I have been writing Sidewalking Victoria for almost three years, so it is about time that I tackled the most popular urban centre in the city.
When I moved to Victoria in the 1990's, you could walk up to almost anyone in the city and tell them you were heading into the "Village" and they all knew that you meant Cook Street Village. It was the first real neighbourhood centre outside of downtown where people wanted to go to, see there friends and just spend some time. I remember that when it first blossomed after Starbucks and then Moka House opened, despite the quieter setting outside of downtown, the fact that it was there made Victoria seem more urban. Since then, a number of urban centres have been revitalised around the downtown, each one with its own flavour and Cook Street Village was no longer the only place to be seen anymore. It is still a pretty amazing place and there are a number of reasons why it was the first modern urban centre in the city.
Cook Street Village is just outside of downtown surrounded by one of the more well off neighbourhoods. The village is also walking distance to Beacon Hill Park and the Dallas Road Waterfront. All of these things helped the nascent village take off because apart from the village itself there were reasons to stop in and get a coffee and then go for a walk through the park. Of course, the location is not a mistake either, once again this current place to be in the city owes it all to our long gone streetcar network. The street car came down here from Fort Street and continued on to May and Moss, where again you will see a collection of more urban buildings.
Apart from being in the perfect spot for the village to grow, the pedestrian experience, even at the outset, was very good in Cook Street Village. The number one thing that is always commented on are the large Chestnut Trees that line the street. Providing a beautiful canopy over the sidewalks. Also the sidewalks themselves are very wide and there is an equally wide boulevard between the sidewalk and the street which makes walking a very pleasant experience.
Another unique piece that may lend it to having a bit of a calmer feeling is that all of the intersecting roads are T-Intersections. So there are no roads that people roaring across.
Of course, you could have a great sidewalk and the perfect location, but with no people living nearby, the place would be empty. One thing you need in a successful urban centre is that buzz of people and again Cook Street Village had the best luck to get off to a good start. While it is not obvious, the area in between downtown and Cook Street Village has the highest population density in the city. This meant that there were lots of people that wanted somewhere nearby where they could have a coffee (And now somewhere to play on their laptop). This piece is often the missing ingredient. You will see places that have been designed to create a perfect urban village environment, but it fails because there are no people nearby that need it. This in part is why Selkirk has not been as successful as it could have been. It is also something strangely enough people that enjoy a place will also actively try and stop. That somehow adding more density will tip the balance and the magic will be lost. What is often overlooked is that no one, not the City or developers want a place to become less desirable.
The Challenge with Growing Up
Walking through the Village on a sunny afternoon, you can certainly see why it has the "Cooksilano" moniker. It is trendy, upscale and pleasant place to meet up with friends, but at least to me, a lot of the polish has worn off Cook Street Village since the 1990s when I would spend many hours a week sitting in Moka House with my friends.
It is no longer the only game in town, James Bay, North Park, and Quadra Village have all taken off since then. In many ways these other urban centres have some of best parts that made Cook Street Village great and then also some more things that enhance the experience even more. James Bay Village has a great diversity both economically and demographically; North Park Village has a quirkiness that would never work farther south on Cook; and Quadra Village has an amazing multi-cultural vibe. Cook Street Village in comparison is very clean and controlled. It reminds me of some of the exclusive enclaves in California like Carmel. Not that Victoria can't have a place like that but it certainly isn't the type of place that it was in the 1990's where students might want to hang-out and study for their exams.
Still on just about any day, even when it is raining, Cook Street Village is a nice place to take a little walk.