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Walk this way: Vancouver urbanist Larry Beasley leads city tour

Jane’s Walks planned for May 5, 6 and 7 in Vancouver, a city that 'offers a lot for the walker'
larry beasley
Larry Beasley, who's leading a Jane's Walk, says walking is a great way to get around Vancouver. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Few people are likely as familiar with the streets of Vancouver as Larry Beasley. Not only has he lived here since 1968, but the former co-director of planning regularly strolls the streets of his city.

This weekend, he leads a Jane’s Walk — a tour of the False Creek North Neighbourhood, one of his favourite destinations. It’s one of 31 Jane’s Walks planned for Vancouver.

Jane's Walks, named after urban activist Jane Jacobs who authored the influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, take place in the world's urban areas on the first weekend in May.

The Courier asked Beasley about his favourite walks and why walking is a great way to see a city.

What’s your favourite walk in Vancouver?

My very favourite walk is the walk I’m going to do [for Jane’s Walk], actually. I like walking through the False Creek North area. I just enjoy it. I like seeing the people. I like seeing the kids. I like seeing the way the city is used. And having been involved in the design of it, you can imagine it’s kind of fulfilling to see it.

Are you happy with the way it turned out?

Yes. I’m very happy. There are issues, but we did a post-occupancy evaluation of it after it was all built and occupied. We talked to hundreds of people and we got a very high satisfaction rating of people living in the community. But my favourite part is that the strategy to get families with children worked better than we thought.

There’s nothing you would do differently?

Oh yeah. There’s lots I would do differently. If I was doing it again, I would try to get more middle-income housing in the equation — secure middle-income housing. I’d probably do a lot of things differently. But it’s still a very satisfying place and a very livable, gracious kind of community.

What will you highlight on the walk?

I am going to highlight the whole strategy of housing families with kids. When we did it, it was absolutely new in North America and it was actually contrary to what most cities were doing in their downtowns. People said it would never work. Even the school board said it would never work. And it worked. We have more children now than we were expecting. I will highlight that. And I will be talking about the integration of open space and the waterfront walkway with the neighbourhood and with housing. So people, even though they’re in real high density, they’re enjoying a very spacious environment. I’m going to talk about the cycling infrastructure. I’m going to talk about how automobiles are accommodated — they’re just not allowed to dominate. It’s not against the cars but there’s a balance there.

What are your other favourite walks?

I also like the walk from the Convention Centre down and then around Stanley Park. I like the urban part where you see the beautiful new neighbourhoods and I love the waterfront, the marinas and all the activity there. And then you go around into this very tranquil park, and all around Stanley Park. That’s a splendid walk.

Has walking around Vancouver made you understand the city better?

Yes. I live downtown and I would never think of travelling around downtown in a car. And walking is even easier than transit. I walk everywhere. I walk many kilometres every day just to do my day-to-day business but I’m also walking in some of my favourite locations. I love walking through the West End, for example. It’s such a beautiful older neighbourhood.

Is it easy to be a pedestrian in Vancouver?

Yes. And the city has been paying attention to that for years. Could it be easier? Yes, it could be easier. Do we need more finishes for quality streetscapes and sidewalks? Yes, we need that. But we’ve been planting the city beautifully with street trees, so in the summer it’s very shady on our sidewalks. We have been trying to manage traffic. So we have a lot of areas where you don’t have to really struggle with traffic. There’s not very many locations in Vancouver’s downtown where you’re struggling to run across streets. Pedestrians kind of dominate.

A lot of focus these days is on cycling. Do you think more attention should be given to walking and pedestrians?

I do. I’ve certainly supported the cycling infrastructure that’s gone in, but I think we need even more support for walking. We need better pathways defined. We need drinking fountains, we need more benches, we need more landscaping. We need to manage the urban environment that we do have, the walkable streets. We need to manage the maintenance of those better. We need to look after garbage better and things like that. But if you compare walking in Vancouver to almost any other Canadian city or American city, it’s a pretty nice place to walk.

You essentially answered my next question, which was how does Vancouver compare to other cities in terms of walkability.

Walkability compares very well in the inner city. Outside the inner city, it’s not too much different than other areas. Like other cities, we have some regional pathways. We have some walkable streets and those are great. But the inner city has been designed so that pervasively walking is an appealing thing to do and it’s actually a preference over driving your car and, even to some degree, transit because it’s just easier. It’s convenient. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. So we do better than most cities. There are some European cities that would match us and some of that has to do with the historic quality of those cities. Paris is one of the most walkable places in the world, but Vancouver offers a lot for the walker.

It seems like you travel a lot. You’ve just come back from Oslo. When you visit other cities, how do you typically get around?

I always walk. In fact, I have a policy or practice that when I go to a new city, we define a route and we try to walk across a large part of the core of the city because you can always learn the personality by walking and you see things walking that you just don’t see even if you’re on transit. Often in European cities, you’ll be underground on transit and that’s not a very appealing thing. So I walk everywhere.

What have you discovered through walks around Vancouver that you wouldn’t have if you used a different mode of transportation?

There is nothing more appealing than walking along the streetscapes of the new residential areas of Vancouver with a double row of trees. You just discover how great and gracious a sidewalk can be. There’s nothing more appealing than the incredible gardens that have been developed by people all along the street. Those are a part of how those street frontages were designed. People have just wonderful things. And the public art is always wonderful to discover — going down to the western edge of the West End and seeing the Laughing Men, for example. You just have to stop and enjoy it.

Why do you think Jane’s Walk is important?

Because what we’ve just been talking about in Vancouver is a little counter to what is the experience in many cities. Many cities are still dominated by people in their cars or even in transit. So they’re not getting the slow experience. Walking is a slow unfolding of a place, a slow discovery and it’s at a level of detail you can’t get any other way. For a lot of people, these Jane’s Walks many be the first time they’ve taken a long walk in a long time. And, in many cities, it might be absolutely the first time they’ve thought about it. It’s a good way to get people out to discover a new way or different way of looking at their city, to discover things they’ve not seen before and, hopefully, it motivates them to just want to do it on their own.

You said people in some other cities don’t walk as much, but how much does weather factor in that.

I used to think it played a big role. In a place like Abu Dhabi, where I’ve done a lot of work, it has played a big role because it can be 50C and that’s just unbearable, but I’ve become very surprised how little it matters. I’ve just been in Northern Europe, in Scandinavia, and those are cold climates, they’re wet climates like ours. There’s a huge street culture, sidewalk culture, walking culture. They are lovely cities to walk in. So I don’t think weather matters that much.

A final and tough question — what kind of walking shoes do you wear?

I just wear a pair of Skechers. They’re padded. They’re very comfortable. And you can walk all day in those shoes.

Jane’s Walks in Vancouver

Larry Beasley's walk can be found here.

Dale Bracewell, transportation planning manager at the City of Vancouver, is leading a walk along the Arbutus Corridor.

Vancouver Biennale is leading a walk along English Bay and Kitsilano.

Another walk explores Strathcona, whose residents protested a freeway development.

To see a complete list of 31 Jane’s Walks in Vancouver, which run May 5, 6 and 7, including times and other details, click here.