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 is what we planted in the 1990s: a landscape design from the post-Expo era that has come to be known as ‘Vancouverism.”

Downtown South was in a post-rezoning boom, and Hong Kong investment, families and sensibilities were arriving – evident on the 800-block of Hamilton Street where the major tower, completed in 1995, is named ‘Jardine’s Lookout’ (a mountain and residential area on Hong Kong Island).

Now, a generation later, it is surrounded by a maturing urban forest.

The 1991 Downtown South rezoning was accompanied by a neighbourhood-specific streetscape manual in 1994, meant to provide a greener, quieter identity on what would otherwise be traffic-heavy arterials.  Influenced by Erickson and Oberlander’s landscaping of Robson Square, the sidewalks would all have a double row of trees, with increased setbacks and, in this case, a heritage garden (all paid for by the developers, from building to curb.)

Note how there are four levels of landscaping, from bushes and hedges at grade, to the rows of trees, to the gardens on decks and roofs.  Foliage surrounds the pedestrian on every side, and above, proving that high-density urban environments can be greener and more lush than any grass-dominant suburb.

Regrettably, the curb-adjacent planting strips (inspired by West-End boulevards) could not handle the foot traffic along the metered streets, and so the grass has been replaced over time with asphalt, brick, concrete and astroturf.  Having been the councillor who pushed for grass curbing in the original urban design, I regret my over-optimism on its survival, but do wish we had gone for something both permeable and able to withstand the wear-and-tear.

This is an urban forest in its adolescence.  And it’s not the only block.  Throughout Downtown South, from Robson to Pacific, Granville to Yaletown, the streets are becoming so lush and thick with foliage, we’ll already have to consider how we’re going to thin them out.


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