All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Arcades, awnings, and green infrastructure

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Awnings dripping onto umbrellas

Awnings dripping onto umbrellas

So it’s been raining lately, as it does occasionally – ahem – in Vancouver.

Crowded sidewalks fill with eye-poking umbrellas. But, umbrella toting or not, all pedestrians seem to follow an unusual shuffling dance: jockeying for position to avoid being directly under dripping awnings.

It wouldn’t have to be this way, if we were just a bit smarter with our design guidelines. (All right, you’re asking, what does this have to do with the environment? Well, a lot, from urban runoff management to walkability – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

On busy commercial streets, getting sheltered from the rain can make all the difference between getting back in the car or walking the three blocks between the stores one wants to go to. And of course, deciding to walk means that impulse buying in a store in between, or stopping in a café, is much more likely to happen. So from a business standpoint, good awnings make for good business. But if know that you can walk from the bus or the skytrain station under cover, you’re less likely to drive in the first place – a plus for the environment.  (And for anyone who needs to line up in waiting for the shelter or welfare office to open, protection from the rain can mean the difference between sickness and recovery.)

Street-side infiltration bed (Aurora Ave, Seattle)

Street-side infiltration bed (Aurora Ave, Seattle)

And where’s all that rain going? On the sidewalk, down the curb, into the storm drain. Where it will aggravate downstream flooding since nothing absorbs it. But if awnings were positioned so that they direct their runoff into grassy strips or flower beds, the water gets absorbed and released slowly – a system known as green infrastructure that can restore aquifers and prevent floods.

Other cities do a good job of keeping pedestrians nicely sheltered. Paris has the covered arcades of the Louvre: along Boulevard Rivoli, for instance, pedestrians stay dry on the sidewalk, covered as it is by the second floor of the building, supported by graceful columns and archways; to say nothing of its elegant passages, 19th century covered pedestrian laneways. Hamburg has the Alster Arkaden, a covered sidewalk with a view over the lake, wide enough to double-up as outdoor cafés. Rainy Wellington in New Zealand has apparently mandated the presence and width of its downtown awnings precisely to promote walking (even if an awning is not as romantic as an arcade).

Arcade Rue de Rivoli

Arcade Rue de Rivoli

Alster Arkaden in Hamburg

Alster Arkaden in Hamburg









And Vancouver? We have the Lee building, with a covered arcade along Broadway between Main and Quebec. L’Atelier, a building on Hastings (between Kamloops and Penticton streets.) has long, wide awning that affords complete protection. L’Atelier, in particular, would be perfect if there were planted infiltration beds between the trees.  But it’s a nice start.

Lee building arcade, Main and Broadway

Lee building arcade, Main and Broadway

L"Atelier building.  The broad awning would perfectly redirect runoff into planted beds.

L”Atelier building. The broad awning would perfectly redirect runoff into planted beds.













Many attempts are a miss, though. Usually the awnings are too narrow. Even the arcades on the block on Main north of Terminal, though well meant, are far too narrow to be inviting.

A miss: Main at Terminal.

A miss: narrow arcades, Main and Terminal.


That’s too bad because arcades are also a more efficient use of space: a larger floor area results from the space above the arcade – a very simple way to increase density without impeding on street width, walkability (or even parking, should you care). And the sturdy columns that support the arcades also give pedestrians a sense of security against the traffic.  And green infrastructure (aka, plants) can easily be integrated into an arcades/sidewalk design.

So that’s my vote for a walkability improvement: allow more sidewalk-wide arcades, promote standard-size wide awnings, and add green infrastructure to take care of the runoff. Just something to consider as Vancouver grow.


Written by enviropaul

March 25, 2014 at 9:17 am

One Response

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  1. Nice! I think most cities do this poorly to be honest and you are absolutely right – why would you want to linger in a place that just makes you wet? Nice nod to the topic of social inequity too.


    March 25, 2014 at 4:09 pm

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