Timothy Shah, May 18, 2012 at 10:16 PM


Green College residents explore a couple of downtown Vancouver neighbourhoods: Yaletown and the West End. We learned some history, a little bit of urban theory, a got a taste of city planning and how it works in practice.

On April 24th, 2012 a number of Greenies managed to escape the wonderful, albeit enclosing nature of Green College to Vancouver's downtown. Green College is too comfortable, really; it's got all of the gems and amenities of an ideal residence - large open space, exceptional scenery, a strong sense of community, kitchen space and so on. It does not, however, have the feel of a city - indeed Green, just like UBC, is far removed from Vancouver. While Vancouver may not be the most exciting of cities in the world, it's a city that is in relatively close distance to our residence and is certainly worth exposing Greenies too (especially for those new to this city).


Sam Johns (Photo: Daria Boltokova)

Sam Johns and I decided to take several Greenies on downtown walking tours. Inspired by a class we took together, we were keen on sharing our knowledge of urban planning, geography and cities with our fellow Greenies. We started the tour at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre in the heart of Yaletown. As part of our introductions, Sam and I shared our enthusiasm for geography and planning respectively, and our reasoning for why we wanted to do the tours. Sam was more inspired by a tour we got of Yaletown in March by Vancouver City Planner Michael Gordon. I too was inspired by this, but was more interested in taking Greenies off campus into the city. We started off with Sam's tour of Yaletown and Granville Street.

Sam studies under social/cultural geographer David Ley, and is a real enthusiast for urban cycling [pdf] and the geographies of mobility and cities. Sam talked about the history of Yaletown citing its major economic and demographic transformations since the 1980s. He discussed the vibrant albeit surreptitious video gaming industry that has been one of Yaletown's hidden gems. What stood out most about Sam's tour was his excellent account of how the neighbourhood has become a place of consumption, a place of the "creative class" to put it in urbanist Richard Florida's terms, and a place where status and ostentatiousness is pervasive, not least through the abundance of condos, but through a obsession of luxurious cars and status. Sam spoke with passion over his 1.5 hour tour in usual witty, amusing and enthusiastic tone.


Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre in the heart of Yaletown (Photo: Daria Boltokova)


In the afternoon, we headed over to Vancouver's West End where I led a tour of the neighbourhood highlighting the history of how it developed, city planning decisions that were momentous and the contemporary challenges the area is facing, namely, pressure for development which worries local residents. I was eager to take Greenies around the West End because of its real sense of community. With 44,000 residents of various age groups (including young families and seniors), it is diverse in its demographics. It is also one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Canada (21,000 people per square kilometre, with Vancouver's population density at 5,200 people per square km).

The West End is close to Stanley Park, the beach and the vivacity that is Denman and Davie Street. I made a point of showing the group a couple of significant sites: Mole Hill Community Housing Society: a series of heritage buildings that provide and advocate for secure, affordable housing for low and middle income singles, seniors and families within enviro-conscious, intact heritage housing and streetscapes.

The West End is under pressure to 'gentrify' (a fancy word for development pressures for new housing that will push up the price of the land), and we saw a planning notice for a new development (a tower with several floors) at the corner of Barclay and Cardero. As I was talking about the planning notice, a elderly woman walked by and interrupted me. She spoke vehemently about her opposition to the proposed development explaining how it would be meddlesome to the community, bring in people who are not attached to the place and worse yet, potentially push up the cost of living through higher rents. Her voice was likely just one of many who are upset about how decisions are made with little public input.

We also had the pleasure of visiting the Barclay Heritage Square which consists of 12 heritage buildings, including the 1893 Roedde House. It serves as an 'oasis of green amidst surrounding concrete high-rises'. This square is worth a visit in and of itself. Combined, the West End has some fascinating history, local coffee shops and a deli, high walkability, close access to amenities and a dominant rental housing market (one of the few in the downtown area). It's no doubt expensive to live in the West End, but it's one of those special neighbourhoods with a sense of community serving its residents (with groups like the Gordon Neighbourhood House).


The group in front of the 1893 Roedde House, Barclay Heritage Square (Photo: Daria Boltokova)

All in all, it was exciting time to share our zeal for our disciplines through walking through the city.  It was even more special to take our fellow Greenies around town. We thank all for taking time to learn about these neighbourhoods, and look forward to more walking tours for the future, in an effort to bridge Green College with Vancouver.