Weekend Wondering

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

Sketch of Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Whistler is home to almost 10,000 residents, however, with a capacity to provide overnight accommodation to an additional 35,000 people, it regularly morphs into a village of strangers, hosting over 2 million visitors each year. On a recent visit to Whistler, I was intrigued by the strong sense of trust I observed amongst probable strangers. I found two indicators of trust, neither particularly unique of other alpine resorts, to be interesting and different to my city experience: people move at high speeds down the slopes trusting those surrounding them and people leave expensive gear unlocked outside trusting it will not be stolen. I began to think about how elements of good urban design and the sharing of space in Whistler play a role in fostering an unspoken confidence in human nature. The three qualities which Jane Jacobs asserted in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 were needed in a “city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers” are successfully orchestrated in Whistler. Such streets exhibit a “clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space”; have “eyes upon the street” as a result of buildings being oriented to the street without blank walls; and support continuous sidewalk activity, “both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers” (Jacobs 1961).

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Whilster's public spaces - its streets and squares - are defined by the private spaces of surrounding buildings. Buildings along the main pedestrian thoroughfares are of a moderate height of 3 to 4 levels. This human scale architecture allows sunlight to filter into the streets and squares and enables views of the surrounding mountain peaks and tree tops. The main pedestrian through link, Village Stroll, is wide, with narrower streets spoking off at the intersection of the squares, helping to lead people through the village. Higher architectural forms appear to be located on these less important pedestrian connections. 

Whistler Village by Drawntocities.com

The streets and squares are often demarcated from private space, by a subtle division with a ledge which also provides a small space for landscaping and doubles for informal public seating. Shop fronts are set back slightly from the pedestrian thoroughfare and are generally elevated above the street level by a few steps. This unfortunately impacts accessibility via wheelchairs or prams, however signifies a separation between the public realm of the street and the private realm. Nature is illuminated with large trees decorated with lighting at each of the public squares at night. While this creates an inviting atmosphere, it also provides a subtle form of lighting of public space to support safety at night. 

Whistler Streetscape by Drawntocities.com

Whistler's streets and plazas are lined with active street frontages which encourage interaction between people enjoying public and private spaces. Shops at the base of buildings have extensive windows which address the street and provide visual transparency. Many bars, restaurants and cafes are at street level and have patios, with outdoor seating and bright umbrellas, which extend into the street. Windows and balconies located on upper floors enable passive surveillance of these public spaces. These design elements contribute to a large number of eyes on the street. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Private motorized vehicles have a limited place within Whistler Village, cars are excluded from pedestrian only streets and designated parking areas are located on the periphery of the village. By restricting the ability to drive within the village, more people are encouraged to walk.  When people move by foot, the likelihood of eye-contact or interaction is increased. The ephemeral face-to-face acknowledgements, awareness of surrounding people and lowered speed of movement changes the mood of a place. There is a higher level of passive surveillance, sense of personal safety, friendliness and calmness. Whistler’s public squares are centered at points of multiple street crossings, creating a greater likelihood of public usage and chance encounters. People are attracted to spaces where there are other people - and the removal of cars actively encourages people to get out and walk, fully enjoy the entirety of the street space for their leisure, whilst supporting a quieter and safer environment to relax. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

A continuity of shop fronts, bars and restaurants provides a point of visual and social interest for pedestrians. On rainy or snowy days, pedestrians are protected beneath the awnings of the shopfronts - although it should be noted that many of these protected walkways sadly preclude access via a wheelchair or pram due to several steps. Wide pedestrian only streets ensure people feel comfortable and uninterrupted in their movements. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

People have a sense of being amongst others - people watching gives a sense of being surrounded by a community - interactions occur between the windows and balconies of the private apartments above the street, the chairs and tables of the cafes, restaurants and bars, the ledges upon which people sit along the street edge, and the street itself.  The elements which originally struck me about sense of trust in Whistler are perhaps universal to many ski resorts, but it did intrigue me how people experience and behave in different types of spaces. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

In a typical city street, if you were to leave expensive private property unattended and unlocked, by the time you returned, it would probably be gone or vandalized. Yet atop the mountains and in the villages, countless people leave ski and snowboard gear outside while they go inside for a break. There is no guarantee that their property will be safe, yet the vast majority leave their gear outside without hesitation. For some curious reason, people trust thousands of strangers passing along to respect their property.  It could be that the design and use of spaces plays a role in this perception of safety and security. At Whilster, the places where people appear to feel comfortable leaving their gear, is generally on racks located in accessible and convenient destinations which have an extensive presence of people. They are designed to facilitate visibility - a restaurant or bar might have outdoor tables where people sit to easily keep an eye on their gear and windows enable visual connection from inside to the outside, making people passing by aware that they are being watched. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

While an average city street is designed with signage, signals, and road markings to communicate how people should move, either by foot or wheels, on the slopes there are only a few signs and rules. For the most part, the onus is on each skier or snowboarder to be aware of environmental conditions and surrounding activity. Most importantly they are alerted by signage to be mindful of people in front of them and to give way to others at trail intersections. Although different runs are categorized according to their difficulty, it is possible to find people of a mix of ages, abilities and experiences navigating down a section of the mountain at once. Space is shared in a way which empowers users with the responsibility to look out for one another. This is a space which is not extensively ordered - it is not governed like a street with designated areas for different types of movement, speed limits or devices to avoid people colliding with each other. And yet, those navigating down the slopes do so trusting those around them. 

Whistler urban design by Drawntocities.com

It is intriguing that at a ski resort we trust each other in different ways to in city streets. Atop the slopes, perhaps it is because everyone knows they are responsible for their own safety that we share space without excessive signage or separations common to city streets. Perhaps it is simply that people are on holiday, they are more relaxed and trusting of people being safety conscious and respectful of their property. Regardless, the urban design of Whistler encourages interaction between people enjoying the public and private realm through simple elements which sets a good example for other towns and cities.