How Residential Blocks Act As Barriers

Two weeks ago, I found a board game store in Vancouver, and through it a variety of gaming events. The store is located about five blocks from my apartment, and I first saw it from a bus nearly two months after moving to Vancouver. It’s in the same neighborhood; to get from my apartment to the store requires walking on ordinary city streets with sufficient sidewalks and room to cross. However, those streets are residential, and so I have no reason to walk in that direction. It creates a split in what is formally the same neighborhood.

In my section of Vancouver, the two major throughfares are 4th Avenue and Broadway (9th). There is some retail elsewhere (e.g. on Cornwall, which is -1st, and even more so on Granville Island), but it’s not the continuous commercial development on the two major avenues. Even if it’s as big as Granville Island, it requires me to go specifically to it, whereas on 4th I can go until I see something I am interested in. Before I had wi-fi installed in my apartment, which is on 1st but which I got to by taking a 4th Avenue bus, I walked on 4th until I saw a cafe with free wi-fi and sat there.

This continuous retail ends roughly at the cross street I live on. It extends far east: on Broadway it’s to and beyond Cambie, but to the west it ends just west of Arbutus; on 4th, it extends east to about the Granville Bridge. As I said in my first post about Vancouver, the development on Broadway is fairly spiky, with peaks around Cambie, Granville, and Arbutus, but there’s also a base of 1- to 2-story retail. On 4th, the development is just continuous 1- to 2-story retail. The next major street west of Arbutus, Macdonald, has retail clusters at both Broadway and 4th, but on both avenues there’s a two-block residential gap between the Arbutus side and the Macdonald side. Living on the Arbutus side, I learned early that if I walk east there are cafes, stores, and restaurants immediately, and if I walk west there aren’t. The result is that even though in principle Macdonald is in my neighborhood whereas anything more than three blocks east of Arbutus isn’t, I go this far east of Arbutus much more than I go to Macdonald.

The main advantage of grid street networks over the gridless network of e.g. Providence is that they can provide continuous development, making it easy for people to spontaneously walk in all directions. In Providence spontaneity was provided only by the fact that I knew where the various retail clusters on the East Side were; in reality I would almost always go to Thayer rather than Wickenden or Wayland Square. In gridded cities neighborhoods are less formally defined around one center, but instead evolve more organically, since the center can shift over time and the street network doesn’t distinguish it from the boundary with the next neighborhood over.

On a broader level, this spontaneity is a good way to promote more access. If I can walk to interesting retail in more directions, there’s a higher chance I’ll find something that suits my interests, just as the gaming store does. It provides the same benefits as an increase in density or in travel speed, in this case specialization of retail.


  1. Tom West

    Classic case of mobility (how far you can travel) versus accessibility (how much you can travel to). Gridded streets (or pedestrian connections between cul-de-sacs) increase accessibility despite no change in mobility.

    • mike0123

      Vancouver has a mostly-regular hierarchical grid. Mostly, retail appears only on the arterials, which are spaced about 800 m apart or about 5 or 6 blocks apart and are the transit routes and traffic routes. Some arterials have long stretches of continuous storefronts interspersed sporadically with a two-block stretch of residential uses (in Alon’s case, this marks the old city boundary). Other arterials have long stretches of residences with short stretches of storefronts. Alon is describing how this pattern often results in stretches of continuous retail that almost but do not connect to other stretches of continuous retail, and produces neighbourhoods that feel internally disconnected and maybe even function somewhat separately.

  2. Alan Robinson

    If we follow the line that lining streets with retail is the best practice, we’ll run into the fact that early in the development of the neighbourhoods, there is insufficient demand to fill all the space provided and to keep the development connected on a pedestrian scale.

    To keep a pedestrian scale, the development needs to take up only part of the length of the street, then it will eventually convert into mixed use commercial development along the extended corridor as time progresses. Robson St. is a corridor that has been fully developed, and central Broadway is almost filled out. Drexel Games is a residential conversion that is continuing the 4th Ave. commercial district to the West. It leapfrogged down to MacDonald as to be located at a major intersection.

      • Alan Robinson

        I don’t think that would help. While low densities will prevent a pedestrian friendly environment, gaps in the commercial corridor depend on the distribution of densities and the separation between commercial corridors rather than the absolute density.

  3. Eric

    On a broader level, this spontaneity is a good way to promote more access. If I can walk to interesting retail in more directions, there’s a higher chance I’ll find something that suits my interests, just as the gaming store does.

    Do you normally look for something as specialized as a gaming store by just walking around? I assume most people could walk around the city for years and never happen to come across that store. If you have a specific interest in gaming, wouldn’t you be much more likely to find such a store via the internet or word of mouth?

    • Alon Levy

      If I’m specifically looking, then obviously I would not just walk around for this. But I was not expecting to see this, and I just happened to see it from the bus. (Remember, the Providence area, which isn’t much smaller than Metro Vancouver, has one gaming store I know of, and it’s in Pawtucket; I had no expectation of finding something within walking distance.)

  4. Peter Brassard

    Sometimes it may be the other way around or perhaps these commercial clusters can act in a different way, where they can create divisions of their own. It’s far less obvious today, but in the 1980s and early 90s as the Village (east and west) and Chelsea in Manhattan were gentrifying, 14th Street acted as a division between these residential neighborhoods. 14th Street was starkly different from its adjacent blocks—it was kind of a DMZ. Keep it mind that the only people that set foot into Union Square Park at this time were junkies, crack addicts, and drug dealers. 14th Street’s retail served more working class Brooklynites who arrived by train rather than the Manhattan residents who were in walking distance.

    Another example of a retail dividing line is in Providence’s retail corridor along the upper end of Hope Street around Rochambeau Avenue. To the west of Hope Street the Summit and Camp Street neighborhoods are more middle and lower income and to the east of Hope is generally upper-middle to upper income. Comments have been made by people who live on the east side of Hope that those who live in Summit or Camp Street area live on the “wrong side of Hope Street,” even if there’s virtually no difference between the housing stock that they live in and that it’s only a few blocks away.

  5. Nathanael

    Commercial clustering and industry clustering is one of the most famous documented economic phenomena — and it’s basically based on this. If your potential customers are heading towards place X, it makes sense for you to locate in place X. Result: every shoe factory clusters in the same place. All retail catering to the same social class clusters in the same place. If you don’t cluster this way, you’re at a disadvantage.

    If you don’t have strict residential zoning, it’s perfectly possible for this to operate in a natural manner: the blocks of residential which “separate” the commercial districts eventually get sold to businesses. I can’t count the number of smallish towns I’ve been in where many of the businesses were in converted residences, but Ithaca is a rather dramatic example, and Niagara-on-the-Lake was another impressive example.

    On the other hand, restrictive zoning prevents the natural evolution of building use. So.

    • mike0123

      The RM-4 zoning of the residential blocks does not permit retail.

      The RM-4 residential buildings are usually at least as dense as nearby retail only and residential over retail C-2 buildings in floor area terms and likely are at the allowable density. This makes it unlikely that the gaps on Broadway and 4th would be filled with new residential over retail buildings even after a change to C-2 zoning, but it could help with similar gaps elsewhere.

      Anything multiple-family built in the last 30 years is strata-titled. This makes it unlikely that existing residential buildings in RM-4 zones would opt to add retail even if the zoning was changed to C-2.

      New retail is more likely on freehold lots with existing low-density buildings (e.g. houses, car dealerships) where the zoning permits medium- or high-density buildings and new building requires retail.

      • Nathanael

        Blech — zoning and title thickets strike again!

        With zoning which permitted residential-over-retail, I am sure some ground-floor owners would sell to retailers.

  6. ant6n

    So, kinda off-topic, are you a fan of European style board games, just like you’re a fan of European-style trains? ;-)

    • Alon Levy

      Yes. And because my favorite one was written by an American (Race for the Galaxy), it plays to my contention that Americans can do great things, too, when they borrow ideas from the Germans.

  7. Andre Lot

    There is only so much retail activity that can go on “in all directions”, until the local market is saturated. You might be able to have such patterns in places that have extremely high densities such as Lower Manhattan and/or well-defined areas that attract a lot of passing/destination traffic (on cars, trains, trams, doesn’t matter).

    Other than that, a neighborhood with medium density that is not particularly a destination for tourists or visitors cannot support that much retailing, even if the commercial rents were as cheap, on a $/m² basis, as their adjoining residential prices.

    • Alon Levy

      You’re right. I only bring this up in Vancouver because the residential gap is quite short, so in principle filling it in is not hard. (In practice, see Mike’s comment.) It’s not like Providence, where it’s self-evident you’re not going to see continuous retail connecting Hope, Thayer, Wayland Square, and Wickenden.

  8. Keep Houston Houston

    This is a pretty gangster argument for no zoning, period, ever. Houston’s Montrose has a somewhat lower density than your part of Vancouver and certainly orders of magnitude less density than Manhattan or most of Brooklyn. But starting at Montrose and Westheimer you can walk 1.3 miles east, 1.9 miles west, and 0.9 north and 1.0 south without crossing a strictly residential section.

    But even this is misleading because if you go a bit further west past the Lamar campus the commercial resumes and you have 3.5 miles of continuous commercial, and the northern and southern boundaries are (i) the Bayou parks and (ii) the Museum District, respectively, both of which are huge pedestrian generators. In particular the Contemporary Arts Museum is free, so you can just wander in casually anytime you want to get your mind blown.

  9. Pingback: The Problem with Anchoring | Pedestrian Observations

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