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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Wild in the Streets: Vancouver Car Spaces Transforming into People Places

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[Looking for Something to Do or Somewhere to Be During these Summer Weekends? Regular Spacing Contributor – Urban Designer Brendan Hurley looks at the new public spaces and street festivals in Vancouver, but reveals a summer full of fun in to be had town. Events listed below!]

Vancouver is changing, one street at a time. The City has made some specific efforts to foster pedestrian activity and a walking culture that is more than the ordinary stroll. One-time and regular events have been burgeoning through Vancouver’s Streets and these walkabouts have revealed how shifting how we use streets in the City help to markedly change how the city itself functions and is experienced.

The successful events that have happened and are still happening during these not so lazy days of summer show that a demand for using public space and civic activity on the ground is strong in Vancouver. Yet, that demand warrants the pursuit of policies now that would have seemed like distant pipe dreams without such examples.

Viva Vancouver and Transport 2040:

Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 Draft Plan has outlined some of the ways the extension of activities can be made by the City into streets, rights of way, and parking areas to make pedestrian and other activities thrive in what is commonly considered sacred space for cars. Some of its proposals point directly to pedestrian infrastructure improvement, but some include a push towards new public spaces including a “Pavement to Plazas” program that will focus on shifting the use of key parking stalls in high traffic areas that can be reutilized and reprogrammed into public open spaces. [An early effort is Parralel Park off Main St. on 14th Avenue.] There is also a striking support for permitting for events that repurpose streets for festivals and other events – both reoccurring and singular.

One of the successful first forays into the development of this pedestrian culture is the VIVA Vancouver Project. Viva Vancouver working off of the success of Olympic festival events and a few pilot projects has greatly expanded this summer. As part of Viva Vancouver there have been a number of street closures that have vastly increased pedestrian space and activity in the downtown core over the summer. Granville Street has been blocked to even bus traffic on the weekends as seating, buskers and most importantly people fill into the street. Some of the this programs most amazing improvements to public space, however, have been showing up on Robson Street.

[***Celebrate these Summer Weekends by visiting the great spaces and festivals listed after the Jump ***]

#1 – Robson Street Parklet [Urban Pasture]:

The decking, vegetation, and wooden bench add space to walk, socialize, and eat. [Photo John Paul Catungal]

In the last few weeks there has been a pleasant surprise outside the door of Café Crêpe on Robson Street: An extension of the sidewalk build of wood decking has been placed in the equivalent of two on-street parking stalls that includes benches and planters. Retractable Roof Systems Melbourne can transform your outdoor to indoor, thanks to the innovative design and the high level of weather resistance.

A little primer:
Robson Street was originally surveyed as just another residential street of the West End at a 66 foot width. With the early inclusion of a streetcar –now trolley-bus– the street drew retail and pedestrian traffic that is now often tracked as some of the most consistently busy in the Metro Vancouver region. In the late ‘70s a policy to set back new developments was imposed on the street to ensure that the street would act with an 80 foot right-of-way – consistent with standard retail high-street rights-of-way. Problems in the pedestrian space of Robson arise where older buildings, like the Café Crêpe, among others, jut into that wider right-of-way and pinch sidewalk widths below the ability to service pedestrian loads.

The parklet shows the potential to use parking spaces to accomodate far more street users than the two cars that the space would have otherwise been used for. Beyond opening up pedestrian movement space, the wooden structure is lined with an angular bench with a variety of seating opportunities and a planter box edge that separates the spot from the travel lane beside it. This mix of smooth wood and vegetation makes for a comfortable place to sit and grab a bite, something that helps the Café especially as they have a front facing takeaway window that exacerbates crowding on this section of an already busy street.

#2 – Robson Square Summertime Plaza:

Tables and chairs in Robson Square are activating the space and providing a day and night time program. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

A pedestrianized Robson Square has been the goal of many a planner for decades. An early attempt more than 30 years ago caused traffic chaos. At that time the Cambie Street Bridge exited directly onto Robson and the street acted as a major arterial – its not hard to imagine the pandemonium at Robson and Howe if you added the traffic that now goes up Smithe to the mix. Ever since the engineering department of the City has been wary of shutting down Robson to through-traffic. However, whether through constant badgering or because of the success of the space as an open plaza during the Olympics, the pedestrianization of Robson Square is getting an extended chance to thrive this summer.

Last summer seating was provided as part of the Viva Vancouver program by an artificial lawn installation. This year a more quaint, yet powerful system has been put in place… tables and chairs. Large umbrellas have been placed in the travel lanes that divide the centrally located public space, and under them are a large number of foldable and durable metal chairs and tables. They are strikingly similar to sets used in Paris and NYC’s Bryant Park.


#3 – Granville Street’s Great White Way

Some of the City’s first attempts at opening up a redesigned Granville Street happened during the 2010 Olympics festivities. [Image: City of Vancouver]
The PWL redesignof Granville Street was on of the first big forays into this brave new world of urbane mixing of uses and priorities for Vancouver’s streets. The strip long known for its neon and lights gained a powerful unifying design element with the installation of vertical lit lamp posts. The effect at night is a ribbon of light that lives up to the much older nickname of the “Great White Way”. The design allows for vehicular space to be shifted back and forth into the streets. Parking lanes can easily be appropriated for sidewalk space deeper in the central business and club districts are shut off to traffic – even busses – on weekend evenings.

This action of blocking vehicular traffic along one of Vancouver’s most important retail streets has opened up possibilities for summer time activities that include performances and events.

On Saturday August 4th the second annual Veg Fest is filling up the Block of Granville between Robson and Georgia to present some of the City’s best vegetarian and vegan foodcarts and vendors.


#4 – The Amazing Grilled Cheese Giveaway

The Amazing Grilled Cheese Giveaway shut down a residential street and drew in passers by on bikes and foot. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]
On Saturday July 28th[Sorry Cheese fans you’ll have to wait until this time next year] Toby Amrit and Joni McKervey, amongst others, organized a small street festival for passers by in front of their home in Strathcona. In what has now become an annual event, the two along with neighbours, friends and random volunteers closed off the Union Bikeway and set up a grilled cheese party for any and all who chose to take part.

Using funds including a grant from the Vancouver Foundation along with a strong sense of the power of civic altruism, this festival showed what happens when people take over their street with a mind to making a people place and simple fun. A grill station and tent was matched with party music and cheesy sandwich art and signage.

While planned and seemingly approved, the event had a feeling of random happenstance and community mindedness that has often felt missing from the larger public events and festivals in the city. It was very bohemian, with bikes strewn and piled on the pavement and smiling faces. Some inspired to add other foods and drinks to the festivities others just surprised that to be offered a comfort food treat with no strings attached.

I can’t wait to see what happens next year. This event also provides optimism for what can be achieved if there is a stronger and more consistent policy to support community events, especially when it takes up the street for this kind of civically minded block party.

I can’t wait to see what happens next year. [To watch highlights of this years festivities check out the Grilled Cheese TV that was set up.]

#5 – East Van’s Food Cart Festival:

The Food Cart Fest in East Van was packed with people hungry for a taste of street food. [Photo: Lenore Newman]

On a more organized and commercially minded level of vehicle space appropriation the East Van Food Cart Fest is taking over the parking lot beside the Waldorf Hotel. The food cart pilot program has been in effect downtown changing the street food fare of this city to a new level beyond mere hot dogs – previously enforced as the only approvable street food by the Vancouver-Richmond Health Authority… and the City. But this festival strikes a chord and evokes the presence of the Food Pods in our Cascadian sister to the South – Portland, OR.

Dozens of food trucks and carts took over and lined the Waldorf’s parking lot with the bustling activity of expectant foodies in lines of hungry, yet happy revelers. Unlike the Portland prototype this pod faces inwards containing those partaking the fare – from the papusas to the perogies – inside the parking lot just off of Hastings. Tables and DJ booths were set up along with a legal bar cordoned off of the building edge of the Waldorf.

Using festival exemptions the Food Cart Fest is showing some of the best that the City has given coveted licenses to, along with some that seem to still be waiting on approval [fingers crossed]. The massive popularity of Sunday’s event, especially in such an out of the way location shows that a food pod might be a great weekend or seasonal addition to a surface parking lot somewhere else in the City, especially somewhere more central and active.

Food Cart Fest at the Waldorf is continuing every Sunday until Sept 2nd.


#6 – Livable Laneways:

Filling the T-Lane behind Main & Broadway. [Image: Livable Laneways Vancouver
Usually when planners talk about pedestrianizing streets we are referring to retail high streets or high traffic areas. The livable lane project that has been part of Viva Vancouver has been taking the concept of streets for people to a much smaller scale. The Livable Lanes project in the lane west of Main between Broadway and 8th Avenue is showing what potential the smaller rights of way that permeate our city can reach. There have been a number of festivals in the city over the years that have focused on programming a lane, but there have been few that

This Saturday August 4th the Mount Pleasant BIA is presenting the Smoking Sausage BBQ Competition as part of the Livable Laneways events. The Cook-Off will be happening between 5pm and 9pm.

[Also to look out for this August Long Weekend]

#7 – Powell Street Festival:

Vancouver’s annual Japanese community event returns to the Oppenheimer Park this year. With food, dancing, and celebration of Japanese Canadian culture in Vancouver. The side streets are take over for food and festivities while the park itself acts as the main stage and core of the action.

Drop in on the festivities on Saturday August 4th and Sunday the 5th.


#8 – Celebration of Light:

Vancouver’s annual fireworks competition, these years sponsored by Honda, is underway, and Saturday August 4th is the last night. The atmosphere down at the end of Davie and Denman Streets is becoming more and more of a carnival. By showtime around 10pm the streets are packed with revelers and are locked down to cars. This year even more than before there has been an effort by organizers to focus on getting people of their cars to enjoy the night. The West End has been all but blocked off to incoming traffic, and connections to transit have been beefed up.

By the end of the night the massive crowds flow and filter through the streets and lanes of these seaside neighbourhoods. It’s interesting to think about the growth and changes that have happened with this festival since decades past when people gathered around English Bay to watch fireworks.


#9 – Pride Parade:

Everyone loves a parade, but it is something that isn’t as common of a sight in Vancouver. Pride is different, as one of the city’s most popular parades and street festivals, it fills the streets of Downtown with people and activity, with a flare of Carnivale. The Sunday celebration of GBLT culture [August 5th from noon] in the city runs along Robson, Denman, and Beach ending at Sunset beach for the usual party. The other party is the street festival that fills the Davie Village with even more life. Previous years have even seen temporary bars and dance halls set up in the travel way. Some critique that it has become much less of a statement than a corporate event, but the power of this festival and parade and the party atmosphere that is at its core has provided lessons for many of the other events that have since been following in the steps of celebrating life in the city by dancing in the streets.


Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is acting as Assistant Editor of Spacing Vancouver, but also consults as director of the UrbanCondition design collective.