Frida&Frank Take Winteraction
In Vancouver, Canada, a non-profit organisation called frida&frank aims to empower citizens to be placemakers by helping them imagine new roles for the city’s public spaces: rainy-day oases.
It’s easy to let winter get you down, especially where it’s full of wet, cold days. According to NHS estimates, 1 in 15 people in the UK suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) between September and April. Even those not dealing with seasonal depression tend to spend less time outside, get less exercise, and do less socialising during the winter months. This means that city spaces often become vacant, exacerbating the sense of social isolation that can plague urban dwellers.
In response to these issues, some cities are enacting winter strategies to improve the lives of their citizens during the coldest months of the year. But some of the more creative initiatives have come from elsewhere. In Vancouver, Canada, a non-profit organisation called frida&frank aims to empower citizens to be placemakers by helping them imagine new roles for the city’s public spaces: rainy-day oases.
“It’s something that’s being talked about in Vancouver and around the world, but no city is doing it right,” says Haley Roeser, co-founder of frida&frank. “We have a long history of creating urban infrastructure that counteracts nature and repels rain, but none of our public spaces really work in the rain. That’s really silly in a city like Vancouver, where it rains most of the year.”
frida&frank’s latest projects have aimed at combatting SAD through a seasonal effective design. This January, the organisation hosted a festival called winteraction — featuring events in Vancouver, Rotterdam, and Berlin — which took inspiration from a project the organisation ran last summer. Aiming to change how people conceive of Vancouver’s public spaces, frida&frank set up easily-disassembled ping-pong tables around the city, with funds from the municipal government.
“Ping-pong is a really fun game and doesn’t demand a lot from someone,” Roeser explained. “It can be short, it can be long, and you can easily converse while playing.” “While not everyone stopped to play with us, it was nice to see the number of smiles and waves we received. The idea is that people are seeing what is possible in public.” In a sense, the initiative sought to take back the streets — to bring more fun and play into the city.
I had the pleasure of playing ping-pong with frida&frank last August. It was a beautiful summer day in Vancouver — one of those that makes you remember why the city is often ranked among the best places to live in the world. frida&frank had their cheerfully decorated tables set up outside a small record store in Chinatown. Inside, n10.as, a Montreal-based online radio station, was broadcasting live. Large speakers were blasting music onto the sun-soaked sidewalk. A small crowd congregated outside, bouncing to the music and taking turns playing casual games of ping-pong.
In Vancouver, often hailed the “no fun city” because of its strict bylaws, these kinds of events are not very common, so most passers-by paused to chat. Two elderly women from the community arrived and cautiously sat court-side. Despite their limited English and shy demeanour, it was clear they wanted to play. When one of them grabbed a paddle and pointed at me, I gladly stepped up to the table. As the game commenced, it became evident that I was no match for this ping-pong master. I quickly passed the paddle to someone more skilled, but of course, she schooled them, too.
She picked us off one by one, her bashful smile growing with each good-natured defeat. Her friend excitedly clapped from the side-lines. For me, this scene encapsulates the beauty of frida&frank’s pop-up ping-pong. Living in a city, it’s not everyday people can engage with one another in such an organic and playful way.
As the summer drew to a close, the sunny days that made outdoor ping-pong possible became fewer and farther between, but frida&frank was not done with the project. “This kind of thing is easy to do in the summertime,” Roeser told me. “In winter, the social architecture of a city is sometimes not as conducive. But fostering a connection among locals shouldn’t stop when the seasons change.”
Enter winteraction. The Vancouver festival’s marquee event was called “POP! A Rainy Day Refuge.” With the help of Vancouver Design Nerds and HCMA Architecture + Design, frida&frank built a giant bubble out of clear plastic sheet and set up under the Cambie Street Bridge. “The original intent of the bubble was to create a mobile public space,” said Roeser. “It allows you to transform any environment into a place of gathering.” Events — including a design jam, storytelling, and live DJ sets — took place inside the bubble throughout the day. “It was powerful to see how a sheet of plastic could create such an intimate space,” Roeser added.
(Images Courtesy of Haley Roeser)
All over the world, winteraction encouraged people to embrace their environment, meet people, and enjoy public space, despite the weather. frida&frank is now cataloguing the diverse actions people took as part of the festival. (Many documented these using the hashtag #winteraction.) Following, they hope to illustrate which kinds of winter interventions work well around the world.
As cities grow, it will be increasingly important to foster interaction and build community, and frida&frank are demonstrating the power of placemaking to do this. So don’t be deterred by stormy weather or unexpectedly fierce ping pong competition. Grab a plastic sheet, your local radio station, or something else, and get out there. The re-imagination and reinvention of public space starts with you.
Zoë Johnson is the Development Coordinator for the Oxford Urbanists and an MPhil student in Oxford’s Department of International Development. She is particularly interested in the ways in which contemporary urban development is reproducing and reinforcing social inequalities. Her research focuses on local understandings of poverty in small urban centres. She holds a BSc in Global Resource Systems from the University of British Columbia.