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