Reprioritizing our Sidewalks: Remembering Jane Jacobs While Walking in Dunbar

On Saturday, May 4th, group walks were held in various North American cities commemorating the late Jane Jacobs and her ideas about cities.  I seriously considered joining one of the walks here in Vancouver, but dealing with a dire sooty mold situation prevailed.  (I spent much of that Saturday hand-washing thick, black, sooty, gunk from a tall camellia bush–leaf by leaf.  Ah, the joys of having a garden.)

One of the reasons I’d wanted to join one of the walks was that, back when I was studying in Toronto, I lived for five years in the same block of Albany Street in the Annex area as Jacobs.  I often saw her walking along the sidewalk in our block to do some shopping on nearby Bloor Street and, occasionally, even shared a few pleasantries.  I didn’t actually read any of her books when I was living in Toronto, although I read much about Jacobs, and her ideas, in the local press.  When I returned to Vancouver, and had more time, I actually read some of her work–and even wrote a short letter to her about a point with which I disagreed in The Nature of Economies.  (It wasn’t her best book.)  I was sad to hear that she died a few years ago.

Although I didn’t make it to one of the Jane Jacobs walks, through the past week, as I walked through the area in which I now live, following my regular routine, I thought about Jacobs and her ideas about cities.

The area of Vancouver in which I now live, called Dunbar, in the city’s south-west far reaches, became heavily populated only after cars took over from horses and buggies and other, more ‘primitive’, forms of transportation–and before Jacobs ideas started to influence city-planners world-wide, including in Vancouver.  Although we’ve had relatively good public transportation and sidewalks lining every street for many decades, most people living in this area who can afford to buy and operate cars, which is the majority in this relatively affluent area, rarely use public transportation or ever walk on those sidewalks–unless it’s to walk their dogs.  Full disclosure: I personally do not own a car (nor do I own the house where I live).

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I concede that the layout in this part of Vancouver isn’t especially hospitable to walking.  If this area had developed in the pre-car era, surely there would be more shops and other city amenities interspersed among all the houses, such as one finds in older residential areas, like the Annex in Toronto–as well as in newer residential areas in Vancouver, like our False Creek area.  But for anyone who is healthy, the distances actually aren’t too bad.

Using an iPhone app that can track the distance one has walked using GPS, and the amount of time the trip takes, I recently found out that the distance from my house to the nearest Starbucks, in the midst of our nearest shopping area, is 1.08 km, and that, using my usual gait, it took me only 12:15 minutes to walk there.  The amount of climbing I had done in that uphill walk was a bit of surprise to me, 384.11 m, or more than a third of the horizontal distance I had walked; but for me, even at my relatively advanced age, that walk isn’t too bad–and coming back, all downhill, even laden with shopping bags, is easy-peasy.

The frequent rain in Vancouver also can be a deterrent to walking.  But we’re used to it here, and it beats the heavy snow and frigid temperatures that are common through much of the year in other cities, in Canada and elsewhere, where people generally do a lot more walking than is done by people living in this part of Vancouver.

So why is it that people living in this part of Vancouver use our sidewalks as little as they do, for just regular getting around?  Even the urgings to Vancouverites of our ecology- and health-minded Mayor, Gregor Robertson, to use cars less don’t seem to have gotten through to most of the people living in this part of Vancouver.

One of the reasons seems to be that walking along our sidewalks can sometimes be rather treacherous, or at least very unpleasant, apart from the distances and the rain.  Although very few people in this area use sidewalks for regular getting around, this is not to say that the sidewalks here are usually completely bereft of life.  What I commonly do see on our sidewalks is people using the sidewalks for purposes other than what I would consider their primary purpose.  These including jogging, biking, skateboarding and rollerblading, incorporating sidewalks into elaborate gardens that stretch out into the road with much of the sidewalk obscured by plants, and, to be sure, people walking their dogs–or allowing their dogs to walk themselves.

20130810-092633.jpgIt’s understandable that, in an urban area with limited space, if sidewalks aren’t commonly used for the basic purpose of getting around, they will come to be used for other purposes. But if we do now increasingly need our sidewalks for basic getting around, we have to reassess if, and if so, how, these other purposes fit in.

If, for example, it is generally agreed that is important that area residents be able to walk up to the local stores, and down again (or down and up, as the case may be), to fetch a few groceries, perhaps including meat products, large dogs, especially those running free, drop to the bottom of the rankings in the overall system of priorities.  Furthermore, if is agreed that area residents should be walking in general, then walking on our sidewalks have to made as safe and as comfortable as possible for everyone, including young children and the elderly.  Skateboards and bicycles, over-extensive foliage, as well as misdirected, overused, lawn sprinklers, have to make way for safe, comfortable, dry (when it’s not raining) pedestrians.  When I observed Jacobs walking back and forth along Albany Street in Toronto’s Annex, she was already in her eighties, and slowing down physically, although still managing to get around by foot in that neighbourhood.  I doubt that she would have been able to manage as well, at that age, in Dunbar.

To make such changes stick, it seems that there needs to be better enforcement on such issues at the city level.  But I think local residents could help to a great extent to make the changes themselves, by taking a chance with our sidewalks, despite their colonization by forces that are inimical to just walking and, if and when they do meet opposition, politely but firmly stating their case for pedestrians as the number one priority.

Besides the environmental and health advantages to walking, if we can get more people in this area using our sidewalks for just getting around, I suspect that, before too long, we also might see some improvement in the amenities available in this part of Vancouver–that, in turn, would make using our sidewalks for daily tasks more attractive for many people in this area.

The other day, I was down at the northern section of Dunbar street, near 16th Avenue, and saw that yet another small grocery store, that had been in operation for only about six months, had gone out of business.  You would think that people in Dunbar, particularly those living in its northern section, would have flocked to that store, since there was nowhere else in that area to purchase even basic food items.  But the majority of people here seem to be so unaccustomed to just making a quick walking trip to a local store to pick up a quart of milk or a loaf of bread that the store apparently didn’t get enough customers to succeed.

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The next time someone tries to operate a store like that in this area, or other businesses or amenities that we need, we have to support them, and make the best that we can of this area that probably at one time seemed so modern, but that, by now, has come to seem out of date.

Learning to appreciate the value of cats as pets might help, too.

Dusty

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