August 26, 2016

"Time to stop thinking of our cities as one place and nature someplace else" The remarkable story of Vancouver Greenways-the first Sustainable Streets

Back in the early 1990’s, a forward thinking, mindful and driven group of young landscape architects, architects, planners and city lovers sat down for a coffee. They mourned the fact that the city was developing without thinking through the language and connection with the urban environment and nature. They also understood the interconnectedness of systems, circulatory for traffic and city services and the need for access to  punctuated green park space alleviating the increasing density of urban building.
At a time when “being green” and environmentally friendly were not watch words they insisted that there had to be a way to respect nature in the city, plan with it, and incorporate it in everyday life.
The seven members of the Urban Landscape Taskforce formed in 1991 are an early who’s who on placemaking:Moura QuayleSusan AbsJoost BakkerRobert Bauman, Claire Bennett, Cindy Chan Piper and Sarah Groves. Moura, who became Dean of Agriculture at University of British Columbia and is now a professor of the Sauder School of Business was the chair.
They were supported by an eager group of volunteers including Michael Dea, David Fushtey, Doug Paterson, Brian Perry and Jeannie Bates.
In 1992 this Taskforce created a final report titled greenways-public ways. For some reason this document has never been scanned and is not easy to access. This is a true shame as it lays out very clear principles for decision-making that not only guided the work in creating greenways, but is helpful in assessing placemaking decisions today. The principles also lay out a plan and approach to ecology in the city by :
1.Recognizing legacies;
2. Recognizing diversity and balance;
3. Caring for and respecting the environment;
4. Making connections to nature and places for all citizens;
5. Creating and promoting community definitions of landscapes;
6. Encouraging innovation;
7. Promoting fairness and equity;
8. Ensuring decision are informed.
From these strong principles, the Taskforce urged the establishment of a “Greenway Trust” to create “corridors linking open spaces” which would invite residents to experience “the outside inside” of a city. These “greenways” are actually what we would call sustainable “green streets” today. The linkages would include a completed waterfront walkway system, ecological reserves such as the Grandview Cut and pedestrian and bike paths through spaces to allow for direct connections. The greenways would also showcase the latest in sustainable practices in storm water management and street design, and be a backdrop to commissioned public art and landscaped plantings.Greenway streets also would have pedestrian and bicycle prioritized before cars.
Instead of setting up a private “greenways trust” which was legally challenging for the City to do, Council created an interdisciplinary  Greenways team with planning, landscape architecture and engineering expertise. This interdisciplinary team would propose a greenways network connecting parks, schools, commercial areas and services.  An Urban Landscape Inventory would inform the best locations for greenways, which would go border to border across the city in all four compass directions.
By establishing a greenways system that recognized landscape legacies, a public realm plan was to be created that would be accessible for all residents. The team also recognized the importance of supporting a parks management plan, and the need  to reclaim local streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Public consultation and connection with residents in explaining the plan was also key. But imagine-a report from a quarter century ago stating “Examine the current street budget which is vehicle-based and use budget re-allocations to exponentially increase funds for streets designed to include cyclists.  A policy is needed to provide for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles on our streets, in ways which are safe and effective.”
The remaining strategies from the Taskforce are still relevant today: Developing a street strategy for all users, Prepare an Ecological Management Plan, Adopt ecological performance standards, Promote the urban forest and Ecological literacy. Community gardens were also  addressed, as well as the need to celebrate the  diversity and culture of the different neighbourhoods.
The Urban Landscape Taskforce was very concerned about making the pedestrian comfortable and at ease using a convenient system of greenways. They  also addressed the need for new street design such as the Dutch Woonerf, stating
The Dutch woonerf is an excellent example of the redesign of streets to enhance their social role in neighbourhoods. No distinction is made between sidewalk and road, pedestrians are given priority over the car, speed limits are reduced to walking pace, parking is consolidated, and trees, benches, and gardens enhance the street. “
Two decades later, we have a network of streets that are for walking and biking ahead of car traffic, with each resident in Vancouver located a 20 minute walk or a 10 minute bike ride away from a greenway. The greenways display best practices in sustainable street building and placemaking,  and public art. They link together parks, schools, shops and services like pearls along several fine and varied routes.
We still have no woonerfs, but we have  infiltration bulges, baffles and swales along greenways that demonstrate best principles in water management. The Taskforce also recommended that Council establish the Arbutus right-of-way as another transportation corridor in the Vancouver Greenway, including  rail, bicycle and pedestrian paths.
I had the delight of being the Greenways Planner for the City of Vancouver and was involved in the creation of the Tupper Neighbourhood Greenway, the Avalon Greenway, and the completion of the Ridgeway Greenway. It was an extraordinary experience to work with a strong  interdisciplinary team focused on implementing the Greenways plan. A quarter century later, the work of the Urban Landscape Taskforce has turned out to be prescient and futuristic, and we have a greenways system that is the envy of many municipalities. May we all stand the test of time as well as this groundbreaking work has.

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  1. Nice.
    We need far more streets without cars, especially those that are parked for free (see also here: ). Much to do here in Vancouver to rid ourselves of car dependency in neighborhoods.
    UBC somehow doesn’t show in this map. UBC has a lot of greenways, such as Main Mall, may dead end streets, University Blvd and every second street in the new village south of 16th Ave. More on this here
    btw: “sustainable” has THREE components: environmental, social AND financial. The last one is often forgotten.

  2. Thank you digging out this visionary document. It advocates many of the germane issues that must still be addressed today. It proves that it takes a generation to change perceptions of what is possible to general acceptance by the citizens.

  3. It’s interesting to see how far back some of the relatively recent things actually go. Also how long it has taken for stuff that is now considered “standard”.
    The next step is to upgrade the greenways to AAA status. Maybe even relocate some of the hillier ones to less hilly streets in places. Make more greenways. Coordinate with Burnaby and UBC to connect to their routes better.

  4. Sandra – thanks for giving credit where it is due. All too often we forget to acknowledge these landmark things. Gordon Campbell was mayor at the time, and his Council also initiated the CityPlan process and the very important Clouds of Change report, which was a clarion call to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions at the local level through better land use planning, including TODs and active transportation.

  5. Too bad that the current Council has abandoned this green concept of “greenways” by tearing out landscapes and trees, hastily paving without community involvement in favour of cyclist speedways only. We need to get back to brass tacks.

    1. Green does not need to be the only colour in a greenway, in the same way as a freeway isn’t always free, and a skytrain isn’t always flying, and neoliberalism has very little/nothing to do with being liberal. The second name on that document is ‘Public Ways’ … referring to a class of users to which bikes are most certainly a member.
      Maybe it would be helpful for the name to be thought of differently, as mentioned above: “These “greenways” are actually what we would call sustainable “green streets” today.” … There seem to be many people hung up over their own definition of a greenway rather than than that which was originally intended.

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  7. Thank you once again, Sandy. Does this one ever bring back memories.
    This was a major (if quiet) leap in Vancouver’s planning history that daylighted the notion of using public open space as an instrument of urban design. Note how many fields of professional disciplines is required to realize the objectives of the report; planners are not the only kids on the block. I was not a bit surprised at the time that Moura Quale and Doug Patterson led the charge.
    The Taskforce report was the first place I read a figure that really stuck: Over 30% of Vancouver’s public land is devoted to roads. Think of the ramifications of that fact should the land ever be valuated. Add that figure — surely it’s hundreds of billions — to the annual operating costs and you’ve got one of the finest example of why private transport cannot be sustained forever, at least not at the stratospheric current level.
    The Taskforce report needs a follow up. We have an excellent beginning with the skeletal frame of a greenway system. Now it needs fleshing out. I suggest the next stage should be to strike a multi-disciplnary urban design taskforce that starts to examine incrementally converting modest portions of the vast street network to more socially valuable public space, first and foremost for human beings (pedestrianization, city squares with deeply meaningful cultural programming, transit, housing, parks and so forth). Those who have read ‘Straphangar’, ‘A Country of Cities’, ‘ City Squares’, ‘Cities for People’ or ‘Walking Home’ will understand the importance of addressing sustainable urbanism through the human scale.
    The Taskforce report fecommendations also needs a follow-up on what actually works and what became quite surficial. I question the efficacy and long term maintenance ramifications of, relative to the scale of city-wide systems, tiny bioswales placed before street drains. Some long-term input from the Engineering Dept. would be helpful. Stormwater infiltration is only as effective as the receiving substrata, meaning that you need a few metres of permiable gravel under the beautifully planted swale. After many years of dealing with this issue at city-wide scales, I concluded long ago that our biogeoclimatic zone requires more effective means to deal with monsoon rain.
    Lastly, David Fushty is Moura’s husband and was well-connected to Gordon Campbell and then the BC Liberals. The Moura I knew back in the 80s as her student was an exemplary teacher brimming with ideas and creative energy and didn’t need these inside connections to chair the Taskforce effectively. I cannot say this regarding her appointment to the BC Government advanced education ministry, but can say that they were certainly better off having her there, despite the perception we had tbat she was (and hopefully still is) significantly more liberal — maybe even a social democrat — amongst the neoconservatives that ruled then as now.

  8. the full report is available frorm here:
    In section: “Vancouver vison year 2010: …major streets have a transit lane , a bicycle lane, walking places, and only 2 lanes of traffic”.
    That could be described as a “complete street” in today terminology (and we don’t have one yet!)…some other concept could be referred as Fietsstraat (bike steet), in addition of the woonerf (we could today prefer an effective “shared space”).
    regarding, the greenways per sei…as noticed in an above comment, the definition has evolved quite a lot:
    “Today’s greenways have at least three major functions or definitions. First, greenways are: ecologically significant corridors and natural systems; second, recreational greenways, where users find a network of trails […]; third, greenways which provide historical heritage and cultural values. Greenways are often multi-purpose corridors providing all three functions and benefits” as stated by Fabos in a special issue of the “Landscape and Urban Planning” journal.

  9. To inject a personal note. Friday we drove from fabulous East Van to #1 Road Richmond; to UBC, and back home. It was a miasma of motordom. The trip took 1.5 hours. Transit, if the Force was with us, would have taken 3.5. Car share is the only way to make this trip.
    We passed one cyclist on the Arthur Laing. He passed us later on Cypress. He was the only cyclist we saw on on the bike route. Would he have sought out Arbutus – questionable.
    I cycle Ridgeway often. It’s great. Beautiful. Love the little jog off 28th through the alley to get to 29th. That would have been tricky to find without markings. This segment of the bikeway is so little travelled that I once almost had a collision with another cyclist coming the other way through the blind corner. Ridgeway is pretty much dead up to Fraser St.
    Speaking of dead – Rupert St, a marked bike route, is utterly dead. Even we, who live near it, have never attempted that climb, or perilous descent. There are good, peaceful, unmarked ways to get up that hill – I do it often with a touring bike loaded with groceries.
    As a veteran of the Kingsway experience, I recommend fellow cyclists follow the alleys on the North side of this nasty street. You can mostly weave your way from the Triangle at Broadway, to Burnaby, with just a couple of choke points to get around. The trip is cool. In the years of doing it I’ve encountered not even a handful of cyclists. Imagine building an arterial that was ignored by motorists.
    Transit sucks – esp. the bus. It never even occurs to me to take transit. Buses need curb cuts – otherwise they impede traffic. A bus blocking a road plus a vehicle making a left = no flow, frustration, crashes. Bring on transit strikes and people find other ways to get around. Relief.
    Free parking has to stop. The roads are littered with parked cars – a colossal waste of land.

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