Lonely lanes

In a city notorious for social isolation, Vancouver’s residential alleys show solitude’s tranquil side

Talk to anyone who isn’t on the payroll of the Lower Mainland’s promotional machine, and sooner or later you’ll get around to the topic of social isolation, an experience so prevalent in the area that the Vancouver Foundation commissioned an extensive study on the subject. About a third of respondents described this as a difficult place to find friends, while a quarter spoke of being alone more than they wished (p. 15).

A quiet walk alone through the lanes gives you miles of country in the city/Naomi Reichstein photo

Following publication of that study, the city government itself started worrying enough about the problem that it commissioned the Engaged City Task Force, charged with finding ways to increase civic involvement. That was how programs like 3–1–1 and Talk Vancouver, enabling greater municipal participation, got started. Admittedly, though, and despite the usefulness of such methods, this type of pervasive cultural problem, permeating people’s social interactions on the ground, is probably beyond the scope of any government to solve top-down.

Without running equivalent studies on other cities of comparable size, it’s hard to know how Vancouver stacks up against elsewhere. It may be that other metropolises, if polled, would also produce some pretty dismal data on measures of loneliness and perceived disconnection.

Yet it’s also hard to discount the complaints that have accumulated over the years. Vancouver, we hear, is a city where people feel they don’t know their neighbours. Where people avert their eyes when passing you on the street or on the park path. Where cultural spaces — traditional meeting grounds for social interaction and shared experience — have shut down with depressing regularity, one after another, victims of the double insult of under-attendance and skyrocketing land values. Where kids don’t meet one another on the block, because they don’t play there. Where owners of single-family houses often shroud them from the street and from neighbouring dwellings with the invisibility cloak of hedges seemingly as high as the houses themselves. Where if you get sick and disappear for a while, people don’t necessarily notice, call or offer to help.

If you’ve experienced such dissatisfactions or heard friends express them, it’s dismaying to consider how many people live here without feeling that they have reliable networks to see them through times both good and bad.

The solace of lanes

Ironically, for the introvert, there’s one upside to this generalized apathy: you get lots of opportunities to spend time by yourself. Let’s call this the bronze lining (silver would be overstating the case) of the area’s often deflating lack of communal sensibility.

For years I’ve walked the residential lanes that make up Vancouver’s unofficial geography. These untended alleys at once symbolize and assuage, for me, the impression of aloneness that permeates this city. Unploughed in snow, unsalted in ice, they typically deteriorate over time into stretches of gravel and potholes, eventually devolving into dirt roads. They provide a taste of country in the city, with unpruned bushes, trees and vines extending from people’s back yards into the rights-of-way, reclaiming them within nature’s gentle grasp.

Structures along the laneways speak poetry with open windows/Naomi Reichstein photo

Plant hybrids volunteer from gardens into these public spaces, while hints of residents’ lives show up in the worn furniture, broken kitchen appliances and disused toys they’ve thrown out. Myriad structures line the lanes: a three-car designer garage built yesterday with frosted windows; a little laneway house under construction, combining garage with rental residence; a child’s playhouse; a small pre-war garage with barn door now used for storage only, the owner’s vehicle making its home on the street instead.

I don’t usually run into people in the lanes, but when I do, they’re often friendlier than those on the street, with a kind of unstated camaraderie. Whereas on the street it’s a pleasant surprise when people stop to talk, in the lane it’s almost a violation of manners if they don’t. At a minimum, people say hello as they pass. Sometimes more. It’s in a lane, for example, that I get into a prolonged chat with a woman about the ornamental pea blossoms growing on a vine on her rear-facing trellis.

You’d think parents would encourage kids to play in the lanes: kick the ball around, ride their bikes, get their wiggles out. I’m guessing they did in the past. Not now. The alleys are quiet; the children’s laughter has been silenced, transferred indoors. Today the main uses of the lanes, other than garbage collection, deliveries, garage access and walks by the likes of me, are the “multifamily garage sales” that happen from time to time come spring.

While the new laneway houses haven’t significantly increased the city’s affordable housing supply, they add presence to the alleys they inhabit/Naomi Reichstein photo

From spaces to places

Harkening to the potential of these haphazard sanctuaries for enhancing people’s use of public space, the city piloted an appealing program several years ago to transform some of them into so-called “country lanes,” with plantings and permeable surfaces for water infiltration. The idea was to augment their existing uses by turning them into attractive, sustainable extensions of back yards where neighbours could congregate. Country Lane 2100, leading to the City Farmer demonstration garden, is familiar to many in the Kitsilano neighbourhood. It’s surfaced with a plastic grid, soft underfoot, that allows greenery to grow through. Sadly, beyond the small number of initial pilots, the city dropped the program since creating these country lanes ended up requiring more money and collaboration than most neighbourhoods felt like contributing. Toronto has gone further with its exciting Laneway Project, a more comprehensive effort to bring people into alleys by encouraging public art, environmentally friendly design and multiple uses including business along the lanes.

In Vancouver, we’re left with what we have: lanes that come as they are, conduits to seclusion for those attracted to it.

More on social isolation in future posts. Because the problem isn’t going away any time soon.

For more musings on the urban experience, please stroll on over to my blog Sidewalk Babble.