Drive across Vancouver Island and its surrounding islands to experience the rural lifestyle. What do we see? Rural villages that are seriously constrained by excessively wide and dangerous roads (highways actually running through the heart of small villages).
Recently, Gabriola Islanders invited Vancouver Island University Master of Community Planning students to work with the community to develop a Village Vision for the small village near the ferry terminal. While there were lots of design ideas on how to enhance and stimulate a more vibrant and healthier village, all participants agreed that the largest impediment to the creation of a walkable, safe and vibrant village was the excessively wide road standards adopted by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Those standards are meant to convey large numbers of vehicles, move stormwater through large ditches, set back buildings a large distance from the road and privilege vehicles, thereby detrimentally affecting pedestrian and cyclist movement.
While perhaps well-intentioned many years ago, all of those ministry requirements impede our ability to create pedestrian-oriented villages. Simply, vehicle movement is meant to dominate. But what about the need to promote safe pedestrian movement and a more pleasant rural-community environment?
What Gabriolans experience is real for many other rural jurisdictions where authority for road-design and maintenance rests with the province. Too often, local communities are bystanders in road planning and decision-making. Some communities, such as Bowen Island, decided they had enough and became a municipality with the ability to control their own road-network planning and design.
But surely that should not be the only recourse for small rural communities where the rural lifestyle does not support local government activity. There can and should be a more equitable model where local communities, particularly in relation to their village cores, are able to work with the Transportation Ministry to modify the village road systems so that roads become streets, pedestrians move safely, buildings frame the edges of the “streets” so that sidewalks become the norm, sidewalk cafés and public spaces become common and a clear rural village identity is created.
Instead, rural communities have often been forced to adapt to excessive provincial highway standards. For instance, several have internalized their villages away from the “highway” that cuts through their village.
On Gabriola, new development has turned its back on the “highway.” They could not create a village with the existing highway standard that runs through their community. As a result, they felt they had to design a village where cars dominate the outside of the “inside/out” village and pedestrians are forced to turn their back on the community and enter a well designed internal public space that cannot be seen from the highway.
While that solution has provided an option to avoid the detrimental affects of the ministry’s highway standards, it does force the community to internalize and not enjoy the benefits of so many other rural villages where streets support and enhance community building. (Think European villages and small B.C. towns, where local governments manage roads.)
Like Gabriolans, who are frustrated with their inability to create a viable, functioning village, other rural communities are forced to react to highway standards and try to avoid their impact rather than embrace them. We can and should do better.
While the Transportation Ministry has worked with some local governments to modify their design standards, too often small rural communities are required to initiate the conversation while lacking the resources and means to advance their concerns.
Well-planned and -designed rural villages could stimulate rural economic and social well-being. Imagine travelling across the big island and our other smaller islands experiencing interesting villages that have actual cores where people walk on sidewalks, cross the street at landscaped crosswalks, sit at outdoor cafés and park on the street in front of shops, rather than in a strip mall.
It is time to explore systematically and more fully how the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure can modify its village road standards to support the redevelopment of existing rural villages and help create village communities where people come first.
Our lessons on Gabriola suggest the province and its rural communities would be better for it.
David Witty is provost at Vancouver Island University, where he also leads the Master of Community Planning Advanced Studio.
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