Urban design study envisions walking made easier in Vancouver's historic Gastown

·3 min read
Finding new ways to use alleyways, as was the case in Gastown's early days, is one of the visions the Gastown Business Improvement Society has for the community.  (Submitted by Sarah Bancroft - image credit)
Finding new ways to use alleyways, as was the case in Gastown's early days, is one of the visions the Gastown Business Improvement Society has for the community. (Submitted by Sarah Bancroft - image credit)

Leaders in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood are asking the public to comment on its future design and how space in the area can be reclaimed for public use.

This comes in response to the City of Vancouver's 2040 Transportation Plan, approved back in 2012, which aims to reduce emissions by encouraging more use of public transportation, cycling and travelling on foot.

The Gastown Business Improvement Society (GBIS) commissioned local architecture firm ph5 to complete an urban design study in 2019, hoping to find out how Gastown could become more usable and livable. It was completed in February 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the group from releasing the results and asking the public to engage.

"While Gastown remains a thriving business community, there is a sense of urgency to restore this National Historic Site to the jewel of the city that it needs to be," GBIS executive director Walley Wargolet said in a media release.

Among the recommendations are reducing vehicle traffic, and increasing space on sidewalks for pedestrians, along with creating more cohesive pedestrian networks.

"We imagine Water Street as much more of a shared street with wider sidewalks, bicycles and a car lane," ph5 architect and partner Peeroj Thakre told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"We see it as changing the proportions of it. So it's a quieter street but it's still accessible for all modes of transportation."

A study by architecture firm ph5 Inc. suggests more accessibility in terms of cycling and walking in Gastown.
A study by architecture firm ph5 Inc. suggests more accessibility in terms of cycling and walking in Gastown.(Submitted by Sarah Bancroft)

They're also looking at how alleyways can be better utilized for public use. In the past, Gastown alleys were once home to pubs, stables and manufacturers. Today, a few restaurants have alleyway entrances, but the study suggests other businesses could have garage-style doors to "restore the warehouse feel" of the community. Additionally, social services could be available like washrooms and drop-in centre, Thakre said.

To accommodate that change, waste collection and lighting would need to be reevaluated.

Creating more space for public gathering is also on the list, primarily on the west and east ends of the neighbourhood.

"Much of Gastown, its public space, is about movement and there's very little space for gathering," Thakre said.

"We're trying to look at how all the spaces of Gastown work together to create a healthy and vibrant and equitable public realm for businesses, workers, all residents and visitors."

Public engagement

Now, stakeholders are looking to the public for input on their plans.

A campaign called Gastown Tomorrow was launched earlier this week with the unveiling of an outdoor gallery exhibition, featuring large scale work from five local artists.

Art installations in Gastown are asking the public to engage with a study about the future of the neighbourhood.
Art installations in Gastown are asking the public to engage with a study about the future of the neighbourhood. (Submitted by Sarah Bancroft)

Each piece features a part of Gastown that could change, including Water Street, Blood Alley and Maple Tree Square.

The pieces can be viewed outside Vancouver Film School on Water Street.

The gallery is the first of several engagement sessions the GBIS plans to host,and Thakre said residents can expect to start seeing posters, coffee sleeves and take-out bags in the area with printed designs asking people to provide feedback.

"The plan itself is a long and detailed document and the engagement process is really intended to bring it to life," Thakre said.

To hear Peeroj Thakre's interview with On the Coast, click here: