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May 26, 2020 at 10:40 PM

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Street Reallocation in Vancouver: 5 Ideas for City Council

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Commercial Street Reallocation

Earlier this month, City Council introduced a motion to consider Reallocating Road Use to Support Shared Use During Pandemic. Discussion on the motion started, but Councillors ran out of time during the meeting, and the “debate and decision” component of the meeting was referred until Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

We were encouraged to see what felt like considerable support among Councillors around the idea of street reallocation and were glad to see the accompanying staff presentation note the potential for further opportunities in this regard.

The City’s work to date, which includes efforts in Stanley Park and along Beach Avenue, the various Room to Queue “spot” interventions, and, most recently, 12 km of “slow streets” (part of 50km announced this past Monday), represent important first steps, and the VPSN has noted its support as such. However, it is clear that more needs to be done to meet the needs of residents and workers – so we have written to Council again to ask that they make this happen.

Our entreaty comes both as we review the efficacy of the current efforts, the changes in behavior emerging alongside the warmer weather, and the wide array of street reallocation and public space initiatives underway around the globe.

We believe time is of the utmost essence in this matter. The ‘debate and decision’ on Wednesday represents an opportunity to strengthen the aforementioned motion and deliver a strong, innovative, and transformative response to the pandemic.

To that end, we offered FIVE suggestions for how the motion might be strengthened:

  1. Be bold with directions;
  2. Ensure a network approach that integrates different street types;
  3. Provide direction to “deepen” the approach;
  4. Quickly develop a means of setting priorities based on defined needs;
  5. Resource the work and include opportunities for community stewardship and placemaking.

(1) Be Bold with Directions

Vancouver has approximately 2,500 km of streets, including roughly 2,250 km of residential streets and lanes and 250 km of arterial streets (about 1/3 of which are commercial zoned). Where other cities – including many North American centres – are planning and delivering ambitious programs to repurpose hundreds of kilometers of street space to support residents and businesses, Vancouver’s current approach, while well-intentioned, could best be described as tentative and halting.

This is the time to make a big move. Council has ability to operationalize an approach to street reallocation that embodies the necessary interventions around public health, while also achieving several other co-benefits (e.g. resilience, climate change, active transportation, local economy). It’s time to seize the opportunity and move forward decisively.

In short: 50km of “slow streets” isn’t enough. There are far more than 50km of walk-bike-roll and public space improvements that have already been identified by the City’s various local and city-wide transportation policies. As one option, the idea of a reallocation program involving 10% of city streets has been mentioned. We think that’s a good place to start.

(2) Ensure a Network approach that integrates different street types 

The purpose of street reallocation is to support key activities, such as accessing daily needs, enhancing mental and physical health, and enabling safe commuting. These activities imply different types of street, as well as an array of potential treatments.

One useful example to think about comes from Montréal, which currently has (to our mind) one of the most rational and well-designed street reallocation programs on the globe. The map below details the interventions that are being made in one neighbourhood (Le Plateau – which is roughly the same size as Hastings-Sunrise or Renfrew-Collingwood).


The approach here is notable in a number of ways:

  • It reinforces the idea of street network – which enables people to follow a variety of safe routes to and through the neighbourhood
  • It applies to different street types – including residential, collector and arterial streets – including commercial streets
  • It employs different typologies of response – including fully pedestrianized streets, temporary bike lanes, shared streets, bike lanes, and streets designated for families and kids
  • It anticipates a transition from temporary to more permanent interventions

This one neighbourhood will deliver approximately 22-15km of the anticipated 320km of new walk-bike-role infrastructure that Montreal is building in response to the pandemic.

With this in mind, we can imagine an abstract neighbourhood systems map for Vancouver that might take a similar approach:

Street reallocation system map. Image by Derek Lee, PWL Partnership (for VPSN)

Again, this is an opportunity to allow different types of interventions based on different street types: more continuous and networked access to shopping, temporary plazas (for patios, markets, outdoor arts activities) on flanking streets, “green link” connections between shopping streets and neighbourhood parks, and a more comprehensive treatment for greenways and bikeways.

Where the current motion looks to explore street reallocation in the context of “shared use”, we propose that Council broaden this to ensure that the “where” and “how” of street reallocation reflect a network approach that allows an array of street reallocation options.

(3) Provide Direction to “Deepen” the Approach

Current City efforts represent a first stage of response that mixes site-specific Room to Queue interventions with more contiguous “slow streets.” The treatment in all cases is typically “light” in nature – movable signs and drag-and-drop barricades of different types. The results “read”, rightly, as being temporary and impermanent (and, indeed, maybe too movable in some cases – given some of the ease in which signs were re-positioned last weekend).

Potential “scaling” of street reallocation treatments – Image by Derek Lee, PWL Partnership (for VPSN)

Given the unfolding nature of COVID-response and recovery – as well as the potential for a second-wave of coronavirus to emerge later in the year – the Council motion provides an opportunity to provide direction around deepening or scaling the interventions. This could imply a variety of approaches – moving from pylons to planters and beyond. Our point here isn’t to articulate all the possibilities, but rather to suggest that it is important to enhance the interventions so that they are more robust and resilient over the coming months. We suggest amending the motion to include language that directs staff to explore options in this regard.

(4) Quickly Develop a Means of Setting Priorities Based on Defined Needs

In reviewing the public discussions on street reallocation to date, we note that a portion of the conversation has been built around the idea of prioritizing interventions. Suggestions have focused on different types of street (arterials or greenways), different outcomes (supporting business, health and well-being, etc.), or different areas or neighbourhoods. We thing the idea of setting priorities is important – what’s missing right now is the methodology.

As we noted in our Open and Safe Streets in Vancouver document, there are several approaches that can be taken to identify potential locations for street reallocation initiatives. For example:

  • Identified “hotspots” or areas that need attention;
  • Areas with lower per capita amounts of parks and open space;
  • High-density neighbourhoods – in particular, apartment-zoned areas;
  • Neighbourhoods with high populations of at-risk and/or equity seeking communities;
  • Areas with identified transportation safety concerns;
  • Areas covered by existing or on-going City/Park Board policies and programs;
  • Crowd-sourced locations – ideally where the crowd-sourcing can identify places and the rationale for recommending an intervention;
  • Areas where sidewalk widths are especially challenging for people who require the use of mobility aids (e.g. scooters, strollers, etc.);
  • Areas that will not impede emergency access or the delivery of emergency services.

There may be other criteria to consider as well. Our purpose here is not to say that we think these are the filters that should be used (though we think they are worth of merit); rather it’s to suggest that it is important to ensure that the motion includes direction to create a clear set of selection criteria as part of the process.

(5) Resource the Work and Include Opportunities to support Community Stewardship and Placemaking 

Our last suggestion concerns the question of how to make this happen. City Staff need to be resourced to deliver a program of this significance. However, it doesn’t automatically follow that it has to be done out of new funding sources, or that it need come at a substantial cost. In the absence of a defined budgetary ask, we feel that it would still be beneficial to direction to seek ways to advance the project (through existing budgets and processes), and to report back to Council should any larger budgetary needs become apparent.

With that in mind, it is also worth reiterating that the COVID-19 response is not “business as usual” – and the responses that are taken will need to be nimble and creative. Are there materials that can be re-purposed? Can decommissioned City materials be used to create temporary seating and planters? Can existing staff programs – Viva Vancouver, for instance – be re-positioned to focus on supporting this initiative. How can we use a little to make a lot?

One important option that we feel needs to be incorporated into the motion relates to opportunities for community placemaking and stewardship, which could include:

  • Identification of key places for interventions;
  • Co-design and delivery of interventions such as murals and other elements;
  • Monitoring, light maintenance and other “place-keeping” activities;
  • Programming (where appropriate)

The approach itself is beneficial because it has the potential to reduce the overall cost of a project, build buy-in and sense of ownership, strengthen community connections, and make for a better end-product. We recommend amending the Council motion to encourage opportunities for community and stakeholder placemaking and stewardship.

Community-led “intersection repair” – Portland OR

The City actually has a number of stewardship programs that could serve as precedents for the present street reallocation initiative, including low-barrier infrastructure stewardship (Adopt-a-Catch-basin), invitations to beautify traffic circles and boulevards (Green Streets program), community placemaking and neighbour-making events (Block Party program) and more substantial community placemaking initiatives (Viva Vancouver). There is also the important work of task-specific stewardship (micro-cleaning grants for work undertaken by various social enterprises). Taken together, these examples provide basis for inviting community members into the process of delivering this important public space work.

This doesn’t mean community involvement should be considered a “freebie”. Some resources to support the program – waiving any permit costs (e.g. murals), reimbursement for placemaking materials, etc. would go a long way.

* * * * *

The COVID response and recovery process poses many challenges. Our hope is that these five suggestions can help to strengthen the Council motion and provide a useful perspective on the important issue. Street reallocation is an important tool in responding to the many challenges posed by COVID. It’s also a chance to move the City forward and to ensure an array of strong and resilient city-building objectives are met.


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