This article was adapted from a larger feature article on sustainable transportation, A Better Way, originally published in Canadian Geographic’s June 2012 Environment Issue.
If you walk or bike along the famous Stanley Park Seawall, a popular stretch on Vancouver’s 20-kilometre Seaside Route, you’ll understand why greenways are becoming the city’s claim to fame. Offering easy public access to city parks, nature reserves, cultural and historic features as well as busy downtown neighbourhoods and retail hot spots, greenways keep Vancouverites (and legions of tourists) in touch with the city’s stunning natural surroundings. They can range from rustic park trails to dedicated bike lanes on city streets, but they share one characteristic: a focus on “active” forms of transportation, such as walking or cycling. Vancouver’s extensive network boasts 85 kilometres of greenways and will eventually total 140 kilometres, ensuring that people anywhere in the city are no more than a 25-minute walk or a 10-minute bike ride from a greenway.
Although the plans had been on the table for many years, they received a huge boost in 2009, when Mayor Gregor Robertson announced intentions to make Vancouver the world’s greenest urban centre by 2020. Among the many initiatives laid out in Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future, the city’s action plan for attaining that audacious ambition, is a commitment to non-car forms of transportation — a target of more than 50 percent of all future trips in the city by foot, bicycle or public transit.
The key to achieving that goal, says Dale Bracewell, Vancouver’s manager of active transportation, is to make greenways safe, convenient, accessible and functional. “We’re building these for all people, for all age groups and abilities,” he says. That means engaging everyone along the route during the public consultation process, from school groups to seniors, to ensure that greenways are designed for everyone’s benefit.
For Vancouver’s upcoming Comox-Helmcken Greenway project, to be built later this year if approved, the city is working with the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility — a research team that strives to enhance seniors’ physical wellbeing through active lifestyles — to find out how the project will influence older adults living in the area. In surveys conducted throughout the neighbourhood’s community centres and other meeting spots, the older adults approached were unanimous in requesting more park benches, and many wanted community gardens and public artwork on display — anything to brighten up their stroll. The research team will conduct a second survey after the greenway is complete to learn how the changes are affecting people in the area in terms of increased activity and also in less tangible ways, such as perceptions of the neighbourhood and quality of life.
The Comox-Helmcken Greenway is the third and final phase of construction for the Central Valley Greenway, a 25-kilometre stretch that links downtown Vancouver with the surrounding communities of New Westminster and Burnaby. The new section will be a short but key artery, cutting right through downtown and connecting Stanley Park to False Creek, on the southern edge of the city’s commercial district. The Central Valley Greenway serves as a strategic travel route, linking neighbourhood centres with multiple transit stations and bus routes, while connecting with other greenways and bike routes throughout the region.
Although not many urban centres can match Vancouver’s natural spaces, other Canadian cities are starting to latch on to the greenway concept. Toronto, for instance, is currently improving bike trails in the Don Valley watershed, creating a network in the heart of the city’s ravine system with strategic connections to roads heading into the downtown core.