Great street design, and coming full-circle with our design heroes

Brent Toderian's picture
"If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be - community-building places, attractive for all people - then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city."         Allan Jacobs

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak at an event celebrating what might possibly come to be recognized as one of Vancouver's important civic feats - the redesign and reconstruction of downtown Vancouver's Granville Street.

It ended up representing a coming full-circle for me as a professional- but I'll get to that later.

For those of you not familiar with Vancouver, Granville Street (a main spine through the city and downtown peninsula) has a complex history and purpose. It's the primary transit street downtown with a dedicated bus mall along part of its length. It's also the city's entertainment destination street, a retail shopping street (one that's had challenges), a street with heritage and history, and a street that's a big part of the "mental map" of residents and visitors alike. In all, it's arguably the most complex and important street in British Columbia.


The proposed new street design is worth studying, and the project website facilitates such study. 
The big picture themes are a "one street" concept to unify along its long length; a return to the "great white way" theme of old, in both entertainment role and design/lighting detail; a healthy tree-lined street as a primary design definer; and the introduction of "ribbons" as a signature design form. 

The website outlines the rest - design goals and objectives, design drawings, etc. The design includes wider sidewalks, new trees and grates, custom street furniture, a one-block civic event space/plaza, and an innovative "flex parking" approach that will read as an expansion of the sidewalk when not being used for parking.


Although many creative hands, "professional" and community, have shaped the results at various stages, the design benefited greatly from early involvement at the concept stage from great street geniuses Allan Jacobs and Elizabeth Macdonald of Cityworks in Berkeley, CA (who also live part of the year in Vancouver). Jacobs is of course famous to urbanists as the author of Great Streets and other significant books, and as past planning director of San Francisco.

Vancouver has historically been careful around the hiring of external "gurus". Hiring big names, even when combined with local talent, can be a risky practice, sometimes at the cost of local context and understanding. As well, some "celebrity professionals" result in formulaic approaches, rushes to judgment, inflated costs, or pressure to hire them to do more than their skills or knowledge support.

There are other external pro's though, that give a very professional and valuable service. Some have an ability and willingness to advise on how to maximize their value and minimize their cost. Jacobs, in my opinion, is one of these.

Jacobs and a few others, seem to prefer the opportunity to have a powerful but scoped impact in many cities. Another such international urbanist, my friend Jan Gehl from Copenhagen, recently told me he indeed enjoys a role as "intellectual icebreaker", hired in many cities from New York to Sydney to "state the obvious with great clout!" Of course, both Jan and Jake do much more than that.

Jacobs and Macdonald (and their local design team) made many initial contributions to the Granville Street design process - for example, the above-mentioned flex parking approach. More significantly though, they did what Jacobs often does - created strong and clear principles for excellence and set the bar high for a truly great street. And once Jake does this, the bar tends to stay high, all the way through the process, often on the strength of his knowledge, credibility and reputation. The theory, I suppose, is that you wouldn't hire Jake if you weren't really serious about achieving a great street - and if you're serious, you have to stay serious at every stage.

As you'll see from the website, the City even adapted the "great street principles" for the design process, directly from Jacobs' book - perhaps a rare thing for a planning exercise to do so overtly. Specifically:

- places to walk with some leisure
- physical comfort
- definition
- qualities that engage the eye
- transparency
- complementarities
- maintenance
- quality of construction and design

So it's hopefully clear how this post relates to great street design by now - but what does this have to do with me coming full circle as a professional?

Well, for this celebration event, as I considered what to say about the design of a great street and its importance to the city's public realm, it occurred to me that this was a significant moment for me personally. Here I was, about to speak about a street design guided by one of my long-time design heroes.

I'm sure I'm part of a large club of urbanists who at least partially credit Jacobs for sparking their passion for city design in the first place. His book, along with Alexander's A Pattern Language, Gehl's Life Between Buildings and Whyte's City: Rediscovering the Centre, initially transformed me from a young city planner and undergrad student interested in environmental planning and city and regional systems, to a practitioner and masters student passionate about physical city planning and design.

Early on, this led to some understandable admiration and hero worship that took a while to shake. I still remember lining up with others as a very young city planner after a speaking event in Toronto, to have Jacobs sign my copy of Great Streets after his inspiring presentation (it was slightly damaged and thus a discounted copy, all I could afford when I bought it - the same copy I still have in my office).

I remember wondering then if I would ever have the chance to work on a street that might one day be thought of as great.

Years later, while planning for downtown Calgary, I hired Jacobs as a consultant (to do a few things, including help us establish principles on how to design a "great underpass", believe it or not), and since then have gotten to know him more. Hero-worship evolved into professional respect, but he has continued to inspire, most recently with his advocacy for more outspoken and physically-minded planning departments across North America, (a call which I've picked up here in Canada - see here for an earlier post on this, which also ran as an article in Places Journal - the post includes a link to Jacobs initial call-to-arms article in Places).

So as I was making my speech at the event, now as Director of Planning many years after that book-signing, I decided to take time amongst the comments about the strength of the design and the role it would play in our vibrant downtown, to come full circle about Jake.

I said it was an honour to have been able to help see through and fight for a street design influenced by one of my early heroes. I told the slightly embarrassing story of the book-signing. More importantly, I described how many times during the process, during design, and critically during costing and budgeting, we asked ourselves "would this proposed change still result in a great street?" Does anyone want to call this just a "good street" once it's complete? Because no-one did, the design, even while evolving, retained the potential for greatness. To be sure, greatness is subjective and grounds for debate, and only time will tell whether it will succeed.

Many have reason to feel proud about the Granville Street redesign opening soon. Some local design talents, like PWL Partnership who were contracted to develop the technical designs, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden who partnered with Jacobs/Macdonald early on, and many of our own design staff, deserve considerable credit for the results. The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association was a huge champion for quality design from day one through every stage.

But Jake and Elizabeth deserve a lot of credit too. One more great street dialogue they helped realize. And with this one, I got a chance to come full circle with a design hero.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



Great Street?

As I read this article and examined the renderings, I cannot help but question the "greatness" of the street and the self-congratulatory tone of this article. First, the "flex parking" scheme seems like a concession of pedestrian space to cars, rather than an innovative design feature. Why not just extend the sidewalk? Flex parking appears to encourage parking on the sidewalk, blurring the lines of "safe" pedestrian space. Second, the renderings show two bus lanes, two travel lanes and two parking lanes, yet there is no space devoted to bicycles. This seems odd in a city so devoted to promoting bicycle use. Many of the renderings even show bikes. I guess my main point is that it is always important to introduce what the project is and why it is innovative before writing a lengthy article patting yourself on the back for it.


Yes, only time will tell

Yes, only time will tell whether or not the redesign will be a success. However, it's a shame that a bolder vision of what Granville could be did not prevail. The entire street could have been pedestrianised and pleasantly lined with cafe/restaurant terraces.

But instead, the existing restaurants will continue to be barricaded with limited outdoor seating space. Without permanently widened sidewalks there won't be any room to expand. The buses will be re-introduced causing a wall of metal and noice to bisect the street. Traffic at night will be introduced once revellers can spill into the temporary flex space.

Vancouverites will have to look to New York's redevelopment of Broadway and most European cities with envy, dreaming of what could have been.

A couple other points

From a previous poster: "Without permanently widened sidewalks there won't be any room to expand".

The redesigned Granville street will have 8m wide (26 feet) sidewalks from top to bottom thus allowing room for outdoor seating and various programming.

"The buses will be re-introduced causing a wall of metal and noice to bisect the street."

Interesting. On one account you wished that Granville was "pedestrianised" but then you lament on what brings those pedestrians in... buses (those noisy metal things).
FYI, a great majority of buses that run along Granville are electric powered and you'd be hard pressed to even hear them go by.

If your seeking solitude and peace and quiet, I wouldn't suggest visiting Granville street for a glass of chardonnay and quiet conversation.
May I suggest something near English Bay or one of the many restaurants that line the seawall as an alternative. They are even car free.

Geoff, you clearly need to

Geoff, you clearly need to travel outside of North America.

The buses could remain on the side streets as they are now and still bring people in. This is how you'll find great pedestrian environments set up across Europe.

I can only wish that English Bay did have many restaurants lining the seawall as you say. But it doesn't. They're all isolated by the flow of traffic. That's another area that could be so much better if the auto traffic were removed to allow restaurant patios to spill into a wide plaza adjacent to the beach.

I suggest you buy a cheap, shoulder season ticket to London. Walk down Oxford street past Selfridges; note all the buses passing by and the feel of the street. Then when you see a clock that says "St Christophers" duck into the alley and you'll find a charming plaza filled with outdoor seating. At that point you'll lament on how good Vancouver could be, but isn't.

Pedestrian Space

Vancouver certainly missed an opportunity to create a vibrant, pedestrian-only space - which it sorely lacks right now.

Some people are trying to envision a pedestrian space with a Where's the Square? contest, but I'd like to see more leadership from City Hall.

Ped space

One segment of the redesigned street between Robson and Georgia has been identified as a potentially unique public space located centrally along the Granville Street corridor with room for larger numbers of people to congregate and to accommodate a variety of events to take place. The proposed “Pedestrian Priority Mall” would become a venue for festivals, performances, markets and other events.
See representative plan;
Further, a large open public space has been created at the new Convention Centre to accomodate gatherings and events.
There are also future plans to redevelop the north plaza at the Vancouver Art Gallery to enhance this public space.
I applaud the city for at least recognizing that there is some deficiency is public space and they are addressing it. But intuitively, people will always be drawn to the waterfront - regardless of what we create in the middle.

Brent Toderian's picture

fair comments on street greatness, but....

I understand that in the concept stage public consultations, this was a subject of great debate (it pre-dated my arrival here). Many in the business community called for removal of the bus-only portion, and maximizing on-street parking and car access to help the street retailing, which has long struggled. Others called for pedestrianization for walkability and public space, a call that many retailers thought would be the death-knell of the struggling retailing. The City and Translink wouldn't support removal of the bus-only, as its a critical part of the electric bus system transit operations, efficiency and costs.

This street has to accomplish many things. Its a key to the bus system, a retail street that needs help, and a key part of the public realm. In a debate about "greatness", there aren't simple answers when there are many definations of success, and I don't agree with the over-simplification by some that greatness=pedestrianization. For every street where that's a good idea, there may be 2 where its not. I spent a lot of time in my younger years studying why so many pedestrian streets (the planning prefessionls ill-applied silver bullet in many downtown revitalization schemes in the 70's and 80's) failed, and why a few have succeeded. Context, purpose, design, anchors, use (retail vs cafes and entertainment) etc all play into whether its a great idea or a bad idea. Stephen Ave in Calgary works, as does State Street in Madison, for reasons that are understandable when you look. Spark Street has never worked in Ottawa, for equally observable reasons.

Jacobs book Great Streets illustrates streets that allow cars. The book illustrates streets with parking. Granville street deprioritizes cars, and prioritizes transit plus very wide sidewalks. Although I love ped streets that work, and am working on car-free sundays on several streets across Vancouver, greatness isn't that simple.

And as for the flex parking, I was out walking it today, still under construction. With the role curb and the same grade as the sidewalk, I think it will be an interesting model that I'm keen to see and feel in action when its done. I think it will represent a significant widening of the sidewalk much of the time, and a gradual shift away from the feeling of car dominance... A clever and artful compromise with the retailers when there are many definations of success, and many roles for the street.

I'm not convinced yet that the street will be great. But I applaud the approach and the goal, which was really the purpose of my post. More cities should set out to strive for street greatness, deliborately.

Let's see how it works.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Habitat blockitecture tower

Build the world you want to see

Irresistible block set for adults when placed on a coffee table or desk, and great fun for kids.
Rome grey gold tie

Tie one on to celebrate your city!

Choose from over 20 styles imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.