A plea for a lighter, greener, cheaper, more collaborative approach to building the “Greenest City”

The sad case of Point Grey Road.

by Patrick Condon

You would think the City of Vancouver was out to make us all raging nature haters. How is it that the provision of a simple thing like bike lanes has made city voters so apoplectic that it ranks at the top of the pile of election wedge issues. Its like getting upset about crosswalks. You have to try really hard to make folks mad about, or even notice, public infrastructure. But somehow the city seems to accomplish this feat again and again.

The newest catalyst for resident apoplexy is, yet again, Point Grey Road. Residents there are furious about a six meter wide sidewalk and tree boulevard strip currently under construction on the north side of this street – in most cases on land being taken back from lavishly planted front gardens that had gradually forested over unused city land.

Point Grey Road is, of course the street that the City closed to through car traffic to complete the City’s “sea wall” along the Kitsilano district’s shore. This original effort was understandably applauded by homeowners along this “golden mile”, but dismayed residents of other parts of the city and region who had become accustomed to going there for a Sunday drive to enjoy the attractive ocean views and, to some extent, gape at the homes and gardens of the well heeled.

In this more recent case the homeowners garner little sympathy from the broader populace, given that the street closure seems to have been a factor in the fantastic increase in property values there. Spurious safety concerns raised by golden mile residents ring hollow when the 10,000 daily trips which once passed their drives now inflict residents living along nearby 4th avenue.

This is all the more sad because none of this really had to be this way. The City lately seems incapable of anything approaching a light touch when it comes to their Greenest City agenda. The current approach to Point Grey Road is emblematic of this failure of imagination. Truly sustainable cities emerge with a much lighter hand. The City’s ham handed approach unnecessarily disrupts existing cultural and urban ecosystems, and, in the process, racks up unnecessary political and capital debts. Its sad. A much lighter approach to Point Grey Road was always available. But a lighter approach would have required a more holistic sensibility which, i would argue, the City lacks. A more truly sustainable approach would be accepting of “both and” solutions rather than the current “one way my way or the highway” approach.

The City’s approach to designing and building green infrastructure seems similar to the much maligned approaches taken by highway engineers of the 1960’s. Those folks happily ripped up city blocks for flyovers and cloverleafs, and leveled every neighbourhood in the freeway’s path. There is thus not a small measure of irony in using these same design approaches for green infrastructure in the only city that stopped a highway from gutting its downtown.

What would a lighter approach have looked like on Point Grey Road? Well i suppose the City could have started off by at least trying the one way street proposed by citizens prior to the City’s controversial and precipitous complete street closure. That plan could have been implemented with a can of yellow paint to mark the bike way and a few signs. If that proved inadequate after a few years then some new signs and some more paint to divert the one way traffic to 4th ave could have worked. This is the kind of “tactical urbanism” strategy famously used by Jannette Saduk-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner, who first used a can of paint and some movable chairs to close off Times Square in New York City, a move that both proved what was possible and allowed for low cost real time experimentation to get it right.

But instead we got a very over-engineered grey street, with green functions (walking, biking) rigidly, unnecessarily and expensively separated. We could have had a “complete” street instead, one with wheeled circulation functions more mixed and existing trees preserved. We could have had a street that enhanced rather than degraded ecological functions, a street that added habitat rather than removed it, a street where storm water was cleaned and infiltrated into the water table rather than discharged unmitigated into English Bay waters.

There was a time not so long ago where the City was pursuing these simpler green infrastructure strategies; notably at its Crown Street Green Street Project of 2005. That seems like a different world now. Take a look at that sustainable street with its naturalized drainage and no need for storm drains and expensive curbs and pipes. Would Point Grey Road not have been the natural place for a public display of this lighter green touch? a project that could have been implemented for a fraction of the cost of the current project? and a project strategy that you can easily imagine working around existing mature trees rather than savagely clear cutting every shred of green within the right of way?

Sadly our chance to get it right on Point Grey Road has passed. But there is, I believe, a larger issue here. Its not too late to engage in a fundamental rethinking of what it means to be the Greenest City. Its not too late to recognize that a green city is an efficient city, a city that looks for the most modest and easy to realize solutions possible; a city that finds the solutions that emerge most easily and almost by themselves; a city that analogically follows the judo maxim of “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort” rather than the smash face brutality of over engineered solutions evident at Point Grey Road.

The proliferation of unneeded urban highways in our North American cities is just the most obvious example of the problem with the smash mouth tactics of failed urban engineering. We should not repeat that mistake in applying “green” infrastructure to the fragile ecosystem of the city.

In the end, the world’s “greenest city” must, to be worthy of the name, be a city that works with not against ecological systems, and works with not against its most dominant species: its citizens. We should have learned by now that its a mistake to depend on technocratic responses to narrowly defined problems. In the end, a green city becomes and stays green by always seeking the lightest possible way to achieve both its ecological and political ends. And those ends are enhanced by an open and holistic citizen focused process. The planning for Point Grey Road has more than once failed to meet this green standard. To be the greenest city means learning to avoid this mistake.