More Like This...

Recent Posts

Archives

A Citywalker’s Take: Walking the Livable City

Mar 03, 2010

by Lydia Heard, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

Authors note: My nom de plume (or screen) is citywalker. I like to walk in cities, and I like to get cities walking – helping to make them more friendly, accessible and inviting for increasing numbers of citywalkers. There was once a type of citywalker known as “flanéur”. As the great majority of us are not nineteenth-century dandified men of leisure, and there never really was any counterpart “flanéuse”, I find the term citywalker to be more broadly accessible and acceptable – as, alas, “streetwalker” is not. Thanks to VIA for inviting me to do a citywalk of Vancouver during the Olympics and to write about it here.

I was invited to walk in Vancouver during the Olympics and record my impressions. What a hardship! What a pleasure, more like. I’ve visited but I don’t really know Vancouver, so this will be a visitor’s impression. Maybe next they’ll ask the opinion of someone who lives there, eh? Actually a visitor’s impression may be appropriate for this Host City to the 2010 Olympics.

Vancouver was just ranked by the Economist magazine, again, as the most livable city in the world. It’s also one of the most walkable. This is the city that became a verb, “Vancouverize” – in the manner of “Vancouverism”, of course. This great city supposedly got even better in order to play host to the world for the Olympics. What was improved? How was it better? How could it have been? What will remain, what will change, when the Olympics are over and the world goes home?

Vancouver Pre-Olympics

The last time I did a real citywalk in Vancouver was in the summer of 2008. Everything was just gearing up for the Olympics. The Millennium Water (soon to play the role of Olympic Village) and other parts of Southeast False Creek were still under construction (and still being paid for by the developer). Evidence of the Canada Line was a big hole at the end of Granville.

Pedestrians and cyclists were still trying to avoid each other while crossing the Burrard Bridge. I like to walk the bridges off the peninsula, then turn and walk back. It’s like going to some mystical, mythical island of glittering towers with a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped peaks. (see this citywalker post for a pecha kucha on Vancouver citywalks).
 
The towers were (and are) glitteringly beautiful; the streets below were then sometimes gritty and unkempt, where used syringes and other negative urban detritus could be found – but not while walking along Robson along with all the international tourists stalking high-end shops. The Inukshuk symbol in Olympic colors was already everywhere.

Water Street in Gastown was packed with pedestrians because it was closed to traffic for a special event, or just for summer crowds, as it has on almost every occasion I’ve been. Just two blocks away, like some post-apocalyptic vision, the streets, alleys and public spaces were packed with hordes of apparently homeless and/or drug addicted people, out enjoying the fine weather.

DTES has an infamously negative reputation throughout Canada and beyond, but I have never tried to avoid the Downtown Eastside, as it is on an interesting and convenient walking route. In 2009, I took my mother to Vancouver for a day trip, and after lunch in Yaletown walked her over to Gastown by a route I knew. On Abbott Street we stepped over big wet blood spatters on the sidewalk. I checked to make sure she had turned the big diamond of her ring into her palm, feeling a bit guilty for bringing her by that way and for making assumptions about the people we passed. 

How were such negative perceptions, and the real social issues behind them, addressed by the Host City? Would hospitality towards the world affect the situation of less fortunate residents? Would it look and feel any different? What changes might be positive and permanent, if any?

I spent much of one pre-Olympic trip enjoying rides on the Skytrain, both the Millennium Line and the Expo, which was put into place for another world event which was a catalyst for permanent, positive change.

The trains whiz by Science World and the stadiums at the end of False Creek, all a positive legacy to Expo ’86. The lines continue into the hinterland, and I ride along to see the stations and often very different areas of the stops, planning future walking trips.

Good transit is the friend of the citywalker, as it greatly expands the reach of our feet. Vancouver has transit that was the envy of many cities even before the Canada Line opened. The little trains are like kinetic sculpture to watch in their fast, frequent and elevated comings and goings, as are the Aquabus and False Creek Ferries on their shoreline hops.

Vancouver is the golden coast of Canada, with temperate and often fine weather showcased by a gorgeous natural setting between mountains and water. People get out in good (and not so good) weather, in some places more than others. On some days you might find more people on the trails in Stanley Park, along Sunset Beach or the seawalls than on many downtown streets.

Even on Granville Island, when no festival is scheduled, there are mostly scattered knots of people at different locations, and it can be quite easy to find yourself completely alone there if solitude is what you seek. But will there be any solitude when an extra 200 – 300,000 people come to a town of about 580,000 residents? How do you make sure the transportation systems handle the added load? What planning is involved in order for a city to play host to the world? What is left when the crowds go home, what changes are permanent?

Next in Walking the Most Livable City: Vancouver 2010®. Part 2 will look at life in the livable city. The series will then look at transportation, social issues, sustainability, world event programming vs. local programming, and what might be the legacy of the Olympics for Vancouver.