Credit: City of Vancouver Archives

Our city’s heritage is the key to our future sustainability


It’s tempting to look at our city’s progress on the sustainability front as going back to our roots – our heritage and environmental sustainability aims are today more connected than ever. And if we’re going to revitalize the historic Downtown Eastside, success will largely depend on our ability to hold on to our city’s cultural heritage while at the same time pushing the limits of sustainability.

Vancouver’s leaders and planners consider commemorating our heritage a key part of social sustainability. Between 2008 and 2011, $10 million in provincial funds for the Great Beginnings program is designated by the City to celebrate the history, heritage and culture of Vancouver’s first urban areas: Gastown, Chinatown, Japantown and Strathcona.

“There’s more interest in Vancouver’s heritage than a few years ago,” confirms Wendy Au, Vancouver’s assistant city manager, noting there are some real dollars available to maintain our heritage buildings.

Today’s conflation of heritage and sustainability, however, masks a profound difference in priorities between us and the pioneers we commemorate. “We’ve got two different world views from our early history and today, so much so that they’re practically in different universes,” says Gordon Price, director of SFU’s City Program. “You’ve got a group of people coming over, seeing this unlimited bounty of resources. To compare with how we’d see it, you’d have to think of going to another planet.”

Ironically, at least for us moderns, our early settlers viewed efficient and affordable mass transit as opening up access to unlimited resources and open land for the taking (notwithstanding First Nations’ views on the matter), contributing to a sprawling model of development distinctly at odds with today’s EcoDensity.

Vancouver developed differently than its contemporary cities in Europe and elsewhere in North America. From about 1897 to 1913, Vancouver saw an explosion of buildings, some of which, like the Dominion building in Gastown, showed off the great wealth of the era. The average worker could afford a house along our extensive electric streetcar tracks. So at first, the city saw a surplus of single-family homes rather than apartments. Vancouver initially skipped dense residential forms of development and went straight to a suburban model.

Rapid population growth and our geography would later ensure that the area grew into a series of denser, interconnected villages.

So while we think of those first neighbourhoods around what we now call the Downtown Eastside as the foundations of Vancouver’s heritage, the most important heritage we’ve got is the urban pattern laid out from the beginning by the streetcar. “If you look at EcoDensity, we’re really just continuing to use the system we already had,” Price says. “I live two blocks from Robson and Denman and catch the same routes as when they lived in wooden mansions.”

The street plan laid down by Vancouver founders staved off mass demolitions to make way for new roads. It has also helped preserve our heritage buildings, and here cultural and green sustainability are intertwined: saving buildings means saving the planet. “Even if from this day hence we build everything green, we’ll never achieve sustainability,” says Vancouver Heritage Foundation executive director Diane Switzer. To put it in perspective, building a new 15,240 square metre commercial building requires the same amount of energy as driving a car 32,186 km a year for 730 years.

Strategies for preventing global climate change revolve around efficient use of energy and reducing our carbon footprint, which means keeping our older buildings around through refurbishment and re-use. Switzer points out that it takes 65 years for an energy-efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building.

Some experts like Stantec senior architect and Vancouver City Planning Commission spokesperson Jiang Zhu note the Downtown Eastside can provide long-term benefits from imaginative compromises that combine greater density, heritage preservation, and green standards.

Too many stakeholders are being too cautious when they talk about long-term sustainability for Vancouver’s buildings and neighbourhoods. The answer doesn’t lie in more green buildings, but in saving more of our old buildings. After all, the world’s oldest hotel, in Japan, has been in use for more than 1,300 years. The Pantheon in Rome has stood since 126 AD.

Read Jonathon Narvey's past columns here.