August 3, 2020

Urban Growth Downtown: A Thousand Percent in Thirty Years

The guys at Changing Vancouver have one of their ‘big picture’ views of the city this week:

This is all the way back to 1987, and the ‘after’ shot was taken in 2018 from the Global TV helicopter by Trish Jewison.

Thirty three years ago Downtown South (to the east of Granville Street) was still all low-rise, mostly commercial buildings, that had replaced the residential neighbourhood that developed from the early 1900s. We’ve seen many posts that show how that area has been transformed in recent years.

In the 1986 census, just before the photo was taken, there were 37,000 people living in the West End (to the west of Burrard and south of Georgia), and only 5,910 in the whole of the rest of the Downtown peninsula (all the way to Main Street on the right hand edge of the picture).

In 2016, in the last census, the West End population had gone up to 47,200, adding 10,000 in 30 years. What was a forest of towers in 1987 had become a slightly thicker forest in 2018. The rest of Downtown had seen over a 1000% increase in 30 years – there were 62,030 people living there. Both areas will have seen more growth since 2016, and the 2021 census should show several thousand more people in both the West End and Downtown.

Gord Price – The 1987 shot really resonates for me: it was my first year on City Council.  In the following 15 years, NPA councils would approve rezonings for seven megaprojects (four on the peninsula) and, notably, Downtown South – the area on the peninsula that has seen the biggest change (and continues to do so).

The ‘Living First’ strategy that came out of the 1980s (generally termed ‘Vancouverism’) was a ‘Grand Bargain’ for its time: we would take pressure off the existing residential areas, primarily the West End, through a 1989 de-facto downzoning (following the one that occurred in the early-1970s that resulted in an end to outright approvals for highrises), and concentrate growth east of Granville and north of Robson.  In return for stability in the existing residential area, growth would be accelerated in the rezoned commercial/industrial parts of the map. Highrises would be back, now marketed as condos, in a big way. That’s the ‘bargain’ – illustrated so vividly above.

I suspect everyone on Council and at City Hall would have nonetheless been amazed at the prospect of a thousand percent increase occurring so quickly.  And yet, it did the job: the West End remained a lower-middle-income neighbourhood, where rents were above the regional average and incomes of the renters (over 80 percent of the residents) were below.  (Most made up the difference by not having cars.)

There was effectively no change in the character of the community.  Even today, one can walk most of the streets in the interior of the West End and have difficulty finding any buildings constructed after 2000.  It is still the arrival city for immigrants and students (that’s why the Robson/Denman area is a ‘Little Korea’ of restaurants) and lower-middle-income renters.  It is still able to accommodate new highrises on West Davie and a few other blocks under the recent West End plan without affecting the stability, physical or economic, of most of the district.

Of course, some people will still be under the impression that growth is ‘out of control’ and rents unaffordable, especially when noting the development proposals for the peripheral blocks between Thurlow and Burrard, and Robson and Georgia.  Likewise with the rents in new buildings.

‘New’, by definition, is more expensive than depreciated ‘old.’  However, the argument that new development should be rejected because of gentrification could have been used in the 1960s to prevent the development of the West End as we know it today, arguably now an urban miracle of affordable housing, given its location.  That anti-growth argument was in fact used in the 1970s – filtered through Jane Jacobs’s writing – to successfully end the highrise era in Kitsilano.  Seven of the last them can be seen on the slopes below 4th. In fact, no residential highrises would be built in anywhere in Vancouver from the early 70s to the late 80s, save for a handful of super-expensive ones along the waterfront.


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This article in the from three researchers at Monash University explores what the new Covid normal looks like in terms of women’s safety and security in cities.

Even though 51 percent of the population is female, there is very little integration of women’s safety perceptions in the design and development of public space. And it’s not just public space that is an issue.

The Monash University researchers found that women’s perception of safety, not the risk was the determining factor in how they used public space. Perception itself is a challenging factor to measure and evaluate as it is personally experiential for each individual.

“Nuanced thinking and multiple gender-sensitive strategies” are required to engage women in public space. As each woman’s experience about safety is unique, there is a need for more gender specific data about experiences and knowledge.

Women’s safety audits were first incepted forty years ago by the  Metropolitan Toronto Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children. These audits allow users to pinpoint the factors that lead to feelings of being unsafe and like co-design invite suggestions for how to make places safer. With technology these audits still provide valuable information and ground truthing today.

Safety audits can be conducted in  “streets, residential areas, parks, markets and public transport – and offer a checklist of matters to consider. Part of any audit are issues like lighting, surveillance and sightlines.”

There are some interesting factors too, including  evaluating how many other women are using the space and how much time they spend in the space. The reasons offered are valuable  indicators on how to create good public space.

Safetipin is a digital crowdmapping platform as is Free To Be that offer women “geolocation software to pinpoint precisely where they feel safe and unsafe, and why. Safetipin now generates safety scores for very localised parts of the cities where it is active.”

These online safety audits move municipalities away from the traditional CEPTED approach (crime prevention through environmental design) often implemented in public spaces to one that looks at perceptions of safety and security with a gender lens.

As the researchers conclude: Women’s safety audits in their various forms are a means to meet the objectives… But, more than that, they amplify women’s voices and help them claim their right to feel safe and actively occupy public space.”

Images: Women Plan.It & Safetipin

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There is some interesting thought coming from  Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in Scotland  on best practices for post-Covid economic recovery.

They are proposing to “Walk Back Better” joining 27 organizations including Public Health Scotland, Scottish National Heritage and the University of Edinburgh in placing walking as a national priority in planning local development.

Director of RTPI Scotland Craig McLaren stated “As we look towards a post Covid-19 world, we want to see a commitment to walking and cycling embedded into how we design our towns and cities with walking environments placed at the heart of the recovery.”

What this means for Scotland is that through their National Planning Framework and the National Transport Strategy  that walking will be seen as the first precept to design and develop approaches to stimulate the recovery. Several initiatives that were installed as temporary, including wider sidewalks and  streets closed to vehicular traffic to encourage walking and cycling will remain, and reductions in vehicular speed limits will become permanent.

The initiative also is centering the recovery on the physical and mental wellbeing of citizens , advocating for walking as the base of every journey.

You can find out more about Scotland’s National Walking Strategy here.


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There’s an interesting podcast available on Scientific American by Jason Goldman about which kind of birds get killed by “bird strikes”~flying into buildings.

Sadly it is estimated that a billion birds a year die from flying into buildings on this continent. It is not known whether the birds perceive light behind windows as safe corridors, or whether they mistake reflections for foliage.

A graduate student looked at a previously researched data set of birds colliding into structures at forty locations in Canada, Mexico and the United States.  Some of the findings just make sense~bigger buildings with more glass surfaces kill more birds.

But what was interesting is which kind of birds were dying this way~as Jared Elmore, the head researcher stated “We found that life history predicted collisions. Migrants, insectivores and woodland-inhabiting species collided more than their counterparts.”

Mr. Elmore confirms that lights near or at buildings disorent migratory species at night, and that insect-eating birds might be attracted to the buildings because “insect prey is also attracted to lights”.

Woodland birds probably mistake the reflections of trees and bushes in windows for the real thing.

This research provides information on how to adapt buildings and lighting systems to avoid bird strikes. By understanding when birds migrate and their habits, lighting can be modified during those time periods.

Of course the next item would be the ability to predict when birds migrate, and Mr. Elmore’s next research will focus on adapting radar to assist bird migration prediction.

“I think that would maybe go a long way in terms of providing information to people, to the public, to building managers, on when they can get the most bang for their buck in terms of lights-out policies.”

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By Christina DeMarco and Peter Ladner

Great ideas are as much about timing as content.

Remember the first attempt to block a car lane for bikes on the Burrard Bridge? If you weren’t around for that debacle, ask Gordon Price how it went. Years later, after more careful planning and community education, the lanes are in and thrive today.

Similarly, for decades, any attempt to expand the parts of the city where basement suites were legal was met with vicious opposition. Then one day in the early 2000s, city-wide legalization of suites was passed by council without a whisper of opposition.

Now, with the city more desperate than ever for new revenue and affordable housing, the monopoly of car use on so much city land being widely questioned, and gentle infill density on the rise, Thin Streets may finally have their breakthrough moment.

Is this a good use of valuable City land? The City of Vancouver has an abundance of road and lane space in their quiet residential areas.

Look at the street in the Streetview above. The equivalent of two city lots—worth, say, $1.5 million each—is being tied up to provide the luxury of a passing lane for two cars driving on that block at the same time. How often does that happen? Three, six, a dozen times a day? A two-way street isn’t even necessary. Many Vancouver streets work quite happily and safely with one lane of traffic: oncoming cars pause at the intersection until the lane is clear.

Looking at our future city through the “pandemic prism” has caused many of us to question the large amount of space unnecessarily dedicated to cars.

What if that “wasted” pavement could instead provide land at no cost for affordable housing, parks or other uses, simultaneously providing newfound revenues for a cash-strapped city, increasing pedestrian safety, and reducing traffic volumes, traffic speed, automobile collisions, asphalt maintenance costs, heat island effects, and rainwater runoff?

In Vancouver, dividing the typical little-used two-way 66 foot right-of-way in half produces two new 33-foot residential lots per block, and a narrower 33-foot right-of-way, with a 17-foot thin street, easily enough space for one-way travel, parking for cars, a sidewalk for pedestrians, and boulevards for street trees.

The two new lots are now available for a variety of uses such as affordable housing, park space, community gardens, and daycare centres.

A couple of years ago, the City of Vancouver made duplexes a permissible use in all RS zoning districts (single-detached housing areas).  This change allows two dwelling units plus two secondary suites/ lock-off units on a conventional building lot. Narrowing the north-south street for just one block can now create twice as many housing units by creating two lots with a 33 foot frontage. The land could be sold on a long-term lease to individual owners or the City could develop the lots themselves.

Not only that, but converting wasted asphalt into leased land for housing would immediately create a new revenue stream that has the potential of raising millions of dollars a year, forever.


Thin Streets is an idea that has been around since the 1990s, been the subject of city council resolutions, and otherwise in the “great planning ideas” pipeline for decades. In 2012, Ted Sebastian and Christina DeMarco (right), former City of Vancouver planners, teamed up with Charles Dobson, Professor Emeritus of Emily Carr University and submitted the idea to  the City’s  “Re-think Housing” competition to help increase the amount of affordable housing. It was one of the winning ideas.

Unfortunately, at that time, as with every time this idea has been proposed for some kind of pilot project, it has failed. The killer issue is making peace with the adjacent property owners and neighbours. Without their buy-in, political pushback has been vicious. Understandably.

Equally important as making sure a proposed block is suitable – e.g. no sewer lines would be covered up — is figuring out how to make this attractive for the neighbours.

Some possibilities:

  • The City could start by coming up with some exciting design ideas for this form of ground-oriented housing.
  • The City could buy adjacent lots and then lease them and the reclaimed asphalt to a developer or individual owners to build out affordable housing.
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How do you have closeness to neighbours but still feel comfortably away? How can you be friendly but not so friendly, and still maintain the necessary “physical distancing”?

In many ways the porch, the  entrance way to many older homes and one of the components brought forward “providing eyes on the street” is making a comeback. The porch has been described as an essential feature in neotraditional communities like Celebration Florida that aims to bring neighbours closer together.

And it does not need to be a real porch either~I am hearing the discussion of virtual porches on webinars as web based places where people can congregate and have a chat.

As Donna Liquori describes in the New York Times  “the porch fell out of favour with the advent of air-conditioning in the 1950’s, replacing the porch which was traditionally the place where “people gathered and cooled off”.  Porches are now back to places of socialization and relaxation, and surprisingly are  being valued  more than a backyard deck for that aspect of human contact and exchange with passersby.

As Liquori states ” the privacy of the back of the house is not what I crave right now. Even just seeing other people from afar has given us a boost. We want to see our friends and neighbors. We miss them.”

The porch is also being described as a social vehicle, with the concept that people walking in the public realm feel as comfortable doing that as on their front porch.

Photographer Roger Hoover was one of the first of a series of photographers who with their businesses shuttered by the corona virus commenced photographing residents.  Neighbours are asked  to stand on their front stoops and porches for a photograph. Hoover’s work documents the isolation of families who cluster to pose for the camera, and also reinforces the importance of the porch as a welcome semi-private space, in Covid times, providing separation but still part of the street life  of the neighbourhood.

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North Van City Councillor Tony Valente was apparently very pleased with his Council’s last meeting, according to his hashtag:  #bestcouncilmeetingever. Two reports, especially, drew his praise: the first  on Open Streets, the second on public drinking.

By dealing with the reports immediately, Council sped past every muni in the region. On May 25, 2020, Council had directed staff to develop “an action plan for advancing the reallocation of road space …”   Two day’s later an action plan was on their agenda – with this proposal for an Open-Street Network.

 “Open Streets” (nothing ‘closed’ here) is made up of Green Trails, Neighbourhood (or slow streets) and Destination Streets (closer to flow streets.)  For $150,000, the 12 kilometres in the system will by priorized for action:

Clearly staff were ready to go, meaning they were confident of council approval. When things happen this seamlessly and this fast, it’s a sign of well-coordinated relationship among Council and Staff.

Assuming the same efficiency, with cities across Metro laying out their own open streets and patios, by the end of the summer the region will have gone through the fastest, biggest and furthest experiment of street reallocation in its history.

And that wasn’t all.

On May 11, Council had directed staff to come back with a process to expand temporary patios into public spaces, and report back on the feasibility of “the consumption of liquor in certain public spaces for safe, informal public dining.”  Given the abuse of alcohol in the rough-and-tumble North Van of the past, this is quite an evolution. Of course “it relies on people adopting, using and managing the public place with regard to physical distancing and respectful consumption of liquor.”  A challenge when the last word overcomes the first.

So, a qualified thank you, virus, for giving us the rationale to do what we’ve only talked about before.  Now we have crises, collapses and uncertainties for justification.  Here’s the one CNV staff used:

Just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause economic uncertainty, it also may cause a collapse in social contact among our residents. Utilizing public places is a central part of moving forward and getting people out of their residence, which in turn will support local businesses.

In the next few weeks, in North Vancouver City and elsewhere in the region, we may see the emergence of a street culture we haven’t seen before: places of domestic conviviality for people who live nearby.  Few visitors, no tourists, just the people who live here and aren’t on vacation.

We’re going to find out who we really are.


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Say “corner store in the West End” … and the romantic among us think of this:

Most aren’t really ‘corner stores’ of course – more remnants of an age prior to ‘Euclidian’ zoning when the owner of a house with a front yard could build a storefront to the sidewalk and open for business, providing, as Sandy describes below, “a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.”

When I first moved to the West End in 1978, there was such a place literally down the lane – empty now – operated by a Korean immigrant family whose daughter I watched start to turn into a teenager.  (Perhaps now writing a novel or screenplay on the west-coast version of Kim’s Convenience.)

No wonder we feel so romantic about them, though many of those that remain are really coffee shops, able to survive on the caffeine mark-up and artisanal sundries.

For places that never had such conversions in their post-war history – starting with ’50s suburbs like Oakridge – corner stores of this kind are not allowed today, and there are reasons.  A new structure would have to be built, and it would require rezoning, raising two problematic challenges: parking and the impacts, perceived or otherwise, real or mistaken, on the present neighbours.  Ask the opinion of someone who would live in their single-family home next door to a design-controlled, limited-service, locally serving commercial establishment without parking, and then wonder whether the proposal would survive the public consultation process.

In reality, of course, there are still corner stores.  They’re very viable, selling diary, staples and many flimsy packages of fat, sugar and salt in all their processed variations, and they look like this:

They may be the only places, under 20,000 square feet, that can meet the ‘popsicle test’ – where your kids can go out by themselves to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts.

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The striping is on the asphalt like a new suit of well-cut clothes: It makes the Richards Bike Lane look smart.  This is the street engineer as designer and tailor.


What’s different about this one over Dunsmiur and Hornby?



Imagine cycling on the Hornby Bike Lane past Robson Square … two rows of trees to one side, a gothic frame for the sidewalk.


Now imagine cycling with trees on both sides.

Voila, Richards.




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As part of its covid response, the City is providing “Room to Queue” – the reallocation of curb lanes next to essential businesses like grocery stores that use adjacent sidewalks for line-ups.  As seen in this example, sent in by Dianna, the lane in front of Urban Fare in Yaletown allows pedestrians enough distance to bypass the otherwise crowded sidewalk.

Here’s a video of the queue lane in front of Urban Fare in Yaletown: UF queue (1)

The use of your basic traffic barriers allows a quick if not exactly aesthetic response in an emergency.  Here’s an opportunity for Jimmy Pattison’s chain, Urban Fare, to commission artists, as did the Downtown Vancouver BIA with those plywood window hoardings, to add some fun, colour and comment to the street.

Notice, as well, the signage on the parking meters, providing a self-evident notice that they aren’t going to be in use anytime soon.  Maybe never.

This is a space that’s not likely to return to its pre-March-2020 condition.  Urban Fare may expand their outdoor seating and display spaces more comfortably on the sidewalk now that there is breathing room.  Maybe an outdoor art gallery?  E-bike charging?   They, along with their customers and neighbours, may decide that this makes far better use of the asphalt than redundant car parking.  (There’s more than the store actually needs in the underground garage.)

A return of the taxi stand is in order, but now there’s room for many of the other increasing demands on curb space.  Indeed, that one parking lane, as lucrative as it is for the City in meter revenues, is far more valuable for current and coming uses* that will need curb access.

Put it on the list of ‘things that we need to do in a post-covid city’:  The curb lane is no longer for parking of vehicles by default – one use among many that may be of greater importance to the community.


* Here’s one that also comes to mind: If the current bus fleet loses capacity due to distancing requirements, buses could make up some of the difference with transit-only lanes that have in the past been resisted (West Vancouver R2, Georgia Street permanently, not just in rush hours). 


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