The Agony and the Ecstasy of Vancouver, British Columbia

Vancouver consistently earns top ranks in international livability indexes, yet it is brutally unaffordable. A new book plumbs the city’s history, revealing how past tensions between its elites and masses define its present — and may shape its future.

A 1964 aerial view of Vancouver's railyards, which helped to make the city a global imperial trade hub in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

In the 1960s, the citizens of Vancouver, a Pacific port city in the Canadian province of British Columbia, rebelled against the “North American disease of proliferation and gigantism.” The collapse of plans to build urban freeways was followed by the rehabilitation of the city’s peninsular downtown, the deindustrialization of the shoreline, and finally the pursuit of the “world’s greenest city” status through the construction of bike lanes and expansion of the SkyTrain transit system.

By the time the city hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver had spawned “Vancouverism” — a concept and a brand. Vancouverism meant “city building in paradise.” Hemmed in by mountains and the Burrard Inlet to the north, bisected by False Creek and bordered by the Fraser River to its south, the city of Vancouver had no choice but to grow responsibly, which meant upward. Planners controlled the flow of developer capital after a successful World’s Fair — Expo 86 — by mandating clusters of green-glass condo towers for former industrial areas, mounted on podiums of shops to keep the street scene lively. What one book called The Vancouver Achievement pushed the city up the Economist’s global “livability” index, where it still sits in fifth place, alongside other cities from the former British Dominions. While paying polite heed to that “achievement,” Daniel Francis’s concise and vividly illustrated Becoming Vancouver also invites us to consider the related costs, and how the city’s history might provide new ideas for how to overcome the deep social problems it has failed to address.

The Curse of “Livable” Cities

It can be hard to survive in so-called livable cities. Vancouver is “world-class” mainly in its housing costs. In 2021, the Vancouver Sun reported that the median price for a Vancouver property was thirteen times the local median income, putting the city just behind Hong Kong and Sydney in unaffordability rankings. Costs and vacancy rates have been just as brutal for renters, pushing old and new Vancouverites to settle in car-dependent sprawl beyond the city. If Vancouverism discouraged the middle class, then it was tougher still on the welfare class, which it concentrated into the Downtown Eastside. Here decrepit hotels built for miners and loggers now house single room occupancy (SRO) buildings. It is not livability which flourishes in SROs but mortality. They are the epicenter of British Columbia’s fentanyl epidemic, which has in 2022 alone killed 1,468 people.

Vancouver might be marketed to international homebuyers as a Pacific idyll, but like the United States’ West Coast it has become a place to experience coming disasters. Now regularly blanketed in wildfire smoke, the city was blasted by the June 2021 heat dome that killed over six hundred British Columbians, cut off from the interior by the freakish storms of November 2021, and is currently in the grip of an interminable drought.

The unraveling of Vancouverism is a chance to rethink the city’s past. Civic histories once celebrated the inevitable passage from “milltown to metropolis,” from logging camp to postindustrial playground. Francis instead highlights how past tensions — between capitalist and escapist impulses — define Vancouver’s present. Like many a civic history, Francis’s work is a local book for local people. Much of its information about sports, memorable industrial accidents, or local celebrities will not resonate beyond the Strait of Georgia. But its evocation of the failures and forgotten successes of municipal policy has a broader application. Precisely because of its brevity, Vancouver’s history illustrates how uncomfortable ruling class types have often been with the economic and demographic forces which created their cities. If Vancouver’s elite often resisted welcoming those who wanted to live and work there, then a study of that resistance opens possibilities to revive the forfeited dynamism of the past.

Land Grabs and Railway Barons

The decades from the foundation of Granville township in 1870 and its 1886 incorporation as Vancouver to the outbreak of World War I are rich in promising directions now often ignored. The buildings of this era are now “heritage.” When the city rehabilitated Gastown, its earliest neighborhood, it added cobblestones and a steam-powered clock to attract cruise ship tourists. Yet this area of Vancouver was the reverse of quaint: it was Railtown, the acme of a revolution in trade and communications. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was an imperial feat, designed to make the Dominion of Canada an economic and political unity by linking its eastern seaboard with the sparsely populated but resource-rich west. When the first train from Montreal arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1887, draped with Queen Victoria’s portrait, it established the city as a global hub.

The deep waters of Burrard Inlet had drawn the CPR leadership to make Granville its terminus city. CPR trains soon linked up with steamships which imported Asian commodities for transportation eastward or exported prairie wheat westward. So enviable was Vancouver’s position that even its total destruction in 1886 (by a fire accidentally sparked by railway contractors) was dismissed as a chance to build back better. The rise of containerization, pioneered in the city during the 1950s, has only heightened the economic significance of its port.

The railways caused a property boom before there were houses or even many people. The CPR’s American boss had picked his terminus because he could demand extensive land grants from the local authorities. He also insisted that the new city should borrow a name from the familiar Vancouver Island so British investors could find it on the map. The result was a buying frenzy: having passed through town, the laureate of empire Rudyard Kipling was one of those who snapped up a lot.

Behind the froth was an impressive rollout of the latest urban infrastructure. The shacks popping up in Vancouver’s muddy, tree stump–studded streets had electricity from the start, which was soon supplied by hydroelectric power. Pipes under the Burrard Inlet carried lake water from the mountains into town. The economist J. A. Hobson, who rolled into Vancouver on a CPR train in 1905, sniffed that its electric lighting gave “an exaggerated impression of its development.” He also noticed its transit system. The first interurban railway in North America linked Vancouver with the growing settlement of New Westminster. Numerous lines and tramways followed, powered by hydroelectricity. The transit system’s British-funded controllers fought off a challenge from an Edwardian Uber: gas-powered “jitney” hire carriages, which were soon banned. Complementing the trams were bicycles — another invention so popular that the city sprouted the bike lanes and bike racks which are once more today the height of urban fashion.

Settler City

Of course, Vancouver was not Copenhagen by the Pacific, but an often-brutal settler city. Although a plaque later honored its pioneers for carving its streets from the “silent solitude of the primeval forest,” that forest had been alive with the voices of indigenous people, soon to be forced or swindled off their ancestral lands. The obliteration of indigenous villages created Stanley Park, which Hobson labeled “the most beautiful natural park in the world.” Vancouver’s growth was as prodigal with space as it was hostile to native title.

Francis notes that Vancouver was and remains a “city of houses” — and detached houses at that, in a departure from the British norm of the terraced rowhouse. Yet even as its suburbs gobbled up old-growth forest, transit wired them into a downtown which boasted the two tallest buildings in the British Empire. The city projected a dense, even stately urban identity, with an opera house and three railway stations.

The global slump of 1913 punctured these rosy visions. Starved of British investment, Vancouver would never be so ebullient again. After World War I came an abiding concern not just with planning, but even preventing, urban growth. The American expert Harland Bartholomew drafted a plan for Vancouver in 1929 filled with bad ideas, many of which still govern the city. He dreaded renters in apartments and the promiscuous mixing of shops with housing, preferring to house families in detached dwellings hygienically separated from one another and the road by grassy setbacks. The result was the monotonous suburbanization of much of the city, especially once the love of cars prevailed over transit. Here Vancouver was more American than British, even down to driving on the right-hand side of the road.

The city boasted the first gas station in Canada (1907) and a gas-powered ambulance (1909), which knocked down and killed an American tourist on its first outing. By 1938, the construction of the Lions Gate Bridge and a causeway through the faux wilderness of Stanley Park allowed homeowners in the chichi suburbs of the North Shore to drive into Vancouver. Today 80 percent of the city is more or less reserved for single-family houses, with apartments and restaurants squashed along main roads which thunder with trucks and SUVs.

Locavore Xenophobia

Increasingly nervous of density, white Vancouverites had long disliked the racial pluralism encouraged by imperial globalization. As the epicenter of British Columbia’s logging, fishing, and mining economy, Vancouver attracted many Chinese, Japanese, and Indian workers. Such immigration provoked repeated attempts to keep Vancouver white. Formal measures included provincial “head taxes” on the families of Chinese workers; immigration and employment bans; and electoral disenfranchisement. Vigilante anti-immigrant action also manifested, as in the1907 riot initiated by the Asiatic Exclusion League, which shocked imperial opinion.

Although the neighborhood of Japantown survived the riot, its population would later be interned and deported during World War II. The justification for this sweep was national security, but its mastermind had previously crusaded to ban white women from waitressing in Chinese restaurants. Where non-white workers could not be excluded, they were marginalized. Vancouver’s Chinatown was designed as a ghetto rather than as the entertainment district it later became. Nearby were the brothels, such as the aptly named House of All the Nations, and Hogan’s Alley, a black neighborhood casually demolished in the 1960s for a road viaduct.

Immigration restrictions were supposed to protect white workers. Yet the city’s leaders always favored property and capital over labor. Hobson, who condemned Vancouver’s xenophobia as a shackle on its growth, thought that nowhere in Canada was there so much bitterness between employers and workers.

The city’s town hall became a monument to this rancor. Gerry McGeer, the mayor who dominated Vancouver during the years of the Great Depression, put the building on a ridge far to the south of the city center. Placing City Hall at such a remove distanced urban government from the unemployed crowds who repeatedly protested downtown until dispersed by the batons of the city’s police department, which was as draconian as it was corrupt. In 1937, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) was founded to curb property taxes and block any drift to socialism. It survives today, running Fred Harding — a former British policeman with a nineteen-point plan to crack down on crime — as its mayoral candidate in this October’s municipal election. Ken Sim, the likely winner of these elections, is a former NPA candidate who has been endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union for his plan to boost police funding beyond its current, inflated levels.

Vancouver may no longer be demographically or ideologically “white,” but it has not yet shed its suspicion of big-city status. It did not lack for visionaries after World War II, such as the planner Gerald Sutton-Brown, the NPA mayor Tom Campbell, or the architect Arthur Erickson, who wanted to erect a city of ten million on its “shacky” foundations. But their enthusiasm for concrete and demolishing old treasures — Erickson wanted to replace the Anglican cathedral with a tower block — raised a coalition of Jane Jacobs–readers against them. Civic parties who catered to such voters emphasized preservation of heritage buildings, mountain views, and neighborhood character. Development was corralled from single-family zones; isolated projects in those zones faced filibustering by residents at City Hall. With Vancouver’s land area built out, the result was an inexorable rise in the value of single-family houses — wrongly and often xenophobically blamed since on the financialization of housing.

Bringing an end to this artificial scarcity of housing will not resolve Vancouver’s problems. The shortage of affordable rental housing reflects broader inequalities in Canadian society, alongside the fading commitment by federal agencies to its construction. But the argument that a city which is a magnet for economic migration cannot pursue “affordability” or climate action without embracing density is slowly making headway. OneCity, a newish civic party, has pledged to undo Bartholomew’s old plan by legalizing apartment blocks throughout the city.

How that pledge fares in civic elections, in which low turnout often favors the priorities of comfortable homeowners, is uncertain. What Francis’s history does show is that while North American admirers of greener, livelier urbanism often invoke European models, they might also draw inspiration from the chaotic, suggestive past of their own cities.