Blank walls diminish pedestrian experience

The cannabis shop has quickly replaced the corner store as a symbol of Canadian neighbourhoods. Only four years since legalization, cannabis storefronts have become pervasive fixtures on city streets, with more than 3,200 stores now open across the country, an increase of about 1,400 over last year.

Read this article for free:

or

Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles
Continue

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

Opinion

The cannabis shop has quickly replaced the corner store as a symbol of Canadian neighbourhoods. Only four years since legalization, cannabis storefronts have become pervasive fixtures on city streets, with more than 3,200 stores now open across the country, an increase of about 1,400 over last year.

Manitoba’s nearly 160 cannabis stores outnumber Tim Hortons and McDonald’s outlets combined.

Strong revenues have enabled cannabis shops to lease prominent locations on commercial high streets in every Canadian city. This visibility, coupled with the sheer volume of stores, has begun to influence the character of urban neighbourhoods across the country. The greatest impact has come from blacked-out storefront windows that respond to government requirements for cannabis and cannabis accessories to not be visible from the outside.

Many provincial regulators are now questioning the resulting blank exterior walls that are proliferating along sidewalks and adversely affecting the safety and pedestrian quality of city streets.

Brent Bellamy photo

Blanked-out windows on a Winnipeg cannabis shop create a bleak exterior that discourages pedestrian activity.

The role storefront windows and building transparency play in creating a feeling of safety is an urban planning orthodoxy that was first described more than 60 years ago by activist and writer Jane Jacobs with her “eyes on the street” theory. Jacobs observed that strong visual connections between the sidewalk and building interiors create passive surveillance that improves public safety.

When pedestrians can see and be seen by people inside the buildings they are walking past, a natural connection is made and a feeling of safety in numbers is created. Jacobs felt buildings with blank walls turn their backs on the street, and the protective eyes she described as belonging to “the natural proprietors of the street” are left blind.

When pedestrians can see and be seen by people inside the buildings they are walking past, a natural connection is made and a feeling of safety in numbers is created.

This effect is being realized in numerous Canadian cities, as levels of crime involving both employees and patrons has been increasing in and around cannabis stores because of this lack of visibility. Initially intended to prevent minors from catching glimpses of legally available cannabis, stores with opaque windows have instead become easy targets for criminal activity.

Responding to a spate of violent robberies, the Alberta government last month removed regulations requiring stores to cover their windows, allowing shop interiors to be visible from outside. British Columbia did the same in 2020.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Initially intended to prevent minors from catching glimpses of legally available cannabis, stores with opaque windows have instead become easy targets for criminal activity.

Safety isn’t the only important reason blank walls are seen as detrimental to city streets. In a vibrant urban neighbourhood, transparency at the ground floors of buildings creates a symbiotic relationship with the adjacent sidewalks, allowing interior and exterior spaces to visually flow from one to another. As pedestrians, we experience the ground floors of buildings on an intimate level, appreciating the textures, rhythms, colours and details of the facades.

The transparency of storefront windows creates an added layer of visual interest that makes a walk more meaningful and stimulating. If a strong dialogue can be created between the city and a building’s interior, it inspires people to linger and spend more time on the street, which creates a gravity that attracts even more pedestrians.

A 2003 study done by Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl found a clear connection between visually interesting building ground floors and the behaviour of passersby. He looked at 10-metre-long segments of shopping streets in Copenhagen, comparing how people moved around blank building walls and ones with visual interest and transparency. Gehl found people walked 13 per cent slower beside transparent facades, 25 per cent stopped, and three-quarters turned their head towards the windows.

Brent Bellamy photo

This cannabis dispensary in Chicago has a traditional, transparent storefront that creates a sense of comfort and safety for passers-by.

This compared with only one per cent of people stopping and 21 per cent turning their heads in front of blank facades. Activities such as conversations, waiting for someone or using a cellphone took place significantly more often in front of visually open buildings.

With the same stream of pedestrians, there was seven times more activity in front of active facades because people slowed and lingered in front of them.

The conclusions, later corroborated by studies in other European cities, found people are attracted to buildings with transparency and visual interest at the ground floor, with urban life instinctively flowing towards places of activity. The greater richness that is offered to a pedestrian experience, the more people will be attracted to it, and the more active the streets will become.

The greater richness that is offered to a pedestrian experience, the more people will be attracted to it, and the more active the streets will become.

For architects, planners and policy-makers working to make urban neighbourhoods and city streets more vibrant and walkable, these findings have important implications. By simply changing the design of a building’s bottom floor to be more active and transparent, it can dramatically alter how people use the city.

The Downtown Winnipeg Urban Design Guidelines recognize this opportunity to create more vibrant and pedestrian focused streets, by encouraging building transparency and visual permeability along sidewalks and discouraging the creation of blank walls. The requirement for cannabis shops to black out their storefront windows explicitly contradicts these policy guidelines and goes against accepted urban design best practice.

Because Winnipeg has so few walkable commercial streets with sidewalk-facing storefronts, it seems imperative we prioritize public policy that encourages pedestrian activity and increases street life and public safety. As jurisdictions across Canada adapt to the impacts of their cannabis policies, we can learn from our western neighbours in B.C. and Alberta and allow cannabis shops to open their windows and contribute to creating more vibrant, safe and walkable streets.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Local - Downtown Demise Photos of a lease sign in the window of 185 Carlton street, directly across from the Convention Centre. Photos that reflects the state of downtown for story below. Downtown Biz is releasing a report Wednesday morning. We have an advanced copy. Since the pandemic, downtown businesses have lost an estimated $139 million in total revenue, or an average of $2 million a week. More than 2,000 downtown storefront workers have lost jobs. Of the 70,000 downtown workers, only about 14,000 have returned to their downtown workplaces. Hotel occupancy rates are only at 11 per cent. And on and on it goes. See Ben Waldman story. July 16, 2021
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Local - Downtown Demise A woman rushes past a large window with a Lease sign in it at 354 Portage Ave. at Carlton street. Photos that reflects the state of downtown for story below. Downtown Biz is releasing a report Wednesday morning. We have an advanced copy. Since the pandemic, downtown businesses have lost an estimated $139 million in total revenue, or an average of $2 million a week. More than 2,000 downtown storefront workers have lost jobs. Of the 70,000 downtown workers, only about 14,000 have returned to their downtown workplaces. Hotel occupancy rates are only at 11 per cent. And on and on it goes. See Ben Waldman story. July 16, 2021
Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

History

Updated on Monday, September 12, 2022 4:17 PM CDT: added pullquotes, images, bg photo

Report Error Submit a Tip