Although many think of it as a suburb of Vancouver, New West was born a city – one of the first on this part of the coast. It thrived in a time before automobiles remade the landscape and transformed our streets from social spaces to thoroughfares. It’s one of the reasons New West’s sense of community is so strong. But it also creates friction between people concerned with regional traffic needs and those who advocate for liveability within our community.
While the commercial centre of the Lower Mainland has moved downtown and (to our chagrin) the political centre remains in Victoria, our birthright has gifted us with some of the best elements of old-fashioned city planning. New West’s decline during the peak age of the auto may actually have been a blessing in disguise, allowing our city to escape some of the missteps of suburbs planned in the highway’s glory days.
Driven by both environmental concerns and new research on what makes communities thrive, there is a movement to retrofit auto-centric suburbs to become more walkable and compact. Luckily, like many of our old houses, New West may have its problems, but it is blessed with good bones.
Many parts of New West already fit the ‘new’ model of compact planning, but misguided attempts to accommodate road traffic within community streets have compromised livability in some areas. Just as many of our heritage homes were blemished by ‘modern’ renovations in the ’70s and ’80s, the appeal of many of New Westminster’s original neighbourhoods have been diminished by retrofitting to accommodate road traffic. It’s time to peel back the shag rug and restore the lustre of our streets.
Streets that welcome people are designed differently from those that merely accommodate them. They are usually narrower, with shorter blocks, and move at slower speeds. The best streets are diverse and let people move quickly between various types of zones: from home to work to cafes to shops. In New West you can see this dynamic at work Uptown. The leafy boulevards of Queens Park and the apartment blocks of the Brow are a short – and very pleasant – walk to several parks, the library, grocery stores, cafes, offices, restaurants and the public transit hub at Sixth & Sixth.
The volume of traffic that funnels through New West from car-centric developments in Burnaby, Coquitlam, Surrey and beyond is challenging to accommodate within our small borders. One reason why our commercial districts Downtown, in Sapperton, and on 12th St. and 20th St. struggle is because their identity is confused. They aspire to be thriving commercial streets while also moving road traffic. This identity crisis results in an environment that is not fully satisfactory for anyone.
Streets and roads have very different goals: a street is a destination, and part of a walkable community. A road is intended to move car traffic quickly from one place to another.
In the Downtown, several improvements have been made to try to enhance the streetscape and make it more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, but attempts to placate the road lobby hold back Columbia Street’s renaissance as a neighbourhood destination. Front Street is clearly a ‘road’ and while it would be great to have unobstructed access to the waterfront, Front is a vital road connection. It looks to me like the City is taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with this problem by providing alternative pedestrian access to the Pier Park and waterfront. This attention to walkability, neighbourhood character and streetscape is needed in all our neighbourhoods.
Investing in our neighbourhoods will pay off in both liveability and economic strength. Recent studies show that cyclists and pedestrians actually outspend drivers at local businesses. While they may spend less per trip (because it’s harder to carry items home), commercial zones that are bike- and people-friendly draw more repeat business.
This consumer loyalty supports community connection as well. As neighbourhood regulars get to know each other, the social connection provides added incentive for customers to return. You can see this dynamic at work at River Market, the Coming Home Cafe, and at many of our local coffee shops as well. As Jeff Speck wrote in The Walkable City, “Creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs. This is why … all the fancy economic development strategies, such as developing a biomedical cluster, an aerospace cluster, or whatever the current economic development ‘flavor of the month’ might be, do not hold a candle to the power of a great walkable urban place.”
Streets were originally places for gossip, commerce and play, not just for moving people and goods. Moving people and goods is important, of course, and provides such a clear economic payoff that our grandfathers and grandmothers willingly made room for the horseless carriages. But when we made room for cars in our cities, we underestimated the impact on public spaces. Planners must have thought that if it was good to move quickly by car from place to place, surely moving more cars more quickly would be even better. But the impact on community and the local economy has been disastrous.
There is no sense of community from within an automobile. From the driver’s vantage point, pedestrians, bicycles, children and other vehicles are too easily abstracted. They are seen as obstructions, not neighbours. It’s easy to forget there are people within each little pod on the road, and impossible to make more than the briefest connection (via honking, hand signals, a brief moment of eye contact) with those you are sharing the road with.
Reclaiming community streets and dedicating routes for road traffic is an essential part of our evolution as we continue to build the ‘new’ New West.