Find the plaques to make history

Digital placemaking can put some "there" there in your neighbourhood

There's evidence that our community connections are made more tenuous by modern urban living. There was a time when the neighbourhood school and local church stitched together the fabric of community. Today a parent is just as likely to enroll their child out of the local school catchment as in, while our churches struggle to maintain their flocks in an increasingly secular world. It's got so bad that the Vancouver Foundation is funding a study on our isolated lives, and seeking ways to bring us closer.

Spacing VancouverAs a volunteer community organizer I've seen what a struggle it is to get people involved in their own neighbourhoods. In Vancouver's boroughs there are many obstacles to making a connection with your neighbours – language and cultural barriers, poor urban design and lack of public space, distractions such as TV and internet, and yes, even the lowly remote control garage door opener. It's possible that you could live in our city and never have any human contact with your neighbours.

The times demand that we use our imaginations to strengthen communities, like building homes that have a stronger connection with the street. With the internet we're more connected than ever, yet we're arguably more disconnected as communities at the same time. It's likely we spend more face time with our smart phones and computer screens than talking face-to-face with friends or loved ones.

A few years ago after enjoying some New Year's Eve revelry with fellow parents, I wrote exuberantly about how technology pervaded neighbourhoods in an essay titled The Last Desktop. At the time I asked how can we use devices like smart phones to create hyperlocal experiences. I saw the potential use for lamp standards along our streets – those hollow poles with a few wires dangling within – to act as digital beacons or bulletin boards.

Fraser Street Plaque

Fraser Street Plaque

Thanks to the extreme industriousness of a fellow volunteer and community leader named Lilli Wong, we took advantage of a neighbourhood matching grant to create yet another project in our Fraser Street neighbourhood. It was a chance to revisit the idea of turning lamp standards into community listening posts. I discussed the idea of "digital placemaking" in a blog post as the project got underway. Lilli ended up doing all the heavy lifting, including designing and facilitating a set of ten historical plaques. She would even enlist Vancouver historian John Atkin as a consultant.

The finished product we dubbed as Vancouver Street Stories. There are ten plaques in total – nine are along Fraser Street, and the tenth is nearby the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House (our non-profit partner) located on Victoria Drive. With the Street Stories project we had three goals:

  1. Show some neighbourhood pride by sharing part of the area's history;
  2. Recognize that history is always being made, and to provide a venue that is less static than just hanging a plaque;
  3. Create ways for members of the community to share their stories and connect.

That's why we came up with a tag line: "Find the Plaques to Make History". Each of us are able to add our mark as every plaque is stamped with a QR code that connects to a web page with a comment form. Each plaque also has its own Foursquare check-in, for those who are familiar with the popular geolocation app.

For example, with Foursquare if you happen to be nearby Fraser Street at the intersection of East 33rd Avenue you'll find the The Legend of Simon Hirschberg plaque. That location will link you to the Foursquare check-in, where you can leave your stamp by posting a tip for future visitors.

The ten plaques – each depicting a bit of local history – are labelled as follows:

The truth is with an experiment like this you do not know what parts of it will work. It will take some brave souls to start commenting and checking in to get things rolling. There is little doubt, however, that this practice will be emulated in the future by others, possibly connecting the next popular social media platform or application with a point on the map, a piece of history, and the people who live and work nearby.

For those who are interested in keeping up with this project you can find it on Twitter @FraserStStories and on Facebook.

– post by Mike, today featured also in Spacing Vancouver. We'll be checking out and checking in at the Fraser Street plaques during Sunday's Jane's Walk. Details here and here. See previous feature post "Crazy for Fraser Street".

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About The Author

  • Steven Forth

    Where is the LIKE button? There are many ways we can use online, mobile and local services to weave Vancouver’s stories into places and share those places. Great project. Hope you will come to the Design Thinking unConference in August and talk about it.

  • Sandy James

    Kudos to this neighbourhood group for anchoring neighbourhood placemaking and memory on to the street! It is meaningful interventions like this that make the pedestrian environment more interesting for walkers, and fuels social interaction on the street.

    Author Miranda Hill with Project Bookmark ( is undertaking a similar endeavour across Canada, linking passages from famous Canadian authors to the landscapes and places described. The first Vancouver bookmark will be unveiled during the Writers Festival this October.

    Great work with Vancouver Street Stories! How can we support you to do more?

    • Thanks, Sandy. I consider your comments high praise coming from someone so responsible for our successes in walkable public realm in Vancouver. I think there is more we can do to make sure we create some “there” there along streets like Fraser. Talking about projects like these is the first and easiest way to support them. This is a first step of blending the tech directly with neighbourhood memory. I know others will take it to new levels once they see what we’re doing.

      Secondly, we might think of ways to improve the surroundings where these plaques are placed. For example, in a few spots there are boulevards that communities could revive with a place to sit or a picnic table, such as outside the restaurants at 24th avenue, or the shops at 20th avenue. Give us more time and I’m sure we’ll come up with a few more ideas!

  • Bobh

    Great idea that needs replication in other communities.
    Good for you and Lilli. Good citizens.

  • Julia

    South Granville and Gastown have QR codes linking to historical stories as well.

  • Thought of The Day

    “Grandpa Ale Ole; Algae La Ponder; Paean Regal Old; Raglan AD Elope; Edgar Allan Poe…”

    “In a strange city lying alone
    Far down within the dim West,
    Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
    Have gone to their eternal rest.
    There shrines and palaces and towers
    (Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
    Resemble nothing that is ours.
    Around, by lifting winds forgot,
    Resignedly beneath the sky
    The melancholy waters lie.”
    Edgar Allen Poe – The City in The Sea

    First, I wanted to congratulate Mike for such a great undertaking and second, to recommend readers, IMHO, to look out for this gems (in any order), as great companions:

    1. Vancouver -stories of a City
    Lisa Smedman – 2008
    2. Vanishing Vancouver
    Michael Kluckner – 2012
    3. Historical Atlas Of Vancouver
    Derek Hayes – 1999
    4. Fred Herzog Photographs
    Fred Herzog -2011

    Start here:

    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

    • Ned

      Mike, the ten plaques list was just great. Thanks for that.
      Thanks Glissy for your list. Will look for the books…
      BTW, Fred Herzog’s photos (color) were FANTASTIC!
      This was a great collaborative post you guys! 🙂

    • Bill Lee

      Not a big fan of any of Derek Hayes “map porn” — segments of maps without any size or context.

      Bruce MacDonald’s “Vancouver: a visual history” is better. 96 pages Publisher: Talonbooks (1992)
      ISBN-10: 0889223114 ISBN-13: 978-0889223110
      readily available.

      And Patricia Roy’s “Vancouver: an illustrated history” part of the Lorimer urban history series ‘History of Canadian Cities’ from the 1980s with two! volumes on Toronto, lots of pictures, photos, etc.
      190 pages Publisher: Lorimer (1980)
      ISBN-10: 0888623887 ISBN-13: 978-0888623881
      Also Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg etc. etc.

  • Richard Unger

    Dear Glissando,

    You son of a gun!

    “Grandpa Ale Ole; Algae La Ponder; Paean Regal Old; Raglan AD Elope; Edgar Allan Poe…”
    Very clever, very clever, Glissando!

    I liked Edgar Allan Poe almost as much I like you now!

    Richard Unger MD (Ret)