Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Three rules for creating strong downtowns and main streets. Why these rules are almost impossible to follow today.

This summer, I’ve spent time rediscovering many of the villages, towns, and cities in BC’s Interior that I haven’t visited (or lived in) since I moved away from there almost 20 years ago. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that many of these places have strong walkable downtowns and main streets. What is the secret to their success?

One prerequisite is that these walkable areas must be in communities that have a stable or growing population though it takes more than population growth to create great walkable places. There are three things that I’ve observed that are required to create strong walkable downtowns and main streets.

The geometry of streets is critical. Streets must have intersections at least every 200 metres, have sidewalks, and be connected with each other. This doesn’t mean that every street has to be on a perfect grid. Langley City’s Downtown has streets that are connected at various angles, but they are all connected.

Streets should also be slow. People need to feel comfortable walking along a sidewalk, crossing a street, riding a bike, or parallel parking. Slower traffic is quieter which makes it pleasant to have a conservation while walking on a sidewalk or sitting on a street bench. This promotes wandering which is good for retail.

Nakusp's main streets are 30km/h. Select image to enlarge.

Shops must front the street in a continues wall of windows and entrances. There should never be a parking lot between a storefront and the streets, and there should never be a blank wall. These windows and doors encourage people to continue walking down a street to discover what’s next. Malls emulate this concept.

Parking can be accommodated on-street, via lanes, or with strategically placed parking lots/facilities.

On Broadway in Nakusp, there are sidewalks and on-street parking. Shops all front the main street. Select image to enlarge.

In Nakusp for example, their Save-On grocery store is located at the intersection of two of their main streets. The Save-On fronts both these main streets. Parking is provided on-street and via a small parking lot off the main streets.

These three rules are a basic formula that has been replicated in more than a hundred villages, towns, and cities in BC. With this proven formula, why is it almost impossible to create new main streets and downtowns? Much of it has to do with our municipal bylaws and master transportation plans.

Most municipalities place new connected streets every 400 to 800 metres. Internal streets are places within these 400-plus metre mega-blocks. On-street parking is usually prohibited on these connects streets. The speed limits on these streets are also 50km/h or higher. Internal streets, within these mega-blocks, are designed to be disconnected, making them difficult to travel whether by foot, bike, or car.

Most zoning bylaws in BC make it impossible to build new downtowns or main streets. Minimum parking requirements mean that more space is needed for parking than actual shops. Many zoning bylaws also require that on-site parking be place in front of and around shops making it unappealing to walk or bike.

In most BC municipalities, including Langley City, there are provisions that exempt older downtowns and main streets from current minimum parking requirements.

By encouraging a closely spaced street network, slower streets, and on-street/shared off-street parking, we can build downtowns and main streets that create a strong local economy, sense of places, and sense of community.

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