Features & Columns

Serendipity Abounds at Vancouver
Placemaking Conference

When the anti-man-about-town invades British Columbia, or anywhere
in Canada, serendipitous events often emerge
Or ride it, as these synchronized cyclists did at the recent Viva CalleSJ street party. Photo by Taylor Jones

When the anti-man-about-town invades British Columbia, or anywhere in Canada, serendipitous events often emerge. Previous examples are out there, if readers require proof.

In the most recent case, I was already scheduled to take the new Air Canada flight from San Jose to Vancouver, when Ed Solis of the San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services told me his crew was going to be in Vancouver the same exact stretch of three days, presenting at the Pro Bike/Pro Walk/Pro Place conference. As North America's most popular walking, biking and placemaking powwow, the conference was slotted to attract more than 1,000 people involved in active transportation issues: city planners, transportation engineers, public health professionals, community leaders or just walking and bicycling advocates.

Solis was giving a talk on Viva CalleSJ, San Jose's wildly successful open streets initiative that took place the Sunday after Solis' presentation. That is, he was presenting at an international conference in advance of the event back home in San Jose, which made the whole trip even more rocking.

Joining Solis at the Sheraton Wall Centre Hotel was Suzanne Wolf, a deputy director at San Jose Parks and Rec, who facilitated the entire session titled, "Different Cities, Different Streets: Open Streets as a tool to create happier and healthier cities." Outside the meeting rooms, dozens of vendors exhibited a slew of products and services, all related to active transportation. Hundreds of delegates swarmed the floor, either gathering for coffee and water between sessions or scrambling to find their next meetup. It was a huge conference and the anti-man-about-town was quite impressed to see San Jose representing at such a globally connected event.

Vancouver, of course, is a pioneering metropolis in terms of integrating walkability and bicycle culture into the urban fabric. Decades ago, it disregarded the belligerent U.S. model of concrete freeways and horizontal subdivisions in favor of preserving and developing a dense, walkable downtown core. Many places in the city now feature protected green bicycle paths, numerous public spaces and elaborate mixed-use projects, aside from many layers of effective public transportation. The real estate prices are even more outrageous than the Bay Area, so all is not wonderful, but there's plenty of reasons why the conference chose Vancouver for its 2016 locale.

Joining Solis and Wolf for the "Different Cities, Different Streets" presentation were two other open-streets advocates, Alyssa Bird and Ashley Priem. Bird is a senior project manager at 8 80 Cities, a Canadian nonprofit promoting open streets programs, walking, biking, urban parks and a wide variety of mobility enhancement issues. Priem works for EcoSuperior Environmental Programs in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Bird, Priem and Solis traveled together a few years ago to Guadalajara, Mexico, to experience that city's legendary open streets program. That trip inspired Solis to pool his resources and rally people in San Jose to start talking about Viva CalleSJ, and it also led to a similar open-streets initiative in Thunder Bay, which took place on the same day as this year's Viva CalleSJ. Like I said, nothing but coincidences. This is why I travel.

So there they were—Solis, Bird and Priem—summarizing their respective exploits to a room jammed with walkability enthusiasts, city planners, biking advocates, transportation engineers and yours truly. It was fantastic to learn about the Thunder Bay open-streets project, which required event organizers to deal with a more small-town mentality when convincing the locals to close down their streets. Priem referred to a specific demographic of her population as CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). Likewise, Solis talked about the initial pushback he received from City Hall and the police department when trying to pitch the idea of Viva CalleSJ. After all was said and done, though, both open-streets projects in Thunder Bay and San Jose were huge successes. Long live the streets!