Price Tags has explored the Country Lane, and there has been some speculation as to the origins of this concept and why it disappeared from our urban consciousness. The County Lane was so right in so many ways-it was sustainable, dealt well with torrential rains and sitting groundwater, prevented flooding onto residential properties (that is a big issue when lanes are paved), slowed traffic down, minimized off gassing (with no pavement being installed) and surprise-formed a fabulous public space that was quickly taken over by neighbours for barbeques and even evening movie screenings with lawn chairs in the lane serving as movie seats. I know it sounds utopian, and it was the right idea, just at the wrong time.
The City of Vancouver is unusual in that the city has functioning back lanes in most of the street grid. When the city was laid out these lanes were to be “service” lanes for garbage pick up and in the downtown core are efficient for commercial deliveries.
In the 20th century, there were a lot of Vancouver residential lanes that were dirty, gritty and dusty, and could be “improved” through-wait for it-paving. Asphalt did make these lanes more efficient for traffic and less muddy in winter, but brought its own set of evils, including speeding, flooding onto private property, off gassing of the asphalt, and the decimation of any gardens or plants that were planted in the dusty lane. There is a paving lane program that is part of the Local Improvement Program. Information on this process is here. Residents could sign up other residents and petition the city to have back lanes paved, with the cost being shared between the property owners and the city.
Resident Sharole Tylor, who lived on 28th Avenue east of Fraser Street is what Malcolm Gladwell would call an “early adapter”. Sharole’s block was one of the first to have adopted blooming boulevards. Her father had been an engineer for B.C. Hydro and provided the design for the bulletin board frames you will see throughout the neighbourhood. When Sharole had an idea she also had a plan to implement it, and that was the case for the country lane.
Instead of paving, Sharole proposed that the City trial a demonstration project of a sustainable lane, with two concrete wheel runs. David DesRochers was a versatile engineer at the City of Vancouver looking at more sustainable textures and finishes to the traditional paved back lane. Under his leadership, David Yurkovich, a landscape architect helped design three demonstration lanes, using structural soil contained in heavy vinyl cells. The first lane east of Fraser Street was built in concert with residents on a weekend, so that neighbours would know how the lane worked, and also how to replace any bricks that may be dislodged on the runs to their garages.
The pilot project won the American Public Works Association’s 2003 Technical Innovation Award. There were three Country Lanes built-one is in the back lane of City Farmer in Kitsilano, and there is another one in the Hastings-Sunrise area near Yale Street. The first two lanes were designed using a landscape architect. The third lane, in Hastings-Sunrise did not have the same attention to detail and specifications, and has not performed as well.
The country lane allows for 90 per cent of the rain water to be absorbed directly into the ground, increasing vegetation and taking the load off the sewer system. Compare that to the city’s standard back lane paving which absorbs zero rain water which all must go to the city’s storm drains.
But here’s the thing-the first three Country Lanes were expensive because they were first builds. Maintenance in these lanes is also higher. The lanes were never costed for the environmental, sustainable and social public space aspects they provide. They were never really championed for what they could do, and of course a decade ago the idea of the need for sustainable open spaces in lane ways for a densifying city was not really on the radar.
Here is the Federal government’s write-up on the country lane. The right idea, the wrong time. Perhaps it is now time to revisit this concept.