Bring on car-free zones

Canada Day came and went with plenty of happy revellers wandering around downtown ready to party.

As always, our resident pipe-band squeezed out a stirring rendition of Scotland the Brave. A lone RCMP constable, decked out in red surge, marched in front of a deputation of Squamish Air Cadets. Flag-bearing Canadian Legion members stepped smartly down Cleveland Avenue while a contingent of vendors, sheltered under canopies, hawked their wares.

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These communal celebrations always offer us a tantalizing look at what the downtown could become, given a bit of imagination and planning.

Competition for the attention of locals and visitors is intensifying with the arrival of big-box stores and the proliferation of shopping alternatives in strip malls along Highway 99.

As everyone knows, the downtown needs to create a niche for itself to survive this competitive onslaught.

Council made the right decision recently to green light extended patios as far as the parking spaces in front of stores. Colleen Myers, who runs the popular Zephyr Café, believes the new rules create "a very strong identity for the downtown."

Worries about parking are unfounded, according to Gelato Carina proprietor, Gregory Fischer. He believes there is ample parking downtown, so eliminating a few spaces will not cause potential customers to avoid the area.

But the patio extension initiative is only a band-aid solution to a bigger problem.

In order to market themselves, Cleveland Avenue merchants have to generate some of that special events buzz on a longer term basis. The downtown has to brand itself as community focal point and meeting centre.

The best way to do that is to create a car-free pedestrian zone on specific summer weekends.

Vancouver has shown us the way in this regard. During the Olympics the city decided to create four pedestrian-only zones. The rest is history.

This past June, pedestrians took back the streets during car-free events in five Lower Mainland communities.

On Denman Street, an area well known for its vibrant pedestrian appeal, the West End Car-Free Day offered food, music, spoken word, dancing, foosball and much more, including a bout of glad handing and political image adjustment by none other than the leader of the Federal Liberals, Michael Ignatieff.

Over on Commercial Drive more than 30,000 people showed up to enjoy food, music and fun, including a DJ-led roller disco.

In Kitsilano, privately hosted block parties became the hallmarks of their car-free day.

Across town, Main Street was filled with vendors, entertainers, musicians, Roller Girls and street hockey enthusiasts. Seventeen whole blocks were closed to traffic, with the Vancouver Peoples' Summit claiming five blocks of the iconic street.

On Lonsdale Avenue, in North Vancouver, the newest addition to the car-free day family offered a beach style party, with reggae and surf bands, as well as bike and skateboard demos.

Many of these successful Lower Mainland car-free zone experiments are in their infancy, with more planned for the future.

So why not get in the game and realize the full potential of our own downtown by bringing the pedestrian-zone concept to Squamish this summer?

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@ Copyright Squamish Chief

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