Last week, Vancouver City Council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, two remnants of 1950s transportation planning that had detrimental effects on several urban and ethnic neighbourhoods. The City’s former directors of planning, Vancouver Downtown Business Improvement Association, and Vancouver Public Space Network all supported the move.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said he voted to remove the viaducts for several reasons:

  • The City would need to spend almost $65 million to retrofit them to make them earthquake resistant
  • Extensive research by city staff has shown that a new at-grade road configuration could handle all of the traffic
  • The City owns most of the land under the viaducts and once they are removed, the land could be used for low- and moderate-income housing
  • 13 acres more parkland could be added to False Creek
  • “We can repair a major planning mistake from 40 years ago. There is simply no scenario where we would ever contemplate today creating an elevated freeway that would divide and isolate Chinatown from False Creek, and dump thousands of cars into Strathcona. For too long, we’ve accepted the status quo. It’s within our power to change it.”

The controversial construction of the Georgia Viaduct in 1970 obliterated Hogan’s Alley, once home to Italian, Chinese, and Japanese Canadians as well as the black community. The city’s only black church, African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, was located there and Jimi Hendrix’ grandmother Nora lived in Hogan’s Alley for some of her life. The Strathcona and Chinatown communities were successful in stopping the proposed expressway that would have destroyed their communities, but Hogan’s Alley was lost.

The viaducts represent a transportation planning era that fostered the construction of the US Interstate System. The highway engineers of this era believed that it was essential to link cities with efficient roadways, but had little skill or precedent for bringing highways that linked widespread rural settlements into the city. They failed spectacularly, obliterating or seriously damaging urban neighbourhoods, often the poorest and those with large populations of visible minorities. Cliff Ellis and Joseph Dimento examined the role of planners, engineers, architects and landscape architects in this saga in their book Changing Lanes (2013).

During the 1960s, many cities in Canada had plans in place to construct networks of highways, including Vancouver. But Canadian transportation infrastructure was not constructed at the same scale as the American partly because it started later, when communities had already begun to protest highway construction in the US. Noted urbanist Jane Jacobs had been instrumental in the protest against the Lower Manhattan Expressway before she moved to Toronto, where she was part of the successful effort to halt construction of the Spadina Expressway. The Strathcona and Chinatown citizens were the heroes in Vancouver’s case.

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