2012 Field School Vancouver entry

Day 1: Upon our arrival in Vancouver, the class set out to explore the Yaletown neighbourhood. With readings by Trevor Boddy and Charles Montgomery in mind, we were asked to critically analyze Vancouver’s built landscape in order to discover what elements of ‘Vancouverism’ are currently present in the city. For those unfamiliar with the term Vancouverism, Montgomery would describe it as “Futureville,” with vibrant streetscapes and mixed-use developments. The landscape is characterized by slender condo towers intertwined with greenspace, allowing for the densification of the urban downtown population.  

Boddy takes a more critical approach to Vancouver’s recent condo developments. He suggests this urban area is more like a “resort”, turning condo units into commodities, resulting in an exclusive, high class market that inhibits middle and lower classes from living in the urban core. Creating a dense, compact city allows people to live, work, and play in a small area without the use of a car. However, only a fraction of Vancouver’s population is able to do this because the downtown market is too expensive. Boddy also comments on the fact that conversions of buildings from commercial to residential uses has limited the amount of office space in the downtown core. This forces downtown residents to commute to the periphery to work. As a result, he argues the creation of “reverse commuters” counters what the compact city was originally supposed to accomplish. While walking through Yaletown, the affluence of the area was striking. The area features vibrant and lively streetscapes lined with cafes, posh restaurants, bars and boutiques.

What was less apparent, however, were the massive condo towers above the street. This “tower and podium” style of development is central to Vancouverism as it is less intrusive to pedestrians. and contributes to the walkability of the city. According to Montgomery, over two thirds of trips made in downtown Vancouver are by foot, bicycle and transit. This was also apparent while traversing Yaletown. With the “density with amenity” concept in mind, we noticed that there was a significant aspect of the landscape that was absent--grocery stores. The only full service grocery store in Yaletown is Urban Fare, an upscale grocer that is affordable primarily to the upper class. The landscape promotes environmental sustainability, but is unaffordable for middle class residents.

After discussing our thoughts over Thai food and a pitcher of locally brewed Granville Island Honey Lager, we concluded that Vancouver demonstrates several concepts of urban sustainability in its downtown core. Yaletown is a beautiful place and a highly sought after place to live, work, and play. However, to be truly sustainable, Vancouver must address its issue of affordable housing. Social sustainability is equally as important as environmental sustainability, and thus issues around equity must be addressed with the same commitment.


Day 2:


Insite Safe Injection Site

On Tuesday, we travelled by foot to the InSite safe injection centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Darwin Fisher began his presentation by explaining the historical context that led to some of the neighborhood’s social challenges. He explained that the hotels in the area were originally luxury hotels built for a privileged clientele. They were converted into single room occupancy buildings (SROs) for seasonal workers such as lumberers and cannery workers. Eventually, the area became inhabited by low-income residents full-time. In the 1970s the housing stock eroded as SROs shut down and mental health facilities were downsized. These factors caused an explosion of open cocaine and heroin use and addiction. Throughout the 1990s rates of overdose and death increased tremendously. While there were 39 deaths from overdose in 1988, nearly 400 occurred in 1997; drug overdose became the most common cause of death in the area. CPR had to be performed in the streets, which caused an increase in public attention and advocacy for social solutions to these challenges. 



Insite is an integrated safe injection site, rehabilitation centre and resource centre for the community. Their mandate is to prevent overdose deaths, encourage less harmful injection practices, build relationships with the most marginalized people, and facilitate access to essential services. InSite is focused on low barrier access; thus, no lists of rules are posted there, and the intake process is accessible. Users of this site are given the rationale for the facilitie’s rules. They are also tracked anonymously and do not need to make appointments.
Participants in our group were impressed by Darwin's charisma and flair for creating meaningful relationships with marginalized people. His presentation was engaging and enlightened our group to the challenges that injection drug users in the downtown east side area face on a daily basis. Many of our group members were particularly moved by Darwin's explanation of life on the street, as it caused us to reflect on our own vulnerabilities and humanity. Touring the InSite facility also taught our group a great deal about the power relations involved in producing the landscape and the effect of gentrification. 

The Purple Thistle

Once our tour of InSite was complete, we walked through Strathcona to an industrial area where the Purple Thistle is located. Here, we learned about the importance of having a creative space for youth. The area is lacking in space for youth to express themselves. Thus, the Purple Thistle is often filled with local youth doing a variety of activities such as creating zines, filmmaking, screen printing, and recording music. The centre is also a site for workshops, exhibitions, and alternative learning. Their non-hierarchical, informal consensus-based structure allows them flexibility in decision making processes. Although grant funding is sometimes unpredictable, the collective manages to thrive with limited resources. 

Community gardens surrounding the Purple Thistle's location are also run collectively, and provide space for youth to grow, collect, and learn about food. In addition to being used for food, the plants in the garden are also used for medicine, tea, pest management, and pollination. The collective stresses that the gardens are for experiential learning and making mistakes. Wetlands around the gardens also play a crucial role in environmental restoration and beehives provide services for humans and ecosystems.

Cascadia Sustainability Field School participants were inspired by the collaborative environment and accessible nature of the space. The Purple Thistle contributes to building a sense of community, which is an essential component of sustainability.

Day 3:

Historic Chinatown

The next morning, we were greeted by Hayne Wai, a UBC professor who took us on a tour of Vancouver’s historic Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhood. Hayne began the tour by providing a brief history of Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver and noted how racism and colonial power relations were predominant up until the late 1960s.

Today, Vancouver’s Chinatown remains a unique cultural district, with a number of contemporary social and economic issues. The area remains a contested space for future development as sites such as the Keefer Lounge (http://www.thekeefer.com/) remind residents that residential gentrification is a likely reality. As we walked down East Pender Street, between Gore and Main Streets, we observed several empty Chinese grocery stores. Hayne noted that many older businesses are struggling economically as the area’s resident population continues to decrease. Historic Chinatown now remains more of a novelty as outlying municipalities such as Richmond are now the contemporary hubs for recent Chinese settlement. Questions around the role of historic Chinatown’s future in Vancouver’s cultural landscape and its relation (if at all) to recent Chinese immigrants in metro Vancouver.

Strathcona Neighbourhood

We wandered further into the depths of Vancouver’s East End and found ourselves in a neighbourhood reminiscent of James Bay, Victoria. Strathcona was once home to a diverse population of Jewish, African-Canadian, Italian, and other European groups who nearly lost their homes to highway during the car-centric planning of the late 1960s. Today, Strathcona is a desirable location for affordable housing projects, pointed out by Hayne at the corner of Union and Jackson Streets. The neighbourhood will continue to see a diverse selection of residents, with mixed incomes and ethnicities, as its close proximity to the downtown core and heritage charm are attractive characteristics.



Gordon Price

Following a tasty Chinese buffet, Gordon Price greeted us in the restaurant and led us out into Vancouver’s False Creek. He began his tour by providing a historical context of the city. He emphasized that the establishment of the city’s deepwater, ice-free port in the 1700s is what drove settlement to the area along with the Gold Rush. However, Chinese people were prevented from using the port, despite their large fleet and significant participation in trade. Although Vancouver has a long history of racial discrimination, the city today is very diverse, with no significant ethnic majority.   

Throughout our tour, Gordon Price expressed immense pride for Vancouver’s “post-motordom” design. He praised the 1960s Vancouver community for rejecting the proposed freeway that would have run through the Strathcona community - a model that countless cities have adopted in the past. The result of the rejection of the proposed freeway is the Georgia Viaduct, which is a massive, above-ground roadway entering the city. Below it is a skateboard park, which also alludes to Vancouver’s post-motordom nature. Price comments this is a shift to a world where “people actually move”. This notion, which is reinforced by the walkability of downtown, contributes to better health, promotes active lifestyles and prevents obesity. In addition to walkability, pointed out that the cyclist-friendly infrastructure has greatly changed the way people move. He said that “once we gave a little more room for the cyclist, it planted the seed to change the culture”. He also pointed out that bicyle lanes also act as a new type of “freeway” navigating through downtown.

Next we explored Vancouver’s transit system and why it has been working so well. Price explained that Vancouver’s success in transit is attributed to frequency and the integration of its systems into the city. Rush hour for the SkyTrain does not exist because of its frequency - a new train arrives at each stop every three minutes, and as frequent as every 107 seconds in the morning or after events. As a man dressed in a suit whisked past us with a rolling suitcase, Price pointed out that the streets are all designed for rolling luggage, making intercity travel easy to connect with the urban transit system. All types of people have realized that using transit is faster and less expensive than moving around the city by car.

To our pleasant surprise, we crossed paths with Allan Hart in Olympic Village’s public park. Allan Hart works for SKANSKA, a leading global architecture firm, and was involved in designing most of the South False Creek area as well as the SkyTrain system. How serendipitous! He pointed out that one of the primary things Vancouver residents take for granted is public access to the waterfront. After saying farewell to Hart, our group headed for Waterfront Station. Once we arrived, Price called upon us to observe the epic character of this place as a world city transportation hub similar to Grand Central Station. Here we boarded the Canada Line and headed to the West End where Price left our group to explore this part of the city for ourselves. 

Price’s tour proved insightful and entertaining as passers-by became important resources for learning along the way. It was a refreshing experience to actually get out into communities and learn by empirical observation, although we are mindful of overgeneralizing. He taught us to be conscious of who occupies public spaces and how the power of community interests can affect planning at the community level.



Vancouver, BC


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