Historic Districts and Quartiers

2011 Vancouver’s Historic Districts

Using historical analysis we have identified five key settlement areas in the era immediately following the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway—the corporation that picked the name “Vancouver” for its pacific terminus:

  1. The Hastings Mill Townsite and Japantown (the townsite was re-platted as Railway Avenue by the CPR).
  2. Gastown (The Granville Townsite).
  3. Chinatown.
  4. The cottage lots, including those dubbed “Strathcona” in the 1950’s.
  5. The Industrial quartier. 

Aboriginal people were among the groups denied land ownership rights. Although their presence preceded European and Asian settlement by millennia, because they did not own land, today  no district, quartier or neighborhood carries their name.

We shall show how these five districts comprise the core of the Vancouver Historic Quartiers corresponding to Chinatown, Gastown, and the old East End. Developing within easy walking distance of the mill gate, the port, new shoreline industry, and one another, the districts and quartiers that formed around them are hard-wired to the two intersecting urban spines (Main & Hastings Streets); and serviced by an extremely walkable plan. As the Charrette demonstrated, walking in Railway Avenue, Japantown, Oppenheimer Park, Hastings, Strathcona, Gore, Chinatown, and Gastown is not only easy, but extremely convenient and pleasurable. Historians tell us that at high tide it was possible to take a small craft from False Creek to Burrard Inlet on the low land along [Raymur] Avenue (John Atkin), or Carrall Street (Maj. Matthews).

The railway introduced the destructive forces of Modernism, along with the colonizing elements of development and settlement. While the railway did not change the physical relationships between the five original quartiers, it changed the fortunes of many of the residents. Some were forced to leave the Hastings Mill townsite, others left of their own accord for the more fashionable (and white) West End. New arrivals from Asia and Europe took their place helping to galvanize the urbanism of the East End with habits imported from cities far away.

Historic Quartiers & Urban Spine Analysis

The real damage to the East End was done by Modern planning. In the 1910’s False Creek was filled in east of Main Street to create rail yards. In the 1930’s, nearly the entire East End was re-zoned industrial. Then came the onslaught of the automobile. It was the pressures attending suburbanization that dealt the cradle of our city its most severe blows.

In spite of it all, the urbanism remained more or less in place presenting characteristics of footprint, walkability, and mix that we can measure and map today.

Like all urban settlements, the Historic Quartiers evolved distinct footprints with platting born partly out of necessity, and partly in response to a superb natural setting. Laid along gently sloping ground, and washed by sea breezes, the long axis of the blocks parallel the coast line. A resident can leave their front door, walk to the corner, turn and walk along short blocks to reach the urban spine. On Hastings Street await goods, services, and transit. However, people places centered each district: Powell Street was the heart of Japantown; Cordoba and Carrall the heart of Gastown; traces of neighbourhood commercial still front MacLean Park; and Chinatown always kept its own beat. Convenience stores and cafés still dot the historic quartiers, presenting traces of what was lost to Modernism.

Overlaying pedestrian sheds on the historic districts we can identify quartier footprints  revealing the neighbourhood’s social functioning and walkability (see map). Note that there is room for up to two or three districts in each pedestrian shed or quartier footprint. This accords with the quartier’s role of predicting the reach of local residents, rather than mapping their pattern of settlement. A five minute walk from any quartier reaches another, and possibly as many as two or three. The first quartier is centered on the old mill gate; the remaining four girdle its perimeter. The resulting core-periphery pattern is a hallmark of walkable urbanism. While its relationship to the footprint of each district speaks to how this walkable urbanism supports social mixing.

The Historic Quartiers are the first place in Vancouver to welcome social mix, and respect cultural diversity. Albeit in a messy process framed by conflict and unfolding today.

The pedestrian shed analysis informs the Charrette’s incremental intensification plan. The pattern of sheds, intersecting urban spines, and incremental intensification is recognized today as the hallmark sustainable, walkable urbanism. Furthermore, reclaiming the Vancouver Historic Quartiers as residential land, will recover their urban functioning. A high level of vibrancy and mixing is present in the community today, but badly interrupted at almost every turn by inappropriate adjacencies and high levels of traffic loading. A balanced approach to neighbourhood regeneration in the worst impacted places, making growth the engine of change, can re-establish social functioning in the gaps where it is missing.

Furthermore, reclaiming the social character of the severely impacted East End will serve as a model for sustainable urbanism in our city and region.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, 28 july 2013.

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