Price Tags has explored the Country Lane, and there has been some speculation as to the origins of this concept and why it disappeared from our urban consciousness. The County  Lane  was so right in so many ways-it was sustainable, dealt well with torrential rains and sitting groundwater, prevented flooding onto residential properties (that is a big issue when lanes are paved), slowed traffic down, minimized off gassing (with no pavement being installed) and surprise-formed a fabulous public space that was quickly taken over by neighbours for barbeques and even evening movie screenings with lawn chairs in the lane serving as movie seats. I know it sounds utopian, and it was the right idea, just at the wrong time.
In 2013, Price Tags revisited the country lane as did the National Post in this article entitled  “Forgotten Country Lane Could Be the Answer to Vancouver’s Desire for Green Space”.
The City of Vancouver is unusual in that the city has functioning back lanes in most of the street grid. When the city was laid out these lanes were to be “service” lanes for garbage pick up and in the downtown core are efficient for commercial deliveries.
In the 20th century, there were a lot of  Vancouver residential lanes that were dirty, gritty and dusty, and could be “improved” through-wait for it-paving. Asphalt did make these lanes more efficient for traffic and less muddy in winter, but brought its own set of evils, including speeding, flooding onto private property, off gassing of the asphalt, and the decimation of any gardens or plants that were planted in the dusty lane. There is a paving lane program that is part of  the Local Improvement Program. Information on this process is here. Residents could sign up other residents and petition the city to have back lanes paved, with the cost being shared between the property owners and the city.
Resident Sharole Tylor, who lived on 28th Avenue  east of Fraser Street is what Malcolm Gladwell would call an “early adapter”. Sharole’s block was one of the first to have adopted blooming boulevards. Her father had been an engineer for B.C. Hydro and provided the design for  the bulletin board frames you will see throughout the neighbourhood. When Sharole had an idea she also had a plan to implement it, and that was the case for the country lane.

Instead of paving, Sharole proposed that the City trial a demonstration project of a sustainable lane, with two concrete wheel runs.  David DesRochers was a versatile engineer at the City of Vancouver looking at more sustainable textures and finishes to the traditional paved back lane. Under his leadership, David Yurkovich, a landscape architect helped design three demonstration lanes, using structural soil contained in heavy vinyl cells. The first lane east of Fraser Street was built in concert with residents on a weekend, so that neighbours would know how the lane worked, and also how to replace any bricks that may be dislodged on the runs to their garages.

The pilot project won the American Public Works Association’s 2003 Technical Innovation Award. There were three Country Lanes built-one is in the back lane of City Farmer in Kitsilano, and there is another one in the Hastings-Sunrise area near Yale Street. The first two lanes were designed using a landscape architect. The third lane, in Hastings-Sunrise did not have the same attention to detail and specifications, and has not performed as well.
The country lane allows for 90 per cent of the rain water to be absorbed directly into the ground, increasing vegetation and taking the load off the sewer system. Compare that  to the city’s standard back lane paving which absorbs zero rain water which all must go to the city’s storm drains.
But here’s the thing-the first three Country Lanes were expensive because they were first builds. Maintenance in these lanes is also higher. The lanes were never costed for the environmental, sustainable and social public space aspects they provide. They were never really championed for what they could do, and of course a decade ago the idea of the need for sustainable open spaces in lane ways for a densifying city  was not really on the radar.
Here is the Federal government’s write-up on the country lane. The right idea, the wrong time. Perhaps it is now time to revisit this concept.



  1. The movement started when the relationship between urban storm water systems and fish habitat was unearthed (by the many). Much of my early work was in this area. I always felt that the Country lanes in Vancouver would never take root because they were too expensive. Its a much better idea just to go back to the old way, which is to not pave them at all. Rather they should be MacAdam roads with crushed basalt driving surface. This detail is still dominant in places like Dunbar. The irregularity of the driving surface is a natural traffic calmer making it a safe(er) to play. Rain water from small storms infiltrates naturally, which was the whole point.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I have sometimes wondered why municipalities pave lanes while struggling with winter rain volumes (and go on to subsidize rain barrels). I live in a neighbourhood with lanes in North Vancouver. Most are paved but a few are gravel. One is grass and gardens, no car access. The unpaved lanes are far nicer for walking. I never noticed any issues with mud in winter or dust in summer.

  3. Thank you, Sandy, for being such a champion of green lanes.
    I would add one important ingredient that helps Country Lanes to succeed: stewardship. If it were not for the work done by a few of us neighbours (maintaining garden beds, picking up litter or reporting dumping, weeding dandelions, cutting grass – chores, yes, but enjoyable work for some) they do not succeed.
    Here is my 2008 slide presentation made to the Vancouver City Planning Commission on the lanes.
    I agree it is time to revisit this idea, perhaps in other municipalities outside Vancouver given that our city seems to have lost interest in them. With the right community support, they make the idea of “laneway living” much more appealing.

  4. So true. We need to revisit the country lane idea to add much needed green space in East Van. My current lane is 2 blocks of asphalt. It’s hot, dusty, and used as a thorough fare by all types of trucks. With the city talking about being the greenest city by 2020, you’d think they would be all over country lanes. the 700 Block East lane was the cadilliac version plus the first so naturally it was expensive.
    What I’m going to resort to is corralling a few neighbours’ pulling up asphalt on the side of the lane and creating a mini country lane. Then we’ll just sit back and wait for the city to catch up – again.

  5. I met my life long friend Colin at prep school, Scarborough Yorkshire in 1937: we keep in contact. His family were farmers: Manor Farm (dairy) and Lingholm (arable) Lebberston. The two farms were connected, about a thirty minute walk, by two tracks of dirt through typical East Riding countryside.
    Now that was a country Lane!

  6. On this issue I agree with Patrick. It is vital to note that the capital cost line-item on the municipal balance sheet is only the start. These “country” lanes aren’t cheap. In addition, costs translate permanently to maintenance operating expenses, and that is usually imposed on the residents, like boulevard mowing and sidewalk clearing. As such, the level of care could end up being a patchwork.
    What is concerning here is the promotion of ideas that look good on paper and for all appearances are cool, green and progressive, but are accepted without a performance evaluation or even one test pit to gauge the soil’s infiltration and absorption capacity. Form triumphs over function. These lanes would fail in my neighbourhood where you have a thick, hard compacted silt layer (almost like soft sandstone) not 40 centimetres down that is expected to absorb a metre of rain during the winter months.
    Siltation of drain systems is a serious public maintenance issue that leads to system failure and flooding. Every biofiltration swale or pond, soak-away pit, infiltration (“rain”) garden and panel of permeable paving I have encountered over 30 years has failed due to the soil fines plugging up every pore and cavity. This is not a good record. Maintenance and permanence are not taught in design school (eyes glaze over, silence endures), yet it is a multi-million dollar drag on every annual municipal budget. Designers need to know that there is a long history after their project portfolio shot, and often unfairly criticize the public sector for a “lack” of maintenance (I was one of the worst back in the day), yet utterly fail to recognize how fragile or inappropriate their designs can be when they don’t understand the long term operational implications. The best designers get that, and can still pull off award-winning projects that last for generations without blowing holes in public accounts for maintenance, repairs and replacement.
    So what does work? As Patrick mentioned, gravel paving. Roger brought up the dirt and gravel lanes of the English countryside. Well, you don’t have to travel beyond rural Langley to see them. Here 19 mm clear crushed stone over gravel voids would afford some detention and a minimal amount of infiltration, but that’s not enough here in Canada’s Monsoon belt. The road base needs to be compacted to take the weight of garbage trucks, so that alone will drastically limit infiltration. After all that, one still needs a connection to the storm sewer system at the lowest point to take the floods.
    Biofiltration and infiltration are not substitutes for a working storm sewer system. Detention ponds and subsurface storage cisterns work best because they are site-specific, will allow tapping for non-potable uses like irrigation, and can double as traps for toxic spill cleanup. Ideally, one would have uncovered streams that would receive runoff, but build several connected storage ponds in front of the outlets along the course with a large array of engineered wetlands at the end, but these are costly and still require periodic maintenance to remove silt. Compared to 2,000 km of “country” lanes, the cost would be most affordable.
    If one still wishes to promote the look of ornamental lanes, then one can accentuate drainways, edges, property entrances and infill with solid paving using changes in materials and patterns. If choosing between asphalt and concrete, I’d pick reinforced concrete using a Portland cement displacement formula to achieve a lower GHG rating, and a unique ornamental surface design using embedded cobbles, with the expectation it will outlast all other treatments. But this technique needs to be engineered for heavy trucks, otherwise the expense will be wasted and patched over with low-maintenance, cheap asphalt. Bollards, stout planter containers, trees (with subsurface Silva Cell vaulting) and other vertical objects will help define property interfaces and add texture and complexity to an otherwise utilitarian lanescape.
    You’d think we would have learned all this by now.

    1. The issue with infiltration is how much is enough. We worked on this for years. The answer is 1 mm per hour or one inch a day. Thats enough to maintain watershed hydrology close to the native condition.
      Macadam roads over native soils, even compacted, are capable of this modest amount, in many many cases. Macadam roads (most people think they are gravel but its a bit more complicated….the Romans figured this out first) will bear loads but stay dry enough to accept and hold and infiltrate 90 percent of all water that falls on the site per year. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

    2. To Patrick and MB. If you ever want to come visit our Country Lane (south lane, 700 block East 27th) then drop me a line (see for contact info) and I’ll be glad to show you around and provide some history. As someone who has resided beside and tended to this lane since its creation, I can assure you that there has been no city maintenance, nor need to address silting or other costs. In 13 years there has been a city engineering vehicle here exactly one time.
      For an updated view of the lane see my recent tweet.
      In terms of costs, they are not as outrageous as some would suggest. And as Sandy suggests, there are multiple social and environmental benefits that must be factored in.

    3. I will maintain that infiltration rates are as good as the underlying soils to absorb runoff. The main failures I have seen are over blue clay or naturally compacted silt ‘rock’, both of which tend to be pretty shallow and leave only a thin layer of soil to take the rain.
      Glacial till is next, but there is usually a fairly thick layer of native top soil over that to take stormwater from average rainfall events, but often not even moderately high events. The failures there are with deeper biofiltration ponds that reach capacity by the end of November, with five rainy months to go. Every one of these ponds has a storm sewer inlet acting as an overflow. Subsurface rock pits that contact the till and concentrate the water into specific locations are also problematic and cause water to bubble up through the ground most of the winter. Overflowing ditches, swales and ponds taking runoff all suggest that storage and detention coupled with a storm sewer backup would be key to mitigating floods.
      The other failures occurred in peat soils where the water table is at the surface (or worse!) in winter. Open ditches are classified at Class Ao or C streams when connected to larger streams or lakes, and altering even the road ditches in boggy areas requires DFO approval because they are literally classified as salmonid habitat. Oh, and they are always full to overflowing in winter and after every summer rainfall, and half full at most other times, even in the height of summer.
      Having several residents tend a country lane (I’ll bet not many feature open ditches) is one way to address maintenance. Bioswales, rain gardens and hundreds of metes of open channels leading away in heavily-used community centre parking lots and so forth are very problematic not just from siltation, but from the garbage traps they become, and the occasional car that lands in the middle and destroys the structure. When you have 2,200 hectares of public park land and 3,000 employees and hundreds of thousand users a year using public facilities, maintenance is a huge concern. Perhaps that explains my perspective and concerns over trendy green policies that face utterly different challenges at a city-wide scale.

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