Category: Vancouver

Here’s a pandemic project that I think turned out pretty well:

In 1954, Vancouver’s planning department put together a remarkable hand-coloured map showing the age of every building in the city. Thankfully for us, the Vancouver Archives made scans of the map available in impressively high resolution:

For a long time, my mental model of urban planning was basically “there are written rules about what you can build, and to build something you just follow the rules.” Unfortunately, this is not an accurate way to think about Vancouver.

I get alerts for new rezoning+development applications (using a small tool I wrote), and this little snippet shows up over and over:

…the application is “conditional” so it may be permitted. However, it requires the decision of the Director of Planning.

You can see this on virtually any type of housing proposed in Vancouver, here’s a selection:

I’ve been tracking rezoning+development applications for about a year and a half, and my data set has 599 items with the words “Director of Planning”.

OK, but… why? Doesn’t the Director of Planning have better things to do than approve individual houses and small apartment buildings?
I’ll defer that question to a senior planner at the City of Vancouver:

A few years ago, this short piece by former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price made a big impression on me.

The Canadian Institute of Planners had decided to celebrate Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood by giving it their 2015 “Great Neighbourhood” award. Price noted that this is ironic given that during its most recent development boom, the modern West End was widely regarded as a terrible planning decision:

…this neighbourhood of old converted single-family homes was largely bulldozed to create the Great Neighbourhood of today. The West End, during the boom era of highrise construction in the 1960s, was considered a concrete jungle – what most Vancouverites didn’t want anywhere near them: everyone’s best bad example of urban redevelopment.

Impossible to do that today. Imagine taking a square mile anywhere south of 16th Avenue and rezoning it for the kind of development that characterizes the West End.

This really surprised me as someone who moved to Vancouver in the 2000s. Nearly everyone loves the West End now! It’s got a lot of relatively affordable rental apartments, it’s close to all kinds of natural amenities, and it’s a short walk from downtown.

Fast-forward to late 2017, and I’m digging through old newspapers at the VPL for Abundant Housing Vancouver. When I get to the 1960s, I find out that Price is right: many people really hated the modern West End when it was being built. Here are just some of the articles I found.

Vancouver’s rocky start with secondary suites

From wartime homes to student homes

Or: that time that Vancouver decided single-family zoning was more important than defeating Hitler

Secondary suites (often just “basement suites”, or ADUs) are an everyday part of Vancouver neighbourhoods now. Even before they were fully legalized in 2004, they provided a large amount of Vancouver’s low-cost housing stock.

The story I usually hear about suites goes like this: people started building a lot of unauthorized suites in Vancouver Specials in the 1970s and 1980s, and this set the stage for a long drawn-out political battle that eventually ended with suites being legalized.

It’s a good story, and it’s true! But Vancouver’s history with secondary suites goes back much further. People were trying to live in secondary suites – and Vancouver was trying to stop them – for a long time before the Vancouver Special.


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