Displacement and Development in Vancouver: The Ebb and Flow of a Changing City Landscape


Vancouver is imagined as one of the world’s greenest cities and is known for its world class livability. But there is another side to that story. As we met with a diverse set of people from Vancouver we heard a narrative of displacement that corresponded with the recent explosion of development in Vancouver. The increased development is exacerbated by the desirability of the city, rapidly changing the city landscape.  Here are some of the stories we heard.  


The first story of displacement that is important to be conscious of in any city is that of the indigenous peoples. After talking to Alec Dan, a Musqueam knowledge holder, we learned that the Musqueam people were among the tribes that settled in the area which is now Greater Vancouver over 4000 years ago. They have been practicing a place-based way of living since time immemorial. The Musqueam people’s history has been interweaved into settler history in Vancouver. Although they historically have a natural movement along the Fraser River, their relationship with settlers has resulted in displacement to the margins of Vancouver. The issues that have risen for the Musqueam from development includes the unequal power dynamic and the loss of culture and land. Their pathways forward are focused on strengthening their community as they restore their connection to traditional place-based practices. This includes restoring language, harvesting, fishing, art, and self-governance. The Musqueam are very proud of their culture and want people to be educated on their cultural values and practices. The Musqueam community put $1.5 million into the construction of their new recreation center on their reserve. This shows how invested they are in revitalizing their culture and that they are putting emphasis on teaching children the Musqueam language and oral histories.


Alec Dan from the Musqueam Nation sharing place based stories with the group.


A recent example of how the Musqueam community has been affected by displacement was seen when a developer tried to build a residential development on sacred Musqueam land where their ancestors were laid to rest. They protested this project by occupying the area as well as putting up signs for a mock development of a settler graveyard. This sent their message of discontent to the developers who were disrespecting the Musqueam’s ancestors.


We went to the historic Woodwards building to have a conversation with Community organizer Matt Hern, who started by acknowledging that the very space we were occupying (SFU Woodward campus) is on unceded Musqueam territory. Displacement was a thread that continued throughout our conversation with Hern as he painted the narrative of his work in these tones. There is a spatial contradiction to gentrification, as the places people are being pushed out of in Vancouver were originally taken from the indigenous people. He spoke about displacement using three specific examples from his recent work.

Woodworth’s building in Gastown, Vancouver


Hern asked, what do these kinds of development trajectories do for our urban areas? People all over are being forced to the margins of employment, and of the city. For example when thinking about Fort McMurray, Hern urges us to move beyond “green liberalism that talks shit” about the tar sands, when people on the fringes (down and out folks, immigrants, etc.) go there to make a living for themselves. As a result, Fort McMurray is very culturally diverse.


In contrast, Portland’s development has been celebrated as the city that gets it right. Hern asks at what cost? Portland has a legacy of civic racism that has touched down in primarily black areas of the city and whitewashed them. Hern focused his discussion of gentrification in Portland to the contested area of Albina. Albina has undergone a number of spatial transformations, most recently a 1990 urban renewal scheme that dispersed the black population from Albina to the margins of the city.


Connecting the threads of displacement to the edge of the city, Hern came back to his hometown of East Vancouver. Due to the catastrophic unaffordability of rent in Vancouver, the low-income population that Hern has worked with for his entire career as a community organizer have been forced out to Surrey.


He left us with the question, ‘How do these narratives of displacement become normalized?’ We discussed that it’s a societal acceptance that people with more money have more of a say in where they live. The South False Creek development embodied the 1970’s Trudeau liberalism that the nation was experiencing. The general idea of egalitarian design is to allow the market to determine who can and cannot live in certain areas. This ethic carried its way into the design of South False Creek. The housing stock is divided into 1/3 co-op, 1/3 below market rental, and 1/3 market rental. We were hard pressed to find the difference in appearance between the market rentals and below market rentals since the intention of the development was to make everyone equal, regardless of their socio-economic status. The development was made possible because developer Doug Sutcliffe wanted to leave a legacy to the city. The project broke even and used the money from the market housing to fund the below market housing, which is unlikely in today’s profit driven market. The idea of the development was to provide a complete neighbourhood. This has been successful because of the park space that was created, but unsuccessful from a commercial standpoint as there are no commercial spaces that draw the community together. The South False Creek development came at an age where the spirit of environmentalism was high. This resulted in a number of design features intended to look natural at South False Creek.


Students standing on the greenway overpass in South False Creek


Among these features are a park with a walkable greenway connection that spans the highway and rail line, an artificial waterfall, and abundant public park space. It is important to note that there are public green spaces as well as a number of smaller courtyards for the residents of the developments to share. Due to these condos being in such a desirable location, many developers are interested in buying out the current tenants and building more skyscrapers which would have a similar aesthetic to the nearby Olympic Village development. Hopefully the South False Creek development can remain an area that is more affordable and can be used as an example for how other developers can make housing accessible and affordable. 


By: Ian Flock, Hannah Schick and Matthew Callow 


Vancouver, BC V7R 5T6


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