By Brian Barth
The wrongs of urban renewal, like demolishing challenged neighborhoods — that are often populated by minority groups — rather than addressing the underlying causes of the challenges, have long been recognized. Righting those wrongs has been a painfully slow work in progress. The Northeast False Creek Plan by the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, the recipient of the 2019 Pierre L'Enfant International Planning Award, aims to confront those wrongs head-on and accelerate the process of healing.
Past and present
Vancouver was established on a peninsula formed on one side by a small inlet known as False Creek. Northeast False Creek, a waterfront area adjacent to the central business district, is the sole remaining undeveloped portion of the central city, a 143-acre swath that represents about 10 percent of downtown. Sandwiched between the BC Place Stadium and Chinatown, the most prominent features of Northeast False Creek currently are the concrete Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts — 1.6 miles of elevated freeway infrastructure built in 1972 — which rise above a sea of derelict parking lots.
The area was not always so dismal. The native Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations once fished, hunted, and harvested here, an existence tightly integrated with the landscape. They were driven out as Europeans settled in the area. In the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants arrived to help build the Trans-Continental Railway (to which Vancouver, the western rail terminus, owes its existence), and settled in Northeast False Creek, what was then an industrial area. In the early 20th century, a black community developed around an intersection nicknamed Hogan's Alley — a vibrant neighborhood home to railway porters, speakeasies, and jazz joints.
All that vitality began to be swept away in the 1960s when the city announced plans for three new freeways that would converge in Northeast False Creek. Fierce neighborhood opposition at the time prevented much of the freeway plan from being realized, though all of Hogan's Alley and a portion of Chinatown were eventually demolished to make way for two viaducts.
"The displacement that occurred resulted from some pretty racist policies at the city, and as we began the process of public engagement [for the new plan] we realized the deep healing that needed to take place. So that is what the plan is built on," says Kevin McNaney, Vancouver's assistant director of planning and the director of the Northeast False Creek project office.
Thus, what started as an infrastructure project morphed into a vision to reunite fractured neighborhoods and make amends for historic injustices.
The healing process began with an acknowledgment by the city that the redevelopment area sits on the unceded homelands of the area's native tribes, who were engaged in the planning process, along with Vancouver's urban indigenous community at large, for input on the design of parklands that will eventually cover 32 acres. Waterfront design was particularly important to the First Nations groups; an indigenous peoples gathering space is part of the final plan, which was approved in February 2018, including an access point for ceremonial canoe events.
Numerous representatives of Vancouver's Chinese community were also involved in the plan's creation. Restoring gateway landmarks to the adjacent Chinatown area was identified as a priority, along with restoring Chinatown's access to the water and culturally relevant park design. An existing park sits between Chinatown and the viaducts, but it is dominated by sports fields, which, as Shirley Chan, a member of the Northeast False Creek working group, points out, does not reflect her community's priorities.
Chan's childhood home was demolished to make way for the viaducts, which her family actively protested, going door to door to collect petition signatures and organizing the community. "We want a park where seniors can come and bring their grandchildren to look after, which is a traditional activity for us, and a place with seating for checkers or chess or mah-jong," she says. The park's design is still in progress and expected to be finalized over the next few months.
Since being scattered throughout the city 50 years ago, Hogan's Alley's black residents have not had a neighborhood nexus that revolved around their own culture (the Hogan's Alley Society is currently negotiating with the city to hold the property in a land trust to ensure greater control within the black community over how it is developed). June Francis, PhD, cochair of the Hogan's Alley Society and an active participant in the working group, refers to the viaducts as "monument to our oppression." Now that they are coming down, her group is working with the city to codesign a cultural center on the exact site once occupied by Hogan's Alley, also part of the Northeast False Creek Plan.
The cultural center will serve as the focal point of a new development intended to recreate the dense, eclectic, pedestrian-oriented agglomeration of shops and housing that was once Hogan's Alley, including at least 300 affordable housing units. In the interim, the province has provided funding to erect 80 temporary modular units on the site, intended to provide culturally sensitive housing for the black homeless population of Vancouver.
Francis makes it clear that the city did not originally set out to engage so deeply with the black community. "We went to the city's presentation and there was almost no mention of our concerns. We ended up in tears, recognizing that the city had no real plans for redress." After a bit of an uproar, that changed dramatically. "The city, to their credit, stepped back and said, we're going back to square one. That was the start of a new, mutual learning process that I think has been exemplary."
Northeast False Creek Plan
LOCATION: Vancouver, British Columbia
GOAL: The city will soon tear down a pair of elevated freeways and redevelop more than 100 acres of downtown waterfront, with a priority on addressing the needs of the First Nations, Chinese, and black communities that were long ago displaced.
IMPACT: The 20-year buildout of the plan is expected to create
more than 10,000 new residential units (including 3,300 low-income units) and 6,000 to 8,000 new jobs. There will be more than four miles of new streets and 32 acres of new and renovated parks and open spaces. Most important, there will be a variety of culturally relevant spaces to celebrate and welcome back the minority populations who once lived in the area.
JURY COMMENTS: The planning team exhibited an exemplary response to public input that resulted in a significant shift of focus from infrastructure and redevelopment to reconciliation and cultural redress to make amends for historic injustices.
Learn more about the award and watch the video.
Brian Barth is a freelance journalist in Toronto with a background in urban planning.