A play structure and volleyball court activate an underused space outside the Richmond Oval. PWL Partnership

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Postgame: Reinventing an Olympic landscape one slice at a time

Landscape Architecture Magazine
Published November 2016

In August, while all eyes were on Brazil and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, residents of Richmond, British Columbia were enjoying the latest addition to one of their own Olympic venues, (Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010). Children clambered over what appeared to be a logjam while men and women faced of in sand volleyball, cheered on by spectators in plastic Adirondack chairs. Designed by the landscape firm PWL Partnership and completed in 2015, this new urban beach and recreation area is an example of how the games continue to shape Vancouver and the surrounding communities, as well as how the facilities and their grounds are being incrementally reimagined.

The sand volleyball courts and naturalistic play structure (also built over sand) animate a 21,100-square-foot half-moon-shaped lawn area between the Richmond Oval, a massive timber and concrete structure that hosted speed skating in 2010, and the Fraser River, which separates the city from Vancouver International Airport. Compared to the oval, which has been reconfigured for hockey, volleyball, and other sports and has become a popular venue for tournaments, the outdoor space was underused, despite being located directly alongside a popular riverfront trail, says Jamie Esko, Richmond's manager of parks planning.

Guided by a series of community meetings, as well as a post-Olympics design brief, the city hoped to bring the energy and excitement of the oval's athletics out into the public realm. PWL had recently completed a waterfront park in nearby New Westminster and had also designed many of the public spaces originally opened in conjunction with the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city wanted something that would be respectful of PFS Studio's existing landscape, including the famous red boardwalk that winds beneath a suspended sculpture by Janet Echelon and through a series of stormwater remediation ponds.

Complicating the redesign, which included new boulders, dune grasses, and additional boardwalks and cost just $250,000 (CAD), the semicircular lawn area was part of that stormwater system. Existing drain tile, as well as polystyrene block, which protects the subterranean parking garage in the case of a seismic event, dictated the placement of the volleyball nets.

"On a typical beach volleyball (court), you would put your posts anywhere, but these ones are permanently located," says Margot Long, a principal at PWL.

Compared to the cautionary tales offered by many other Olympic host cities, the experience in Vancouver has been largely positive, Esko says, especially for Richmond, which has been transformed from a bedroom community to a growing urban centre. The area around the oval, constructed on the site of a former RV park built for the 1986 World Exposition, is rapidly being developed. "I just rode through there on my bike this morning, and it's just a mad construction zone everywhere," she says. As the area fills in, the outdoor recreation area will continue to evolve. Current plans include the conversion of a nearby building into a restaurant and cafe. Although this mini waterfront park, now known as the Olympic Riverside Plaza, has little of the grandeur of the architecture that it fronts, Esko and Long are as proud of it as they are of higher-profile projects. "Working with a client that really is committed to making a difference in their city and for their people, that's a positive thing for us," Long says. "It was a really tiny project, but for us, any project is an important one."