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Vancouver's Livable, Sustainable City Legacy Is Under Threat, Again

February 06, 2022

by William McCreery

Vancouver, the only major city in North America to avoid the downtown highways of the 1960s, set a path in the 1970s for transit-oriented livable neighbourhood planning, 40 years ahead of its time. This is the award-winning legacy of Vancouver that has come increasingly under threat over the last decade.

In the 1960s, many North American inner-city neighbourhoods were dying. Planners of the day promoted urban renewal by demolishing older residential neighbourhoods to make room for freeways.

Gerald Sutton-Brown, Vancouver's City Commissioner in the 1960s, promoted the same thing with a waterfront freeway scheme that, if adopted, would have wiped out large areas of Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown.

Under The Electors' Action Movement (T.E.A.M.), a new civic party that won a council majority in 1972, Vancouver went a different way. T.E.A.M. stopped the freeway expansion. It hired a young British planner, Ray Spaxman, who was influenced by the leading-edge post-war planning being done in Britain, as well as by activist Jane Jacobs, the antithesis of American neighbourhood-busting freeway schemes, who helped stop Toronto’s Spadina Expressway. This new direction would bring life back to the City’s core neighbourhoods

The planning shift focused on ground-oriented family housing and invited resident collaboration through neighbourhood planning offices. By limiting tower development, it ensured dense neighbourhoods like the West End would retain and add to their large stock of walk-up apartment buildings. It allowed inner-city neighbourhoods such as Grandview, Strathcona, Fairview and Mt. Pleasant to retain their apartment stock both on and off arterials and to increase affordable multifamily units through conversions of character homes and infill.

T.E.A.M. created whole new neighbourhoods out of waterfront industrial lands on False Creek with affordable co-op housing, a first for North America.

Granville Island was renewed with the public market, artisan workshops, theatres, and the Emily Carr School of Art and Design. Enhanced design guidelines across the city made for livable streets, privacy, and reduced overshadowing. Other multifamily co-op neighbourhoods, like Champlain Heights, were developed along with many individual co-ops scattered throughout the city. Factors beyond the City’s control began to work against the construction of rental homes. After the Province brought in the Strata Titles Act in 1966, condominiums proved to be much more profitable for developers than rental apartment buildings. Federal tax and mortgage incentives to build rentals ended. By the early 1980s, almost all new development was condos rather than rentals.

By the 1990s the CMHC and the Province got out of building co-ops and social housing, adding to the gap in development of affordable housing. City policies did not create this problem and could not solve it, but they didn’t have to make it worse.

A big shift came in 2007 when then-Mayor Sam Sullivan came up with the slogan “EcoDensity,” copyrighted it and made it City policy. EcoDensity greenwashed increased density everywhere, especially unsustainable glass towers for the international market. Sullivan lost the nomination from his party, the NPA, after one term.

When Vision Vancouver took over in 2008, it rebranded EcoDensity as the “Greenest City,” unleashing even more mass rezoning city-wide. This has continued under the current Council, with Vision-era staff leading the way.

Over the past 20 years, successive City governments have undermined the sustainable and livable city planning processes T.E.A.M. established, leading to a top-down approach to planning and vastly expanded spot rezoning city-wide. Their policies have exacerbated the affordability problem.

Vancouver’s population has slowly grown – from the 1971 census of 430,000 to about 660,000 today: a 53% increase at a rate of a little over 1% per year. Yet in the past decade the City has approved a record number of residential rezonings, far more than required for population growth. As a result, speculative land values have soared making the affordability crisis worse.

Disregarding the successful initiatives of councils past, the City continues in this increasingly unaffordable, unrepresentative direction.

Writer Bill McCreery is a retired Architect, a former T.E.A.M. Park Board Commissioner, and currently an Honourary Member of TEAM for a Livable Vancouver


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