Placemaking, Creative Cities and Strong Libraries

The City Centre Library. Surrey BC

The City Centre Library, Surrey BC

Lets recognise something that we have in Canada that we don’t want to lose. That we can grow and protect if we choose. Libraries are modern community hubs, interactive educational haunts where people meet across communities, interests, generations. As things in our world seem to become wired, complex and isolated, we need public places of learning, access and invitation more than ever. Canada really is a country of libraries…”
Jian Ghomeshi, 3 Cheers for Libraries, Dec 20th Q Opening Essay.

I found myself nodding yesterday listening to Jian Ghomeshi’s essay on the excellence of Canadian libraries. A couple of years ago I looked at the creation of the City Library in Surrey, BC and the Toronto Reference Library Re:vitalize project, and what I discovered was that great cities are home to exceptional libraries. Libraries produce public culture and are a physical manifestation of “shared meanings and values of public life” (Leckie and Hopkins, 2002, p.327). Central libraries in particular, “make a physical statement about the library as an integral part of civic culture, and make visible a symbolic statement about knowledge in society“ (p.327). Developing vibrant, creative and financially robust cities requires active public spaces, strong communication channels and iconic places (Landry, 2008), and the Surrey City Centre Library and the Toronto Reference Library Re:vitalize project embody all three of these qualities in different ways. The Surrey City Centre Library places a greater emphasis on public space, and is part of the City of Surrey’s attempt to transform Whalley, “Surrey’s least desirable neighbourhood”  (Sinoski, 2011) into a new high-density downtown core. The Toronto Reference Library on the other hand, focuses on the development of knowledge and positions Toronto as part of a worldwide scholarly and information conversation.  How these projects act as public spaces, communication channels and iconic buildings, connect to a broader vision of their respective cities.

To be creative cities, cities today need a mix of both soft and hard infrastructure. Hard infrastructure are things like roads that connect the city, whereas soft infrastructure create pathways for people to meet one another, exchange ideas and develop relationships (Landry, 2008, p.xxiii). To create soft infrastructure, the development process must shift to include considerations of how design nurtures and encourages communication between different people (p.xxiii). Soft infrastructure means that a city has an abundance of “third places”, defined as “neither home nor work where people can be together” (p.xxiii). A range of spaces in the city qualify as third places; they are quiet or energetic spaces, spaces that incorporate green elements and other aesthetic features, and spaces that are equipped with technological features (p.xxiii). Public spaces contribute to creativity because they allow people to “go beyond their own circle of family, professional and social relations. The idea of the public realm is bound up with ideas of discovery, of expanding one’s horizons, of the unknown, of surprise, of experiment and of adventure” (p.119) For Landry, public space “is at the heart of the innovative milieu” (p.119). Libraries today are one of few non-commercial third spaces in the city.

In addition to public space, municipal governments need to provide opportunities for lifelong learning (p.63). Libraries are significant because they provide accessible learning opportunities and act as communication channels to information, one of the most important factors in encouraging creativity in cities (p.122). The function of communication channels is to “back up information resources”, because “the greater the information ‘density’ and exchange, the easier it is for creative individuals and institutions to keep abreast of events and best – practice developments, both within the city and outside it” (p.122).

Canada is a country of libraries, and in Ontario, libraries have been a feature of the urban landscape since 1882 (Leckie and Hopkins, 2002, p.327). The Toronto Public Library system has ninety-nine branches and its central branch is the 400,000 square foot Toronto Reference Library. This library has been part of Toronto for a hundred years, but opened at its present Yonge and Bloor location on Nov 2nd 1977.  In 2007, the Reference Library began a five – year revitalization project with a total cost of thirty-four million dollars. The City of Toronto contributed fourteen million dollars through its municipal capital funds, the Province of Ontario contributed ten million dollars, and the remaining funds are being raised through a capital campaign called Re:vitalize. The campaign began in 2009 and is the first public capital campaign in the Library’s history.

The upgrades are meant to position the Library as an  “information hub of Toronto” and Toronto’s “foremost public centre for lifelong learning, the exchange of ideas and community engagement” (2009, About Re:vitalize). Though being an exceptional communication channel is the library’s primary focus, it will also be a vibrant public space and iconic Toronto building. The new library is being designed to make it more obvious to the street and surrounding area, and will feature a special collection rotunda to emulate the reading rooms of other great libraries worldwide, more research and study spaces, “Idea Gardens”, study pods, and a “Global Connect Wall” (complete in Dec 2013!) of real-time worldwide news updates and enhanced technological resources and features within the library itself (2009, About Re:vitalize). The library’s vision of greenery, networked spaces and areas of differing energy levels matches Landry’s description of the attributes of successful third spaces. As an iconic Toronto building, the Library’s contribution to “elevating the streetscape with great design is in itself a cultural contribution” (Hahn, 2011).

As an information hub specifically, the Library describes itself an important contributor to Toronto’s overall economic, social and cultural health. In terms of its contribution to Toronto’s economic health, it notes for its thousands of daily users, the Library supports “workforce readiness, small businesses and place-based economic development” and that “business people and the creative community use the Toronto Reference Library as “they develop and grow our city” (2009, About the Toronto Reference Library).

The library’s relevance as an exceptional communication channel for Toronto’s creative community is evident in its existing resources. Specific resources in the Toronto Reference Library include the Baldwin Room, which dates back to 1883 and houses items of historic importance to Canadians, the Arthur Conan Doyle collection with works about Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and the Art Room that houses items related to Canadian and international performing and visual arts and other rare art collections (Skinner, 2011). All these collections house items that are not found at other branches.

In terms of cultural contributions, the Library offers a variety of opportunities to learn for its diverse membership and according to its website, does more to support lifelong public learning than any other public institution in the city.  In particular, the Library makes a noteworthy contribution to Toronto’s cultural life through its ongoing schedule of talks in the Appel Salon by authors, artists, and other thinkers. The Appel Salon was created through a three million dollar gift to Re:vitalize, and is meant to be Toronto’s “premiere public space for cultural programming, civic discourse and community engagement” (About Re:vitalize). Outside of the Salon, the Human Library is another important project that provides Torontonians an opportunity to meet others from many different walks of life by “signing” them out for an hour of conversation.

In contrast to the Toronto Reference Library’s focus on information, the Surrey City Centre Library in British Columbia is an 82,000 square foot library that is partly a community centre, and partly a place for book-lovers to gather.  Unlike many community centres or bookshops however, the library is a Silver Leed certified building and features language classes, business seminars, a coffee shop, a “teen lounge, and gaming area, a world languages collection, quiet and silent study areas, a children’s section, living room reading lounge, outreach services for the visually impaired, and even a meditation room” (Reid, 2010). At present, the Surrey City Centre Library is the most technologically equipped library in the province.

To create all theses spaces, the City Centre Library features natural light, and interconnected, private and community spaces to accommodate diverse uses. There is creativity within the design of the building because different uses can be found together that “are revealed as patrons explore the building” (Arch Daily, August 2011). The Library is meant to feel like “an extension of the patron’s home” and like Landry’s description of successful public spaces, aims to “intrigue and entice users throughout the building” (Arch Daily, August 2011). Like Landry suggests, the library’s goals of supporting education, gathering and connection are enabled by the design of the library instead of design being a secondary consideration in the development process (Landry, 2008, xxiii)

The design of the building was not an accident. Heeding Landry’s call to pay attention to iconic buildings, Mayor Watts notes that “one of the things we wanted in our city centre was an iconic building, and the regional library is definitely that”  (Saltman 2010).  In another report, she mentioned the library is meant to be an “architectural landmark’ and a “gathering space” (Reid, 2010). In the City’s official press release however, she makes the clearest link between Landry’s ideas and the City Centre Library:

Our new library has already become a wonderful community gathering spot and is attracting visitors from all across the region, creating a new cultural and social hub in the city,” said Mayor Dianne Watts. “It is architecturally stunning and provides an iconic landmark for City Centre.  I believe that innovative and unique architecture has the ability to shape a city’s identity and create the heart and soul of a community. ~City of Surrey, 2011.

The total cost to build the Surrey City Centre library was thirty-six million dollars. Sixteen million dollars of the needed funds came from the City of Surrey, and ten million dollars of funding came from the provincial and federal government respectively (Reid, 2010). The library opened in September 2011, and is a significant first step of a broader creative strategy to create a high-density Surrey downtown called the “City Centre” that makes Surrey the “main business, cultural and social hub for the city and the South Fraser region” (Reid, 2010).  The library is the first project in a series of capital infrastructure projects the City intends to build until 2016. Other projects planned include a new performing arts centre, a new 165,000 square City Hall and an outdoor plaza with a capacity for five thousand people. Ten years ago, the City of Surrey and Bing Thom Architects developed the Central City project, which is located across the street from the City Centre library and features office space, a shopping centre and the Surrey campus of Simon Fraser University. When viewed together, the Surrey City Centre is similar to the “classic physical public space” Landry describes that includes cultural space, a university, a library, a city hall and market space (Landry, 2008, p.119)

In conclusion, there is a connection between creative cities and strong libraries. Great libraries are vibrant public spaces. In Surrey, the City Library is a vibrant community space that is intended to gather people together and help them imagine Surrey in different ways, and Toronto is strengthening the incredible information resources that Reference Library already contains. Like libraries across the country, both play a vital role in supporting the economic and cultural life of their home cities, and are cause for celebration. Three cheers for libraries indeed!


Amber, P. (2011, August 18th) In Progress: Surrey City Centre Library/Bing Thom Architects. Arch Daily.
Architects and Artisans. (2011, August 16th). In Surrey B.C, A Library by Bing Thom.
City of Surrey. (2011, Sept 24th). Dynamic and Unique City Centre Library Officially Opens Downtown.
Hahn. K. (2011, August 20th). “Turning the Page on sleek architecture; Toronto Public Library beautifies cityscape with stylish renovations. Toronto Star,  (August 20th 2011)
Landry, C. (2008). The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators. London: EarthScan.
Leckie, L.G., J. Hopkins. (2002). The Public Place of Central Libraries: Findings from Toronto and Vancouver. Library Quarterly. 72(3): p.326-372.
Reid, M. (2010, Nov 17th).City Centre Library: Not Just Books. Surrey/North Delta Leader.
Saltman, J. (2011, June 10th). A Library for the Future. The Province.
Skinner, J. (2011, August 25). “Libraries cater to the libraries that they serve”. Inside Toronto. Retrieved from Nov 10th, from
Taylor, S. Downtown Surrey BIA. (Oct 2009) A New Library for Downtown. The View.
Toronto Reference Library Campaign. Toronto Public Library Foundation Announces Historic Fundraising Campaign in Support of Toronto Reference Library Revitalization Project
Toronto Reference Library Campaign. About the Toronto Reference Library.

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