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Vancouver in 1971

Andy Yan

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The Civic Arts in the City of Optimists

Infographic courtesy of the author.

With its founding as an artists’ service organization in 1971 and the commencement of its operations as a gallery starting in 1972, the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) was born in an era that saw sizeable and dramatic urban transformations to Vancouver and its surrounding region. If the civic arts are the sum of the institutions, architecture, public spaces, urban design, and social movements that define a city’s vitality, the early 1970s were formative years whose civic arts legacies resonate to the present. And yet, how much of this past is prologue?

From a population size of 426,256 in 1971, the City of Vancouver had grown by 66 percent to a city population of 706,012 by 2022. The City of Vancouver was certainly a smaller city in 1971 than in 2021, but it was also a younger one. With an estimated median population age of 31.5 years old, 46 percent of the population was under the age of 30 in 1971, compared to 39.6 years old and 31 percent respectively in 2021. A parallel tale that is just as important is the growth of the metropolitan population of Vancouver—excluding the population of the City of Vancouver, the region’s population grew by 254 percent over the same period. As CAG marks its 50th anniversary, the city and the region that house the gallery remain an unfinishable piece of civic art—always changing and shaped by those who remain in and transit through the city.

In the early 1970s, Vancouver was in the throes of a titanic economic restructuring of its resource extraction-based industries. After considerable grassroots community activism, the City had just finally resolved that it would never build an inner city freeway system. Drawing upon Chuck Davis’ foundational 2011 book History of Metropolitan Vancouver, this period witnesses the founding of Greenpeace in 1971, and the opening of the Creekhouse and the establishment of False Creek Park in 1973, which would signal the redevelopment of Granville Island and False Creek, then being transformed from a hitherto industrial drosscape into public space and a global neighbourhood. What used to be known in some circles as “Skid Row” developed a new spatial identity as the Downtown Eastside thanks to resistance from groups like the Downtown Eastside Residents Association. Immigrant settlement organizations like the Immigrant Services Society of BC and United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society (S.U.C.C.E.S.S.) were seeded in 1972 and in 1973, respectively. The Pacific Cinémathèque (now known as The Cinematheque) offered its first films in 1972. In the blossoming of artist-run centres in the city, the Western Front established itself in East Vancouver in 1973. A new constellation of neighbourhood houses and community centres also emerged throughout the 1970s. Vancouver hosted Habitat Forum 76, the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, a high-water mark for an urban idealism that sought to define and fulfill the possibilities of sustainability, social justice and equality in the city. Together, these spaces established in the early ’70s would set the foundations for Vancouver’s reputation for urban redevelopment, neighbourhood organizing and environmental sustainability.

In the decade after, Expo 86 opened the city to the world through the forces of market urbanism and global real estate development, and opened an era of wealth, innovation and rising income polarization.

The relocation of CAG in 2001 from 555 Hamilton to 555 Nelson, where it still resides currently, is itself imbricated in the formation of contemporary city building in Vancouver. The current CAG facility was an early example of a density bonusing, in which the City of Vancouver negotiated public amenities from private development. These amenities were used to further the social and cultural life of the city for additional height and density. This tactic was a key component of what became known as “Vancouverism”: a means of urban redevelopment in Downtown Vancouver composed of mixed-use, medium-to-high-density (largely private market, with some non-market) residential development, connected by a series of urban design, public transit and public realm strategies, all of this supported by a series of public amenities extracted from private housing development and density bonusing. In certain planning, design and development circles, this was a globally-celebrated avenue of city building from the 1990s to the late 2010s, particularly in Canadian and American cities, to re-urbanize the cores of inner cities.

From this history, the greatest urban challenges for Vancouver are, perhaps, not locked away in its past, but lie in facing its future. While Indigenous reconciliation, climate change and increasing income inequality were only faintly recognized by the City in the 1970s, they are issues that frame the zeitgeist of the city, province and country in the 2020s. Vancouver being situated on the traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, and metropolitan Vancouver being on the lands of an additional seven other Host Nations, means an ongoing call for economic, cultural and social action and a reevaluation of the nation’s colonial and settler past. With climate change, the city once known as the “village on the edge of a rainforest” faces a future that is much drier, with summer temperatures in 2080 looking like that of San Diego in the 2020s. Like the rest of the world, British Columbia has experienced its hottest summers on record in the first 20 years of the 21st century. The total 2023 assessment for all the land and buildings in the City of Vancouver was $526 billion, but does this capture the value of the city? With housing costs escalating well beyond the growth of household incomes over the last 30 years, Vancouver residents have never before been as wealthy or as precarious in terms of real estate—a feast for some and a famine for many. Do the arts (contemporary or civic) reflect, serve and/or challenge power and its distribution in the city?

The liberalizing of immigration policies initiated in the late 1960s redefined who the “Vancouver” facing these challenges was. In 1971, 34 percent of the population of the City of Vancouver was not born in Canada, compared to 42 percent in 2021. Connected to flows of immigrants and migrants, 53 percent of the City’s population claimed ethnic origins from the British Isles and 10 percent were of “Asian” origins in 1971.1 By 2021, 37 percent of the population would claim origins from the British Isles in the City of Vancouver, while those of Asian ethnic origin had risen to 44 percent. Between the 1970s and the 2020s, the legacies of an Atlantic-centered Canada shifted, with the demographic and economic expansion of Pacific-Canada and Vancouver serving as its nexus point. This also includes a resurgent recognition of the city’s and province’s Black history. The transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the 1997 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Canada Summit in Vancouver both cemented the Asia-Pacific into the lexicon of the city. While always in the background of the city, diasporic and transnational politics and culture have become a condition—not an exception—as flows of people, capital and ideas continue to shape the city and the nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with a moment to reflect on how the city has been developing over the last 50 years, and has cast a harsh spotlight on the city’s social, economic and cultural fault lines. While Vancouverism has been globally celebrated as giving rise to one of the most livable cities on the planet, the actual terrain of livability remains severely uneven, with record values for real estate and record levels of homelessness coinciding in the same city. The landscape architect Thomas Mawson once described Vancouver as a “City of Optimists,” asking in a 1913 study on Vancouver, “What will the men of to-morrow say of the city which we of to-day have bequeathed them?” While phrased regrettably, it still has a certain poignancy today. This challenge reveals the state of the civic arts in Vancouver to be far from complete—a torch to be passed from generation to generation. The task is to renew, extend and create Vancouver’s civic arts from a past that casts a light on what Vancouver was and yet extends a shadow to the struggles that the city still needs to confront.

Andy Yan

Andy Yan, MA, MCIP, RPP is the director of the City Program and Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University. Prior to his SFU appointments, Andy has worked in the non-profit and private urban planning sectors with projects in the metropolitan regions of Vancouver, San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Born and raised in Vancouver, Andy holds a Masters of Urban Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours distinctions in Geography and Political Science from Simon Fraser University.


1 “Asian” is a contested, fraught and dynamic term. In comparing “ethnic origins” responses from the 1971 and 2021 Canadian censuses for the City of Vancouver, I should note that in 1971, statistics were only available for the categories Chinese, Japanese and “East Indian.” By contrast, in 2021 census categories and numbers were available for those who self-identified as Chinese, Indian (India), Pakistani, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Asian (Not Otherwise Specified), Korean, Sikh, Hindu, Sri Lankan, Japanese, South Asian (Not Otherwise Specified), Tamil, Hong Konger, Bangladeshi, Taiwanese, Cambodian (Khmer), Gujarati, Indonesian, Laotian, Nepali, Malaysian, or Singaporean.