Canada’s pinnacle of placemaking

In September 2016, I headed north to Vancouver, BC to attend Pro Walk, Pro Bike, Pro Place, the world’s largest placemaking conference. It was by far the most fun and inspiring conference I’ve ever attended. And given that it took place in the world’s most beautifully situated big city during a week of perfect blue skies, the setting was unparalleled.

Seawall multi-use path
Coal Harbour from Vancouver’s Seawall, the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path–and subject of a future post.

Hundreds of breakout sessions covered every urban planning and placemaking topic imaginable. Great places around the world were celebrated in detail, but just outside the conference rooms–and nearly overlooked–was the greatest square block of placemaking that I’ve ever seen. I explored Vancouver for a few extra days after the conference, and this block was my biggest highlight.

Mole Hill's one through street
Looking straight down the main thoroughfare of Mole Hill. The street is welcome to everyone and to all modes of transport.

The place is known as Mole Hill, or the Mole Hill Community Housing Society. The lane running through Mole Hill is probably North America’s greatest example of a woonerf, or “living street”–a Dutch concept in which the street includes shared space and traffic calming, and all traffic speeds are restricted to a walking pace. Woonerfs share similarities with “complete streets,” where equal priority is given to all modes of transportation. However, in “complete streets,” different modes are typically separated rather than sharing space. Woonerfs have a different feel altogether; they are the ultimate “places for everyone.” I’ve visited many great woonerfs in Europe, and this Vancouver lane was as enjoyable as any I’ve seen.

Several side paths lead to homes on each side of the lane. Each path is fully lined with greenery.

It’s hard to believe that this incredibly quiet, traffic-calmed street is in the very heart of Vancouver; it lies at the border of downtown and the West End, one of North America’s most densely populated neighborhoods. Mole Hill is one square block bordered by Thurlow, Pendrell, Bute and Comox streets. It couldn’t occupy a more urban location, and yet it’s nearly hidden in plain sight.

In fact, no Web search for woonerfs, complete streets, laneways or placemaking in Vancouver will find it. Unless you know that it’s named Mole Hill, then it might as well not exist. Even the largest-ever conference on placemaking barely mentioned it—and the conference took place *one block* from Mole Hill. Thus, I knew I had to share the magic of this place as widely as possible.

Most residents and visitors arrive car-free; a Mobi bike-share station and protected bike lanes are one block away.

At first glance, Mole Hill looks like little more than a narrow lane lined with nice vegetation—and a nice break from glass towers. But fully 300 people live in this single square block (a density of 80 units per acre). It also required far more work than a casual observer might think.

In fact, thousands of area residents worked for over a decade to save this block from demolition and inevitable condo towers. An information-rich Mole Hill website was created, which says that Mole Hill is the “most intact and fully restored square block of heritage houses in the city of Vancouver.” The neighborhood has existed since 1888, just two years after Vancouver’s incorporation.

Beautiful, beneficial habitat is found throughout Mole Hill. I counted dozens of artistic birdhouses made of reclaimed materials.

It’s the most pleasant block I’ve explored in a major urban center. West Enders spent countless hours restoring all the historic homes, adding public spaces and creating community gardens and native wildlife habitat areas. It really does take a village—and it’s always worth the effort at the end.

There are several community gardens in the square-block community, and none are behind locked gates.

Mole Hill’s three founding principles of affordable housing, sustainability and heritage preservation are felt with each beautiful step. And care was taken to ensure that affordable housing was provided to singles, couples and families, in keeping with the block’s history.

The fully restored historic homes have modern geothermal heating systems, water-saving features and low-energy lighting. Parking spaces were reduced by 80%, with the remaining stalls reserved for a car-share system. The lane was also narrowed for traffic calming and public benefit.

All residents have scenic, tranquil walks to their beautifully updated historic homes.

All public spaces were carefully designed to provide opportunities to view the homes from a variety of angles, to promote urban food production, and to maximize stormwater management on-site. Art abounds throughout Mole Hill, and the public is welcome to walk through its community gardens, which were built from materials discarded from the renovations, along with materials donated from local businesses.

Naturally, a creek flows through the community.

Edible berries at the lane’s edges provide free organic food for the public, and native plants provide habitat for bees and other beneficial insects such as butterflies and ladybugs, as well as safe habitat and food sources for many bird species, all of which help pollinate the plants in the community gardens. These and other traffic-calming measures make experiencing Mole Hill at a walking speed a true joy for anyone, regardless of transportation mode.

Another side trail. Residents casually walk home and enter their magic little slice of Vancouver after shopping at an unlimited variety of nearby shops, businesses and restaurants.

I have many more pictures of Mole Hill; I also created a short video walking tour. Below are several pictures of Mole Hill, followed by more pictures of Vancouver that may preview some future posts! Enjoy! And, as always, you can click on any image to open the full-sized version.

The Comox-Helmcken Greenway, beautiful Nelson Park, and the West End Farmers Market all run along Mole Hill’s norther border.

Traffic-calmed west entrance to Mole Hill from Bute St

And here are a few previews of future posts about placemaking, paths and people-friendly infrastructure in Vancouver:

Seawall path near Science World. The Seawall is the world’s longest continuous downtown multi-use path.
Harbour Air Seaplanes is the world’s largest all-seaplane company. Every possible mode of transportation is taken by thousands of Vancouverites every day.
Skytrain is the world’s longest driverless train system. Expo line trains arrive in each direction every 3 minutes.
Cycling downtown has increased dramatically due to what is an increasingly integrated network of extremely safe cycle tracks.
If you haven’t been to–and biked throughout–downtown Vancouver since June 2016, you won’t believe how many fully protected cycle tracks have been completed; biking in downtown Vancouver has gone from stressful and dangerous to relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable.
This is only the beginning of what will be a much more comprehensive post on Vancouver’s protected cycling network. Vancouver has completely leapfrogged all other West Coast cities regarding downtown cycling infrastructure.
Vancouver Convention Centre is topped by North America’s largest non-industrial green roof. Beautiful linear parks/beaches and multi-use trails dominate nearly every foot of waterfront on Vancouver’s main peninsula.
North waterfront trails lead to Coal Harbour and Stanley Park.
Seemingly everyone using Vancouver’s waterfront trails stops to take pictures.
A-maze-ing Laughter is a beautiful example of placemaking: 14 tall bronze sculptures, each with a different gesture and pose, in English Bay.

English Bay at sunset. Only a small percentage of the thousands of people on Vancouver's miles of beaches arrive by car.

English Bay’s Inukshuk, Inukshuk, a welcoming symbol for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Southeast False Creek, the site of Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Village, abounds with great placemaking.


4 thoughts on “Canada’s pinnacle of placemaking”

  1. Tim, This is fabulous. I would never have known about this street if it were not for your wonderful blog. Keep up the good work. I’m learning a lot! Jane

    1. Thank you so much, Jane! I LOVE sharing detailed stories and images of very specific places that are not on the tourist radar but are as enjoyable (at least to me!) as the very top attractions in these cities. I’ll be posting lots of features of hidden gems found all over North America and Europe–stay tuned! 🙂

  2. Tim, for those of us wondering if there might be a better place to live, these are excellent. Your blog makes the reader become comfortable with your chosen locations. It stirs my travel bug.
    I am a friend of Jane’s and off to Vietnam in a week.
    Dianne Schmidt

    1. Thanks for your great reply, Dianne! And I agree: Mole Hill would be THE place for me if I lived in Vancouver. 🙂 The city is crazy expensive, but that specific micro-neighborhood provides housing for a wide variety of incomes–in the most beautiful, universally appealing way imaginable. Mole Hill is truly a “place for everyone!”

      I’m super envious of your trip to Vietnam! I nearly went there last fall; I’m hoping to take a long trip there this fall instead. Have a wonderful time, and let me know what you discover! I keep hearing incredible things about Vietnam and its surrounding countries!

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