Design & Development
October 26, 2020

Frances Bula Reviews “Land of Destiny”

Just out from the Literary Review of Canada:

PT: Frances Bula has indispensably covered urban issues and city politics in Vancouver long enough to remember things other writers didn’t even live though much less forgot (as the review of Jesse Donaldson’s book, Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate, demonstrates).  So with her nuanced and in-depth perspective, she’s now able to piss off every side of the debate on housing affordability, development and who’s responsible.

Here are some excerpts – but go read the complete story here.

Donaldson limits his narrative to one overarching theme: that a select group of speculators have controlled this city forever. In Land of Destiny, only the names change through the decades — the general storyline stays the same. There is always a powerful group of marketers and speculators, and there is always a willing band of politicians to give them whatever is needed in order to reap the windfall.

Donaldson suggests that Vancouver’s dynamic real estate experience is unique. But that interpretation, a familiar one in an often unhappy city, where suspicion-filled and resentful narratives about development are an established noir tradition, leaves out so much. For one, Vancouver is not unique when it comes to land rushes. That’s pretty much the story of the western United States and Canada, as people scrambled to acquire property, in what were seen as newly opened and empty territories, and then market it to newcomers. Capitalism at its rawest.

Second, Donaldson doesn’t explain why the speculators were so successful here compared with other places. Many have failed at this capitalist game of creating demand where there was none before, losing fortunes as buyers failed to appear at their gimcrack Shangri‑Las. What was it about local dynamics that nurtured enough pressure on real estate that it became a reliable speculative vehicle right from the start?  (Details follow.)


Here’s the part of the review that I think is most salient:

A history of Vancouver real estate should give some kind of attention, at some point, to all buyers and owners, not just foreign investors. But too many of those buyers and owners are absent from Land of Destiny. Their absence becomes steadily more glaring as the chapters unfurl because local transactions are, in the end, the mechanism that makes speculation work.

She adds a quote from Los Angeles writer Mike Davis’s City of Quartz that is particularly relevant to Vancouver culture (and to the local Green Party in particular):

Davis details the way that homeowner groups of thirty years ago, using the language and often the support of the environmental movement, blocked development of lower-cost housing throughout Los Angeles: “Environmentalism is a congenial discourse to the extent that it is congruent with a vision of eternally rising property values in secure bastions of white privilege.”

And then, ka-pow:

Land of Density makes it sound like a mystery why all those politicians with real estate cronies get elected. But it’s not a mystery. A significant group of voters, the ones who have benefited from the way the current system works, keep electing them. They were mostly pleased with themselves and their foresight while Vancouver property values kept climbing. It’s only when things got a little out of hand this past decade — when suddenly neither children of the land rich nor double-income households could afford even the first rung of the homeownership ladder — that we saw some backlash from the existing owners.

It would have been nice to see that analysis and history in this book. The opportunity was there. There’s no shortage of archival news accounts of locals pushing back to keep the outsiders away, including the now-legendary comment by a west-side resident in one public hearing that a potential transportation corridor shouldn’t be allowed in her area because it is filled with the “crème de la crème.”*

Or this:

Donaldson employs language and framing that pins everything on the cabal of “others.” Real estate is controlled by “oligarchs.” Developers and politicians,

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For years the MTA subway map of New York has been a city icon – and much debated in the graphic world as it tried to achieve an almost-impossible set of needs: accuracy, elegancy, clarity, trying to combine a huge amount of information on what happens below ground with some utility as an above-ground navigation tool.

This new online one, suitable for the way we actually get information, seems to do the job.  So, transit nerds, set aside some time to explore.

From Curbed:

Today, the MTA is unveiling its new digital map, the first one that uses the agency’s own data streams to update in real time. It supersedes the blizzard of paper service-change announcements that are taped all over your subway station’s entrance. It’s so thoroughly up-to-the-moment that you can watch individual trains move around the system on your phone.

Pinch your fingers on the screen, and you can zoom out to see your whole line or borough, as the lines resolve into single strands. Drag your fingers apart, and you’ll zoom in to see multiple routes in each tunnel springing out, widening into parallel bands — making visible individual service changes, closures and openings, and reroutings. Click on a station, and you can find out whether the elevators and escalators are working.

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For the first time, Urban Design Theory and Practice course will be delivered fully online. Developed and led by renowned Canadian urban designer Michael von Hausen, this course explores the fundamentals of the field over four weeks, covering:

  • Urban design history and trends
  • Rural and suburban design
  • Place-keeping and place-making

Urban Design Theory and Practice
Oct 26–Nov 16 | 4 weeks online
Instructor and facilitator: Michael von Hausen

Register Read more »


Last week the Duke of Data, Director of the  City Program at Simon Fraser University Andy Yan and I ventured to do some retail market research at Tsawwassen Mills Mall. I have written about this merchandising mega mall since before its inception and covered its opening day. The CBC interviewed retail consultant David Gray four years ago who said

“It’s not going to be a slam dunk They’re not going to be a convenience mall or mall for locals. Sure, locals will shop there, but for them to be successful, they’re going to be what’s known as a destination mall or a mall where people are going to make some pretty major time investments for their shopping trips.”

Mr. Gray was right. The mall has had challenges attracting staff and now provides buses for employees to get to the mall and back. And while there was a burst of interest when the mall first opened, it has not been able to keep all the shops open with approximately 20 percent creatively shuttered behind facade treatment that blend into the mall decor.

A walk around the mall does provide 2.5 kilometers of walking. But it is a huge space to maintain with 1,100,000 square feet and has 188 storefronts.

At the time of opening the mall, which is the third in the Ivanhoe Cambridge  mega mall stable along with Cross Iron Mills near Calgary and Vaughan Mills near Toronto hopes were higher for retail success. Ivanhoe Cambridge saw this location as centred in the third largest urban area in Canada, and felt that traffic would come from all over the region. With the mall’s location near the ferry terminal and connecting to Highway 99, customers spend the most time at the mall than any other in the developer’s portfolio, 113 minutes.

But think of that~they have driven 30 minutes if they came from Vancouver, and just the size of the mall means that you are spending a lot of time just traversing the place from one store to another.

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North Van City does it again.  Whenever the City or Park Board of Vancouver looks like they will consider doing something risky – like allowing liquor to be consumed in parks and public spaces – CNV does it first.  Curbside patios?  CNV did it years ago on Lonsdale.

And now as Vancouver just starts the process for the redesign of Beach/Pacific, CNV will redo Esplanade – a six-lane arterial the divides Lower Lonsdale:

The English Bay masterplan is a different kind of project, at a different scale, and definitely not the first time for Vancouver has redone a vehicle-dominant arterial. (Burrard and Hornby Streets!)    But this a major step in Metro for a small municipality to undertake.  Not without some nervousness.

The Esplanade) corridor works fairly well for transit, goods movement and people in passenger vehicles. It is, however, not an optimal experience for people on foot, travelling by bike or for local businesses.

Cycling groups have been adamant the street’s bicycle infrastructure must be improved from the current painted bike lanes sandwiched between the road and the curbside parking.

Coun. Holly Back signaled she would be very protective of parking out front of businesses.  “That’s a major concern for me, having been in business in lower Lonsdale. I totally understand the safety concerns for cyclists and everyone else but those businesses are going to suffer hugely,” she said, adding she hopes the Lower Lonsdale BIA will be included in the consultations. …

Mayor Linda Buchanan said the city depends on the Esplanade corridor for a lot of things and warned that Complete Street Project will have to balance those many needs.


“This is as a trucking route. We can’t take trucking off of this. It’s a major road network for TransLink, and we do need to be able to move goods,” she said. “I just want to make sure that when we are engaging with the public that they are very clear on what are the givens for this road – what can change and what can’t change.

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This is a big deal:

Kevin Griffin at The Sun reports on the Parks Board approval of a $2.56 million contract to develop a master plan for the parks and streets from Stanley Park to Burrard Bridge for the next thirty years. Kenneth Chan at The Daily Hive describes the area and issues:

The design firms chosen are impressive: PFS Studio is of Vancouver – known for many years as Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg – partnered with Snøhetta, based in Oslo, well known for their architecture (like Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre).  But unlike that Danish starchitect Bjorke Ingels, they’re also known for a better integration of building with public space.

This promises the production of a masterplan of international caliber, which given the location and opportunity, is to be expected.  Indeed, the challenge (for the Park Board in particular) is to imagine a rethinking of this city/waterfront interface beyond its aesthetic and recreational opportunities for the neighbourhood.  This is city-building, writ big and historic.

It will also be the third major transformation for this stretch of English Bay – first the summer grounds of the coastal peoples; then, from the 1890s on, houses and apartments (left) all along the beachfront, cutting off everything except the sands of English Bay.  For over most of the 20th century, the City purchased and demolished these buildings, even the Crystal Pool, until the by the 1990s there was unbroken green, sand and active-transportation asphalt from Stanley Park to False Creek.

But it was all on the other side of Beach Avenue, a busy arterial that served as the bypass for traffic around the West End – the legacy of the original West End survey in the service of motordom.  For some this will be seen as unchangable.  As the reaction to the Park Board changes this summer on Park Drive revealed, even a modest reallocation of road space diminishing ‘easy’ access for vehicles and the parking to serve them is upsetting to those who associate motordom design with their needs, special and otherwise.

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Having heard that the Urban Design Certificate Program as part of the Simon Fraser University City Program was being suspended, two of Vancouver’s pre-eminent urban designers, Scot Hein* and Frank Ducote*, have some thoughts – and a warning.


Form, scale, character, shadowing and view.

The City has a way of making sure these basic aspects of what we call urban design are priorities when it approves development.    We’ve been integrating a formal process – it’s called Urban Design Review – since the 1970s.  The results are all around us.

After half a century, we can make a judgment – a contested one to be sure, but defensible.  The way the city has regulated and incentivized good quality urban design has resulted by and large in ‘density done well’ – an urban environment with livability, neighborliness and amenity.  And we’ve done it by proactively engaging the market.   (Twitter storm to the right.)

That was the Vancouver that became known internationally between Expo and the Olympics – 1986 to 2010.  That’s a whole generation – and things have of course changed.

Regrettably, there’s an emerging sense of disdain for urban design.  And a debate: Did all that Vancouverism result in inequity and unaffordability?  A fair debate to have, but it also seems accompanied by a sense that a focus on urban design is of another time, decoration when we could afford it, and now connected to gentrification, privilege, exclusion, even colonization.

Time for a danger alert: discarding or treating with indifference the processes, people and lessons that produced the Vancouver of our time is a bad, bad move.  To de-fund the department, or decolonize it, or stop teaching the next generation of designers how to do it, is dumb.  Or at least would make us dumber.

And poorer.

And less able to move in acceptable ways towards more affordablilty.

Urban design is one of our best tools to “discipline” speculative escalation.  The design review is the first lens, an effective obstacle to unfettered speculation, serving a greater good.

The question should be not whether we discard the process but whether we still regulate design for more or less the same outcomes, and should we change those.

A highly discretionary regulatory system, as with the City of Vancouver, can and should be re-codified to get the results we need today.  Re-zoning is not required.

Instead, by maintaining an emphasis on good design, we can work with prevailing zoning and re-codify discretionary obligations.  We can increase market leverage to deliver more affordable housing options – with little to no land assembly or underground parking.  And we can deliver those outcomes with community and neighbourhood acceptance through a continuing commitment, indeed a requirement, for good design appropriate to our priorities.

That means we have to have those who can deliver – urban designers with good training and education – integrated into the heart of the development and approval process.

The Urban Design Certificate Program at SFU was a made-in-Vancouver way of providing not only that education but also a forum to share and debate ideas.  This highly respected program has informed hundreds of practitioners, community leaders, municipal staff and advocates towards more enlightened discourse at a time when city building has become complex, confusing and politically fraught.

It would be a tragedy to end this program, especially at a time when we need to functionally address affordability and climate crises.

While there are opportunities to grasp, we’d feel more assured if SFU expressed an appreciation and commitment to the importance of urban design in advancing cities that work for everyone.


*Scot Hein is an adjunct professor of urban design for UBC (as well as a campus urban designer), former senior urban designer and development planner for the City of Vancouver, and a founding board member of The Urbanarium.

*Frank Ducote contributed  to SFU’s UD Certificate Program. He was formerly the COV’s Senior Urban Designer responsible for many large scale initiatives, and the establishment on the city’s prestigious Urban Design Studio.

Price Tags editor Gordon Price was previously a Director for the SFU City Program.

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Kathleen Corey and Brian Gould of ‘small places’ – among the best videographers of the street we’ve ever posted (here’s a sample from last year) – have some new work, appropriate to our current times.  Here’s Kathleen’s capture of the physical changes in response to COVID-19 made on Robson Street. . The Rapid Response project in this case widened sidewalks, creating more space for people, through painted concrete barriers, modular accessible ramps, expanded parklets, and bus boarding islands. . Read more »

There are two kinds of towns in the Okanagan (and most of BC).

It depends on the provincial roads that connect them.  Some, as in Osoyoos, have a highway that divides the centre-right through its heart.

Very often the highway, like Crowsnest, is literally Main Street – a ‘stroad’ that has looked essentially the same for more than half a century: broad, muscular, low-slung and unambiguous.  Mid-century motordom, which even today, despite attempts to make them more friendly for people not in cars (which is the way most of them got there), are still car dominant.

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