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Urban Planning + Architecture

Riding Vancouver's Streets into the Future

Getting a city right means many ways of getting around, and truly public space.

Jessica Linzey 15 Jul 2011Momentum Magazine

Freelance writer Jessica Linzey lives, works, studies and rides in Vancouver. This article, under the headline "Making Public Space Liveable," first appeared in Issue 42, November 2009 edition of Momentum. Headquartered in Vancouver, Momentum is an independent media company that promotes, encourages and inspires smart living by bike. Published six times a year, Momentum Magazine focuses on transportation cycling and bike culture in North America.

[Editor's Note: This is the second installment in The Tyee's "Self-Propelled Summer," a weekly series of cycle-centric articles from Momentum magazine. Enjoy this 2009 article on bike-friendly urban planning and always remember to wear a helmet while riding your bike and a seatbelt while driving your car.]

The Carrall Street Greenway is quiet and leafy in some stretches, heavy with unpredictable traffic and ongoing construction in others. On Sundays through August and September of 2009, a full city block of it was given over to a farmers market. The greenway has space for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles alike, and the materials used to delineate these spaces are both thoughtful and beautiful.

The greenway is a $5-million community development and transportation corridor project that, once finished, will connect False Creek to the south with the Burrard Inlet to the north, linking the historic neighborhoods of Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and Gastown through six short blocks.

As Arno Schortinghuis put it, "It's Vancouver's only complete street. But what a lovely street it is."

Schortinghuis is president of the volunteer-run Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC) whose mission is to make cycling an integral part of the local transportation culture. A two-hour ride with Schortinghuis through some of the city's best and worst efforts at this integration begins at a project he would file in the latter category: the Millennium Development site of the 2010 Olympic Village on the south side of False Creek.

"This was a real missed opportunity to create a public space where people can interact on roads built for non-motorized use," Schortinghuis said. "This is meant to be the greenest development in B.C., but we got only one bike lane. It's typical car-centric planning."

Vancouverism: Choice is in our DNA

According to former city councillor Gordon Price, pushed to its extreme, this car-centric planning could very well mean civilization suicide. The great irony about Vancouver, he said, "is that it made the key decision not to build freeways and plow through the fabric of generations of human experience. Today's urban design is looking at the streetscape as public space and moving aggressively forward on this. So it's astonishing that now that we're at this time of extreme high risk, about the only thing we do is commit money to building the Sea-to-Sky Highway, the Golden Ears Bridge and a future dependent on the price of oil."

Suburban development aside, Price –- now director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University –- argues that when people speak of "Vancouverism," they're really talking about what happens when people are offered the right mix of transportation choices.

"After World War II," he said, "cities began designing their urban regions for the motor vehicle. But Vancouver chose not to re-build around the motor vehicle, which might have driven out all other transportation choices."

Instead, Vancouver opted to build on the fabric of the streetcar corridors and not to go the way of what Price calls "motordom."

"This was a very powerful decision," he said. "Because of it, by and large, the city today is what it's always been. We still live in what were traditional streetcar villages. What has changed is the sophistication of transportation and this is what makes cycling so interesting. There is a cultural aspect to it. This era of contesting space that we have entered is fascinating."

The argument goes, then, that it is the layering of choices that makes transportation -- and cities -- work. By giving public space over to bike lanes (as the city did with the Burrard Street Bridge bike lane trial that began this summer) thus giving people another practical transportation choice, the car will start dropping off, and what will be left is livable public space. But eliminate that choice, and problems arise.

According to Price, "Car-free days only work when they are exceptional moments. Pedestrianizing Granville Street -- removing the choice of taxi and car-sharing -- violates its very DNA."

'The car changed everything'

Andrew Pask disagrees. Sort of. While he agrees good cities allow people to switch between modes of transportation, ideally people should be able to use two feet or a bicycle to get anywhere.

"There is something to what Price is arguing," said Pask, "but the car changed everything. Planning now, it's all car-centric. We don't have a streetcar. We don't have dedicated bus lanes. We don't have separated bike lanes. I'm not anti-car, not one mode versus the other. It's just a question of ratio."

Pask is the director of the Vancouver Public Space Network. Formed in 2006, the VPSN is a "grassroots collective that engages in advocacy, outreach and education on public space issues in and around Vancouver." Project areas include but are not limited to, greenspaces, public and city art, urban design and security and surveillance. It's a big undertaking but one that is clearly engaging the public imagination -- at last count, the VPSN boasted more than 1,700 members and 2009's "Where's the Square?" design ideas competition drew 54 entrants.

"Vancouver has tremendous public space," said Pask, citing Stanley Park and the seawall as examples. "We excel at linear spaces, areas that enable solitary reflection. But public squares, plazas, the grand gathering places -- this is where we're deficient. We need places to commune with one another. It's important for the quality of life. 'Where's the Square?' grew out of that."

Congregation over contemplation

Maged Senbel is an urban design professor with the School of Community and Rural Planning (SCARP) at the University of British Columbia. He agrees that Vancouver's unique form of public space -- particularly the seawall that winds around the city -- is not necessarily space for congregation, but rather for contemplation in a beautiful setting.

"But this," he said, "is not where community takes shape. Community takes shape where people are involved in the creation of space, and the inhabiting of space. Take Commercial Drive, or the art gallery. People have taken ownership, are involved, empowered."

"Beyond this, there isn't a lot," Senbel said, "that encourages spontaneous mixing of people."

But he's not sure that any place -- great public squares included -- does that well.

"Is that even desirable? We have this idea of what is vibrant and active. But there's an incredible variety and dynamism in Vancouver's public spaces -- spaces that fit with the psyche of this city. The current concern is with being the greenest city in the world. But this doesn't prioritize public space. It's not about seeking out appropriate or innovative ways of creating public space. Vancouver has that already."

A work in progress

Vancouver is a young city. Neighborhoods take time to appear and grow.

Regardless of the arguments around what is and isn't working, what's most important to Andrew Pask is that the city's planners always keep public space at the foreground of their thoughts about urban design. To that end, Councillor George Chow believes the City's design focus should be on "neighborhood gathering places that are attractive and safe."

In an email, Chow -- who currently sits as liaison with the Vancouver City Planning Commission -- said: "We should define the principles and policies that would govern the development of new public spaces. We should also explore how the city can create public spaces in concert with private land owners and developers."

It's a sentiment shared by Pask. "This is about livability," he said. "The City needs to be taking the lead on this, not the developer."

Chow suggested that the City start by taking inventory of the successes and failures of existing spaces. Like Schortinghuis, Price and Pask, Richard Campbell of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition (BCCC) points to the Carrall Street Greenway and the Burrard Street Bridge initiatives as something the city got right.

But unlike the others who would like to see the bikeways network -- which carries bicycle commuters through lower-traffic city streets -- expanded, Campbell would prefer to see more bike routes along the high-traffic arterials. "The benefit of this," he said, "is that it's a great way for cyclists to display themselves. Here, we hide our cyclists on the side streets. In cities like Paris, we see them go proudly by as we sip our coffees at the sidewalk cafe. This is just one more reason we should get rid of parking on the main streets. Hide the cars, highlight the people."

The conversation around reclaiming public space through urban design is big and one in which many people are passionately engaged. But whatever its citizens and activists may feel about current public space, it's clear Vancouver needs to be planning for a future that takes into account an aging population and a looming fuel shortage. As Campbell puts it, we've done a good job of designing a city for adults. Now we need to think about what works for kids.  [Tyee]

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