Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Invisible Economy - Design in Vancouver

In a previous article I wrote about how the Vancouver city region is struggling to define itself economically – is it a port city? Is it a resort city? Or can the future be built on savvy tech entrepreneurs?  Last week I got a glimpse of one part of the economy which generates less headlines but could be as important to the city over the coming years.  I undertook the Eastside Cultural Crawl which does exactly what is says on the tin.  Beginning in 1997 the crawl is an opportunity for artists, craftspeople and designers to increase their visibility through a series of coordinated events and programmes.  Mostly it just involves studios being opened up to allow the general public a better idea of what is being produced in the Strachcona neighborhood.  I was hugely impressed with both the turnout (not everybody enjoys walking around an industrial estate on a freezing weekend) and, more importantly, the quality of the products on sale.  With my eye on a new coffee table I was particularly impressed with the carpenters and would recommend the work of Enrico Konig as a start (see here).


As a planner and urbanist the event left me with a few questions:
  • Why is this great local resource and cluster of economic development only truly visible for one weekend a year?  I know some of the artists and designers have exhibition space elsewhere in the city, but in the main this part of the economy is invisible.  Is there a way of making this part of the city more of a destination to attract consumers?  Though some studios are located near the beautiful Maclean Park and Strathcona Linear Park, others are squeezed in to a range of spaces among a larger industrial estate.
  • Alternatively, the links between producers and consumers could be strengthened in the form of a satellite store in a more convenient location (e.g. Gastown or Commercial Drive).  This satellite store would only sell art and crafts made in East Vancouver and could use this authenticity and localism as its key selling point. 
  • Finally, it struck me that design skills are clearly very strong in Vancouver.  Does the city do enough to capitalize on this?  Probably not.  A lot of the arts and crafts on display were for private settings (paintings, tables etc) but there is clearly an opportunity to use these local skills for public settings – street furniture, public art, graphic design and branding of the city.  So whilst the Province and others trumpet the economic benefits of shipping containers to Asia, maybe the most important resource is already in the city.

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