Before Covid-19, our shop owners in Ladner Village knew that it was a joyless exercise in frustration to seek the expansion of patios for paying customers. While prime space existed outside their doorways for the use of patrons, parking lots and nextdoor public plazas were off-limits. What made sense intuitively (use nearby spaces for customers!) did not pass muster with the bylaws that cover the uses of space in the Village.
Rigid adherence to property lines, food safety laws, alcohol services laws, and emergency evacuation requirements all seemed to trump the common sense of shop owners who a) know better than to poison their customers and b) understand that they need to keep a path clear on the sidewalk for passersby.
Delta’s patio plan, along with the temporary widening of sidewalks in key areas to allow for social distancing to be followed on our sidewalks, has shown that it really is possible to modify the streetscape in a matter of days. And, what’s more, it’s possible to change it numerous times in response to changing conditions!
Yesterday, I saw a group of five men enjoying a beer outside of the Legion. I also walked by the gorgeous planters in front of Il Posto which mark out the general area where their patio is when it’s not raining. Whether at the Legion for a pint or at Il Posto for a bite, drinkers and eaters and pedestrians are all existing happily together! Groups have plenty of space in which to gather and there was a rope line marking out the space on the sidewalk that the Legion was able to occupy. Perhaps you’ve also spotted the expanded patios in Ladner Village? Or the patio in the parking lot at Four Winds in Tillbury? Or the large patios in Tsawwassen?
These new spaces or expanded spaces for gathering have managed to break the stranglehold of regulations that have been hurting Ladner Village and other parts of the city.
Cities across North America jumped into action to respond to the restrictions on gatherings that formed a key part of our public health response to the pandemic. Delta’s swift action in this showed that the old rulebook could be safely dispensed with and we’d be okay. City staff were entrusted with discretionary powers to make the calls and, “guess what?” – they did a great job! They know what they’re doing – years of experience are a benefit when it comes to doing things like this!
The City prioritized the needs of residents, customers, and business owners by allowing changes outside of the restaurants and pubs. They listened to the ideas of the business owners for ways that they could adapt their spaces. They anticipated the needs of customers who would use those spaces and they anticipated the unique needs of disabled residents.
What was missing? And do we miss it now?
There wasn’t any “public consultation” in the rigid, formal way that we think of it. Did you miss it? You know, the chance to ‘weigh in’ and ‘give input’ and ‘help Delta shape its umbrella regulations and minimum requirements for chair legs’. And guess what? The changes, introduced as temporary measures, have given rise to a new appreciation for the City of Delta’s quickness to respond with nary a complaint.
They got going without formal consultations and instead they prioritized informal consultations with shop owners and building landlords. They had the outline of a plan and went for it!
What the City Council got right, with the public urging of Councillor Dylan Kruger, was a boldness to dispense with the regular rigmarole of studies, consultant reports, and public listening sessions. Instead, they observed a problem (more space was needed for local food and drink places under pandemic regulations) and they asked, “what’s the next thing we can do to address this problem?” In this case, it meant a few keywords: relax, permit, and enable.
When small changes are impossible or impractical, the only thing we’ll see in our cities are big changes.
The cost of blocking small change in communities is that all you’re going to be left with is big changes. We blithely accept restrictions on normal, small-stuff changes and then we can’t figure out why all that seems to come up these days in our cities are massive changes. This applies to the types of building projects that we see going forward in the city, the delays in establishing bicycle routes, and the countless other smaller undertakings that end up being all or nothing propositions.
What Should Happen Now?
1. Ask this Practical Question: How Has this Change Affected You?
Delta City councillors and city staff should check in with a range of people who have been affected by these changes. Ask the shop owners. Ask the next door shops, “how’s it going?” Take note of how they’ve been affected by the change. Ask those with disabilities who would be most impacted by reduced sidewalk spaces or the loss of parking spaces in close proximity to the places they frequent, “how’s it going? how has this change affected you?”
2. And then, ask this follow up question: What would make this change process better?
We might be surprised by some of the suggestions – we might anticipate some of the other suggestions. And then iterate on this process by implementing small changes in order to refine how it’s going.
And as soon as this pandemic eases up and life returns to ‘normal’, let’s remember the placemaking benefits that have come from what we unleashed and resolve to never go back to the old ways!
Smarter Articles By Smarter People Than Me on This Topic
Not convinced? Check out a couple of great articles over at the Strong Towns site to explore this topic more fully.
Strong Towns – Oakland’s Open Streets are Still a Work in Progress. And That’s a Good Thing!
- “In May, Oakland launched an Essential Places component to its Slow Streets program, using a similar toolkit of cones, bollards, prominently marked crosswalks and the like, but with a different emphasis informed by residents’ stated needs: safe access to these vital locations.
Since then, Oakland has added Flex Streets: a program through which businesses (notably including food trucks and pushcart-based street vendors) can apply for a permit to make use of public right-of-way including sidewalks, parking lanes, and vehicle lanes. The city continues to look for ways to expand and iterate these programs: a recent press release announcing Phase 2 mentions such goals as ongoing context-specific changes, neighborhood-level traffic calming and pop-up slow streets. (Strong Towns)
Strong Towns – The Evolving 2020 Open Streets Movement
- “Setting up some tables in parking stalls, or a tent on the sidewalk, is the kind of easily reversible, low-cost, low-risk experiment that we should be conducting in our cities constantly. Think of it as rapid prototyping in the service of building better, more thriving places.”
“So here’s the thing you should watch as this unfolds: see if any significant problems or backlash arise. If they don’t—or if they’re easily resolved—then maybe we never needed all the red tape all along. Because here’s the thing: setting up some tables in parking stalls, or a tent on the sidewalk, is the kind of easily reversible, low-cost, low-risk experiment that we should be conducting in our cities constantly—both private entities like restaurants, and the public sector responsible for maintaining public space.” (Strong Towns)
Strong Towns – Most Public Engagement is Worse Than Worthless
- “I think most public engagement is beyond worthless. I think it actually corrodes the relationships we need in order to build a strong town. Most public engagement, as it is currently conducted, makes our cities worse places.
Does this mean that I am saying we should abandon public engagement? Most definitely not. But I think we need to understand behavior, relationships, and expertise a lot better if we are going to do good with our consultation efforts instead of harm. Public engagement needs to be done well, because it would be better to do nothing at all than to corrode the public’s trust in City Hall and in each other.” (Strong Towns)