Back in the early 1990’s, a forward thinking, mindful and driven group of young landscape architects, architects, planners and city lovers sat down for a coffee. They mourned the fact that the city was developing without thinking through the language and connection with the urban environment and nature. They also understood the interconnectedness of systems, circulatory for traffic and city services and the need for access to punctuated green park space alleviating the increasing density of urban building.
At a time when “being green” and environmentally friendly were not watch words they insisted that there had to be a way to respect nature in the city, plan with it, and incorporate it in everyday life.
The eight members of the Urban Landscape Taskforce formed in 1991 are an early who’s who on placemaking:Moura Quayle, Susan Abs, Joost Bakker, Robert Bauman, Claire Bennett, Cindy Chan Piper and Sarah Groves. Moura, who became Dean of Agriculture at University of British Columbia and is now a professor of the Sauder School of Business was the chair.
They were supported by an eager group of volunteers including Michael Dea, David Fushtey, Doug Paterson, Brian Perry and Jeannie Bates.
In 1992 this Taskforce created a final report titled greenways-public ways. For some reason this document has never been scanned and is not easy to access. This is a true shame as it lays out very clear principles for decision-making that not only guided the work in creating greenways, but is helpful in assessing place making decisions today. The principles also lay out a plan and approach to ecology in the city by :
2. Recognizing diversity and balance;
3. Caring for and respecting the environment;
4. Making connections to nature and places for all citizens;
5. Creating and promoting community definitions of landscapes;
6. Encouraging innovation;
7. Promoting fairness and equity;
8. Ensuring decision are informed.
From these strong principles, the Taskforce urged the establishment of a “Greenway Trust” to create “corridors linking open spaces” which would invite residents to experience “the outside inside” of a city. These “greenways” are actually what we would call sustainable “green streets” today. The linkages would include a completed waterfront walkway system, ecological reserves such as the Grandview Cut and pedestrian and bike paths through spaces to allow for direct connections. The greenways would also showcase the latest in sustainable practices in storm water management and street design, and be a backdrop to commissioned public art and landscaped plantings.Greenway streets also would have pedestrian and bicycle prioritized before cars.
Instead of setting up a private “greenways trust” which was legally challenging for the City to do, Council created an interdisciplinary Greenways team with planning, landscape architecture and engineering expertise. This interdisciplinary team would propose a greenways network connecting parks, schools, commercial areas and services. An Urban Landscape Inventory would inform the best locations for greenways, which would go border to border across the city in all four compass directions.
By establishing a greenways system that recognized landscape legacies, a public realm plan was to be created that would be accessible for all residents. The team also recognized the importance of supporting a parks management plan, and the need to reclaim local streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Public consultation and connection with residents in explaining the plan was also key. But imagine-a report from a quarter century ago stating “Examine the current street budget which is vehicle-based and use budget re-allocations to exponentially increase funds for streets designed to include cyclists. A policy is needed to provide for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles on our streets, in ways which are safe and effective.”
The remaining strategies from the Taskforce are still relevant today: Developing a street strategy for all users, Prepare an Ecological Management Plan, Adopt ecological performance standards, Promote the urban forest and Ecological literacy. Community gardens were also addressed, as well as the need to celebrate the diversity and culture of the different neighbourhoods.
The Urban Landscape Taskforce was very concerned about making the pedestrian comfortable and at ease using a convenient system of greenways. They also addressed the need for new street design such as the Dutch Woonerf, stating
“The Dutch woonerf is an excellent example of the redesign of streets to enhance their social role in neighbourhoods. No distinction is made between sidewalk and road, pedestrians are given priority over the car, speed limits are reduced to walking pace, parking is consolidated, and trees, benches, and gardens enhance the street. “
Two decades later, we have a network of streets that are for walking and biking ahead of car traffic, with each resident in Vancouver located a 20 minute walk or a 10 minute bike ride away from a greenway. The greenways display best practices in sustainable street building and place making, and public art. They link together parks, schools, shops and services like pearls along several fine and varied routes.
We still have no woonerfs, but we have infiltration bulges, baffles and swales along greenways that demonstrate best principles in water management. The Taskforce also recommended that Council establish the Arbutus right-of-way as another transportation corridor in the Vancouver Greenway, including rail, bicycle and pedestrian paths.
I had the delight of being the Greenways Planner for the City of Vancouver and was involved in the creation of the Tupper Neighbourhood Greenway, the Avalon Greenway, and the completion of the Ridgeway Greenway. It was an extraordinary experience to work with a strong interdisciplinary team focused on implementing the Greenways plan. A quarter century later, the work of the Urban Landscape Taskforce has turned out to be prescient and futuristic, and we have a greenways system that is the envy of many municipalities. May we all stand the test of time as well as this groundbreaking work has.