D.I.Y. Vancouver: a city of 15-minute neighbourhoods

What if all the services you need were within walking distance from your door?

During last year's civic campaign we held several community meetings in Vancouver's neighbourhoods. On occasion I was able to stand up and speak to the room and talk about issues that might interest them. In the eastside neighbourhood of Renfrew-Collingwood a decent crowd had turned up at the community centre in spite of cool, drizzly weather. The faces were mixed, many were seniors and some were Chinese men and women – a fair representation of this diverse suburban neighbourhood. I gathered after talking to many of them they were home owners in the area.

In the back of my mind was one of my main motivations for seeking public office. From the get-go I wanted to find ways for Vancouver to "age in place". However, that kind of "village" living was not possible in many parts of our city, the Renfrew community being a good example of that. The biggest challenge for the elderly is mobility. Just getting basic needs like groceries, or visiting the doctor requires a car – that is as long as you're able to drive.

It was a conservative crowd, but I asked them what they thought of the idea of moving into an apartment in their neighbourhood. Access to local shopping and services would be assured, as well as all the connections to the community formed over time. Judging by the nods I received, the idea seemed to go over well.

Can Vancouver become a city full of "15-minute neighbourhoods" where only short walks separate residents from most of the staples they need? It wouldn't be easy, especially in the southwest quadrant of the city, but I think we should explore how.

The "Do-It-Yourself" community

In order to create more villages across Vancouver should we lessen the role of planners and politicians, and give community-building tools to citizens instead? It sounds like a risky proposition, but according to an article in Enroute magazine, several cities are trying this with success, such as Portland, OR and even Calgary. The article How To Build Your Own City by Craille Maguire Gillies spoke to me because of our own small successes in community-building around Fraser Street. We've got much more work to do, but I've witnessed the power of neighbourhoods and would like to explore what else we can do here.

I thought City Caucus readers might find Gillies' article good fodder for discussion, so I'm providing it below in its entirety…

How To Build Your Own City

In places like Calgary and Portland, regular folks are taking their neighbourhoods into their own hands.

By Craille Maguire Gillies

“Watch out, watch out, watch out!” a toddler yells, hoisting a toy truck to his shoulders. I step out of the way as he zooms down the sidewalk. I’m in Share-It Square, a revamped intersection in a verdant Portland, Oregon neighbourhood. The main street – lined with antique shops, shady porches and front yards resembling mini botanical gardens – is mere blocks away, yet Share-It Square is the true heart of the community. On one corner, the boy runs in and out of Kids Klubhouse, a play space decked out with a Plexiglas roof, a table and chairs, toys and a lending library. Across from that, a guy straddling a bicycle holds out a mug as I walk past. “Want a cup of tea?” he asks, pointing to a 24-hour tea station with a stash of cups and a Thermos of hot water. (A neighbour restocks it every morning.) It’s like a self-serve Starbucks without the Wi-Fi.

About 20 neighbourhoods in Portland have undertaken similar “intersection repairs,” thanks to a community group called City Repair. When the mayor’s office realized that City Repair’s inexpensive, community-driven renos helped make neighbourhoods safer, city council officially paved the way for collaborative urban planning. Today the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is only an elevator ride away from Mayor Sam Adams; locals can take seminars such as Communities Creating Change, and Building Leaders, Building Your Board; and last year Adams launched a CivicApps design contest, turning residents into open-source city planners. (The Best of Show Award went to an app that provides bus and light-rail arrival times.)

People want their cities – like their banks and corporations – to be more transparent and accessible, and mayors are responding by bringing citizens into what was once a closed loop. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Planning Council offers training in community building, and sprawl-happy Edmonton put on an Open City confab for feedback on its Open Government project (a sort of Wikipedia approach to government data). Britain’s capital even held a series of debates on such existential questions as “Can London Be Both Big and Beautiful?” and “The 2012 Wish List: What Do You Want for London?” while the Dutch town of Smallingerland crowd-sourced the development of a new neighbourhood for what might be the world’s first “wiki-hood.”

In Portland, the affable mayor has been talking lately about “20-minute neighbourhoods,” where all the services you need – food, schools, transit, parks – are a short walk from your house. The idea is that if people become less mobile, they’ll spend more money locally and interact more with neighbours. But to get around a city that’s spread out like a quilt stitched together with the Willamette River, I follow Radcliffe Dacanay – a planner from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability – into a Subaru Outback that he has borrowed from Zipcar. “We’re a city of neighbourhoods,” he says as we cruise along tree-lined streets. I quickly discover how different a city looks through an urban planner’s eyes: Weathered single-family houses along busy roads become obstructions to urban renewal; plots of bare land between buildings become grey space. When we drive by a triangle of land in one tired neighbourhood, Dacanay says casually, “This area could be piazzified.”

In Kenton, the mayor’s own 20-minute ’hood, we’re greeted by a hulking 10-metre-high statue of the mythological lumberjack Paul Bunyan – a fitting symbol for a city with the nickname Stumptown. Sleepy Kenton has all the makings of a hipster haven: cutesy moniker (No-Po, for North Portland), a light-rail station, a US$3-million investment from the Portland Development Commission and a smattering of hangouts, including Posies Cafe and Kenton Station Restaurant & Pub. Like many neighbourhoods, it has a website, Facebook page and e-newsletter. “I absolutely think it can be replicated in other cities,” Adams has said to The Atlantic magazine. “I do not think it’s anything in our water, as wonderful as our Portland water is.”

He’s right. Portland’s DIY approach to urban planning has spread to a place you might not expect. Calgary, the economic engine of a province that’s been described as “an experiment in fast, cheap and out of control,” has created Plan It Calgary. The 60-year visioning project aims to curb the city’s legendary urban sprawl, save $11.2-billion in infrastructure costs (mostly on roads and utilities) and reinvest in neighbourhoods to create transit centres, live-work spaces, plazas and parks. As one urban designer warned me before I headed to Cowtown, “Realize that our second industry after fossil fuels is suburban sprawl.” But Calgary also ranks high on livability studies, placing fifth on The Economist’s 2010 list. (Vancouver took top spot and Toronto came in fourth.) Locals are finally starting to think about their future.

It couldn’t come soon enough. As I consult the GPS on my rental car, I miss the pub where I’m supposed to meet two organizers from CivicCamp, an ad hoc group started by regular Calgarians to discuss urban issues and whose first project was to advocate for the Plan It initiative. But before I can turn around, I’m faced with the vortex of Crowchild Trail, one of the terrifying labyrinths of highways that spew visitors into a suburban expanse stretching toward the Rocky Mountains. I check for cops, make a U-turn at the on-ramp and loop back to the parking lot of Mickey’s Juke Joint & Eatery, where I find Cheri Macaulay and her fellow CivicCamper, Peter Rishaug.

“People felt a collective grumpiness when we hit the 1-million mark; we knew the city had to change,” says Macaulay, explaining that the need for citizen involvement is even greater with Calgary expected to swell by another million inhabitants in coming decades. “Suddenly, people wanted to have different conversations.” So CivicCamp used social media to bring Calgarians into the debate while Plan It was wending through City Hall. Then it fought for, and won, a seat on Plan It’s implementation committee and created outreach programs like its CivicCamp-in-a-Box workshops, which gather neighbours for good old brainstorming sessions on community campaigns and projects similar to Portland’s City Repair. “Only in the last three years have we come to grips with what Calgary needs to do,” Rishaug says later as we stand at the Pumphouse Theatre, looking out over the Bow River close to where the West Village development is planned. (Along with homes for 12,000 residents and dozens of offices, there’s talk of including an Alberta College of Art + Design campus.)

Strolling along the Bow and imagining Calgary 20 or 30 years from now brings to mind an experience I had in Portland. I was ambling up Alberta Street to a monthly street fair, and community spirit was everywhere. At one stall, two women were selling pink T-shirts printed with “The People’s Republic of Portland.” Near the end of the thoroughfare, a guy in waist-length dreadlocks and a karate-style outfit was breakdancing to “Thriller” streaming from a boom box. Stepping closer, I noticed he wasn’t performing for the crowd; he was dancing for a child sitting on the road. The toddler wobbled to his feet, busted a few moves and plopped down on the asphalt. As “Thriller” ended, the boy tottered toward his father, who took him in his arms and swept him high above the crowd. The sun was starting to set, the cafés were still full and everyone was out enjoying the city. And why wouldn’t they, when people were literally dancing in the streets?

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  • Mira

    Good luck with that utopia.
    Vancouver is already built the way it is. You can add a tower here, there, but in the end it will look like a uncat lawn full of dandelions. As for the walk/ shop/ work/live thing. How? When all the industry (light manufacturing) is kicked out if the city… btw, thanks mr mayor (happy Planet eh?) and the city is used for … sleeping and entertaining… what else can we wish for?
    It make work in places the size of Steveston, here… don’t think so. My two cents.

    • Mira

      “uncut” not “uncat” 🙂

  • Westygrrl

    As per Mira, we’ve had that in Vancouver for quite a while, and could again in certain neighbourhoods, i.e. Marpole, if the City and VEC could figure out a comprehensive, industrial/job-producing plan-for-the-future of existing industrial lands that are currently underutilized.

  • Van Man

    Hi Mike. Nice thought but isn’t Vancouver already a city of neighborhoods with most amenities never that far away. For those areas that are a little out of the way (southwest area of city), there are frequent transit bus lines available to link up with commercial areas. Plus the transit oriented development that will emerge up and down Cambie over the next 25 years will only help. You only have to compare Vancouver with any of the Metro municipalities and you’ll see that it is neighborhood focused.

    • @Van Man. I disagree that Vancouver is already as walkable as you suggest. Using the Renfrew example again, think about the corner of 22nd and Rupert. A school on one corner, low rise moribund commercial on the other three corners. A busy bus route down Rupert and not far from 29th Skytrain station. It has great potential as a walkable town centre. It is one of dozens of similar nodes between Boundary Road and UBC where most residents depend upon their cars.

      I agree with you that we’ve got it much better than many other Metro cities.

  • Mark

    A refreshingly progressive piece from you Mike, nice to read it. Though I did note your careful omission of any mention of bicycle infrastructure in these very livable 15-minute neighbourhoods that usually tends to be a key point in these sorts of livability conversations… But that’s okay, we can let it slide today. Baby steps and all. 🙂

    • I’ll take the compliment even with the condescension, Mark. I wish I was being as clever as you say, trying to deliberately omit references to cycling. I was focused on seniors and walkability, not all forms of active transportation. Cycling is an important part of the transportation mix, but not important enough that I needed to mention it in my short dissertation above. Thanks for the nudge though.

      • Mark

        Fair enough Mike, sorry to be a bit snobby. It is a pretty good piece.

        Just seemed a bit odd you could be speaking so highly of the Portland neighborhood design with no mention of the topic when bike use, both personally and increasingly commercially is so huge there.

        Grandma doesn’t need to take her car to the grocery store in this idealized 15-minute neighborhood when she can have the local cargo bike delivery business bring them right to her door.

        By it’s very nature once you’ve made a place more walkable, you’ve probably also made it more bikable.

        With fewer cars on the core streets of the neighborhood, ideally, personal vehicle use would be primarily for getting to things outside of the neighborhood (on nice, quick moving, unclogged arterials, while we’re still dreaming) or for people moving/goods hauling in the neighborhood where for whatever reason walking/riding isn’t feasible.

        In the full realization of the dream, the core street/plaza of the neighborhood could be off limits to all motor vehicle traffic except delivery and emergency stuff. It could be a place where cafe tables and storefronts could spill out into the roadway, vibrant with plants and art, and neighbors could walk and talk in the open spaces between without talking over the roar and fumes of engines.

        That might be a little too hippy flippy for reality, but I think it’s certainly a nice idea to strive towards.

  • Birdy

    Odd, the way people think this is some kind of fantasy Atlantis that needs to be strived for, that it’s something that would require a lot of planning, work, rules and taxes.

    We don’t need any of that to create these kind of neighbourhoods. What’s being described here is the natural state of human civilization. Only when someone subsidizes the roads, the mortgage market, the lending banks etc.. do we end up with our current crop of urban problems. No one I’ve met enjoys commuting for hours everyday, it’s just a nasty effect of government intervention.

    This is a perfect example:

    “About 20 neighbourhoods in Portland have undertaken similar “intersection repairs,” thanks to a community group called City Repair. When the mayor’s office realized that City Repair’s inexpensive, community-driven renos helped make neighbourhoods safer, city council officially paved the way for collaborative urban planning.”

    In other words, people got together and started changing their own community themselves. The government then noticed that people planning their own communities actually works really well. So they coined the term “collaborative urban planning” in order to continue their charade of usefulness, and take credit for the ideas and achievements of private citizens.

    I do wonder, if this had been carried out by a right wing politician, would it have been called privatization?

    • Good points, Birdy. I salute community initiative as you can see. However, I think it’s helpful when there is a level of “collaboration” by government. You’d rather have them working with you than against you, in other words. They can also provide some guidance and resources to make a good idea great.

  • Higgins

    Maybe if we allow for more new immigrants to open Loonie stores and Valu’ Marts around the city, we’d be set for good.
    … and fireworks, he, he, he 🙂

  • Steven Forth

    Great post Mike. I agree with @Mira though (Never thought you would hear me say that did you?) that a key to this is having jobs in and around these neighbourhoods and that current zoning does not encourage this (my impression anyway, others have a lot more knowledge). What can we do to make Vancouver a next generation manufacturing center? (I think Portland is way ahead of us on this.) On the other hand, I would like to see this happen without diversion of tax revenues or subsidies.

    I have to agree that Vancouver is not as walkable as one would like. My neighbourhood (Kits) is OK, though there is no bookstore (I am a luddite when it comes to books) or decent fish monger and I would really prefer to be closer to a Skytrain station. I also think the Village design (or Squares as they call them in Cambrdige) is more walkable than the long, one-dimensional shopping streets that seem to be the Vancouver design.

    I also like the idea of pushing as much planning as possible down to the local level. What are some of the best ways to do that?

  • bobh

    Mike, did you check the actual voter turnout at the polls in Renfrew-Collingwood in post election tallys? And did you do better or worse than your city wide average?

    • I believe the polls in question were won by Vision, but we were tracking much higher there in 2011 than in the previous election. However, the NPA was surprised to win the three polls around the Joyce Skytrain in Collingwood. I've not done a comparison of voter turnout.