Archives for posts with tag: retrofitting

We were back in the UK over Christmas and I was casting my planning and transport eye over what I saw, looking for the differences between the UK and North America. For the purposes of this blog, today I will highlight just one of them.

One of the obvious differences between towns in the UK and North America (or the Metro Vancouver area anyway) is how the roads and blocks are laid out. In Metro Vancouver blocks and roads were laid out in advance of development with straight roads running north – south and east – west to produce roughly square or rectangular blocks. In the UK the road network is much more historical with the straightest roads ironically sometimes being some of the oldest (ancient ‘roman road’ alignments). Block sizes and shapes are far more random and in many areas are the result of incremental development over hundreds of years. Below are two maps, taken from Google, showing the road layout near where I live in Vancouver, BC and in Dover, UK, where my wife’s family live. They are both the same scale.

Vancouver, BC

Dover, UK

Although the density is obviously very different, I use these two examples as I live in one of them and recently visited the other. Dover’s topography is far more evident in the way the road system has developed.

The roads themselves also vary wildly. In the UK the historical nature of the road means typically narrower cross sections than you would plan for if constructing a new road today. In addition, most of the houses do not have off street parking and laneways are not typical. Therefore, these narrow roads also have to accommodate on-street parking. Finally, some of these narrow roads also serve a collector road function and therefore carry moderate volumes of traffic.

Below are two images taken from Google’s Streetview (sorry – for a blog that professes to be at least partially about photography I should really have taken the photos myself). They show street views from the two maps above. One is of Alberni Street in Vancouver and one is from Elms Vale Road, Dover. Although I don’t have the numbers to back this up, I would guess these roads carry similar volumes of traffic on a daily basis.

Dover, UK

Alberni Street, Vancouver BC

The differences are obvious! To North American’s the Dover street might appear a little scary. How do you navigate such a narrow road, especially when the bus approaches?! Well, narrow roads have advantages. People tend to drive slowly – the speed limit is self enforcing. Drivers often have to give way to oncoming traffic and have to ‘pull in’ between parked cars to let this happen. North America is still very standards driven but I am not saying that these narrower widths should be adopted or that they are better. (In fact, the resulting narrow sidewalks/ footpaths caused several problems for us and our stroller/ pushchair, while we were there.) What I am trying to say is that when you don’t have all the space you might like to have, people adapt and things keep moving. If a little slower – which is probably a good thing.

Finally, I would say that a lot of other things have had to fit in with this generally narrower street geometry. You will not usually find the huge trucks and full size SUVs traveling about on these roads. Plus, ALL vehicles in the UK are able to push their side mirrors/ wing mirrors in. I remember being shocked when I realized most side mirrors did NOT push in over here.

So, in conclusion, you make best use of what you have and it usually finds some way of working itself out, even if there are a few compromises along the way.


Ellen Dunham-Jones spoke on Next Generation Urbanism on Tuesday evening as part of the SFU City Program, here in Vancouver. She is a new urbanist and member of the Congress For New Urbanism. She co-authored Retrofitting Suburbia. She spoke on many things and I thought it was a thought provoking presentation that was nicely balanced between being theoretical and conceptual, as well as practical and realist. Her main topic was critiquing a new upstart which is challenging new urbanism. This new movement is called Ecological Urbanism. According to Dunham-Jones, while new urbanists like to plan through good design, ecological urbanists don’t. They prefer to set something in motion and see what happens. Kind of more ecology in the city, but it also seems to be more lower density suburbia where, although surrounded by hills and other natural landscapes, most people would still have to drive everywhere. Being a new urbanist, unsurprisingly, she is fairly critical of ecological urbanism, although she did acknowledge that new urbanists can learn something from the less planned, more spontaneous places that seem to be so popular. I asked a question at the end, suggesting Vancouver’s own Granville Island was a good example of this. She hadn’t heard of Granville Island, but I hope she has time to check it out during her stay. Now I don’t know for sure whether Granville Island was unplanned or whether it just appears that way. But Dunham-Jones didn’t seem to think that mattered. The fact that it feels different and looks different, in a good way, is enough.

She also mentioned that post recession, we will have to find cheaper ways of doing things. People may become less consumer focused out of necessity. Will there be a new emphasis on seeking happiness? I thought it interesting that she thinks that as a result we’ll have to find alternatives to retail to enliven our public spaces.

As part of this, she mentioned some small scale examples of temporary things people have done to enliven public spaces. Examples included Parking Day, Build a Better Block, Pop Up City and, one I especially liked the sound of, Pie Day.

And I won a book. ‘Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley‘ by Derek Hayes. It has a lot of old maps in it – I like it already. Thanks to Gordon Price and the City Program for that. All I did was stand up when asked who had a blog!

‘Retrofitting the suburbs’ has almost become a new buzz word in planning circles. Books have been written on it (and here’s a TED talk from the author, Ellen Dunham-Jones, based on it). Dunham-Jones, from an architect’s perspective, talks about reusing old buildings, such as dilapidated malls. But more often that that, I hear that land use and density in the suburbs needs to change – i.e. it needs to be come ‘denser’ (if that’s a word). Here is another article about a competition in Long Island, trying to come up with ideas to design a ‘better burb’. Interestingly, the entrants landed up trying to address all sorts of issues in the suburbs, from housing type and density, to access to jobs, transport, smart growth, even food security.

One thing I struggle with though is that I haven’t read any articles from people who live in the suburbs arguing for why they need to change and how terrible it is living where they live. As urban planners interested in urban issues, the majority of us tend to live in urban areas. So why do people move to suburbia? Although I would not presume to try to answer this question (being an urban dweller myself) I think it is safe to assume that suburbanites place value on different things than urban dwellers. One example would be that they tend to place a higher value on personal space (move out of the City and you can afford a larger house). Another example would probably be that suburbanites value the sense of open space – they don’t like the city because it’s too crowded.

So, based on this, what does ‘retrofitting suburbia’ mean? Does it mean making it ‘urban’? If that’s the case, wouldn’t those people who value their larger houses and lower density neighbourhoods simply move to the next place that’s still suburban?

As a side note, as oil prices increase, a lot of people say it is inevitable that people (current suburbanites) will seek a less car dependent, more sustainable lifestyle because of increased travel costs. I’m not an economist, but as gas costs rise, I would assume that land values in car dependent areas will have to fall due to affordability issues. This means the combined cost of transport and housing would probably stay about the same.

So, what could retrofitting look like?  It doesn’t have to look like how we currently do ‘urban’. It can, in fact it has, to be different. I would suggest that the suburbs have to stay lower density, in most areas, in order for them not to loose their appeal to those already there. W(e don’t want them creating a demand for some suburbs.) But public transit needs higher densities to work. Or that’s what we’ve been told anyway. I would suggest that perhaps higher density hubs are required around transit stations, surrounded by more suburban, outlying areas. This would place many people outside of the recommended distances for walking to a transit stop with densities too low to support a comprehensive bus service to link to the transit stops (although I would imagine there would be a few). What are required, are bicycles. Bicycles increase the distance that can be traveled within the same amount of time. Now pedal bikes will be fine for many, but I believe electric bikes have a key role to play in this vision. They could transport large numbers of people to and from their homes to these transit hubs. They enable lower density neighbourhoods, but still put people 5 – 10 minutes from a high frequency transit stop to get them into the town or city efficiently. I imagine this would cover a lot of commuter trips.

Suburbia also needs more neighbourhood retail stores that people can walk to. Done well, these can form the focal point for a small community. There could even be more higher density residential around these retail areas (such as apartments over the retail units) to help support the retail and possibly some transit service as well.

Of course there are other aspects as well. These are just a few thoughts. The culture of car ownership also needs to change. If you’re not using your car to commute to and from work, it probably makes more financial sense to just pay for a car when you need one – such as a taxi or car sharing. But that’s a topic for another day.