COVID Place making
May 28, 2020

Discoveries, Memories and Sounds on the Slow Streets

At the very moment when Vancouver Council was discussing and approving Lisa Dominato’s motion to move forward on a network of slow streets, I was cycling on the first ones – the streets from New Brighton to Queen Elizabeth Park.  It’s essentially the linking of the Gladstone Bikeway with the Ridgeway Greenway – hence fast and cheap to do ($2 a kilometre – not a misprint) and in place even before the motion was passed.

It was a nostalgic experience.  I was on Council when the Ridgeway Greenway was opened, so it’s wonderful to still be around as it, like me, tries to age well.  Indeed, not much has changed: still the same route through streets, parks and lanes, with still the same public art and amenities (like the wonderful Windsor Castle children’s sand box.)*

It’s only some of the signage that is showing wear and tear.

The greatest change: the turnover in housing – mainly just one (seemingly) single-family house for another.  But the quality and design of that housing clearly demonstrates the change in cost and class that has crossed over Cambie into the East Side.

From still-intact Vancouver Specials …

.. to the latest version of the McMansion:

What was possibly the most surprising discovery was tə cecəw (The Beach) at 137 East 37th – a social housing project of 46 studio units operated by Coast Mental Health and funded by BC Housing.  (Remember the controversy over this one?  I don’t either.)

It’s classed as “temporary modular housing” – but doesn’t look temporary.  (I’d recognize the designer, but don’t know who it is.  Please add below if you know.)

What was the use on the slow streets on a weekeday afternoon?  Modest, intermittent, but a good mix.  Lots of kids.  I especially liked the mother and daughter tackling one of the steepest hills.

On the way home, I headed down the Ontario Bikeway – joining a continual stream of cyclists on one of the heaviest used cycling arterials in the city.  But, with an almost total absence of cars, a quiet experience.  Here’s what I heard in order of their volume: human voices passing by, a lawn mower, the sound of bike tires on asphalt, birds.  (Oh wait, a car a block away.  Nope, it’s gone.)

 

*Thanks to the pioneers who made it possible – from Moura Quayle who chaired the Greenways Task Force to staff (like our own Sandy James) who implemented the vision.

 

 

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I have been writing  that cities need to be nimble during this slow reopening shops and services.  Facilitating reopening of commercial operations will mean having the appropriate space to line up to enter with appropriate physical distancing.  And in some cases with food services, expanded outdoor space during the summer will mean the difference between being able to open with an appropriate number of tables to make a business profitable.

Brendan and Amanda Ladner  reopened  their Pender location of the  SMAK healthy food emporium as a takeaway, with an innovative  curbside “glide through” counter option using city parking spaces. They hoped that there would be a way that other restauranteurs would be able to have a streamlined way of using city owned space on sidewalks and elsewhere to start up their businesses in a safe and reasonable way.

At the Council meeting on May 27th, Council agreed to develop a quick process to allow applications for temporary patios, and agreed to waive the fees. These permits are temporary to October 31 and are non renewable. This initiative is similar to the one approved by the City of Winnipeg four weeks ago as a way for restaurants to operate when Covid guidelines mean they can be only at fifty percent capacity.

Temporary patios for restaurants must be right in front of the restaurant or beside it, and may use either the sidewalk or the “back boulevard”, that public space that is between the sidewalk and the building.

The patio may also occupy parking spaces and must provide appropriate ramps for accessibility to the space.

Vancouver restaurant owners will be able to apply for the temporary patios on June 1st  and can expect a two day turnaround for approval. Typically fees collected by the city are in the $3,000 range for a temporary patio permit, but all fees will be waived this year.

You can take a look at this Council presentation that outlines some of the potential configurations for the temporary outdoor patios.

Of course accessibility and the ability of all users to access the sidewalk as well as use the temporary patio is going to be paramount, and there’s no negotiation on that.

Take a look  at this YouTube video of an  outdoor patio  in downtown Ottawa on Preston Street  that could not provide the required two meter width requirement on the sidewalk back in 2018. Instead of simply moving their fence back for compliance, the restaurant argues to take out the two street trees or leave things as they are, because “the street is inaccessible anyway”.

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When I first saw the news report in early March, I was astonished: the City and Park Board, in conjunction with the Coastal Health Authority, would be using two community centres to temporarily house the otherwise homeless from the Downtown east Side.  What was jaw-dropping were the locations: in the centre of two of the most affluent communities in Vancouver, one less than a block from an elementary school – the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the other in Coal Harbour.

In normal circumstances, that decision would have been explosive. In non-covid times, it just would not have happened.  There would have been an immediate pushback from Yaletown and Coal Harbour residents and businesses – a call for more process, for community meetings, for public hearings and delegations.  And those would have been the polite responses.  Sides would be taken, the media coverage relentless, the politics divisive. A risk-adverse Council would have found a way, in the name of community consultation, to deep-six the proposal.

And yet, here it is, the consequence of a crisis most clearly not wasted.

The spaces at Roundhouse and Coal Harbour will be allotted by referral-only and staffed 24 hours a day. Vancouver Coastal Health will provide health guidance and B.C. Housing has appointed non-profit operators to manage the centres.  (The Sun)

But that wasn’t all. Those housed would also be provided with ‘safe supply’ – drugs and their substitutes to stabilize the addicted, in addition to distancing them from the virus in what would otherwise be a powder-keg in the Downtown East Side.  (That a covid outbreak has so far not occurred is another surprising non-event.)

Remarkably, this was all public knowledge:

(Mayor) Stewart said the federal government has allowed for a safe supply of drugs for residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Beyond the health consequences, the stakes were huge.  If this real-time, real-life exercise failed, it would set back any prospect of locating a similar facility anywhere else in the city, as well as negating the ongoing experiment of safe-supply.  And it wouldn’t take much: a single adverse incident, open needle use, an exchange of threats much less an actual incident.  On the other hand, if successful, it would deny precedent for an endlessly repeated bad example.

It’s only the end of May; the emergency continues, the community centres are still blacked out.  As an experiment that set out to do what it has so far accomplished, it succeeded – a word rarely associated with the DTES and homelessness.  Indeed, many activists are adverse to acknowledging that the actions they espouse, when implemented, achieve their goals.  Fearful that success might lead to complacency, a loss of commitment, a reduction in budgets, they might begrudgingly admit that an initiative, a new housing project, a raise in funding was a good first step, but there’s so much left to do, so many homeless still on the streets, and the filthy streets themselves an indictment of an uncaring society.

The Roundhouse and Coal Harbour experiment remain, so far, an unacknowledged success.  Friends in the neighbourhood report that until recently there was seemingly community acceptance of the circumstances – perhaps because the locations are only temporary.

But of course, that was unlikely to last.  Further uptown, things were changing.

(More to come.)

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Everyone has been enjoying bluer skies, better views, great sunsets and better air quality with the reduction of vehicular and air traffic during the Covid crisis. ,Mount Everest is visible from the city of Kathmandu for the first time this century, even though it is 240 kilometers away.

In short, air quality has vastly improved in cities during the time of quarantine. BBC News reports that vehicle drivers are also willing to change their behaviour to maintain cleaner air and to be more environmentally prudent.

In Britain the lack of vehicular traffic resulted in a  17%  reduction in carbon dioxide emissions  recorded in  early April. Surface emissions from industry and brake dust were reduced by 43 percent.

In a survey of 20,000 drivers conducted by the British Automobile Association, fifty percent said they were willing to walk more, and forty percent intended to use their car less frequently. Remarkably 80 percent of those drivers surveyed said they would “take some action to reduce their impact on air quality”.

Just as in the national  Canadian survey  conducted by  Mario Canseco,  many Britons expect to continue working from home. While 73 percent  of Canadians expect to continue to  work from home, 25 percent of Britons driving said they would work more often from home, while twenty percent said they would be cycling more.

Edmund King, president of the British Automobile Association stated

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“Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge: Transportation Infrastructure as Public Space”.

We’ve invited leaders in urban design, transportation, and public policy to share their ideas, and offer insight into how cities can redesign existing bridges, parks, plazas, and streets to be better well into the future.

On a typical day, over 10,000 pedestrians and 2,600 bicyclists traverse the Brooklyn Bridge using a pathway as narrow as 10 feet in some places. In normal times, these conditions could be described as uncomfortable. In the context of a pandemic, they are dangerous.

As sheltering orders ease, we know the Brooklyn Bridge and the City at large cannot return to business as usual. How can we welcome people back to our streets and public spaces, while observing immediate needs for social distancing? How can we make people comfortable and safe, ensuring our infrastructure serves pedestrians and cyclists now and for the long term?

Panelists include:
– Allison Arieff, Editorial Director, SPUR
– Laura Bliss, West Coast Bureau Chief, CityLab (moderator)
– Jennifer Bradley, Director, Center for Urban Innovation, Aspen Institute
– Tamika Butler, Director of Planning, California and Director of Equity and Inclusion,         Toole Design
– Shin-Pei Tsay, Director, Policy, Cities and Transportation, Uber

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At the City of Vancouver where Council meetings  are turning out to be more of a cave spelunking expedition through the finer points of  Robert’s  Rules of Order, there’s been   well meaning motions to consider alcohol in public places and parks. The point ably made is that in terms of equity, not everyone has their own back yard  or outside space to drink a beer in during the pandemic.  Of course lots of people are already ingeniously decanting and imbibing in parks and public spaces, it’s just not sanctioned. Yet.

Master of municipalities CBC’s Justin McElroy has a two minute video on the CBC twitter site mulling over the possibility of “you being able to crack open a cold one in a place like Dude Chilling Park”.

One main  point missing in this idea of allowing individuals to carry their own alcoholic beverages to beaches, parks and city spaces.  People drinking alcohol will need to use washroom facilities more frequently. Where are the washrooms?

I have written over several years about why we need to have accessible public washrooms because every member of the public needs to go. It seems odd that during the pandemic we should not  be considering the universal installation of drinking fountain/water bottle stations, hand washing facilities, and of course, public washrooms before any provision regarding alcohol.

Lloyd Alter in Tree Hugger is even blunter, saying that we have to stop building roads and start building bathrooms. He equates the lack of washrooms with that of the budget for highways: “Authorities say providing public washrooms can’t be done because it would cost “hundreds of millions” but never have a problem spending billions on the building of highways for the convenience of drivers who can drive from home to the mall where there are lots of washrooms. The comfort of people who walk, people who are old, people who are poor or sick — that doesn’t matter.”

Lloyd Alter points out that post pandemic  washrooms that are touchless and sterilized will be important, and private companies, Starbucks and shopping stores  are not responsible for providing them.

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There’s finally more information about Vancouver’s Slow Streets in a press release that came out Monday, but still no overall “route map” available on the City’s website.The intent is to have Slow Streets on roads that are wide enough to maintain resident parking, and also allow for local vehicle access. The new Director of Transportation, the well respected and capable  Paul Storer is leading this work.

Vehicles will be temporarily sharing the road with pedestrians, rollers and cyclists on fifty kilometers of “Slow Streets”.  The  first twelve kilometers have already been opened, as described in  this article   by Gordon Price.

Gordon talks about the  Lakewood, Ridgeway and Wall Street sections of Slow Streets. The streets have jersey barriers of different kinds either on the street or at the street’s side, indicating that it is a slower street, with  repurposing for walkers, rollers and cyclists to maintain physical distancing.

There are two reasons for doing this: one, to facilitate  destination oriented routes for people not in vehicles; and second, to provide a way for families and others to exercise in a safer environment with physical distancing that could not be met on the sidewalks.

This presentation on the Covid-19 Mobility and Public Life Response which was given to Council last week provides  more background and rationale for the City’s response. In a survey conducted in April, the City found that walking downtown had declined by 40 to 50 percent, commuter cycling had declined by 35 to 50 percent, and transit usage had declined by 80 percent.  And if you see less vehicles downtown, you are right~there’s 48 percent less vehicles coming in and out of the downtown, with a 39 percent decline of vehicles coming in and out of Vancouver as a whole compared to April 2019.

The City’s three pronged approach besides the “Room to Move” outlined above also includes “Room to Queue” which is  providing expanded street space for people to queue outside of businesses. This can mean taking over the parking lane if needed outside of businesses. And to facilitate deliveries, “Room to Load” will provide special priority loading zones for business deliveries. The City also intends to work with local businesses to provide expanded patio spaces on road surfaces, with that information promised for next week.

While there is a graduated approach to opening businesses and services, it is expected that the use of private vehicles in the post-Covid city  could dramatically increase in the short term. For some, automobiles are seen as “safe, secure” types of travel. The intent of these Slow Street measures to facilitate easier travel by walking, rolling and cycling is to provide potential alternatives towards a more “equitable and sustainable transportation system”. 

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There’s an absolute feast of great speakers on webinars right now.

Courtesy of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto hear well known planner and author Ken Greenberg talk with Melinda Yogendran and Matti Siemiatycki  
“Towards a New Kind of City-A conversation on resilience and adaptation with Ken Greenberg”

Join new grad Melinda Yogendran and SofC’s Interim Director Matti Siemiatycki as they speak with Ken Greenberg about adopting new practices for building better, more equitable cities.

This Spring, Ken Greenberg was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Toronto. With convocations cancelled, he published his passionate convocation speech, illustrating a message of hope for new graduates to seize the baton and use this crisis to move us to a better place.

If you would like to submit a question for Ken Greenberg in advance, you can do that here.

Speakers:

Ken Greenberg, Principal, Greenberg Consultants Inc.

Melinda Yogendran, Recent Graduate of the Master’s of Planning program, University of Toronto

Matti Siemiatycki, Associate Professor and Interim Director, School of Cities, University of Toronto

Time
Thursday May 28, 2020 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time

To register, click on this link.

Image: TheStar

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Here are some of the first images of our first Slow Streets. (Click title for all images.)

Thanks to Anthony Floyd:

Went on a tour of the Slow Streets this evening. Not all the barricades and signs were in place yet, but we met the crew working their way West, so they might be all in by the end of the evening.

South of Kingsway, on Lakewood and along Ridgeway, they are fillable plastic jersey barriers with the signs attached to one side. They are only at the entrances at major intersections, and at the end of that block away from the intersection. There are few to no barriers between major streets. These barriers are mostly in the middle of the street.

North of Kingsway, along Lakewood and Wall St the barriers are A-Frame construction barriers with the signs. These too are only near major intersections. The placement of these barriers is much more variable. More often than not, they’re on the side of the road (whether placed there or moved there) and could be easily overlooked. In my opinion these are even less effective here.

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