In a comment to “Car-less in Vancouver,” Seattle reader Patrick McGrath asks:

Are societal ills like those mentioned in the Sun articles (here and here) part of your calculus when you teach about increased density, nonmotorized transport, etc? If so, how do you address the intersection of your work with those issues?

A tough question, and one I’ve struggled with over the years, both as a writer and politician. Given the recent headlines and letters in the local papers, the subject of street disorder is one a lot of Vancouverites are struggling with today. In Alan Durning’s comments referenced in the previous post, he notes that the city’s mayor Sam Sullivan “sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance.”
So let me add some perspective.
First, some background: in the early 1980s, I was part of a group – Concerned Residents of the West End, or CROWE – that was dealing with street prostitution in the blocks off Davie Street. CROWE ultimately evolved into “Shame the Johns,” the better-known group that tackled the issue head on by occupying street corners. But for the first few years, we attempted to make the case to our political leaders for a change in the law on soliciting so that the residential part of the West End would not be sacrificed while society searched for a solution to the conundrum of prostitution.
I’m not going to go into the particular arguments that raged (and continue to do so) around that issue. But I did draw a few conclusions from the experience that are relevant to Patrick’s question.
First, density had nothing to do with the emergence of street prostitution or other manifestations of disorder.
I seriously wondered whether it did. Many people believed that the West End, falsely reputed to be the densest neighbourhood in North America, would logically become a ‘behavoural sink’ – the phrase coined by experimental psychologist John B. Calhoun in his paper “Population Density and Social Pathology” (published in Scientific American in 1962). This was the famous Malthusian rat experiment: Calhoun placed an expanding rat population in a crammed room with sufficient food and water and soon observed that the rats set about killing, sexually assaulting and, eventually, cannibalizing one another. So hey, West Enders, many said: street prostitution, drugs and crime – what did you expect?
Other experiments in 1970 suggested that when confronted with a large number of strangers in daily life, people tend to withdraw and take less interest in the community in order to protect themselves from overload. Such urban withdrawal explained higher urban crime rates. The killing of Kitty Genovese in 1964 New York gave a human face to the presumed callousness of urban living.
So why did I conclude that density wasn’t the issue?
First of all, the West End wasn’t as dense as people thought it was. Secondly, density was being confused with overcrowding. (Too many people, or rats, in too small a space is quite a different situation than the West End, which had essentially uncrowded itself over the previous two decades even as it had become somewhat more dense.) Thirdly, people didn’t withdraw; they came together to save their community. Fourthly, street prostitution was occurring in other places, both in the city and region, that were considerably less dense.
What was happening in the West End was a failure of government to maintain social order. And that could happen anywhere where the rules became sufficiently ambiguous or unenforceable, and those who wished to ignore them could do so with impunity. Normally, social pressure maintains civility. It may be superficial, but it has to be sufficient. And if it isn’t, if a few abuse the rights of the many, then we rely on policing powers to establish the boundaries. And we rely on judiciary to prevent the many from abusing the rights of the few.
Whew! Lots of fodder there for discussion. But let me emphasize the essential point: there must be a line. Simply stated, it’s the line that, when crossed, brings retribution and correction. In real life, things are way more complicated, way more subtle. In fact, the line moves. In many situations, it’s gray. But if the line vanishes, and no recognized authority is able to re-establish it, then a backlash is inevitable. Someone with power will eventually draw the line.
And that’s what happened in the West End. When it became clear that the federal government would not re-write the soliciting legislation, and that municipal government was powerless and the police ineffective, the provincial Attorney-General, Brian Smith, stepped in. Recognizing that the real issue was whether government would maintain its legitimacy on the streets of the West End, he bypassed the federal Criminal Code and applied for a civil injunction in the provincial courts. The injunction, never actually used, targeted particular people for defined actions in specific locations, and said you can’t do that there. In fact, the street prostitutes, hoping to allay the need for the injunction, had already vacated the West End overnight and moved east of Granville, where some activity still takes place.
The line was redrawn, peace returned to the streets, and no one talked about rats in an overcrowded maze. At least for a few more years.
I concluded that issues of the street are complicated matters, never the consequence of a single factor. Perception counts, people legitimately disagree on the acceptable limits, and drawing lines will always be controversial. Our MLA Lorne Mayencourt can write the next chapter with his story of the ‘Safe Streets Act.’
I’m not at all surprised to hear the talk about the decline of Vancouver as its density increases. Or how complicated the issues have become: how to protect street prostitutes from violence, how to deal with drug addiction, how to set limits on aggressive panhandling, how to respond to homelessness and poverty. What hasn’t changed is the fear by many that tomorrow may be worse than today, that the signs of disorder we see now are harbingers of an underlying sickness that will ultimately kill the host unless drastic action is taken. Clearly people have forgotten how bad it was back in the early 1980s.
Still, it’s no help to discount present concerns by maintaining that the past was worse or that the problems are complicated. Nor is it honest to deny that density comes with a price. The words we use to describe urban living favourably – diversity, intensity, vibrancy – have a darker side,. And I’ll discuss that in another post.


  1. I’ve just finished reading the book “The Tipping Point” which describes the Broken Windows Theory of addressing crime in New York – that is, that lots of broken windows, graffiti, and other seemingly small problems in the environment add up to a context in which crime is more prevalent. In NY, they fixed the windows, cleaned the graffiti, stopped fare-evaders on the subway, and other small things… and crime dropped dramatically. Note that they didn’t have to reduce density.

  2. Nothing comes without its price — density included. But low-density, suburban development certainly has social, environmental, and economic consequences of as well. Instead of making density into a bogeyman (which, in North America, it has been for quite some time), we need to instead address the underlying causes.

  3. High density may not cause social ills directly, but it is highly correlated with factors that do. First, Most methods of implementing high density are dehumanizing. This is why Christopher Alexander advocates a hard 4-storey limit. Second, city zoning rules put the most undesirable uses in high density zones. Odd, because they disrupt the lives of far more people there. Third, it is easier to dispossess the poor. Some developers and slumlords intentionally create squalor; it makes it easier to get permission for demolitions and extreme density, which then seem like revitalization. Fourth and related, when there is little social cohesion, rezoning is not opposed, and squalor causes those with a choice to leave. Fifth, in achieving high dwelling density you tend to remove the households with children. This has a definite negative social effect.

  4. I agree with M Laplante. It is becoming recognized that there is a healthy limit to density and more and more cities such as New York and Chicago are activing engaged in downzoning. In the meanwhile, you have the absurdity of some Vancouverites exporting “the Vancouver model” and who say that the sky’s the limit and the denser the better. My money is on New Yorkers who have more experience with density having the better sense.

  5. Manhattan is more than twice as dense as Downtown Vancouver. Parts of Chicago are also much denser than the West End of Vancouver.

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