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Country Lanes: Vancouver's forgotten urban gardens

From laneways to gardens: A future for Vancouver's alleys.

Vancouver's Country Lanes

Yo, dawg, I heard you like parks, so I made a park where you can park

While the City is favoring the podium tower these days, high-rises are not the only answer to urban livability. What about laneway houses? What about more green space? If we're stuck looking at the issue as one of public parks vs high-rise condos, that's probably because the forest of cranes across the city prompts us to frame it as such.

What if there were a way to add green space without bulldozing any buildings? Furthermore, what if adding that green space promoted alternate densification methods?

It turns out that the answer is right behind us. Vancouver's city blocks are shot through with laneways, as you'll see in just about every episode of "Fringe", "Arrow", "Human Target", or anything else shot in town.

These laneways could be turned into parks, and they have been in the past. Set the Wayback Machine for 2002, and check out this report on the Country Lanes Demonstration Project.

The Country Lanes were created by digging up the pavement (which, let's face it, look like Ben Grimm's ass these days) and replacing it with a layer plastic honeycomb and two concrete tracks on which to drive. The honeycomb's cells were then filled with soil and planted with grass. As the grass sprouted, voila: instant park.

Country Lanes: Honeycomb, honeycomb!

Another benefit was that rain runoff would be hoarded by the cells of the laneway's lawn, instead of adding to the burden of the adjacent storm drains.

One such Country Lane exists in my neighbourhood. I've walked past it for years, not realizing that it was part of an abandoned City project. I thought it was some sort of hippie thing connected to the City Farmers' Garden.

City Farmer Country Lane

This Country Lane still exists in a laneway off West 5th between Cypress and Maple: it was completed in 2003.

View Larger Map

Two others were installed as well: In the lane south of the 700 block of 27th Avenue, and in the lane south of Yale Street between Slocan and Kaslo. You can see Yale Street's Country Lane below, via Google Street View:

Country Lane: south of Yale St.

Will to flower

Why were the Country Lanes abandoned after only a few years? The short answer is lack of political will. A Country Lane obviously costs more to install than a plain ol' concrete alleyway, and its installation doesn't bring in any money for the City in return. The project cost the City nearly a quarter of a million dollars: to expand the program would mean passing that cost to affected homeowners in the form of property taxes.

In light of Grandview-Woodland's rejection of a podium-tower future, we're taking a fresher look at density alternatives, and there's an opportunity for both homeowners and City Hall nestled in the spaces where we keep our trash bins.

What if the presence of a front lawn were to make a laneway house more valuable? A laneway house would not be some homunculus stuck to an existing house, then, but a structure with its own front lawn.

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: since City Hall is incentivized by high property values, why not leverage that dynamic in favor of prettier laneways? We need to get our futurism on, and envision a tomorrow that isn't directly informed by today's habits.

These long, narrow gardens haven't just captured my imagination, either: they're making their way back into the mainstream-media consciousness, too.

Why not revisit the Country Lanes project? Not only would laneways with lawns ease the burden placed on our storm drains, but you would also have a park where you park your car. You could team up with your neighbours for some urban gardening and have fresh veggies and herbs whenever you want them.

South Africa only gets one Garden Route. Vancouver could have dozens, or hundreds. How is that not awesome?

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