George Chandler is asking Nelson to consider what its downtown might look like without cars.
Chandler is part of the Nelson Sunday Town Square Organizing Committee that has received permission from the city to close traffic on the 500 block of Baker Street from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 20.
The closure is a one-day experiment to see how residents utilize a downtown street that is for pedestrians only. Chandler, a public space advocate, wants to start a conversation about how downtown Nelson is utilized, and whether or not it makes sense to shut down even one block to traffic.
“I think it’s time to discuss it seriously, and confront some of the myths around car traffic being totally essential to business, like you have to be able to park right in front of the store or people are not going to go in the store. Well, that’s kind of 1950s thinking. I don’t think it’s true anymore, or it’s certainly worth questioning and looking at.”
Nelson rarely closes any block of its most popular street to vehicles, except for annual events like the Road Kings car show or for the farmers market that runs Wednesdays every summer.
Hall Street Plaza meanwhile, which was renovated in 2016, was created from a parking lot as a flexible space that could be used for events. But it’s usually still a parking lot.
Chandler said the event Sunday — the quietest day of the week for downtown traffic — won’t just be an empty city block.
“We want to program it a little bit. If it’s just closing off the street, having no cars, have nothing going on, it’d be kind of boring. So we’re encouraging people to bring their chairs and games and their family and their friends and just come down and be together.”
Closing off parts of downtown streets to traffic, either seasonally or permanently, is not a new idea.
Areas set aside for foot traffic are popular in major cities such as New York and Paris. Some Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Montreal and Banff also have seasonal closures, while this summer Kimberley is celebrating the 50th anniversary of converting to a pedestrian-only downtown.
It’s not even a radical suggestion for Nelson. The Downtown Urban Design Strategy published by the city in 2017 recommends prioritizing pedestrians and designing a type of town square at Ward and Baker Streets, which is among Nelson’s busiest intersections.
Enhancement, not disruption
Car-free streets have only recently started to gain traction among the biggest cities in B.C.’s interior.
Downtown closures began in Kelowna and Vernon as a way of restoring foot traffic to assist local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelowna started closing four blocks of Bernard Street in its downtown core in 2020. That’s since been changed to two blocks from May 19 to Sept. 4, but Downtown Kelowna Association (DKA) executive director Mark Burley says he expects the annual Meet Me On Bernard event to be permanent because it has support from businesses.
“They love the foot traffic. I have a clothing store just down from my office here that is now doing extended hours because they find they are actually busier in the early evening than they used to be.”
Shutting down streets to cars isn’t enough to encourage foot traffic. Both Kelowna and Vernon’s blocks are filled with games, bands, seating areas and expanded patios for neighbouring restaurants.
“You have to have things going on that people can come down to get attracted for, and then you have to figure out when the high-traffic time is,” said Burley. “For Kelowna, it tends to be evenings in the summer when the traffic is much higher.”
In Vernon, one block of 30th Avenue (a thoroughfare similar in character and layout to Baker Street) has been closed annually since 2021 from July to the end of August.
Keelan Murtagh, executive director of the Downtown Vernon Association (DVA) that runs the plaza, said traffic and parking, as they would be in Nelson, were two obstacles to Vernon’s plaza.
A traffic control plan was developed with the city, which Murtagh said was an adjustment for residents. The closure meant the loss of 24 parking stalls, which the DVA has tried to mitigate by showing drivers where else they might park nearby.
“The first year was really the big learning curve for the public,” he says. “After that, they really kind of seemed to understand what the disruption was going to be, and I use the word disruption because that’s how people feel about it.
“We like to think of it as an enhancement to downtown because then obviously, if you park you can walk and explore and then enjoy this wonderful space that we’ve created for pedestrians.”
The climate crisis has also impacted both plazas in the Okanagan. Murtagh said the heat dome and wildfire smoke meant Vernon’s space could only operate 18 days in 2021, and this week the block has already been shut down three straight days by smoke. Wildfires in the Kelowna area also prompted Bernard’s closure on Friday.
Both the DVA and DKA are non-profit organizations that promote their downtowns. They are funded by a business tax collected by the city then reimbursed back, which Murtagh says means their work is beholden to local businesses. If the plaza isn’t working for those businesses, it won’t happen.
But so far the Vernon plaza has had that support. Murtagh said businesses have reported increased revenues when the plaza is open, and the DVA has worked to solve complaints. A regular presence by law enforcement has also meant crime hasn’t been an issue, and Murtagh said just two picnic tables have been damaged since the closures began.
The hiring of a full-time attendant who can answer visitor questions about where to shop or how to use the games, Murtagh said, has also been worth the investment.
“I think what happens when you make changes initially is people just see what the obstacles are or how it’s going to impact them in a negative way. Then after you work through that, and you start seeing the benefits and the outcomes that could be have a positive impact on the community, then I think people start getting on board.”
Will that same support be found in Nelson? Burley said he doesn’t think a one-day closure will be enough to know for sure.
“If you are going to close it and see how it goes, I’d close it for a couple weeks honestly and then I’d have things happening within it.”
But Chandler is still looking forward to finding out what residents think of the change, even if it is only one day.
Chandler said a table will be set up Sunday for organizers to hear feedback. Should part of Baker be made pedestrian only? Should Hall Street Plaza become a permanent town square, or perhaps City Hall’s plaza be reconsidered?
Everything, or maybe nothing, is a possibility. Chandler wants people to keep an open mind and share their ideas.
“We want to have the experience of what a town square could feel like.”