Nature & Public Spaces
August 11, 2020

Secrets of the City~The Covid Resiliency of Vancouver’s Sunset Nursery

You would have thought that when the Vision party dominated the City of Vancouver Council chambers with their sustainable and green policies that they would have quickly ascertained what an important asset the City’s Sunset Nursery was.

This  private civic nursery tucked near 51st  Avenue and Main Street has been owned by the City since 1929 and is one of the most sustainable secrets in the city.  The magnificent flowers and plants that are showcased at Stanley Park and  Bloedel Conservatory are all grown in this nursery, and many of those plants overwinter in the greenhouses which are on site. It is staffed by knowledgeable gardeners that went through a multiple year  gardening apprentice program, and many of the plants are grown from leaf culture or from seeds right at the nursery.

It is in fact something that is so old it is new again~growing and nurturing plants on site instead of trucking from sources hundreds of kilometers away. It is a hidden secret gem in the City, and a few years back it was to be axed for “cost saving measures”.  The Sunset Nursery superintendent at the time  broke protocol by speaking directly to the Parks Board Commissioners on the importance of the nursery, the sustainability of growing and providing plants locally, and how the culture and management of extraordinary plants was what made the City of Vancouver parks and community centres different from any other city in North America.

She saved the nursery from being demolished. Of course she got a very stern letter of reprimand from her seniors for breaking protocol and telling the commissioners exactly why the nursery was important. Of course that letter needed to be mounted and framed  to show that sometimes you have to do the work right instead of doing the right work.

When the adjacent Sunset Community Centre  (designed by Bing Thom) was being built, city staff  tried to get a greenhouse/classroom attached that would provide a window into the nursery and also provide a way of teaching gardening skills to kids and adults.But there was no interest from the parks board  in incorporating such an innovation at that time.

Given the remarkable history and tenacity of the nursery staff it is no surprise that the current Sunset Nursery superintendent Bruce McDonald has adapted his growing stock  given the Covid crisis, and the minimal amount of ornamental planting happening this year.

This  CBC article by Maryse Zeidler  describes that staffing cutbacks meant that the plants usually grown at Sunset Nursery were reduced by 60 percent. Since the raised beds and facilities were already prepped for planting, Mr. McDonald developed an innovative program to grow vegetables for city non-profit organizations that are feeding the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

Most of the vegetable seed was expired seed that came from VanDusen Garden’s floral shop, meaning that the bounty included rare varieties of lettuce and tomatoes. Mr. McDonald also commandeered gardens at the city golf courses to  grow vegetables as well as VanDusen Gardens.

It is this resiliency that has made Sunset Nursery such a special part of the city in providing a visual bounty of plant life in Vancouver parks and community centres. For the city on the edge the plant life and plant culture is an integral part of what makes Vancouver unique and special.

Peter Wohlwend, the neighbourhood gardener that established the Blooming Boulevard program in Vancouver used to say that gardening and plants were so representative of who we are in Vancouver.

Gardening has no specific culture. Everyone no matter what their mother tongue  speaks the language of plants”.




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This article in The Conversation  outlines the new understanding of the importance of greenspace  for mental and physical health and ties in the importance of natural environments for stress reduction and social cohesion.

Through the United Kingdom’s Green Network  health inequality can be reduced by ensuring residents have access to nature.  Calling this the “triple-win” this access  “encourages behavioural change, protects the environment,  and promote health and health equity.”

I have already written about the work that Scotland is doing in reframing cities and spaces around walkability in what North Americans are calling “the ten or fifteen minute city”. That describes being able to access schools, shops and services within an easy walk from each residence in a city. Scotland has decided that temporary items such as wider sidewalks and streets closed to vehicular traffic to encourage walking and cycling will remain, and those temporary reductions in vehicle speed will be made permanent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of access to greenspace, and is the foundation of a shift from a curative model of health to one that prevents illness, reduces inequities and is based upon partnership across health disciplines. “Purposeful travel” by sidewalk or by bicycle is the building block of basic routines outlined by the Scottish Government .

This work will be implemented in a new partnership between Public Health Scotland, local municipalities and the Green Network. As Public Health Scotland’s official announcement stated: “To be successful in achieving these aims Public Health Soctland promotes a whole systems approach to  better understand public health challenges and to identify collective actions”.”


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There’s some interesting online  courses coming up in Simon Fraser University’s City Program for this Fall, and they are already receiving applications.

To celebrate the City Program’s 25th anniversary this fall, we are launching a series of introductory-level courses in the core domains of urbanism. Our vision is to help learners gain foundational knowledge in these domains, build networks of diverse professionals, and have a better understanding of the processes between various departments that shape regions.

Kicking off with the course Planning for Non-Planners in September, the courses in the series cover fundamentals in housing policy, transportation and mobility, regional planning and community data. You’ll hear from leading regional experts in real time through online-supported learning and connect with participants from across Canada.

More professional development opportunities

Join us for other upcoming City Program courses:


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Andy Yan of Simon Fraser University’s City Program notes that cities are not prepared for bio-medical emergencies like the  Covid-19 pandemic, and is emphasizing the importance of  creating safer environments.

Patrick Sisson with Bloomberg CityLab describes the change in building form and interior design that happened with the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.  I have previously written about the remarkable innovations in public health planning that New York City adopted in 1918. 

That city had a lower fatality rate from the 1918 epidemic than other major North American cities.

The idea of light and air being important in building design was embraced  in the early part of the twentieth century by Alvar Aalto . That  translated into functionalism in designing a tuberculosis sanitarium. 

Spaces were designed to be easy to clean, large windows installed,  and minimal furniture used. This aesthetic was also embraced by Le Corbusier.  Richard Neutra   actually created a “health house” for a client concerned with fresh air and light which  was modelled after the clean lines of tuberculosis sanitarium design.

This connection between environment, health and design and the importance of  light and air also was also  a reason that radiator heating became popular in cities after the 1918 pandemic. Using radiator heating instead of coal or wood heating meant that windows could be open for fresh air and light while still heating the interiors of housing.

In New York City 80 percent of housing units are still  steam heated. The New York State Tenement House Act which was enacted in 1901  to deal with the atrocious tenement conditions stated that every room had to have an exterior window to allow for good ventilation as well as adequate light.

That followed up with a  1918 pandemic campaign  in New York City to have opened windows as the way to  ameliorate “influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis”.

Lloyd Alter, a thoughtful editor at TreeHugger sees the current pandemic as a call to redesign housing units.  Mr. Alter  suggests  a separate entryway to leave outer clothes and to wash hands, bathrooms with more partitions, and kitchens that are no longer open to other rooms.

Look for a return to a more minimalist design in new builds, along with a new emphasis on bigger balconies with flow through ventilated air into units. Expect that new buildings will feature every bedroom having an opening outside window,  closer access to gardens and outdoor areas, and better ventilation in apartment halls and common areas.  Proximity to parks and open spaces will also be on trend. Here’s a thoughtful compilation from Lloyd Alter on where the  pandemic will take design innovation.

Meanwhile take a look at this YouTube video from Toronto where the developer of  “The One” at Yonge and Bloor  thinks he is building an 80 storey “pandemic proof” condo building. The comments below the video are good comedic discourse on this building and the developer’s new endeavour.

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Here’s a brilliant idea~why not mount cameras on city buses and enforce the bus lane? That’s something that New York city has been doing with ABLE (automated Bus Lane Enforcement) and since last October have issued 40,000 warnings and violations.

Using Automatic Bus Lane Enforcement cameras on four major routes capture drivers that are caught by two different  buses on the supposedly reserved bus lane. While you can imagine transgressing vehicle drivers are none too happy about the enforcement, it has sped up bus route times by 34 percent on some routes.

As Dave Colon with NYC StreetsBlog observes “Under state law, drivers are given warnings for the first 60 days a bus uses an automated enforcement camera. After that 60 days, there’s a graduated fine structure, starting at $50 for a first violation and increasing by $50 every subsequent violation in a 12-month period, for a maximum of $250 per ticket.”

And here’s the interesting part~once vehicle drivers are nailed for being in dedicated bus lanes they don’t do it again. As Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg dryly states People don’t get a lot of repeat violations. They learn the cameras are there and that it makes sense to stay out of the bus lanes.”

New York Transit bus acting  president Craig Cipriano cautions that it’s not the point of transit to write tickets, but to move buses and keep vehicles out of the dedicated bus lanes. You can view the YouTube video below where Mr. Cipriano in his  trademark New York City accent outlines how the bus cameras work .

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The Smart Growth Network in concert with the Maryland Department of Planning presents the next webinar in their Planning With Purpose series on Community Revitalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted how we live, work, play, and move around our communities. It also has changed how planners think about and prepare for the future, while navigating the impacts of social inequity.

Petra Hurtado and Jo Peña of the American Planning Association explain how APA is using its “foresight-first approach” in times of COVID-19, what the biggest pain points and potential solutions are, and what current developments may mean for the future of the planning profession.

Date: Thursday, August 13

Time: 10:00 Pacific Time

You can sign up for this webinar by clicking this link.


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Drop by a HUB Cycling tent this Sunday, Aug 9 until 3 pm on Beach Avenue at Broughton Street to sign your support.

This incredibly popular and scenic route provides a safe, direct and flat connection between Hornby Street and Stanley Park for people of all ages and abilities, for recreation and commuting – all day, every day. It is a great use of limited open public space in one of Vancouver’s most popular and densely-populated neighbourhoods.

The Beach Avenue Bikeway will also relieve pressure on the very busy seawall route when bikes are allowed back on it post-COVID distancing measures.

Sign here if you agree and HUB Cycling will keep you updated on the future of this valuable cycling bikeway.




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PT: Ann McAfee was Co-Director of Planning for Vancouver from 1994 to 2006 at the time the extraordinary growth described in the post below was occurring.  This paper describes the immediate and possible future impacts of COVID-19 on planning in the Greater Vancouver area.  (Edited from the original here, with my emphasis added in bold.) It one of the best summaries of all the different forces and developments that will (or should) affect local and regional planning in the near future.

Despite the dispassionate tone of the paper, no doubt from years of writing planning documents, her summary is, if not radical, a challenge that will be profound for planners, politicians and leaders in community:

Local governments are challenged to reframe plans to respond, recover, restart, and rebuild in the context of limited funds and raised expectations. Post COVID plans need governments to understand economic distress and calls for social justice. Post COVID plans also need public understanding of fiscal limitations.

“Limited funds” and “fiscal limitations” are realities that will be imposed on us by the pandemic, and it won’t be pleasant.  Perhaps that’s why they have so far been largely undiscussed as society and governments cope with more urgent demands.   Ann is calling for planners to step up to the challenge.


Ann McAfee:

Three Programs Caught in COVID

Prior to COVID, three agencies launched strategic plan updates. The plans are aspirational; all seek to manage growth to address sustainability, resiliency, and equity.

In 2019, Vancouver’s City Plan and Transport 2050 invited people to share ideas. The intent was to listen to those with lived experience of the city and regional transportation system. Initial responses were not fettered by cost considerations. Subsequent steps proposed public discussion of scenario choices and tradeoffs.

In April 2019, Metro and TransLink staff compiled Regional Growth and Transportation Scenarios. Potential ‘Big Disruptors’ were seen to be climate change, shifting global economy, and new technologies. A pandemic and recession were not listed. …


Blurring the Distinction between Home and Work

Early indicators of increased numbers of employees working from home are mixed with two additional factors: an increase in office vacancies as employees work from home, and some businesses seeking larger workspaces to improve physical distancing. These work-from-home patterns could continue as an estimated 46% of the metro labor force are in jobs which could be performed, at least part-time, from home.

As people shop from home, the trend toward e-commerce is accelerating. Concern about future supply chains may reverse industrial job losses by encouraging manufacturing and food production to locate closer to markets.

Pressure to rezone business lands for residential and commerce could intensify. Vancouver’s experience with rezoning for these purposes is that the resulting increase in land value prices out production and service uses.

The value of ‘home’ is reflected in metro residential sales patterns and prices. May 2020 sales were 54% below the 10-year monthly sales average. By June, the market was rebounding. The June 2020 benchmark price for a detached home ($1.46 million) showed a 3.6% increase from June 2019. This likely reflects a desire to shelter-in-place in a single-family home.


Intensifying Local Business Trends

Prior to COVID, communities were experiencing a loss of mom and pop shops. The impact of COVID has varied in this regard. Food shops, remaining open as essential services, have increased sales. For other businesses, COVID closures are accelerating financial challenges.

To help local businesses reopen with physical distancing, cities are permitting private uses in public spaces. Examples include sidewalk patios and temporary use of parking lanes for queueing. Vancouver has approved longer term COVID responsive public space initiatives.

The desire for a region-wide response to economic recovery has increased calls from the business sector for the 21 regional municipalities to merge.

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Let’s make the Beach Avenue Bikeway (connecting Stanley Park to False Creek North) permanent.

This incredibly popular and scenic route provides a safe, direct and flat connection between Hornby Street and Stanley Park for people of all ages and abilities, for recreation and commuting – all day, every day. It is a great use of limited open public space in one of Vancouver’s most popular and densely-populated neighbourhoods.

The Beach Avenue Bikeway will also relieve pressure on the very busy seawall route when bikes are allowed back on it post-COVID distancing measures.

Sign here if you agree and HUB Cycling will keep you updated on the future of this valuable cycling bikeway.

Drop by a HUB Cycling tent this Saturday, August 8 and Sunday, Aug 9 between 9 am and 3 pm on Beach Avenue at Broughton Street to sign your support.

Read more »

Further to this post below, the ever-visual Jens von Bergmann (@vb_jens) shows graphically what growth on the downtown peninsula looked like between the 1986 and 2016 censuses.

But perhaps even more startling than the thousand-percent growth on the peninsula is the drop in population density in a large part of Vancouver – as seen here:

The change-in-people per hectare from 1971 to 2016 is, as expected, predominantly on the west side.  But also note the purple in the neighbourhoods from the Downtown East Side to Grandview.

This data is so contrary to the popular memes that it really isn’t part of the conversation about density and growth in the city. Often, when something doesn’t fit the narrative, it just doesn’t get acknowledged.

As well, both right and left use different rationales to achieve the same outcome: a near zero rate of change   The former argues for maintaining character and heritage: the latter opposes the gentrification impact new development might bring   Both argue that bigger issues must first be addressed.

And that’s why Colleen Hardwick and Jean Swanson have the closest voting records on rezonings for more housing.




Jens adds further comment:

In my mind it’s the disparity on where growth is allocated that is under-appreciated. And how not adding dwellings means we are losing population.

As people get richer, they tend to consume more housing: larger places, smaller households, more spare bedroom.  That’s not a bad thing in principle, but if we don’t add housing to make up for it, it leads not just to a change in neighourhood demographics but even to an overall drop in population.

In some low-density areas (parts of the east side) we have managed to at least stem the loss by adding laneway homes and maybe some suites (hard to measure), but that hasn’t been enough in all neighbourhoods.  The west side has not seen much uptake on laneways and suites (despite ample construction, mostly 1:1 replacements of SFH).

Grandview-Woodlands, Strathcona and the surrounding area has seen the fastest growth in family income in the city, and we have not added enough housing units to make up for that. So the result is predictably a drop in population. And also an overall shift in neighbourhood demographics that the entire east side has been experiencing.

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