If you have recently waited on a colourful Squamish bus stop bench, taken your lunch at a downtown parklet or new wooden picnic table, rolled up to a new bike rack or stopped to smell the flowers at a wooden planter box around town, chances are you have OurSquamish to thank for that.
The non-profit is dedicated to creating more enjoyable public spaces in town.
They also hold monthly placemaking meet-ups — everyone welcome — on a range of topics.
Volunteers with the organization have created a total of 12 physical projects around Squamish.
Among these are the new wooden Second Avenue parklet and bike rack in front of Alice + Brohm Ice Cream, a new large picnic table in the Garibaldi Estates near London Drugs, new community picnic tables and benches at St'a7mes, and benches and flower boxes at Howe Sound Women’s Centre.
Members of the organization are picking away at recommendations that came out of its year-long survey to find out what residents of Squamish wanted in their neighbourhoods.
"The biggest takeaway for me is like everyone's looking for things they can walk to, parks, open spaces," said OurSquamish's president Sarah Ellis.
She added that she is relatively new to Squamish and moved for the access to nature and outdoor recreation most of us were drawn to, but the report shows locals want more connection close to home, too.
"[They] also really want to connect in their neighbourhoods. And so that's our mission, basically."
Sitting at the parklet on Second Avenue last Thursday, Ellis noted how long the seating area is, as is the new picnic table at Garibaldi Village mall and the ones at St'a7mes.
"When you look at how people organize themselves in public spaces, if you have little benches and little tables, you're just going to see one group, or one person. People don't really feel comfortable joining someone at a small table; it feels very intimate, and probably too intimate. Whereas a longer picnic table ... you actually see multiple parties on those tables, because there's enough space to feel like you've got personal space."
Ellis added that she was really impacted by the teachings of professor Troy D. Glover, of the University of Waterloo, who gave a presentation to OurSquamish.
He specializes in research on public spaces and noted how increasingly lonely so many people are today.
"Even before the pandemic, with more things you can do in your house without interacting with the broader public — through the internet, through their streaming media, all of this — we've become more lonely as a society across ages," she said.
Cléa Rochon-Berman, executive director of OurSquamish pointed back to the new Second Avenue parklet as an example of creating opportunities for connection.
"You can fit like six or eight different little groups or you can form a bigger group. So, we're all in our own groups, but all together — creating safety and community connection in that way."
Both Ellis and Rochon-Berman noted that joining OurSquamish as a volunteer or coming out to a meet-up is a great way to make new friends.
Folks can devote as little or as much time as they like.
In August, in particular, the organization could use more volunteers to help with its bike valet service at several fun community events.
"They're really popular and a really great way to promote active transportation to events," said Ellis, of the valley service.
The organization’s work is made possible by many devoted volunteers as well as local groups such as Squamish Community Foundation, United Way, the Downtown Squamish BIA , the Men's Shed, and businesses like Squamish Savings, Van Urban Timber and Rona, Rochon-Berman said.
What about accessibility?
OurSquamish aims to make more public spaces accessible to all, according to Ellis.
"Accessibility for people with disabilities, but also people with strollers, and also accessibility more broadly. So spaces that can be friendly to seniors and children and youth," she said.
OurSquamish also aims to draw in locals who might not otherwise feel welcome.
There was a walking tour geared at newcomers in collaboration with the Squamish Welcome Centre, for example, and a July potluck with Pride Squamish.
The organization is also building a relationship with Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw.(Squamish Nation).
"One of our priority Strategic Plan pillars for this year and I think for coming years is going to be making sure that we are actively going out and engaging communities that might not naturally gravitate to us," Ellis said. "We want to go out to communities and understand their needs."
But what about parking?
The two parklets downtown take up a parking stall, a hot commodity on busy days in Squamish’s core. Asked about possible complaints that these projects take up valuable spots for cars, Ellis said the relative impact is small, and she likes to turn the question around.
"Roads are the biggest public space that we spend the most investment on and that our tax dollars go to the most. And not just in Squamish, but in most municipalities, roads are for cars. And so we just like to ask the question ... 'How can we, in small ways, think about how to make those huge public spaces a little bit more accommodating toward other ways of getting around? More people oriented instead of car-oriented?’"
With heat becoming more of an issue due to climate change, OurSquamish is also prioritizing creating shade.
"We're really stoked to get into more of the figuring out things around tree canopies and trees. It's one of the big recommendations out of our public spaces survey," Ellis said.
What about vandalism?
Vandalism happens in every community; Ellis said OurSquamish uses durable materials and prioritizes upkeep.
Rochon-Berman also noted that creating nice things around town for all to share makes it less likely folks will want to wreck it.
"If you involve people in the creation of something, they want to care for it more," she said. "You kind of create that sense of connection."
OurSquamish is a partner with the Downtown Squamish BIA on Open Street Day, which takes place downtown Saturday, July 29, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This is the second annual event that opens up Cleveland Avenue to pedestrians.
There will be a free OurSquamish bike valet set up at Pemberton and Cleveland Avenue.
Find out how to get involved, be on the email list and more on the OurSquamish website.