Sheng Zhong recently defended her PhD dissertation at UBC School of Community and Regional Planning.  Last year at the Association of American Geographers annual conference, she gave us a little preview of her research results on cultural production sites in Shanghai, focusing on one of the seventy government-designated sites, M50 on Suzhou Creek. She also published this case study in the 2009 issue of Critical Planning (Vol 16): From Fabrics to Fine Arts: Urban Restructuring and Formation of an Art District in Shanghai. Her research consisted of extensive interviews, surveys and site visits of most of these former industrial sites now destined as high-end cultural centers. The concept of the creative class might be controversial here, but Sheng’s research shows the Chinese government is jumping on the bandwagon that supposedly leads to economic growth and development, as suggested by Richard Florida.

In Sheng’s doctoral defense, she contrasted two cultural production sites, one of which developed on its own, as artists found the low-rent buildings vacated by industries that had relocated to the suburbs. The second was designated by the government and targeted for redevelopment. The contrast between the two was very interesting: the first had grown illegally for some time as artists occupied the various buildings on the site, then over a decade gentrified to the point where rents are almost at the upper limit of affordability for small-scale production. The second site was initially designed with high-end stores and upscale landscape architecture targeted to foreign tourists. It is under-used (the rents are too high and there may not be enough demand for the location) and the artwork sold there is unaffordable to the Chinese population.

Dr. Zhong will be starting a post-doctoral position at the National University of Singapore, where she will continue her research on urban redevelopment and the policies that impact growth and change in Chinese cities.

Update: As of February 2012, Sheng will be a lecturer at the brand new Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, a joint effort of China’s Xi’an Jiaotong University and the UK’s Liverpool University.

There has been a lot of debate and policy discussion in Metro Vancouver over the increasing suburbanization of businesses over the past two decades. The issue is a concern for planners for many reasons: the dispersed locations encourage urban sprawl and greenfield construction. Because business parks are often far from existing transit infrastructure, they can also increase trips by single-occupant vehicles (SOVs). But for many business owners, the cheaper land and lower taxes in fringe areas are too good to pass up. Many municipalities favour office and business park construction in their fringe areas because the new employers add to their tax base and also provide local jobs. This trend still seems to be alive and well in Metro Vancouver, despite policies supporting mixed-use centres throughout the region, but in some American cities the tide seems to be turning.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Ania Wieckowski writes that “suburbs have lost their sheen” as both younger and older worker are increasingly choosing to live in denser, mixed-use communities with better transportation options. In the last US Census, 64% of 25- to 34-year olds said they looked for a job after choosing a city in which to live. Businesses like United Airlines and Quicken Loans recently announced that they would be moving their headquarters from suburban to urban locations: United will locate in downtown Chicago and Quicken Loans in Detroit. Many CEOs are realizing that if they want to remain competitive, they need to contribute to more vibrant central cities.

Walgreens at Madison Avenue and 41st Street in the 1930s. Image from the NYPL Digital Gallery.

New Orleans Canal Street location

Such a shift means that there would have to be all kinds of changes in the ways national retail chains locate and design their stores: the big-box and strip mall architectural styles will need to evolve to fit more urban settings…or evolve back to the city, as Wieckowski puts it. Walgreens, which recently acquired the Duane Reed chain, used to be a staple on small town main streets. We have seen this trend in Canadian cities, with some big box stores choosing to locate in inner city areas: Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Future Shop, and the like. Vancouver actually has some great examples of these, like the Shoppers Drug Mart/Future Shop on West Broadway near Burrard Street. But we certainly don’t have any examples of major employers relocating to the city: as Tom Hutton frequently writes, Vancouver is still reeling from the losses of the major forestry headquarters during its transition from a resource-based economy to a finance- and service-based economy.

As the American shift back to the city is happening at a time when housing choices are also skewing urban, it’s again time to reflect on the differences between their cities and ours: while we certainly have urban sprawl and suburbanized employment, the level of disinvestment in our cities is still not the same as it is in the US. In particular, without the high levels of segregation and massive public housing projects located in many American cities back in the 1950s and 1960s, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and even smaller cities like London and Kelowna have been able to maintain competitive housing prices in inner city neighbourhoods. Too competitive, in fact: housing affordability is a major problem in our the first three cities, and even in smaller cities like Kelowna and Vernon, BC. Whereas in the US, the recent shift back to cities as a place for business location may be tied to the recent trend to live in urban centres, which I discussed in a previous post. The current housing crisis means that in many American cities, housing is affordable even in inner city neighbourhoods, and with the new emphasis on rental housing there are more options available for those wanting to live urban lifestyles. These types of choices are less available in Canadian cities because the demand for urban housing never decreased, even during the US mortgage crisis: witness Marcelle Czerny’s recent article in the Globe and Mail on the quest for an affordable home in Toronto and her unwillingness to leave the city for the suburbs.

Je viens de retourner de Montréal, où j’avais l’opportunité de practiquer mon français. A brief two and a half days of bilingual workshops and roundtables on immigration issues, mostly in the Canadian context, was enlightening and quite enjoyable. The best part: it was a relatively small conference, with 1200 participants and only four concurrent sessions. This meant it was well organized, there were very few changes to the programme itself, and it was very easy to find your way around the two floors dedicated to our conference: qualities usually missing at the American Association of Geographers annual congress, where I’ve presented a couple of times.

The small size of the conference meant that I was asked to be in a roundtable with some of the top researchers in the field: Bob Murdie who is retired from York University, Carlos Teixeira at UBC Okanagan, Sutama Ghosh at Ryerson, and Damaris Rose of INRS. I have cited all of these authors in my own work, and they proved to be just as thorough, but unassuming, as their writing would suggest. Also included were some housing agency representatives like my old friend Jim Zamprelli from Canada Mortgage and Housing Coporation, and two of us PhD students. The roundtable audience was a good size and included David Ley from UBC Geography and Sandeep Agrawal from Ryerson: David of course is legendary in geography (last year he was named a Distinguished Scholar by the American Association of Geographers); Sandeep is the Director of Ryerson’s Master of Planning program.

David Firang, who is currently doing his PhD in Social Work at U of T, presented his research on the housing choices of Ghanaian immigrants in the next session, where I also presented my preliminary findings. Carlos presented his latest research on immigrants in the Central Okanagan Valley, cementing the idea that immigrants have very few choices due to housing policy that does not support market rental or affordable housing construction. Tom Carter from the University of Winnipeg discussed some of the issues immigrants have in the smaller Manitoba centers, where there is still fairly significant housing market discrimination. Tom also noted, after my presentation, that immigrants to the smaller centers often complain about the lack of public transit, even if they live in towns of 500 residents. Damaris, who was the discussant in our session, gave us all some important insights and comments, and very kindly welcomed David and I into the research arena.

Now, usually I find the plenary sessions less than exciting. But in this case the speakers included Krishna Pendakur, the hilarious and brilliant economics professor from Simon Fraser University, Valerie Preston from York University, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, and UBC’s own Dan Hiebert. Krishna had the audience laughing right from his introduction, even though his research was depressing: Canadian-born visible minorities are just not doing as well as Canadian-born whites, at least in terms of income. His comments about entrenched racism in the workplace (“The good thing is that these people that make the decisions, they’re old, they’re racist, and they’re going to die eventually.”) and the differences in outcomes across cities (“Do you see these lines? Do you get what I’m sayin’?  I’m sayin’ I’m glad I live in Vancouver!”) really brought home the importance of how the information is delivered. The participants at our table looked at Krishna with the rapt eyes of devotees: one said, “I love this guy!” and another, “He actually makes stats interesting!” Valerie, who spoke right after Krishna, started by saying, “How do I follow that?” Jason Kenney’s speech wasn’t interesting in the least, but the fact that his presence was delayed by two separate protesters, who disagree with “Canada’s white supremacist immigration policies” definitely livened up the audience. I suppose it is a testament to political will that he still appeared and did his prepared speech, which showed the mark of the current adminstration’s insensitivity towards Canada’s temporary foreign workers, and seemed to reinforce the idea that while the country needs immigrants, it does very little to help newcomers find work, find housing, and settle into their lives in Canada.

Outside of the sessions, there were so many interesting people to talk to: I met Masters and PhD students, housing providers, non-profit agency professionals, and government officials at the federal, regional, and municipal levels. One night I was pleased to sit with Alan Simmons, a professor of sociology at York University, and his wife Jean, who teaches in family counselling at Guelph University; the rest of our table included people in social work, social justice and anthropology. This was a real interdisciplinary mix, and many of the people I spoke to said this was their first time at Metropolis.

Je suis heureuse de vous dire que le prochaine congrès sera à Vancouver! (Je vais améliorer mon français avant que ça, je vous le promets.) À la prochaine tout le monde!

Now that Vancouver is awash in Olympic madness, it’s time to reflect on the city and its unique personality: its extraordinary natural beauty, polarized social classes, laid-back attitude and multi-million dollar condos.  Combined with its unique geography, with a downtown “core” surrounded by water, its various municipalities linked tenuously together by a few bridges, Metro Vancouver is one-of-a-kind.

A great article in The Walrus (Gary Stephen Ross) contrasts “the Vancouver you see and the one you don’t.” Vancouver might have “world-class” restaurants, but it’s impossible to hail a cab after 10pm or have a drink on upper Granville Street after midnight.  Environmentally-conscious thinking is serious out west, and the City of Vancouver often initiates innovative policies and programs. But Ross rightly points out that Vancouver is missing several indicators of “civic heft and maturity”: until the Canada Line’s opening last fall, there was no public transit line to the airport; the main train terminus at Pacific Station does not present the city’s best face; there’s no downtown university campus with an adjoining student neighbourhood, no major civic square or broad pedestrian promenade. Ross recalls a 1960s trip to Vancouver, when the city was little more than a frontier town; compared to the more cosmopolitan Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver was a lightweight.  He points out that this is still the case: with a population of about 600,000, the City of Vancouver’s analogues are more likely to be Charlotte, Memphis, and El Paso than Chicago or New York.

The first full day of competition illustrated some of these complexities. While tourists lined the streets and hung out at Robson Square to see the events unfold, protesters smashed in the windows of Bay’s Georgia Street store, where the entire main floor is devoted to Olympic merchandise. Anti-Olympic sentiment has evidently not faded in Vancouver, where many residents have left the city altogether to get away from an event they didn’t want in the first place. After Expo 86, a world exposition that many people attest “put Vancouver on the map,” international attention focused on Vancouver. Almost immediately after the event, Hong Kong developers bought up acres of prime real estate at the waterfront, and by the 1990s the city was glittering with high-rise condos. Housing prices shot through the roof and the sleepy town’s well-kept secrets of soaring mountains and underused waterfront were now offered up to the highest bidders.

Vancouver grew almost overnight, and the complexities that Ross presents in his article are characteristics of a city still in its youth, one that has not yet come to terms with its “world-class” label. It’s easy to forget that until Expo, Vancouver was a mid-sized city at best. Vancouverites who grew up here attest to this, even those who are too young to remember the 1988 Calgary Olympics. To them Vancouver should still be as it was in the old days of the early 80s: a natural wonderland that was relatively unknown even among Canadians. They resent the crowded hiking trails, the high-rise condos that populate Yaletown, and the implication that others might want to live in their city. Unfortunately, this makes it a city with deep social rifts. The city is home to both the richest and poorest postal code in the country. Labour strikes, whether they involve public transit workers or the City of Vancouver staff, last for months on end because the two sides are so polarized. Pervasive homelessness is a never-ending topic, as it is in Toronto, but it’s complicated by what are often the highest property prices and rental rates in the country. The region’s aboriginal peoples may have been fairly well represented in the Olympics Opening Ceremony, but there are still major tensions between them and the provincial and municipal governments around land claims.

While Ross is indeed correct in implying that many of these characteristics remain unseen and unheard, they go a long way in explaining its citizens’ lukewarm attitudes towards migration, commercial ventures and tourist attractions. So while the many spectators, athletes and media representatives focus on the Olympic events, they can’t help but be intrigued by the complexities of Vancouver and its inhabitants. In time Vancouverites may be happy to host world events and embrace immigration and migration to its shores, but it’s still too young to appreciate growth and change.

We live in momentous times: currently, a very significant piece of legislation is making its way towards adoption. I outlined the reasons for the creation of a national housing strategy during Homelessness Action Week. Housing has a profound influence on the planning of our cities and regions, and housing provision in Canada has been subject to a litany of policies and programs that have decreased housing choice, made homeownership the only viable choice for most Canadians, and undermined the ability of developers to construct rental housing.

The Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing Act (Bill C-304), was proposed by Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies in February of this year. It has been a long time coming: similar bills were introduced in 2008 and 2006, but the instability of minority governments prevented them from gaining any serious ground. Parliament voted to move ahead with Bill C-304 on September 30, 2009 (this second reading passed with a vote of 147 to 138) and now it must go through a House Standing Committee Meeting before being brought back to the House of Commons for a 3rd reading. Some significant passages from the bill:

  • “Whereas the provision of and access to adequate housing is a fundamental human right according to paragraph 25(1) of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights…”
  • “Whereas Canada’s wealth and national budget are more than adequate to ensure that every woman, child and man residing in Canada has secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing as part of a standard of living that will provide healthy physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social development and a good quality of life…”
  • “Whereas improved housing conditions are best achieved through co-operative partnerships of government and civil society and the meaningful involvement of local communities…”
  • “3.(1) The Minister shall, in consultation with the provincial ministers of the Crown responsible for municipal affairs and housing and with representatives of municipalities and Aboriginal communities, establish a national housing strategy designed to ensure that the cost of housing in Canada does not compromise an individual’s ability to meet other basic needs, including food, clothing and access to education.”
  • “3.(2) The national housing strategy shall provide financial assistance, including financing and credit without discrimination, for those who are otherwise unable to afford rental housing.”

Under the specific requirements, the Act ensures the construction of housing that “includes not-for-profit rental housing projects, mixed income not-for-profit housing cooperatives, special-needs housing and housing that allows senior citizens to remain in their homes as long as possible”, housing for the homeless, temporary and emergency shelters. They even managed to include standards for sustainable and energy-efficient design. The Act prioritizes housing for those who haven’t had access to stable, secure affordable housing over an extended period; those who have special needs due to family size or status, or mental or physical disabilities; and those who have been denied housing due to discrimination.

The Act requires the federal housing Minister to work with the provincial ministers of housing and municipal representatives, and (s)he is required to convene a meeting of these within 180 days after the passage of the Act to develop standards and objectives for the strategy, set targets for the commencement of programs, and develop principles of agreement for implementation of the programs. The Minister “may take any measures that the Minister considers appropriate to implement the national housing strategy as quickly as possible.” The Minister is required to present a report of this meeting “before each House of Parliament on any one of the first five days that the House is sitting following the expiration of 180 days after the end of the conference.”

Like many Canadians, I’ve been following Bill C-304 rabidly. Legisinfo provides the latest updates so stay tuned: the House Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities met on Nov. 5th and will meet again on Nov. 17th. They need to report on their debates to the House of Commons before the 3rd reading of the bill. To quote Chris Brown, the NDP MP for Hamilton Mountain, “It is about rights. It is about dignity. It is about investments. It is about jobs. It is about time.”

160x240-09This is an urgent call for my regular readers to participate in the fourth annual Homelessness Action Week in BC. Among the useful facts at are that Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing strategy, one in five households lives in poverty, and the UN has described homelessness and housing in Canada as a national emergency. Suburban areas like Maple Ridge and Coquitlam have the fastest-growing homeless rate in Metro Vancouver, and the leading cause of homelessness is poverty.

I did an internship at SPARC BC which advocates for a full housing continuum, everything from supportive housing to rental to co-op to ownership. We need more options, particularly for young people, single parents and others who can’t afford ownership (this includes me and most of my friends who are university graduates in well-paying jobs). This is just ridiculous, and helps keep us stuck in high-priced rental rather than having access to more reasonable rates so that eventually we can own. If anything, the recent mortgage crisis in the US should have shown us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to housing, and that everyone cannot own housing. We need to get the policy makers going on a national housing strategy including people at CMHC, where I worked before going back to school for my Masters in Planning. CMHC is now providing $2 billion a year in economic assistance to municipalities for housing-related infrastructure projects through Canada’s Economic Action Plan (those “shovel-ready” projects I mentioned in an earlier post).  The key word is housing-related…not housing! Let’s get real: CMHC calls itself the national housing agency…and we have no national housing strategy?

Go to to find out how to get involved and add your voice to the call for a national housing strategy.

Many researchers are concerned about ethnic concentrations in our cities, particularly in the US. Researcher Rich Benjamin’s latest book Searching for Whitopia: an Improbable Journey into the Heart of White America, examines why the fastest-growing areas in the US are also the whitest. He defines “whitopias” as areas that are over 75% white, and for the book he focused on places with a higher than 6% growth rate since 2000. The idea was also raised by Bill Bishop, who wrote The Big Sort (2008) which documents the trend for Americans to live in increasingly homogenous communities where everyone has the same religious and political values. Both authors agree that this is bad for Americans; Bishop’s book is subtitled “Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” It seems like Richard Sennett was right after all.

Decades ago in The Uses of Disorder (1970) Sennett argued that suburbs were a fascist social control that created a more intolerant society, one that was more individual-based rather than community-based. He wrote that suburbs tended to exacerbate the natural inclination of people to associate with others with similar values, even banding together to exclude people of different cultures and religions.

In the US, Bishop and Booth write that the roots for this type of voluntary segregation can be seen in the 1960s, when the courts demanded integration of African Americans and “white flight” first began. Recently, minorities are increasing in the inner suburbs fairly close to city centers, spurring whites to flee to exurban areas, which can be over an hour from the city. Benjamin says that many of these are older white Americans who fear an increasing role of government and a loss of power in the face of demographic shifts. Older whites traditionally have more political power because they are more likely to vote, but as of 2042 whites will no longer be the majority in the US.

Echoing Sennett, both Bishop and Benjamin argue that segregation into class-based, race-based neighbourhood leads to more clashes between groups, as each becomes entrenched in its own position and values. Bishop writes that this type of stalemate leads to some innovative policy at the metropolitan and state levels, but a lack of transformative change in the US.

The argument is very interesting from a Canadian viewpoint, where many of our suburban areas are very mixed because of our consistently high immigration rates. Unfortunately, no author has taken on a book-length discussion on growth rates and ethnicity in Canadian cities, but there is plenty of statistical evidence that shows Canada moving in a very different direction than the US. In Metro Vancouver, suburban municipality Port Moody had the highest growth rate in the region, followed by Surrey. Richmond and Vancouver had much lower rates but are still around 6%.

Metro Vancouver Growth RatesImmigration landings confirm that the vast majority of these immigrants have come from Asia, particularly mainland China and Hong Kong. Statistics Canada Community Profiles show that the proportion of immigrants is significant even in traditionally “whiter” mid-sized cities: 20% of Victoria’s population is foreign-born, as is 21% of London’s and 15% of Kelowna’s. However, visible minorities make up only 12% of Victoria’s population, 14% of the population in London and 6% in Kelowna.

Despite the mixture of ethnic groups in Canadian suburbs, the tendency towards locating among people with similar values can clearly be seen in Canadian elections. Cities emerge as islands of Liberal and NDP support in a country that has had a Conservative minority government since 2006. Have a look at southern Ontario or Vancouver in the 2008 federal election. Even Vancouver’s municipal election results show sharp dividing lines between those supporting Gregor Robertson for mayor versus Peter Ladner. Some even argue that the periodic redrawing of census tracts is linked to political agendas, but given the housing affordability crisis in most Canadian cities, it seems that the political and ethnocultural trends is less tied to cultural preferences than the geography of affordable housing.

At any rate, there are some obvious differences between Canadian and American cities, notably in the spatial concentration of ethnic populations and the absence of sharp ethnic divides. While Bishop and Benjamin trace this to civil rights era, the issue clearly goes further back to a history of slavery in the US. Canada, while having its own history of racist legislation, does not have as long of a history of non-white settlement. The Immigration Act of 1952 was the first to allow people from non-European countries to enter the country, and by that time there were fewer legal restrictions to owning land and buying property. By 1967, with another major shift in the Immigration Act, a new wave of non-white immigrants entered the country. However, they were never faced with legal barriers to homeownership or the labour market, two considerable barriers for African Americans in the US that remain entrenched today. Earlier non-white populations in Canada, notably Sikhs and Chinese in British Columbia, faced much harsher restrictions and still have the highest rates of segregation in the country today. These differences in immigration and labour market policy mean that our segregation rates are much lower than those seen in the US, yet another reason to think twice before applying American theory and reality to our own cities.

Benjamin’s and Bishop’s books do make us think about the fractured populace living just south of the border, and urge us to do more to help new immigrants integrate into their lives in Canada. Every time I travel to the US for a conference and listen to researchers documenting entrenched segregation, labour market barriers, and the “racial” biases unearthed during the mortgage crisis, I am reminded how different our countries are. This is particularly significant in my own research with immigrants in Toronto, which has introduced me to the work of many brilliant Canadian researchers and opened my eyes to our lower spatial segregation rates and more mixed neighbourhoods. However, I am also reminded of how much work still lies ahead for Canadians in recognizing immigrants’ foreign credentials, ensuring greater income equity, and promoting more tolerance in the workplace. We also need to recognize that sharp divides in tenure, such as the growth of luxury condominiums in neighbourhoods next to predominantly rental and low-income housing, can foster critical differences in political affiliation. As Sennett argued almost 40 years ago, the more isolated we are the more intolerant we become.

In the last few months we’ve seen the birth of another useless media term related to urban planning: “shovel readiness”. Now, I’d be the first to agree that words like “stimulus”, “funding”, and “proposal” are not exciting. But frankly, “shovel readiness” is not riveting either (for one thing, it needs to be explained). Apparently we need something to make these urban planning stories exciting to regular people. That’s too bad, because the stories already have the right stuff: drama, political intrigue, intense competition. Infrastructure funding is a huge problem in both the US and Canada, although the Americans generally believe in spending when times are tough: witness the 1950s interstate system project, the largest public works project in history. Canadians believe in hoarding, giving tax breaks to the rich, and whining about how little money we have, apparently.

About 300 proposals have been submitted to the Obama administration for $8 billion in high-speed rail funding under the federal stimulus. This article from National Public Radio (NPR) shows how projects in advanced planning stages (“shovel ready”) with state or private funding already committed will probably be the winners in the competition for funds. These include high-speed links from Orlando to Tampa FL and Vancouver BC to Portland OR, while southern states face legislative or social barriers to high-speed rail. Alabama’s 1901 constitution, for example, forbids the state Department of Transportation from investing in alternative transportation, including rail. NPR suggests that a multi-modal approach is necessary, with a variety of transportation agencies collaborating to create multimodal hubs, otherwise high-speed rail riders will find themselves stranded in car-dependent areas surrounding railway stations. This approach may also help the proposals win federal stimulus funding.

In Toronto, the city managed to raise two-thirds of the funds needed to buy 204 replacement streetcars, including $1.2 billion from the City and $416 million from the Province of Ontario. Mayor David Miller had applied for federal stimulus funding, saying the streetcars would generate jobs in Thunder Bay (where 25% of the new streetcars would be built), Quebec, Manitoba, and the Greater Toronto Area. Bombardier’s report on the proposal said it would generate 5,000 direct jobs and 14,000 indirect jobs. Infrastructure Minister John Baird hinted earlier that the federal government would not fund the streetcar replacement project because it does not meet federal stimulus requirements: it doesn’t meet the 25% Canadian content requirement, does not generate jobs in the Toronto area within a two-year period and will not be completed by March 31, 2011 (and they actually used the term “not shovel ready”).

The federal government did announce $200 million in infrastructure funding for Toronto to help fund 500 infrastructure projects, including upgrades to the transit system and water mains. The City had pledged $400 million itself for these projects, which include repairing the Coxwell Sanitary Trunk Sewer, upgrading transit stations with better security, resurfacing roads, and parks and recreation projects. But no streetcar funding.

Toronto City Council held an emergency meeting on September 11, 2009 and decided to pony up the additional $417 million themselves by deferring some other capital projects. Kudos to them, and Miller, for believing the streetcar purchase was critical for the GTA.

See? Drama. Intrigue. Political positioning. And a last-minute decision to to ahead with “what’s right”, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put it. Who needs made-up words?


Some photos of the new Canada Line on Sunday August 23rd, on the first weekend after its opening:

1. The City Hall Station at Cambie and Broadway 2. New multi-use building across from the station.

3. Airport check-in terminal 4. One of the new trains 5. Very crowded on this first weekend

6. The train nearing Marine Drive Station 7. Marine Drive Station

8 and 9. Walking across the bridge from Marine Drive to Bridgeport. 10. Looking back at Marine Drive Station

11 ad 12. The bike/pedestrian bridge running across Fraser River between Marine Drive and Bridgeport.

13. Bridgeport Station platform 14. Bridge support

It will be really interesting how the land use changes over time. Cambie/Broadway corner (top left) has changed remarkably over the last two years with construction of the Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Whole Foods and Crossroads Centre mixed-use development. But a lot of the line goes through industrial/warehousing land like around Marine Drive and Bridgeport Stations. Their waterfront locations probably mean luxury condo development is on the way, while industrial and agricultural land uses will fall by the wayside. The train is remarkably well integrated with commercial interests, such as the seamless integration of the Bridgeport station platform into River Rock Casino.

Vancouver is one of many cities built around a deep-water port. The land around the industrial port, False Creek, has proven to be crucial in the redefinition of the city as a postmodern, postindustrial leisure place. The redevelopment of the area, now in its fourth decade, began with Granville Island and False Creek South, two 1970s projects ushered in during one of Vancouver’s most progressive political regimes. It continues today with Southeast False Creek, which includes the Olympic Village for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Travelling False Creek by boat gives a sense of the remarkable transformation the area has seen since its industrial heyday in the 1930 and 1940s.

As Granville Island factories serving the mining, forestry, construction, and shipping sectors began to fail in the 1950s, a new use for the area was needed. The 38-acre site was redeveloped as a multi-use area with a mix of industrial, artistic, market, housing, and retail uses, and is still owned and managed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which spearheaded the redevelopment. The cement plant, one of the last vestiges of industrial use on the island, can be seen from the Granville Street Bridge.

Houseboats and industry still co-exist on Granville Island

Houseboats and industry still co-exist on Granville Island

False Creek South includes co-op housing and other mixed-income housing, which if you know anything about Canadian housing policy dates it to the 1970s when CMHC actually encouraged, and even helped fund, non-market housing and tenure types other than ownership.

Then came Expo 86. A considerable amount of former industrial land was used for the world fair, as well as constructing the Expo Center (now Science World), BC Place and the SkyTrain, to satisfy the themes of transportation and communication.

BC Place (low white stadium in front) with Yaletown development behind

BC Place (low white stadium in front) with Yaletown development behind

Expo Center, now Science World

Expo Center, now Science World

After Expo, the provincial government sold the majority of the land to Hong Kong developer Li Ka-Shing, whose Concord Pacific development company re-invented the Yaletown area. Depending on who you ask, this chain of events either spurred foreign investment in Vancouver, leading to a much-needed real estate boom and bringing it out of the pre-Expo recession…or it signalled the end of affordable housing and development for the local population in Vancouver, ushering in an era of globalization and immigration to the formerly sleepy forestry town. Probably both.

Yaletown, on the north side of False Creek

Yaletown, on the north side of False Creek

Currently under construction is Southeast False Creek, an 80-acre site which includes the Olympic Village. Billed as LEED Gold Standard construction, and with some “affordable” units (ie, a 700-sq. foot unit in Vancouver can run upwards of $400,000), the discussion over how many units would be “affordable” almost overshadowed the conversations over how to measure its sustainability. It is shocking how different such development is from the Granville Island and False Creek South initiatives, which managed to integrate a mixture of different housing types and tenure types to provide housing for a variety of income levels with the assistance of the federal and provincial governments. How the times have changed.

Olympic Village

Olympic Village

Note the sign: "Own the ultimate 2010 souvenir"

Note the sign: "Own the ultimate 2010 souvenir"

It is bittersweet to see these former industrial areas completely revamped, particularly when viewed from the water. The ships that still sail into False Creek carrying loads of freight (there is still an industrial area near Cambie Street) look almost out of place amidst all the shiny plate glass post-1990s development of Yaletown and Southeast False Creek. Most freight now heads to Burrard Inlet on the north side of the Downtown Peninsula instead. The pleasure craft, including kayaks, sailboats (including my hardy Alaska friends who are on a two-year sailing spree), powerboats and even dragon boats, look more at home in this transformed postindustrial landscape for the wealthy. Industrial land is now scarce in the region, so scarce in fact that Metro Vancouver now has plans to save what little is remaining.

The redevelopment of False Creek was both the beginning and the end for Vancouver: the beginning of a dense, urban centre with a population nearing two million, and the end of a small, provincial, densely forested town. Expo 86 is widely considered the event that “put Vancouver on the map” resulting in a population explosion and countless new business and development initiatives (read David Ley, Tom Hutton, John Punter or Katharyne Mitchell for more details). Doubtless Olympic fever will bring more of the same, for better or for worse. Transitions are always difficult, and Vancouver will soon experience more growing pains.