Vancouver's lack of awnings leave us wet
A few times a week, Erick Villagomez rambles down Commercial Drive from his home to his gym. It’s about a kilometre, and when it rains, he gets wet. That’s because the street—like most in Greater Vancouver—doesn’t have deep awnings or colonnades or other structures that would accommodate a pedestrian in a tree-bereft rain forest.
“I curse the awnings every day,” Villagomez, a sessional instructor at the University of British Columbia’s school of architecture, told the Georgia Straight. The Lower Mainland’s rain falls at an angle, he explained. Because most developers follow the minimum awning-size requirements for the neighbourhood—in many places, that’s just five feet wide—the covers provide little actual shelter, he noted. “This is why when you’re walking [under awnings], half your body is wet too.”
Villagomez, cofounder of the Web-based urban ideas forum re:place Magazine, places the city’s awnings in “a long lineage of design guidelines for Vancouver that really don’t work well”. He argues that older cities, such as Padua, Italy, and Singapore, far better accommodate pedestrians in their public spaces because the buildings are designed for the climate. Even in Toronto, with its enclosed bus shelters, he said, it’s possible to navigate a slushy commute and remain fairly comfortable. Not so in most of Vancouver, where form trumps function.
During the recent civic election campaign, much was made of homelessness, transportation, the arts, and childcare. Guiding the built environment, however—which garnered little attention in November—is central to what a city does, Villagomez said. Through zoning, the development permit board, the urban design panel, and the Vancouver city planning commission, among many other avenues, the city literally controls how wet we all get.
The new council will be inaugurated on December 8, in the middle of the month with the most rain and snowfall, according to Environment Canada. Before the civic election, the Straight asked two candidates what they thought of awnings.
At the Naam restaurant on West 4th Avenue, Ellen Woodsworth, now a COPE councillor, tossed the responsibility for awning improvements onto the business improvement associations rather than the city. She noted that many of the city’s awnings collect dirt and mildew, giving the streetscape a grimy appearance. But she also admitted that the lack of pedestrian-appropriate structures has an impact on citizens, especially those in wheelchairs or walking with strollers, which make umbrellas impractical.
“As soon as you say ”˜awnings’, I think of getting wet,” she said. “It is a problem in this city. It’s like when we started to mimic Arizona architecture and we had such a problem with leaky condos.”
Woodsworth suggested a citywide “challenge” to elect the best awning.
In the courtyard at Capers, also on West 4th, ultimately unsuccessful NPA candidate Michael Geller also told the Straight that businesses, not bylaws, should improve awnings.
“If nothing else, it’s good business” to erect a decent awning, he said. “If you want people to look in your shop window, you have to keep them dry.” Geller also noted that new developments tend to have ineffective, unvaried, glass-and-metal awnings—an aesthetic disaster, in his opinion. An interesting streetscape, he said, needs both pretty and ugly awnings.
Geoff Meggs, who won a Vision council spot, campaigned at the Lee Building at Broadway and Main Street—the city’s only building with a colonnade that extends to the street. It was the only dry corner at the intersection, Meggs recalled.
“During the campaign, we heard from architects and urban designers that they could offer more [to the city] in terms of advice, so we want to hear from them,” he said in an interview on December 2.
Villagomez pointed out that today’s city bylaws wouldn’t allow for a climate-appropriate, Lee Building–style colonnade.
“We’ve really got to question planning and what they’re doing,” he said, noting that less planned areas such as Chinatown—which boasts rain-proof awnings that extend to the street—work better for pedestrians than planned areas such as downtown. “There are certain details, such as awnings, that ultimately make the difference between a good city and a bad city.”
Who will give you shelter from the storm?
> In Vancouver, awnings are governed by a mishmash of guidelines contained in the heritage bylaw, the standards of maintenance bylaw, the local improvements procedure bylaw, and the sign bylaw.
> In most areas of the business district and central Broadway, the city actively encourages businesses to erect contiguous awnings that are at least five feet deep and nine feet high.
> In Gastown, the guidelines are very specific and encourage repetitive colour and shape along multiple storefronts.
> On transit, 69 percent of TransLink survey respondents said there aren’t enough shelters at bus stops.
> In Surrey, North Delta, White Rock, Langley, and North Vancouver, between 72 percent and 76 percent said bus shelters are inadequate.
> For the transit area at Broadway and Commercial Drive, the city guidelines suggest that “weather protection”¦be of sufficient depth and height to protect pedestrians from wind-driven rain”.
Sources include the City of Vancouver, TransLink customer-service survey for third quarter 2008, and Gastown HA-2 design guidelines