Housing affordability is linked to the price of land, which is sky-high in Vancouver.
To try to address this, three residents—former Metro Vancouver planner Christina DeMarco, Ted Sebastian, and Charles Dobson—proposed earlier this year that major north-south streets with widths of 20 metres be able to be divided in half. Ten metres would be set aside for housing, with the rest remaining as roadway.
“The new lots would be developed for affordable housing,” the three wrote in their proposal as part of a city ideas competition. “A conservative estimate is that over 10,000 homes could be created, tapping into over $2 billion in land value.”
City planners greeted the idea enthusiastically. But city council downgraded the staff recommendation, voting in early October only to “consider the thin streets concept” as part of community plans being created for Marpole, Grandview-Woodland, and the West End.
On Monday (November 5), Vancouver residents can learn more about what the urban landscape looks like in a city with thin streets when the director of the Paris city planning agency, Dominique Alba, gives a free lecture at 6:30 p.m. at the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, the French architect and planner explained that her talk will cover how Paris developed from 1970 to 2020, focusing on how the streetscape influences the planning process.
Paris was originally built for pedestrians and horses, which means that many of its roads aren’t much wider than some alleys in Vancouver. And there are lots of them, some quite tiny.
“The more streets you have, the more places you have to build buildings,” Alba said. “The fact is that in Paris, the density is 20,000 inhabitants per one square kilometre. If you go on the other side [of the English Channel] to London, it’s 8,000 people for one square kilometre.”
She stated that, for example, if a street is 10 metres wide, the city permits buildings 12 metres high on either side.
Within the city’s administrative jurisdiction, there aren’t many high-rises because this was discouraged by Jacques Chirac while he was mayor from 1977 to 1995.
Despite the lack of residential towers, there are 2.2 million people in an area of just nine kilometres by 12 kilometres—and 60 percent of déplacements (movements) are on foot, according to Alba. The metropolitan area, which includes surrounding municipalities, is home to 10 million.
“Many people in Paris live in small flats,” she said. “People living in Paris accept some constraints that perhaps other people won’t accept.”
Her talk will cover a period of significant change in Paris spurred by the opening of the circular road around the city in 1973. The same year Chirac was elected in 1977, one of the world’s great art museums, Le Centre Pompidou, was completed in the fourth arrondissement, as was the enormous Châtelet–Les Halles metro station.
Alba said the 1980s were characterized by a tug of war between then–Paris mayor Jacques Chirac and then-president François Mitterrand, who favoured iconic landmark projects.
Chirac, on the other hand, focused on the redevelopment of the city’s poorer eastern area from Belleville up to Bercy.
“This sort of fight between two people gave new buildings and very interesting things for the city,” she noted.
Alba worked with famed architect Jean Nouvel early in her career. He rose to prominence during the Chirac era, winning a design competition held by the Institut du Monde Arabe in 1981.
In recent years, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has allowed people to walk on the grass in public gardens and introduced the Vélib network of bicycles for residents and tourists to use.
“Everywhere, you have people having picnics or being outside,” she noted. “This is a very big change in the city in 10 years. In 2000, it wasn’t like that.”
Alba said that one of the biggest challenges in Paris is dealing with traffic. She noted that there will be more of a pedestrian orientation around the historic Place de la République, with cars only being allowed on one side of the square. Nearby Canal St. Martin is restricted to pedestrians on Sunday, she added.
“One of the questions for Paris is what are we going to do with the cars that are just parked on the streets?” she stated.
It’s not something that has become a major public issue in Vancouver. But then again, thin streets weren’t on people's minds, either, until some imaginative local residents decided to put it on the public agenda.