The five senses of Main Mall Greenway

In January of 2009 I spent a lot of time on Main Mall Greenway on UBC's campus. I was taking an urban design studio course and we were tasked with a "critical eye assignment." It meant observing a place and paying attention to who uses it, and how many and why.

It's easy to assume beautiful places are also good places. But the success of a public space is more about function than appearance - not that the two are mutually exclusive.

Main Mall Greenway has both form and function, although in rainy January, it wasn't nearly as well used as I later discovered that summer. Here are some observations from my first visits.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS. It takes me a while to find my destination. It's chilly and misty and I encounter few others as I walk. The community is beautifully landscaped, but devoid of people it feels slightly sterile.

SIGHT. When I arrive, I feel like I’ve made a discovery. The greenway is formal, but pretty and serene - a haven in the middle of a barren community. A mist hangs above the path, giving it a slightly enchanted feeling. It seems under-used, but that might be the weather. The stillness is ethereal, but I can’t decide if it's pleasant or just reinforces the sterility.

SOUND. It seems quiet at first, but closer attention reveals layers of sound. I first notice the splashing of a small fountain at the east building’s entrance. Later I hear someone practicing flute through an open window, then soft footsteps on the paving stones. Further away a bird squawks, a truck backs up, and childrens’ voices ring out from Jim Taylor Park. Even more distant is the murmur of traffic, the hum of a generator, and the occasional foghorn.

SMELL. I breathe in the damp air. It's cool on all my visits, sometimes refreshing, but mostly chilly.

FEEL. The paving stones are even and firm below my feet. When I stray off the path the waterlogged grass mushes and I feel the uneven ground below. I intuitively sit on the east bench in the afternoon sun before the west building’s shadow catches up to me. The wood is slightly damp, reinforcing the bite in the air.

TASTE. I drink tea from the Saltspring Coffee House. It's warm, sweet and with a hint of spice, I can relax and enjoy sitting, despite my wet seat.