'It may be liveable but it's not sustainable'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am


It was 1968 and Chinatown was on the brink of demolition in Vancouver. Entire blocks of turn-of-the-century housing lived in by the working class had already been torn down and more along the historic Strathcona district were slated for 'slum clearance'.

The freeway in its place would have changed the city and was in keeping with the trend of improving traffic flow in downtown areas.

For long-time Strathcona resident-turned-activist Shirley Chan, then 23, the plan to run a highway through Vancouver's first neighbourhood and the residential annexe of Chinatown made no sense. Her parents would have been among those forced to leave.

The 'Great Freeway Fight' - as it became known - brought Ms Chan and a host of emerging activists together as they successfully organised opposition to the planned highway. For the first time in the city's history, public opinion was galvanised around a planning issue.

Among those who joined the battle was a young lawyer, Mike Harcourt, who later became the city's mayor and then the premier of British Columbia. The saving of Strathcona, Mr Harcourt says in a new book, was one of the nine decisions that saved Vancouver.

Mr Harcourt, along with former planner Ken Cameron, decided to write City Making in Paradise partly, he says, because the city is capable of becoming too smug with its own image. Vancouver may be ranked one of the most liveable places in the world, but Mr Harcourt believes many challenges lie ahead.

'The Vancouver region may be liveable, but it's not sustainable - homelessness, high housing prices, drugs and crime, traffic congestion and an incomplete transport system, climate change and many other challenges face us,' he said.

The authors list nine decisions they believe saved Vancouver. Besides abandoning the highway plan, other smart decisions included having a regional transport authority and redeveloping an expo site into the condominium enclave that is now Yaletown. Other less obvious decisions made decades ago now seem prescient.

Without the highway Chinatown has become an integral part of the liveability of the city's core, with more emphasis on residents not just living but working downtown.

The revelation that eating local foods was a way to counter climate change was not the original intent of the decision made in the early 1970s to preserve agricultural land. Pushed eastwards, prime farm land was being rezoned into residential housing as the population soared.

Councillor Harold Steves, whose family were pioneer farmers in Richmond 130 years earlier, returned from college in the late 1950s to learn that three-quarters of his father's land had been rezoned without his knowledge for residential use.

Vancouver has been made liveable because of a number of deliberate planning decisions: multiple-use buildings, high-density areas and a focus on public transport rather than cars.

But that was not always the case. Mr Harcourt believes the city's liveability does not automatically translate into sustainability.

'We have to build sustainability on our platform of liveability,' he said. Among the next tasks are resolving the growing homelessness problem, easing traffic congestion and finalising treaty agreements with native groups.

There are, as he notes, no simple solutions to turn to in making a city into a paradise, only more work that still needs to be done.