Comparative shots of Vancouver looking East along Georgia Street, with Coal Harbor to the left, dated 1919 and 1973. Credit: Donald Gutstein, Vancouver, Ltd.

Vancouver’s location on the Pacific Rim, a valuable node for global trade.

Brochure for the newly built Pacific Centre (1971). “Lack of windows, doors, and an uninviting relationship to the sidewalk were strategies used by the developers to get people off the streets into their shopping mall.” (Lorimer (1978), 177)

Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell, himself a developer worth $6 million in real estate by the early seventies, celebrates demolition for one of the city’s major downtown development projects. Credit: Lorimer, Citizen’s Guide to Politics.

The Big Ditch was one of the more egregious freeway proposals for downtown Vancouver, averted after extensive citizen opposition in the 1960s.

Harry Lash’s Livable Region plan, published in 1975, after extensive public debate and citizen input.

Project 200 would have wiped out Vancouver’s Chinatown and much of the Strathcona district, had it not been halted by citizen opposition.


Who defines livability?

Aerial view of Vancouver showing Port Moody to the far right, at the head of Burrard Inlet; False Creek just south of the peninsula that is downtown, with verdant Stanley Park at its tip (jutting out into the mouth of Burrard Inlet); the North Shore mountains shading off into the distance at the top; and the grids and patchworks of South-lying municipalities along the Fraser river basin. Part of Surrey is visible in the lower right hand corner.

The seventies was a pivotal decade for Vancouver, marking its transition from marginal city in a modern world of national capitals, to a throbbing nexus in a postmodern world of global trade. A relatively young city, it owed its origin to a deal made in the 1880s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway [CPR] agreed to move its proposed Western terminal from Port Moody, at the head of Burrard Inlet, twelve miles West to Coal Harbor.

Land grant of 1886, giving most of what would become Downtown Vancouver to the CPR. Credit: Gutstein, Vancouver, Ltd.

In return, the railway magnates were granted 6,000 acres of land around the terminus area, which they lost no time surveying to lay out the streets that came to define the city. In the years to follow, the CPR influenced much of the urban character of the city as it developed. For instance, by leasing land to “those industries that generated the most traffic for the railway” the company ensured that False Creek, the inlet at the heart of the city, would remain heavily industrialized right through the 1960s.[6] [open endnotes in new window] If it had been formerly considered an “overblown company town,” in the words of Donald Gutstein, far from the cosmopolitan forces of Toronto and Montreal, it was transitioning by the seventies into its new role as a valuable zone of intersection:

“[Some] cities illustrate the ecological principle that the greatest variety of life-forms will be found at the boundary between different habitats. They are cities of the edge rather than the centre; their opposite is the inland imperial capital—Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow—whose purpose is to unify and impose order on their hinterlands. Vancouver belongs, of course, to the first kind of city. Lacking a major administrative or political function, its reason for being is to be situated where four zones intersect: the Western Canadian hinterland, the U.S. and Mexican West Coast, the North Coast up to Alaska, and the Pacific Rim.” (Delaney, 19)

This meant, too, that Vancouver’s identity, its very economic survival, was to be premised on the viability of its status as an efficient thoroughfare for the movement of goods from and to the distant points it mediated. The land in and around the city was in constant contention: was any given space to be devoted to its “highest potential” as a site of industry and transportation of goods? Was it to be serviced for residential use, catering to the people who flocked to the west coast to settle? Was it to be cultivated as agricultural land that would provide local food, so that the province need rely less on imports? Or was it to be left in its natural state? These questions were urgent enough for Vancouver proper. For its suburbs, and particularly for the vast municipalities lying to the south, between the Fraser River and the U.S. border, they were all-consuming and overshadowed most other social issues of the time.

Unsurprisingly the question of city planning, in this time of unprecedented growth, radically intensified in the late sixties and early seventies. The work of two scholars of urban politics in this period typified the shifts that were taking place: that of urban sociologist Harvey Molotch, and Canadian economist-turned-publisher, James Lorimer.[7] In a ground-breaking study of urban development, Harvey Molotch dubbed the city as primarily a “growth machine.”[8] Beginning with what seems now to be the obvious premise that any given parcel of land is at once a commodity with exchange value (defined by how much profit it can make for its owner) as well as a locality with use value (defined by how it may serve its residents as an environment for daily life), Molotch demonstrated that urban politics was a politics first and foremost of “growth.” Developers acquired land parcels, and then they solicited from local government the zoning and taxation conditions necessary to maximize profits by exploiting the land to its “highest and best use.” City councils sought to make conditions welcoming for industrial growth in their locality through attempts to maintain

“the kind of ‘business climate’ that attracts industry: for example, favorable taxation, vocational training, law enforcement, and ‘good’ labor relations. To promote growth, taxes should be ‘reasonable,’ the police force should be oriented toward protection of property, and overt social conflict should be minimized” (Molotch, 312).

Commercial, industrial and residential growth was touted as offering benefits to all, despite evidence to the contrary that it more often “costs existing residents more money” (Molotch, 319).

In Vancouver, one of the more prominent examples of this sort of development scenario would have been the Pacific Centre, a huge shopping mall proposed to the city by the Fairview development firm in the early sixties. The Mayor who had been in negotiation for the deal, Bill Rathie, was defeated by Tom Campbell who had run on a platform opposing the development. But Campbell, too, eventually got behind the deal, ensuring a substantial municipal subsidy to the developer. Opening in 1971, the structure was described by a local columnist as “a bathtub of white tile, upside down at the major intersection of the city” (Lorimer, 177).

Rathie and Campbell fit Molotch’s characterization of the “special sort of person” drawn into the politics of the “city as a growth machine:”

“These people […] tend to be businessmen and, among businessmen, the more parochial sort. […They] often become ‘involved’ in government, especially in local party structure [...]for reasons of land business and related processes of resource distribution.” (Molotch, 318)

While some of these individuals might present themselves as “statesmen” who want to foster growth for the whole community rather than one sector, the bottom line is that they are there “to wheel and deal to affect resource distribution through local government.” (317).

Because these elites are not “statistically representative of the local population as a whole,” they must ensure that the interests that brought them to power, that is, control over how resources are distributed, of which land is the primary resource, remain hidden from view. Thus

“the distributive issues, the matters which bring people to power, are more or less deliberately dropped from public discourse”(318).

Meanwhile, James Lorimer was carrying out a study of the dominant role of entrepreneurs and developers in the shape taken by Canadian cities and suburbs in the mid-seventies.[9] In the post-war era, local governments tended more and more to leave the amassing and servicing of large land banks to private developers, leading inevitably to what Lorimer termed the “corporate suburb.”[10] Abdicating to developers so much of the planning of cities and suburbs produced a number of results:

  • overpriced properties located in ubiquitous suburban housing tracts;
  • the relocation of industry to suburban industrial parks;
  • the concentration of shopping in malls dominated by chain stores;
  • the limitation of city residential dwellings to high rise apartments; and
  • the general assumption that everyone would travel by car (thus, the emphasis on massive freeway projects, catering to automotive rather than mass transit solutions to transportation).

Having detailed the mechanisms and consequences of Canada’s thriving development industry, Lorimer concludes his study with a chapter on emerging forms of opposition to the status quo, and points to examples of tentative alternatives to the corporate city in a few locales, including Vancouver. The first inklings of resistance to the post-war craze for development and growth came from citizens’ groups who found themselves in the way of “progress”—and were “expected to suffer dislocation, disruption, even financial loss” because of some specific development project in or near their neighborhood (Lorimer, 238). In some instances, politicians and planners themselves began to take their cue from the citizen-based movement, one of the most notable cases, according to Lorimer, occurring in Vancouver.

At the onset of the seventies, city planner Harry Lash set out to produce a planning document that would encompass not only the city proper, but the entire Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD)—a vast complex of municipalities including Surrey, the largest, to the south and east of the metropolitan core. But attempts to define livability based on “computer models, social indicators and livability indices” kept running up against dead-ends until finally, Lash had a revelation:

“Quite suddenly, early in 1972, we did discover the signpost: find out from the public what livability means; abandon the idea that planners must know the goals first and define the problem; ask the people what they see as the issues, problems and opportunities of the region” (Lash, 1976: 54).[11]

The document that eventually resulted, The Livable Region 1976/1986, published in 1975, was the result of three years of public debate, rather than private deals between developers, planners, and elected officials. According to Lorimer, although there might have been criticism about the “extent of the public consultation,” Lash’s efforts came “far closer than any similar exercise in giving urban residents an opportunity to formulate a comprehensive view of Vancouver’s future” (Lorimer, 242). In the words of Harry Lash,

“The mood of the Region and the overriding issues were quite beyond anything we had expected […] The hard kernel of public opinion was, ‘A resistance to further rapid growth, a concern for personal livability, a desire to participate in community decisions, and a wish to see action’”(quoted in Lorimer, 243).[12]

And although the plan did not result in a comprehensive implementation of its recommendations, it nevertheless served as a symbol of the climate of the times in Vancouver. “Citizen input” had come to be the catchword of the day where “land use” was concerned.

All of this unfolded within a set of unique electoral outcomes in the early seventies. At the city level, in Vancouver, the socially progressive Electors Action Movement (TEAM) was voted into power in 1972, replacing the pro-development Non-Partisan Association (NPA) that had dominated city council for three decades. TEAM had come into existence primarily as a coalition that helped prevent an NPA-proposed freeway plan, Project 200, that would have wiped out the neighborhood of Strathcona and a good part of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Mayor Art Phillips and TEAM were key players in the development of the new GVRD livable city planning process.

Meanwhile, at the provincial level, in 1973 the New Democratic Party, headed by Premier Dave Barrett, ousted the conservative Social Credit party that had held sway over the province for the past several decades. Though the NDP remained in power for only three years (roughly the same period during which the NFB sponsored the Challenge for Change project in Surrey), they implemented a number of sweeping reforms, not the least of which concerned a major land use crisis: the threat to what remained of B.C.’s farmland by developers who were buying it up for redevelopment. In the same year of their election to office, the NDP government instituted Bill 42 (also known as the Land Bill), establishing an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in order to make it more difficult to rezone farmland for industrial, commercial or residential purposes. The importance of Bill 42 cannot be overestimated. While its original intent has been eroded over the decades by developers who have taken advantage of the appeals process by which land may, if deemed appropriate, be released from the reserve for other purposes, the Agricultural Land Reserve is still in existence today, and it is credited with preserving B.C.’s modest swathes of farmland (much of it located in Surrey and the rest of the Fraser Valley).

Map of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) showing the Agricultural Land Reserve in green.

Why land use?

Let’s consider, now, the twinned emphasis on urbanization and nationalization that Druick had examined as an important context for the NFB’s activities. The initial NFB document laying out the Surrey Project’s background and objectives opened by directly referencing Bill 42 and the Agricultural Land Reserve. It sought to “develop ongoing public involvement and responsibility in coming to terms with the social, economic and political issues raised by land use controls” in a municipality whose “fertile agricultural land” was “rapidly being consumed by urban sprawl” and thus was “most heavily affected by the Land Act [Bill 42]” (“The B.C. Land Use Project,” 1). Film, videos, and other media would be used

“to stimulate local awareness of the issues behind land use controls and to help citizens concerned with the development of their community interact and influence each other and the various levels of government and private institutions presently determining land use planning.” (“B.C. Land Use,” 1)

The project was to be process-oriented, but also to result in films and videotapes that would “serve as catalysts in instructional models on land use problems for other communities in B.C. and Canada.” The types of media products would depend on the priorities of the community itself, and many would function only as “self-development tools” for local citizens, rather than as polished films meant for general distribution (“B.C. Land Use,” 1).

An important impetus behind the Agricultural Land Reserve act was to slow the unprecedented rate of industrial, commercial and residential growth in the Lower Fraser Valley, where farmers had been selling off their land to developers, who in turn (and in line with the pattern documented in Lorimer’s book) were assembling land banks, servicing them, and creating suburban housing tracts, industrial parks, and shopping centers as fast as the local council could process their permit requests. In this respect, the left wing NDP government, at the provincial level, could be seen as working against an unchecked tendency to modernize across the board. To cordon off agricultural land and make it more difficult to develop it for other purposes was effectively to put the brakes on unchecked development, or at least to slow its process.

Because of its large size, the municipality of Surrey offered a representative range of reactions to the Agricultural Land Reserve, as the authors of the initial Surrey Project document were well aware. Surrey was chosen for a Challenge for Change experiment in land use, they wrote, precisely because it was “a microcosm of land use problems facing the rest of B.C.”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). South Surrey consisted of mostly agricultural land, as well as a long established residential area that had “little in common with the north”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). When council backed a shopping center for this area, to generate revenue for the debt-ridden municipality,

“local residents reacted strongly to what they saw as an unnecessary development which did not fill local needs but would instead radically change their life-style by attracting new suburban developments into their area”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5).

In the middle of the municipality was Cloverdale, a farming area, and home to “the most radically pro-development pressure group in the lower Mainland”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5). This

“coalition of farmers and landowners vehemently opposed […] Bill 42 and any restriction on their right to buy and sell land. Many of the members of the group had planned to sell their farm land for suburban development and [saw] the blockage of this process by Bill 42 as an infringement on the democratic system”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5).

The Northern district of the municipality was composed of “working class settlements and industrial areas alongside rapidly mushrooming suburban developments”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). City council (for the whole municipality) was “dominated by the north and [was] pro-development oriented”(“B.C. Land Use,” 4). Bridgeview (one of the working-class settlements of the north, but with no representation on council) was

“fighting to upgrade living conditions while city council and much of Surrey [saw] the area as socially undesirable, not suited for residential living. They [wanted] to see the residents displaced or relocated”(“B.C. Land Use,” 5).

Having laid out the differing interests of this potentially very cinematic cast of characters, the report summed up its broader land use objectives as follows:

“While highly opinionated and informed groups exist in Surrey, most of the public shows little interest or understanding of the issues surrounding development. As a result, public participation in community planning is for the most part limited to what are often unproductive ‘confrontation’ situations between City Hall and a particular citizens’ group. Without better local communication networks it does not appear possible to generate the kind of public interest and involvement that will make citizen participation a credible and ongoing part of municipal planning. It will be the aim of this project to work to help citizens and government build these kind[s] of communications networks. (“B.C. Land Use,” 5-6)

Improved communication, increased understanding, citizen involvement, mitigation of “confrontation” situations—these had all become routine goals for Challenge for Change projects across Canada. But what set the CFC Surrey Project apart was its explicit emphasis on land use issues, with a mandate to enhance citizen input into the decisions about residential, industrial and commercial growth, decisions that had hitherto been the sole domain of developers, local politicians, and the municipal administration’s planning office. In this respect, the CFC dovetailed with B.C.’s newly invigorated focus on environmental concerns, the downside of growth, and the definition of “livability,” as it was being played out in the recently elected provincial government and Harry Lash’s GVRD planning committee.

Moreover, as was noted in the project’s initial document, Surrey’s municipal government at the time was “pro-development oriented,” and conformed uncannily to Molotch’s characterization of local politicians as businessmen who catered to developers, and who sought to affect resource distribution through their governing activities. Mayor Bill Vander Zalm made it very clear that he was no Harry Lash, as evidenced in an interview with one of the local weekly papers. When asked whether he thought the municipality communicated adequately with the taxpayers, he replied, “what the people really seek more than anything else is leadership.”

“I think they want a council that is able to make their decisions […] for them rather than all of this “input” we hear so much about. But contrary to what is being said regionally, and contrary to what many local municipal politicians think, I don’t believe that the majority of people have time, or in fact, want all of this involvement that we keep hearing about.” (Vander Zalm, 30 January 1975, p.4)

The CFC animators’ work was cut out for them: to empower diverse constituencies of residents throughout the vast municipality so that they would be able to make their voices heard, even to a mayor (and his like-minded aldermen) who blithely sneered at the very idea of citizen involvement. Moreover, it should be understood that although, in Vancouver, Lash’s committee sought to work out a development scheme that would benefit the entire region, it remained an open question as to how Surrey would fit into the larger picture, and what its role would be vis-à-vis the urbane metropolis it neighbored. In a way, by seeking to bring the Harry Lash-style planning revolution to Surrey, Chris Pinney and his animators were helping the municipality to compete for “livability” with Vancouver—or at least to ensure that the big city’s livability would not come at the expense of Surrey’s.

Finally, as we have seen, in contrast to the scenario sketched out by Zoë Druick, where nationalism dovetailed with urbanization (and large scale industrialization), the provincial NDP government had taken the first step in putting the brakes on unbridled development in British Columbia (most notably in the Fraser Valley where most of the province’s agricultural land was located). Now an activist media project funded by the federal government (NFB) was taking the next step. Although its mandate, put most neutrally, was to facilitate through the use of media the needs of citizens with regard to land use issues, it was clear that with regard to the question of “growth,” the Surrey Project was more closely allied with the provincial NDP government than with the parochial interests of local government. While the social animators deny that their activities had any connection to politics “with a big P” (either Trudeau’s administration in Ottawa, or Barrett’s in Victoria), one can see that the project was grounded from the beginning in facilitating cooperation with the goals of the ALR.[13] The CFC animators were “activists” not only for a local citizenry but for an emerging environmentalist approach to land use that pitted levels of government against each other: pro-development Surrey council vs. its more environmentalist antagonists at the provincial and federal level.

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