Public spaces in lush lands

by Yule Heibel on April 24, 2010

I live in a ridiculously lush part of the world, and I’m not talking about the Canadian propensity to drink alcoholic beverages. In Victoria BC, on southern Vancouver Island, it’s green year ’round. By February, people are mowing their lawns. By mid-summer, the climate turns nearly Mediterranean (after a winter and long spring of cool, wet weather), and then it gets very dry.

Around here, tucked between the Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Straits, however, we never get that still heat I associate with true Mediterranean weather. There’s always wind, unceasing wind. In late winter (around February, early March), the blossoms are blown off the trees and it looks like a pink blizzard. The rest of Canada has actual snow, we have petals.

Here’s a photo of Rockland Ave., heading east. I took this photo recently (April), the flowering trees are a later variety:


The strips of grass on the right are part of the city-owned boulevard. Note how green they are, as if they’re chemically treated and watered. They’re not. By summer they’ll be dormant, but right now they’re furiously green.

The hedges and shrubs bordering the private front yards on the left are bursting with new growth. Everywhere, new blossoms shoot forth, adding hues of purple, blue, pink, white.

What you’re seeing is just a slightly ramped-up version of what happens nearly year-round. Since it’s spring, nature is right now in hyper-mode, but aside from a summer dormancy of grass and other highly water-dependent plants, it’s just green green green green all year round.

There are plenty of neighborhoods in Victoria where the sidewalks look like this, and what “this” looks like is for all the world what many other places would call public green space. It’s certainly public (a boulevard), and it’s certainly green – both from the city-owned side (which includes grass and majestic trees) and the private border on the sidewalk’s other side.

Because we have so much of it (except maybe right downtown,  which has far fewer trees and plantings), I’m often horrified when new developments are required to include huge setbacks or large swathes of green (meaning: boring lawn and the ubiquitous rhododendrons).

If, on the other hand, you live in a place like the following (below), it probably makes sense to demand more open green space:


That’s a street in Brookline, Massachusetts (where I used to live) – a typical street, a jumble of different building types, not pretty, no sign of obvious thought given to how the buildings might fit together to create some kind of street wall (unlike other streets in Brookline or Boston, streets that are considered pretty). With the addition of that open lot and its dilapidated fence, you really can see how an urban area can convey 100% suckyness, and why people might live there just long enough to save enough money for a house in the suburbs.

This street is crying out for some kind of beautification through plantings – maybe a tiny, jewel-like pocket park? It’s also in need of overall repair: public street furniture, something pleasant to look at, perhaps an indication of a retail or commercial spot (cafe?), either there or very close by. This street needs something to tie it together, and a dose of nature would be a great start.

Meanwhile, back in Victoria, we’ve got nature coming out of our ears, yet new downtown developments are supposed to have lots of green-space, not to mention bigger sidewalks. Bigger sidewalks would be great, except the city comes along and puts grass along one side. Guess what happens during our soggy winters? The “grass” gets trampled and soon turns to shabby mud.


There are better ways to include nature, and better ways to create an urban street wall. But including some street furniture and a place for bike lock-ups is a start.

What I don’t understand, however, is a call for more open green space in our downtown. We need smart additions of greenery (not boulevard lawns that get trampled to mud in winter), and we need surprising, delightful pocket parks… that sort of thing. But not more of what anyone can find by taking a walk in the core neighborhoods.

Here’s an example of greenery that works downtown: clipped hornbeams, in planters whose edges act as bench seating, placed along the street like sentries:


Here, along Government Street in Victoria’s downtown, nature acts in concert with the buildings to create a street wall, in this case one that forms the outside wall (to the road), buffering the pedestrians on the sidewalk between trees and buildings.

Nature downtown should be different from what you find in the neighborhoods. Putting lawns of any sort (even small patches) downtown is idiotic. Without strong verticals, lawns and garden shrubs just bleed out from the center, destroying the necessary structure that a real street needs to have.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one } April 25, 2010 at 8:57 am

Good post, Yule.

I agree. Lawns and token planters are not only drab but also generally ineffectual.

Meanwhile, street trees and the urban forest are not to be taken for granted in Victoria.

As you previously pointed out (in a Focus article?), Rockland, fairfield, and other neighbourhoods have quite excellent tree canopy coverage.

However, a) the benefits of the urban forest are massive, and so it demands constant attention, and b) Victoria’s needs replenishing and expanding.

I won’t overdo it on this comment, as this is an upcoming topic on my site…

But, among other things, the City has been talking about replacing our dilapidated storm water / sewage system (read ‘pipes’). Every new tree planted — and its subsequent root system — reduces the strain on that stormwater system immensely.

Not to mention the aesthetic, environmental, economic, psychological benefits.

The area of your picture on Yates (Restart Computers) is a perfect example of an area that needs large street trees (in addition to street furniture, etc.) in order to create a more human-scaled street width to building/tree height ratio (i.e., an outdoor room) that is severely lacking in that car-centric patch of Yates. An awkward, triangular patch of trimmed grass does, well, nothing.

Yule April 26, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Thanks for commenting, Evan, looking forward to seeing your posts too.
The article I wrote for FOCUS that you refer to is Victoria’s Urban Forest (it came out in March 2009). Yes, Victoria has a lot of urban forest to care for, especially in the leafier neighborhoods. But really, most of the city’s neighborhoods are pretty leafy, with the exception of downtown and former industrial areas. Too bad the tiny little trees in front of The Wave in that photo of Yates Street can’t hold a candle to the giants (whether chestnut, elm, etc.) on the residential streets. Granted, those trees are still young, but they look like the flowering fruit trees on View, which means they won’t get very big. (OTOH, Pandora Ave. near Quadra is full of terrific trees, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t have larger specimens right downtown.) Anyway, it’s a huge issue, especially since many of these trees need to be replaced/ new ones planted.
I’m looking forward to seeing the landscaping around The Atrium. I know that this project is incorporating all sorts of water run-off management with the planters on Blanshard & Yates, and is not going to fall back on just putting in a boring old patch of lawn.
Someone should make a graphic of a piece of turf inside a red circle with a red line through it, captioned “No lawns downtown!”

Yule April 26, 2010 at 11:00 pm

PS: You know which city does urban landscaping really well, with planters (and plantings)? Chicago. What’s really amazing is that they can do this, given Chicago’s brutal climate. I was there quite a few years ago in November (it was FREEZING), but nature was alive and well, right downtown. Great to see. April 28, 2010 at 6:48 am

Yes, most of the city is leafy. Name a neighbour hood, and there’s a lot of green.

Downtown could certainly be improved — particularly with regard to canopy cover. Rows of ‘giants’ would improve so many aspects our main streets in particular.

Pandora near Quadra (and, relevant to my recent post, Shelbourne near Mt. Doug and south of Hillside) is beautiful for that very reason.

It is a huge issue with many associated factors (that people don’t necessarily think about).

Downtown: Trees not lawns.
Suburbs: Food not lawns.

I am yet to visit Chicago, but I have heard good things. Interesting re the climate.

On that note, American Forests (.org) has some excellent studies and reports regarding urban trees and all of their benefits (which I plan to write about in an upcoming post).

Washington DC is a great case study, as city officials recognized the value of urban forests awhile back, worked hard to develop DC’s, and then managed to track the dollar spent vs. dollar earned per street tree.

Needless to say, the scale tipped heavily in the trees’ favour.

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