In Support of Bike Lanes & Public Squares

Two related issues that have caught my attention this morning are the Vancouver Public Space Network’s petition to permanently pedestrianize the 800-block of Robson Street , and David Suzuki’s article in support of bike lanes.  Beginning from the end, Suzuki’s article in the Georgia Straight sums up our current reality with the following statement:

As oil becomes scarce and pollution and climate change increase, people are finally realizing that transporting a 90-kilogram person in two tonnes of metal just isn’t sustainable, especially in urban areas.

It’s important to note this is not a crusade against the car, and Suzuki points out that reducing traffic and gridlock makes it easier for those who are unable to use alternative modes of transportation to get around, while creating many benefits for cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.  With examples from Zurich, Switzerland and Amherst, Massachusetts, Suzuki outlines some of the economic and social benefits of creating mixed-use transportation infrastructure.  He also references  the results of a recent study by Stantec Consulting, published here in the Globe and Mail, which shows that in reality, businesses suffer little and traffic congestion and travel delays are mitigated when bike lanes are present. 

‎Back in November I wrote a letter in support of the permanent closure and expansion of Vancouver’s Robson Square.  The issue is making headlines again, as the Vancouver Public Space Network collects signatures in support of this initiative.  Unfortunately, according to this article in the Straight, this isn’t something that is going to happen immediately, with full transit service set to resume through the square after Labour Day.  However, several City councillors and TransLink support the idea of a long-term study to create a transportation plan that would enable the permanent closure of the 800-block of Robson St. and expansion of a public square, while meeting the east-west transportation requirements of transit users in the downtown core.  As of today, 75% of respondents support the permanent expansion of Robson Square. Cast your vote now!

HASTE & Sustainable Cities

I’m very excited to be collaborating with two fantastic organizations!  HASTE (Hub for Action on School Transportation Emissions) and Sustainable Cities International.  The work I’m doing in coordination with HASTE involves about 60 grade 5 students in New Westminster – read about the project here.    And Sustainable Cities has invited me to give a memory mapping workshop as part of their International Youth intern training happening at the end of June.  These are both great opportunities and I look forward to doing more work of this sort in the future.

Pedestrian City at Walk 21

I received some very exciting news this morning.  My proposal was accepted for the Pecha Kucha session at Walk 21 Vancouver this fall!  Walk 21 is an international conference on Walkable and Liveable Communities.

This will be the second one I participate in.  The first was in Toronto in 2007, where I displayed a poster presentation of Pedestrian City, which was still very much in its infancy then.  I’m incredibly honoured and excited to have been accepted for this, and look forward to showcasing the evolution of the project.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pecha Kucha, here’s some background.

Plan-It Earth

Last Friday I participated in Plan-It Earth, a student-organized forum that engaged about 120  high-school students in designing a sustainable future for the GVRD.

Facilitated by students at Prince of Wales Secondary with the help of Bruce Ford and Vanessa Lee from Metro Vancouver, participants were invited to look through the lenses of urban planners and decide where the next 10,000 people in the region should be located and what those communities should look like.  There was a lot of focus on building up instead of out and having work located close to home to reduce commute times and transit-related emissions.  Solutions to meet energy and food requirements were presented, and concerns about how to handle waste were expressed.  A number of innovative green technologies were highlighted, as well as the need for inclusive communities and education.

By mid-morning students were engaged in a variety of workshops.  Ian Marcuse presented a cob house demo, there was a student-led workshop on  backyard chickens, and Kevin Millsip presented the Vancouver School Board’s Sustainability Plan.  Amanda Mitchell engaged students in thinking about how the 10 goals of the City of Vancouver’s Greenist City 2020 Plan can be met, and I had students participate in a memory mapping exercise focused on their routes to and from school, with a focus on walking and active transportation.

After a lunch of organic locally sourced salad and pizza, it was time for City on the Wall.  An engagement process developed by architect Stanley King, the founder of Co-Design and a firm believer in the importance of engaging youth in urban planning and design processes.  Students were split into 10-12 groups, each with an artist to design their ideal livable community.  Most of these reiterated the values identified in the morning sessions with a focus on sustainable, complete communities that accommodate a range of daily activities and requirements within the radius of a few blocks.

During the Green Mapping workshop I was surprised to learn that a number of students don’t know the names of  streets in their neighbourhoods.  One participant commented that she doesn’t need to know street names because she knows where things are and has no need to remember the names.  I’m curious to know whether this a common occurrence? Not just with youth, but in general.  I can still fairly accurately recall the names of the streets in almost every neighbourhood I’ve lived in (and there have been many).  While some are a bit foggy, I think I could still draw a map and correctly label the streets of the neighbourhoods from my childhood and youth.

This was an incredibly inspiring and valuable experience.  I gained a lot of insight into the world of youth engagement, and look forward to doing more of it in the future.  Thank you everyone!

New Directions

I find myself venturing into new territory with Pedestrian City, engaging a new demographic and exploring other possibilities to get involved with schools in Vancouver.  As my first foray into this new world, I’ll be presenting a memory mapping workshop at the student organized Plan-It Earth Youth Forum at Prince of Whales School.  The presentation will focus on active and sustainable transportation and routes to school, engaging students in a memory mapping exercise and encouraging them to present their maps to the group.

This will likely be my largest audience yet, and I’m both excited and nervous!

Designing “Cities for People”

I was unable to attend the Jan Gehl lecture on January 24th, as I was off exploring another city – familiarizing myself with Seattle – which had been a much anticipated adventure.  I covered as much ground as I could in the two days I was there, visiting several neighbourhoods and finding interesting sites/sights in between.

Having learned about the lecture only days before my trip, I was faced with a difficult decision but knew in my heart I would have regretted postponing my first visit to Seattle.  That being said, I realize I missed a rare opportunity to be in the presence of a profoundly influential man.  Gehl’s book Life Between Buildings is a widely cited text that has inspired countless planners and architects, and inspired me to begin Pedestrian City.

Reviews of Gehl’s lecture reiterate his focus on designing “cities for people”, which happens to be the title of his new book.  He’s an advocate for human-scale design that accommodates a wide variety of users, interesting and engaging public spaces that encourage people to stay rather than simply pass through, and  infrastructure that encourages multi-modal and active transportation.

In June 2010, Gehl Architects and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy  released a booklet called Our Cities Our Selves: 10 Principles for Transport in Urban Life.  Presenting case studies from around the world, the booklet examines transportation-related needs and concerns with a wide lens, highlighting the need for a paradigm shift when thinking about transportation planning, quality of life and the environment.  The key is to examine cities from an eye-level rather than a bird’s-eye view, and integrate alternative modes of transportation to a degree that decreases the need for cars and focuses on the human-scale.  In doing so it’s important to consider the needs of various life stages, from the toddler to seniors.  If neighbourhoods are accessible to these age groups, they’re inherently walkable by everyone.

With the City of Vancouver looking to establish a Pedestrian Advisory Committee before the elections in November, and hosting Walk 21 in October, Gehl’s visit couldn’t have been more timely.  I hope he has inspired more concrete action in truly making Vancouver a greener city.

A Real Public Square

Dear City Council and Mayor Robertson:

Councillor Suzanne Anton is doing this city a great service by introducing a motion to expand Robson Square with the permanent closure of Robson Street between Howe and Hornby. Doing so would give Vancouver something it sorely lacks: a truly pedestrianized public space; a place to stay rather than merely pass through.

Shifting the focus inward, from Vancouver’s picturesque natural surroundings and urban beautification efforts that have been concentrated along the water, to improving the pedestrian realm in the busy downtown core is a crucial step in achieving a truly livable, greener city.

A public square would provide citizens and visitors with an inviting downtown destination designed for play, leisure and informal meetings and gatherings, free from the pressures of consumerism. A large and safe public square in the heart of the city is something many people feel is missing. From an infrastructural perspective, this is a vital step in integrating a vibrant and functional pedestrian and bike-friendly network throughout the downtown core.

Councillor Anton’s timing is perfect because current construction around Robson Square has allowed for months of traffic pattern adjustments. Also, if the Olympics were any indication, Vancouverites are willing to adapt to changes in their commuting patterns and support new public spaces, provided they are designed to attract and accommodate a wide variety of users.

Furthermore, with Vancouver set to host Walk21 in 2011 and aiming to be the greenest city by 2020, now is the time to take bold actions to improve the pedestrian realm. While bike lanes have rightfully received a lot of attention and investment, it’s time for pedestrian issues to become a prominent focus.

Functional and attractive public spaces combined with improvements to the pedestrian realm are crucial in achieving and supporting sustainable modes of transportation, as each and every person is a pedestrian, regardless of which mode they use to traverse the city. People need places to stay, not just spaces to pass through.

Sincerely, Natalie Ethier