Vancouver's downtown back lanes need a serious makeover

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


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.parisbacklane.jpg

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.

- Post by Daniel. You can follow us on Twitter @CityCaucus. Or you can "like" us on Facebook at



From what I understand, several alley ways are slated for artist use in the Broadway/Main street area.

Blood Alley already has a start with Salt. It would be the perfect place to get the ball rolling. Amazing character

Some of the back lanes seem to be almost beyond redemption, a flawed concept, along with the grid-iron plan, that we are stuck with. However, to get the ball rolling, how about;

1 Get rid of the on-street dumpsters.
2 Restrict garbage removal times to midnight through 6 a.m. so that they can have alternate functions during civilized hours.
3 Use some for cycle routes.
4 Use some as vehicle routes so main streets can be pedestrianized.
5 Make paving and lane front improvements a condition of all building permits on adjoining sites.
6 Catch up with the 20th century and put services underground.

I do love this blog but Vancouver's aspirations to become some kind of wonderful,l creative, free, aesthetic, vibrant city that reflects Europa is just not possible. Not possible ever. Vancouver is a dreadfully uptight place. I would never had thought of giving up on a place until I moved (and left) Vancouver.

I had lived in London, Paris and Istanbul before. Vancouver is a horror of it's own making. The worst of all is Vancouver.

Gandy's Hardware, which has been a fixture in Kits for 50+ years, has closed up. Receivership.

The rental leases along West 4th keep rising and the small shops can't afford them. That, and the big box stores moving into the areas cost them much needed sales.

West 4th is losing it's character and becoming another Robson street.

Very sad.

Question. When the mayor looks at that back lane what does he see?

A. a new home for Vancouver's latest homeless shelter for chickens

B. an opportunity to rip up pavement and begin growing organic wheat

C. a new separated bike lane

D. an opportunity to grow businesses and create life on the street

Sadly the answer is not D. They don't call him Mayor Moonbeam for nothing.

The Thought of The Day

"Munich and Vancouver. The Tale of Two Cities. One in which the People had a Vision, the other where Vision "had" the People..."

Take the time and read my comment on Munich on the previous editorial by Mike here:

Check out how their municipality dealt with the same problems you are bringing to light here...

"You can smell the small-town Munich aromas inside these boundaries, go ahead, smell the fresh produce and talk with the grocers. But here’s the kicker, are you ready for this? Contrary with what is happening in the Cowboy town of Vancouver, where if your horse dies, you are left behind too, to die, (only think of the small businesses that were ravaged in the riot and more recently remember the former maternity store “Hazel” on Cambie Street, in a David against Goliath fight with the Canada Line thugs and their lawyers – funny thing though, that happened under the ineffective trademark watch of one former MLA by the name of Gregor Robertson… who knew?) there you have the approach of neighbor helps neighbor, and then, the city helps both!

Get that? The city helps both!

How many times have you read about decrepit landlords, greedy landlords, development sharks waiting in the shadows for a business to fail, for the building to catch fire, so they could move in hike up the rents, or build 100 condos where before there was only a meat shop and a caffe.
A million times!

Well, while this (the pedestrian district) is the most expensive real estate in town (as per last appraisal) Munich keeps the rents low so these old-timers can carry on, and and on…"



Your points 1 to 6 are absolutely bang on. Here's the thing though, NOBODY IS LISTENING AT THE HALL!

Because if they would, that would force them to perform!

They don't like that, or the controversy,or picking up a fight with The Engineering Dept. or the Fire Dept or the BC Hydro or the Police. You are asking something of them that is not brotherly at all!


For more than ten years I have occasionally,in a formal, professional capacity,(this is not a joke BTW) approached former and present senior city bureaucrats with these same ideas and proposals, only to be laughed at... I assume...because we are still talking about them, aren't we?

The City Hall of Vancouver was,is and it will stay as one of the most constipated, hierarchically corrupted, and obtuse thinking bureaucracies that I have ever encountered. Period.

To give you some background info on back alleys past efforts in Vancouver...
Six years ago, Aug.of 2005,a show called
"Public Art in Vancouver Alleys" was organized by a group called "Space Agency" RIP, a temporary public art project for alleyways in Gastown.
I am not denying or confirming that I was part of the show, but I'll say this, the whole project died peacefully surrounded by friends and relatives.
City Hall... sent flowers.

That's why, until we change some things around, all I can say is...

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

That is a good point you are making Glissy,nobody is listening at the City Hall! They are too busy pretending they are working for us! LMAO

Great set of ideas. I would love to see a design competition on how to transform lanes. At Habitat a woman from Sweden asked me "why don't the small streets have names and why are they so dirty?"

Making better use of the alleys is one way we can transform Vancouver to give it more street life and better blend transit, cyclists, pedestrians and private cars.

Blood Alley seems to be making the first small steps in that direction.

Check out!

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