Vancouver vs. Toronto: A tale of two 21-acre parks

It’s not often that a dense, city centre gets to create a new 21-acre park that provides new green space in an area that needs it, but also reconnects neighbourhoods disconnected by an infrastructure corridor.

No, not that 21-acre park.

Not to be outdone by Toronto’s plan to create a 21-acre park by decking over a rail corridor downtown, my old hometown Vancouver has released more details about its plan to create a new 21-acre waterfront park, replacing what is now a mostly derelict area of parking lots and elevated roadways.

Last year, Vancouver’s City Council approved a staff recommendation to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts–recently featured in the opening bloodbath scene in Deadpool–in order to unlock more waterfront land at the edge of the downtown core. The city will create a new at-grade boulevard for cars while opening up more land for development and parks (sound familiar, Toronto?)

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The viaducts are really Vancouver’s hangover from a highway that never materialized that would have run down Georgia Street through the heart of the downtown. That highway plan was thankfully stopped, but not before these two “on-ramps” were constructed (demolishing Hogan’s Alley, a largely black neighbourhood, in the process).

Removing these viaducts—which carry far less traffic than they were originally designed for—was a smart, forward-thinking move by the city. The images below show what you can do with the viaducts in place and what you can do if you remove them. You get more park, sure, but you also get to connect the neighbourhoods to the north, like Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, better to False Creek.

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It’s the kind of bold decision that we could have made in Toronto when options were laid out for the Gardiner East. Instead, our City Council voted to essentially repair and rebuild the elevated highway, nudging it a bit to create a different alignment at a massive cost–the so-called hybrid option.

Recently we’ve learned that the cost of rebuilding this section of the Gardiner has ballooned by more than $1 billion, which is, in a kind of twisted hilarity you only seem to find in Toronto municipal politics, what Rail Deck Park is likely to cost.

In another little funny, ironic twist, Vancouver has secured James Corner, the designer of the little-known High Line in New York, as the landscape architect for its new 21-acre park. I say ironic because before the decision to demolish the viaducts, there were some who advocated for turning them into Vancouver’s own High Line-style kind of elevated park. I absolutely hated that idea for many reasons—some of which I outlined in this post from my old blog back in 2012—but the gist is that they’re ugly, expensive, and too short to become a High Line.

Anyway, now we can blow them up and create a beautiful on-the-ground park, which is, in my opinion, where parks belong.

So, Toronto: let this be a lesson.

If we want to be the progressive, big-thinking, bold city we say we are, we can start by taking a page out of Vancouver’s book. We should tear down the Gardiner East and replace it with a boulevard, new neighbourhoods, and waterfront parks. And, hey, that $1 billion we save? I know about this little project over a rail corridor…

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All images from vancouver city staff reports. The title image is not the final plan for the park, which hasn’t been released yet, but just a concept idea. 

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway creates a connection that is also a place

We want to create safe, attractive cycling and pedestrian connections throughout our city, but rather than simply planning a route to get from A to B what if we created connections that became places themselves?

Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway does exactly this. It’s a part of the city’s cycling network, with both painted and separated lanes, but it does so much more than act as way for cyclists to get across the dense, downtown West End neighbourhood through which it threads.

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Unfortunately, I moved away from Vancouver before the greenway was complete, but I make sure to ride along its length whenever I’m back visiting—like I did this past September when I was in town for Placemaking Week.

The Comox-Helmcken Greenway was planned to include small gardens, seating areas, and other amenities to make it almost like a linear park-street hybrid. It’s route also connects already existing schools, community centres, and parks (like the big Stanley Park), smaller mini-parks in the West End, and the lovely Nelson Park, the West End’s largest neighbourhood park (which includes a lovely, street-side community garden).

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Walking or biking along the greenway, you’re treated to bump-outs that act as traffic calming measures, but also contain gardens lush with green plants, often tended by residents living in the mid- and high-rise buildings that populate the West End.

There is also a variety of seating along the route, allowing people to stop and sit at chairs, tables, and even a bar stool-style set-up where the greenway meets the busier Denman Street commercial strip. Personally, I like the living room set-up in the picture below. All you need is a nice table lamp, a cup of tea, and you’re set.

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The greenway was always designed to be more than your average cycling route, evident in its design, but also by the fact that the City of Vancouver partnered with the University of British Columbia to study the activity levels of those living along the route before and after installation.

The results of that study, released last month argue that the $5 million dollar project was well worth the investment. The study looked at people living within 500 metres of the greenway and found that cycling trips went up by 32 percent while car trips went down by 23 percent. Other research done for the City reported health and activity improvements for seniors living along the greenway.

As we look to expand our cycling networks, we’d do well to look at the example set by Vancouver in how we can pull the park experience into our very streets.

 

Leveraging laneways as park connections

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Last week I went to Toronto’s first laneway summit, put on by the Laneway Project, an organization that hopes to start a discussion about the potential of the city’s more than 250 kilometres of laneways to become more people-friendly spaces.

Much attention has been paid to cities that are promoting commercial uses, restaurant cafes, and public art in their laneways, like Seattle and Melbourne. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of digging into how cities are using laneways to create a fine-grained network of linear green spaces that connect existing parks.

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Spacing Magazine’s Dylan Reid, one of the Laneway Project presenters, wrote a good piece on laneways as shared street spaces and pedestrian connections. And many cities are looking to capitalize on that potential by including laneways as part of the parks and public realm planning tools in local neighbourhood plans, or through programs or projects specifically designed to look at the potential of laneways as green park-like spaces and connectors.

Laneways not only create pleasant, fine-grained, and safe ways to walk or bike to the park, but can help extend the park itself into the neighbourhood and draw your eye to the park from other streets. The key is to prioritize improvements to laneways that can serve that connection function to an existing space.

San Francisco’s Market and Octavia Area Plan is a great example of how laneways are being looked at as connections and extensions of parks. Calling these potential laneways “living alleys,” the plan lays out where the potential improvements could be made. Many end or connect to existing parks, helping to increase open space access in an area the City says needs more neighbourhood-scale parks, but has few opportunities for more.

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And Los Angeles is also looking to use laneways as park-like connectors to existing parks and schools in neighbourhoods that are low in parkland. Jodi Delaney of the Trust for Public Land, which is working with the City of Los Angeles on the project, told the LA Times the benefits of greening laneways goes beyond just creating more park-like places, but helps to reduce stormwater run-off and the urban heat island effect.

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We haven’t quite grasped the potential of laneways in Toronto yet, but we are moving, it seems, slowly in the right direction. The draft public realm plan for the downtown King-Spadina area (I work right on the edge at Richmond and Spadina) maps out potential and existing mid-block connections.

However, it doesn’t include potential greening or park-like improvements as options, which is a shame because this area is, as city staff point out, a high-density neighbourhood low in green space and only growing in population. It’s also home to a lot of workers who just need a place to sit outside and enjoy their lunch or have a short break–something a redesigned laneway could offer.

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It doesn’t have to be complicated

It almost goes without saying, but there are different solutions for different types of laneways. It’s all dependent upon what the local community needs, the function of the laneway for vehicles and servicing, and the width and sunlight available. The Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook is a good resource for how to approach different types of laneways.

But just adding planters can do a lot for an otherwise dingy, uninviting laneway space. In the laneway behind my office building, a row of planter boxes outside helps to make it much more pleasant.

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Vancouver’s until recently apparently forgotten Country Lanes pilot project from 2002 saw several laneways introduce permeable surfaces and plantings to create a wonderful back road feel (see title picture). This is a bit like the “Ruelle Verte” program by Montreal’s Eco-quartiers, which partners with residents to improve the feel of their laneway by adding plantings and reducing impermeable surfaces (you can see a map of them here).

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It’s great to see so many of these project springing up from residents themselves who want to improve the quality of their spaces. But we also need our city planners and government to recognize the potential in these spaces and allow these types of projects to happen through supportive policies and plans.

title image from National Post’s Ben Nelms, maps from their respective plans, planter picture my own, and Montreal picture from Eco-quartiers.

The many personalities of Vancouver’s traffic circles

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One of the things I miss dearly about Vancouver from my perch in Toronto are the traffic circles. It feels weird to even type that—like someone saying they miss an on ramp—but honestly, these traffic circles are wonderful. Yes, some look a bit mangy, but they are all unique in their own tiny, wonderful, circular way.

Many are tended by volunteers from the neighbourhood who work with the City through the Green Streets program to water and take care of the plants. This provides spaces for those that may not have their own yard to do a bit of gardening. But the really great thing is that these residents get to add their own flare, so each traffic circle has a different personality.

Sometimes that personality even extends beyond the usual flowers and plants into other more spontaneous uses like when a resident near the 10th Avenue bikeway transformed a nearby traffic circle into a tiny meeting spot called, awesomely, Gather Round. I’m not sure if this is still happening, but if you’re in Vancouver be sure to stop in for tea if you can.

Makes me wonder what else you can do in a traffic circle? Maybe a little reading group with circular benches and a mini library? A small bike repair station with an air pump? A bar to cozy up in at night for a beer or two? A boy can dream.

The traffic circles also help visually break up long street views, making neighbourhoods feel cozier and greener—no more big grey intersections. And they’re great for cyclists because you don’t have any of those pesky stop signs to ignor—er, stop fully at.

More mini-traffic circles, I say! And more residents getting the chance to put their own unique (green) thumb print on their city.

What Vancouver’s Mid Main Park can teach us about small parks

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I love tiny parks—the more itty-bitty the better—and when I was back in Vancouver recently, I made sure I went to visit the relatively new Mid Main Park at Main and 18th Street done by Hapa Collaborative. I had been watching the design process from my perch in Toronto and was excited to see what it looked like in person. In short, the park is awesome, and it can teach us a lot about how to create great small parks.

There are a few reasons why this park is great. One is that it uses its space incredibly well, creating different rooms in a pretty tiny park by changing the elevations, using curved pathways, and incorporating distinct design elements in different places. It’s also located at an interesting bend in Main Street and creates a nice place to stop and people watch.

The other reason though is found in the whimsy of its design. As this recent post in the excellent blog The Dirt points out, the design of the park was meant to evoke the feel of a nearby ice cream shop that had closed in the 1980s. The park includes candy-red stools, a sculpture that resembles bendy straws, long concrete benches, and a small grassy knoll. Too many times, small parks are left as a patch of grass with a bench or two when they can be so much more. Dare to dream big, tiny parks!

The final reason is that the park is also an excellent example of what can happen when a city reclaims under-utilized roadway for park space. The design called for the closing of a slip lane on the western portion. Closing this lane and turning it into part of the park allowed this piece of public space to be stitched back into the city.

image from Hapa Collaborative