Urban Planning: Suburban Walking Blues

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Let me get this out of the way right up front: I am an American. I have been visiting Vancouver for years, most recently on a beautiful spring day last April to give a speech sponsored by UBC and SFU.

On the same day, I took a tour of Metro Vancouver’s walkable neighbourhoods with folks from Smart Growth BC, getting a first-hand experience of what it’s like to walk and take public transit in this region.

I must also mention that since Vancouver is widely considered to be one of the most walkable, livable and vital cities on the planet, it is with great humility that I comment on a place that is much more vital than nearly any U.S. city.

But I will comment, because I want to encourage Vancouver to continue to offer the U.S. a model of walkable urban development that we need so badly. While many Americans do not like to learn from “foreign” examples, Canada is an exception; you are so close and have been exporting friendly images and personalities to us for years. What American can’t relate to Red Green?

You are to be congratulated for the proposed $14-billion B.C. transportation program, the bulk of it going to transit. This will allow you to continue to diversify your transportation options and not just rely on the car (85 per cent of your trips from home are by car today). More importantly, this investment will spark more, higher-density walkable places to evolve.

Yet there is much more to be done in Vancouver. Most of the neighbourhoods known for great walkable urbanism (Downtown, Commercial Drive, Granville Island, the Broadway corridor, the West End and Coal Harbour, among others) are in the City of Vancouver. There are few walkable urban places in the rest of Metro Vancouver. This is in spite of significant transit investment over the past generation.

Most of your suburban transit stations have not witnessed the complex, vital, walkable places that the City of Vancouver is known for. Burnaby and Surrey are attempting to retrofit low-density suburban places with walkable urbanism and seem stuck in between. While the great urban bones of Surrey Central have seen encouraging reinvestment, there is a long way to go.

The Brookings Institution released a survey in December 2007 showing, surprisingly, that the Washington, D.C., region has the most regionally significant, walkable urban places per capita of the 30 largest U.S. metro areas. These are vital pedestrian-friendly places such as Downtown, Dupont Circle/Kalorama, Georgetown, Ballston and Reston Town Center. There are 20 of these neighbourhoods in this five-million-person region, with 10 more emerging (compared to only two 20 years ago). This means there are four (existing) to six (existing and emerging) walkable urban places per million people. Surprisingly, 70 per cent of these places are in the suburbs. Not surprisingly, 90 per cent of these places are served by the outstanding Metrorail system.

Using the Washington experience, there should be 10 to 15 significant walkable urban places in the Vancouver region. You have about six now. The D.C. experience shows that most of these places are in the suburbs. In contrast, all of Vancouver’s are in the city. Your challenge is to bring more walkable areas to the suburbs, where 70 per cent of you live.

Around existing and planned transit stations, there needs to be legal and financial encouragement to promote high-density, walkable urban places. Within 500 to 1,000 metres of each of your current and proposed transit stops there should be “special transit zoning,” which allows for mixed-use, high-density development (apartments above coffee shops, office space above grocery stores). Hopefully, mechanisms will also be put in place to encourage and financially support mixed-income housing. This is the necessary precondition for the real estate industry to produce the low-energy and low-carbon development required and demanded by the market today.

The Metro Vancouver region has taken huge steps in showing the U.S. a means by which to build a more sustainable future. The proposed investment in transit over the next decade is yet another sign that you will continue to provide a model. However, there is much more to do. Please do not dawdle; the U.S. needs you to show us the way.

Christopher Leinberger is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and author of The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream.



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