This summer, the Heritage Vancouver Society organizes a lot of exciting walking tours. As I moved to Vancouver and settled in the beautiful West End just four months ago, I was excited about Saturday’s “Planning Tour of Vancouver’s West End” with Gordon Price, Director of the SFU City Program.
This tour aimed at explaining some of the planning theory and trends that shaped the West End – and some of the lessons to be learned. For this, Gordon broke the history of the West End down in four eras. We started at Barclay Heritage Square which is probably the best place to get an idea of Vancouver’s beginnings (click pictures to enlarge).
Barclay Heritage Square’s wooden houses and its historic Roedde House Museum gave us an insight into how Vancouver looked like more than a hundred years ago. The groundwork for today’s urban design was laid in the 1880s when British surveyors organized the land into 33 x 66 ft large lots, thereby settig the efficient grid structure of North American cities.
Cheap land, energy and water and the possibility to register these rectangles of land contributed to the subsequent growth of the West End. With one single family house per lot, the West End’s character at the turn of the century was very suburban and the grid structure of the 1880s became the greatest legacy of this era. While architecture changed in the last century, the grid didn’t change.
Today, as Gordon showed us, these 66 ft between two houses usually accomodate a front yard with some plants, a sidewalk, a green strip, the curbs, the street and again the curbs, a green strip, a sidewalk and a front yard with some plants, thereby contributing to the green character of this beautiful city.
A mini park at Pendrell and Nicola with an apartment building from the 1920s then told us the stories of class, increasing density and walkable neighbourhoods in the West End between the two World Wars. At the same time, this period in the 1920s marked the transition from building urban neighbourhoods around walking, horses and streetcars to building urban neighbourhoods around the car.
As politicians told everyone that they could get a car, engineers had to plan for a transportation system and city design that essentially accomodates an infinite number of cars. And with some children playing in the streets being killed by this new mode of transport, the world had to be ordered to make it safe, thereby getting pedestrians off the streets and on the sidewalks.
By widening streets, creating parking space and cutting trees, the urban environment was transformed and the mindset of these decades literally paved the way for the subsequent third phase in the 1950s-1970s.
A mini park at Cardero and Burnaby reminded us that this had long been a little streetcar village with local retail shops and businesses where people often met each other. With a maximum distance of only three streets in each direction from the streetcar lines, life in the West End was essentially organized around the streetcar lines on Davie and Robson.
In the 1950s and 1960s, buses replaced the streetcars and cars and highrises were added. Within a decade, life in the West End changed and hundreds of new 1 bedroom apartments for the baby boomers were added each year. With the addition of this huge stock of affordable housing as well as English Bay beach, Stanley Park and local shops around the corner, the West End was both affordable and livable in the 1960s.
The mini parks built in the middle of streets are another legacy of this time as they were a response to the revolts following the widening of the streets and the cutting of trees as well as an action to reduce traffic. In this regard, the 19th century grid, the refusal to accomodate the car and the residential density of the West End became essential elements of Vancouverism.
On the way to our final stop at Comox and Broughton, Gordon talked about the past and current uses of the back lanes. While people didn’t plan for this a hundred years ago, the lanes today accomodate cars, thereby reducing the need for parking space in front of the buildings. The huge amount of empty parking lots also showed us that parking has significantly dropped around the peninsula in recent years.
By perhaps featuring the worst architecture of the 20th century, our final stop showed us that it’s often difficult to accomodate growth and change with heritage and identity. In particular, you might have to drop one goal if you aim for beauty, prosperity and affordability. Moreover Gordon introduced us to the paradox of the affordable city: If housing is expensive, the new housing must be seen to be expensive too so that it doesn’t lower existing values.
After the rapid population increase of the 1960s and 1970s, the rate of change in the West End slowed to practically zero since 1989 when the number of lots that would allow new development were essentially limited to a handful. As a consequence, developers went East of Burrard and North of Robson and residents in the West End got used to the idea that their great neighbourhood should stay as it is.
Thanks to Gordon Price for a great urban planning walking tour of the West End! Please also check his excellent Price Tags blog and his “Density in a City of Neighbourhoods” discussion guide for more insights.