I hate that word. Second only to my hatred for the term “jaywalking”. Both terms imply that there is a better use for a public space that you being on it, even if you are not actually stopping those better uses from being exercised. They are (semi-) legal ways of saying “go away kid, ya bother me”.

But I don’t want to defend loitering (a very, very good essay on that topic, with that very title, was already written by Emily Badger), I want to talk about a specific place in New Westminster, where we have completely lost the plot on loitering.

The New Westminster SkyTrain station is the defacto heart of our City. Speak all you want about Queens Park, the Quayside Boardwalk or the Coffee Crossing in Uptown, I will argue that our central downtown transit hub is the centre of our new City. This is where compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented new urban development is centred. When Hyack Square was built to better connect it to the River Market, when hundreds of residential suites and thousands of square feet of retail were developed right on top of it, when the Anvil was conceived as a new community gathering space, it was all about the SkyTrain and New Westminster Station. It is the centre point in the “big vision” for New Westminster, and it is the new “front door” to our Downtown and waterfront, a mix of our Grand Central Station and our Times Square.

As such, New Westminster station needs to be a space where people are comfortable hanging out, walking through, meeting friends, having chats. A place people want to be in, without a particular purpose, which is pretty much the definition of loitering.

It has always been a little tough to love New Westminster Station. It is far better now than the empty parking lot ringed with marginal businesses it was in the late 80s when I first moved to New Westminster, but for the best part of the last decade, it has been a station under construction. Plaza88 / The Shops at New Westminster Station has taken a bit of time to find its character, but is now mostly leased up with an interesting mix of businesses, and is attracting customers. The Kyoto Block (the empty lot between the shops and the Anvil Centre) is still an empty lot and a signficiant missing connection, but despite some dreams I may have had, I’m afraid they will never be realized now that it has been sold. With the Anvil construction just wrapped up and now a year-long construction project on the SkyTrain station, followed by potential expansion of the McInnes Overpass to occur with the River Sky development, and building of the 4th Plaza88 tower, there is more construction to come.

Meanwhile, the plaza opening up to Carnarvon between the front of a Tim Horton’s and the back of a Spaghetti Factory presents you the best-used “grant entrance” to New Westminster. With all due respect to the fine people in the Pawn Brokering industry – is this really the best we can do?


However, it isn’t the walls around the space that we interact with as much as the space itself, and I have had two very different e-mail exchanges of late with New Westminster residents I respect about the “problem” with that plaza space. The interesting part is that they were two very different conversations. One complained about the loiterers and “gauntlet of smoke and dirty looks” they have to endure when walking through the station, the other spoke of all the unfriendly spikes and security presence that is making a presumptively public place less friendly for people to linger.


(it just occurred to me that I should get these two people together for a coffee at the Tim Hortons there and let them come to a solution instead of writing this blog…)

I am very much on the side of the second person: public spaces with people in them are safer, more friendly, better for business, and more fun. It is clear the space in that plaza was initially intended to be lingered in – the architect built bench-height structures around the periphery and decks in front of the restaurants, there was even initially some funky plastic chaise-lounges and benches on the site when the shops opened.

Now, the benches are gone. Metal fences have been installed to prevent sitting on one set of benches, glass wall installed ot prevent sitting on another. And in case you didn’t get the message, the ineffective No Smoking signs have been supplemented with No Loitering signs.

This concrete bench is no longer a place to sit.
Similar to this space, which was once somewhere you could sit.
And the sign is there in case you don’t get the message from the spikey metal.

Get away from me, kid, ya bother me.

I remember a talk I heard last year by Susan Briggs, a prof at Douglas College, who discussed the loss of the public realm. We have replaced the town square with the shopping mall, the playground for the McDonalds Playspace, the urban space for the corporate place. Cash-strapped governments are only too happy to have private industry provide the plazas, the parks, the gathering spaces that governments cannot afford to buy, develop, or maintain. This space off Carnarvon is a prime example. It is the only access from the public street to public transit, yet the space is private, and beholden to the rules of the owner. In this case, the owner doesn’t want smoking teenagers and other ne’er-do-wells hanging about.


Actually, I as I went down to the area yesterday to take a few photos for this blog, I was approached by one of thee young toughs. He was not very polite in asking who I thought I was taking pictures and suggesting I might prefer a punch in the face. He was clearly posturing more than threatening, but the demonstration was pretty clear that this space is not a friendly one for many people.


I’m the first to admit I don’t know what to do about this. I want the entrance to New Westminster to be a welcoming space. But I have two suggestions, one in the control of the City, one not, and both successful in other cities.

The first is soft community policing. I don’t want to be in a place where we send cops down there to bust skulls or push “the wrong people” (whoever decides what that means) out of public space in New Westminster. However, the presence of community policing officers downtown could make it a better place for everyone. Police on foot, talking to people, saying hello and just being present and visible without being threatening, can make a big difference to how people experience the space. But the balance is hard to find, and this approach needs to be very cautious around that balance.

The second (and more promising) approach is to activate the space. The best way to make loitering (the pejorative term) into lingering is to give people a reason to linger, making the space “sticky”. This can include introducing some interactive public art, blending the restaurant seating space with the pedestrian space like you would recognize in the Spanish or French streetscape, or adding buskers or events into the space. The go-to reference for this type of urban space activation is Jan Gehl, and his writings about the “human spaces” between buildings.

Nuggets of these ideas can be seen in the slightly half-hearted attempt of placing the chaise-lounges in the square when it originally opened. A surviving example is the kids’ play area under the SkyTrain in the middle of the plaza level of the Shops, which (despite the shadowy look and roaring trains) has managed to remain an inviting space.


Unfortunately, the exact opposite of these ideas can be seen in front of the Safeway, where a “stickiness” opportunity is lost, and what could have been an active part of the public plaza became the best-defended coffee patio in history. What is the point of this glass wall? To keep people out, or in?

the cage

I’m not sure I know what type of “placemaking” can make this place more welcoming as an entrance to the City, but whatever it is, we will need to work with the owners of The Shops at New Westminster Station to make it work, because if it helps the City, it will help them as well. They need loitering for their businesses to be successful, and we want to be a City where people want to loiter.

7 comments on “Loitering

  1. Great piece Pat!

    This topic get me going because every attempt to create public space ends up getting shut-down for various reasons. It’s not an easy fix, but one thing we need to remember is public space is for everyone – the good, the bad, the ugly. We can’t pick and choose who we want to have in our public realm. I keep going back to Europe for an example….because, well why not.They’ve been dealing with public space for 3000 years. Public squares are not just frequented by the young couples in love, the young father teaching his kid to ride a bike, or the charming old-timers we see in commercials. That is a stupid North American idealized vision of what public space looks like.

    You are bang-on in suggesting that public realm has been left up to private interests to provide – often with lame names like Plaza, Square and my favourite “Commons”. But again, you open up public space then you have expect to find unemployed youth, unemployed adults, the downtrodden, those how may be up to no good, and dare I say it, even smokers. If at any point this is seen as hindering commercial interests then the restrictions will be put on this “public space”. Same thing happened Uptown at in front of the London Drugs. There used to be benches and a pretty interesting gathering of people. But I gather the smoking was the biggest factor in having these benches removed.

    I don’t blame the property owner. He has a commercial interest in bringing people into his shopping complex. It is not his mandate to provide a public meeting space. But people inevitably want to linger while having a coffee and shoot the shit as it were. And if that’s called loitering then so be it.

    Either the City provides these spaces, other people will create them on their own. And no amount of signage will put a stop to it.

  2. One other thing to consider is landscaping. It makes the space both more attractive to spend time in and reduces littering, graffiti and vandalism (google the plethora of studies on this). I love urban spaces, but a lot of cities are using landscaping to help minimize crime. Perhaps considering how to include a unique garden, living wall, or something else would help start to shift the way we use this space.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I moved into the area about two and a half years ago, and I quite liked the way that the area outside of Tim Hortons functioned as public space. The idea that it’s being completely removed — and in such an ugly way — so that a single restaurant can have a for-pay patio section is frustrating.

    When my partner and I moved here, we liked how much the city felt like a community, and the wealth of public space was a main factor in creating that atmosphere. Watching it be slowly chipped away for the sake of businesses and wealthier investors worries me.

  4. Hey Pat,

    You referenced that the Kyoto Block has been sold–do you know what the intended purpose of this lot will be? And why is this space called the “Kyoto Block” anyhow?

    1. Q1: I have no idea, the sale and any plans around eventual use were before my time on Council. I have heard rumours, but nothing more. Q2: I have no idea, although I suppose it is named after a business that was located there before the City bought the land in ~2008.

  5. I was at the kids space at the weekend with my sons – it’s no longer an inviting place. It was in a filthy condition and the carpet was covered in dirt, small stones and small pieces of plastic – an ideal choking hazard for a small child. I saw several staff cleaning the rest of the complex – but It looks like the kids area is not getting the care and attention it needs.

    No smokers or loitering there though!

    1. HI Garry – I did actually email the property manager and ask them to clean it up more as I think that playground is an awesome amenity for downtown families and we use it quite a bit. The property manager emailed me back immediately and cc’d janitors so I’m hopeful for improvement!

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