Urban development eroding cultural identity

Photo by Peggy Lam

Photo by Peggy Lam

Located in the Pacific Northwest, a coast characterized by natural and cultural diversity, Vancouver is regarded as one of the most beautiful places to live. In Aug. 2014, the Economist Intelligence Unit rated it as the third “most liveable city” in the world. “The ethno-cultural diversity here is undeniable,” says Nicholas Scott, sociology professor at Simon Fraser University. “That is the strength of life and urban vibrancy in Vancouver.”

Neighbourhoods in the East end are seen as resources to hold onto by city officials and local residents. Areas such as Commercial Drive, Main Street and Strathcona are rich in cultural history and heritage.

Commercial Drive, more commonly known as “the Drive,” first took shape as a distinct neighbourhood in 1891, with the arrival of the interurban streetcar. After the Great Depression in the 1920s, Grandview Woodlands was an area that many felt was neglected by the city. According to Jak King, author of the book The Drive: A Retail, Social and Political History of Commercial Drive, the lack of transportation and few city services at the time created a culture of self-reliance and individuality that still remains in the area to this day. The neighbourhood is now characterized as a melting pot of funky small businesses, political activism, environmentalism and bohemian culture.

Not far from the Drive is Main Street, an area that has recently been home to many bustling art initiatives and immigrants. European settlement in uptown Main Street started in the 1860s, with Edward Stamp. He dammed the streams and built bridges for workers to cross the water from the Granville Township and work for his mill business. The influx of artists and affluent young people moving to the area in the 1990s afterwards then infused the neighbourhood with hipster culture, filled with cafes, restaurants, bike and skate shops, bars, live-music venues and quirky fashion boutiques.

An investor centered approach

The city’s demographic, cultural and historical mix places it in a positional advantage when it comes to condominium development. With high-rise towers being built at a rapid pace in existing neighbourhoods, Vancouver has become a hotbed for housing investment. Neighbourhoods, such as Strathcona, Commercial Drive and Main Street are undergoing gentrification at an accelerating rate.

“There is just so much money in Vancouver so there is a tendency to put things into monetary value,” Scott explains. “There are efforts by the city to brand neighbourhoods, taking advantage of historical communities like Chinatown to make them marketable.”

“It’s very unhealthy,” David Wong, urban ecologist and architect explains. “All we’re doing is building investor products as opposed to creating community, as in places to work, places to enjoy life and places to live. You have all these condos, yet they keep building more and more. But then the question is: where are people going to live? There’s a difference between creating a place for people to live and creating opportunities for people to invest in.”

David Wong. | Photo by Colten Wong

David Wong. | Photo by Colten Wong

He recounts his experiences working as an urban planner when he proposed creating “pocket parks” in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The idea was to renew abandoned spaces and create small outdoor parks for seniors to play chess or read. However, a lack of funding and political will halted his plans.

“The politicians always ask about funding – who is going to pay for that sort of stuff. Many of them don’t understand the value that comes out of it. I presented it to council, but the City of Vancouver was not interested,” says Wong.

Erosion of community and cultural heritage

With an investor-centered approach, a sense of community and culture heritage in Vancouver remains difficult to conserve. Growing up with his grandmother in Strathcona, the sense of community back then remains prominent in Wong’s memory.

“When I was growing up, everyone looked after each other. We were impoverished as a family, but we had a lot of fun because everyone knew each other.There is a very strong historical element to Chinatown, but we’re losing all of that. The displacement of people who live and work there is a real shame.”

Hogan’s Alley was one of the many historical elements that were lost due to urban development, where city planners failed to integrate a people-centered approach.

In the 1960s, the urban renewal project was implemented by the City of Vancouver as a means to reverse property decay and establish a new transportation system. However, many residents in Chinatown were displaced in the process. Among them was the Afro-Canadian community, who settled in what was known as Hogan’s Alley. The entire community was demolished after the construction of the Georgia Viaduct in the 1970s.

“My neighbour was Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother because we lived on the same block on Union Street. There used to be a beautiful black community here and I had these friends, but they were all uprooted,” says Wong.

The development of Vancouver’s landscape and its direction poses tough questions for the city’s urban planners and designers. For Scott, addressing some of the controversies begins with involving residents in the decision-making process.

“It’s a hot debate everywhere: how to do public consultation not only at the procedural level but in a way to invoke people’s imagination on the direction of the city. That’s been a very difficult thing to do in a complex and diverse city.”