It is always a strange experience to see work you have been involved with get repurposed and reinterpreted. I have written before about Vancouver’s Blooming Boulevards project, that was a “demonstration” project allowing residents to garden the city owned boulevard, that portion of every front property that is between the curb and the sidewalk.
Happily there is an individual giving tours of these remarkable gardens which now crop up throughout Vancouver, but in this article in the Globe and Mail the context of why and how these gardens developed-and the remarkable stewardship of Midori Oba and Peter Wohlwend, the two residents who started it all-is missing. You can read about how they and the neighbourhood changed city policy to allow boulevard gardening here.
The same thing happened when Councillor Mike Klassen asked that the City of Vancouver to review the “Country Lanes” that were also demonstration projects. In this article, people including current city staff posited why the country lanes were not adopted by the city.
But this article does not speak to the people who were involved in implementing these country lanes. The country lanes were disregarded for a very political reason: they are not full bore paving, which is easier to do, cheap and understandable to taxpayers, and most importantly does not require any change in how city crews do their work. They were never costed out correctly to include the sustainable aspects of water capture, slowing vehicular drivers, stopping flooding to neighbouring properties, lowering thermal temperatures, and providing an accessible public space for residents.
It is no surprise that paving back lanes is still the city’s mantra.
Back lanes will all look “same old”, except with the more politically palatable permeable pavement, because that is the way the city has always done things in the city’s back lanes. They pave them.
New evidence is showing that proximity to greenery is important to mental and physical health-why can’t we make backlanes to be neighbourhood green spaces?
How did the country lane concept start?
Two decades ago Mountainview resident Sharole Tylor walked into city hall and asked why a perfectly nice dirt lane east of Fraser Street needed to be paved with asphalt, and asked why in a neighbourhood that had few recreational spaces for young kids that the back lane could not be dealt with differently.
In the 20th century, there were a lot of Vancouver residential lanes that were dirty, gritty and dusty, and could be “improved” through-wait for it-paving. Asphalt did make these lanes more efficient for traffic and less muddy in winter, but brought its own set of evils, including speeding, flooding onto private property, off gassing of the asphalt, and the obliterating of any gardens or plants that were planted in the dusty lane.
There is a paving lane program that is part of the Local Improvement Program. Information on this process is here. Residents could sign up other residents and petition the city to have back lanes paved, with the cost being shared between the property owners and the city.
Instead of paving, Ms. Tylor proposed that the City trial a demonstration project of a sustainable lane, with two concrete wheel runs for city garbage service and for vehicle driver access.
David DesRochers, a versatile engineer at the City of Vancouver was looking at more sustainable textures and finishes to the traditional paved back lane. Under his leadership, David Yurkovich, a landscape architect helped design three demonstration lanes, using structural soil contained in heavy vinyl cells. Engineer Wally Konowalchuk managed the project.
The first lane east of Fraser Street was built in concert with residents on a weekend, so that neighbours would know how the lane worked, and also would know how to replace any bricks that may be dislodged on the runs to their garages.
The pilot project won the American Public Works Association’s 2003 Technical Innovation Award.
There were three Country Lanes built-the lane east of Fraser Street, the back lane of City Farmer in Kitsilano, and the Hastings-Sunrise area near Yale Street. The first two lanes were designed using a landscape architect. The most successful has been the lane east of Fraser Street, which involved residents in the design and implementation.
The third lane, in Hastings-Sunrise was built by City of Vancouver crews without a completely prepared construction design, asking the city crews to lead. From the start, it was apparent that this back lane treatment did not have the same attention to detail and specifications, and has not performed well.
The country lane allows for 90 per cent of the rain water to be absorbed directly into the ground, increasing vegetation and taking the load off the sewer system. The one east of Fraser has also become a recognized public space for the residents, and has hosted barbeques and film screenings.
The first three Country Lanes were expensive because they were first builds, and clearly showed the importance of community engagement in construction and ongoing maintenance.
Initial maintenance in these lanes is also higher. But these lanes were never costed for the environmental, sustainable and social public space aspects they provide. They were never really championed for what they could do, and of course decades ago the idea of the need for sustainable open spaces in laneways for a densifying city was not really on the radar.
Here is the Federal government’s write-up on the country lane. The right idea, the wrong time. Back lanes as green public spaces? It is time to revisit this concept.