Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Vancouver’s walkability — a sign of good health

with 3 comments

Dan Burden, Special to the Sun

(Dan Burden’s Great Pacific Northwest Tour on Town Making begins in Seattle on Aug. 28 and arrives in Vancouver Aug. 30 for a two-day amble.)

Dan Burden is senior urban designer with Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin and founder of Walkable Communities Inc.

In terms of walkability, the Vancouver region is strides ahead of other North American regions.

I am glad that is what he thinks. It is nice to know that we are doing something right. But I am surprised at his use of the word “region” as the only examples he quotes are in the City of Vancouver – False Creek and West Broadway. These two locations are hardly representative of the City let alone the region. They are the exceptions, not the rule.

So what creates a walkable place? Walkability is a composite of accessibility, health and place. It includes an abundance of sidewalks, trails and crossings. But it is much more than that. It is the presence of buildings, large and small, providing “eyes” for well-located retail, parks, schools, civic spaces.

All of which I endorse, but feel forced to point out that this does not describe most of this region. “Abundance of sidewalks” is hard when most residents refuse to pay for them outside their single family homes. Larger developments usually get the sidewalks squeezed out of them by the municipality, but they are hardly part of a connected up network of safe routes. Pedestrians always prefer straight lines – as any “informal trail” on flat land will testify. But most walking paths meander. Nice for recreation, not good for personal transportation – and downright dangerous in some cases. For example the bit of the BC Parkway through Central Park in Burnaby, which was designed as a rhododendron walk and is now used by speedy cyclists (the parallel Interurban right of way is broad and straight – and unpaved).

The suburbs are not designed for walking. They are designed to deter through car traffic. People do walk in them – mostly on the road. Sometimes there is a shortcut between the houses to enable one to get out of the subdivision to the arterial roads (all wide and fast and horrible to walk next to) where the buses run. When they have a service, which is by no means universal.  But lots of luck getting a new direct path out of existing home owners, who can only see security and privacy issues that threaten their interests.

The great challenge we face in making our region sustainable is making the suburbs into walkable areas. That will not be easy or cheap. And we have hardly scratched the surface

Written by Stephen Rees

August 26, 2008 at 11:06 am

Posted in Urban Planning, walking

3 Responses

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  1. I understand the sentiment towards sidewalks, especially along busy arterials or in denser neighbourhoods. But what I see happening all too often in my city – Nanaimo – is low density single family subdivisions that are required to have sidewalks, which just adds to impermeable, paved over surface and further reduces the density of the housing developments, and adds unnecessary infrastrucutre costs. In combination with the roads being made much too wide it all seems unneccsarry for such low density developments. The sidewalks are of course being developed under the pretense of walkability and infrastructure exactions, as the city attempts to practice “21st century planning,” although it often seems that Nanaimo is consistently behind the times by a couple of decades. I would prefer if they were denser developments as Nanaimo needs more low density single family housing like EcoDensity needs more NIMBYism. But when it is such low density development it seems rediculous to me to require sidewalks in the name of walkability. Besides, unless the subdivision is next to a shopping centre, there is nowhere to walk to, because most single family infill is fairly isolated from other land uses as it is in fringe development areas within built up suburban areas, which makes me wonder why the city isnt requiring even a miniscule amount of mixed uses in the larger infill sites.


    August 27, 2008 at 10:49 am

  2. Having been to Nanaimo a few times, I totally concur with that. It is a drivers haven. Most of the jobs are located in large shopping centres and strip malls only accessible by car. And most of the housing as you say is low density on the fringes. Which I think is the essential problem. Having denser land use with residential and employment close together is the most important way to make walking more attractive. Better trails and sidewalks sure, more direct routes definitely. But it is all pointless if destinations are only reachable by car.


    August 27, 2008 at 10:41 pm

  3. […] as Stephen Rees points out on his blog, Metro Vancouver as a whole is hardly a walkable urban environment.  We are […]

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