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Well, I Finally Visited Vancouver, BC

By Charlie McCabe

Downtown Vancouver Skyline from Stanley Park

The city has long been on my list of places to go since I lived in Austin and ran the citywide parks foundation there. Vancouver was the North American city that was modeling many of the things I thought we should be doing in U.S. cities, including Austin. Among them: revitalizing the old downtown and industrial cores with residential density, ground-floor retail, wider sidewalks, ample street trees, traffic calming, and separated bicycle facilities. As we worked in Austin to expand efforts to care for and revitalize existing parks, Vancouver was building waterfront parks, a circle-the-city trails effort, removing invasive plant species from their destination park jewel, Stanley Park, and pushing walkability and "bike-ridability."

Just one of many traffic circles in Vancouver


Since I first truly paid attention in 2005, Vancouver has continued to push forward; nineteen years later, they are far ahead in many ways. Despite the number of residential towers that have been built (and continue to be built, in force), the city seems to be teeming with tall trees, people walking and biking to work, and parks that are being used all of the hours of the day by people, children, and dogs.

Gardens in the park near our Airbandb

I only spent a few days in Vancouver. We rented an Airbnb high-rise condo, and from our 31st-floor perch, we could see the surrounding mountains, partially shrouded in clouds, as well as waterfront parks and of course, many buildings in-between. We walked a lot, soaking in the vistas of False Creek, the greater harbor, the rolling beaches dotted with big rocks and large driftwood logs (trees, really). There were neighborhood parks with community gardens, fenced off-leash areas for dogs, ample benches, and playing fields and sport courts for more active forms of exercise.

A room with quite a view

There’s plenty of work to be done in Vancouver's parks, of course. Just like any city parks system, they are far from perfect, and city staff were hard at work mowing, picking up trash, replanting, and so on. We also spied volunteers helping out, plus signage calling for more volunteers. The big difference is that Vancouver seems to have a lot of everything gleaned from the new urbanist cookbook — mature street trees, cycle tracks, traffic circles, nearly universally separated paths for those on wheels (bikes, skates, and scooters) versus those on foot (walking or running), community garden plots, amazing restoration efforts for riparian areas, and more. Perhaps many of these new standards were first conceived right here.

One of many gardens along the seawall paths — this one close to Granville Island

The integration of so many amenities takes the pressure off of any one thing — parks, waterfront, bike lanes — to have to serve multiple purposes like they might have to in many other U.S. cities. Following are a few highlights, in no particular order.

The city seems to be building — or rebuilding — rain gardens everywhere. These are either ponds or lakes that were "improved" long ago or areas in parks near roadways to capture storm water runoff. Some of these are quite big, many of them are small-scale.

Parks serve a wide array of purposes, including pedestrian / bike access, but also community gardens, recreation centers, dog parks, playscapes, and even restrooms. The following pictures are from a single park in the downtown area.

Public space, including parks and trails, encircle the greater downtown area, part of the high-rise development begun several decades ago. Commonly referred to as the seawall, these paths and spaces also provide some protection from storms, although Vancover is nestled in a very large bay with many other islands shielding it from the Pacific Ocean.

A guerilla garden below the seawall in Vancouver

Guinness the dog found a prized piece of driftwood and was refusing to leave the beach without it.

Granville Island (actually, a peninsula) was historically a manufacturing site (and still boasts a batch concrete plant), but since 1979, it has been a public marketplace with lots of shops, a food hall, a thriving farmers market, and other artisan enterprises.

Os Geomos (Brazilian street artists) painted the concrete plant stacks on Granville Island. They did a temporary mural at the Rose Kennedy Greenway when I worked there in 2013.

Just a few examples of the reclaiming or naturalizing of wetlands in and around Stanley Park

It was a great, but brief, visit. Stay tuned from more reports from the Pacific Northwest.

© Copyright 2024, Charlie McCabe Consulting, LLC. Link to all articles in this series. 

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