What makes a great neighbourhood?

This past Sunday, Brian and I got a chance to sample food from local restaurants and browse the goods of many local vendors during Car Free Day Vancouver.  It’s an annual event held around several Vancouver neighbourhoods and encourages residents (and visitors!) to leave their vehicles at home, reclaim the roads (if only for a little while) and enjoy a day out amongst the locals.  There was music, food, beer, and (at least on Main Street) an abundance of suspiciously hipster clothing.

Photo Credit: CanadaPenguin via Flickr

Photo Credit: CanadaPenguin via Flickr

There were A LOT of people out and about, walking up and down the street, and just generally having a good time while supporting local businesses.  About 20 blocks were closed to traffic and filled with booths from neighbourhood shops and vendors.  For myself, I spent about $12 and I got a beer, some pad Thai noodles and lemonade.  I had a great time!  It left me kind of wondering, why does this not just happen everywhere?

The Vancouver neighbourhoods that participated in this event – Main Street, the West End, Kitsilano and Commercial Drive – already have thriving local communities where people really do shop local and support the local businesses.  The people who live around these neighbourhoods use car sharing, buy groceries from the local market and generally make these neighbourhoods great places to live.  While the streets don’t shut down on a regular basis, you definitely will always see people walking up and down the street, browsing the shops and sampling the restaurants and bars.

These kinds of neighbourhoods create win-win scenarios.  They are popular – everyone wants to live where the action is, right?  They’re environmentally friendly –  why drive when you can pick up groceries across the street?  And they are economically viable – I spend most of my leisure money eating and drinking in my neighbourhood restaurants, supporting local businesses.

And yet, in many cities, the type of urban planning required to build and nurture these neighbourhoods is put aside in favour of building highways, sprawling blocks of single family homes, and massive shopping complexes.  As a consumer, when businesses and amenities are not located close to my home, I’m not likely to walk out and about around my house.  Why would I, right?  Instead, I’d be more likely to get in a car, spend money filling it up with gas, and driving around from place to place.

The cynic in me would say that this is precisely why mixed use neighbourhoods are not built, to force people into buying expensive cars and reinforcing the need for oil and whatnot.  But this view would ignore the many economic benefits of mixed use neighbourhoods.  In Canada, small businesses contribute between 19 and 30% of the GDP.  That’s a lot!  And when I buy a loaf of bread from the local bakery or stop for a beer at the little bar across the street, I’m supporting small businesses.  When I fill up a car with gas… who ultimately pockets that profit?

Long rambling post, but in short – I’m always happy when I see a new mixed use building go up where there used to be only houses or single storey store fronts.  Events like Car Free Day highlight what a healthy urban neighbourhood can do when it has local residents and businesses all working together.  While it’s great that established neighbourhoods like Main Street and Kitsilano can put on these events, I’d like to see places like Burnaby and New Westminster try to build neighbourhoods that are one day able to throw a Car Free Day.

How does your neighbourhood stack up?  Can you live, wok and play in your ‘hood or do you drive to meet your needs?

Posted in: Philosophy

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