City Streets Reclaimed As Social Space

November 1, 2012

Dayna Lennie lies in the centre of the road, eyes closed, face tilted to meet the warm fall sunshine. She’s perfectly at ease, her delicate silver earrings dangling toward the pavement, while around her, a truck rumbles by, a revving motorcycle slashes the air, cyclists glide past.

Then her eyes flutter open. She pushes herself up from the amoeba-like cushion she’s on, one of 15 scattered the length of Robson in this block outside the art gallery. “I get it,” she says. “When I first saw this stuff, I thought it was weird. But now I get it.” Lennie, 26, a nurse at St. Paul’s, moved here from Yellowknife after falling in love with the Olympics buzz two years ago. Today, she’s meeting a friend at the gallery, and as she wanders off the street and onto the VAG’s plaza, more people from the crowd quickly take her place: a pair of retirees from Australia, a young Yaletown couple, a family on expedition from Southeast Vancouver. They sit, nap, jump, cuddle, belly-flop, and occasionally back-flip on the white pillows.

The architects of this playpen, perched on their own amoeba cushions, watch approvingly. Pedestrians would never act in quite this way elsewhere, say Amber Frid-Jimenez, Joe Dahmen, and Matthew Soules, who blended their design, materials, and architecture skills to create the sectional-sofa-sized seating out of Canada Place sails fabric. They wouldn’t play like this in spaces actually meant for people—a sidewalk or a park—but there’s something about occupying room normally reserved for the car that flips a switch. “It adds to the carnivalesque nature of what is now on the street,” says Soules, whose project proved so popular that city council decided to keep the street closed past the summer deadline. “It enables leaving your typical bodily behaviour.”

Taking over the streets yields more than just adult playgrounds—popular as those may be. Any number of people are contemplating how streets can be used for extra purposes. In July, as part of the city’s design competition to create affordable housing, a trio of Vancouverites pitched the idea of reclaiming strips along the city’s lesser-used north-south streets to build townhouses, create small parks, or provide room for community gardens. The engineering department, urged on by Andrea Reimer, council’s pedestrian-space advocate, has been quietly helping BIAs change parking spots into outdoor decks. Markets, neighbourhood block parties, main-street fairs—all routinely disrupt city life these days. (Cyclists, of course, have long viewed Vancouver asphalt as territory ripe for annexation. Their lanes, concrete protected and green painted, are increasingly visible.)

Back in 1994, city engineer Peter Judd championed a transportation plan with the revolutionary idea of creating no new road space in Vancouver, even as the city aimed to increase the number of jobs and people. That plan worked. Now, say Reimer and Judd, Vancouver is entering a new phase: one in which the city’s road space gets scrutinized to see if, perhaps, some of it couldn’t be used for activities besides driving. “Maybe we have surplus road space. We definitely have a high demand for other uses,” says Reimer, who is almost twitching with excitement as she talks about what Vancouver could do, what other cities have done. Parklets created out of a couple of parking spots on the street, as in San Francisco; streets shut down, not just for parties, but as outdoor gyms for exercise and basketball; a city-wide block party where neighbourhoods everywhere just take over the streets. But the community has to own it, she adds, mindful of accusatory “Anti-car!” whoops: “And we know there is also high demand for roads to be roads at certain times of the day.”

Ask city councillors what they get the most complaints about and they’ll tell you: traffic. We love our roads and we hate them. We want to be able to drive anywhere, but we intensely dislike having others drive past our houses. One of the biggest fears about having laneway houses in Vancouver was that the roads couldn’t accommodate all the parked cars the new hordes would bring. (Basement suites caused the same fear two decades ago.) At an August public hearing in Burnaby for a planned massive redevelopment of Brentwood Mall, complaints about “rat runners” (commuters cutting through residential neighbourhoods) and increased car flow dominated discussion of a dense new residential cluster. “If we’re going to add 32,000 people into this small area, that’s 15 to 20 thousand cars. Where are they all going to park?” asked one participant.

There are 10,000 hectares of road pavement covering Metro Vancouver, according to the district’s analysis of aerial photos. That’s equivalent to paving all of Burnaby. In Vancouver, the most urban part of the region, engineers estimate almost a third of the city’s land is taken up by streets. And the road-building isn’t stopping. Imperial Paving, a midsize company that works in several of Metro Vancouver’s suburbs, did an estimated 75 to 80 million dollars’ worth of work last year.

Such work is essential to civilization, allowing vehicles to move easily on top and services like sewers, water pipes, and fibre-optic cables to flow beneath. But it’s hardly complicated. Or as Imperial’s Tim Stewart says, “We’re not building pianos here.” Since the first roads were constructed 6,000 years ago, there’ve been few significant technological changes. Yes, smoother surfaces—concrete and asphalt—have replaced cobblestones, wood blocks, and bricks in the last 200 years. And pavement innovators are experimenting with variations in the thick tar sands-like oil that glues the rocks together, with surfaces that are more or less permeable, with bigger aggregate to make roads last longer, and with different temperatures for mixing their batter to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But the essence of a road remains the same: take a strip of raw land, scrape it flat, put down a layer of sand, then one of gravel, then the hard covering that allows wheels—for a bicycle, a horse-drawn cart, a tank—to roll smoothly. It costs about $5 million per kilometre to build a four-lane road, mostly to engineer the curbs, driveway cuts, boulevards, and sidewalks in the city and entrances, exits, and shoulders on highways.

Then there’s the perennial question of real estate. Christina DeMarco—one of the team behind the “thin streets” concept for Vancouver to convert some of the land that is now street pavement into room for housing, parks, and gardens—noticed when she worked in city planning in the 1990s how many of the 38 north-south streets she crossed on her daily commute were almost unused. They had no traffic, frequently no sidewalks or trees, and few parked cars. She already knew that many of them didn’t have city service lines running underneath. (Sewer and water lines generally run under the east-west streets that houses face, because the connection goes to the front of the house.) In a place where the land value under an average midtown single-family house clocks in around a million dollars, converting half the road space over even a couple of blocks could bring in several million. “I did the math on how many blocks you could convert. I used to call it ‘From Roads to Riches,’ ” DeMarco says. She and her thin streets partners—retired city engineer Ted Sebastian and design instructor Charles Dobson—hear the standard concerns that taking space away will leave neighbourhoods short of room for traffic and parking. “I ask them, ‘Is that what you really want? Room for traffic and parking?’ ” The answer is usually no.”

Much as Vancouverites like to think innovation and flakiness begin and end in this city, “road diet” and “street reclamation” movements have been going strong from London to San Francisco for a couple of decades now. They’re even filtering into the very suburbs that once put cars above all.

Surrey, 2.5 times as large as Vancouver and growing at four times the rate, isn’t at the point of contemplating converting its roads to housing. Yet. But the engineers and planners of B.C.’s most sprawling city are paving the way for a road diet of sorts. Their dream is to convert King George from the highway it was to the boulevard that they’ve renamed it. To do that, they’ll take some lanes away from cars so that the now-six-lane road will someday have a tram running on it (possibly right down the middle), bike lanes on both sides, parking, strips of greenery, benches, and other signals that tell drivers they are now in a city, not on a highway. And to shrink King George like that, they’ll build more roads around it. “We’re building streets to help take space away from other streets,” says city engineer Vincent Lalonde as he conducts a mini-tour of Surrey’s road experiments.

Appreciating such counter-intuition begins by understanding the difference between a city like Vancouver and former farm country like Surrey. Vancouver has a fine lattice of streets that engineers lovingly call a “robust grid” and that legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs said was essential for city life. More intersections mean more opportunities for people to travel through the city on different routes, which creates more interactions, eyes on the street, and sense of connection. For drivers, the grid means commuters aren’t forced into choosing between a restricted number of arterials—there are many parallel streets that let them select the best route. If Cambie is blocked by construction, they can switch to Main or Oak. If Broadway is bad, they can move up to 12th or 16th, or down to Fourth. If conditions were really bad—fleeing en masse from an Independence Day-style alien attack, for example—they could even make their way to safety on the many side streets.

But Surrey makes it impossible in many cases for drivers to find alternates. They’ve been channelled for decades to the big roads: King George, 104th Avenue, Fraser Highway. As the city works to take driving space away from roads like that, it will have to punch more roads through cul-de-sacs, vacant lots, over streams and under highways to create the same kind of grid that Vancouver has. So Lalonde finds himself in the odd position of negotiating with developers to let him build streets through their lots, instead of just putting in more housing. But the idea is, once central Surrey develops from its present collection of big-box stores, parking lots, split-levels, streets with open ditches, and sprinkling of towers and offices into its future downtown incarnation, it will have its own Jane Jacobs grid. After such transformation, along with the new light-rail that Surrey is lobbying for aggressively, and the upgraded road system that is being created to offer alternative through-routes, King George will someday become something more like Vancouver’s West Georgia Street.

If it all sounds unlikely, only consider what car-dominated Surrey has already done. Its engineers have been quietly taking pavement away from drivers for a while: putting up curbs, where there are no sidewalks, to grab part of the country-style roads for pedestrians; painting in bike lanes; jutting into the street with corner bulges to make streets feel more comfortable. And then there’s the central plaza—Surrey’s version of Robson Square. They haven’t closed it off, quite. (It does get shut down for the concerts, gatherings, and markets the city hosts there with increasing frequency.) But it’s apparent that drivers already recognize the roadway running between the Bing Thom-designed Central City office tower and the new City Hall is not their unceded territory. It’s paved with bricks and is level with the plaza, making it feel more sidewalk than road. The only separation from the plaza is a row of low bollards.

Viewed from 18 floors above, from Thom’s tower, it’s clear who controls this space. There aren’t pedestrians lying in the road yet. But the cars creep along, and when one of the lunch-eaters from the sunny plaza crosses over to the bus loop on the other side with barely a glance, it’s the drivers who stop reflexively, like cows stalled before an open grate. “Look at them,” says Lalonde, as he considers the manifestation of engineering-directed human behavior below. “It’s working.”

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