Policy & Planning
June 25, 2020

Want to Live Long and Prosper? Move to a Walkable Neighbourhood

Want to live long and prosper? Here’s a new study from Washington State University showing that walkability has a strong correlation with the likelihood of reaching centenarian age by area.

If you live in a place that has good walking and provides the ability to walk to schools, shops and services, and  has lots of young people working, the correlation is high for a healthy long life.

In a study of close to 150,000 seniors in Washington state, researchers looked at individuals who had lived longer than 75 years up to 100 years and looked for the factors that helped them lead long and healthy lives.

And surprise! As reported in Marketwatch.com

 “Walkable and bikeable streets and clean, accessible parks are linked to increasing physical activity of the surrounding population by 30%. Walkable neighborhoods are especially important for older adults who may have decreased mobility and no longer drive, as they are likely to benefit from easier access to their community afforded by walkable neighborhoods.”

Despite suggestions that the Covid pandemic is providing a short-term shift away from public transport and city living, the study shows that streets that are walkable and cyclable along with park proximity raise physical activity levels by 30 percent. Neighbourhoods planned with good walkability are vital to older adults with mobility issues and who must often walk or take transit to complete basic shopping.

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I have previously written about the giant sequoia in the 2300 block of West 41st that was cut down after nearly a century of living in the middle of the Kerrisdale commercial area. Over the years development on the block was setback in order for the tree to flourish, which it did for many years.

One of the Price Tags commenters is the thoughtful urbanist Alex Botta who provides some more insight into this giant of a tree living on a commercial street. In his response, Alex details why we SHOULD be having a conversation on what is an appropriate street tree, and outlines what happens when a tree is simply too big or unwieldy for a public boulevard location. We’ve printed Alex’s comments below.

“Of course this tree was stressed. It was the wrong species for the urban environment, and was subjected to an inadequate development approach at its periphery. There was little thought given to the requirements of the root area, the primary criteria being space and depth. The best solution would have been to create a park around the tree decades ago, because it truly is a giant parkland species wholly inappropriate for tight streets.

Inappropriate tree species and maintenance practices is an ongoing problem. The legacy will be the removal of too-large trees in tight urban sites in future, especially boulevard strips. Lifting sidewalks and broken curbs and retaining walls are everywhere. There is a 1.5 metre diameter Platanus in the boulevard just outside of my house and late one Friday night its roots plugged the ancient city sewer under the road. City Engineering earned their pay that evening and unblocked the line within 10 minutes with a mean-looking root eater attachment to their roto rooter. Eighty years ago the tree was likely misidentified as a maple (similar leaves) and was planted with hundreds of maples, the occasional plane towering above all the other trees.

Urban trees should be planned early, along with the zoning. Small and medium-sized trees with special attention to the root zones are most able to adapt to imposed urban pressures and spaces. Most trees will take drought (dropping leaves early is a protective response during stress), but compounding that is the typical planting plan that does not allow for optimum and healthy soil conditions. A 1.2 m x 1.2 m continuous trench in a boulevard filled with quality growing medium, subsurface deep root vault structures, and in some cases structural soil (organic soil with uniform diameter broken rock to allow compaction and root growth in the spaces between the rocks) are the second best current practices for urban forest health. They afford a continuous underground volume of growing medium for the conjoined root masses and often have watering ports. Temporary automated irrigation is another important step tp assist in establishment. Vaulting is made from recycled plastic and can take the weight of paving and vehicles over top, making them ideal for plazas, downtown sidewalks and parking lots.

The best practice is to plant trees in parks (especially large trees) while ensuring good soil health.

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Via Dr. David Sadoway at Kwantlen Polytechnic University:

Greenways for All – Engagement and Communication Lead

Trails Society of BC is a provincial organization operating on ancestral, traditional and unceded territories.  We have been in operation since the mid 1990s working with the Trans Canada Trail to establish and develop The Great Trail (formally known as the Trans Canada Trail) in British Columbia.

Trails Society of BC (Trails BC) seeks a person to assist us with building partnerships; identify and address structural challenges; develop project opportunities; develop trails and active transportation policies; and increase our organization capacity. 

This position will involve engaging with and building relationships with people living in Indigenous and rural communities and related organizations in BC to determine the need and opportunities for greenway trails for active travel and recreation throughout British Columbia. The contractor will initially focus on identifying barriers and solutions for provincial active travel, including both  responding to the immediate needs related to COVID 19 and longer term projects and policies.

The successful candidate will have a mix of community engagement, organizational development, facilitation, communications and project management experience.  They will work with the Board of Directors, Development contractor, consultants, the project Advisory Committee and engaged volunteers.  

The mission of Trails Society of BC (TrailsBC) is to support public policy that makes quality trail experiences for active travel on trails in British Columbia.  Our goal is to strengthen the Trails Society of BC advocacy role in the Province by increasing public awareness and building support for active recreation and transportation at the provincial level.

Engagement and other activities will occur via phone, conference call and email while COVID 19 restrictions are in place. 

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I have written often on the need for public washrooms, and why every city should have them close by transit stations, near public spaces, and along commercial streets. Every person needs to use them and it is what makes public space accessible for so many people.  Kids, seniors, everyone needs to use a washroom. And yet in North American culture public washrooms are often not thought of.  It’s been something that stores have been expected to provide as it’s  not even an afterthought in the public realm.

But what happens today in Covid times if you are using the sidewalk to move, cycling or using public transit? Where’s the closest washroom?

In walking the Seaside Greenway in south False Creek, I looked for a “new accessible washroom” that a 2016 Council report said was going to be built near or adjacent to that area’s Charleson Park. I couldn’t find it, even though that Council report had allocated $0.4 million dollars from City wide Development Cost Levies (DCLs) that was already assigned to Parks and Open Spaces.

When I asked a False Creek  strata council member where the new accessible washroom was, I heard all about the rustic fence for the dog park near the seawall, and the row of blue rental bikes installed in front of the School Green. The washroom was the “last straw”. And surprise! Apparently there was a “discussion” over location~”the engineers said one thing, the park board said something, the community said something else entirely and no, we don’t know where the $400,000 washroom is”.

An article in The Guardian by Libby Brooks discusses the impacts of lack of public toilet access. In the United Kingdom public toilet closure “is having a serious impact on wellbeing, limiting people’s capacity to exercise freely or visit loved ones, and creating a significant secondary public health risk as people have no option but to relieve themselves in the open, a Guardian survey and investigation has found.”

With many public buildings, bars and restaurants closed, the lack of public washrooms is curtailing where people can go by foot or cycle or public transit.

“For those with health conditions and disabilities that bring continence problems, the situation is even worse: some describe themselves as essentially housebound. Key workers and volunteers making lengthy round trips to deliver essentials are likewise affected.”

Opening public washrooms during Covid times in  Europe has resulted in two worries: the need to balance public safety with access to facilities and the lack of clear direction from government on how best to open and manage public washrooms.

In Canada, Paola Lorrigio in The Star discusses the fact that the lack of  public washrooms, once a barrier to the homeless, poor, racialized and disabled is now a barrier to everyone. In the first month of the pandemic truck drivers and transit drivers could no longer use washrooms in closed stores and businesses. And with the opening of economies, people will need to use public washrooms even though those in businesses may remain off-limits.

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It was just beautiful weather for a walk on the Seaside Greenway on the southside of False Creek between the Granville and Cambie Street bridges. The City of Vancouver has implemented improvements here to separate people using the walkway from the folks cycling through.  The city has used a strip of concrete to provide bifurcation guidance, and placed benches, lighting and signage to indicate which side is to be used based upon your mode of transportation. This section is north of Millbank Lane.

The walking section  of the greenway next to the water was extremely busy and at times physical distancing was a challenge. Cycling traffic was fast and light in terms of volume.

A report to Council in 2016  identifies this section of seawall as being highly used, but at that time quite narrow. In this approved plan walkers and cyclists were separated, uneven surfaces removed, and the area revamped to make access easier with an All-Ages-and-Abilities target for cycling.

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These free webinars  offered by the Vision Zero network focus on how to create places that are safe for walking, rolling, biking, transit and vehicular traffic.

Webinar One:

Cities Managing Speed for Safety: Learning from Seattle & Minneapolis
Thursday, June 18 @ 11am-12pm PT / 2-3pm ET

Reducing speed to save lives and prevent serious injuries is a cornerstone of Vision Zero. Safe speeds are especially important to help protect the most vulnerable on the road, and the difference of just 5 miles an hour can literally mean life or death in a crash. Cities around the globe are increasingly recognizing both the urgency of managing speeds and the capability of doing so. Strategies that seemed daunting for too long are becoming more commonplace in U.S. cities. Join us to learn what’s happening most recently in two Vision Zero communities — Seattle & Minneapolis — who are centering speed management in their safety work.

You can sign up by clicking this link.

Webinar Two:

Don’t be Distracted by Distracted Walking
Tuesday June 30 @ 11am-noon PT / 2-3pm ET

Pedestrian deaths and the use of smartphones rose in tandem over the past few years. Surely these trends are linked, right? Not so fast, argues Dr. Kelcie Ralph. In a careful review, she finds that while many people walk distracted, it does not appear to be as risky as many people assume. Other factors — such as increased use of SUVs and distracted driving — help explain the rise in pedestrian deaths. The Takeaway: We should be wary of the “distracted walking” narrative because it tends to shift our policies away from systematic solutions (such as lower speeds and improved street design) toward individual-level solutions (such as education campaigns and bans on distracted walking), which are less effective, subject to police bias, and inconsistent with Vision Zero principles. Join us to learn more.

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

Images: Sandyjames,CityofSurrey

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During Covid Times it’s interesting to walk through neighbourhood streets. Add in a bit of rain and you are guaranteed to have the sidewalk to yourself. Here, at the site of the old gas station on the north east corner of 41st Avenue and Larch there’s a long hoarding covering a chain link fence, suggesting there’s flowers and a field behind it.

But no. Here’s the sign indicating it’s represented by someone who can help you with commercial business financing.

And on the entry from Larch Street, a surprise. There’s a so-called “temporary park” on the site of the former gas station.  Inside that space, there’s really no formal planting or any indication of what kind of activities are expected on top of a former gas station site.

This is not any “normal” park. This is part of a tax loophole available to developers to temporarily pay lower property taxes on land that is used for offices and retail by reclassifying it for park or community garden use. The land owner pays substantially less taxes while they work out the best deal for the land. It is an opportunity for potential temporary park or garden users, but  Andy Yan, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University calls it something else: We are rewarding land hoarding and subsidizing it through these community gardens. We are losing tax money to subsidize this thing that looks good—and all we’re getting in return are really expensive taxpayer-subsidized tomatoes. ”

There’s no community garden in this barren space but there  is a token park bench of sorts, and it is not screwed down or affixed in any way. This is the end game of the previous gas station use  where soils have to be remediated on site. There’s no internet presence for the park, no recognition of it on the business association internet site.


The change of gas station  activity is documented in this thesis completed at the University of British Columbia by Alexandre Man-Bourdon on “Old Gas Stations~New Fuel for Environmental Awareness”.  Man-Bourdon documents the “LUST” cleaning process~that stands for “Leaking Underground Storage Tanks”~and proposes public art and safe park space usage during remediation. One of the concepts proposed is illustrated below:  a prepared park site on top of a remediated gas station site, with markers indicating the locations of other gas station sites also being repurposed.

In 2017, the City of Vancouver has fifteen commercial properties that converted from Property Tax Class 6 (office and retail) to Class 8 (temporary park or community gardens). With an assessed value of $1919.7 million, those commercial property owners paid 1.5 million dollars less by using the loophole.  Last year another four properties assessed at 95.3 million dollars  did the same thing, paying $300,000 less in taxes while holding the land. 

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A gardener’s adage  is “right plant, right place” to ensure that plantings remain and thrive with the right amount of light, exposure and water. One of the more surprising Vancouver trees that survived for ninety years in Kerrisdale was a sequoia that somehow was planted in the 1930’s in the 2300 block of West 41st Avenue. Over the years development on the block was setback in order for the tree to flourish, which it did for many years.

Giant sequoias live in Northern California, Oregon and Washington State  and can grow to nine meters in diameter, and 76 meters high. The biggest Sequoia is known as General Sherman. It stands  a towering 84 meters tall with a 31 meter girth. It is the largest tree on earth by volume.

When the building occupied by Bill Chow Jewellers located at 2241 West 41st Avenue was constructed,  there was some allowance for increase building height due to the positioning of the sequoia.  I could not find the decades old City of Vancouver document which would have referenced that.

Over the decades there have been all  kinds of efforts to maintain this tree, and in the final years it had care by an arborist. Sadly the tree became very stressed at its concreted over  location and  it was taken down in 2019. The huge trunk was carted away by flatbed truck to be milled for eventual reuse as benches in the Arbutus Greenway.

It was intended that the students at Magee Secondary would be making the benches this year, but that would have been delayed due to the Covid pandemic.

As Terry Clark with the Kerrisdale Business Association statedWe intend to affix a modest plaque on the benches to give reference to this once woody sentinel that was at the village’s heart for 90 or more years. It seemed appropriate to me that its heart would remained with the community that was heartbroken at its demise.”

In the interim, the wall behind the tree’s stump has been turned into a blackboard for chalked positive affirmations in the face of the Covid crisis.

And there is news for sequoias too~with climate change, there has been a rethink of what to replace native tree forests with,  when faced with demise by pests (like the mountain pine beetle) or by fire.

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