Do most of Vancouver's downtown back lanes need to be so lifeless and dull?
I was in downtown Vancouver recently and had to cut through several back lanes in order to reach my final destination on time. I must admit, if it were not for the fact it was the middle of the day in broad daylight, I would have stuck to the main streets - even if the back lane route was more expedient. That’s because for the most part, Vancouver’s downtown back lanes are uninspiring places for us to park commercial vehicles and house big blue dumpsters. Some of them are downright scary too.
I’ve often thought what would happen to our back lanes if they were suddenly teleported to France or Italy for a few weeks. Do you think our European brothers and sisters would neglect them in the same way we have? I rather doubt it.
If you’ve had the good fortune of visiting Europe, you already know that space is at a premium in most of their urban centres. As a result, every square inch of public space is put to good use. Back lanes are home to little hat shops and espresso cafes. Tourists walk on cobblestone and brick pavers instead of six inches of dull gum-laden ashphalt.
No matter which corner you turn in Paris or Rome, you’ll find that most public spaces are animated and they have become functional. Compare that to almost any back lane in downtown Vancouver and you can see why I think we’re missing out on a very unique opportunity.
So why have we done nothing with our back lanes? Is there anything really stopping City Hall from making a concerted effort to take back these dead spaces – one block at a time – and begin to make them primary destinations? I don't believe so.
Just imagine for a moment the back lane in the photo I’ve included above was filled with tourists and locals enjoying a pint of beer or café latte. What if the lower sides of each building were painted with inspiring street images from some of the world’s best international cities? Then picture this back lane with paver stones or stamped concrete instead of parking lot asphalt.
What if the city encouraged business to have "storebacks" as well as "storefronts"? You would suddenly open up a whole new part of the city that to date has been seriously underutilized.
There are only a handful of urban centres in Canada that have creatively used their back lanes and streets in this manner. Most notably they are Quebec City, Montreal and Victoria - all of whom have retained strong historical and cultural links back to Europe.
It’s not difficult to see how a dull back lane could suddenly be transformed into vibrant place of commerce and culture. But for this to happen, it will take a lot of elbow grease, political leadership and some creativity from City Hall.
I think it would be great if either the NPA or Vision adopted a policy of wanting to revamp back lanes in sections of our downtown over the next five years or so. They could work with the local business improvement association and artists to help bring life to part of our city that has become simply way too utilitarian. What do you think? Do you like our back lanes the way they are? Could we do something more interesting with them? Post a comment below with your thoughts.