A Sabbatical with Jane Jacobs. And an ode to Vancouver’s West End

As the reader of my blog (thanks, whoever you are!) would know, I have recently been on a 2 month sabbatical, spending most of the time in Vancouver, with one side trip to Chicago and Toronto. While it was essentially a holiday, I met up occasionally with colleagues there interested in cities. We stayed in Vancouver’s West End, and spending a bit of time walking around that part of this city.

And Jane Jacobs is on my mind. Not just because I met up with the good people from Jane’s Walk while I was in Toronto – it’s a great program, for which I’m the Brisbane organiser:

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It’s more that I felt her spirit is with me while I walked around Vancouver’s West End, and it was certainly with me when I visited her long term home city of Toronto. There, I was fortunate to be able to meet up with Ken Greenberg, who it turned out knew her well and after some prompting on my part, told me of working with her from a community perspective to pursue the impressive regeneration of the King and Spadina neighbourhood. Here is Ken showing me around the area on a chilly Febraury evening:

(null) Ken talked of Jane’s humility (apparently she hated the idea of being a “guru”), her incisive mind, her endless thirst for knowledge and understanding of cities, and her passion for community involvement. He gave me a great quote from her: “the best plans are those that liberate other people’s plans”.

I was introduced to Ken by my Seattle based colleague Alan Hart of Via Architecture , whom I’d caught up with for a drink and chat at Vancouver’s Fish House Restaurant in Stanley Park. Alan was involved in the early days of “Vancouverism”, before it was called that, as his firm did the master planning for the Expo site redevelopment and many early high rise projects in the city. He reckons they worked out the principles underpinning these by analysing why the West End works.

As I walked around that area, Jane Jacob’s “four generators of diversity” that “create effective economic pools of use” kept coming to mind:

1. Mixed primary uses, activating streets at different times of the day. The main mixed use is along the “U” formed by Robson, Denman and Davie Streets, but there is a sprinkling of cafés, corner stores and community uses too.

2. Short blocks, allowing high pedestrian permeability. The blocks are longer on the axis to Stanley Park, but it’s very easy to just turn the next corner to find your way.

3. Buildings of various ages and states of repair. The place is a schamozzle of building styles, ages, heights and designs. So much so, that it shouldn’t hang together. But it does.

4. Density. Haven’t seen any figures, but I’d reckon it is on the upper end of the scale.

Her sidewalk ballet was also evident everywhere, with people of all ages and social standing, and lots of dogs, and the performing the dance daily and nightly. It never feels unsafe, and people are usually friendly.

I’m not surprised the West End was used as a model for the principles of good city building. The place just works.

A few more observations as to why:

1. Its location 

It is close to downtown, Stanley Park, waterfront and beaches. So you can live there and walk, bike or bus to just about anything.

2. Its street grid

The street pattern is a leftover street car city grid that provides legibility and flexibility. In places it has been closed off, made into park, made one way and even bikes only at strategic locations for a range of reasons. I particularly like the story that some road closures date back to its less salubrious days to provide potential clients form driving loops past ladies of the night…

3. Its diversity

As I’ve said above, it is a real mixture of building styles, sizes and uses. This provides housing that meets a range of housing needs, including some social housing, and it has a broad socio-economic mix.

4. Its streets

They are wide enough to provide for two lanes of traffic and some parking, plus good sized footpaths/sidewalks which are all paved and pedestrian friendly. Pretty much all of them have prominent street trees, which are a strong unifying element that ties everything together and provides nature in the street to complements the mostly well kept gardens, and provides colour with the seasons and shelter at times.

And that is about it. So thanks Jane Jacobs:

And thanks to the West End for demonstrating how to do it, and all those who believe in these fundamental components of great city building and gave me their time while I was in Canada.

Greg Vann

March 2015

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