people used them.

Earlier this summer we added one of our Keys to the Streets pianos to the space, and recently Mobi placed a bike station across the plaza. We now hold meetings in the chairs. One day I arrived to see that someone had placed a small cafe table with 2 chairs beside the adirondack chairs.

One week from now we’ll tell the incoming cohort the whole story and together we’ll tune up the chairs, tighten the screws and add another coat of varnish. We’ll return them to the seawall, watch how people use them, and we’ll then reset them every morning.

At CityStudio we’re part of a movement that values the opportunity to imagine and contribute to vibrant and welcoming public space. Our chair experiment revealed how easy and important it was to make our beautiful city feel a bit more comfortable, like when you’re at the lake, or in your back yard.

But some of us don’t go to the lake or have a back yard, so this year along with the chairs and the piano, we’re going to try another place making experiment at Spyglass. How much more comfortable can our city be? A lot we think. Come on down and check it out.

Have an idea for us? Tweet me @duaneelverum

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