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Granville Island has a different history than the rest of Vancouver. The CBC has prepared  a short precis of the creation of the island  which also includes three short films. It’s worth taking a look at the link.  The island was built on a former First Nations fishing bank in the 1890’s after the  Granville Street bridge’s completion. Many industrial businesses were housed here until the 1960’s when demand for sawmills started to wane.

“While the city now controlled most of the south False Creek shore, Granville Island was still under federal jurisdiction — and the city preferred to keep it that way, fearing the liability. So the island was transferred to the federal government’s Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to handle the redevelopment.”


Ron Basford who was the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre championed the development of a mixed use space at this location. As local historian John Atkin notesIf Ron hadn’t picked up the baton and said, you know what, Granville Island’s going to be something interesting and unique, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”


After the city approved a redevelopment plan, “the public market opened in 1978, and what was originally the Vancouver School of Art moved to the island in 1980 after being renamed the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. ” Historian John Atkin states that what was different was the unique approach curating the changing uses on the island. Despite the fact that the times were all about major demolition of existing uses  and redevelopment projects on massive scale, the island experienced “a gradual evolution” using the existing buildings. 

Because this area was under Federal not municipal control, there were never proper sidewalks or separation of traffic from pedestrians. Industrial uses like the cement plant co-existed with retail uses. Some can celebrate this mix which as John says broke so many of the accepted rules of public space.” 

I would also argue that it was because of the Federal jurisdiction that a shift to walking and biking modes on the island was not more supported. Automobiles could have been relegated to one holding area, and a tram (similar to the now defunct Downtown Historic Railway) could have connected users with the varying market areas.

Granville Island is now undertaking a process to determine its future in the next 40 years, but remains an important lesson in transforming spaces and uses gradually instead of in massive redevelopments. And as John Atkin notes It’s part of that real seismic shift in the 1970s that creates the city we have today.”