Last week, I thought it would be an awesome idea to get out of my dimly lit office (less light is better for video editing – did you know?) and chat to like-minded, new people about storytelling and creating video content. So off I went to Venture Kamloops’ 2017 LinkUp Conference to expand my mind on the topic of business development. And as always, Kamloops does not disappoint when it comes to being a home to incredible humans to converse with. I was expecting that. 

What I was not expecting though was to be sitting on the edge of my seat, furiously scribbling down notes and stoking red hot coals of inspiration during the keynote presentation by Melissa Higgs of HCMA Architecture + Design. Seriously.

You probably know by now that I’m a major art geek. Sometimes it is all I talk about. I’m pretty sure my face lights up when I’m blabbering away about street art in relation to… well, just about anything. My biggest takeaways from Melissa’s invigorating speech was how her architecture firm morphed to become an interdisciplinary platform and the examples she shared of recent creative projects.

She began with “What if _______?

A simple question with endless possibilities …and complex answers.

Case in point was the plan to develop an artist in residence program at her firm. When social artist, Julien Thomas, responded to an open call with an idea of creating the Faraday Cafe, the concept of creating a space from nothing with a unique twist to see what could happen when its visitors were forced to put down their mobile devices. Additionally, part of this artist’s project was to further engage with visitors by asking them to leave notes about their experiences on paper coffee cups. Through crafting an entirely new notion of public space and forcing engagement between cafe go-ers and total strangers, I found this to be such a revolutionary trifecta of art, space, and connectivity. Simply put, it was a myriad of answers to the question of “What if we stopped constantly looking at our phones?”

Here is another question. What if the way we conceptualize a space can change a population’s behaviour? Or in more Hope-like terms, what if we began incorporating street art into the public domain to rejuvenate a community in unwanted spaces? 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is where my brain starts lighting up like a wall of Christmas lights from Stranger Things, Season 1. 

Melissa had an example for this as she went on to describe the More Awesome Now Project. In fact, I have seen Alley-Oop before. In the media, all over teh interwebz, and on Instagram – but I hadn’t a clue that this project was facilitated by sharing the big ‘what if’ questions from within her firm, HCMA.

More Awesome Now is a three part, experimental project meant to bridge the gaps between work and play, private and public through the activation of alleyways, or so they prefer to be called, laneways. Vancouver’s street grid includes over 200+ downtown blocks bisected by laneways. Through reimagining and reconfiguring these city wide corridors as recreational, commercial, and performance spaces, it could be possible to increase pedestrian traffic and inspire new opportunities for social connection.

Just take a quick look at the transformation that this everyday looking alley had.

The intersection of Granville and Hastings has been inevitably changed for the better. “In juxtaposition to its location in the heart of the business district, the reimagined Alley-Oop laneway is themed “Play”. Bold pink and yellow paint, basketball hoops and furniture act as a beacon to those working in Vancouver’s business quarter, encouraging them to play, exercise and socialize in the space. Since opening in 2016, the number of pedestrians using Alley-Oop has more than doubled (from 30 an hour to 73), and where men made up about 75% of alleygoers before, they now represent only about 58%. These numbers suggest that the More Awesome Now project has created a much busier, more welcoming place” (HCMA, 2017).

The second laneway is currently in progress on Granville and Smithe, behind the well known Orpheum Theatre. This next space will include activations from musicians and artists set to play shows at the Orpheum. Basically free pop up shows from jaw-dropping artists from around the world. And the third one is planned for Robson Street, south of Alberni Street between Burrard and Bute.

Ellen Lupton once said, “Design is art that people use.” I couldn’t agree more.  The ways that spaces are designed truly can change our behaviour on a daily basis, and further healthier, safer choices for our overall population. The way we think about everyday spaces could use some major improvements. If you don’t believe me, please read some text from Jane Jacobs, or more locally, some research from Larry Beaseley.

The More Awesome Now project is an impressive example of a partnership between an architecture/design firm and a business improvement association, very much like our own here in Kamloops. Let’s all just take a moment then, shall we? There are many opportunities to draw inspiration from the ever-changing world around us.

So, I ask you, “What if, Kamloops?”

Let’s be more awesome, now.