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Walking Toward Excellence: Reaching for a Pedestrian Vancouver

Feb 04, 2013

by Brendan Hurley, Urban Planner, VIA Architecture

Southeast False Creek, Vancouver

Southeast False Creek, Vancouver

Stepping Stones
Vancouver has just been named Canada’s most walkable city. Walk Score ranked Vancouver against other cities using their online algorithmic tool that looks at the connections and places within urban areas. Vancouver received top marks based on the mix and density of uses, places, activity, and connectivity.

At VIA, one of our driving principles is how to make cities exciting, connected, and valued places to live; an experience. So when one of our home towns gets lauded for doing what we hope it should and believe it can, we believe that distinction deserves reflection.

Vancouver getting awards for livability seems old hat at this point. As one of the perennial poster children for urban livability, this young West Coast city has more feathers in its cap than some feel it deserves, sometimes being described as a “Setting waiting for a city.” While this statement may have been true in the past decades, the efforts of planners and city builders to improve the vibrancy of urban life in this region have helped shaped a new existence for the Terminal City. By focusing on the urban environment and the connective nature of complete communities, design and planning – including the efforts of the VIA team – have shifted to not only capturing the power and beauty of the West Coast setting, but creating an urbane city all of its own.

The Importance of a Walking City
Walkability is about more than just having pedestrian paths. It’s about developing meaningful connections that improve the function and experience of places. In the end, and with few exceptions, being a pedestrian is how we interact with the City. Walking is the beginning and ending stage of almost all other transportation modes and, as such, those modes act as an extension of our pedestrian experience. Mid-century North American planning, enamored with the automobile, lost sight of this experience, and the pedestrian life of many cities degraded to a point where a simple walk was just not an option. The cores of communities became devalued, and urban life left with the people. This is still the case for many jurisdictions today, but over the last few decades the tide has been changing.

Vancouver has reached hard to make changes to its structure and how it sees itself. The 1970s saw successful Freeway Revolts and policy redirection, with a Livable Regions Plan to focus energy toward walking and transit- not only in the City’s core, but also in the cores of suburban “Regional Town Centres.” Creating livable places and a walking-first attitude was at the center of this urbane new Vancouver. VIA’s master planning projects, like False Creek North, redeveloped an inhospitable industrial waterfront into a showpiece for urban livability. The Seawall, a key element of this plan, has been stated as one of the key elements that make Vancouver a joy for locals and visitors to walk. Later on, the design for Southeast False Creek model sustainable community would expand and refine these concepts with pedestrian spaces that connect to the City and its environment, at both grand and personal scales.

Recent Efforts
Recent initiatives by the City of Vancouver showcase how far the City has come- but there is a lot left to do with this change in direction. The Greenest City Initiative looks at urban sustainability as a central driving goal for the City. Street-life with pedestrian activity as its primary mode is one of the core principles of the City’s Transportation 2040 Plan. In this plan, pedestrian, cycling, and transit modes are expected to dominate the City’s transportation system over the next 30 years. Biking infrastructure has made headlines, but these infrastructure improvements have gone hand-in-hand with improvements to Vancouver’s pedestrian experience. New greenways are slowly connecting a walkable core for the City. VIA’s Vancouver studio is adjacent to one of these incoming greenway corridors – the Helmcken-Comox Greenway – and a large percentage of VIA’s Vancouver-based team members use corridors such as this in their walk or cycle commute into the office.

Transit improvements and transit-oriented development are also expanding the role of the pedestrian regionally as more commuters take transit through and between cities of the Lower Mainland; Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy continues the tradition of urban cores connected by rapid transit. VIA has played a key role in extending the walkable nature throughout Vancouver and its urban region through our transit-oriented community design and transit planning. VIA’s work on the design of the Millennium Line, connecting Vancouver to North Burnaby and Coquitlam, treated the stations and transit as a functions of expanding the role of pedestrians throughout the region, while focusing on activity and connections in each community.

VIA’s mixed-use design of Plaza 88 at New Westminster SkyTrain Station has extended the idea of an urban town centre and a refocused renaissance for the core of New Westminster, where pedestrian activity and density is focused, while remaining interconnected with the rest of the City’s core. Other station area plans throughout the region have pushed the pedestrian as the primary urban actor, and have focused development to improve the pedestrian experience. Human-scale designs, like the Roundhouse Community Centre, have examined what brings joy to the pedestrian, and how/why we, as walkers, experience and explore our City and its special places.

Walking the Walk
The majority of our VIA team members, both in Vancouver and in Seattle, walk, bike, and take transit to work. VIA’s continued commitment to urban walkability is not surprising. The Walking Paradise Score that our VIA Yaletown Studio’s vicinity attains is a testament to the success of the principles we operate under and have carried forward over the years. We look forward to the next chapters as Vancouver and its neighbours grow and mature as a walkable city.

“Inside every car is a pedestrian waiting to get out”- Graham McGarva, Founding Principal, VIA Architecture