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

Archive for October 25th, 2010

Your neighborhood & Your Health

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UPDATED November 1, 2010

The Health & Community Design Collaborative held a workshop at the Richmond Cultural Centre today. It was supposed to start at 9am. I got there on time. But it started late – of course – and, as seems to be typical of the City of Richmond, only one microphone could be made to work and no-one could make out anything that was being projected. My guess would be that they simply did not have the right projector for the size of room. Given that everyone seemed to be dependent on powerpoint, this did not make for good presentations. There was no break in a three hour meeting. And despite being called a “workshop” and sitting around tables – so most people had to crane to see or hear – there were no participatory activities. We sat and listened. Mostly. I sat at a table with City of Richmond parks department staff and they spent most of the time on their Blackberries.

Perhaps this was because there really wasn’t much that was new to listen to – for them or me. Now I must start by praising the existence of an ad hoc committee with such a broad range of representation. Once upon a time I tried to organize meetings between the health authority planners and Translink. That was because the way we ran HandyDART had effectively turned it into a delivery service of their patients to increasingly centralized program delivery points. I just wanted to know where they intended to put the next ones, so we could do some planning for the necessary service changes. I failed to meet a single regional health authority planner, but I did meet many health authority service providers who wanted to bitch about HandyDART service delivery – or lack of it.

Things seemed to have changed in part due to a federal initiative – though no-one from the federal government was present. They did have handouts at the side of the room and from them I now know that there is a Canadian Partnership Against Cancer’s Coalitions Linking Action and Science for prevention (CLASP). And I have solemnly copied their spelling and punctuation. They have developed tools for free download. And you can get a quarterly update on their work and resources by email from amiro (at)

Even though they started late and had a long program we were required to sit through three sets of introductory remarks which I transcribed but said nothing of value prior to Larry Frank’s talk. Now again though I made notes it did seem to me to be very much the same stuff that I heard at the recent streetcar seminar. I did this time get my hands on an Executive Summary of “Neighbourhood Design, Travel and Health in Metro Vancouver: Using a Walkability Index” .

UPDATE Vancouver Walkability and Health Exec Summary Oct 2010 (pdf file)

Ellen Dunham-Jones is visiting Vancouver this week and is speaking at a number of venues but apparently they are all booked out. She did say: “I will learn more from this visit than you can learn from me” – which may be false modesty, or perhaps simply reflects the fact that not only have we done a bit better at walkable communities here than most US cities, but we also have not had the collapse of commercial real estate that they have experienced. She talked about dead malls and dead big box stores and how suburban office parks and similar places are being retrofitted to be more like real places. Some of the examples were taken from here – including Surrey City Centre and Big Tom’s SFU campus on top of the Surrey Centre mall.  Apparently SFU are also going to do something of the sort in suburban Vancouver where they are turning a former strip mall into an art school.

I did pick up a key phrase that I am sure I am going to be able to use in future: “underperforming asphalt”. Suburban shopping centres overbuilt their parking lots to be ready for the rush on Black Friday (the day after their Thanksgiving when Christmas shopping starts and all the shops finally get into the black.)   And while she gave a lot of evidence on what has been working in the US, and why the demographics of suburbia have changed and point to the need for a very different future. (She did not mention peak oil, but did talk about the need to reduce dependance on “foreign oil – I did not get the chance to ask her if that included Canadian oil.) I really did not hear very much about walkability or health – or indeed what is going to have to happen to large swathes of single family homes on the cul de sacs across Canada where to get to anything within a 1km crow fly radius you have to walk at least 2 kms. It’s all very well to say that the next generation doesn’t want to live there, but there was not one suggestion that I heard about how it could be changed.

If there is demand, I could transcribe my notes – when I have more time – and look up links to dead malls but for now if you are interested I suggest you start at

Suzanne Carter Huffman gave an express tour of the City of Richmond’s City Centre Plan. I learned that each of the four Canada Line stations are now seen as the centre of an “urban village” – plus of course the one yet to come at Sexsmith. Another urban village is also going to pop up next to the Oval where there is no transit at all. There was much about waterfront – and the apparent problem of the dyke. Not that it is too low and will offer no protection against the inevitable sea level rise associated with global warming but rather that it does not allow for a river view from ground level.   She also managed to talk about the city centre without once referring to the private ownership of all the parking lots – which generates an inordinate number of short driving trips. I have dealt with that here more than once. Dave Semple talked extempore about Richmond’s parks and dykes. About the only relevant point was his observation that the one metre wide tarmac paths which Richmond has built around all its neighbourhood parks are too narrow and should be two meters wide. He did not say when they thought they might achieve that. And he also hopes that kids exploring Richmond will have plenty of opportunities to get dirty.

When I get invited to a “workshop” I expect to be involved in some activity – not just listening. I also expect to hear – and hopefully discuss – practical things that are going to be tried out to improve our current situation. I heard a lot about why we need to act, but not what needs to be done here. I did hear about some design features, but none in any context that I felt applicable here. It may have been that other participants got more from it than I did – after all I do not pretend to be an urban designer. But I will never know since there was no opportunity for any discussion. There was not even a coffee break. When you go to a thing like this and there is a long line up for the men’s washroom, then you know that there is somehting wrong with the arrangements.

I am pleased that Translink is talking to the Health Authorities – and that Metro is involved. I suspect that it is as yet early days and that they have not very much developed they can talk about. I hope that, as they get their act together, subsequent workshops will be more practical. Maybe the odd design charrette might be a better idea. But for now I regret that I can only report that we are not very far along the road to doubling the market share of transit, walking and biking from 25% (where they say we are today) to the 50% they think they will have by 2040.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 25, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Posted in health, placemaking, walking