All of us have probably used sidewalks to walk from A to B almost everyday, without thinking about them. But there are other reasons people use sidewalks as well. Sidewalks are used to advocate a certain product or idea, used as a place to catch up with a friend, or used as a place to sleep. As you can see, they serve multiple purposes for different people, from all age groups, genders, social classes and colours walk. These people walk past each other, make eye contact and sometimes greet. In other words, they encounter each other. These encounters are not always meaningful, and contact between people from different social groups is not always enough to produce respect between these groups. Many of the people walking past each other on sidewalks live parallel lives, which means that their lives do not seem to touch at any point (Valentine, 2008).

During our time in Vancouver, we walked around on sidewalks in different areas, and we spoke to some of the people using them there. You can read about their stories below, where they tell you about their own lives and their experiences with sidewalks in Vancouver.

Robson St. x Richards St.

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The intersection of Robson St. and Richards St. shows the image of an average intersection in Downtown Vancouver. Around here, you will find large condo buildings, supermarkets, fast food chains and many different people. Around the corner, there is a large mall which attracts many tourists, but you will also find businessmen and homeless people. At this intersection, we spoke with Alyssa, who is currently homeless and spends most of her days at this intersection. Learn about Alyssa below.

“Two years ago, I lost everything. I used to be an artist, and an activist, and a mom, but the system took everything away from me. It started with anonymous phone calls. Those turned out to be from the ministry, and they were trying to take my son away from me. I lost him soon after that, and everything went downhill. They took me to a psychiatric ward and they medicated me, even though I didn’t need any medication. When they finally let me go, I had already lost my house, so I moved into a shelter. I don’t like it there, because there are many communities so it feels unsafe to be on your own as a woman. That’s why I spend most of my days on the sidewalk. But even here, I am disadvantaged as a woman. Homeless men receive a lot more attention and money than women like me.
The sidewalk is a home for many people, it is a place where people live, where they exist. Not every sidewalk is the same though, this neighbourhood is a lot safer than the Downtown Eastside. There’s a lot of drug addicts there. All of this is the government’s fault. They aren’t motivated to heal the homeless, so they create more segregation. They make it even harder for me to get a house and get my son back.”

Alyssa, 46

Streets around Victory Sq.

Right in between Downtown Vancouver and Gastown, you will find Victory Square. During our summer school, an urban planner took us on a walk past here and told us about its history and current use. Victory Square is a small park in Vancouver, and it is surrounded by four streets. In Victory Square you will find the Vancouver war memorial. Every year this is also the place where the remembrance day ceremony is held. 

During normal days, this park is a place where people that work Downtown have their lunch, but also where a lot of homeless people spend their days. 

The sidewalks around Victory Square are often busy and full of people. This is where we talked to Patricia, and to Chris and Paul, who are around Victory Square often.

“I think sidewalks are a great place for encounters, because the two ways of walking helps people meet. I encounter everyone, because Jesus did too. I really try to interact with people, and talk to them about Jesus. You see, he has saved my life. When I was younger I got arrested multiple times and spent some time in jail, so I want to help other people now. The responses from people are not always positive, though. It depends on their mood, which is definitely influenced by excessive drug abuse. My daughter is struggling with that as well, her boyfriend got her on drugs. I want to keep her off the street, but she does not really appreciate the help. That is the case with most people I meet in the streets.”

Patricia, 56

“I would say that sidewalks are dangerous. I encounter violence on the street every day. It is because homeless people don’t have manners. We are misfits. And many homeless people fight for their territories. The police don’t do anything about it, except for driving around and watching. Apart from those violence problems, I really think the streets are a place to meet. I meet a lot of people there, like my buddy Paul here.”

Chris (left), 35

Concluding remarks

You have read three stories from people who spend a lot of their time on sidewalks. They all tell you something different. Alyssa told us more about inclusion in Vancouver in general, and how Vancouver being one of the most liveable cities does not always line up with the reality you will encounter on its streets; Patricia and Chris told us about Vancouver’s sidewalks being a good place for different people to encounter each other, but also about problems on Vancouver’s streets. The latter was a recurring sentiment during our interviews. 

Especially so-perceived “bad neighbourhoods” are subject to problems on the sidewalks. Many people avoid these neighbourhoods, which leads to less encounter and more segregation. This is in line with the scientific theory from Skinner and Masuda (2013), who show that almost all of the young professionals they interviewed would rather adjust their route to avoid negative experiences on the streets. That way, problems stay hidden in these neighbourhoods and improvement stays away. 

Another point, which has not been touched upon above, is the problem with accessibility of the sidewalks. Vancouver sidewalks are not always maintained well, so people with disabilities but also parents with strollers sometimes struggle to use sidewalks well. You can read more about this problem here. However, this is something that the city of Vancouver is working on, and you can read about their projects to improve streets and sidewalks here

Sidewalks are a large part of a city, its culture and its people. We hope this page has changed your perspective on the purposes that sidewalks serve for people in particular and as a place of encounter in general, but also on Vancouver as a city that perhaps strives for liveability and diversity but does not always achieve this. 


Bibliography and further reading

May, J. (2015). ‘Gone, leave, go, move, vanish’: race, public space and (in)visibilities. Social Identities 21(5), pp. 489-505.

Skinner, E. & Masuda, J.R. (2013). Right to a healthy city? Examining the relationship between urban space and health inequality by Aboriginal youth artist-activists in Winnipeg. Social Science & Medicine 91, pp. 210-218.

Valentine, G. (2008). Living with difference: reflections on geographies of encounter. Progress in Human Geography 32(3), pp. 323-337.