Urbanism
January 15, 2021

Narratives and Demographic Realities of the West End – 2

Our ‘Fun with Numbers’ guy, Andy Coupland, ran some numbers on the West End, comparing 1981 and 2016 census.  Though the Big Takeway is still that the West End is more stable than often perceived, some changes (like overall demographics) are in line with wider City / Region / Canada change.  But the uniquely high rental proportion, and therefore high mobility, may explain some of the differences. 

(Comments in brackets are from Price Tags.)

 

There are more males. (If the gay population was declining significantly, you’d expect the opposite of this trend.)

1981 – 18,255 (49% of total)

2016 – 24,670 (52% of total)

 

And less females.  (In 1981 there were 440 more females than males; now there are 2,140 more males than females.)

1981 – 18,695 (51% of total)

2016 – 22,530 (48% of total)

 

There are more children under 15.  (Again, if the number of families with chiIdren was dropping, the opposite should be true.)

1981 – 1,165

2016 – 1,945

 

There are fewer young people aged 15 – 24.  (This is where affordability may be having an impact, and why it seems there are less younger gays.)

1981 – 4,950

2016 – 3,710

 

There are a lot more aged 25 – 44.  (Affordability would be less an issue for this cohort.)

1981 – 15,990

2016 – 22,545

 

A lot more aged 45 – 64  (Why the big jump in this group?  Growth of the condo supply?  Affordability?  Social status of the West End?)

1981 – 7,930

2016 – 12,000

 

But almost the same number (and a smaller proportion of the population) over 65.  (Again, affordability?)

1981 – 6,930

2016 – 7,000

 

 The number married (including separated).  (This is likely a reflection of a societal wide change, but interesting to see in the West End.)

1981 – 38%

2016 – 45% married (25%) or living common law (18%) or separated (2%)

 

An identical proportion single, never married.

1981 – 43% (15,380)

2016 – 43% (19,525)

 

A similar proportion divorced.

1981 – 10% (3,550)

2016 – 9% (4,100)

 

Fewer widowed.

1981 – 9% (3,350)

2016 – 3% (1.330)

 

Part 1 of this series here.

 

 

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A few weeks ago, PT ran a post: “The West End The Way it Was.”   Its last line: “One of the best urban neighbourhoods in the world.”

Regular commenter Bob took issue:

(The West End) “was” one of the best urban neighbourhoods in the world.

The distinctive mix of demographics that made it unique: seniors, young immigrant families, the gay community, all are being driven out by the gentrification unleashed during Vision Vancouver’s and the BC Liberal’s tenure. The removal of St.Pauls to the False Creek Flats will be yet another body blow to the community.

 

There’s been a narrative like that in the West End as long as I’ve lived here.  Since the 70s people have said the unique mix isn’t what it was, or is in danger, or is no longer.

I understand what Bob bemoans: the perceived loss of diversity as the West End becomes upscaled and out of reach of the residents who gave it real character.  It seems they are being unfairly squeezed out by a rate of change – whether demographic, physical or economic – that’s too fast.

No arguing with what people perceive; that’s their reality.  But I learned as a councillor that people’s perception of the rate of change in their community is paradoxical.  As the rate of change slows down, in fact, people’s perception of change increases.  What was once unnoticed in a neighbourhood swept by turbulent change – like the West End in the 1960s – becomes the focus of attention when things slow down enough to notice.

But eventually facts have to match up with perceptions.  Change must be reflected in the measures of that change.   And thanks to the great work by the City’s Social Policy department, we have those measures in one place and can graphically see them illustrated.  Lots of charts.*

No amount of data from yesterday will necessarily convince those persuaded by the anecdotal changes of today.  However, these community profiles derived from the census do provide a base of comparison over decades. Are seniors, families, immigrants and gays being driven out.  And who has replaced them?

We can find out in this Profile of the West End**:

 

Big takeaway: the astonishing thing about the West End is its stability.  Even physically, the district west of Burrard and south of Robson is remarkable for how little it has changed from the 1980s on.

Chilco Street in 2009:

In 2019:

Not even the trees have changed.

Is this Denman Street in 2005 or 2019?

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A shot posted by West End Journal, I presume from the Vancouver Archives:

At a glance you’d think – San Francisco.  But no, that little hill is on Chilco Street, up from Alberni.  Cars are backed up on Robson at the top of the hill.  The traffic cop is on Georgia, and a trolley is pulling out from the bus loop at the end of Alberni.

That’s the way it looked in the 1960s, when downtown office workers were heading home to the North Shore, trying to avoid the back-ups on Georgia.  The traffic was probably worse then, given how relatively little transit there was – and remember, the West End was still in a building boom.  This is why the West End had such a bad reputation in that era.  Concrete jungle.

In response to community concern, the NPA Council at the time approved a West End planning process, and by 1970s, the idea of traffic calming was born – possibly the first of its kind in North America.  Diverters, barriers and miniparks went in West of Denman in the early 70s, followed by a similar intervention East of Denman in the early ’80s.  (The myth is that the traffic barriers and parks were put in to discourage street prostitution.  But no, it had always been intended, depending on community approval for a local area improvement charge.)

Of course there were objections.  This was a War on the Car!  Traffic calming and parking fees and restricted parking – and not enough of it to begin with.  Not to mention the NIMBYism of West Enders cutting off through traffic on streets paid for by everyone (sort of).

Stupid councils went ahead and did it anyway.  Plus bike lanes.  And look what they ended up with.

One of the best urban neighbourhoods in the world.

 

This is what Chilco looks like now. (It’s where I live).

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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.

Today,

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