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Vancouver, We Need a Lighter Shade of Green

Point Grey Road madness shows need for a cheaper, more collaborative approach to building the ‘Greenest City.’

By Patrick M. Condon 24 Mar 2017 |

Patrick Condon is chair of the Master of Urban Design program, UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

You would think the City of Vancouver was out to make us all raging nature haters. How is it that the provision of simple things like bike lanes has made city voters so apoplectic that bike lanes rank at the top of election wedge issues? It’s like getting upset about crosswalks. You have to try really hard to make folks mad about, or even notice, public infrastructure. But somehow the city seems to accomplish this feat again and again.

The newest catalyst for resident apoplexy is, yet again, Point Grey Road. Residents there are furious about a six-metre-wide sidewalk and tree boulevard strip currently under construction on the north side of this street — in most cases on land being taken back from lavishly planted front gardens that had gradually grown over unused city land. These gardens are being clear-cut right now, including healthy mature trees in many cases over 40 feet tall.

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Mature tree removed even though it sits outside the edge of the proposed walk, indicated by dashed line. Photo by Patrick Condon.
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Was there really public benefit in butchering this hedge to gain eight inches? Photo by Patrick Condon.

Point Grey Road is, of course the street that the City closed to through car traffic to complete a “sea wall” along the Kitsilano district’s shore. This original effort was understandably applauded by homeowners directly facing Point Grey Road, but dismayed residents of other parts of the city and region — citizens who cruised up and down Point Grey Road on Sunday drives to enjoy the attractive ocean views and, to some extent, gape at the homes and gardens of the well heeled.

In this more recent case the homeowners garner little sympathy from the broader populace, given that the street closure seems to have been a factor in the fantastic increase in property values there. Spurious safety concerns about dangers associated with backing out of now shortened driveways raised by “golden mile” property owners ring hollow when the 10,000 daily trips which once passed their drives now inflict residents living along nearby West 4th Avenue.

It didn’t have to be this way. The City lately seems incapable of anything approaching a light touch when it comes to their Greenest City agenda. The current approach to Point Grey Road is emblematic of this failure of imagination. Truly sustainable cities emerge with a much lighter hand. Regrettably, the City’s current ham-fisted approach unnecessarily disrupts existing cultural urban ecosystems, and in the process racks up unnecessary political and capital debts.

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There was a time when the City had a lighter touch, as in this example at Alma and 3rd where the sidewalk gives way to the line of trees. Photo by Patrick Condon.

It’s sad. A much lighter approach to Point Grey Road was always available. But that would have required a more holistic sensibility that, I would argue, the City lacks. A more truly sustainable approach would be accepting of “both/and” incremental, blended and holistic solutions rather than the brutal “one way, my way or the highway” approach.

The City’s approach to designing and building green infrastructure seems similar to the much-maligned approaches taken by highway engineers of the 1960s. Those folks happily ripped up city blocks for flyovers and cloverleafs, and leveled every neighbourhood in the freeway’s path. There’s no small measure of irony in using these same design approaches for green infrastructure in the only city that stopped a highway from gutting its downtown.

What would a lighter approach have looked like on Point Grey Road? The City could have started off by at least trying the one-way street proposed by citizens prior to the controversial and precipitous complete street closure. That plan could have been implemented with a can of yellow paint to mark the bike way and a few one-way signs. If that proved inadequate after a few years, then some new signs and some more paint to divert the one-way traffic to West 4th.

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The City once preferred a lighter touch such as this “Off Broadway Bikeway” example on 8th street. All it took was a can of paint and some considerate drivers. Photo by Patrick Condon.

This is the kind of strategy famously used by Jannette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner, who first used a can of paint and some movable chairs to close off Times Square, a move that both proved what was possible and allowed for low-cost experimentation to get it right.

But instead we got a very over-engineered grey street, with green functions (walking, biking) rigidly, unnecessarily and expensively separated. We could have had a “complete street” instead, one with wheeled circulation functions more mixed and existing trees preserved. We could have had street that enhanced rather than degraded ecological functions, a street that added habitat rather than removed it, one where storm water was cleaned and infiltrated into the water table rather than discharged unmitigated into English Bay waters.

There was a time not so long ago where the City was pursuing these simpler green infrastructure strategies, notably at its Crown Street Green Street Project of 2005. Alas, that seems like a different century already. Take a look at that sustainable street with its naturalized drainage and no need for storm drains and expensive curbs and pipes. Wouldn’t Point Grey Road have been the natural place for a public display of this lighter green touch? A project that could have been implemented for a fraction of the cost of the current one? And a project strategy that you can easily imagine working around existing mature trees rather than savagely clear-cutting every shred of green within the right of way?

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In 2005 the City experimented with a much lighter touch in its Crown Street Green Street project. Note natural drainage both sides and street shared by pedestrians, bikes and cars. Image from Google Maps.

Sadly our chance to get it right on Point Grey Road has passed. But there is a larger issue here. It’s not too late to engage in a fundamental rethinking of what it means to be the Greenest City. It’s not too late to recognize that a green city is an efficient city, a city that looks for the most modest and easy-to-realize solutions possible, a city that finds the solutions that emerge most easily and almost by themselves, a city that analogically follows the judo maxim of “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” rather than the smash face brutality of over-engineered solutions evident at Point Grey Road.

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The final result on a nearly completed stretch of Point Grey Road near MacDonald. Photo by Patrick Condon.

In the end, the world’s “greenest city” must, to be worthy of the name, be a city that works with, not against ecological systems, and works with, not against its most dominant species: its citizens. We should have learned by now that it’s a mistake to depend on technocratic responses to narrowly defined problems. In the end, a green city becomes and stays green by always seeking the lightest possible way to achieve both its ecological and political ends. And those ends are enhanced by an open and holistic citizen focused process. The planning for Point Grey Road has more than once failed to meet this green standard. To be the greenest city means learning to avoid this mistake.  [Tyee]

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